The Road to the Isles

A spectacular drive into the Highlands of Scotland via Loch Lomond and onto the stunning Isle of Skye. Dreamy landscapes with waterfalls and snow-capped peaks, heather-clad mountainsides with herds of deer, villages huddled by the lochside burning peat in their fireplaces, fishing communities lined along rugged coastlines and the amazing terrain of the beautiful Isle of Skye await you on this journey.

Although it isn't Scotland's capital city, Glasgow is the largest with a population of just over half a million inhabitants, just slightly more than Edinburgh. Although its shipbuilding days are over, the mighty River Clyde, where thousands of ships were built, is your route out of the city, following its northern banks on the A82 Great Western Road. Take this road out of the city towards Dumbarton which means "Fortress of the Britons". As you approach the town bear off left onto Glasgow Road and follow this route into Dumbarton itself. As you pass Dumbarton East railway station be ready to turn left on Victoria Street, following the brown tourist signs for Dumbarton Castle. This road will become Castle Street and will lead you to the parking area.

Dumbarton Castle is an impressive sight standing on top of a craggy basalt rock 240ft (73 metres) high where the River Leven flows into the River Clyde. 340 million years ago this would have been an active volcano and about two and a half thousand years ago the first settlers built a fortification on this site. This makes it a late Iron Age construction. For centuries the fortress was used to stamp authority on the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The present buildings were constructed on the orders of King Alexander II of Scotland to control the roads to the west Highlands and develop a naval base on the Clyde estuary. Other buildings were added in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Climb up to the Castle and explore the ramparts and buildings. You will also get stunning views along the Clyde and of the distant mountains. After a break here return to the A82 and head north west towards Loch Lomond.

You will soon leave the last of the suburbs of Glasgow's westernmost edges and enter the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, following Loch Lomond itself on your right hand side. At a length of 23 miles (36km) and a 5 miles (8km) at its widest point this Loch has the largest surface water in Britain. The highest point on its 'bonny banks' is Ben Lomond at 3,196 ft (974m) towering above the water on its eastern side.

Follow the lochside road and make a turn for Luss. You will leave the more modern and wider A82 and follow the old road, closer to the water's edge into the pleasant village of Luss itself. With a population of just 450 this little community is swelled by the visitors that arrive here to see this picturesque collection of cottages. This means there is a large parking area and visitor centre. A short walk takes you down the little main street with its collection of cottages, often with the smell of peat being burnt to warm the homes on colder days. The street will take you down to the lochside where there is a jetty. Guided cruises of loch leave from here at regular intervals. The little shingle beach is popular with sunbathers and swimmers on days when the weather is mild and the sun is out. There are tea rooms and gift shops and pleasant walks to be enjoyed before you continue on the A82 northwards. 

At the top of Loch Lomond is the pretty hamlet of Ardlui. It is certainly worth a brief stop here for the views of where you have just come from. Stand on the shore and get some breathtaking photographs.

You now follow the River Falloch and just a little further up you will see signs for the Falls of Falloch. You can park here and enjoy a 30 minute round trip walk up to the 30ft (9m) high waterfall. It's a beautiful little trail, easy on foot, and at the very end there is a caged walkway taking you close up to the waterfall itself.

Return to the A82 continuing to Crianlarich, an important crossroads for roads north, south, east and west. Its Gaelic name means the low pass. Here you will continue towards Tyndrum just a few miles further on. Tyndrum is a popular stop for hikers walking the West Highland Way which, like you, started in Glasgow and runs for 95 miles (154km). Tyndrum is a popular overnight stop and a place to pick up supplies.

From Tyndrum you will share Glen Orchy with the railway and the old military road. This trackway was built by General Wade to deliver the army quickly into the Scottish Highlands if there were a need to crush any Jacobite rebellions in the first half of the 18th century. The historic military road is easy to spot as the colourful rainwear of hikers on the West Highland Way give it away. 

Contine through spectacular Glen Orchy, past Loch Tulla on your left and then climb up to Rannoch Moor, noting the large lay-by half way up the hill on your left where you can park and look back down the glen.

