Last Updated on September 11, 2021
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
By Jim Ferri
With my young imagination fueled by National Geographic and the occasional travel brochure or advert, the wild and rugged land of the Highlands of Scotland fascinated me.
Now, years later, during a two-week visit to England, I decided to make a quick road trip to Scotland to see the Highlands. I needed to savor the place that so fired my young imagination.
Surprisingly, I found it closely matched those childhood images, an authentic land of castles and kilts, woodlands and wildflowers, rugged mountains and wild coasts, and spectacular glens and lochs.
It was a fascinating few days, limited only by a schedule that didn’t allow me to linger longer. Once in the Highlands I wanted to delve deeper into the wildest country in the United Kingdom.
The Drive North for the Highlands of Scotland Road Trip
Leaving Edinburgh, where I had spent three wonderful days, I took the A9 north to Inverness, the capital of the Highlands of Scotland.
The motorway took me through a beautifully serene and green countryside cut by rivers. The verdant hillsides were speckled with sheep and big brown cows. Little houses poked up through the greenery.
Driving through picturesque Cairngorms National Park I found myself wishing for more parking areas. I wanted to stop and take photos of the magnificent landscape all about me.
About 70 miles south of Inverness the road wound its way up a mountain. Soon the lush forest gave way to a more austere land of small pines and brush. Moss-covered rocks and heather were all about, and large roadside sign welcomed me to the Highlands. I have taken many road trips over the years, planning to make the best of each. And now I was excited about setting off through the Highlands.
It was mid-July, a great time for a Scotland road trip, and there was a profusion of wildflowers along the road. Just a week earlier in southern England I saw these flowers had already passed their prime. But here, in the cooler clime of Scotland, they were just bursting into bloom. All along the way bright, colorful specks jumped up from the dense greenery.
Inverness, Capital of the Highlands
All roads in the Highlands lead to Inverness, and I quickly found myself right in the center of the city. It’s a good kicking-off point for a Scotland road trip to the Highlands.
Inverness is the largest city and capital of the region, but despite its stature it’s still very “town-ish” and you can see quite a bit of it in just a few hours. It’s also quite easy to walk about, although sometimes you have to endure the cacophony of seagulls on its rooftops.
I just wandered about town aimlessly, passing many pubs, and popping into kiltmakers and woolen shops while totally enjoying myself. After a while I found myself on High Street, the main pedestrian street, flush with shops and shoppers. There, near the old Customs House, I paused to listen to a one-man band entertaining passerby’s with American country music.
Further down High is the bridge that spans the River Ness. The name of the city, in fact, is from the Gaelic “mouth of the River Ness”, which winds its way down from Loch Ness and Inverness Castle. The castle is now being utilized as a courthouse.
Across from it was the 18th-century Tolbooth Steeple, a landmark, which from afar I had mistaken for a church.
On this road trip in Scotland, I wasn’t going to just see the Highlands, however. Mid-afternoon I headed for nearby Cawdor Castle, which is linked to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is still a family home.
Cawdor looks the way a castle should look, complete with turrets and a drawbridge at the front door. It’s set on a vast lawn amid woods and a beautiful garden. The original castle was built around a 15th-century tower house and large additions were tacked on in subsequent centuries.
Across from the garden – it alone worth the half-hour drive from the city – is a wonderful garden maze. It is so well done it would seem easy to lose a child in it.
The estate is quite large, about 55,000 acres in all, and includes huge areas of woodland.
A Scotland Road Trip Through The Great Glen of the Highlands
I set out early the next morning for the Great Glen, one of the most scenic places in Europe and perfect for a road trip. The Glen begins outside of Inverness and stretches southward to Fort William. There are three famous lochs in The Glen –Loch Ness, Lock Lochy, and Loch Linnhe – that are incredibly beautiful. Drive along the A82 between Inverness and Fort William and you’ll enjoy all three.
Driving along Loch Ness I watched the early morning clouds slowly drift down from the mountains above, giving everything a soft beauty. With hardly another car on the road, I became entranced by the still water and beautiful forest, my trance broken only by the occasional deer darting across the road ahead.
