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If you love the idea of exploring the great outdoors and waking up somewhere different everyday – a road trip around Scotland is absolutely for you.
This is a trip that I’ve been wanting to do for years, especially having spent several childhood holidays in this part of the world, but it was never prioritised over holidays a little further afield.
However, with Coronavirus grounding us for months, autumn 2020 seemed like the perfect opportunity to escape to the highlands.
Evidently the virus was still very much around and Scotland was under some pretty tight rules at the time, but we made it there for an epic seven day Scottish road trip that was well worth the wait.
Keep reading to see everywhere we went and everything we did during our October Scotland escape.
Read more: A Slow Weekend in Edinburgh
Day one: Glasgow & Loch Lomond
You’ve got two options: drive up to Glasgow, or fly into Glasgow and pick up a hire car. We did the latter purely to save time which would have been lost to the lengthy journey from where we live.
Arriving from London Luton at 9am, we ventured into Glasgow City Centre via bus (which was a surprisingly expensive £9pp one way!) for a few hours wandering the streets, before picking up our Sixt hire car from Glasgow City Centre at lunchtime.
We probably would have spent more time in Glasgow if we’d had longer than a week, but we were too eager to get to our first real destination. Or if you fancy skipping Glasgow entirely, you can get your hire car right from the airport.
Our shiny new Audi A4 fully loaded and ready for adventure, we set off for Loch Lomond. Just 40-minutes from Glasgow, Loch Lomond is a beautiful lake that stretches for miles and is surrounded by thick forest.
We found a free car park in Balloch, right at the southerly point of Loch Lomond, and began a little adventure before we lost the autumn light. There’s a gorgeous little trail that runs along the right side of the Loch, looping round to Balloch Castle and back.
We completed this fairly short route, returned to the car park and made our way to our first accommodation of the trip.
A bright and airy Airbnb in Helensburgh just 17-minutes from Balloch, our apartment was located above a flower shop with free street parking nearby and an equipped kitchen.
Day two: Oban
After enjoying a slow morning, we set off in the direction of Oban. A fair way from Helensburgh at just under two hours, it was a pretty big round trip to do in one day, but we wanted to spend another night at our Helensburgh apartment. To save driving back, you can always spend your second night in Oban.
The drive to Oban was probably my favourite drive of the whole trip. Starting with the road that runs alongside Loch Lomond, the journey transitions into deep winding roads, lined with trees that are bursting with burnt oranges and golden yellows during the autumn season.
Arriving in Oban at lunchtime and paying just a few pound for public parking for four hours, we impulsively dived into the first restaurant we saw; Gelatoburger.
It was nice enough, though in hindsight I would have found somewhere a little more in keeping with Scottish food. It’s a shame we’re not into seafood as there are some great spots for this (such as the famous Oban Seafood Hut).
After lunch we wandered along the waterfront in the drizzle, watching the ferries slowly sail in and out. A fair few places were closed due to the virus, but on a normal day you’ll be able to drift in and out of gift shops and cafes all afternoon. Don’t forget to head up to McCaig’s Tower for the best views!
We headed back to Helensburgh late afternoon, taking a slightly different route for a change of scenery.
Day three: Glencoe
After checking out of our Helensburgh Airbnb bright and early, we hit the road towards Glencoe. Another beautiful route, again beginning alongside Loch Lomond, we spent the 90-minute drive soaking up the views and many more of those gorgeous festive trees. Oh, and we spotted our first Highland Coo on the way!
Arriving in the heart of Glencoe at lunchtime, we pulled over in one of the many laybys to photograph the Instagram-worthy ‘Wee White House’. Seeing the bright white of the empty building contrasting against the dark moody mountains was well worth getting drenched by the relentless rain.
This would have been a great place to stop for an afternoon hike, but the weather wasn’t on our side. Instead we grabbed a bite to eat from a supermarket in nearby Ballachulish before pulling up alongside Loch Leven for a car picnic.
Feeling a little disheartened by the worsening weather, we abandoned the day about 4pm and headed to our next stopover, a shepherd’s hut in the village of Kinlochleven. If you’re luckier than us, stick around outdoors and enjoy more of Glencoe.
Located on the host’s driveway, The Wee Hut is a gorgeous tiny home to base yourself in whilst visiting Glencoe. And the best bit? It comes with a fully stocked log burning fire and a generous food hamper.
With restaurants shut after 6pm due to the virus restrictions, we took advantage of the kitchen facilities and cooked up a feast. Sipping on wine and listening to the rain pattering on the tin roof, with the crackle of the fire beside me, it’s fair to say I was completely in my element.