Rannoch Moor is made up of marsh and peat bogs plus two large bodies of water, Loch Rannoch and Loch Bà. The road literally floats over the moor on a bed of reed. Fifty square miles of unspoilt beauty with many photo opportunities and numerous handy off-road parking spots. A dramatic and stunning beautiful place.

Drive onwards through the Grampian mountain range towards Glen Coe. This is a popular location, not just for its breathtaking views but also its tragic and bloody history. Pause at one of the roadside parking areas either at the top, or on the middle or at the foot of the glen. The roadside parking bays can get busy with tourist buses and cars especially in the summer months and usually the last parking place at the very foot of the glen is the quietest.

The history of this area really centres on one event, the massacre of 1692. Members of the McDonald clan were late signing an oath of allegiance to the new monarchs William and Mary. For whatever reason the oath signing was delayed it gave the Earl of Argyll enough reason to send his troops up to the glen to mete out some sort of punishment. The McDonalds, unaware of this, offered  hospitality and shelter from the harsh winter weather. It was only after a number of nights had passed that one morning, very early, the redcoat troops rose up and massacred the McDonalds in their beds. Some of the soldiers were of the rival Campbell clan with old scores to settle! It is believed that over 80 men, women and children lost their lives on the night of February 13th 1692 and Glen Coe is forever known now as the Weeping Glen.

Driving into Glen Coe village you will approach Loch Leven, the first of the sea lochs on this journey. The road has passed several fresh water lochs earlier but now the route will skirt the southern edge of a loch attached to the ocean. The larger sea-going fishing boats can be seen bobbing up and down just off the shore as you head past the old abandoned quarries in Ballachulish telling you that the stone industry was once big business over here.

Crossing the bridge which takes you over the boisterous waters where Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe meet, the road now takes you northwards to Fort William. Loch Linnhe is a much larger sea loch than Loch Leven and you will follow it on your left, you will also pass the little car ferry at Corran which will save motorists a long journey of almost 50 miles by taking cars on a brief journey to the other side. Far quicker than circumnavigating the road around the entire loch. Your journey, however, will keep you on the A82 into Fort William in the shadow of the UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. At an elevation of 4,413ft (1,345 m) this snow capped mountain is popular with hikers and climbers and many visitors will use the guest houses and hotels of Fort William as their base.

The main road avoids the town centre and heads over to the remains of the fort that gives its name to the town. Fort William is named after both King William III and later, William, Duke of Cumberland. There is very little of the fort remaining but one can see to the left where Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil meet and the mountains pointing the way to the Isle of Skye.

As the major metropolis for this part of North West Scotland there are a lot of drive-through fast food outlets and warehouse sized supermarkets and stores. It is only worth a stop here for essentials or a visit to the Ben Nevis distillery which has been operating since 1825 and is open for tours. It is located at the junction where you leave the A82 and turn left on the A830 towards Mallaig.

Following the A830 you will start to skirt the northern banks of Loch Eil but as soon as you start to follow the loch westwards you will arrive at Corpach where visitors flock to see Neptune's Staircase. Turn right on the B8004 and almost immediately you will see the car park. This is where the Caledonian Canal descends into the loch with an impressive series of staircase locks bring the canal down 64ft (20m) to sea level. It is the longest set of staircase locks in Britain, built from 1803 to 1822, as part of a waterway constructed by Thomas Telford to link the east and west coasts of Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars. The canal is still in use today but not really for military purposes more as a leisurely route for vacationers who will be taking their boats up and down Neptune's Staircase as part of their journey along the Great Glen.

The Great Glen is a huge rift valley, 62 miles (100km) long that runs north east from Corpach towards Inverness. But the route to Skye will take you in the opposite direction, back on the A830 towards Glenfinnan.

Harry Potter fans will recognise Glenfinnan Viaduct immediately from the flying car scenes in the Chamber of Secrets. The concrete structure of 21 arches was completed in 1901 and still carries trains today. There is now a car park and visitor centre but not just for Harry Potter fans. There are fine views of Loch Shiel to be admired and a chance to visit the Glenfinnan Monument, the 60ft (18m) high column erected in 1815 to commemorate the beginning of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard here when he arrived from France to reclaim the British throne for his exiled father, James.