It was a magical Highlands moment – something those who came later in the day would never experience – and as colorful as a box of crayons.
It reminded me of the reason I enjoy road trips – you have complete control over your itinerary and can go where you want, when you want.
Scotland is good for road trips because the roads are quite good. Along the lochs, however, the A82 clings to the serpentine shoreline, at times making for an almost torturous drive. But it always straightened out, rewarding me with another beautiful view of the calming waters beneath a magnificent backdrop of rugged mountains.
Across the Mountains on a Great Scotland Road Trip
I wasn’t taking the road all the way to Fort William since I wanted to venture further into the wilderness. About one hour out of Inverness near the village of Invermoriston on Loch Ness, I turned westward onto A887. I was headed across the mountains towards the Isle of Skye.
As the road slowly climbed higher, I came across a herd of Highland cattle, a long-horned and shaggy Scottish breed developed to withstand the immoderate weather conditions of the Highlands.
Leaving the calm and serenity of the Glen, I was quickly thrust into a treeless valley high in the mountainous Highlands. It was a spectacularly wild area, and some of the most beautiful in Scotland.
Around me a vast carpet of grass covered the treeless mountainside. Rose-colored heather softened the rocky landscape, as rivulets of water tumbled over distant cliffs in a series of needle-like waterfalls. It was a scene you dream of on road trips.
Road Trippers and Bikes
Every once in a while, I’d come across road trippers – some on bikes, other in cars – who had pitched tents not far off the road. I soon found myself envying them for having the time to spend in such a beautiful and wild area.
“Wild camping,” as they were doing, is legal in Scotland as long as you follow some rules.
These include camping only in small numbers, staying a maximum of three nights, never camping in an enclosed field, etc. All in all, it’s a very inexpensive was to see Scotland.
Once out of the mountains and nearing the coast, I was soon skirting the shoreline of small lochs. I was only about 70 miles from Invermoriston, but it had taken me two hours since I was stopping so much along the way. Then again, on any road trip I always stop a lot along the way.
About a half mile from the village of Dornie, I came to the restored and much-photographed 13th -century Eilean Donan Castle, and stopped again.
The romantic-looking castle is on an island, connected to the shore by a causeway. It was destroyed by English warships in 1719, then restored in the 19th century.
I initially thought the island was named after a woman but later found that its name means “Island of Donan,” named for St. Donnan, a Celtic saint martyred there in the early 7th century.
The Isle of Skye
Once back behind the wheel, I continued my road trip along Loch Alsh, now only about 10-minutes from Skye Bridge. The bridge links mainland Scotland with the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides. It would be where I turned southward for the drive back to England.
Skye is also a wild, austere place, with tall mountains and a rugged coastline. In fact, thanks to its geological history, it has some of the most dramatic scenery in all of Britain. As one might guess, all of this wildness has ensured its popularity among adventurous travelers and hikers. In fact, it’s so popular, that in high season it’s often difficult to find a room on the island.
The entire island has numerous sea lochs, ensuring you’re never more than five miles from the ocean.
Since I could only spend a short part of my road trip on Skye, I drove up its coast an hour or so to the quiet little town of Portree. It’s the largest town on the island, and likely one of the prettiest, with brightly painted buildings snuggling up against one another along the waterfront.
I wasn’t there very long before realizing how hyperbolic a local tourism brochure was in describing the small town as having “a superb range of shops.”
I didn’t, however, find any hyperbole in the description of the magnificent scenery of Skye. It’s all there, just as described…perfect for inclusion on a road trip in Scotland.
I also found more magnificent scenery after I turned back towards the Great Glen. There I headed southward once again, now towards Glasgow to spend the night. Tomorrow morning I’d be heading back to England…and planning more road trips.
And, Finally, a Wee Bit of History…
Skye has a place in history since its most famous “visitor” was Bonnie Prince Charlie. After his army was defeated at Culloden outside Inverness, Charlie was chased for five months through the Highlands. He escaped to Skye disguised as a maidservant, later making his way to France.
The word “bonnie” simply meant handsome. (And since you’re undoubtedly wondering… Prince Charlie’s full name was Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart. Try fitting that on a passport.)