Traversing Schiehallion, Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion.

Reach the summit on a summer evening, and you’ll be enchanted by views of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch stretching out towards the vast blanket of Rannoch Moor in the gloaming. Descending through the dusk you’ll catch mysterious sounds reverberating across the hillside: secret whisperings of the wee folk, or magical drumming snipe and roding woodcock?

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The first glimpse of Schiehallion appearing through the trees on the road from Loch Rannoch.

Planning my route

I was taking part in the 2019 TGO Challenge, a coast-to-coast crossing of Scotland on foot, and wanted to include a few mountains on my route from west to east. As it happened, dropping a few planning pins into my ViewRanger map put one close to the peak. After a few days of low-level walking, I reckoned I’d be limber enough to take on the mountain and make a west-to-east traverse of Schiehallion.

From the east and west the peak looks like a perfect pyramid; from north and south, a long whaleback ridge with a more gentle rise to the top. It stands in isolation, easily picked out on the skyline ahead of me as I left Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor.

Schiehallion Traverse

  • Start Point: East Tempar Farm*
  • Finish Point: Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 10km
  • Hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

*Note: There is nowhere to leave a vehicle at East Tempar. Parking is available at Braes of Foss carpark (approx. 7km on the road) or in Kinloch Rannoch (approx. 3.5km on the road). I walked along the road from Kilvrecht Campsite, approximately 9km.

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Go slow, baby lambs. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Sign on the roadside at East Tempar.

The glorious May weather had stayed another day, so despite not being in any particular rush to get underway, I’d been up since 6am with the sunshine, packed my tent (shaking off drifts of tree pollen that had accumulated through the previous evening), loaded up with drinking water, and hit the road to get to my starting point for 9am. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

From East Tempar Farm a hill track rises gently through sheep pasture, gaining around 350m in a little over two and a half kilometres, to the base of the towering west flank of the mountain. The track continues on to the tumbledown shielings at the col at the head of Gleann Mor, the dale between Schiehallion and the Can Mairg hills to the south.

Gleann Mor is reputedly just as magical as the mountain that looms above. According to legend, the fairies of Schiehallion make their home in Uamh Tom a’Mhor-fhir, a cave in the upper reaches of the glen, and the doors leading into Elfhame (fairyland) marked by tussocks of white heather.

There might be little real evidence of fairies on Schiehallion, but the region wears its history close to the surface. Old shielings are a reminder of the traditional cattle grazing way of life in highland glens, and traces of hut circles and ancient cup-and-ring marked rocks a connection to a more distant and mysterious past.

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Hillside haggis tracks in the heather.

My route led upwards, over rough ground cut only by deer tracks contouring the slope. I snapped a couple of quick pictures, along with some of some grouse droppings, to perpetuate the haggis myth with which we were teasing my French and Romanian crewmates. Haggis is “…un cochon d’Inde écossais indigène. C’est vrai.” True fact.

There wasn’t a breath of wind when I reached the first boulder field, a patch of fractured quartzite exposed amongst the heather tussocks and spongy lichens. Higher above, the first false summit of my climb marked the point where the vegetation began to yield to the rock, with just sparse turf between the boulders.

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The summit. Or is it?

The Schiehallion Experiment

The splendid isolation and arresting symmetry of Schiehallion caught the attention of the Royal Society as a place to observe the “attraction of mountains”. In the summer of 1774, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskylene and surveyor and mathematician Charles Hutton gathered data on the tiny deflection of a pendulum against the position of the stars, revealing the gravitational pull of the mountain.

Between astronomical observations and a survey of Schiehallion’s shape and composition, the experiment provided evidence of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and of the density and shape of the entire planet. During the development of the experiment, Hutton pioneered the concept of contour lines to show relief in cartography, helping me greatly with my TGO challenge route planning.

The Schiehallion experiment is commemorated by a plaque at Braes of Foss, and the eagle-eyed can spot the footprints of Maskylene’s parallel observatories on the north and south flanks of the mountain.

The Summit

Into the boulder field proper, the true summit rose up behind the last false peak, identifiable this time by the small gathering of people on the rocky outcrop. Tucked into hollows on the northern side of boulders were tiny patches of snow, none larger than my backpack, holding on in the 20°C heat. I scrambled up the last six or seven metres to the top, and turned to take in the view that had been at my back during the climb.

