The best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands

The best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands

Our 2024 holiday came early and led us to Scotland. My husband said it would be time for a return to the UK. Then it was up to me to choose the exact destination and I chose what has been on top of my wish list for years: The Outer Hebrides – and we tried best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands in order to get there.

We were travelling in mid-March, which was a huge gamble with the weather. Other than that, we knew it would be a relatively expensive trip, with accommodation taking most of our budget. With a bit of good planning, we managed to find some really nice accommodation at the lower price range without skimping on comfort, and we hired a car in order to be flexible and save money.

The following is my account on travelling to and from the Western Isles from Edinburgh, using three different routes, with a comparison of route and lots of practical tips.

Which route to take to routes to the best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands?

We have good direct flight connections from Berlin to Edinburgh on two budget airlines, so flights to Edinburgh were quickly booked.

My initial plan was to fly to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and hire a car there. Stornoway is served by Loganair. But even months ahead in low season, flight prices were really high.

So we changed our plans – we would drive from Edinburgh, which made car hire also cheaper, as there are at least five car hire companies in Edinburgh with lots of of cars and competition.

best routes to Scotland's Highlands and Islands
Isle of Harris -a bit of a trek to get here but worth it

We hired a compact car from Enterprise at Edinburgh Airport and were given a Vauxhall Corsa – a compact hatchback with few miles on the clock. Manual transmission is standard in the UK, so if you require automatic, you must specify this at the time of booking. Of course, they drive on the left in the UK, which was no big deal on Scotland’s peaceful well maintained roads. Once we had negotiated a series of roundabouts from the airport and were on the approach to the Forth Road Bridge, it was all plain rolling.

And the weather was not playing along

Although by and large we were lucky with the weather while on the Western Isles, having some very changeable day with lots of sun and a little rain – and the dramatic skies that come with it- we had to cut our stay in the Isle of Harris short due to a gale forecast. We re-booked our ferry and ended up with a bonus two days on the Scottish mainland, and went on a somewhat unforeseen leisurely road trip, with a bit of gale interference!

So, from this, I can give you some good recommendations on a leisurely road trip with great scenery, and good accommodations to break the journey.

best routes to Scotland's Highlands and Islands
Leaving Tarbert on the Isle of Harris

So, what is the best route to and from the Western Isles? There are at least three routes you can take from Edinburgh or Glasgow, with some variations along the way.

If you are heading to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis via the port of Ullapool, the Cairngorms ROute via Inverness is the shortest and fastest route. However, the more time you spend in the West of Scotland, the more scenic your dive will be.

So the following is a review of the major routes we took on our drive to and from the Western Isles. We also took into account travelling in low season which is from November to March. While many hotels, restaurants and attractions were shut, we enjoyed the great hotel availability and lower prices of hotels and the relatively empty roads! If you travel any time between Easter and early October, be prepared to book about six months in advance to get good accommodation.

Through the Cairngorms to Ullapool

This route makes perfect sense if you are travelling to and from Edinburgh to the Western Isles. At 340 kilometres, this is the shortest route and it is dual carriageway on about two thirds of the way.

Highlights include crossing the Firth of Forth on one of the two toll-free road bridges, with great view of the iconic 1890 Forth Rail Bridge. It then takes you past some whisky distilleries and the Cairngorm Mountains to Inverness, which is great for a fuel and shopping stop, and on to Ullapool – more like a large village in beautiful setting at Loch Broom.

best routes to Scotland's Highlands and Islands
Somewhere between Blair Athol and Inverness, Cairngorms

The last 50 miles from Inverness to Ullapool are the most scenic on a fairly windy road, so make sure to allow a lot of time to admire the incredible scenery of shrubby hills with snow-covered peaks in the background

best routes to Scotland's Highlands and Islands
The smooth and scenic road to Ullapool

You will pass a series of freshwater lochs, and while this route is great on scenery, there aren’t that many facilities en route.

Loch Glascarnoch
Loch Glascarnoch, one of many scenic stops on the Ullapool road

So, it’s best to stock up on food and fuel in Inverness, have breakfast or lunch in Inverness and then enjoy the nice long drive to Ullapool.

