The final instalment in our Scottish road trips series takes us to perhaps the most famous landscapes of all: the Highlands. The Highlands Tourist Route includes stunning scenery, amazing outdoor activities, a more than generous dose of castles, a dash of rather bloody history and, of course, a distillery or two. The 116-mile journey (187km) is one of the longer road trips in Scotland and comes jam-packed with one delight after another.
Not sure why you should take a Scottish road trip? Let our 10 compelling reasons convince you.
Why drive the Highland Tourist Route
This Scottish road trip is a must for outdoorsy types and should also be high on the must-do list for anyone who loves magnificent scenery. A large chunk of the route runs through the Cairngorms National Park, one of the brightest jewels in the star-studded crown of beautiful British landscapes.
As well as admiring one stunning view after another, you can also walk, climb, cycle, ride and ski to your utmost heart’s content on the Highland Tourist Route.
In true Scottish fashion, this road trip also offers plenty of castles. From enigmatic ruins to fine palaces, you’ll be able to tick off plenty as you drive from Aberdeen to Inverness. And along with the castles, you’ll discover the darker side to Scottish history because this road trip includes the site of the last battle on British soil (and a very bloody one it was too).
Highlights along the way
The Highland Tourist Route takes a westerly route from Aberdeen on the east coast to Inverness on the north coast. The 116 miles cover stunning landscapes, mostly deserted of people but with a ton of wildlife. While you’re driving this Scottish road trip, look out for the following highlights along the way:
Aberdeen’s granite grandeur
Before you drive into countryside barely touched by man, soak up some urban culture at Scotland’s third largest city. Aberdeen lies on the banks of the Rivers Don and Dee and is home to an important port with a rich fishing and shipping history. The city’s architecture shines silver in the sunlight from the granite used in many façades – don’t miss Marischal College, the second largest granite building in the world.
While you’re here, get a little taster of bloody Scottish history at St Machar’s Cathedral. William Wallace’s left arm is supposedly interred in the walls after his body was cut up and distributed round the country in 1305 as a deterrent to rebels.
For something less gory, check out the Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Maritime Museum. The kids in your party will love the Science Centre and the city’s lovely sandy beach.
Time your visit to Granite City to coincide with one of the many festivals such as the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in June or the Aberdeen Jazz Festival in the autumn. See a full list of Aberdeen festivals here.
The Highlands Tourist Route then leaves Aberdeen, heading west across rolling hills towards the county town of Alford. Intrepid adventurers have their first stop at Pitfichie Forest, something of a mecca for walkers and mountain bikers. Set around Cairn William is an 11.5 mile walking trail with views that more than reward you for the tough hike.
Cyclists have an even bigger challenge and can choose between the Granite Top trail complete with The Devil’s Staircase descent, graded red for difficulty. Or the Downhill Trail, the stuff of championships so only attempt this extreme route if your mountain biking nears pro standards.
Castles and gardens
After the adrenalin rush, you’ll be keen to try something a little more sedate. The town of Alford is the next port of call on this Scottish road trip. Must-sees here include the Grampian Transport Museum, complete with vehicles to ride; Craigievar Castle, an example of 16th century Baronial style that sits very pretty in pink; and Castle Fraser, one of the largest tower houses in Scotland with a classic Z-plan layout.
Cairngorms majestic mountains
The Highlands Tourist Route now strikes west along the banks of the River Don as it makes its way to the Cairngorms National Park. Don’t miss the eerie ruins of Kildrummy Castle as you turn south into one of the Britain’s most beautiful landscapes. Then it’s all eyes wide, wide open for one of the best stretches of scenery on any road trip anyway as you drive from Strathdon to Tomintoul.
The Cairngorms rise high – they’re home to five of the six highest peaks in the UK and no less than 55 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft high). The miles of starkly beautiful landscape offer something of a true outdoor paradise. Here, you can ski, mountain bike, hike, climb, hillwalk, race huskies… And see some of Europe’s clearest night skies at the Dark Sky Park. Give yourselves time in the Cairngorms National Park – everyone in your party will find something to do and plenty of it.
A smuggled dram
You’ll probably be in need of a pick-you-up after all the fresh air and where better than at The Glenlivet Distillery? Set in truly remote landscapes, this world-famous dram was established illegally by George Smith in 1822. He chose the isolation to keep his distilling out of the eyes of customs officers and set up something of a whisky smuggling empire.
Almost two centuries later, you can try his trusted concoctions that include some vintage whiskies.
The Pearl of the North
This being a Scottish road trip it must be time for another castle. Ballindalloch Castle, built as a tower house in the 16th century but with extensive Victorian renovations, stands tall in a vast estate crisscrossed by the Rivers Spey and Avon.
Known as the “Pearl of the North”, the castle has a fine collection of Spanish paintings, a unique library and beautiful gardens.
This part of Scotland is home to a wide variety of wildlife. The Cairngorms offer the perfect habitat for Scottish wildcats, ptarmigan, capercaillie and golden eagles. If you’d like to see birds of prey up close, take a side trip to Loch Garten where the Osprey Centre offers live footage of the adults and young in their nest during spring.
Holly and forts
The Highlands Tourist Route now leaves the Cairngorms on its way to Inverness. Don’t miss the last castle on the route, Cawdor Castle, famed as Macbeth’s haunt. Take a look at the holly tree in the dungeon that dates back to 1372 before you explore the lovely interiors, the pretty gardens and the Big Wood.
Fort George is also worth a side trip especially if you’re keen on fortifications and military history. Built by George II to discourage further Jacobite rebellions in the mid-1700s, Fort George is the largest artillery fortification in Britain. It stands proud on Moray Firth – views from the battlements are spectacular – and is home to the Black Watch regiment.
One bloody battle
The last port of call on this Scottish road trip is also the most poignant and moving. Culloden Battlefield saw the last battle fought on the UK mainland. Fighting between British troops and Jacobite rebels was bitter and in just an hour, over 1,500 men were killed. The excellent Visitors Centre takes you back to the action and explains the reasons behind one of the bloodiest battles in British history.
Where to stay on the Highland Tourist Route
On a Scottish road trip with castles at every turn it would only be fitting to stay in one yourself. Just outside Granton, this stunning whitewashed tower house dates back to the 16th century and comes with many original features. Laird it with your very own vaulted dining room, turnpike staircase, large open fires, four-poster bed… while you gaze at spectacular views of Strathspey and the Cairngorms. Book your stay now.
Stay in a Scottish castle as part of your trip
Not convinced you should take a Scottish road trip? Read more in this series:
- Fife Coastal Route
- Angus Coastal Route
- Argyll Coastal Route
- Borders Historic Route
- Clyde Valley Historic Route
- Deeside Tourist Route
- Forth Valley Tourist Route
- Galloway Tourist Route
- Moray Firth Tourist Route
- North Coast 500 Route
- North & West Highlands Route
- Perthshire Tourist Route
- 10 reasons to take a Scottish road trip
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