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From the summit, I could see across the Tay Forest and Loch Tummel to the Beinn a’Ghlo in the east, south to Ben Lawers, and north to Ben Alder. But the view to the west was the best. The eye skims along the shining surface of Loch Rannoch into a golden-blue haze over Rannoch Moor. On the edge of visibility, I could just make out the Black Mount and Glencoe, where two days ago I’d caught my first glimpse of this peak.

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I took a long break to rehydrate, and devoured a packet of Tuc sandwich biscuits that were by now mostly cheese-flavoured dust. This won me the friendship of a springer spaniel called Saoirse, waiting with her dog-dad for the rest of the family to join them at the top. I hunted around and found the spiral carving in the rock. More likely a modern addition than ancient art, but still a reminder that for many the mountains are spiritual spaces.

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Descent

The route across the boulder field was indistinct, but the following the ridge easterly with the natural compass of the sun was moving in the right direction. Skipping over the loose rock in the boulder field for a couple of kilometres, trying unsuccessfully to pick my way along Saoirse’s chosen route, I found a worn track and reached the top of the path. The way down was much simpler than the way up, dropping down the flank of the mountain on a well-surfaced route.

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I reached the carpark at Braes of Foss in mid-afternoon, glad to be able to refill my water supply and find a spot of shade for a cuppa and spoonful of peanut butter. It had been another long, draining hike in the sun. I still had another few kilometres to go to reach the end of my planned route for the day, to the access road for Foss mine, where I was to meet my lift.

On the way round the road, I decided that the TGO Challenge could wait for another day, and rescheduled my rest day for the next morning. I’d take the chance to buy some sunblock, and just enjoy the shade for a while. It was a real treat to get into Pitlochry that evening, pick up a takeaway and some cold beers, and sit in the garden of my friend’s house celebrating reaching half-way across Scotland on the top of that magical mountain.

Schiehallion East Path

  • Start / Finish Point: Braes of Foss carpark (£2/full day)
  • Distance: 10km return
  • Hiking time: Usually between 3 and 4 hours (depending on how long you enjoy the view for!)
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Map: OS Explorer OL49

Most hikers visiting Schiehallion follow a different route to the one I took, starting and finishing in the carpark at Braes of Foss, and following the East Schiehallion path. In a rare case of mountain rescue, where the mountain itself was the casualty, the path was constructed by the John Muir Trust to manage erosion and protect delicate vegetation on the lower slopes of the mountain. Find a route map on my ViewRanger.

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A plaque commemorating the Schiehallion Experiment by Nevil Maskylene and Charles Hutton at Braes of Foss, with the mountain behind.

The route is clear and obvious, though there is no waymarking, tackling the east ridge of the mountain in zigzags that avoid expanses of bog but still gives hikers glimpses of wildflowers and bog plants. The area is also home to wildlife like red deer, black grouse, and ptarmigan.

After around 3.5km the path reaches the boulder field on the top of the ridge.  Here the route is undefined to the summit, crossing loose rocks and scree, so care and attention to navigation is needed over the final 2km, especially if visibility is reduced.

Incredibly, thanks to an initiative by the FieldFare Trust, the first third of the route has been approved as wheelchair-friendly, with the remainder of the route to the summit deemed accessible at an individual’s discretion, making Schiehallion the first wheelchair-accessible Munro in Scotland.

Descend by retracing your steps to the boulder field to the path, and return to the carpark.

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Starting to feel the power of the sun. Walking in the mountains needs preparation for all weather conditions.

What to wear for hiking in Scotland

Though the warm, windless conditions on the day of my hike suited shorts and a t-shirt, that’s not what I would usually recommend for a day in the Scottish mountains. The best clothes for hiking are thin, quick-drying layers, and well-fitting, supportive boots.

The temperature can be quite different once you reach the summit, and a good rule of thumb for planning is that for every 300 metres (1,000′) it will be around 2°C colder. On a windy day, this will feel even more.

Walking trousers are robust but breathable, and usually have good pockets for gadgets and snacks. Shorts will normally be ok in fine weather, but if you’re going to venture off the beaten path and bash through the heather it can be uncomfortable. Gaiters will help protect your trousers and keep them dry and clean. They also double up as a dry mat for sitting on the ground when you stop for breaks.

A waterproof jacket and pair of trousers are always a good idea in Scotland. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, conditions can be unpredictable, and a waterproof layer can break the chill of the wind.

