8 Great Day Hikes in Scotland (but not the Ben)

Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers.  And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.

The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set.  The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world.  The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).

But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland.  With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge.  Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.

And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness.  So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting.  Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.

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Photo Credit: colinemcbride Flickr on cc

Arthur’s Seat

  • Base: Edinburgh
  • Route length: 5 km (3 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Right in the heart of Edinburgh, this hike rewards you with awesome panoramic views across Scotland’s capital city and beyond.  Overlooking Edinburgh Castle, the contrasting Old and New Towns, the Scottish Parliament, and down towards the port of Leith, this hike gives a snapshot of Scottish history, and fits easily into a short break to Edinburgh.

The steep slopes of Arthur’s Seat, rising to 255 metres (824′), are the rugged remains of an ancient volcano; the same one that gave rise to the imposing rock on which the Castle sits and dominates the city centre.  Even though you’re never far from an urban street on this hike, don’t underestimate the terrain and be sure to wear suitable footwear.

This hike is also an excuse to take in the Sheep Heid Inn by Duddingston Loch, reputedly the oldest hostelry in Scotland, and where Mary, Queen of Scots used to enjoy the odd game of skittles.

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Photo Credit: Anne Young2014 Flickr on cc

Conic Hill

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 4 km (2.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

This small but steep little summit is a perfect introduction to Scottish hillwalking.  Rising just 350 metres (1150′) above Balmaha, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, the hike is just enough of an adventure for beginners, without being an exhausting expedition.  (Muddy puddles and trickling streams to explore, and a play area and public toilets in Balmaha also help to tempt families to try the route, and the Oak Tree Inn offers a rewarding brew afterwards.)

The ridgeline of Conic Hill follows the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, which also shows as the string of islands in the loch below.  As you ascend, the effort is rewarded with spectacular views across Loch Lomond and some of the grander mountains nearby,; such as Ben Lomond, the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), and the Arrochar Alps.

Conic Hill lies alongside the route of the West Highland Way long distance trail between Milngavie and Fort William, so watching hikers striding up under big packs makes your daypack seem like nothing, and the challenge very achievable.

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Photo Credit: Alan Burkwood Flickr on cc

Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest

  • Base: Aviemore
  • Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

In the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, in the Cairngorms National Park, the circular low-level hike around Loch an Eilein is stunningly beautiful, and a superb route for walking (or toddling) with the family.  Gnarled granny pines, dark mountains, and a ruined 13th century castle are reflected in the waters of the loch that was once the secret hideaway of rogues and cattle rustlers.

The pinewoods are home to native wildlife such as red squirrels, crested tits, endemic Scottish crossbills, and the comical capercaillie, and when the sun goes down, pine martens and elusive Scottish wildcats stalk the woods.  The walk can be extended to take in Loch Gamhna, a quieter but muddier trail, or a short ascent to Ord Ban to drink in the spectacular views of the tundra-clad Cairn Gorm plateau, Caledonian pinewoods, and sparkling jewel-like lochs.

This might be one of the easier hikes on the list, but it will fulfil all your romantic dreams of Scotland, whether you’re Princess Merida saving the day or wishing for an encounter with a dashing highland warrior after falling through a hole in space-time.  And it gives you plenty of time to go for an ice cream in Miele’s Gelateria back in Aviemore at the end of the day.

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Photo Credit: agprysw Flickr on cc

Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Glen

  • Base: Stromness, Orkney
  • Route length: 16.5 km (10.25 miles), or 9.25 km (5.75 miles) short option
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate

Hoy is the “high island” of Orkney, taking its name from Old Norse, and reflecting the wild, steep sided hills and sheer sea cliffs, some of the most impressive in the British and Irish Isles.  In particular, the iconic sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy; its 137 metre (449′) walls were scaled live on the BBC back in the 1960’s, and it continues to attract climbers today.

From the passenger ferry at Moaness, take the island minibus to the crofting township of Rackwick.  A well defined path leads along the cliff tops, where you’ll catch sight of the stack rising out of the Pentland Firth, and, in the right season, the abundance of seabirds whirling around it; fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, black guillemots, razorbills, and formidable bonxies (great skuas).  Look out for hunting peregrine falcons too.