No shortage of scenic loch views – this is Loch Droma

Ullapool is a nice village but it’s definitely the scenery that makes Ullapool such a beautiful destination. There wasn’t a lot open in March, and we were well early for our ferry. So, our walk through Ullapool took less than half an hour, then it was back to the car with a good book. The check- in for the ferry started early, meaning we got our ticket scanned, parked up in the holding area then were free to walk the town until our boarding time – no need to spend on parking.

Where to Stay between Edinburgh and Ullapool

First of all… Edinburgh can be super expensive. When we arrived, we wanted to cover a bit of road before the scenery got nice so we stayed near Perth, in a small village called Bankfoot with a wonderful ancient coaching inn, the Bankfoot Inn. We paid 75GBP for a small room with an extraordinary breakfast.

Pitlochry, about 10km up the road, makes another good stop, with loads of tourist facilities, several distilleries and walking trails nearby – for us, it was almost too busy. I would recommend the Athol Villa Guesthouse, another very traditional Bed and Breakfast in a traditional stone house, which, at about 130 GBP in shoulder season, won’t break the bank.

Inverness marks the last larger town between the mainland and the islands – Ullapool is quite small. Anything you might require, it’s best to get it in Inverness. Tehre are at least three huge outdoor shops, the usual High Street chains, huge supermarkets… and plenty of decent accommodation. My pick would be the Ballifeary House, a bit away yet still in walking distance to the busy town centre.

Via Isle of Skye, Dornie and Fort William

Our return journey was meant to be done in one long drive, from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. At 250 miles/ 400km, it does not seem that long, but most of the drive is on single carriageway, and in retrospect I am really glad we had two full days to return to Edinburgh due to returning from the Isle of Harris a day early.

And as beautiful as the Isle of Skye is, it is also super expensive – and gets very busy. When we arrived on the Isle of Skye, a storm travelled through, and although we attempted a little bit of touristing, all we got was low clouds and gale-force winds. So, staying true to the style of this blog where I write about places I have been to only, my Isle of Skye pickings are a bit slim.

Portree – cute but touristy – and we stayed in the pink house on the right!

However, pretty much everyone told us it gets super busy in the summer, and one should not attempt to stay without pre-booked accommodation. We stayed at the Pink House Skye in Portree for about 100 GBP a night. It has the best position right by the harbour, very large clean guest rooms, but no parking, and rates can double quickly in season. Other than that… while Portree was nice enough with its candy-coloured sea front houses, it didn’t really grip me.

If you drive from the Isle of Skye to Fort William, you will pass the iconic Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie. It’ super picturesque and if you wish to photograph it, it might make sense to stay nearby to catch it at different times of the day. Kyle of Lochalsh makes a good base for both Eilean Donan and the Isle of Skye, and Ardenlea Guest House would be a great choice.

Reserve time for Eilean Donan Castle and its several viewpoints

On our first day of driving, the weather was pretty awful for most of the day. We dawdles around in Portree, sitting in a coffee chop hoping for the rain to stop, but no chance. There wasn’t much going on on the roads, either, which made for fairly relaxed driving and somehow, with a couple of stops, it was evening by the time we reached Fort William – which makes a great overnight stop.

Empty roads near Loch Cluanie on a gale day

None of the roads were that exposed once we had crossed the Skye bridge, so driving even in unfavourable weather was safe and still offered us dramatic views

Another muggy Glen Shiel view

It was so windy, I felt like being blown off my path every time I left the car, so I only have these drive-by views of Glen Shiel. In better weather, it invited exploration of its mountains and historic monuments- it is the scene of a battle between Jacobites versus the British Government under George I and had lasting impact on Britain’s role in Europe.

In the afternoon, the sun came out so we took a little detour. We had picked up a hitchhiking traveller and after dropping her off in a good spot closer to Inverness, we stopped by Loch Ness.

And guess what? It may get the hype, but it is a picturesque loch like hundreds of others in Scotland!

Loch Ness – the shores weren’t super accessible

Fort William was a far more attractive place to stop. It is the largest town in the Western Highlands and is full of tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants.

Being the dubbed the outdoor capital of the UK, rooms fill up fast, too. We stayed at the Lime Tree Hotel for 100GBP, a small, family run hotel close to High Street and Loch Linnhe. Our room was, although not a looker, large and comfortable, and the staff were extremely friendly. Many good restaurants, too – we had dinner at the Crannog which was superb, and I saw many really appealing places on the pretty High Street. Another contender was Myrtle Bank Guest House, a lovely Victorian house right by Loch Linnhe, also somewhere in the 100GBP bracket, although prices double in season.