A fleece or light sweater will keep your core temperature toasty when you reach the top. A warm hat, buff and pair of gloves will be useful in most conditions, but don’t underestimate the sun. There’s no opportunity to escape into the shade on most Scottish mountains. A broad-brimmed hat and something covering your shoulders could be important in summer to prevent heat exhaustion.

What other equipment will you need?

  • A backpack to carry your gear (with a waterproof cover)
  • A map and compass (and GPS)
  • Walking poles – optional
  • A good supply of water and snacks.

Tips for solo hiking

  • Be prepared for the hike with the right clothing and equipment.
  • Plan your hike in advance, and work out the time you will need, factoring in breaks on the way.
  • Always take a map and compass, and know how to use them. Even if you use a GPS.
  • Tell someone where you are hiking, and remember to let them know once you’re back safe.
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Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

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Western Yar Estuary

  • Route length: 7km (4.5 miles) circular route, with the possibility of an extension to make 11km (7 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Yarmouth

The Western Yar is a snapshot of the geological past of southern England, a remnant of a much larger river rising from the chalk downland that once stretched from the Needles, at the tip of the Isle of Wight, all the way to Old Harry Rocks on the Dorset coast.  Now, a small stream quickly becomes a vast tidal estuary, edged with mudflats and saltmarshes that support hundreds of waders and wildfowl.

Find details of this circular walk from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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The riverside path from the harbour passes the old mill and joins the old railway line that once linked Freshwater and Yarmouth to Newport.  Listen for the whistles and whoops of teal and wigeon, and the piping calls of oystercatchers from the estuary mud.  The walking is pleasant and easy, with small birds flitting between the hedgerows lining the trail.  The copse further on is a good spot to look for red squirrels scampering overhead.

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The walk can be extended from the Causeway towards the narrow ridge of chalk downs, and the coast known as the Back of the Wight.  A short distance on footpaths and minor roads takes you past Afton Marsh Nature Reserve towards the golf course.  To your left, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Old Military Road, with the crumbling coastline below, and to your right, it dips down to Freshwater Bay before rising sharply toward Tennyson Down.

Rather than retrace your footsteps, a winding path leads down the side of some houses, alongside the early stages of the river Yar, passing through thick reedbeds back to the Causeway crossroads.

From the Causeway, turn left and find the footpath that runs between the Red Lion pub and All Saints Church.  The path leads northwards, away from the edge of the estuary, across rolling farmland and through the woods.  Look out for views across the Solent to the New Forest as you leave the woodland behind.

Cross the swing bridge and finish the walk back in Yarmouth by the harbour.  Pop into PO41, one of my favourite spots on the island for coffee and home-made cake to finish the day.

Newtown Creek

  • Route length: 5km (3 miles)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Start / Finish: Newtown National Trust Visitor Centre

One of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Isle of Wight, Newtown was once a thriving medieval port, the most important on the island, with a bustling saltworks and several streets of houses.  But after centuries of ebb and flow, Newtown Creek is now a quiet backwater that, in winter, bustles only with birdlife.  In the 1960s plans to locate a nuclear power station here were protested by the local community, and led to the creation of Newtown Harbour National Nature Reserve.

Find details of this walk around the Isle of Wight’s finest nature reserve, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From the National Trust carpark, cross a minor road and follow the route of the medieval street eastwards.  The track opens out into a beautiful area of pasture, with several ancient oak trees (and the entrance to the Upside Down), which is grazed by heritage cattle at certain times of the year.

Leave the field at the far side, turn right then follow the road for around 200m to enter Walter’s Copse, a pocket-sized wood with both ancient woodland and rotational coppice management, that edges onto the saltmarsh of the creek.  Follow the trail through the wood and back to the road.  Turn left, then right, to retrace your route to the Visitor Centre.

Continue on the road past the church, then take the track at Marsh Farm to reach the Mercia Seabrook hide.  National Trust volunteers will open the hide on selected days during the winter, and lead guided walks to show visitors the spectacular winter birdlife; look for hundreds of golden plovers, diminutive dunlins, and a variety of ducks.  Grey seals often lounge on the shingle spit on the far side of the creek.

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Cross the field to reach the wooden boardwalk leading to the old boathouse, which has views across the creek and out to the Solent beyond.  A path leads around the edge of the historic salt pools, and back to the hedgerow-lined meadow.  On a crisp winter morning, with the purring sound of brent geese filling the air, it’s a pretty magical place to visit.

