10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

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.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

The West Highland Way (WHW)

  • Start: Milngavie
  • 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.

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The Commando Memorial between Spean Bridge and Gairlochy commemorates the elite Allied forces trained in the area during WWII. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Great Glen Way (GGW)

  • Start: Fort William
  • Finish: Inverness
  • 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.

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The picturesque harbour in the village of Portpatrick on the Rhinns of Galloway. Photo Credit: RobinD_UK Flickr on cc

Southern Upland Way (Scotland’s Coast to Coast)

  • Start: Portpatrick
  • Finish: Cockburnspath
  • Length: approximately 341km (211 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 14 days +
  • Difficulty: hard

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.

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Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey.  A Scottish country dance tune was composed in its honour; appropriately its a strathspey.  Photo Credit: Junnn Flickr on cc

Speyside Way

  • Start: Aviemore
  • Finish: Buckie
  • Length: approximately 116km (72 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 6 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

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.

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Traigh Seilebost is just one of the stunning sandy beaches on the west coast of Harris. Photo Credit: isleofharris365 Flickr on cc

Hebrides Way

  • Start: Vatersay
  • 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.

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Dunaverty Bay at the southern tip of Kintyre may have been where St Columba first arrived in Scotland. Photo Credit: Photographic View Scotland Flickr on cc

Kintyre Way

  • Start: Tarbert
  • Finish: Machrihanish
  • 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.

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The Cateran Trail connects villages and glens on old drove roads and trails used by cattle rustlers. Photo Credit: luckypenguin Flickr on cc

Cateran Trail

  • Start/Finish: Blairgowrie or Alyth
  • Length: approximately 104km (65 miles)
  • Average time to complete: 5 days
  • Difficulty: moderate

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.

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Loch Tay is was the location of as many as 18 crannogs, artificial islands inhabited from the Bronze Age.  A reconstruction lies on the southern shore of the loch.  Photo Credit: Douglas Hamilton ( days well spent ) Flickr on cc

Rob Roy Way

  • Start: Drymen
  • Finish: Pitlochry
  • 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.

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Trotternish Ridge and the Quiraing are formed from a series of landslips, creating an awesome landscape. Photo Credit: Bill Higham Flickr on cc

Skye Trail

  • Start: Rubha Hunish, near Duntulum
  • Finish: Broadford
  • 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.

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Cape Wrath, or Am Parbh, is the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, and much of the area is used for military training.  Photo Credit: tomdebruycker Flickr on cc

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

  • Weather

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.

  • Wild Camping

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.

  • Wildlife

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

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?
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What I loved this autumn

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Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

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Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales.  Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars.  And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.

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Fin whale blowing and surfacing in the Bay of Biscay. Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now.  I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town.  And Portuguese food is pretty good too.

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Leaving the resorts behind to discover the wilder side of the Algarve coast
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There’s much more to the Algarve than golf courses and beach bars

Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.

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Autumn in the English countryside

What I’ve done:

Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park.  It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.

I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month.  So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing.  Watch this space for more news.

I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter.  I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.

My autumn love list:

Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read.  But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind.  An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.

Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history.  With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period.  Which brings me on to…

Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews.  The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.

Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season.  That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab.  I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.

Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most.  As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.

I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about.  It’s one of my cold weather essentials.

Treats: Autumn always means mince pies.  They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season.  I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.

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Blogging in Blue Clipper’s saloon with good coffee and a few pastéis de nata

What’s next:

I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family.  I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.

I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides.  In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east.  Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two.  This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

 I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.  Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

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. Find it here.

  • 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. You can buy it here.

  • 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. Get the book here.

  • 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. You can find it here.

  • 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. Buy it here.

  • 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. Find it here.

  • 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. Get the book here.

  • 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. Buy the book here.

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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. Get it here.

  • 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. Pick it up here.

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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This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to running this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.

I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
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What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough

Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
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Five tips for beginner birders

  • Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
  • Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
  • Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at, and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
  • Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
  • Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area, and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.

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The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers

  • How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
  • The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
  • RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
  • Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide, and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
  • Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.

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There are also a number of apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.

Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?
Let me know in the comments below.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the North

Welcome to the first instalment of my Armchair Travel series!

In this occasional series I’ll aim to bring you inspiration for your travels, and transport you away from everyday life, through some of my favourite books. Like a wee holiday, but without leaving the comforts of your home.

For me, reading has always provided so many of the things I get from travelling: being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking; an insight into an unfamiliar culture; being part of a challenging adventure; or complete and total escapism.

Books, like a sailing ship, could take you anywhere. So throw off the bowline and let yourself be transported with ten of my favourite books to take you in to the icy north…

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  • Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

I love books like this, ones that outwardly take a single topic, but are packed with everything you can think of. History, geography, science, natural history, spirituality, indigenous culture, adventure, travel; all drawn together in Lopez’ beautiful prose. To be dipped into again and again.  Find it here.

  • North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship – R. Bruce Macdonald

Sailing ships might become a bit of a theme through this blog. This is the story of the last of the ships trading in the Canadian Arctic, and a record of a way of life changed forever.  You can buy it here.

  • Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

A chilling horror story set in a scientific research base in an abandoned mining camp in Spitzbergen, just before the outbreak of WWII. The waning of the moon in the depth of the polar night plunge Jack into full-blown terror.  You can find it here.
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  • Far North and Other Dark Tales – Sara Maitland

A deliciously dark collection of short stories that draw inspiration from fairy tales, bible stories and traditional myths, with a strong focus on the female experience. The title story is a reworking of an Inuit legend.  You can get it here.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen – Stephen R. Brown

We tend to know Amundsen as “the one that got there first”, thwarting Scott’s attempt at the South Pole, but the Norwegian was the ultimate polar explorer. Inspired by Nansen and learning skills from indigenous peoples in the Arctic, he was leader of the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, navigated a route through the Northeast Passage, and crossed the North Pole in an airship. He disappeared on a mission to rescue the crew of another airship returning from the Pole. Get the book here.

  • The Long Exile – Melanie McGrath

The documentary film Nanook of the North revealed the lives of Unagava Inuit to the world. This book reveals the dark aftermath; the forced relocation of Inuit families to the barren shores of Ellesmere Island. A shameful episode of recent history, the shockwaves of which echo through the generations to today.  You can find it here.reading_for_a_cold_day_1

  • The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

The first part of the Dark Materials trilogy (also known as The Golden Compass in North America), this is the north of dreams and fantasy. Ice bears in armour made from sky-iron; lying, tale-telling Arctic foxes; ancient witches flying of sprays of cloud pine; fierce Tartars scouring the tundra with their wolf dæmons; and the mysterious and terrible aurora. Get it (and the rest of the trilogy) here.

  • To Build A Fire – Jack London

I read White Fang when I was about twelve years old, and Call of the Wild not long after. The wild and brutal Yukon setting burned into my imagination. To Build a Fire is just one of the greatest short stories ever written. Find it here.

  • Farthest North – Fritjof Nansen

I have a massive crush on Nansen; there’s no denying it. I’m fascinated by so much about him; all his adventures, his thirst for scientific knowledge, and his humanitarian work. This is the story of the Fram expedition, to take a ship through the polar sea locked in the ice, and reach the top of the world. And on the way, demonstrate excellent leadership and establish the science of oceanography. Get the book here.

  • The Blue Fox – Sjón

Fabulous, in the original sense of the word, and beautifully poetic, the atmosphere of this novella is as dark and chilling as the Icelandic winter in which it is set. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will transport you to a different world.  You can find it here.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any North themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to running this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.