VisitScotland – A Walker’s Guide to Scotland
By Jodi Mullen
With nearly 2,000 recognised routes and some of the most breath-taking landscapes in the British Isles, Scotland is a country perfect for walking and has something to offer to walkers of all experience and fitness levels.
Wherever you go in Scotland, there’s likely to be a great walking route within easy reach, whether it’s a stroll through gently rolling hills of the Scottish borders, exploring the tranquil shores of Loch Lomond or the majestic glens and moorlands of one of the country’s long distance walking trails like the famous West Highland Way.
The sheer variety of things to do – and the challenges that some of the trails themselves, not to mention Scotland’s weather can throw up – mean that it can be difficult to know where to start. Our guide will give you all the information you need to start planning a walking trip to Scotland and fill you in on some of the country’s best trails, as well as a few lesser known gems.
Scotland’s two largest cities Edinburgh and Glasgow – the starting points for many spectacular Scottish walking routes – are only a short drive from the North of England. Dundee is around 90 minutes from Edinburgh while Inverness and Aberdeen are about 3 hours’ drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively.
For those travelling from further south or who prefer not to drive, each of the cities listed above has its own airport and is served by regular flights from all over the UK. It’s also possible to fly to many of Scotland’s islands via Edinburgh or Glasgow, including Orkney, Shetland and numerous islands in the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Some of these journeys – like the flight to the island of Barra and its beach landing – are unique experiences in their own right.
Where to Go
One of the great misconceptions about walking in Scotland is that much of the country’s most stunning scenery is remote and inaccessible but actually the opposite is true. Loch Lomond is only an hour’s drive from Glasgow and most of the islands in the Inner Hebrides can be reached in just a couple of hours. Similarly, Edinburgh is only a short distance from the underappreciated rolling hills of the Scottish Borders and an hour’s drive to Highland Perthshire.
Glasgow is a good starting point for the John Muir Way and is at one end of the West Highland Way. Fort William, about two and a half hours drive north of Glasgow, is at the opposite end and is itself a good starting point for the West Highland Way for the Great Glen Way northeast to Inverness. Those attempting the ambitious Cape Wrath Trail can also start their journey in Fort William. On the east coast, the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals route begins in Edinburgh, which is also just a short distance over the Firth of Forth from the beginning of the Fife Coastal Path.
One of the most delightful aspects of walking in Scotland, especially in the Highlands, is the prevalence of bothies. The word ‘bothy’ refers to a basic shelter left unlocked and free for walkers and other outdoors enthusiasts to use and there are over 100 dotted around the country, most of which are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association.
As well as being warm and comfortable and a very welcome sight at the end of a long day of walking, many bothies can be found in the midst of truly stunning scenery in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of Scotland.
Climate and Clothing
Such is the changeability of the weather in Scotland that many residents joke it is possible experience all four seasons in one Scottish day. While largely exaggerated, there is a grain of truth in this statement and the only thing you can really rely on with Scottish weather is its unpredictability whether from day-to-day or hour-to-hour.
With all this in mind, the most sensible approach when choosing appropriate clothing for walking – especially in late autumn, winter and spring – is to use the layering system. Regardless of the time of year, you will want a waterproof layer in anticipation of sudden rain showers and a good pair of walking boots. When walking longer trails with patches of rougher ground, it is advisable to bring a pair of trainers or sports sandals to rest your feet when the opportunity arises.
Scotland’s topography is highly varied and you can expect to encounter many different types of terrain on most of the longer routes. In general routes in the lowlands tend to be gentler and have more well marked tracks and paths while Highland and mountain trails can involve everything from rocky paths to patches of heathery moorlands and peat bogs. When planning your walk don’t underestimate the impact this terrain will have on your speed and the distance you can cover within a day.
In elevated areas, especially in the Highlands, it can snow at any time of the year and encountering patches of snow, even in fine weather, is not uncommon. During the winter months and early spring, snow in these areas can be particularly hazardous; it is advised to avoid these areas unless you have the necessary skills and experience to cope with the challenges the weather can present.