Moving onwards and continuing west on the A830 you will pass the beautiful and tranquil Loch Eilt on your left hand side. Enjoy breathtaking scenery as you follow the loch and almost at its end pull over and walk down to one of the loch's numerous islands, this one known as Eilean Na Moine. Parking here is almost non-existent and you'll have to find a bit of space by the roadside to make the short walk to the loch itself. The lightly wooded islands and clear calm waters of the loch provide a great photo opportunity and, for Harry Potter fans, Eilean Na Moine is where Dumbledore lies buried!! Or at least, where the scenes were filmed.

Not long after leaving Loch Eilt the beautiful mountain road will drop back down to sea level to the fishing port of Mallaig with its white painted houses clustered around the old stone harbour. The town was largely created from the 1840s after the Highland Clearances had forced many people away to the new world. Other folk turned to fishing rather than living off the land and Mallaig's somewhat limited prosperity came from what could be gleaned from the sea. It is know for its smoked kippers which can be bought from outlets on the harbourside. It is also here where you catch the ferry to Armadale on the Isle of Skye. 

This short ferry journey to the Isle of Skye is breathtaking. A stunning vista of mountains and islands, speckled with fishing villages and surrounded by dark shimmering waters. The excitement increases the closer you get to the shoreline. Once you dock at Armadale join the A851 and drive north east around Armadale Bay and then make a left turn up to the ruins of Armadale Castle. Once a seat of the mighty MacDonald Clan, this present baronial house was constructed around 1790 but since a fire gutted the buildings in 1855 it stands now as a romantic ruin surrounded by beautifully kept gardens. A  very pleasant side stop before begining the drive around this island, the second largest in Scotland.

Continue on the A851 skirting the coast,  with greenery and trees all around but with the higher peaty moorland not too far away to your left hand side. Just after signs for the Duisdale House Hotel the road will begin to climb from the waters edge and head in land across moors joining the A87 as you reach the coast again just before Broadford. One of the larger communities on Skye, the village of Broadford provides a scattering of houses and hotels, a harbour on the north facing coast of the island plus a petrol station and supermarket. This is the junction for the little road out west to Engol which can make a delightful side trip returning back to Broadford to continue on your journey further north. This 'out and back' journey follows a single track road, the B8083 via Loch Cill Chriosd and Loch Slapin on an isolated and remote journey featuring stunning views of the Strathaird peninsula. At the end is the little scattered community of Elgol with a dramatic shoreline at the edge of the village looking across Loch Scavaig with suberb views of the Black Cuillin mountain range as a backdrop. 

After picking up necessities back in Broadford you can continue on the A87 following Loch na Cairidh which translated means the "arm" as it is a sea channel rather than a freshwater loch. This takes you on a spectacular drive around the island's most impressive mountain scenery with whitewashed thatched crofters cottages, stone-built farmsteads with grazing sheep and Highland cattle. Following Loch Ainort on your right with views of the mountains ahead of you, this will take you on a scenic circumnavigation of the northern part of Skye.

At the end of Loch Ainort you will see a car park on your right hand side where you can park and take the short walk to Blackhill Waterfall. The road then twists up and downhill then along the waterside again, along the banks of Loch Sligachan. At the village of Sligachan itself you can pull in at the Old Bridge car park for spectacular views of the famous Cuillin Hills on the western edge of the island. The Old Bridge itself was build around 1810 by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and is a popular subject for photographs as well.  This is where you will make the turn on the A863 towards the world famous Talisker Distillery in Carbost. As the road twists up into the mountains through wild moorland note the views of Red Cuillin to your right. 

