Elsewhere you’ll read about the lochs and the scenery, the stargazing and the whisky distilleries. You might even see a word or two about the skiing.
For us, though, the reasons for visiting Scotland begin and end with its roads, because no other part of the UK gets even close as a destination for keen drivers. What you’ll find north of Hadrian’s Wall that you don’t get in Wales, Yorkshire or the Peak District – all of which offer excellent roads and very pretty backdrops – are bucket list drives. For the sort of route that you drive once and remember for the rest of your life, you simply have to head to Scotland.
This is the right time of year to plan a visit to one of its routes as well, because the weather is improving and the clocks are going forward, meaning the evenings are lighter. The one you’ll have heard about before is the North Coast 500, an utterly spellbinding loop that begins in Inverness and wraps itself around this country’s northern tip. It’s beautiful, quiet, varied and, unless you happen to live in the north of Scotland, very far away. You won’t do the North Coast 500 justice unless you give it an entire working week. But there is a similar route that’s both shorter in length and closer to the border with England, that gives away only a little in terms of scenery and nothing at all in terms of the quality of its roads, and that demands from you only half the time. It’s called the South West Coastal 300.
It’s a new initiative by Visit South West Scotland, intended to drive tourism to Scotland’s left foot the way the North Coast 500 has for its forehead. Broadly speaking, it’s a lap of Dumfries and Galloway with a quick peek at Ayrshire, sticking for much of its length to the Irish Sea coast. The route itself is a little over 300 miles long, and whether you’re coming from the north or the south, you’ll want to fill up your fuel tank and stock up on sandwiches at the start line in Dumfries town itself.
The car I’ve chosen for my first run around the SWC300 is the Hyundai i30 Fastback N, partly because it’s new and intriguing, but also because a good hot hatch can be as fun to drive along a great road as anything costing 10 times the price. The Fastback version, with its quasi-coupé profile, should be just the ticket for this journey (which actually began for me not in Dumfries but all the way down in west London), because although it shares its mechanicals with the regular i30N Performance, its chassis has been retuned with half an eye on comfort. On the long schlep up the M6, the car was relaxing, its ride a touch more settled than that of the model with which it shares its underpinnings.
I haven’t driven the route before but I’m familiar with some of the roads in the area, although not the A710 that darts due south out of Dumfries towards Southerness on the coast. It’s a long way from being deserted, but threading its way through low-lying hills past hedgerows and drystone walls, it is pretty good to drive. It’s an opportunity to get a feel for the i30 Fastback N on something other than a multi-lane highway and a chance to wake myself up from the dulling effects of a long motorway drive.
When the A710 reaches the coast, you snatch fleeting glimpses of the muddy Solway Firth and the tall peaks of the Lake District beyond it. The road soon turns inland but, at Dalbeattie, you pick up the A711 that sends you immediately back towards the coastline along a road that feels quieter and more remote. The Hyundai has so many possible drive mode configurations that you could own the car for an entire lifetime and never cycle through all of them. Within the N Custom mode, you can set parameters for throttle response, engine sound, damper stiffness, steering weight, ESC intervention and even how aggressive you want the electronic limited-slip differential to be. But for now, I’m just switching between Normal when I reach a town and Sport when I leave it.
The car is quick, grippy and secure. It’s competent, but almost oppressively so. As I roll into Kirkcudbright, I’m left wondering where the drama is; where the excitement might come from. The SWC300 soon picks up the A75, which trudges along with commuter traffic and artics on their way to west Scotland’s busy ports. I sit in convoy with them for a short while but, just before reaching Newton Stewart, I decide to deviate from the route for the first time, turning right onto the A712. I know from a couple of days spent up here three years ago that this road is one of the very best in all of Scotland and therefore the entire British Isles, and that driving right past one end of it would be a terrible waste, like walking up to the front door of the Sistine Chapel but not bothering to peek inside. It spears into the heart of the Galloway Forest Park, a 300-square-mile reserve that’s about as beautiful as any part of Scotland outside of the Highlands.
It draws visitors at night for its unpolluted view of the stars (the area is the UK’s sole ‘dark sky park’, one of only four in the western world, owing to its remoteness), but during the day, I can think of nothing better to do within it than drive back and forth along the A712. At points, it jinks and flicks like a Corsican rally stage, and at others, it flows and sweeps gracefully. The surface is mostly pretty smooth and the road is blissfully quiet.
The i30 Fastback N is a transparent car when driven at pace, so you’re never left guessing where its limits are. But it feels a lot like the i30 N hatch; so pigheadedly sure-footed and stable at the limit that you’d have to be blindfolded to misjudge a corner. Mostly, that’s a good thing but it also means the Hyundai offers only a little of the challenge and reward of the most thrilling hot hatches.
The 271bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre engine is strong and effective but, like the chassis, it seems to lack a little sparkle. At the choppy Clatteringshaws loch, I turn around and run the road in the other direction, eventually picking up the SWC300 once more.
My plan for the evening had been to make it to the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse on the southern tip of the Rhins of Galloway, a hammer-head peninsula draped in arable fields, in time for sunset, but with cloudy skies obscuring a weak sun, there’s not even a hint of colour overhead. So instead, I turn in for the night at my hotel in Portpatrick.
It’s not until the next morning, which dawns bright and sunny, that I realise how pretty this old fishing village is. I don’t stay long, though, choosing instead to dash over to Stranraer and pick up the SWC300. Like the A75 before it, the A77 is a busy arterial route, so I settle into a cruise and watch the scenery morph around us. Once out of Stranraer, the road climbs up above the Irish Sea, which crashes into whiteness on the rocks out to your left. There are moments when the A77 looks a little like the Pacific Coast Highway, albeit greyer and chillier, with a whiff of battered food in the air and far fewer rented Ford Mustang convertibles.
It’s at Ayr that the SWC300 turns inland to find its way back to its starting point. The roads soon become as brilliant as you’ll find anywhere, sometimes twisting beneath overhanging trees, at other times roaring across wide open farmland and occasionally arcing through high-sided valleys covered in rusty bracken. The sections either side of Wanlockhead, Scotland’s highest village, are a delight to drive, challenging, rewarding and picturesque in equal measure.
On these final stretches, I press the Hyundai’s N button for the first time. In the i30 N hatch, this would make the suspension so unbearably stiff that you’d try it once and never again, but in the Fastback it’s actually usable on the road, or at least on the smoother sections. It’s firm and tough, but whereas the i30 N hatch threatens to bounce you into a nearby field in that mode, the Fastback never does. The exhaust suddenly finds its voice and the steering becomes more incisive, the limited-slip diff tugging you more forcefully out of corners. In N mode, the car comes to life and feels far more energetic than it ever does in its Sport setting.
Nonetheless, in terms of sheer excitement along a rollicking B-road, the Hyundai still gives something away to rivals from Renault and Honda. It remains belligerently locked down, rather than being in any way adjustable or playful. But for the entire journey, the full 1000-mile loop from London and back again? I’m not sure I could have expected much more from a £30,000 hot hatch.
Inevitably, though, it’s the route that steals the show. It doesn’t have the majesty of the North Coast 500 and its scenery isn’t quite as awe-inspiring. But its roads are just as good to drive and you can do the whole thing with a single overnight stay, like I did. The South West Coastal 300 shouldn’t only be on your bucket list: it should be ticked off it as well.