After being launched in 2015 the North Coast 500 was already getting busier– but lockdown sent its popularity stratospheric. Two summers of major uncertainty surrounding foreign travel has seen droves of tourists take on the 500-mile road trip around the northernmost part of the Scottish mainland, with the dramatic scenery and unspoilt beaches making visitors feel that they might have left the country altogether. Yet this increased popularity has come at a cost, namely gridlocked traffic, fully-booked (not to mention expensive) accommodation and beauty spots that are covered in litter. With that in mind, why not try out some of Scotland’s other, lesser-known road trips? They’ve got all of the scenery but less of the pesky tourists…
North East 250
It was launched in 2017 -two years after the North Coast 500- but the North East 250 hasn’t quite taken off in the same way. Yet that’s good news for visitors, who won’t have to contend with gridlocked roads and packed beauty spots on this lovely circular route round Moray, Speyside and Aberdeenshire. It’s more easily accessible from the central belt, too, with the Glenshee starting point approximately two hours’ drive from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. From there, you can begin the 250-mile trip by heading north towards Dufftown and Buckie, or east towards Banchory and the Aberdeenshire coast. Travelling through Speyside inevitably brings plenty of opportunities to sample some of the world’s most highly-regarded whisky, including the Macallan, Tomitoul, the Glenlivet, Strathisla, Glenfarclas and more (just make sure and ask for a driver’s kit to take the drams away with you).
Next comes the Moray coast, where you’ll be spoiled for choice with beaches, clifftops and wildlife, not to mention the picturesque village of Pennan that played a starring role in Local Hero. The route then meanders down the coast from Fraserburgh to Aberdeen and then back towards Ballater, a section with great appeal to history buffs. You can tick off Slains Castle, Crathes Castle, Braemar Castle and the royal residence of Balmoral Castle, which opens its grounds to the public from April 1st until August 2nd. There is also an array of things to see and do within the Cairngorms National Park -which the route passes through- including wild swimming, Munro bagging and mountain biking, to name but a few.
South West Coastal 300
Most tourists in Scotland, whether domestic or international, tend to head to the north of the country, in search of the dramatic scenery of the Highlands and Islands. But if you are looking to escape the crowds, you would do well to try out a 300-mile circular driving route round Scotland’s southernmost corner. Named the South West Coastal 300, this route was devised by Motorcycle Scotland and adapted by the local tourism board to take in more attractions, receiving funding from Visit Scotland at the start of 2020. It meanders down the south-west coastline from Ayr to Stranraer and Portpatrick, before heading along the Solway Firth through Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Castle Douglas, going inland to Dumfries, up to Abington and then back through East Ayrshire to the start point.
Highlights include Culzean Castle, the spectacular cliffs of the Mull of Galloway, St Ninian’s Cave, Southerness Lighthouse (and beach), Caerlaverock Castle and the otherworldly Crawick Multiverse. Outdoorsy types will also want to visit Galloway Forest Park, home to two renowned mountain bike centres, as well as the lovely Loch Doon which offers picturesque hill walking opportunities including five Corbetts (hills above 2,500 feet). There’s even an opportunity to ride a famous Clydesdale horse down Ayr Beach.
Following a 200-mile route through the ‘heart’ of Scotland, Heart 200 aims to showcase the very best of Perthshire, Stirlingshire and the Trossachs. Most tourists begin at Stirling, where you can attempt the route in a clockwise direction by heading for Doune, Callander and Aberfoyle. This area in itself has an array of lovely walks -Loch Venechar and the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park among the highlights- as well as cosy cafes and country pubs. From there the route goes north towards Strathyre, Lochearnhead and Killin, cutting through some of the most scenic parts of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Killin is a charming village which boasts the popular Falls of Dochart -as well as several pubs and restaurants- but it also provides a springboard to explore the wild landscapes beyond and climb several Munros near Ben Lawers. The Heart 200 then follows the A827 to the picture-perfect village of Aberfeldy, home to the ethereal Birks of Aberfeldy, before going further north to Blair Atholl.
There’s an equally lovely waterfall to explore here, the Falls of Bruar, which were immortalised in poetry by Robert Burns, as well as the House of Bruar department store if you fancy some shopping. The route then goes back south to Pitlochry and Dunkeld, two villages that are perennially popular with tourists due to their postcard-perfect appearance and excellent selection of independent businesses. You’ll then head to the city of Perth, with no shortage of things to see and do, then down to Kinross and the delightful Loch Leven. This national nature reserve is a bird-watchers paradise and has a great family-friendly cycle route for anyone travelling with kids. The final stretch of the route heads west towards Auchterarder, Gleneagles and Crieff, before turning back towards Stirling via Dunblane.
If the thought of driving for hours on end doesn’t really appeal, then the Kintyre 66 could be for you. It follows a 66-mile loop around the Kintrye peninsula -famously treasured by Paul McCartney- with a ferry trip over to the island of Gigha included in the route. Given its relatively short length you could do it in as little as a day, but this lesser-visited part of the country has a wealth of great places to stay, eat and drink if you want to make a trip out of it.
Simply follow the A83 on the west side and B842 on the east, travelling in whichever direction you fancy, while stopping off at the wonderful beaches and attractions along the way. Highlights include Achamore Gardens in Gigha, the Ballochroy Standing Stones, Dunaverty Rock, St Columba’s Footprints and Keil Caves and Westport Beach in Machrihanish.