Turn left on the B8009 to the distillery for a guided tour of this world renowned single malt. The distillery has been operating since 1830 and stands beautifully on the banks of Loch Harport. Make your return to the A863 to head north to Dunvegan Castle and Gardens, a stunning location, the seat of the MacLeod clan and the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland. The oldest sections of the castle go back to the 13th century with major additions  in the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle stands majestically on rocks 50 feet (15m) above the ocean inlet. Following the A850 past another village called Cabost you will reach the A87 to head north onto the Trotternish Peninsula. The A87 will take you to Uig where you then join the A855. Take the right hand turn onto the A855 which will then diverge on a left turn almost immediately. Here you can pause at the beautiful Falls of Rha on your right hand side as soon as you cross the Bridge of Rha. There is a short path to the falls but only roadside parking.

Follow the A855, continuing northwards. Although this is classed as an A road, it is now a single track road with passing places. Eventually you will arrive at a sign directing you to the Skye Museum of Island Life. Take a right turn here up a track to a small car park. On your left will be a collection of  single-storey crofters cottages, smithy and weaver's cottage forming a traditional Skye village as it would have looked over a hundred years ago. Explore these stone and thatch houses with the traditional fixtures and artifacts within and learn of the way of life here several generations ago. A short walk from here will take you to Flora MacDonald's memorial and grave. She is known the world over as the young lady who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. He was disguised as a serving maid by the name of 'Betty Burke' and along with Flora MacDonald's help evaded his pursuers by crossing by boat from the Outer Hebrides to Skye.

At one of the northernmost points on Skye you will reach Duntulm Castle on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. There is a small lay-by on your left and a short walk to the ruins of the castle with its jaw-dropping views. There isn't a lot left of the fortress, a stronghold built in the 14th century by the MacDonald Clan but the main reason for being here is the amazing clifftop scenery.

You will take the A855 around the top of the island and begin to head south returning towards Portree. Eventually you will see signs for Kilt Rock viewpoint send you left down a short road to a parking area by the ocean. Here you will find Mealt Falls plunging 180 feet (55m) into the sea and the famous Kilt Rock almost 300 feet (90m) high which is said to resemble a pleated kilt.

Further on along the A855 the road begins to widen and eventually you will see a parking area to your right and the start of the Storr Trail which is a walk, part in woodland and part in moorland that takes you to the foot of the spectacular and brooding 2,359 feet (719m) Old Man of Storr. The trail is a circular walk and part of the initial route to the summit. You can take the option to do the full climb or just stroll along the lower reaches. Views of the Storr range can be seen from back down at the roadside if the weather is clear with its rocky fingers pointing skyward, a most unusual rock formation. Back at the parking area you will rejoin the A855 southwards into Portree. 

Portree is the largest town and capital of the Isle of Skye. The car park is in the centre of town but off season you may find parking on the quayside. Enjoy a stroll along the pleasant harbour and quay designed by Thomas Telford and climb the local viewpoint known as the Lump, a rocky outcrop with an old watchtower, a perfect way to walk off the fish and chips you bought in the harbour.

The Skye Bridge courted more than its fair share of controversy when it opened in 1995. Not only did it replace a ferry that had operated from Kyle to Kyleakin since before the 1600s, the locals were also charged a toll to cross. Thanks to protests and court cases this had been abolished by 2004 and now there is no charge for anybody to drive over this stretch of water and enjoy the spectacular vistas from either side.

From Kyle of Lochalsh make a left turn after you have crossed over the railway tracks onto Stoney Road following signs for Plockton, you will then bear right onto Main Road through Kyle itself then head north on the coast road. Head towards Duirinish and just after the village take a left turn with a sign pointing to Plockton 2 miles. Plockton is a charming fishing village on the banks of one of Scotland's most beautiful lochs. Just stroll along Harbour Street with whitewashed cottages on one side and colourful gardens and Loch Carron on the other. The collection of small islands in the loch make it very photogenic and the attractive village has been seen in films such as The Wicker Man and the TV series Hamish MacBeth. Its rows of New Zealand cabbage palms which grow along the lochside give Plockton a little bit of a sub-tropical feel. Just don't forget your camera.

