The Scottish Highlands: A Road Trip
With the exception of Iceland, it’s hard to imagine a place where the freedom of the open road is more rewarding than the Scottish Highlands. This diverse and dramatic landscape beckons you to stop and explore.
Treacherous one-lane roads wrap around steep mountainsides, guiding you through vast, flat fields of sprawling wildflowers to dramatic crags, silvery lochs and distant snowy peaks.
Picturesque scenery isn’t the only draw of the drive—peppered among the highlands are ancient castles degraded by war and weather, in stark contrast to the modern constructions of many of its towns, all whimsical, well-kept and begging to be explored.
Nestled in the southern curve of the Moray Firth, Inverness provides the perfect beginning for any road trip through the highlands. This seaside city is the gateway to the North and easily the busiest place you’ll find all trip, sporting a bustling economic centre and its alluring old town and imposing castle.
From Inverness, take the A9—not that there’s another choice—and follow it north. The highlands’ main motorway hugs its eastern shores, taking you passed the sleepy towns of Invergordon, Alness and Tain.
Your first stop is just outside Golspie, some 50 miles from Inverness.
The grounds of Dunrobin have been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the mid-13th century. Over the following 500 years, the castle blossomed into a lavish, stately home, and that’s the way it has remained to this day. The castle provides an opportunity to sample the decadent life of one of the highlands’ richest families, every room fully furnished to its former inhabitants’ requirements.
Fine crockery sits patiently on enormous oak dining room tables, wall-to-wall bookcases sport historic leather-bound tomes and flayed cheetahs-cum-office rugs watch you with blank, glassy stares. And at the castle’s back door you’ll find the perfectly manicured hedges of Dunrobin’s sprawling gardens, which reach out and meet the shores of the North Sea beyond.
Dunrobin is authentic to the last and a completely unique historical experience.
From Golspie, backtrack briefly on the A9, then make a right onto the A839. The “A” here feels entirely relative, however, as this is a tiny 2-lane thoroughfare that carves through the heart of the highlands. Rolling green hills dotted alternately with dramatic rocky outcrops and dozy herds of sheep; it’s on this road that all highland cliches spring to mind. Another 50 miles of close-quarters highway driving brings you to the looming Cul Mor, one of the higher peaks along this stretch. Nestled in Cul Mor’s shadow is Knockan Crag, a nature reserve and the next stop on your trip.
From the vantage of the visitor’s centre, you’ll spot ancient cliff faces jutting out of the surrounding grassy valleys. It was here in the 19th century that the history of geology was changed forever, as researchers Ben Peach and John Horne wrote their theory on tectonic movement.
In the present day, Knockan Crag boasts unmatched scenic hiking paths that covertly double as lessons in the geology of the highlands.
When you’re ready, jump back on the highway and head south.
Ullapool is simply a scenic fishing village—a tiny town overlooking Loch Broom that offers a ferry service running twice daily to the Outer Hebrides. And on a long day of driving across the highlands, it’s the perfect place for a pitstop.
Beyond a refreshing coffee, tea or pint, here you’ll find a tight-knit and fiercely friendly community. It doesn’t matter which cafe or pub you choose, you will be always greeted with a broad smile and the kind of polite insistence you only expect from grandparents.
In the lonely, often desolate landscape and highways of the highlands, Ullapool is an oasis of an entirely soulful kind.
With heart and stomach full, get back on the highway and continue south.
Corrieshalloch Gorge is the diverse landscape of the highlands squeezed into a single nature reserve. Take the walking trail down to the gorge’s suspension bridge, a tiny steel and wooden structure that straddles a sheer drop into the River Droma, over 50 feet below. The bridge will sway gently in the unavoidable highland winds as you hang your camera precariously over the railing for a better photo.
Return to Inverness
From Corrieshalloch, it’s a 45 mile drive on the A835 back to your base of operations in Inverness.
After the serenity of the highlands, what was a sleepy riverside town on your arrival will now feel like a bustling city centre.