Scottish National Tourist Routes: the Highland route

Scottish National Tourist Routes: the Highland route

One of the attractions of a motorhome tour of Scotland is that Scottish roads offer two ways to get from A to B: the straight (-ish) and the scenic route. This route definitely comes under the heading of scenic. It’s not an easy road in snowy conditions – in fact one section, through the Cairngorms, is usually the first road in Scotland to be closed when the snow comes – but it’s stunningly beautiful.

It also has plenty of off-piste attractions: whether you’re a walker, mountain biker, climber, admirer of wild scenery, history buff, Jacobite hunter, golfer or whisky-lover, you’ll find your passion met somewhere along this road.

Starting at Aberdeen

The Highland route starts in Aberdeen, known to Aberdonians as the silver city. Non-locals are less complimentary, calling it the granite or grey city or just Scotland’s oil-and-gas capital. It has a fine old town and St Machar’s Cathedral is definitely worth a visit. There are several excellent golf courses in the area and a fine walk along the Esplanade, if it’s not too windy. Aberdeen is also known for its shopping, though prices reflect the salaries paid in the oil industry.

But as they said about Dodge City, the best road in town is the one that leaves it. You leave Aberdeen on the A944, heading west towards Alford. The first few miles through the city and suburbs are rather dull, but once you hit open country things improve immeasurably.

Shortly after Kirkton of Skene you’ll see the Loch of Skene on your left. There’s a car park and you can walk round the loch. It was originally dammed to power a tweed mill; it now powers a hydro-electric station and there’s plenty of wildlife to watch, as well as the local sailing club.

Castle Fraser is filled with family portraits and colourful personal histories. Garden and Grounds are open all year; the Castle is open for tours from 1st April to 31st October. Photo credit: Iain Cameron

Castle Fraser is filled with family portraits and colourful personal histories. Garden and Grounds are open all year; the Castle is open for tours from 1st April to 31st October. Photo credit: Iain Cameron

A little off your route, but worth the detour, lies Castle Fraser, a National Trust for Scotland (NTS) property that has featured in the TV series “Outlander”. The massive tower-house dates from the 15th century and the walled garden has been restored to how it would have looked in the 18th century. The nearby estate village of Monymusk is very photogenic, too.

A stop-off in Alford

The A944 continues to Alford, near the River Don and in the shadow of Bennachie and Coreen (both beloved of climbers). There’s also a motor museum, the heritage museum, a narrow-gauge railway, a golf course, plenty of walking trails, and an excellent camping and caravan park. So it’s a great place to park up the motorhome and take in the sights.

When you leave, cross the river at the fine stone Bridge of Alford and turn left, following the A944 along the River Don to its junction with the A97 near Mossat. Turn left here to visit Kildrummy Castle, the 13th century stronghold of the Earlsof Mar, now a spectacular ruin in the care of Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Cairngorms National Park

Continue south and west on the very scenic A97/944 to Strathdon, rising into the hills and the Cairngorms National Park; take care on the narrow bridges, where you may have to give way to other vehicles. Before you reach Strathdon the A97 heads sharply off to the left and the A944 continues straight ahead, still following the course of the River Don.

This is a peaceful part of the country, full of farms and forestry. It’s a restful area to spend time away from the hustle of daily life, and recharge your batteries. There’s good walking, mountain biking trails and plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities, from black grouse, capercaillie and eagles to red deer and the elusive pine marten.

The A944 ends near Corgarff, at the junction with the A939. To your left, the old Military Road would take you down to Deeside; we follow it to the right instead, towards Cock Bridge.

Corgarff Castle surrounded by snow. The castle is open between 1st April and 31st October. Photo credit: Mason Taylor/Simon Taylor

Corgarff Castle surrounded by snow. The castle is open between 1st April and 31st October. Photo credit: Mason Taylor/Simon Taylor

On your left is Corgarff Castle, another HES property, visible for miles due to its pale colour, size and exposed position. Originally a mediaeval tower house, it was remodelled for use as a base for the army hunting down Jacobites and whisky smugglers. It has views for miles in every direction across the remote landscape and must have been horribly draughty to live in!

On top of the world

The road winds and climbs to what feels like the roof of the world with views half across Scotland on a clear day. Right at the top, 2,000 feet up, is the Lecht ski resort, which has a vast car park – never big enough during the ski season, but very handy if you want to park up when there’s no snow. Some of the ski runs become bike trails in the summer, and you can walk for miles in the surrounding hills; the chair-lifts will take you up, with or without a bike.

Scotland has a “right to roam” rule that allows you to walk anywhere as long as you do no damage, keep dogs on the lead, leave gates as you found them and take your litter home with you (but don’t walk anywhere you see a red flag flying, as it means there’s shooting going on).  You’ll find tracks criss-crossing the hills all around here, originally used by drovers, whisky-smugglers, Jacobites and local workers to get from place to place.