Day four: Fort William & Mallaig
You can drive from Fort William to Mallaig no trouble, but nothing beats boarding The Jacobite steam train and travelling across the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, as seen in the Harry Potter movies.
I booked this experience as a birthday surprise for Darryl and trust me when I say you do not have to be a ‘train person’ to enjoy this. I took this journey as a child and it was just as brilliant (if not better) the second time around.
Running in the morning and afternoon during selected months of the year, we caught the 10.15am train out of Fort William – which is home to Ben Nevis – and arrived in the coastal town of Mallaig just after 12pm. As you can imagine, the 84-mile journey was completely breathtaking.
Leaving Mallaig at 2.10pm – you have just enough time to stretch your legs and grab some fish and chips by the harbour – before arriving back in Fort William around 4pm. It’s a great way to spend a day and give yourself a break from driving.
Whilst on the train we parked in the public car park opposite Lidl in Fort William, which cost £6 for 10 hours.
With only a few hours of light left, I’d recommend exploring more of Fort William or Loch Leven, before returning to your Glencoe accommodation. If you choose to stay in Kinlochleven like us, take the short 10-minute hike up to Grey Mare’s Waterfall before the sun disappears for the day.
Day five: Glenfinnan, Arisaig & Isle of Skye
The next morning we enjoyed the last mugs of freshly brewed coffee, before saying goodbye to The Wee Hut. We needed to be full of energy as today was going to be a real adventure.
Starting the morning back at one of our favourite places just one hour from Kinlochleven, we arrived at Glenfinnan ready to watch The Jacobite pass over the Glenfinnan Viaduct at around 10.45am. Get there around 10am to secure a parking spot in either the visitor centre (which costs £3.50) or further ahead in one of the few free bays.
You’re best to be in your spot up on the hill by 10.30am, just in case the train arrives early. In my opinion, seeing the train pass over the towering bridge is actually more exciting than being on it. There’s something lovely about standing with a bunch of strangers as you wait for that 60-second moment where passengers of the train wave from their carriage windows.
After it’s passed, hop back in the car and head to Arisaig. It’s another beautiful drive, taking just 30-minutes, and is home to some of the best beaches in Scotland. In summer you could say they even resemble some found in far-flung destinations like the Caribbean.
As usual the weather turned and we spent most of the day huddled inside the Arisaig Marine Tea Shop with toasted sandwiches, homemade soup and wedges of cake. Can’t complain really!
Though it was at this point that our plans went a bit wrong. We had a 5.30pm ferry booked out of Mallaig Port bound for the Isle of Skye. But because of an incoming storm, our ferry was cancelled at 2pm, leaving the only option of driving. Obviously driving is ok, but if you can get the ferry it’s quicker and easier.
We embarked on the four hour journey, winding through what felt like another planet with towering cloud-topped mountains either side of the road, arriving in Skye early evening. On arrival we could see why they’d cancelled the ferry as the storm was in full force.
This is where it got interesting. Google Maps failed us so I had to guess where our accommodation was. All I knew was that it was a dual-lodge with sea views, right at the end of the road in a remote village named Harlosh.
Before I knew it I found myself opening the gate to a property (being battered by the storm) and parking up on the driveway, with every intention of making our way up to the lodge. Except it wasn’t our lodge. The poor man in the house left his dinner table to come out and direct us to our actual lodge, which was about 50 metres back. Unbelievable levels of embarrassment!
We eventually settled into our Island View Room before heading back out to the nearest village of Dunvegan for a takeaway pizza, which was the only thing available during these bizarre covid times.
Some people love a remote stay, but I have to say that if I was to book a stay in Skye again, it would be somewhere a little more populated. A long dirt track, pitch black roads, no nearby shops or restaurants open beyond daylight hours was a little too out of the ordinary for me!
Day six: Isle of Skye
Today is your full day on the Isle of Skye, so get your walking boots on ready for lots of outdoor adventure! Before we get into it I’d recommend packing up some lunch supplies and plenty of water for the day, as shops on the Isle of Skye can be pretty hard to come by.
Luckily the storm had passed by the time we ventured out, and our first stop at Neist Point Lighthouse meant we had incredible views right down the coast and across to the not too distant small isles. Keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins here, unfortunately we didn’t see any but they’re often swimming nearby.
Driving along the coastal road up to the most northerly tip of Skye, we made our way back down the east coast – passing Mealtfalls – and arrived at the trail for the Old Man of Storr hike. The car park costs a minimum of £3 depending on how long you stay.
The 3.8k hike takes 45-minutes each way, but involves some seriously steep inclines and steps. When you reach the top however, it’s well worth the effort. On a good day the 360 degree views are out of this world.