Leave Plockton the same way you came in but just at the very end of the village, after the railway station, turn left following signs for Achmore and Stromferry. This single track road skirts the edge of Loch Carron but all to often bushes and trees obscure the view however, now and again, a vista opens up with a breathtaking glimpse of this sea loch and the many islands that decorate this body of water. Once at Achmore join the A890 turning right for Fort William. The A890 will meet the A87 at Auchtertyre, turn left here and follow the A87 along Loch Alsh with its deep waters and mountain backdrops on your right. Numerous lay-bys can be found at various intervals along the journey for photo stops and to take in the views but by far the most dramatic and visually impressive photo opportunity will be that of Eilean Donan Castle.

The road sweeps dramatically over Loch Long and towards a point where the waters of Loch Alsh meet those of Loch Duich. Here, on an island linked to the shore by a causeway, is one of Scotland's most recognisable castles. Eilean Donan (meaning the island of St Donan) has a breathtakingly beautiful fortress rising dramatically over its craggy surface, and seen in such films as Highlander, Elizabeth and The World Is Not Enough. It features on the cover of guidebooks and postcards and crops up in documentaries and travel shows with great frequency. But it's largely a 20th century structure!

There has been a castle on this site for centuries, the seat of both the Mackenzie and Macrae clans. However during the Jacobite rebellions in the early 18th century the castle was reduced to ruin. By 1912 when restoration began there was very little of the original structure left. This beautiful stronghold is therefore a recently built addition but spectacular nevertheless. Tours of the castle, gift shop and coffee shop are some of the amenities open to visitors.

Continue on the A87 which runs right along the banks of Loch Duich then leaves the lochside at Invershiel for a scenic drive over the hills following the River Shiel towards Loch Cluanie. This road utilises one of General Wade's military roads built as a fast route for the Government army to enter the Highlands during the Jacobite rebellions of the early 18th century.

At the end of Loch Cluanie is a viewpoint, although it isn't signposted the lay-by is quite large and will appear on your right hand side. You will be able to look back up the loch and get some delightful photographs. You will now follow the River Moriston, following signs for Invermoriston as the A87 becomes the A887. You will start to descend through pine forests and past a small resevoir and dam fed by the river then onwards to Loch Ness. As you enter Invermoriston village and the junction with the A82 there will be sited in front of you the Falls of Invermoriston car park and a chance to visit the falls and cross the old ruined bridge that was built by Thomas Telford in the early 1800s.

You will now turn north eastwards and follow the A82 along the banks of Loch Ness. This is the largest body of water in the UK at 23 miles (37km) in length and 744 feet (227m) deep. It is also home to a creature not recognised by science, but witnessed by many, the monster known as Nessie. For monster hunters the lack of lochside walks, lay-bys or open spaces is a bit of a disappointment but we are now in that deep rift valley we saw back at Corpach and the steep sides do not lend themselves easily to lochside parking. One location that does give you a chance to explore the Loch is Urquhart Castle.

Urquhart's history goes back to the 6th century although the present castle was destroyed in 1692 by its occupiers at the time, the Clan Grant. It was deliberately 'slighted' in order to keep it falling into the hands of their Jacobite enemies. The Grants had owned the castle from 1509 so most of the ruined buildings would have dated from after that time. The best surviving section is the north west tower. If you choose to make a stop here there is a gift shop, cafe, an 8 minute film about the history of the castle and, of course, access to the loch itself and an option to take a cruise over the deep dark waters!!

Further along you will pass the village of Drumnadrochit where you will find two rival Loch Ness Monster museums, the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre and Nessieland. A visit here for monster fans and cryptozoologists is essential!! The A82 will follow the banks of Loch Ness towards the capital of the Highlands, the city of Inverness.

From here the A9 road will take you southwards through the Cairngorm mountain range. Worthwhile stops along this route will be the Culloden Battlefield site which will be signposted just after leaving Inverness. Turn left on the A96 for a few miles to the battle site and visitor centre. Also further down the A9 is the historic Ruthven Barracks, a ruined military installation from the 18th century,  the beautifully located Dalwhinnie Whisky distillery, the spectacular Queen's View on the B8019 just after Drumochter Summit and the historic town of Pitlochry. The A9 route and its attractions are set out in more detail on our Scottish Highlands tour page. You can follow the A9 road down to Stirling and pick up the M80 back to your starting point in Glasgow.