Great Scottish Drives – Cairngorms to Glen Coe
Scottish Highland Road Trips – my latest Great Scottish Drive
In this latest addition to my Great Scottish Drives series, here is my look at one of the epic Scottish Highland road trips from east to west through some of the country’s very best scenery. Starting in the western Cairngorms, this is a journey to appreciate the diversity of the Central Highlands region, as well as to enjoy a few advantageous stops along the way. Throw in some nasty history, a glorious plate of seafood, the moodiest of moody glens and a dram or two and you’ve got yourself a Scottish road trip to remember.
The Cairngorms in itself is a hugely diverse area. From the grand castles and estates at the likes of Braemar and Balmoral to the ski slopes offering some of the best and most extreme opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts in the country, the national park has endless possibilities. In the western periphery, south of the famous Speyside whisky distilleries, your day can begin at Kingussie and a visit to the Highland Folk Museum. Enjoying something of a surge in popularity in recent times thanks to its status as an Outlander filming location, this is a step back in time to as far back as the 1700s. Britain’s first open air museum, there is the opportunity to inspect any number of recreated buildings from school classrooms to workshops. The highlight is the wonderfully authentic township complete with thatched roofs, internal peat fires to leave you reeking for the rest of the day and plenty of costumed experts happy to chat through a day in the life of an historical Highlander.
Now, just because we’re not in Speyside does not mean that there’s not plenty of world class whisky to be had. One of the most drinkable drams of them all for me is Dalwhinnie and, with a slight detour down the A9, you can pay your respects to the source directly. Utterly divine, Dalwhinnie repeatedly has me rummaging at the back of the whisky shelf for more and the distillery is set in an ostentatiously remote spot just off the motorway. The highest major distillery in the land (the next spot up the way after the Cairngorms is outer space), it does have clear Speyside tendencies but retains its own identity. Expect vanilla, a complex assortment of fruits and a tiny wee hint of peat. Tours of the distillery run throughout the day and they offer a terrific tasting opportunity at the conclusion. Aside from the included dram of their 15 year old (which is damn fine don’t get me wrong) they also have the option to sample the full Dalwhinnie range for around £20 extra. 6 drams beautifully arranged with accompanying chocolates to complement the flavours bouncing around in your head, it makes for a holistic appreciation of the great work being done here. By now in a state of contented afternoon inebriation, be sure to give an appreciative hug to your designated driver and get back on the road for the drive west.
The A86 is glorious. An endless array of peaks (still snow-capped at this time of year) the route passes through Monarch of the Glen country at the Ardverikie Estate so it’s all very grand and majestic. Running down the northern shoreline of Loch Laggan, the only frustration is the lack of stopping places to get the camera out. There is that fabulous sense of remoteness that you don’t experience on either the well-trodden west Highland route or the busy A9 road that we’ve just left behind. Inhospitable environments that are largely untouched, it is a fabulous way to experience a different kind of Highlands than most of us will be used to. The drive from Dalwhinnie to Spean Bridge (where civilisation returns) will take you around an hour and your only stops will be to stare and gawk at your surroundings.
At Spean Bridge the journey continues west along the A82 towards the hub town of Fort William. Just before coming into the town, you will be able to spot the looming Ben Nevis out of your left window. The highest point in Britain it makes for a fairly straightforward (if lengthy) ascent and can be tied into this roadtrip by pausing for an overnighter in the area. Alternatively, if you’ve not had your fill, there is another whisky watering hole at the Ben Nevis Distillery. Although not one of the industry’s big hitters, it doesn’t half offer a nice photo opp with its namesake towering over it.
Whatever time of day you now find yourself at, seafood is always a good idea. One of my favourite restaurants in the country, the Loch Leven Seafood Cafe, is well worth detouring off to as you pass through North Ballachulish. Another beautiful stretch of road around the Loch on the B863, look out for the powerful Pap of Glencoe that dominates the skyline and will have you reaching for that camera, again. The restaurant has everything you could hope for and more from this part of the world. Fresh catches of the finest fish and seafood of the west, this place is one you will keep coming back to. I sway towards the Whole Crab more often than not. A war of wills, it takes patience and an almost childlike fascination with dismantling one’s lunch before getting to enjoy it, but it’s well worth every effort.
This stretch of Highland magnificence draws to an end with a visit to the jaw-dropper that is Glen Coe. The drive through the glen, in either direction, is one not to be forgotten. A natural masterpiece, Glen Coe is not only a stunning location but is home to one of the saddest and most infamous chapters in our history when members of the Macdonald clan were slaughtered by government forces in 1692. You can learn more about the area at the comprehensive Glencoe Visitor Centre just off the main road between the village and the glen itself.
Naturally this is one of Scotland’s most popular walking areas and the options are numerous and varied. For those looking for something straightforward, try the Glencoe Lochan which is found by driving directly through the village of Glencoe and following the signs. A tranquil and beautiful spot, a leisurely walk around here can take up to 2 hours. The Glen itself offers some much more strenuous hikes including the Lost Valley and the Devil’s Staircase. For the super keen there are also the likes of Buachaille Etive Beag – which is on my hit-list this summer – and that will offer glorious views over all of Glen Coe, after some considerable exertion.
This road trip takes around about 2 hours between Kingussie/Dalwhinnie and Glen Coe but will involve many, many stops so set aside a full day. The journey can be broken up with overnight stays in and around Fort William or, as was my preference, at Ballachulish which allows for easy access to Glen Coe’s walking routes (and more seafood!).