GREAT DRIVES: Touring the Scottish Highlands in a BMW 3 Series Touring

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“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I …

“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”

Yes. You read that right. And now you have read just as much of Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ as I have. So, let’s stop now.

For the uninitiated, Outlander is a series of historical romance novels set in the Scottish Highlands. The books have more recently spawned at least three seasons of a TV series which is currently sweeping through loungerooms around the world.

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Now, I don’t want to stereotype fans of this content, I mean there’s action, violence, time travel, nudity, and kilts to pad out the historical romance, but let’s just put it out there that there may be a correlation between my wife’s obsession with this show and her ‘impromptu’ decision that we visit Scotland on our annual family holiday.

It is, after all, only a mere 10,000 miles away…

Scotland

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Tourism is a US$15bn cornerstone of the Scottish economy, and that figure is on the rise. In fact, Tourism Scotland has noted an almost 15 percent surge in international visitors between 2016 and 2017, citing the romantic series as a key driver.

It is helped in part that the content is essentially a stepping stone for more ‘mature’ Harry Potter fans, although in Outlander the only wand in use is under Jamie’s kilt…

Throw in the location of 007’s family home Skyfall, castles featured in Monty Python, Highlander and Braveheart, and of course that expansive world of witchcraft and wizardry from Hogwarts, and Scotland is a historical pop-culture extravaganza. And we haven’t even touched on golf trips!

Plus, what makes Scotland even better as a travel destination, is that it is best enjoyed from the ground as part of a touring holiday. So while my wife was scouting for shirtless, barrel-chested clansmen, my daughter and I could enjoy the stunning Highland landscape, with a bit of Loch Ness Monster hunting thrown in for good measure.

Getting there

Aside from our New Zealand compatriots to the east, no one has further to travel to Scotland than us Aussies. A direct flight from Melbourne to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh (via the Middle East) is a pretty painful 25-hour experience.

That said, it is still a fair hike for those of you on the west coast of North America, with direct flights only available from Chicago and major east-coast hubs. And even then, it is still a 7-8 hour jaunt in the air.

Alternatively, if you are already in Europe you can leverage the excellent train network and make your way to Scotland as we did, by driving north from London.

Our transport – BMW F31 320d xDrive M-Sport Touring

A number of rental firms including SixT and Avis, offer a selection from the BMW range, and so balancing a need for luggage space with a desire for driving enjoyment, we opted for a BMW F31 320d xDrive M-Sport Touring from Thrifty

It is not a bad trim for a hire car, and with the Mineral Grey paint and sole option addition of the Advanced Parking Package, would have retailed for just over £41,000 (US$53k) had it been a private purchase.

You know all that rhetoric you hear about cars being cheaper in Europe? Makes the equivalent 330i xDrive Touring available in North America for US$49k feel like a bit of a bargain now, huh?

It worked out to be about £68 per day for our seven-day hire (approx. A$125 / US$88) which is very comparable with rental car prices around the world, especially for a BMW!

Powered by a 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbo-diesel, with 190hp (142kW) on tap, the 320d might not scream ‘entertaining road trip car’, but the 50:50 weight distribution of the F31, and sub-2000rpm availability of a generous 295 ft-lb (400Nm) of torque, making it a balanced and responsive tourer.

More importantly, however, is the miserly fuel consumption claim of 67mpg (4.2L/100km) on a touring cycle. The Australian dollaridoo doesn’t travel as far in ‘ol Blighty as it used to, and at the equivalent of US$6 per gallon (A$2.15 per liter) for diesel, a Scottish driving holiday can become pretty expensive, pretty quickly!

London to Edinburgh – East coast
409 miles (658km)

Heading north from London, the 400-mile trip up the A1(M) is a great introduction to driving in the UK. It’s not what you’d call an exciting journey, but if you are new to the right-hand side of the car and need to get the basics of roundabouts, lorries and the fact the speed limit is largely ignored, then it’s a good way to start.

The drive should take you about 7-hours, so make sure the family has enough snacks and iPad charge to last the journey, or get ready for an extended game of eye-spy. A quick hint, ‘C’ is usually for ‘cow’.

For trivia buffs, the A1 passes by RAF Wittering, the air base known as being the home of the Harrier Jump Jet, and near to Rippon and the Yorkshire Dales, countryside familiar to fans of the Downton Abbey television series.

You can safely tick along about 10km/h above the posted limit and not fall victim to stationary speed cameras or police patrols. However, the general approach to speed in the UK is to drive to the conditions. Sunny day? Those policing the limits tend to relax a little. Sleeting rain and fog? Slow down and take care, as unsafe driving is not tolerated.

