The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides washes up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of north western Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.
In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree reconts a number of alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War. This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.
The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer. Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid. The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.
Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.
The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood. From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.
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.
Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday. Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area. My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.
At the beginning of April I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater. We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcome regularly, with a one off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog. Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.
If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car. As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north. I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.
I’d prepared a route to cross Scotland from Oban to my parent’s house on the east coast, planning to walk around 270km (170 miles) in 10 days, before I had to return to the ship at the end of my leave. The first six days were hot and dry, entirely not what I’d expected for a trekking and camping trip in the highlands. In fact, I had so much trouble with being out in the direct sunlight for so many hours a day that I switched around my rest days in Pitlochry to buy factor Scots sunblock and a pair of shorts.
The second week was much more as I’d expected, with cooler temperatures and drizzle that actually felt refreshing rather than miserable. I added another rest day to my schedule, as I’d extended my leave for an extra week, so was able to take my time and fit my walking around the weather conditions. It also meant I was able to catch up with a number of other Challengers in Tarfside on the Tuesday night, which has the reputation of being a fun night, and definitely lived up to it. You can read more about my TGO challenge adventure here.
Following the TGO Challenge, at the end of May, I had a few days in Northamptonshire taking part in the selection process for what could be some very exciting work in the winter. As a job interview, it was one of the best and most inspiring I’d ever been to, and the highlight was meeting a group of awesome people that were also on the shortlist. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but competition will be stiff.
My spring love list:
Books: I’ve found it hard finding the time to pick up a book in the last couple of months, usually just managing a few pages in bed at the end of a long day. But I did finish a couple of books: Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, about her experiences with bipolar disorder, and Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of an awesome expedition across the Australian desert by camel in the late 1970s.
Podcast: I’ve just discovered the wonderful Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, and never before have I known so much about squid. And I thought I knew a fair bit about squid. I’ve even been to visit Te Papa in Wellington SPECIFICALLY to see the colossal squid.
Clothing: I was desperately in need of a good pair of hiking pants for the TGO Challenge, and took a punt on the Alpkit Chilkoot softshell pants. My only criticism on them was that they were TOO WARM for the ridiculously hot weather over the first week of the TGO, and I hadn’t bought any shorts with me.
Equipment: I’m still not completely enamoured of my Wild Country Zephyros 1 tent; I think I’m just not getting something right with tensioning the flysheet. I didn’t encounter high winds during the TGO fortunately, so I’ve got to keep trying to figure it out.
However, I absolutely love my Leki Makalu hiking poles. They proved themselves to be essential during the TGO, especially for hauling myself out of various bogs, over peat hags, and supporting my knees on steep descents. Do you hike with poles? This post has a few reasons why you should give it a go.
Treats: Not so much of a treat as a staple part of my TGO challenge diet: crunchy peanut butter, eaten straight out of the jar with my spork.
With the TGO Challenge done and dusted, it’s back to work on Irene. We’ll be based out of Oban, sailing around the islands of the Inner Hebrides and taking our guests kayaking and walking. I hope it will also mean we’ll get plenty of fresh seafood on our menu too. I’ll also have a bit of time in my next leave to explore the islands on my own, and can’t wait to get to know this area much better.
Then we’ll relocate south to be based out of Newlyn, with sailing voyages planned to Brittany and the Scilly Isles. I’m really excited about the Scillies, somewhere I’ve never been to before but heard lots of good things about. And I should have the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Cornwall walking the coastal path and swimming in the sea.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds.
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.
I arrived in Oban late on friday afternoon, having shared the drive up from Dartmouth, via Leighton Buzzard and Biddulph, with John. While I was preparing to cross Scotland on foot, carrying everything I needed on my back, he’d decided to take the opportunity to plan a Highland road trip, crossing my route several times. I took advantage of his plans, so rather than post re-supply packages to hostels and B&Bs on my route, I packed them into the car, and we’d meet up along the way.
Knowing I’d be seeing a freindly face now and again was reassuring, but my sense of apprehension was huge. I picked up a few last snacks and rearranged things in my pack, again, and mulled over what was to come. Will I be cold? What if I get lost? Have I brought enough? Have I brought too much? Can I actually do this?