Recommended multi-day walks in Scotland:
West Highland Way
No article about walking in Scotland would be complete without a mention of the iconic 151km long West Highland Way. Scotland’s oldest long distance route, the West Highland Way begins at Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow and runs to Fort William and the foothills of Ben Nevis. On the way it takes in Loch Lomond, overlooks Glencoe and a huge variety of majestic terrain ranging from rugged moorland to glorious glens. Depending on your ability and experience, the route can be made more or less challenging by incorporating climbs to some of the hilltops along the way.
John Muir Way
One of Scotland’s newest walking trails, the 212km John Muir Way stretches from coast to coast in southern Scotland, connecting the towns of Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde with Dunbar on the North Sea. Named after 19th century conservationist John Muir, the route retraces the journey from his birthplace to where he took ship to emigrate to North America. Notable sights along the way include the Campsie Fells, portions of the Antonine Wall, the Forth Bridges and a mixture of rural tranquillity and bold industrial and modern architecture.
Fife Coastal Path
The recently extended Fife Coastal Path incorporates much of the coastline of the historic Kingdom of Fife from the mouth of the River Forth to the mouth of the River Tay. The 183km kilometre long trail is quite straightforward and mostly flat and easily accessible from either Edinburgh or Dundee. Highlights along the route include numerous picturesque former fishing villages, the town of St Andrews famous for its university and as the home of golf. There are also miles upon miles of glorious beaches and forests dotted with castles and prehistoric monuments, making the Fife Coast a real treasure trove for explorers.
Cape Wrath Trail
One for the truly experienced and ambitious, the 378km Cape Wrath Trail is the longest walking route in Scotland. Running from Forth William to Cape Wrath in the far north of Sutherland, the trail is unmarked and does not have an officially mapped route. However for those willing to brave the Cape Wrath trail the rewards are great indeed. It incorporates some of the most wild and rugged terrain in the whole of Britain and can include the iconic sights of Glenfinnan or the Great Glen depending on how you approach the route.
Recommended weekend routes and walking mini-breaks in Scotland:
West Island Way
The West Island Way is a 48km trail on the Isle of Bute that incorporates the diverse landscape of the island itself – a mixture of beaches, farmland, forests, bogs and moors – as well as excellent views over to the nearby island of Arran. The route offers different levels of challenge with some optional diversions to higher elevations or through moor and forest well suited to experienced walkers.
The Dava Way in Speyside runs from the picturesque town of Grantown-on-Spey on the fringes of the Cairngorms National Park to the town of Forres not far from the Moray coast. The 38km walk follows a section of the now disused old Highland Railway Line, making it easy going for most of the route. The trail offers a fine mixture of scenery including the mountainous Cairngorms, the moorlands around Dava and idyllic farmland nearer to Forres. As there is no accommodation along the route, many walkers attempt to complete the Dava Way in a single day.
Three Lochs Way
The Three Lochs Way in Argyll is a new long-distance walking route that covers some of the most breath-taking scenery in lowland Scotland. The 53km trail begins at Balloch on the southern shores of Loch Lomond, crosses moorland to Loch Gare at Helensburgh and works its way into the mountainous area to the east of Loch Long before returning to Loch Lomond at Inveruglas to the north west of the lake.
Forth & Clyde and Union Canal
Bisecting Scotland’s Central belt, this 100km walking trail along the old towpaths of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals can easily be broken down into smaller chunks to suit a walk of any distance. Parts of the trail are also incorporated in the John Muir Way. Starting out in central Edinburgh, the route passes through Scotland’s former industrial heartland and incorporates two of Scotland’s newest and most iconic visitor attractions; the enormous horsehead sculptures of The Kelpies and modern engineering marvel the Falkirk Wheel.
Of course, these are just a small selection of the thousands of different walking routes Scotland has to offer. All of them can be tackled independently but there are also various tour companies who offer pre-planned walking holidays to Scotland. For more information, please visit http://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities/walking/