The road itself is a mixture of freeway and dual carriageway, with the last leg in Scotland down to a one-up one-down A-road. It’s an easy and picturesque drive though, and you’ll find plenty of places to stop and take a break, not least of which is the huge St Andrew’s cross Saltire flag to denote crossing the land border from England to Scotland.


Edinburgh to Inverness – East, and center
201 miles (323km) with the detour

There’s plenty to explore around the Scottish capital itself, but it is all best done on foot, or by using the efficient bus network. When you’ve had your fill of shortbread and haggis though, make the 170-mile run up to the Highland hub of Inverness.

On the way, golf fans can make a short detour to historic St Andrews on the east coast of the Fife Peninsula. The region here is largely rural, so get used to narrow B-roads with blind crests, surprise cattle grids and even more surprised cattle!

The balanced nature of the 3 Series is very much at home here too, the Touring flows easily through the winding curves, maintaining a solid pace along the sometimes-unpredictable roads. Complaints from the passengers are low too, and I can’t really take all the credit for that.

From Perth onto Inverness, I would suggest taking the route through the stunning Cairngorms National Park, rather than around the coast through Aberdeen.

The Cairngorms landscape is a mixture of barren mountains and pine forest and is simply spectacular. It feels almost Nordic, even in the summer, with some patches of snow still visible on the highest peaks.

To add another movie reference, and to help you picture the environment, the thrilling ‘plane-jack’ scene from The Dark Knight Returns was shot here. Bane approves.

The NC 500
Up to 516 miles – 336 miles as driven (541km)

Inverness makes an excellent base from which to explore the Highlands. Much of the plot of the Outlander series is based here too, so if you are still required to find a specific cobbled lane or ancient battlefield to placate any traveling fan, then this is your place.

For a stunning introduction to the region, and for some solid driving, you can hit the North Coast 500 (NC500), a 516-mile long touring route around the top of the British landmass.

The route, which may be best enjoyed over a couple of days, explores the variety of landscape Scotland has to offer and takes you through some wonderful roads that wind and twist and climb through the raw Scottish countryside.

Pass castles like the stunning Dunrobin on the east coast, hit the ‘end of the road’ in John o’ Groats then travel across the wild north and west coasts. From mountains to glens, crystal clear lochs to farmland that extends beyond the horizon, you’ll travel for miles without seeing another vehicle and can be forgiven at times, for thinking you are the only people left in the world.

It is truly a world-class drive and one where I regularly wished I could trade four-wheels for just two. That said, even in our little Touring, we spent most of the run around 130km/h, relaxed in eighth gear, sipping a very modest 6-liters every 100km (39mpg).

The roads aren’t wide, but visibility is largely good, so overtaking slower campervans or cyclists is an easy task. Just make sure to give them plenty of room, and always be mindful that in wet or cold weather (which is most of the time) you can come upon patches of standing water or ice with little warning.

Here’s a touring tip too, unless you are on a dual carriageway or motorway, keep the car in Sport mode. Fuel use difference when running at 100km/h+ is negligible, and it readies the car for response when you need to make a short-looking overtake opportunity even shorter.

The NC500 is something of a tartan Route-66, so there is a terrific website supporting the drive, listing places to eat, stay and stop along the way. Worth a read before you visit!

Loch Ness
157 miles (253km)

I mean, you are here, you just have to, right? Pull up on the side of the road, which traces the 23 mile (37km) long inland lake, and look for the infamous ‘monster’.

I’m not sure what, exactly, a monster looks like, but rest assured when traveling with a 9-year-old, any semi-submerged log, boat wake, shadow or even mild wave chop is almost certainly related to a prehistoric, long-necked, amphibious, camera-shy beast.

Fun fact, the loch is so deep (230m or 755ft) that it contains more water than all the fresh-water lakes in England and Wales combined! More than enough space to hide your average plesiosaur.

The road along the Loch is a densely forested run with the water on one side, and thick conifers on the other. The road is just two lanes wide, and although it closely follows the bank of the loch, winds gently through the countryside. It’s the main route to the south-west so can be rather busy, which makes overtaking a challenge. Best to just relax and enjoy your surrounds.

Midway along the drive is Urquhart Castle which is worth an explore, as is the town of Fort Augustus at the end of the Loch.

You can detour further west here to pass the beautiful Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct (on the shores of Loch Sheil), or loop back through ever-thinning B-Roads to explore the mountains and wind farms to the north or mountains and ‘actual’ farms to the south.


Isle of Skye
276 miles (444km)

If just one place can encapsulate the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, then the Isle of Skye on the far-west coast is at the top of the list.