Brading Marshes and Bembridge Mill

  • Route length: 10km (6.2 miles)
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Start / Finish: Brading

Brading was once a busy fishing port, and the coastal village of Bembridge, just a couple of small farms on an isolated peninsula.  Land reclamation along the estuary of the Eastern Yar* over 120 years ago moved the coastline downstream several miles, creating a sheltered haven between Bembridge and St Helens.

Find details of this walk at one of the best birding sites on the Isle of Wight, including a route map, on my ViewRanger.

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From Brading, follow the road towards the RSPB reserve, then bear left onto Laundry Lane.  This raised track looks over into marshes and scrapes that fill with waders and wildfowl through the winter.  At the end of the lane, bear right on the edge of the main road into St Helens village.

Head downhill from St Helens village green to the embankment, then bear right onto the footpath through the edge of the RSPB reserve.  The trail runs alongside a series of saline lagoons, attracting shorebirds seeking refuge over the high tide in the harbour.

From the Tollgate, which has great views across the harbour to the area of sand dunes known as the Duver, follow the road up through the pretty village of Bembridge.  Take the road on the right after the church and the library, leading out of the village towards Bembridge Mill.

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Picturesque Bembridge Mill is the only surviving windmill on the island, falling out of use in the early 20th century and used as a Home Guard lookout during WWII, before being restored to working condition by the National Trust.

Enjoy the views before heading downhill from the windmill, following the line of the old sea wall, across the edge of Bembridge Airfield, and into Centurion’s Copse, a red squirrel hot spot.  Bear right, and pass through the RSPB reserve.  The ditches and sluices allow for careful control of water levels to manage one of the most important wetland areas in southern England.

At the end of the old sea wall, you’ll meet the end of Laundry Lane, and be able to retrace your steps back into Brading.  Pop into the Auctioneer for a pot of tea and a huge wedge of cake, and even a browse through the latest selection of antiques and curios on display.

*The Isle of Wight has three large-ish rivers.  Two of them are called the Yar.  The story is that no islanders ever travelled the vast distances from Bembridge to Yarmouth (about 45 minutes drive now), or the opposite direction, so the lack of imagination in naming never really mattered.

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Tips to watch wildlife responsibly in winter:

  • Avoid causing disturbance to birds feeding or resting in coastal areas.
  • Bring binoculars for a good view without getting too close.
  • If the birds become alert and stop feeding on mudflats and saltmarsh, move further away and allow them to settle down.
  • Stick to paths and marked routes where they exist, and avoid emerging suddenly onto saltmarshes and creeks.
  • Stop for a while on your walk, or move slowly, to see what emerges from nearby hedgerows or reedbeds
  • Listen to the sounds; they might reveal something you would otherwise miss.
  • Always follow guidance on signs on sites.

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What to look out for:

Birds: dark-bellied brent geese; greylag geese; golden plovers; curlews; oystercatchers; black-tailed godwits; lapwings; dunlin; pintail; teal; widgeon; shelducks; kingfishers; peregrine falcons; rooks; yellowhammers;  short-eared owls; little egrets; spoonbills; long-tailed tits; goldcrests; fieldfares; redwings; ravens.

Other creatures: Hebridean sheep; belted Galloway cattle; red squirrels; grey seals.

Nature: Ancient oak trees; coppice hazel and the first catkins; an abundance of fungi and lichen; towering reedmace and phragmites; brambles; spindle berries; gorse flowers.

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What I loved this season: Spring 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April, I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcombe regularly, with a one-off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.

I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave.  The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands.  In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.

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The view from the western shoulder of Schiehallion, looking back along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and the Black Corries.

The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable.  I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions.  It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it.  You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.

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In the col between Dreish and Mayar in poor visibility, about to descend into Glen Doll after an extremely long and tiring day.

Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter.  As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.

My spring love list:

  • Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day.  But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
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Tracks is one of the best books I’ve read, and I thoroughly recommend you pick up a copy.
  • Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid.  And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid.  I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
  • Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants.  My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
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After ending up thigh-deep in a bog, again, the Alpkit Chilkoot dried quickly and didn’t have their stretchiness compromised by the crispiness of embedded dried peat.
  • Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet.  I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately,  so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
  • However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles.  They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents.  Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
  • Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork. 
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We joined the crew of Provident for the day to help move their ship from Dartmouth back to their base in Brixham.
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Traditional Brixham Trawlers like Provident often had red sails, coated in ochre to protect them from the sun and salt.

