There are few times in life when a man’s bucket list overlaps with that of his father’s. Screaming through the highlands of Scotland – in a Jaguar F-TYPE SVR Convertible, no less – is indeed one of those times.
My dad, James, turned 60 this year. For a man who’s been everywhere, done everything, and has no particular passion for Swiss watches, the latest iPhone, or yet another Bunnings voucher, the scramble for gift ideas was an ill-fated one.
Back in April, however, the pair of us were enjoying a bottle of red late one Sunday evening as we watched Clarkson & co. spray around the northern roads of Scotland for episode 7 of The Grand Tour’s third season.
It looked absolutely spectacular. As a boy, I dreamt of racing an Aston Martin down the hills of Monaco like Pierce Brosnan or tearing through Tuscany in an open-top Ferrari with a beautiful woman at my side.
But the dramatic scenes in that episode of The Grand Tour triggered something in both of us that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention.
“Now that’s one thing I’d love to do, drive through Scotland.”
A throwaway comment from the old man that I obviously took as a green light for a 60th birthday present; and just like that, the trip was agreed upon, the arrangements were made, and a few months later we found ourselves in Edinburgh on a brisk September morning being handed the keys to our chariot – the aforementioned supercharged V8 thanks to the good folks at Jaguar.
After months of sifting through countless Reddit threads, driving forums, and YouTube vlogs; I’d drafted what I believed to be the ultimate plan of attack to sample and uncover Scotland’s greatest driving road.
I said a quiet prayer asking that the weather and road gods would play ball over the next seven days, started the engine, and began our journey.
LOCH LOMOND to GLEN COE – A82
Essential Pit Stop: Skyfall
The most famed stretch of highland road in Scotland is likely the A82. It’s picture-perfect and within a day trip’s distance from both Edinburgh and Glasgow. While breathtakingly beautiful, the A82’s fame and proximity is, unfortunately, its kryptonite.
Pushing north along the A82 from Loch Lomond isn’t much to write home about; heavy vehicles are rife, and wet, narrow roads are prone to flooding down by the loch’s edge.
As we climbed to the top of the plateau, however, we began to feel like we’d truly arrived in the highlands. The campervans thinned out and the snaps and crackles of the V8 broke the deafening silence of the barren surrounds.
After passing the Glen Coe Ski Area, keep an eye out for an unmarked road on your left. A short detour roughly 3.5 miles down this single-lane road will bring you to the set of Skyfall (2012) – a must-see for any Bond fan (exact coordinates can be found here).
Those who are keen to tackle the valley properly should consider staying the night in Glencoe and hustling for an afternoon squirt or a sunrise sprint the next morning.
While not music to the ears of anyone who’s keen for really spirited driving, think of the A82 as the gates to the good stuff. Some of Scotland’s best stretches of asphalt are only just around the corner.
GLEN COE to MALLAIG – A82/A830
Essential Pit Stop: Glenfinnan Viaduct
The drive from Glen Coe to the Mallaig Ferry Terminal was some of the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel of a car – and that’s saying something.
Let me break down how that heart-racing morning played out.
Our pre-booked ferry to Armadale on the Isle of Skye from Mallaig (roughly 2 hours drive north-west of Glen Coe) left at 11:30 AM. In between these two points of call is yet another famed Hollywood set; the Glenfinnan Viaduct, featured in the Harry Potter films.
The spectacular stone bridge comprises of 21 arches that stretch across a valley just off the A830 towards Mallaig, about a 40 minutes drive from the ferry terminal in the west, and roughly half an hour from Fort William to the east.
The train (aka the Hogwart’s Express) choofs and chuffs across the viaduct twice-daily – but only once before midday. At 10:50 AM.
This presented a slight issue. If we were to watch the train cross the viaduct that morning, we’d have exactly 40 minutes to make it back down to the car and to the ferry terminal. If we missed the ferry, we’d be waiting 4 hours for the next one.
Despite it being touch and go whether we could make that ferry, I came to the conclusion that this was a goal only achievable in an F-TYPE SVR, and thus, a risk worth taking.
Perhaps it was the glorious morning sun, the whoosh of the cold air over our heads or the adrenaline of racing a ticking clock – but the drive along the A830 was one for the books. Arching and undulating roads kiss the shores of lochs on the left side and hug the steep mountains on the right, weaving in and out of the landscape.
