Ever since we completed a 4,500 mile continuous walk across Europe at the start of the millennium we’ve loved multi-day hiking. We’ve since dedicated most of our time to exploring Scotland on foot and helping others get out there too. When Vertebrate Publishing said they wanted to publish a book showcasing the best long-distance routes in Scotland, it was an offer too good to refuse. In this blog post we explain why we love walking from place to place so much and give a brief taste of ten of the twenty-five routes detailed in Great Scottish Walks.
Multi-day hiking has a special kind of magic. Out on the trail, the complexity of modern life falls away, leaving only the essentials – you focus on setting your own pace, finding your way and seeking shelter and food. Your goals are clear, and you steadily become attuned to the landscape, wildlife, changing weather, and the daily rhythm; the feeling of freedom and release can be almost overwhelming.
Since the West Highland Way was established in 1980, snaking its way up from the edge of Glasgow and through the Highlands, the popularity of multi-day hiking in Scotland has exploded. Luckily so has the number of trails. For a small country, Scotland certainly packs a punch in the variety of its landscape. Long-distance trails take in the rolling hills, wide rivers and historic towns of the Borders; the tranquil canal towpaths and industrial heritage of the central belt; the celebrated landscapes of lochs and bens of the Highlands; and stunning coastlines of sandy beaches and rugged clifftops. Along the way you’ll find friendly bed & breakfasts and hostels, remote bothies or wild camps under the stars. Some routes offer the camaraderie of the trail, meeting other walkers with a host of places to relax and refuel, while others offer solitude and the chance to be completely self-reliant. Whether you have a long weekend or a multi-week challenge in mind, there is a Great Scottish Walk for you.
The Caterans were a wild bunch of cattle thieves who brought a reign of terror and bloodshed to these glens from the middle ages to the seventeenth century. While the lawlessness may have given way to more peaceful farming, fishing and forestry, the borderlands of Perthshire and Angus retain their remote feel and provide a quiet respite from Scotland’s popular mountain and coastal hotspots. This 104km circular trail provides a fantastic way to really immerse yourself in the region, while plenty of accommodation options allows a leisurely pace.
Many people’s first big Scottish hiking experience, the West Highland Way is rightly popular and the route to do if you want to meet like-minded souls from all parts of the globe. Life-long friendships have been struck over evenings spent patching blisters and sharing a pint or a dram or two.
This was Scotland’s first long-distance walk – opened in 1980 after years of campaigning and work by enthusiasts. Today it’s an iconic route which attracts over 35,000 thru-hikers each year. Although camping is a popular option, there are accommodation options for all budgets and levels of comfort, as well as companies offering baggage transfer, guided and self-guided holidays on the trail.
For many, this is their first Scottish multi-day hike and the camaraderie along the trail tends to be as important a part of the experience as the stunning Highland landscapes. Linking the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William – the Outdoor Capital of Scotland – it traverses the beautiful east side of Loch Lomond before passing between Munro peaks, crossing the wilds of Rannoch Moor, climbing with great views down Glencoe before continuing to the finish in the shadow of Ben Nevis.
It’s an impossible ask to reduce the twenty-five trails we’ve chosen for the book to just one for this category, so we’ve chosen three incredibly scenic trails but all twenty-five cross stunning landscapes.
Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s most beloved and popular landscapes, and the obvious centrepiece to what was Scotland’s first National Park. Out to the west, however, is the Cowal peninsula, a land far less known and too often overlooked.
The Loch Lomond and Cowal Way aims to put this right, offering great variety as it runs the length of the peninsula to end at Inveruglas on the shores of Loch Lomond. The trail passes many lochs and waterfalls, stunning coastal scenery, and also heads through silent forests and crosses rugged hill passes and lonely moorland. Along the way it visits a host of welcoming and picturesque settlements far away from the tourist trail. This quieter landscape offers better chances for wildlife encounters too – you may see red squirrels, seals and otters, while golden eagles and buzzards rule the skies.
This unique long distance walk runs the length of the Outer Hebrides – known locally as the Western Isles – starting on Vatersay in the south and finishing in Stornoway on Lewis – using two ferry crossings and six causeways.