This 639 square-mile (1700km2) lump of rock that sits between the Scottish mainland and Hebrides island chain is as close as you’ll get to visiting Middle Earth without making your way to New Zealand.

Again, there’s so much more here than a day or two will let you discover, but taking a drive across the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh will transport you to a fantasy land of lush green mountains, rock formations, and sheep. Lots of sheep.

From the main town of Portree, head up the east coast to ‘Old Man of Storr’ an otherworldly rock formation that welcomes keen hikers to scale its steep and craggy monoliths. The view from the top, or even halfway up, is stunning; especially on a rare clear day.

Continue north on the A855 and you can stop for a home-made burger at Kilt Rock before detouring inland to the Quiraing, another slab of impossibly impressive earth taken straight from the mind of Tolkien. Here, the road winds to the top plateau where you can park and hike to take in even more impressive views.

For a brief hiking respite, jump back in the car and continue north to loop around the top of the island. The dramatic mountains make way for pretty farmland, dotted with ancient ruins, as you kiss the coastline, and see the suitably named body of water ‘The Little Minch’ between Skye and the Outer Hebrides.

Don’t leave the Isle without a stop at Uig (pronounced ‘ooh-ig’) and the Fairy Glen either. You make a short detour, just after the pub, down the thinnest, windiest road on the island to a natural rock formation covered with lush, green grass. The beautiful little glen has been embraced by tourists who, with a desire to take this place full-fairy, have built gravity-defying rock towers and stone spirals.

It’s such a fantasy-land place that, yep you guessed it, the Glen has been used as a film location as well.

Complete your loop back to Portree to explore another realm of the Isle, or hit the back roads to Inverness for a slice of haggis and a well-deserved pint of something cold.


Inverness to Edinburgh – West center
200 miles (322km)

A visit to the Highlands would not be complete without seeing the Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond. From Inverness, you can wave goodbye to Nessie and head down the Loch to the literary home of 007, Glencoe.

Yet another staggeringly beautiful landscape, that while pretty on a clear summer’s day, is best seen under a moody fog, allowing the mountains to rise above the glen, seemingly out of nothingness.

The roads, barely marked and unencumbered by messy barriers and signposts, draw you deeper into the countryside, every corner presenting a vista more impressive than the last. I’m pretty sure, if not for the iDrive navigation constantly attempting to reroute us to Edinburgh, I would have kept going.

The Trossachs park is another playground for hikers, with plenty of trails and campsites to suit all levels of fitness and adventure. We were on the clock, so had only time for a short stroll near Strathyre, before making our way back to Edinburgh.

Fair to note too, that the region’s breed of highland cattle, called the ‘Hairy Coo’, is unquestionably the most handsome bovine you’ll ever snap a selfie with. Just make sure you let them cross the road in front of you…


Edinburgh to London – West
408 miles (657km)

By now, you’ll be such an old hand at driving in the UK, you’ll have a tan on your right arm (assuming you are there for the five-days of sunshine they have per annum…) so why not barrel down the M6 motorway back to London.

You can set the cruise to a sensible 130km/h and still be passed by barely road legal Ford Transit vans. Remember too that you are not allowed to ‘undertake’ vehicles on the motorway, so make sure you move left once you have passed someone.

It’s not a terrible route either, sure there will be some roadworks (the RTTI system in the BMW did a great job of keeping us informed about these) but the M6 snakes gracefully through the lake district of Northern England, making for some very pleasant scenery.

Returning to London, the 3 Series felt very much like a part of the family, albeit one with a nose caked in dead bugs, so it was almost sad to hand it back.

Touring in the Touring was both functional and enjoyable, our 1905 mile (3067km) loop done at an average of 5.9L/100km (39mpg) at 75km/h (47mph), the latter largely impacted by aforementioned roadworks on the M6, and a crawl around SOHO to find the hotel.

Regardless of your taste in pseudo-erotic historical romance time-travel fiction, whatever draws you to Scotland, the trip is most certainly worth it.

The Scottish Highlands is a wondrous place to experience, and I only wish we had more time. Great for driving (or riding), hiking and breathing in the fresh, empty air. Personally, I would love to revisit the area under a light dusting of snow, just to see the landscape change to a visibly different environment.

Now normally, I’d end on another quote from the Outlander book, just to tie it all together, but like I said, I only read that one sentence. So here’s a line from Highlander, which is the kind of pseudo-erotic historical romance time-travel fiction I can get behind.

“I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal.”

There. Much better.

Have you visited Scotland? Do you want to go? Are you a secret fan of Outlander?
Let us know in the comments below!

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