I’d already had to change my plans, switching my start from Lochailort to Oban, and extending a couple of days distance to make sure I could fit the Challenge into my leave from a new job. My fitness levels also played heavy on my mind. For the past six weeks I’d been living onboard Irene, a traditional sailing ship, and unable to walk any farther that the length of the deck. I’d had one afternoon off to walk from Brixham to Dartmouth on the south west coast path; was that enough to prepare? (No) Am I good enough? (Well, we’ll see)
Now all I had to do was walk the 270km to reach the east coast. Easy, huh?
TGO Day 1: Oban to Loch Etive (Inverawe Country Park)
After a bit of last minute reorganisation (read: faffing about ) I finally signed the register at the youth hostel around 10am; one of the last names on the list left unchecked. Most of the Oban departures had left the previous day, so I’d be following their tracks out of town. If I could find my way out of town, as that depended on picking up a footpath somewhere behind a house near the top of the hill.
I crossed the road to make my official start from the beach, with my toes dipping in the water. Yesterday’s glorious sunset was a sign of things to come, a warm sun and clear blue skies remained as I climbed the hill to McCaig’s tower, picked up the footpath and headed for the golf course. My nerves from earlier in the morning soon dissipated, and I was feeling confident as I headed away from the coast.
The hardest part of the day’s navigation was following the right road in town to make sure I found the footpath over the hill. For the rest of the day I followed the minor road through Glen Lonan to Taynuilt, headed through the village, then crossed over a suspension bridge to Inverawe Country Park. From here I picked up the track alongside Loch Etive and found a suitable spot to pitch my tent and listen to the birds. I watch the sun go down, thankful of the absence of midges.
It felt like a great first day. No problems with my feet, through my hips and shoulders were not yet used to the weight of my pack, and I could feel the start of a bruise on my left hip.
TGO Day 2: Loch Etive, near Glennoe, to Glen Etive, near Dalness
Distance: 25km (distance walked in flip flops: 7km)
I woke in the early dawn to the sound of a cuckoo calling in the tree above my tent, and found a skin of frost around the vent by my head. Time check, almost 5am. I pulled a pair of gloves on, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and tried for another couple of hours sleep. The little bit of smugness at the lack of midges disappears quickly when I discover several ticks in my tent. I shook everything out and hung my tent over the tree vacated by the cuckoo while I checked my body.
After breakfast and a coffee, the sun was high enough to melt the frost on the tent, and I packed quickly to get on the way. The first couple of hours were easy going, following the track along the east side of the loch until it disappeared somewhere between a beach and a bog. I crossed paths with a group of Danish challengers, though they forked off into Glen Kinglass not long afterwards. The day got hotter as I slogged on through the tussock alongside Loch Etive, so when I found a river with a deep pool I stopped for a lunchtime swim. It’s such a beautiful spot, I find it hard to leave.
A long trudge to the head of the loch faded out into a slog through the bog around Kinlochetive, at times falling thigh-deep in the wet earth, sapping all my physical and mental energy. I try to skirt around the edge of the bog, thinking that it would be drier under foor the higher up the slope I went. That’s physics, right? So wrong.
By the time that I reached the road in Glen Etive I was pretty much done, and felt close to crying, but still had five and a half kilometres to go before my planned overnight campsite. The Laraig Gartain, the pass between Buchaille Etive Mor and Buchaille Etive Beag, had been taunting me from the moment I hauled myself out of the bog. It just hadn’t been getting any closer however far I’d walked towards it. It loomed over the whole afternoon.
A coffee break and a chat with day hikers in the carpark at the head of the loch perked me up, and I kicked off my wet boots to finish the day walking along the road to Dalness my flipflops. I pitched my tent with a Skyfall view, and treated myself to the fanciest of the meal pouches I’d packed for this stage of the Challenge, before retreating to my sleeping bag for the night.
Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal 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 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?
Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months. Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.
Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family. The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens. And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.
There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.
Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.
What I’ve done
I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity. I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition. I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.
In mid-January I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent. Team Rubicon are a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events. In an intense few days I completed my basic induction to TRUK, and the Domestic Operations training course. I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.
Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland. It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.
The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves. On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road. Spring is well and truly on the way.
My winter love list
Books: Winter is always the best time to get lost in a good book. Dark evenings and wild weather teamed with a cosy spot to sit and a wee dram. Over the last few months I’ve read Erebus by Michael Palin, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Phillip Hoare, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older.
Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas. Its a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May. After researching various possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal. Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1. I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through it’s paces.
Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year. We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice. I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).
I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours. I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.
Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching , with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east. I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.
Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.
You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.