This is the first in a new series here at Scotland Explained, covering some of the best scenic drives through the country. We’re starting with a doozy, the absolutely breathtaking route northwest from Glasgow to Oban.
Vacation time can be a strange blend of relaxing and busy. On one hand, this is your time away from work and the tyranny of the desk. But when we have limited time in a new foreign place, we also want to do and see as much as we can in that time, as if we have to prove to ourselves that we did enough to make the vacation worthwhile. A side trip like this can be hard to fit into a tight vacation time budget, but I’m going to do my best to convince you it’s more than worthwhile.
A few things set this particular trip apart. Maybe most importantly, the drive to Oban is a microcosm of the larger country. You start in the biggest and most modern city Scotland has to offer, drive along some of the most beautiful of the country’s lochs, through one of her greatest national parks, and out to the coast, to a town known for producing that most Scottish of goods, whisky. There might be no better way to see so many of the things that make Scotland so great in such a short time.
Google Maps and other automated sites will tell you this drive is 97 miles, and that you can expect it to take about two and a half hours. Don’t believe that for a second. Give yourself at least three and a half hours, because you are going to want to stop at least once and probably more on this stunning drive. Between that and getting to actually spend some time in your destination town of Oban, I really recommend making this an overnight trip.
Take the M8 west out of Glasgow, about 12 miles until you hit the M898. That becomes the A898, which turns north and crosses the River Clyde. At Old Kilpatrick, you’ll exit onto the Great Northern Road (A82), and that’s where things start to get really interesting. The Great Northern takes you first past Dumbarton, one of the oldest and most historically important castle towns in Scotland. Dumbarton really deserves its own trip, but if you’re not going to do both on this vacation, I’d recommend taking an early detour and at least getting a glimpse of Dumbarton Castle. But don’t stay long, because the best views of the trip are still ahead of you.
The Great Northern Road continues north, and after passing through the town of Alexandria, you’ll enter Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. This is the fourth largest park in Britain, one of only two national parks in Scotland. Almost immediately after entering the park, your view to the right will be filled with Loch Lomond itself.
Lomond is the largest of Scotland’s lochs and in fact the largest body of inland water in Britain. At its longest point, it is 39 km (24 miles) long, and you will drive alongside it for pretty much all of that. First, you’ll see the islands that fill the southern half of the loch, including the wonderfully named Inchtavannach (“Island of the Monk’s House”). Then, as Lomond narrows, you’ll see the Rowardennan Forest on the eastern bank, before, if you’re lucky and the weather is clear, the peak of Ben Lomond will show itself. For foreigners used to the Rocky Mountains or Alps, Ben Lomond won’t impress with its height, but it adds another dimension to the flat beauty of the loch. Once the mountain disappears behind you, the loch will continue to narrow until it looks like no more than a river.
Not long after departing the shores of the loch, you’ll come to the town of Crianlarich. The town may be tiny, with only about 200 residents, but it has always been an important crossroads in Scotland. These days, it marks the meeting of the A82 and A85 highways. If you took the A85 east here, it would eventually take you to Perth, but you’ll be staying on the Great Northern, and heading west.
The next highlight on your left will be Ben Lui (“Hill of the Calf”), slightly taller than Ben Lomond. You’ll then get a chance to take in the trip’s second loch as you pass between the shore of the well-named Loch Awe to the south and another mountain, Ben Cruachan (“Mountain of Peaks”) to the north.
Just before turning south to approach Oban, the road gives you one more look at inland water, as it touches the shores of Loch Etive. You’ll pass another tempting distraction, Dunnstaffnage Castle, before finally reaching your destination, Oban. If you have time, the castle is a short side trip and certainly worthy of a peek.
Now maybe you see why I wouldn’t recommend hurrying this trip into a measly two and a half hours.
If you have time and prefer coastline to mountains, there is a longer route through Inveraray that will take most drivers at least four hours. I’d recommend taking this one if you are going to continue on from Oban eastward to Stirling, because you won’t have to backtrack and cover the same road twice:
This route is part of a four-day itinerary from Glasgow that I recently designed, taking travelers from Glasgow to Oban, then up to Fort William and back southeast to Stirling before returning to the big city.
Once in Oban, the main attraction is the famous Oban distillery, maker of one of the finest single malt whiskys in the country. Oban is also a ferry town, gateway to the western isles of Mull and Coll, and even, if you’re really looking to get out there, to the Outer Hebrides. Whatever your plans, be sure to have a good meal in town, as Oban boasts some of Scotland’s finest seafood. If you’re not moving on further, stay at least a night in Oban before returning to Glasgow. You owe it to yourself to see the sun set over the open water before letting civilization back in. A few recommended hotels:
If you need any help planning this or any other side trip from Glasgow, please get in touch. I’d love to help you research your trip.