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 for a Wild World

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…

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  • 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.

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  • 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.
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