On return to Rackwick, follow the road from the hostel to find the trail through Rackwick Glen.  Look out for Arctic skuas and Arctic terns, which may come closer than you’d like, and listen for the mournful calls of red-throated divers on Sandy Loch.   As well as birdlife, you can also expect to see a wealth of colourful wild flowers and the northernmost native woodland in the UK.  And if you time it well, you’ll catch the café for a cuppa and fancy piece in Moaness while you wait on your return ferry.

This hike has an option for a shorter walk, out and back to the Old Man from Rackwick only, taking the Hoy minibus to and from the ferry at Moaness.  Book your return with the driver, especially outside of the summer season.

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Photo Credit: pauldunn52 Flickr on cc

Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)

  • Base: Ullapool
  • Route length: 4.5 km (2.75 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Stac Pollaidh is only small in mountain terms, but it soars 612 metres (2008′) in splendid isolation over the flat lands of Assynt, the suddenness of its eruption from the emptiness creating an otherworldly feel in the landscape.  Its glacially smoothed flanks are topped with a distinctive rocky crest, carved into a series of pinnacles and steep gullies.

This is only a short hike, but the steep and winding trail is challenging, and the true summit at the western end of the ridge needs scrambling skills to reach.  But the effort is more than worth it, as the panoramic views from the ridge are spectacular.  To the south and west, you’ll see the rugged coastline around Achiltibuie and the Summer Isles, and to the north, across the wild watery wilderness of Inverpolly Nature Reserve, lie the unmistakable mountains of Suliven and Cùl Mòr.

Its easy roadside location has led to an erosion problem on the lower parts of the hill, so please stick to the surfaced trail to reach the higher ground.  The remote location means there’s no local pub or café to repair to at the end of the hike, so you could try Am Fuaran in Altandhu or the Ferry Boat Inn in Ullapool.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: GDSinclair Flickr on cc

The Cobbler (Ben Arthur)

  • Base: Glasgow or Stirling
  • Route length: 11km (7 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 5 hours **
  • Difficulty: moderate to hard

Heading northwards, Loch Lomond crosses the Highland Boundary Fault and is squeezed between increasingly imposing mountains.  The Arrochar Alps on the western side are a group of very steep and rocky mountains with real character. The Cobbler, also known as Ben Arthur, is the most distinctive.

At 884 metres (2900′), it falls short of Munro status, but isn’t a small hill, and its otherworldly outline of rocky buttresses and rugged peak draws attention from its taller neighbours.  Dominating the skyline over Arrochar, the rocky summit is said to resemble a cobbler at work on his bench, giving the hill its popular nickname.

The true summit of the Cobbler is a rocky pinnacle, reached by squeezing through a triangular hole in the base on to a narrow, nerve-wracking ledge, in a move that’s known as threading the needle.  After traversing the ledge, there’s a short scramble to the top.  This isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and great care should be taken in wet conditions.

However, on a clear day the views are just as impressive from the base of the pinnacle, looking out along Loch Long across the Arrochar Alps.  Be sure to glance back at the dramatic profile of the Cobbler on your descent, and end the day in Ben Arthur’s Bothy, soaking in the lochside views with your pint.

**Summer conditions

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Photo Credit: Robert F. Stokes Flickr on cc

Lochnagar

  • Base: Aberdeen
  • Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
  • Difficulty: hard

Immortalised in verse by Lord Byron as Dark Lochnagar, it is often considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Scottish mountains, although Queen Victoria had a different impression of the summit; “it was cold, wet and cheerless, and the wind was blowing a hurricane“; no doubt, she was not amused.

Lying entirely within the Royal Balmoral Estate, Lochnagar is best reached by hiking from Spital of Glenmuick, through ancient Caledonian pine forest and by hunting lodges favoured by royalty.  On the ascent to the plateau, it’s worth pausing at the bealach (narrow pass) before the boulder field known as the Ladder, to take in views of the northern corrie, an imposing rocky wall cradling a lochan in its curve.

The rocky outcrop of Cac Carn Beag, the true summit of Lochnagar, has spectacular panoramic views across Royal Deeside, the Cairngorms, and the Mounth.  A steep descent past Glas Allt falls leads to the Royal Lodge at Glas-allt-Shiel and the shore of Loch Muick.

