With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.
Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.
The founding members of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club. Photo: Wikipedia
Members of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club training on Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh. Photo: Wikipedia
I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.
After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves. I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset. I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).
In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday. There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders. But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.
The corset and bloomers at the base of my costume.
Whaaaat? How am I going to climb in this?
Introducing Baroness Helga von Strumpfel. I look very Germanic in my costume.
Meet the team
Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.
Like a total badass.
Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.
With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.
My Great Escape
Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.
My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.
Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence. This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult. That’s where My Great Escape can help.
All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures. Everyone on the team is a volunteer.
By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.
Why Pen y Fan?
At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK. It also has a notorious reputation: the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.
Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side. With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops. So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.
Always take the weather with you.
The Great Corset Caper
Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient. It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.
The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du. Then suddenly we were just below the summit.
Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind. We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners. We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.
With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf. Our outfits had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine. The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle. I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.
The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear. I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.
We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather! And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.
Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.
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.
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.
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.
Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest
Route length: 7 km (4.5 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 2 hours
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.
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.
Stac Pollaidh (Stack Polly)
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.
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.
Route length: 19 km (12 miles)
Approximate hiking time: 7 hours **
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This edition of Armchair Travel is staying in the mountains, but we’re going to the movies with a selection of my favourite mountain films.
Many of these films are documentaries or based on true events. Brace yourself for exhilarating thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen, all from the comfort of your own sofa.
A dramatisation of the infamous 1996 expedition season on Everest, which culminated in a disasterous storm as teams made their attempts on the summit, trapping several climbers in the so-called death zone. It focuses on the friendly rivalry between mountain guides Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhall), competing to take their clients to the summit, and draws from several sources to try to give as truthful an account as possible, including books by Jon Krakauer and Beck Weathers, and the IMAX film taken at the time by Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. The heart-wrenching final call made by Hall seems straight out of Hollywood, but is devastatingly true to life.
The Conquest of Everest (1953)
A historical documentary film detailing the various expeditions to gain the summit of Everest, culminating in the successful attempt by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. It covers details of the expedition often absent from later accounts, the 282km (175 mile) trek from Kathmandu to base camp (now often completed in helicopters) by around 400 individuals, including 362 porters laden with equipment, blazing a trail through the Khumbu icefall and setting crevasse ladders, and establishing advance camps on the Lhotse Face and South Col. All filmed on a bulky film camera by Tom Stobart, which pushed the boundaries of expedition film-making. It can be found free online.
In my student life, my housemate and a few friends were aspiring mountaineers, and this was one of our regular late-night movie choices. Two climbers (Michael Biehn and Matt Craven) blag their way into an expedition team headed to the Karakoram to summit K2, the second highest and reputedly most difficult peak in the world. The majority of the film focuses on the challenging climb and even more difficult descent, and feels an authentic representation of the mountaineering adventure, with a little human drama thrown in to drive the plot. Mount Waddington in British Columbia stands in for the savage peak of K2, though establishing sequences were filmed in Pakistan.
The Summit (2012)
A documentary film piecing together the events of the 2008 K2 disaster, where 11 climbers on were killed, and a further three seriously injured. A serac (ice block) collapsed into the notorious couloir known as the Bottleneck, stripping fixed lines and sweeping away Rolf Bae of the Norwegian team, as his wife Cecile Skog looked on. Climbers faced the decision to bivouac above for the night, or attempt to “free solo” down in the encroaching night. Two or three further serac falls the following day devastated the attempts at descent and rescue by other climbers. Footage from survivors, support teams, and re-enactments filmed on the Eiger’s mordwand (North Face) tell the shattering story.
Touching the Void (2003)
A documentary re-enactment of the expedition to Siula Grande in the Peruvian Huayhuash mountains by British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Believing Simpson dead after a huge fall in a storm on their descent, Yates makes the gut-wrenching decision to cut the rope tethering them together, and continue to base camp alone. It’s no understatement to say that miraculously, broken, exhausted, and delirious, Simpson crawled off the mountain into camp, just as a devastated Yates was preparing to leave. Both Simpson and Yates provide narration for the film, and returned to the mountain to film the climbing sequences.
An excellent documentary film following a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 7,045m (23,244′) peak in the shadow of Everest. Rejected by the community, and disabled by fear and ignorance of their condition and the challenging environment of their home, they find hope and support in the school established by Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders. Under the inspirational leadership of Erik Weihnmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest, the group achieve far more than they ever could have imagined.
Not a film about the heart-stopping thrill of high altitude mountaineering, rather a rainy Sunday afternoon with a cuppa and cake-type film. Cantankerous, fiercely independent, eighty-something Edie (Sheila Hancock) dreams of climbing Suliven in northwest Scotland. The plot re-treads used tropes, an oldie on a last life-affirming adventure, intergenerational odd-couple friendships, small town life in Scotland blighted by boredom, but the scenes filmed on the mountain and surrounding Glencanisp Estate show off the stunning landscape of Assynt at their very best.
Free Solo (2018)
An outstanding, Oscar-winning, documentary following rock climber Alex Honnold’s jaw-dropping free solo (without ropes) ascent of El Capitan, the first of the 900m (3000′) near sheer granite edifice that dominates Yosemite Valley. Although Honnold’s astonishing achievement is the backbone of the film, it also records the thoughts of the film crew, roped climbers and drone pilots, that followed the climb; what would happen if…, how would they film…, what would happen with the footage of…?