What’s next:

With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene.  We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking.  I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too.  I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.

Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles.  I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about.  And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

Read about what I got up to through the winter here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to in spring, or any plans you have for the summer. 
Let me know in the comments below.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

The West Highland Way (WHW)

  • Start: Milngavie
  • Finish: Fort William
  • Length: 154 km (96 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate (Devil’s Staircase is hard)

The first, and far away most famous, long-distance trail in Scotland, the WHW stretches from Milngavie, on the edge of Glasgow, to Fort William, dubbed Scotland’s outdoor adventure capital, 154km (96 miles) to the north.

The route crosses the rolling Campsie Fells into Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, following the bonnie banks of the loch into the increasingly craggy highlands.  It crosses the starkly beautiful Rannoch Moor into atmospheric Glencoe, before climbing to the highest point of the trail, the Devil’s Staircase, and onward to finish at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British and Irish Isles.

The route is well waymarked, and has plenty of opportunities for re-supply stops, tearooms, and pubs on the way, with Kingshouse the most popular.  Hiking is easy going for the main part, and largely avoids the high ground; Ben Lomond and Ben Lui, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Black Mount and the Mamores can be added to the route, and it can finish with the summit of Ben Nevis (1334 metres) if your legs feel up to it.

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The Commando Memorial between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy commemorates the elite Allied forces trained in the area during WWII. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Great Glen Way (GGW)

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Inverness
  • Length: 117 km (73 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Tracing the major geological faultline that cleaves Scotland in two, the GGW links the highland towns of Fort William and Inverness, largely following a string of lochs linked by the Caledonian Canal.

The faultline divides the Grampian Mountains to the south from the Northwestern Highlands, some of the oldest rocks in the world.  Starting in Fort William, the route passes Neptune’s Staircase, an impressive flight of locks built by engineer Thomas Telford linking the Canal to Loch Linnhe and the sea. It follows the lengths of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness* on forestry roads, before passing the pretty Isles of Ness and finishing in Inverness city centre.

The route is well waymarked, and the hiking is straightforward throughout, though it gets steep in the forests over Loch Ness.  Between Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit there is a high-level alternate route, which has spectacular views over Loch Ness and along the rest of the Great Glen.  It can connect with the West Highland Way in Fort William.

*Bring some monster spotting binoculars, and you might be rewarded with sightings of anything from red squirrels to red deer, ospreys and even otters.

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The picturesque harbour in the village of Portpatrick on the Rhinns of Galloway. Photo Credit: RobinD_UK Flickr on cc

Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)

  • Start: Portpatrick
  • Finish: Cockburnspath
  • Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 14 days +
  • Difficulty: hard

The longest of Scotland’s great trails, and the original coast to coast walk, this trail starts in the pretty village of Portpatrick on the west coast and finishes on the North Sea coast in Cockburnspath.

The route follows forestry trails through the Galloway Forest Park, famed for its dark skies, and into the open moorland and rugged hills of the Southern Uplands.  It passes through the highest settlements of Scotland, the border towns and villages of Sanquhar, Wanlockhead, Beattock and Traquair in the Tweedsmuir Hills, and into the Lammermuir Hills before descending to the coast.

The route is waymarked but involves long moorland crossings which can be tricky to navigate in poor visibility.  Stages between resupply points can be long, and facilities are far apart, so this is better suited to more experienced backpackers.

For real hardcore hikers, the Southern Upland Way is part of the E2 European long-distance trail which runs for 4850km (3010 miles) between Galway on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Nice, on the Mediterranean.

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Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey.  A Scottish country dance tune was composed in its honour; appropriately its a strathspey.  Photo Credit: Junnn Flickr on cc

Speyside Way

  • Start: Aviemore
  • Finish: Buckie
  • Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

This route traces the course of the mighty River Spey from Cairngorms National Park to Spey Bay, where the river meets the sea.  Most descriptions of the Speyside Way describe the route sea to source, ending in the heart of the mountains, but I think there’s something in going with the flow of the river.

Historically, the river was used to transport timber from the pine forests around Aviemore and Abernethy to the shipbuilding industry based around the village of Garmouth, once a rival to the major British port of Hull.  But for most the main draw for this trail is the famous whiskies**, the most well-known worldwide, that originate on the banks of the Spey.

