The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations. Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area. There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.
From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my 30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there. It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit. But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves. Who’s for a road trip? Or a sailing voyage?
1. Stromness, Orkney. I have a thing for small coastal towns with lots of old boats and rusty, rotted fishing gear. And I’m fascinated by the local connection to exploring the Arctic and the discovery of the Northwest Passage.
2. Ben Loyal, Caithness. Its distinctive profile dominated landward views from our family favourite holiday destinations of Talmine and Scullomie, on the coast at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue.
3. Oldshoremore, Sutherland. A few miles further on the dead-end road from the fishing port of Kinlochbervie, a sweeping curve of pink-gold sand that collects Atlantic rollers.
4. An Sgùrr, Isle of Eigg. A striking fin of basalt rock that rises from the island, making it seem like a rolling whaleback from the shore around Arisaig.
5. Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. I’m sure a couple of hundred years ago, I’d be one of those “grand tour” travellers that became mesmerised by the mountains and have to be committed, insensible, to an Alpine sanitorium. I just can’t not look at the Black Mount. Which is awkward if you’re walking in the opposite direction.
6. Glen Tanar, Royal Deeside. The Cairngorms hold, in my opinion, some of the most stunning landscapes in the whole of the UK, and in late autumn are the place I want to be. Gold, scarlet, bronze and deep green gloss the trees, and the light is magical.
7. Haughs of Benholm, Aberdeenshire. Home.
8. Oban, Argyll. Most visitors will pass straight through, getting off the train and onto one of the ferries. But the town has plenty of character, and entertaining characters. And plenty of old boats and rusty fishing gear.
9. Isle of Coll. I only spent a few days here last summer, but this was one of those places that stole a little bit of my heart. I want to live here one day.
10. Schiehallion, Perthshire. The fairy hill has such a perfect pyramid profile from the west. Read more here.
11. Corrie Fee, Angus. A steep-sided bowl of rock at the head of Glen Clova in the Angus Glens, just below Mayar and Driesh, two of my first munros.
12. RRS Discovery, Dundee. The place to where I can trace both my love of tall ship sailing and the history of polar exploration. A favourite school trip destination.
13. Tentsmuir, Fife. A deep, dark pine forest, opening out onto a vast bright expanse of beach. I’ve seen grey seals and red squirrels, vast white-tailed eagles and tiny coal tits, and one day, one of the 30,000 or so eider ducks I look at each winter will be a king eider.
14. Rathlin Island, Country Antrim. Allegedly, the home of wise spiders that can give you advice for success in your endeavours.
15. Peel, Isle of Man. A favourite port of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre.
16. Tynemouth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The North Sea is “my” sea, and just as beautiful on a slaty-grey winter day as in the height of summer. Plus Super Gran’s house is here.
17. Tryfan, Snowdonia. A great snaggletooth of rock sticking out into the Ogwen Valley.
18. Barmouth / Abermaw, Snowdonia. As a teenager, we’d travel all the way from northeast Scotland to Snowdonia for an Air Cadet adventure training camp, making Barmouth seem extremely exotic and exciting.
19. Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. A collection of ethnographical treasures collected from around the globe; a fascinating introduction to world cultures. I was a volunteer here when I first moved to England.
20. Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. A fascinating place, telling the story of polar exploration from the early days, through to cutting edge research in glaciology and climate science. I’ve been lucky to spend a few days working here before deploying to Antarctica.
21. Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire. Practically on my doorstep for a while, this is a favourite location for woodland walks, trail runs, and wild camps.
22. Maritime Greenwich. My favourite part of London, and the place that I think tells most about the history of Britain and its place in the world.
23. Stackpole and Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire. A beautiful corner of West Wales.
24. Lundy, Bristol Channel. Just one night on anchor, surrounded by swirling clouds of thousands of Manx shearwaters looking for an overnight roost.
25. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth. I’m a bit too young to remember the raising of Mary Rose, but I think the restoration featured often on Blue Peter. Watching it led me to the realisation that we can read the stories of people who have gone before us through the traces they leave behind, and it was exciting to finally visit.
26. Lymington, Hampshire. The walk along the old sea walls between Lymington and Keyhaven is an old favourite.
27. Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight. Watching the sunrise on frosty winter mornings with a coffee, listening to the contented purring of brent geese. Discover more here.
28. Swanage pier, Dorset. More accurately, the underside of Swanage pier; one of my favourite coastal dives in the UK, and where I saw a John Dory swimming for the first time.
29. Helford River, Cornwall. I’ve only arrived in the river by night while under sail. Living my best Poldark smuggler life.
30. Newlyn, Cornwall. While not as picturesque as nearby villages like Mousehole or Porthleven, as a working fishing port, Newlyn is full of characters and there’s always a story to listen to in the Swordfish pub.
Are any of these places in your British and Irish Isles top 10?
Tell me what makes your list in the comments below.
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 endpoint. 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.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here, or catch-up with the previous one here.
You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is. Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.
But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot. Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.
Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time. The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.
Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland. The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.
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 Sanquhar, Wanlockhead, Beattock and Traquair in the Tweedsmuir Hills, and into the Lammermuir Hills before descending to the coast.
The route is waymarked but involves long moorland crossings which can be tricky to navigate in poor visibility. Stages between resupply points can be long, and facilities are far apart, so this is better suited to more experienced backpackers.
For real hardcore hikers, the Southern Upland Way is part of the E2 European long-distance trail which runs for 4850km (3010 miles) between Galway on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and Nice, on the Mediterranean.
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 (80 miles)
Average time to complete: 7 days
Difficulty: very hard
Starting from the most northerly point of the island, Rubha Hunish, the route ascends steeply under the Quiraing to the Trotternish Ridge. The ridge traverse is very long and exposed, but is one of the most outstanding ridge walks anywhere in the world.
After following the cliffs from Storr, the route goes via Portree and Glen Sligachan to Elgol and Torrin, finishing in Broadford. It passes the locations of several clearance villages, tumbledown reminders that these quiet glens were once home to hundreds of people, and around the spectacular Cuillin mountains.
The trail is unofficial, unmarked, and arduous, and many sections lack a distinct path. It requires excellent navigation skills, and involves challenging burn crossings that are not possible when in spate. The route includes a long ridge traverse and clifftop walking not suited to those without a head for heights.
Cape Wrath Trail
Start: Fort William
Finish: Cape Wrath
Length: Between 320 and 370km (200 and 230 miles)
Average time to complete:
Difficulty: very hard
The Cape Wrath Trail is an epic route, leading from Fort William, through some of the wildest and most remote parts of Scotland, to the northwesternmost tip of mainland Britain.
Potential highlights of the route include crossing the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, the Falls of Glomachand and Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfalls in the UK), Fisherfield Forest, the caves around Inchnadamph, and the spectacular beaches at Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay.
With no official route, and several potential options taking you through Knoydart, Torridon, and Assynt, it isn’t waymarked and many sections don’t have a defined path. It is suitable for backpackers with excellent navigation skills, the ability to be self-sufficient, and wild camping experience.
Things to know before attempting a long-distance hike in Scotland
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. You must be 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 several additional hazards to the hikes. Some of the trails above will be inaccessible to all but the most experienced backpackers. It is important to be properly prepared, and that can mean taking an ice-axe and crampons, and having the skills and experience to use them correctly.
It also means taking additional time to assess your chosen route; researching mountain weather, taking account of reduced daylight hours, the terrain and underfoot conditions, and avalanche forecasts. And remember that sometimes the best decision you make is to postpone the hike for another day.
Have you tried hiking any of these trails? Have you got any tips?