The summit plateau has few distinctive features, and a steep northern edge, so excellent mountain navigation skills are needed in poor visibility conditions.  An alternative hike would be to follow the low level circular trail around Loch Muick beloved of Queen Vic, in the shadow of the towering mountain cliffs, followed by a tour of Royal Lochnagar Distillery and a wee dram in the tasting rooms.

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Photo Credit: Hazel Strachan Flickr on cc

Ring of Steall, Mamores

  • Base: Fort William
  • Route length: 16km (10 miles)
  • Approximate hiking time: 12 hours **
  • Difficulty: very hard

Many visitors to Fort William will head straight for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak at 1345 metres (4412′).  With over 125,000 hikers a year, mainly in the summer months, it can be incredibly busy on the trails.

Experienced mountain hikers might prefer the challenge of the Ring of Steall instead.  A classic mountain route, taking in four Munros; An Gearanach, Stob Choire a Chairn, Am Bodach and Sgurr a’Mhaim, with fantastic ridge walking between peaks.

The hike begins in Glen Nevis, following the trail through the woodland to the narrow Nevis Gorge and impressive Steall Falls.  Your first challenge is tackling the wire bridge spanning the river, before starting the ascent of An Gearanach.  All in all the hike has almost 1700 metres (5580′) of ascent, including some scrambling along narrow, rocky arêtes, and makes for a long, tiring day out.

The ridge is exposed, but has spectacular panoramic views of  some of the best known Scottish mountains, such as Aonach Mor, Aonach Eagach, Stob Ban, the Grey Corries, and of course, Ben Nevis.  Put your feet up and recharge at the end of the hike at the Ben Nevis Inn and Bunkhouse.

Those that can’t spare a whole day in the mountains will enjoy the short hike to the wire bridge and Steall Falls, which were seen in some film about a wizard.  Please note, the edges of the falls can be dangerous and warning signs should not be ignored.

**summer conditions

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Photo Credit: joannamarjaana Flickr on cc

My tips for day hikes in Scotland

Whether you choose to take on one of these day hikes, or one of the many others that Scotland has to offer, there’s a few things that you should bear in mind.

  • Plan your route ahead of the walk.  Not every route is waymarked, so you need to form an idea of what to expect.  ViewRanger with Ordnance Survey Maps is invaluable for reading the terrain, and the Walk Highlands website has excellent route descriptions and photos.
  • Check the weather.  An essential part of preparation, and can be the difference between a rewarding hike or an endurance slog.  I like the Mountain Weather Information Service website and the Yr.no app.
  • Wear the right clothing, as in Scotland it’s entirely possible to experience all four seasons in one day.  Layering your clothes is important, and packing a waterproof jacket and trousers is always a good idea.
  • Pack plenty of water.  It’s important to stay hydrated during physical activity, and you may be out for longer than expected (or just want to make a nice cup of tea with a view while you’re out).
  • Take a map and compass when you head out; not all trails are clearly defined, and you may need to rely on navigation skills in poor visibility.  And GPS is not infallible.
  • If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan to return, and when you’re back safely.

Have a look at my packing list for day hikes for some additional tips on what to take.

Winter hiking

Winter hiking in Scotland is a serious business.  Although the hills aren’t that high, conditions can be gnarly and there’s a number of additional hazards you might encounter.  It’s important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them.

It also means spending additional time assessing information about your chosen route; mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts.  And remembering that sometimes the best decision you make is the one to turn back.

What is your favourite day hike in Scotland?
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.

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The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

  • Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster.  On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.

*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.

  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.

What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.

Robert Macfarlane

  • The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer

A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall).  He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.

It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama.  It might make it into another list in future.

  • Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown

The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land.  But women have been present from beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do.  This book gathers lesser known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.

  • My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George

I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it.  I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…).  Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

Jean Craighead George

  • Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar

This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins.  But not my mam.  If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains.  If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.

  • Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado

You may know this story already.  The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir.  His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.

  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman

Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this).  A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas.  Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.  

  • Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat

Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps.  As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow.  She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming better connection to the rock.  Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.

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  • The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring.  A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction.  It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings.  I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know.  READ IT NOW!

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.

Nan Shepherd

A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.

What is your favourite mountain book?  What would you recommend to me?
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