1: Amble to St Andrews
Coastal scenery in St Andrews (Dreamstime)
For: coastal roads, Edinburgh, beaches
Distance: around 162 miles
If you’re travelling from England, head north towards Edinburgh along the coastal stretch of the A1, starting at Amble. This route has spectacular views out to the North Sea and long, wide roads that are a joy to drive.
Once you arrive in Edinburgh, if you can spare a couple of days, explore the city with its fascinating Old Town, imposing Castle, pretty park and inviting distilleries. Cafe Royal Circle Bar is a famous spot for local beer and oysters.
Then continue north towards St Andrews, crossing the stupendous Forth Road Bridge to Fife and on to the East Neuk coastline via the A921. Visit one of the many castles or stop off at the sleepy seaside village of Pittenween with its picturesque houses and bustling harbour, before reaching Scotland’s oldest university town St Andrews. Here, you can enjoy a few days of beautiful beaches, golf and excellent restaurants.
2: Road to the Isles
Ben Nevis (Dreamstime)
For: mountains, lochs, coast, islands, nature
Distance: 47 miles
The Road to the Isles, otherwise known as the A380, is an incredible Highland road connecting Fort William to Mallaig. The route, which starts at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, twists and turns through mountains and past sea lochs, until it reaches the spectacular views of the coast from Arisaig, a famous spot for enjoying the sunset as it disappears behind the islands of Eigg and Skye in the distance.
The area is also renowned for its walking routes, which take in spectacularly scenic views of the coastline, and the option to meander through exotic gardens, such as those at Arisaig House. From here you can also arrange boat trips out to the islands. Rum, a National Nature Reserve, is home to sea eagles, deer, goats, otters and a huge array of birds.
Travelling north, ignore the A830 and instead take the old coastal road (also known as the B8008) past the River Morar and you’ll reach Morar, a famously photogenic string of beaches with glistening waters and white sand that stretch for almost eight miles. Explore the wilderness of Loch Morar, with its rumoured monster Morag, before you reach Mallaig, the final stop for the famous West Highland Railway and the main ferry port for Skye.
3: Orkney (mainland)
Cliffs near Marwick Head in Orkney (Dreamstime)
For: ancient sites, seafood, seascapes
Take the car ferry from Thurso to Stromness for an island road trip around Orkney, known for its captivating history and striking seascapes. The roads here aren’t meant to be driven fast, but what they lack in speed they make up for in amazing sights. From the beautiful green fields and high sea cliffs, to the Neolithic homes at Skara Brae and the wartime past of Orkney’s natural harbour, this island is well worth a visit.
The island landscape is a stark contrast to the Highlands with flat, treeless fields and views that go on from one end of the island to the other, interspersed with huge peaks and golden sandy beaches. It can be windy, but driving here is a joy with quiet roads and plenty to see.
The capital Kirkwall is worth a visit for its Viking cathedral, but Stromness, to the west, is the real highlight with its picturesque waterfront and quaint streets filled with cafes and art galleries. Don’t leave without trying some of the famous Orkney crab. From there, take the A965 along the loch road to Maes Howe, the most impressive Neolithic burial chambers in Europe, and north to Birsay cliffs for views out to sea. Another must-see is the natural harbour, a winding, picturesque drive and the home of the Churchill Barriers and Italian Chapel, both fascinating parts of World War II history.
4: Glencoe to Inverness
The Three Sisters mountains, Glencoe (Dreamstime)
For: mountains, fast drives, whisky country
Distance: 81 miles
Heather clad mountains and stunning peaks are just some of the joys of Glencoe, one of Scotland’s most breathtaking areas. On a sunny day, early in the morning to avoid the tourist coaches, the superb roads make for unbelievable driving around the mountain valley. If you feel like a bit of exercise, grab your hiking boots and explore one of the challenging paths that climb up a munro. Be prepared for changing weather conditions and slippery terrain though.
Afterwards, head south past Glencoe village for a bite to eat at the much loved Clachaig Inn, or for a bit of James Bond fun, drive to Glen Etive and visit the spot where Daniel Craig posed with his Aston Martin DB5 in Skyfall. A short drive away is Oban Distillery, a great place to sample classic malt whisky flavours if your designated driver doesn’t mind.
Onward, the A82 hugs the coast before heading north-east inland towards Loch Ness. Once you reach Fort Augustus, divert off the A82 onto the quieter B862/B852 road that takes you along the eastern side of the loch and has spectacular views from several well signposted spots. Finally, head to the Highland city of Inverness and sample one of the many great restaurants and walk around the castle or visit the peaceful Ness Islands.
John O' Groats roadsign (Graeme Green)
For: the ultimate Scottish road trip
Distance: 500 miles
Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500 is the grand tour of Scottish road trips. Making the most of the wild beauty of the Highlands, the 500-mile loop starts in the northern city of Inverness before heading west to Applecross and then northwards towards Ullapool, before passing John O’Groats and back down to Inverness to finish.
The Black Isle peninsula should be your first stop. Spend a couple of days exploring the many moors, beaches and quaint villages in the area. You might even spot a pod of resident dolphins in the firths.
Then head west along the mountain road towards Applecross. Here, you’ll find the only Alpine pass in Britain, the Bealach na Ba, a hair-raising mountain road full of blind bends, steep slow inclines and single track lanes. The exhilarating 30-minute drive reaches over 2000 feet, which is rewarded with incredible views of Wester Ross, Skye and the Outer Hebrides from the top. Stop at the Applecross Inn for their famous seafood - the crayfish is excellent - whilst you enjoy the view over Applecross Bay and on to Skye.
The route takes you north along never-ending back roads where wide meandering country tracks become tiny single lanes along lochs and herds of Highland cattle. Break the journey with a stay at the Kylesku Hotel (next to the iconic Kylesku bridge) for fabulous food. On the way to the most northerly point on mainland Britain, John O’Groats, stop off at Sango beach (near Thurso), for a walk along the white sands and some of the country’s finest coastal scenery before heading back south to finish.
Ginny Weeks is a freelance travel and motoring writer based in London. Visit her website: ginnyweeks.com
Main image: Coastal views along the NC500 (Graeme Green)