|Via:||Balfron Station, Port of Menteith|
|Distance:||35 miles (56.3 km)|
|Meets:||A82, A804, B808, A739, A809, B8049, A808, B8030, A807, A891, B821, A875, B834, A811, B835, A821, B8034, A873, B822, A84|
|Route outline (key)|
Take out a map of Glasgow, and focusing on the city centre you will find the origin of two of the A8x routes. The A81 and the A82 have similar numbers, and start in very similar locations, but have very different fates – reflected well in their length, status and importance in the road network. While the A82 stretches all the way to the Highlands, taking in most of the west of Scotland on the way, the A81 was offered no such prize. At a mere 30+ miles, it ranks lowly amongst important roads in Scotland. Still, it has a lot to offer to commuter and tourist alike.
Section 1: Glasgow city centre – Canniesburn Toll
The A81 begins life, like many a Glaswegian city centre road, directly underneath the M8. However, unlike the A804, A879, A82 and A814 in the immediate area, which all get their own connections to the motorway (much to the derision of anyone on the M8 trying to go straight through), the A81 is offered no such luxury. To go from the M8 to the A81, westbound one leaves at Junction 16 and follows a hundred yards or so of A804. Eastbound, leaving at Junction 18 and following the same road is necessary.
But onto the road itself, which starts at a junction with the A804 underneath the elevated motorway. The junction is a traffic-light controlled roundabout in appearance, but doesn't have any of the typical roundabout signage. Garscube Road picks up the route, and it's off we go. A nice wide road (for an area this populated at least) pans northwest, flanking the old Monklands Canal just to the west of Firhill Stadium (Partick Thistle F.C.) and its first major junction, a merge with Maryhill Road at traffic lights. Maryhill Road wins the day, and the road soon junctions Queen Margaret Drive and a busy urban B road, the B808, aside Ruchill Park at a monstrous traffic-light complex. Very urban in character, the road continues past a large Tesco and the high stone walls of the former Maryhill Barracks, now Wyndford housing estate, then some smaller shops, before narrowing to fit under an old low arched aqueduct carrying the Forth and Clyde Canal - there is barely enough space for two lanes of road through here, whereas up to now it has had that plus ample parking room and pavement. Restored to its original width, the road continues, to split the West of Scotland Science Park then cross the River Kelvin at Killermont Bridge. It then approaches the roundabout-like tangle at Canniesburn Toll. (My memories of this area span back to my childhood and catching the ASDA bus up to the Toll.) From here, you can take the A739 back south if you like hills (Switchback Road living up to its name) or the A809. To continue on the A81, bear right, avoiding the main complex of the Toll.
Section 2: Canniesburn Toll – Callander
Milngavie Road is our new name as we coast through the eastern suburbs of Bearsden, an upmarket Glasgow commuter town/suburb. The A808 marks the course of the Antonine Wall and we fittingly junction with Roman Road here. Milngavie begins as soon as Bearsden ends, and we're on Main Street on a roundabout into the centre of the town very soon after. The A807 leaves eastwards here, and marks a northern boundary for Glasgow. The pronunciation of the name Milngavie is a point of contention: the silent V is a relic of its transliteration from the Gaelic 'bh'. It may well be pronounced Mullguy, but arguably more properly Millguy. If the drive has drained you too much to this point, you can park here and set off on the walkers' West Highland Way.
At last, the A81 shakes off the urban sprawl and the views improve on the way out to Mugdock. The rural single carriageway rolls gently into Strathblane, and with it a T-junction at the A891. Kilearn is bypassed to the west a few miles later as it always has been (the A875, for which one exits a mile before the town, is the route for the centre) before the road meanders across the Endrick Water up to the boundary of the Trossachs – the A811 Alexandria to Stirling road. There are a couple of hundred yards of multiplex. Once the A811 leaves to the east, trees, lochs and a few side roads will be your company until the end. Soon, Aberfoyle will be upon us, a Trossachs tourist trap, ambitiously signposted from both the M8 and A739 in Glasgow.
This perceived importance of Aberfoyle in the Scottish road network, as described above, is amazing considering the small amount of traffic that must travel that distance. Secondly, and even worse, the A81 doesn't go there anyway; just outside it the road TOTSOs right – for Aberfoyle town centre, follow straight on to the A821! Aberfoyle aside (literally), from here to the end, the A81 plods a lonely, snaking course. Out to the Lake of Menteith (yes, lake, not loch), and the indignity of another totso on an Axxx route - this time the A873. North is our direction now once more, still deep in the Trossachs. Look east for a beautiful view of Loch Rusky, and the road continues to swing and sway to the line of least resistance through the forest. Finally, we straighten, due east headed for the bank of the River Teith. A plunge is averted when the road corners north to follow the course of the river, waiting to bridge it until the last moment at Callander Bridge before ending on the northern skirts of the Trossachs at Callander on the A84.