A spectacular new touring route links a string of historic sights, and takes in some of Scotland’s most heart-stirring scenery
Words: Helen Ochyra
Think Scotland, think ancient castles. Mountains too, of course, and perhaps an osprey wheeling above a Highland stream. Whisky probably comes to mind, along with golf, a side of leaping salmon, or maybe a glassy loch or thundering waterfall.
These things are quintessential Scotland, and all can be experienced on the recently launched Heart 200 touring route. This 200-mile road trip around the heart of Scotland runs in a loop from Stirling, out into Highland Perthshire, the Trossachs and as far north as the Cairngorms. It links Scotland’s two national parks and demands at least a week of your time to do it justice. Even then, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Start on a high in Stirling, touring the battlements and buildings of Stirling Castle and peering down over the city from a sheer-sided volcanic crag that has been fortified since the Iron Age. The castle has long guarded the lowest crossing point of the Forth river and it became the preferred residence of most of Scotland’s later medieval monarchs including James V, whose daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was crowned here in 1543. Tour the royal apartments, now returned to their mid-16th-century glory, see the vast fireplaces of the Great Hall and stroll through the Douglas Gardens, from which there are splendid Highland views.
Stirling’s strategic importance led to many a battle in the castle’s environs. By far the most famous is Bannockburn, commemorated in inimitable style at the Bannockburn Heritage Centre with an engaging 3D game. You’ll learn about weaponry and tactics before being cast as either English or Scottish to fight it out with your fellow visitors in a simulation of the 1314 battle. The fact that England almost always wins proves just how incredible a military strategist Robert the Bruce was.
From Stirling hit the route anti-clockwise, perhaps stopping at Gleneagles for a round of golf, or pausing for a stroll around Loch Leven, a freshwater loch home to hundreds of geese. You’ll cross the river Tay at Perth, Scotland’s ancient capital, and should make time for a half-day visit to Scone Palace. Far from a musty museum piece, the Georgian Gothic house is still very much a family home (for the Earl and Countess of Mansfield) and there’s
a fine collection of porcelain, carved ivories and antique furniture to discover.
Just 20 miles further north, Loch of the Lowes nature reserve is ideal for a short stroll. You can see red squirrels and deer here year-round but time your visit for sometime between April and August and you’re also in with a chance of spotting ospreys and beavers.
The northernmost part of the Heart 200 dips into the Cairngorms National Park, Britain’s largest. The Highland scenery here is breathtaking and there are several interesting wee stops along the route including Pitlochry dam, where you’ll find a fascinating museum on hydroelectricity and a salmon ladder, and Blair Atholl distillery, for a tour and tutored tasting of four whiskies including the Distillery Exclusive Bottling.
A few miles on is Killiecrankie, where you can spot woodpeckers and pine martens as you walk along the wooded river gorge and visit Soldier’s Leap, said to be where a redcoat leapt 18 feet across the River Garry to escape the Jacobites during the gory Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Take a look at that distance and make up your own mind about how true this story might be.
Fancy a spot of shopping? At the route’s northernmost point is the House of Bruar, Scotland’s leading country clothing specialist. Browse the merino and cashmere knitwear and don’t miss the food hall, which sells wonderful hampers stocked with the likes of smoked salmon and venison, Strathdon blue cheese and wild boar pâté.
It’s also worth making time for Blair Castle. Tours of this whitewashed and turreted ancient stronghold take in the Scottish baronial architecture and tell the story of the Atholl family over seven centuries. Highlights include the wood-panelled entrance hall and timber-roofed ballroom, while the surrounding parkland is ripe for a stroll, spotting Highland cattle, red squirrels and peacocks along the way.
Your next stop is south at the Queen’s View on Loch Tummel, one of Scotland’s finest viewpoints. You’ll gaze out along the water towards Schiehallion, a beautifully conical mountain popular with hikers, and can take a short walk through the unspoiled woodland.