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Documentary auteur Werner Herzog follows legendary climbers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander in the Karakorams as they attempt to scale Gasherbrum I and II, each over 8,000m, on a single expedition. The film doesn’t linger much on the technicalities of the climb, but as with much of Herzog’s work, it focuses on the personal motivations and obsessions of the subjects, and pries into the mindset and driving forces that make people do exceptional things.
Ok, this is not really one of the greatest mountain movies ever made, but it’s firmly in the category of “so bad it’s good”. Minus the mountain backdrop (with stunning Cortina d’Ampezzo standing in for the Rockies), it’s an absolute howler of a 90’s action film filled with guns, explosions, awesome stunts, and improbable kung-fu skills, but it’s just so much fun. Exactly as you would expect from Stallone.
Which of these have you watched? What did you think?
The first part of my route for the day had been visible for most of yesterday afternoon’s walk; Laraig Gortain, between Buchaille Etive Mór and Buchaille Etive Beag, leading to the well-trodden ground of Glen Coe and the West Highland Way. It’s the first real ascent of my route, though the biggest is still a few days away, when I reach Schiehallion.
I stopped at the top of the pass for a cuppa and a long last look at Loch Etive, still technically the sea on the west coast.
After two days on my own, just crossing paths with the group of Danish challengers a couple of times and occasional day hikers in Glen Etive, the WHW was almost shockingly busy with walkers. Heading the “wrong” way, it feels like pushing my way down the local high street on a busy shopping weekend. I took advantage of local facilities with a long lunch* in the sun at the revamped Kingshouse hotel to recover. It’s all very fancy, but then that’s the kind of girl I am.
*haggis nachos and a pint of coast to coast, 5/5 would recommend
Leaving again was tough, with my pace slowing through the long hot day as I trudged across Rannoch Moor. The Danes caught up and passed me by just before I reached Black Corries Lodge, planning to head up into the hills. I kept on plodding on the track until 6pm and I’d used my last ounce of willpower and my motivational soundtrack to keep moving my feet.
I find a decent looking spot to camp close to a stream, but I’m still around 6km short of my intended end point. It’s going to make the next day really tough, but I’m completely drained. After pitching my tent I have a little swim and attempt to wash the peat from yesterday’s bog out of my trousers, before lying in the sun and reading my book. Have I hit the wall on just day three?
TGO Day 4: Rannoch Moor to Dall
The sun is shining again as I emerge from my tent, and I feel so much brighter than I did yesterday evening. A good night’s sleep, though instead of being woken early by cuckoos, I heard the sound of deer snuffling around and a grouse croak just after daybreak. It’s the fourth day of my challenge, and I’m starting to think of my daily routine. Wake up, eat, walk, rest, eat, walk, find somewhere to sleep, eat, rest.
Walking is my life now. I don’t have to worry about the usual issues of daily life, or working with the rest of the ship’s crew, and can be totally selfish. My only task is to get from A to B, to keep moving forward.
And today I do, finishing the distance I should have done yesterday, following the electric lines across the moor, then pushing on along the road from Rannoch Station (powered by a couple of coffees and a huge wedge of cake from the Station tearoom) and down the south side of Loch Rannoch to get to a good point for the following morning. It was a long slog on the road, especially in the sun, and it was a relief to find a shady spot to pitch my tent by the end of the day.
TGO Day 5: Dall to Braes of Foss
Ascent: 1065m, Schiehallion
I’d been a bit concerned about adding many munros into my TGO route, especially at the beginning. Just a month ago, felt like I was getting out of breath on the short, steep hills of the Devon coast. But it felt like a bit of a cop-out to come north and not climb at least one proper mountain. After looking at maps to plan my route, I settled on crossing Schiehallion, almost right in the centre of Scotland.
It’s one that I hadn’t walked up before, and has a fascinating story, whether you’re a fan of the wee folk, or a bit of a geography geek. I think I’d put myself into the latter category.
Not many people walk up from the west. A farm track leads up to the base of the ridge, with that famous pyramid view rising above you, then it’s a steep ascent through the heather to the start of the boulder field. Not a breeze to stir the warm air. One false summit, then the top comes into view. Almost there. And suddenly so many people.
The view from the top is outstanding, and fills up my heart. I can pick out my route all the way back to Glencoe. I walked all that way. I did that.
And now I’m here on a mountain top. Exactly where I should be.
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 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.
The West Highland Way (WHW)
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.
Great Glen Way (GGW)
Start: Fort William
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.
Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)
Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
Average time to complete: 14 days +
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 Sanquar, 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.
Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
Average time to complete: 6 days
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.
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.
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.
Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
Average time to complete: 5 days
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.
Rob Roy Way
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.
Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
Length: approximately 128km ( 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.
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 a 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
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.
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. It is important you are familiar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and follow leave no trace principles.
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 hiking in Scotland is serious, and brings a number of 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.
It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remembering 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?
Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.
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.
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.
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.
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?
For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.
Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.
So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…
The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive..
Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell
I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental.
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery
Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world.
Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare
I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist.
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile.
Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey
Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters.
Winter Count – Barry Lopez
This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature.
Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie
Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this.
The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky
I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography.
My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one.
Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.