Despite its popularity, the centre is really pretty and inviting. There are two museums right in the centre. The Lochaber Geopark is a small visitor centre about the geology of the region, while the West Highlands Museum opposite covers local history. And if that sounds too educational, the High Street is really lovely, with a nice mix of regular and souvenir shop sand plenty of cafes. Ben Nevis Distillery outside Fort William is another option, and while their 10-year old whisky is one of the best I have tried, the distillery visitor centre gets rather mixed reviews.

Through Glencoe

From Fort William, the A82 through Glen Coe is my first choice for a scenic road trip. There is plenty of parking and hiking trails en route, too, but just driving through this dramatic valley is incredibly scenic.

Many sea lochs with expansive water views

The drive along Loch Linnhe from Fort William is already very pretty, with sweeping views across the sea loch. Once past Glencoe village, the scenery changes quickly and becomes mountainous, and you will pass one magnificent view point after the other.

Make plenty of time for the scenic view points of Three Sisters, Meeting of Three Waters, Glen Coe Viewpoint and Rannoch Moor. Even better, there are short hikes to yet more viewpoints of DEvils Staircase and Buachaille Etive, with plenty of parking on the road side and off road in low season.

At the start of Glen Coe

Generally, it’s a pleasant relatively wide road with plenty of stopping points. It wasn’t busy, but all this might change in better weather and during high season.

The Meeting of Three Waters, Glen Coe

There isn’t too much in terms of facilities and places to stay between Glencoe and Tyndrum, so it’s best to plan accordingly. Just check that the road is open. We managed to dive through most of it when an overturned lorry closed the road for hours, letting us experience the Oban road as well – and playing havoc with our plans for the day!

Low Route via Oban and Glasgow

Ending the morning in a traffic jam in a hailstorm on top of Glen Coe, and being told the road would be closed “for at least three hours, but it can easily take five”, we turned around and drove back through Glen Coe and drove on the A828/A85 route back to Tyndrum, where both routes meet.

Though lacking in drama, this part with gentle bare hills and lots and lots of islands and peninsulas is my favourite part of Scotland, if not the UK – I could easily live here! Also there is the picturesque Castle Stalker en route.

Unfortunately, I did not stop for photos because we had booked a tour at Lindores Abbey and due to having to turn around and go on a 80 mile detour, we were running super late.

Gentle hills and Loch Lubhair

Oban has lots and lots of accommodation and is a pleasant small town with some good restaurants and even its own distillery. The best area to stay, in my humble opinion, is the Corran Esplanade full of magnificent Victorian houses – it’s right by the sea, quiet, and very beautiful. And they often have rooms when the centre is full. I stayed at Kilchrenan House some years ago and highly recommend it. For food -the only place I ate was Ee-Usk, multiple times, and the George Street Chip Shop, both very good.

Moving on, the scenery stays pretty all the way to Crieff. Also, from here onwards, you will be in whisky country again. As our plans to visit Lindores, a new distillery, were changed by the storm, we called in at Glenturret, which is Scotland’s oldest working distillery.

routes to Scotland's Highlands and Islands

Having visited quite a few distilleries, this is a good one to visit in comparison. It’s small, very pretty and very traditional in its production process. was bought by a consortium and is now in a partnership with Lalique. It’s a small “boutique” distillery with a single still, very pretty historic buildings and some very classy styling – and two much-loved working cats who hop around the adjacent whisky and Lalique glass shop like it’s theirs. The whisky is not bad, either.

Crieff makes another lovely stop en route – a smallish town with a picturesque centre, cafes and a handful of accommodation.

Which is the best route to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands?

In terms of dramatic scenery and sights, to me, the route via Perth, Tyndrum, Glen Coe and Fort William (on the A85 then A82) is the most scenic and therefore best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. When we were driving it, in March 2024, it was not particularly busy, but bear in mind this is a single carriageway and may get very full in the main season. Aside from Perth and Fort William there isn’t a ton of accommodation en route, and what is there gets booked up very fast.

Another beautiful Glen Coe view


I organised our trip using a combination of classic travel guide (I use the Rough Guide), a search on Google Maps and perusing the Calmac and Loganair web sites.

I booked our accommodation on the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris directly, and used for last-minute accommodation. Please note this will not work in the main season from approximately May to September when many places are fully booked months in advance – it is recommended you book early and do not arrive without pre-booked accommodation.