One of the places they were getting to and from is the Lecht mine, at the foot of the road from the ski centre. This was used first for iron ore and later for manganese; neither lasted very long. If you don’t want to walk all the way there from the top, there’s a small car park at the Well of the Lecht; you can see the mine from it, an easy half-mile walk away along the burn.  You’ll also see a stone monument to the soldiers who built this extraordinary road back in the 1750s.

Whisky country

View of the Cairngorms from the A939 (Lecht Road). Photo credit: John Mason

View of the Cairngorms from the A939 (Lecht Road). Photo credit: John Mason

From here it’s downhill all the way to Tomintoul.  Just as you get there, the B9008 heads right towards Knockandhu, Tomnavulin (where Tamnavulin whisky is produced) and Glen Livet. Most of these now-famous distilleries started out as illicit stills – the hills seem almost designed for concealment. The soldiers in Corgarff may have been able to see for miles, but they couldn’t see this far.

If you’re a mountain biker, the Glenlivet estate’s Glenlivet Trail Centre has miles of purpose-built trails for all levels of rider.

From Tomintoul carry on following the Old Military Road (A939) to Grantown-on-Spey, the centre of the Speyside whisky industry – not to mention some pretty fine trout and salmon fishing. This section of the road is very twisty and steep, so take it carefully. The final section is more relaxing. There’s a very good (though pricey) campsite at Grantown where you can recover from your exertions, and plenty of places to eat and drink.

Grantown (on Spey)

Grantown itself is an interesting place, built by the local laird to rehouse his tenants when he cleared them off their crofts (other landlords were much less kind). It was also the local market town, in an excellent position at the junction of the military road and the roads to several nearby villages.

There’s an excellent museum telling the town’s story; it also runs regular exhibitions and has research facilities for genealogy and local history. Anagach Woods has miles of cycling and walking trails and Grantown is also on the Speyside Way cycling route that follows the river from the Moray Firth to Aviemore.

If you’re not a mountain biker, the Malt Whisky Trail will take you round the local distilleries – this area has the highest concentration of them in Scotland. Just remember that Scotland has a lower permitted blood-alcohol level for drivers than the rest of Britain (50 milligrams alcohol per 100 ml of blood and 22 micrograms alcohol per 100ml of breath), so if you’re tasting don’t drive!

Speyside to Cawdor

From Grantown you take the Old Military Road north, taking the left fork, the A939 towards Ferness and Nairn, at the junction with the A940. By this time you’ve left the Cairngorms National Park and are in lower country  of rounded hills dotted with rivers and small lochs.

Just after Ferness you cross the Findhorn river and pass Loch Belivat as the A940 heads to Nairn. The tourist route doesn’t go into Nairn but it’s worth the short detour, a fine little town with a spectacular long, sandy beach and a strong maritime and fishing history.

The official route turns left after Ferness towards Cawdor on the B9101/B9090. The 14th century Cawdor Castle, with all its Shakespeare and Macbeth connections, is open to the public, and there are gardens, a golf course and walking trails if you want something more energetic.

Cawdor Castle has no fewer than three gardens to explore. The Castle and gardens are open from end of April until the beginning of October. Photo credit: Gerard Schmidt

Cawdor Castle has no fewer than three gardens to explore. The Castle and gardens are open from end of April until the beginning of October. Photo credit: Gerard Schmidt

Past Cawdor, at Clephanton, the military road proceeds straight north to Fort George, which is a very unusual visitor attraction, in that it is still a working army base as well as a museum. The ramparts are also a great place to try spotting the dolphin pod that lives in the Moray Firth, which surrounds the fort on three sides.

Culloden and Inverness

However that’s – again – not where the tourist route goes. Instead, it turns left at Clephanton on the B9006 towards Culloden Moor, scene of the appalling battle that marked the end of the Jacobites’ hopes in April 1746. The NTS has an award-winning visitor centre here where you can experience the battle in the immersion centre before walking out onto the battlefield itself.

South west of Culloden, the other side of the B851 and the River Nairn, lie the Clava Cairns, a 4,000 year-old burial site that remained sacred for centuries after its Bronze Age founders died.  Two areas of the complex are open to the public and you can also see the remains of a medieval chapel.

Back on the B9006, just follow the road into the centre of Inverness, capital of the Highlands and the end of the route. It’s a charming small city with several caravan parks to choose from.  There’s plenty to see and do, indoors and out.

One trip you really shouldn’t miss is a boat tour of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. If you’re not a fan of boats, you can follow the Great Glen Way or Great Glen Cycle Route signs along the Caledonian Canal towpath (the part nearest Inverness is on the road if you’re cycling but there is a traffic-free route for walkers).

You could drive this entire route in one day but what’s the point? You’d miss so much: history, magnificent scenery and views, extraordinary buildings, some of the best walking and mountain biking in Britain, whisky, the chance to chat to people, terrific food, great campsites… It’s not a road to be rushed, especially in a motorhome. Take your time and enjoy the show.