Travel recommendation for the mid-west of Scotland

As well as tips for London, I am also often asked for ideas what to see and where to visit in Scotland. The usual request is from people travelling to Edinburgh – as that’s the most easily accessible airport from Switzerland – and wanting to rent a car to drive around the western side of the country.

I have yet to get to know the west of Scotland really well, having spent most of my time visiting Angus, in the east, and the Cromarty region in the north. However, Jo took me on a road trip to Skye on an early visit some years ago, so I have seen some wonderful landscapes and can give some recommendations for the area.

My recommendation – based on what I have seen, what Jo has suggested and what are generally accepted as being tourist destinations – is a route taking in some sights which a first-time visitor would do well to see. Many of my recommendations are based on photographic incentives, but are also interesting for the non-photographer. The route is best taken at a leisurely pace, allowing a couple of nights at each of the main stop-overs.

Starting at Edinburgh, for which one would have to write a guide in itself, I’d make a small diversion to the inlet of the river Forth, called the “Firth of Forth”. The two big bridges there are famous all over the world; the orange-red iron rail bridge much more so, as it’s a decidedly recognizable construction. The best view is from the eastern end of South Queensferry: coincidentally the location for our wedding reception in 2007.

From South Queensferry, I’d double-back on myself to head for Stirling via the M9 to see the Wallace monument and the castle, both of which are spectacular even from a distance. From there, I’d head west to the Loch Lomond region, turning north at Balloch to follow the shores of the famous “loch” (lake).

After passing the northern end of Loch Lomond, the first major road turning west (A82) takes you across the expanse of Rannoch Moor–130 square kilometres of peat moorland–before entering Glen Coe. Both this valley and the adjoining Glen Etive are most recently famous for appearing in the James Bond film Skyfall, but have a well-known history stretching back to the massacre of the local clan MacDonald in 1692. Take the time to park the car here and walk in the hills, to get a true feeling for the wildness of the ancient Scottish landscape.

Continuing from Glen Coe to the coast, you’ll turn south west and head for Oban; a picturesque and busy port from which you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Mull. Mull is dramatic and yet easily accessible, and Iona, a smaller island just off its western coast, is worth seeing as a historic centre for Catholicism and for a monastery founded over 1,500 years ago. You’ll need to stay on Mull overnight if you visit the island, as there is so much to see and the roads are so winding and remote, you’ll never manage it in a day. Take the opportunity to visit the small island of Staffa if you can: a 45 minute boat ride from Fionnphort on the west coast of Mull.

By heading to the northern coast of Mull and the picturesque port of Tobermory, you can catch a ferry which will return you to the mainland. From Kilchoan, head east and then you can choose one of two routes from the junction at Salen; the northern road will take you directly to the ferry port of Mallaig. By heading east from Salen instead, you can drive past the base of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain at 1,344 metres. Don’t be fooled, though: the mountain is a lot more difficult to ascend than its height would suggest, despite the large number of people who do it every year.

Ben Nevis, Scotland

If you want to visit the nearby town of Fort William, take a short ferry trip at Corran to re-join the A82: otherwise continue on the A861 around Ben Nevis until you reach the junction with the A380, heading towards Mallaig. Fort William is a good place to stop overnight due to the number of guest houses and hotels, and it’s the main “city” for the western Highlands.

By heading via the eastern route from Salen, you can take the A380 along the route of the West Highland Railway to Mallaig. A must-see stopping-off point is Glenfinnan at the head of Loch Shiel. Historians may know Glenfinnan as the rallying point at the start of the Jacobite Rising in 1745, whilst those with more modern interests will recognize both the loch and the semicircular railway viaduct from the Harry Potter films. The castle in the films is sadly a model, created in the studio, but the loch is by no means any less impressive without it.

Glenfinnan, Scotland

Once you’re near Mallaig, you might want to stop off for a walk on the beach at Morar Bay if the tide is out; a large expanse of white sand fills the entire inlet at low tide. From there, it’s only a short drive to Mallaig, from which the ferry takes you across to the famous Isle of Skye.

There’s plenty to tell about Skye, but I’ll leave the details for a future blog post. My summary is to head for Portree and stay overnight, before driving around the northern part of the island, taking in Uig. The more active visitor will benefit from stopping off on the east coast of Skye to walk 45 minutes up a relatively steep hillside to The Old Man of Storr: a gyrolite pinnacle amongst a range of crumbling and imposing rock faces.

Old Man of Storr, Skye

The return to the mainland from Portree has been made much easier since 1995, when the disproportionately high Skye Road Bridge, crossing the Kyle of Lochalsh, was opened. Until then, Lochalsh was the end of the railway line from Inverness and onward to the south and to England after the line was inaugurated in 1897. The famous and instantly recognizable Eilean Donan castle is a short drive from Lochalsh.

Eilean Donan, Scotland

From here, you have two choices: Loch Ness is within an easy drive and both Urquhart Castle and the loch itself are worth seeing. If you believe in such things, then keep an eye on the loch for signs of “Nessie”: probably Scotland’s most famous resident. Turning north from Urquhart Castle, you can follow the loch shore to Inverness: the north of Scotland’s main city. To be honest, pretty much all of the landscape to the north and west of Inverness is worth visiting, but that’s probably best reserved for another time, unless you have a good week to spare.

The second option from Eilean Donan is to head north along the coast and head (via Lochcarron) to Applecross. There’s not much there, save for a pub with very good food (drawing a large amount of visitors every weekend), but the road to Applecross via the Bealach Na Ba mountain pass is a must-see. Swiss visitors used to the smooth tarmac of the alpine passes will be alarmed by the state of the road, but it adds to the experience. Just take it easy! (Not least because of the sheep who appear in the road with little warning.)

Meall Gorm, Applecross, Scotland

From Applecross, it’s a long drive back to civilisation, so plan your journey with this in mind. There’s only one real route to consider when heading to Inverness – via Lochcarron and Conon Bridge – and it’s a winding, narrow road for a good part of the journey.

From Inverness, your route will take you gradually back towards the south: but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to see. The Cairngorm National Park is a must: stay in (or near) Aviemore and spend a couple of days at least, exploring the mountains, forests and lochs. Boat of Garten (a place, not a boat) is well worth a visit for ornithologists, as they have osprey nesting there.

Glenmore Forest from Cairngorm

Continuing south along the A9, you can stop off at the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery and (if you’re feeling hardy) take a walk along Loch Garry; both of which are in the middle of a comparatively deserted stretch of the country and which often get snow at unusual times because of their altitude. Once through the Cairngorms mountains, House of Bruar is a good place to stop for food and their sizeable all-you-can-take-and-more tartan shop. Nearby Dunkeld and Pitlochry – and the forests around the towns – are very picturesque and there’s plenty to see here.

River Braan at the Hermitage

From here, it’s a fairly simple drive back to Edinburgh via Perth, although those whose thirst is still unquenched can divert to the coast to visit the ancient golfing and university town of St. Andrews, and take the scenic route through the county of Fife back to the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh.

The beach and town at St. Andrews