Highlights of the route include Abernethy National Nature Reserve, where bogs, lochans, and pine forest are a haven for native wildlife, the impressive Craigellachie Bridge, built by Thomas Telford, and the Moray Firth Wildlife Centre, one of the best shore-based dolphin watching opportunities in the world.

**Try sampling Aberlour, Balvenie, Craigellachie, Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Knockando, Macallan, Speyside, Tamnavoulin, and you’ll forget that the alphabet has other letters too.

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Traigh Seilebost is just one of the stunning sandy beaches on the west coast of Harris. Photo Credit: isleofharris365 Flickr on cc

Hebrides Way

  • Start: Vatersay
  • Finish: Stornoway, Lewis
  • Length: approximately 252km (156 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 12 days +
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

The newest long-distance trail in Scotland, this route connects 10 spectacularly beautiful islands in the Hebridean archipelago, from Vatersay in the south to Lewis in the north, with two ferry crossings and six interisland causeways, on the wild fringes of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gaelic culture of the islands is framed by the distinctive landscapes; stunning silver beaches and flower-filled machair, wild moors and mountains, remote crofts and tiny fishing villages, places where both recent history and ancient archaeology lie close to the surface.  Look out for wildlife as spectacular as your surroundings, like minke whales, white-tailed sea eagles, and some of the most scarce birds in Britain, like the elusive corncrake.

The most challenging part of the trail follows waymarks on an undefined path across the open moorland of the North Harris Hills and could be tricky in poor visibility, but on the whole, hiking is easy going and suitable for beginners.  It’s worth making some extra time to spend on the islands alongside completing the hike.

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Dunaverty Bay at the southern tip of Kintyre may have been where St Columba first arrived in Scotland. Photo Credit: Photographic View Scotland Flickr on cc

Kintyre Way

  • Start: Tarbert
  • Finish: Machrihanish
  • Length: approximately 161km (100 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Zigzagging back and forth across the Kintyre Peninsula, this trail starts in the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert in the north and winds its way to the windswept beach at Machrihanish, which lies closer to Belfast than to Glasgow.

Although Kintyre is part of the mainland, the sea is never far away on this trail, and it has stunning island views of Jura, Arran, Islay, Gigha, and even Rathlin Island.  You’re sure to hear the legend of Somerled (Somhairle), the Gaelic Viking King of the Isles, that claimed the land as his own by portaging his ships across the narrow isthmus between the sea lochs at Tarbert.

The trail is well waymarked for most of its length, with easy-going walking, though the last section of the trail beyond Campbeltown has steep ascents and descents, tricky navigation, and boggy conditions underfoot.

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The Cateran Trail connects villages and glens on old drove roads and trails used by cattle rustlers. Photo Credit: luckypenguin Flickr on cc

Cateran Trail

  • Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
  • Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 5 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

Not as well known as some of the other Great Trails, this is a circular route through the wild upland glens of Angus and Perthshire, taking in Strathardle, Glen Shee and Glen Isla, once lawless bandit country.  There is no official start/finish point, but the pretty towns of Blairgowrie and Alyth have good access to the trail, and it is usually walked in a clockwise direction.

The route follows ancient drove roads used to take cattle to the market towns of Alyth and Blairgowrie, and by the Caterans, 16th and 17th-century cattle raiders, who give their name to the trail.

The trail is well waymarked, and the moorland hiking at a moderate level.  There are several small settlements on the route, with pubs, cafes and resupply stops.  A link route between Kirkmichael (Strathardle) and Cray (Glen Shee) gives the option of a shorter two-day circuit.  The route is waymarked but undefined, and both parts of the trail can be rough and very muddy.

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Loch Tay is was the location of as many as 18 crannogs, artificial islands inhabited from the Bronze Age.  A reconstruction lies on the southern shore of the loch.  Photo Credit: Douglas Hamilton ( days well spent ) Flickr on cc

Rob Roy Way

  • Start: Drymen
  • Finish: Pitlochry
  • Length: 128km (80miles), alternative route via Amulree 155km
  • Average time to complete: 6 days (alternative route 7 days)
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Another route inspired by rogues and reivers, the Rob Roy Way links Drymen, on the edge of Loch Lomond (and the WHW), and Pitlochry.  Taking in the rolling hills of the Trossachs, through forests and into Breadalbane, passing lochs and waterfalls, and on into Strathtay.