Once back at the car park, head further south towards the town of Portree. On the way you’ll pass Loch Leathan and Bride’s Veil Falls.
Due to the restaurant closures and lack of kitchen facilities at our apartment, our only option was a takeaway, so we grabbed an Indian and drove 40-minutes back to Harlosh with it. On a normal day you’ll find some great restaurants in Portree for dinner.
Day seven: Isle of Skye & Loch Ness
On a good weather day these pools will be possibly the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen. Typically it was raining for us, but it was still worth the trip. Or in my case, worth the slip…
Right at the start of the walk you have to cross stepping stones over a river, and again a bit later on. For our visit the water was incredibly high and fast flowing due to the storm, which left the stepping stones deep beneath the water, giving everyone no option but to either abandon the walk or push on and wade through.
On the way out I managed fine (after a lot of contemplation of the best route), but on the way back I lost my footing and had 20 odd people watch me fall and immerse my entire body underwater. Worse yet, I had to spend most of the day in my sopping wet clothes.
Tragedies aside, the Fairy Pools were so beautiful. I lost count of the waterfalls I saw, each of them plunging down into a turquoise pool. If you start early enough you can do the full hike which takes around six hours, but it’s safe to say I wasn’t doing that in the state I was in!
Leaving Glenbrittle red-faced and soggy-bottomed, we made our way towards Loch Ness around lunchtime.
Arriving just over two-hours later, with a little car picnic stop on the way, we explored the town of Fort Augustus which is located at one end of the gigantic Loch. When I say it’s gigantic I’m not kidding, they say it takes six days to walk around.
We checked into our final Airbnb of the trip – a boutique space named Loch Chambers – before heading back out to grab some fish and chips. There are a selection of pubs in Fort Augustus to choose from also, and I highly recommend The Boathouse Lochside for the views of the Loch!
Don’t forget to look out for Nessie, the famous Loch Ness Monster…
Day eight: Inverness Airport
Unfortunately we had originally booked an evening flight out of Inverness Airport giving us an eighth day in Scotland to explore more of Loch Ness, but it got changed to a 10am flight cutting our time in Loch Ness a day short.
I’d recommend flying out of Scotland anytime during the eighth day, giving yourself a little time to explore more of the Loch if possible. Be sure to arrange your hire car drop off for Inverness Airport, not Glasgow.
Read more: Cheap Eats in Edinburgh
Tips for planning your trip
With your itinerary nailed down, I have a few final tips and words of advice for anyone planning to embark on their own Scotland road trip:
- If travelling during the pandemic, book everything on credit card in case of cancellations.
- Make sure you’re fully insured with the hire car in case of any mishaps, you’re covering a lot of ground after all.
- Pack waterproofs and plenty of layers, Scotland’s weather is quite unpredictable.
- Book accommodation with kitchen facilities where possible, cooking your own meals is good fun and a great way to keep the costs down.
- Take advantage of toilet stops when you see them, they’re often a rare sight (especially in Skye).
- If travelling during the pandemic, have plenty of face masks on you.
Scotland road trip packing list
- Plenty of layers
- Comfy walking/hiking boots
- Warm waterproof coat
- Camera and battery charger
- Portable charger
- Reusable water bottle
- Hat, scarf and gloves (if travelling autumn/winter)
- Basic toiletries in case your accommodation is missing anything
- Sturdy suitcase (we used hand luggage only)
- Passports (if flying from UK these are only needed for ID checks)
What did the trip cost?
In total this trip cost us just under £600 per person, not including food. Here’s a quick breakdown of costs for the two of us:
- easyJet flights from London Luton to Glasgow, returning from Inverness: £39 (per person)
- Airport parking at Luton: £30
- Eight day car hire with full insurance at Sixt: £444
- Seven night’s accommodation via Airbnb and Booking.com: £642 (avg. £92 per night)
- Fuel during the trip: £130
- The Jacobite steam train round trip: £43 (per person)
- The ferry from Mallaig to Skye: £15 (obviously this was cancelled for us)
Would you have done anything differently?
Apart from booking a more central stay in the Isle of Skye, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It was a lot of driving (958 miles to be exact!) and very long days, but I think we travelled quite slowly and it was never unenjoyable. We loved it – even in the pouring rain – and I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Follow my route
If this post has got you itching to book your own Scotland road trip, save this map to use whilst you’re there!
Simply click the star icon to add it to your collection. To find it again, open the left-hand tab in Google Maps and click Your Places > Maps.
New to this tool? Learn more about My Maps in this post.