Given the very light through-traffic towards Mallaig, we found ourselves with the roof down, 567 horsepower underfoot and hardly a single vehicle between us and our goal.
We made that ferry by the skin of our teeth.
ISLE OF SKYE – A851/A87/A863
Essential Pit Stop: Talisker Distillery
The Isle of Skye deserves praise for all the right reasons, but to some disappointment, great driving roads isn’t one of them.
Long and straight through towering valleys with jagged peaks, the main thoroughfare – the A87 – is spectacular on the eye but peppered with convoys of caravans and trucks that spoil the few corners you may find.
In search of some respite, we turned onto the A863 towards Talisker Distillery at the Sligachan junction and were promptly welcomed by some gorgeous tarmac for an uninterrupted squirt through dramatic scenery on all sides (seriously, the roads in Scotland are incredibly well maintained, beyond any expectations we may have had). The experience is short-lived though, as the road to Talisker quickly becomes a quiet, single-lane country road that gives you the impression you’re on a journey to the end of the Earth.
The town of Portree is worth a drop in for a coffee, and if you have the time, I’d recommend travelling further north to the dramatic cliffs of the battered coastline. But our time on Skye was a short and sweet one that soon required us to point the Jag east and hone in on the mainland once again.
BROADFORD to INVERMORISTON – A87/A887
Essential Pit Stop: Eilean Donan Castle
Unlike our arrival by ferry into Armadale, the other tip of Skye nearer to the mainland affords travellers an easy exit from the isle across the aptly named Skye Bridge. A stone’s throw further down the road heading east on the A87 will bring you to the definition-perfect Eilean Donan Castle.
A stronghold for Scottish clans and kings since the 1200s given its position as a gatekeeper to three unique sea lochs, Eilean Donan Castle stood its ground for centuries only to fall to ruins during the Jacobite rising of the 18th-century.
Lieutenant Colonel John McRae-Gilstrap, a descendant of the clan who controlled the castle during its turbulent years, restored it to its former glory in the early 1900s, allowing it to become one of the most spectacular castles in Scotland – and a must-do for any history nut.
The road east of the castle which eventually flows into the A887 is surprisingly enjoyable – think the Glen Coe valley but eerily quiet and with some lovely flowing S-bends. With almost zero traffic, a foreboding rain cloud overhead to set the pace, and not a single speed camera in sight, the F-TYPE made quick work of the valley, leaving behind the rolling echo of a V8 soundtrack and its classically naughty snort on the upshift.
INVERMORISTON to INVERNESS (via FORT AUGUSTUS) – A82/B862/B852
Essential Pit Stop: Falls of Foyers Waterfall
Rating: 6/10 (B862 8/10)
This little segment of our grand tour wasn’t even meant to be on our itinerary (or in this article), but after a quick yarn with the barista at the Glen Rowan Cafe, it was agreed that we should take the back way to Inverness, around the far side of Loch Ness, rather than zone out on the straight and narrow highway north – and boy was it worth it.
Immediately after the awkward detour via Fort Augustus, I found myself like a kid in a candy store on the B862 (General Wade’s Military Road) that rises above the Loch’s right-hand side.
The roads were immaculate – as if they’d been tarred mere days before – delivering a spicy hill climb for the first few kilometres that was a welcome change from the relatively flat valleys of previous days.
Reaching the plateau, one could see the single lane road stretch and bounce for miles directly north along the valley ridge with unobstructed views of oncoming traffic. A road I would have missed entirely if it wasn’t for the chatty lady at the aforementioned cafe.
From here, we turned off onto the B852 with a brief stop at Falls of Foyers waterfall before arriving at the loch’s edge and pinning it towards Inverness.
INVERNESS to ULLAPOOL – A9/A835
Essential Pit Stop: Ullapool
Second only to the A82, Scotland’s iconic North Coast 500 route is one for the real road trip fiends. Unfortunately, our limited time in-country and similarly limited kilometres on the Jaguar meant that this supposedly incredible 500-mile loop of the very north of Scotland had to be bookmarked for another day.
Keen to test the waters anyway, we embarked on a little roundtrip up to Ullapool from Inverness, the first leg of the clockwise route that extends out to one of the furthest flung settlements in the west of mainland Scotland.