The route visits the pretty highland towns of Callender, Killin, and Aberfeldy, and Balquidder, the site of Rob Roy’s family home.  A Jacobite who fought alongside Bonnie Dundee, he, and the rest of Clan McGregor, were outlawed and compelled to renounce their name and allegiance or be hunted out with hounds and killed.

The route follows tracks, minor roads, cycle trails, and footpaths, with a fair amount of ascent and descent.  The alternative route via Amulree is much quieter, and avoids an 8km section on minor roads on the south of Loch Tay.  Both options have spectacular views across to Ben Lawers and Schiehallion on a fine day.

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Trotternish Ridge and the Quiraing are formed from a series of landslips, creating an awesome landscape. Photo Credit: Bill Higham Flickr on cc

Skye Trail

  • Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
  • Finish: Broadford
  • Length: approximately 128km (80 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 7 days
  • Difficulty: very hard

Starting from the most northerly point of the island, Rubha Hunish, the route ascends steeply under the Quiraing to the Trotternish Ridge.  The ridge traverse is very long and exposed, but is one of the most outstanding ridge walks anywhere in the world.

After following the cliffs from Storr, the route goes via Portree and Glen Sligachan to Elgol and Torrin, finishing in Broadford. It passes the locations of several clearance villages, tumbledown reminders that these quiet glens were once home to hundreds of people, and around the spectacular Cuillin mountains.

The trail is unofficial, unmarked, and arduous, and many sections lack a distinct path.  It requires excellent navigation skills, and involves challenging burn crossings that are not possible when in spate.  The route includes a long ridge traverse and clifftop walking not suited to those without a head for heights.

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Cape Wrath, or Am Parbh, is the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and much of the area is used for military training.  Photo Credit: tomdebruycker Flickr on cc

Cape Wrath Trail

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Cape Wrath
  • Length: Between 320 and 370km (200 and 230 miles)
  • Average time to complete:
  • Difficulty: very hard

The Cape Wrath Trail is an epic route, leading from Fort William, through some of the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland, to the northwesternmost tip of mainland Britain.

Potential highlights of the route include crossing the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, the Falls of Glomachand and Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfalls in the UK), Fisherfield Forest, the caves around Inchnadamph, and the spectacular beaches at Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay.

With no official route, and several potential options taking you through Knoydart, Torridon, and Assynt, it isn’t waymarked and many sections don’t have a defined path.  It is suitable for backpackers with excellent navigation skills, the ability to be self-sufficient, and wild camping experience.

Things to know before attempting a long-distance hike in Scotland

  • Weather

The Big Yin*** once said that “there are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter”.  But even the notoriously changeable weather can’t spoil the hauntingly beautiful landscapes you’ll walk through.  Be sure you’re adequately prepared; check long-range forecasts and monitor the weather during your hike, pack sufficient warm layers and waterproof jacket and trousers, and know your route well enough to identify wet weather alternatives and bail-out points.

***That’s Billy Connolly if you didn’t know.  Or Sir William Connolly CBE, if we’re going to be formal.  Which he famously isn’t.

  • Wild Camping

There will be a range of different options for accommodation on most of the trails listed above, from bunkhouses and bothies to boutique hotels and guesthouses.  But for staying as close to the trail as possible and maximising time outdoors, you might choose to wild camp (I usually do).

Wild camping is permitted in Scotland, with the notable exception of the east side of Loch Lomond (on the WHW) during summer months.  You must be familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.

  • Wildlife

We don’t have some of the large wildlife of our neighbours in northern Scandinavia or central Europe to worry about, and you should try to avoid causing any disturbance to habitats or creatures as you follow the trails or camp.

Scottish midges have a fearsome reputation, and it’s well deserved.  May and September are usually the best months for avoiding the wee beasties but still getting the best of the weather.  Otherwise pack a repellent, especially for dawn and dusk, and just after rain showers.

  • Winter

Winter hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings several additional hazards to the hikes.  Some of the trails above will be inaccessible to all but the most experienced backpackers.  It is important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them correctly.

It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, taking account of reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is to postpone the hike for another day.

Have you tried hiking any of these trails?  Have you got any tips?
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Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.

Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best-known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados. The challengers that have taken part range in age from 18 (the lower age limit for participants) to an incredible 91 years old.