One of any hearty Scottish breakfasts

It also is worth to pay attention to availability of food, especially off season. I found Fort William, Inverness and Perth to be the best stops for restaurants, especially outside the main season. I was really impressed with Fort William – we had a dinner at the Crannog at Garrison West, but I passed a few restaurants where I happily would have eaten.

Other than that, Oban, should you happen to pass through it, has some great restaurants – and guesthouses.

Car Hire

I hired a car from Enterprise. Even for a longer road trip, hire a small car, as roads can be very narrow in Scotland, and parking spaces tight! No need for a 4×4 unless you consider some very serious off roading. Manual transmission is standard, and all classes of cars are available from the major rental companies at Edinburgh and Glasgow Airports.

While Scotland isn’t exactly densely populated and quite spacious, a smaller car is perfect for Scottish roads. Many larger roads have dual carriageways, but those through the highlands are single carriageway, going down to single track in more remote areas. Our compact car was perfect for all driving, from motorway to single track Harris roads. No need for a huge car really, unless you like to play parking space tetris.


Caledonian MacBrayne, abbreviated CalMac, is the primary ferry provider in Western Scotland and I really recommend creating an account with them on their website. This lets you easily buy tickets and change dates of travel. Outside the main season, ferries don’t tend to run at full capacity, so it is easy just to turn up, but with a schedule as tight as ours, I reserved a car space – foot passengers tend to be no problem and usually require no reservation.

CalMac Ferries on the Western Isles crossings tend to be large and very comfortable. As for the weather… the Ullapool to Stornoway route across the Minch has a reputation to get rough very quickly, and the ferries are modern and tend to run even in heavy winds but this depends on the direction of the wind, which port they are sailing to, and cancellations can happen at very short notice. I recommend to have at least 24 hours buffer and check the weather forecast frequently.

Tarbert Ferry Port

Our Ullapool to Stornoway crossing was on one of the largest ferries, the huge old MV Loch Seaforth buil tin 2014 in Glasgow, with a restaurants and several passenger decks.

Our Tarbert to Uig crossing was on the MV Hebrides, a very charming slightly older ship with a huge retro disco lounge.

Can you do the trip on public transport?

You can, although it is really difficult once you get to the islands.

You could take a train from Edinburgh to Stirling, then to Inverness, from there to Garve and ride the last hour on a bus in order to get to Ullapool. Getting back from the Isle of Skye, you will have to take a bus to Armadale and hop on a ferry in order to get to Mallaig, which is the terminus of the scenic West Highland Rail Line to Fort William, or leave from South Uist to take a ferry to Oban which is a sizeable town with more train connections. Harris and Lewis have buses serving the main roads, but unless you base yourself in Stornoway or Tarbert, getting around will not be that easy.

So, altogether – it’s doable, but I have not done this journey on public transport and would not recommend it as rail fares are high and trains aren’t exactly frequent. I am all for public transport and rent a car on less than 20% of all my trips, but once it becomes tedious and expensive, I am out.

The Small Print

I visited the Western Isles of Lewis and Harris in March 2024 on a holiday together with my husband. All costs were paid by us, there is no sponsorship.

This post contains some affiliate links to, meaning that if you book through these links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost for you. Other links are non affiliate, especially of the smaller guest houses, which often accept direct booking.

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4 thoughts on “The best routes to Scotland’s Highlands and Islands”

  • The landscapes look stunning!! The mountains, the greenery, the water – it’s all so wonderful!

    • Hi Shreya, thank you for your comment! I look at them now and think ah, not bad although it was quite a windy and blustery few days. Really loved Scotland, visited the Highlands and some islands about five times now (lived in the UK) and already longing to go back.

  • Oooh Anja, the weather may not have been what you were hoping for, but if you see the photos (and can’t actually feel the wind) the views are aching beautiful, especially in Glen Coe with that mix of moodiness and sunshine. I LOVE seeing the mountains with those knobs of snow on the top. I think I like the look of it more than when it’s really busy in the summertime.

    • Hi Josy, thank you for your comment! The weather was nice most of the trip, which I am really grateful for! On that day in Glen Coe walking would have been challenging, as the weather literally changed every minute! I would not travel there in the summer…. roads are busy, hotel prices triple and book out months in advance… the popular Highlands routes of Scotland are probably best visited in shoulder season

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