A village of around 1,500 inhabitants and the gateway to the Summer Isles, Ullapool sits at the end of a playful drive through developed countryside that is quickly overrun by the classic Scottish mooreland we had come to know quite well. A couple of RAF Typhoons skimmed across the surface of the loch at an impressively low altitude while we enjoyed a morning coffee in Ullapool before doing a U-turn and punching Inverness back into the sat-nav.
If you so desire, however, from Ullapool you could continue north along the same roads as Clarkson & co. or take a four-hour ferry to Stornoway, which is about as remote as Scotland gets.
OLD MILITARY ROAD – A95/A939/B976/A93
Essential Pit Stop: Gairnshiel Lodge
The Old Military Road of the Cairngorms National Park deserves an article in itself.
This was it – what we’d spent a week searching for and what was fittingly the final stretch of our jaunt through Scotland. A road that was better than James Bond’s driveway itself.
Stretching from Grantown-on-Spey to Blairgowrie via Tomintoul, Balmoral and Braemar, the Old Military Road is what Henry Catchpole of EVO Magazine dubbed his favourite road in the UK, and therefore, perhaps his favourite in the entire world.
We attacked it from a top-down approach, but I can only assume you’d have just as much fun, if not more, rising from the south. Roaring out of the lush fields of Speyside following a handful of distillery tours, we were quickly immersed in barren highland terrain that could have convinced us we were the only car for miles.
Despite being a familiar scene by now – this time was different. The Old Military Road rose and fell like a wave with peaks at the local ski fields and troughs at quintessential Scottish towns. It was nothing but 20 miles of unhinged highland passes that twisted and turned at the exact moment I was about to reach for fifth gear, keeping me on my toes and dialled into the driving experience from start to finish.
At the junction of the A939 and B976 next to the bridge over the River Gairn was our final pit stop for the tour and one of the most uniquely remarkable accommodations I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in – Gairnshiel Lodge.
The recently restored 17th-century hunting lodge is about as Scottish as it gets – but that’s only until you step inside. Run by a lovely Belgian couple, Hilde and Eric, the interiors of Gairnshiel Lodge have taken the form of a juxtaposed cross between the heritage of the highlands and the influence of minimal European design.
There is a games room, a fantastic wine cellar, multiple fireplaces, and a stellar breakfast. The property can be booked on a per room basis or in its entirety for groups that have access to hectares of Scottish game reserve for dedicated hunting expeditions.
Perhaps fittingly, the most remarkable property in the Cairngorms National Park also directly borders the Royal Family’s summer residence, Balmoral Castle. The road that connects the two, however – the B976 – is extremely narrow and rugged. If you got into trouble here, you couldn’t help but think you were so remote that you’d seriously be up shit creek.
After dropping in for a quick cuppa with the Queen, the village of Braemar just down the road is a fascinating place to stop off for a long pub lunch before the antics begin once again with the climb to Glenshee Ski Resort.
Much like the prior day’s fun, the following 15 miles only gets the blood pumping even more as you drop off the far side of the ski resort and race towards the finish line at the Spittal of Glenshee. This section of flowing, smooth bitumen will actually make your stomach lurch from a rollercoaster of rolling green hills that pop up almost unannounced in quick succession; a giddy-like feeling that’s just as addictive as the SVR’s pops and crackles at around 4500 rpm.
Then, almost without warning, you’re spat back out into Scotland’s countryside to find yourself merging onto the cumbersome dual carriageway, wondering if the last few hours (or few days, in our case) were all but a figment of your imagination.
I’ve had the privilege to drive a stack of exciting cars on a vast variety of unique roads and circuits, but for some reason, the experience that made the most sense was this one – and of course, in none other than a Jaguar F-TYPE SVR.
It’s beautiful, it’s brutish and it’s British. It somehow fit with the tough majesty of the landscape, begging for me to push it harder when all I wanted to do was stop and take a photo of it sitting against yet another impressive backdrop around every second corner. It just fit. Almost perfectly.
If you’d like a detailed itinerary from start to finish of our time in Scotland, don’t hesitate to hit me up via email, or for a Google Maps version, click here.
To sample what inspired the search for the best road in Scotland, here is Clarkson, Hammond, and May setting the scene in The Grand Tour.