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Where the idea began; a little bit of inspiration I picked up in a second-hand bookshop on the way.

Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow.  Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves.  A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the full distance, which usually averages around 290km (180 miles).

Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” endpoint).  Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in several summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are on hand to provide advice during the planning stage and guidance while underway.

The Challenge is non-competitive, and the camaraderie and friendships of the event have become legendary. Great friendships have been made and cemented, with the current co-ordinators meeting while taking part, and even a couple of marriages happening during the challenge!

In addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants must be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, on rugged terrain without trails in poor visibility. They must be self-reliant in remote and upland areas, follow the “leave no trace” principles of wild camping, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.

TGO Challenge Facts and Figures

In the 40 years of the TGO Challenge from 1980 to 2019:

  • 3534 people have participated in the Challenge.
  • 10013 crossings have been started on the west coast.
  • 8851 have been completed by reaching the east coast.
  • 251 people have completed 10 crossings.
  • 24 have completed 20 crossings.
  • And so far, one person has completed 30 crossings!

Challenge control claims taking part in the TGO Challenge is addictive. Of the total 3534 people to have participated, 3178 people have completed at least one crossing. Allowing for those participating in recent years and yet may choose to return, only around half decide that once is enough!

However, after taking part in a second Challenge there is a 65% of coming back at some point for a third, and 75% of them doing the fourth crossing. By the time a person has taken part in nine challenges, there is a 96% chance they will come back for the tenth.

My TGO Route

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take.  My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.

Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles).  There will be a few ups and downs on the way too.  It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

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My planned finish point on the east coast of Scotland.

I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden.  All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).

*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.

Planning and preparation

The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.

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Route planning on ViewRanger.

I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (Haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on Haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find.  However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all.  This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.

You can read my journals from the 2019 Challenge starting here.

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Photo Journal: Qaqortoq Tundra Hike, Greenland

I’ve long had a fascination with the far north.  This short hike near Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, is a classic introduction to a tundra environment yet not too remote and challenging given the location, and ideal for a solo hike.  A circular route of around 12km, there are plenty of diversions to take in the tops of surrounding hills for outstanding views to the iceberg-littered outer fjord and inland, through rocky spires to the distant ice sheet.

Qaqortoq_0_smallThe colourful wooden cabins of Qaqortoq cluster around the harbour on the edge of the fjord, spreading up the surrounding hills where bare rock slices through thin vegetation. Beyond the city (in Greenlandic terms this settlement of around 3000 is still a city, and the largest in the southern part of the country) a hiking trail marked with cairns leads around Tasersuaq, the lake providing the settlement’s freshwater supply.

The pronunciation of Qaqortoq has been something of a debate with the others in my group, but eventually we’re coached towards something like Ha-HOR-tok, with a throaty  H sound, like that in loch or Javier.

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We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.

Barry Lopez

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The trail skirts a dusty road along the western shore of the lake to start, before crossing a rocky rise where ravens circled over me, then scrambling back down into the edge of a heathery bog.  This isn’t true tundra, as the relatively mild oceanic climate of the region prevents the earth from freezing in winter, but similar enough; like the vast mountain moors of the Cairngorms I’m familiar with at home in the UK.

At first glance, the tundra is scant patches of dry grass and stunted shrubs sprouting from the thin crust of soil held in hollows of the bare rock. Not quite enough to draw your eye down, away from the epic scale of the surrounding landscape. Sweeping scree slopes rising to high peaks, the oldest rocks in the world, overlooking the slate grey waters of the fjord and the shattered fragments of a dying iceberg.

tundra_1_smallThere is another beauty here, but you must look more closely at the land. Bright green sprigs of crowberry, hiding glossy black berries beneath needle-like leaves. Gnarled and twisted wood of slow-growing, stunted shrubs. Delicate saxifrage, fast flowering in the brief Arctic summer. Sleek silver-grey creeping willow catkins and branching reindeer lichens. Sphagnum moss, crisply dried without recent rain.

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I stop on the edge of the lake and spot a school of tiny fish in the shallows. Fooled by the warmth of the summer sunshine on my back, I kick off my shoes and trousers and wade into the water. I endure the fierce cold of the water until I reach knee deep, then give up, wading quickly ashore. Lying on my back in the moss, I listen to the crackling calls and rippling whistles reveal the locations of snow buntings, redpolls, and wheatears feasting on the insect life in the tundra around me.

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