With little tree cover or shelter, the weather coming in off the Atlantic can be brutal at times, and the committing nature of a pre-planned route can mean long days battling the elements. The reward is to see and understand a truly special landscape, with incredible, vast sandy beaches, mountains and open moors blasted by the winds; home to a unique culture and the heartland of the Gaelic language.
A personal favourite of ours, from the days when we lived at the north end of the Isle of Skye. We helped renovate the bothy which sits at the start of the trail and love hearing about the growing numbers of people enjoying the week-long walk.
Taking in some of the most iconic landscapes in all Scotland, the Skye Trail provides a tough challenge aimed at experienced hillwalkers and backpackers. It’s an unofficial and unmarked route, but for those capable it ranks as one of the finest long-distance walks in Britain.
Starting at the northernmost point on the Isle of Skye, the route begins by the coast, heads down the dramatic spine of the Trotternish Ridge, passes the island’s capital, Portree and on through the Cuillin mountains before taking in the ruined villages forcibly abandoned during the Highland Clearances. The route is very exposed in places and the weather is sometimes brutal; many hikers opt for April or May when drier weather is often on the cards and the midges have yet to fully emerge. Wildlife abounds and passing through communities on foot gives a real opportunity to see how life is currently lived as well as passing historic sites.
While many of the twenty-five trails in the book pass fascinating historic sites and offer the chance to immerse yourself in local culture, the Borders Abbeys Way provides these gems every step of the way.
The Scottish Borders are little known to walkers when compared to the obvious scenic splendour of the Highlands or the wide open spaces of Galloway. Make no mistake though – the Borders are sheer delight. This fine circuit links their four magnificent medieval abbeys, using well-waymarked paths across a varied landscape of farmland, heather moors and stately rivers between the market and mill towns that give the region so much of its character.
A circular route is always satisfying and with great transport options you can decide to start the walk from Melrose, Jedburgh, Selkirk, Hawick or Kelso. However with the reopening of the Borders Railway providing a fast and frequent service from Edinburgh many walkers now set off from Tweedbank. Tackling the route over a leisurely five days allows plenty of time to explore the hidden corners and secret delights along the way. We can attest to the fact that some of the best pubs in Scotland are to be found on this hike!
The Southern Upland Way is a long trail across southern Scotland, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea, and is the most challenging of the officially recognised Scottish trails. Most walkers keep the prevailing winds at their backs by walking it from west to east, starting from Portpatrick on the Rhins of Galloway. Unlike the West Highland Way, it keeps to the higher ground, crossing range after range of rolling hills en route to Cockburnspath on the North Sea.
This is a rugged and strenuous route, requiring a high level of self-sufficiency if walking it in one go. There are some very long days if you want to start and finish at a road end or accommodation and therefore the route is best suited to backpackers who love wild camping. This gives you the freedom to divide the route as fitness and weather dictates. There are loads of great places to pitch a tent as well as a couple of open bothies on route as well as a mix of formal campsites, B&Bs and hotels for when a little luxury is called for. The reward for any hardship is an epic walk through a part of Scotland too often overlooked. Expect solitude on the hills punctuated by characterful towns and villages. Only around 1000 people complete the whole trail each year – a real accomplishment.
At just 47km this is the shortest trail in the book but it packs a real punch in terms of coastal scenery, interesting history and great places to eat and to stay. Opened in 2000 to celebrate the millennium, the West Island Way was Scotland's first official island long-distance footpath. Devised by local ramblers, the walk is an exploration of the Isle of Bute, set at the gateway to the Firth of Clyde, with stunning views to Arran and Ailsa Craig. While some challenge themselves with an epic one-day walk, most people split the route over three days, either stopping along the way, or using buses to return to the island capital – Rothesay – each night. Bute became a popular retreat from Glasgow during the heyday of the paddle steamer, and Rothesay is packed with magnificent grand villas making it a lovely place to stay.
Stretching northwards from Fort William to the northwesternmost point of the UK mainland, the Cape Wrath Trail is a serious undertaking. Calling it a trail is really a misnomer – with no waymarkers, sometimes no path and lacking bridges at several potentially serious river crossings, this is very much a self-supported adventure for those with experience. However, the very things that may (and should) put some off – the remote and rugged terrain, long stretches between resupply points, and little respite from the elements in the wettest part of Scotland, are also what attracts so many hikers to accept its unique challenge. The landscape is – quite simply – unmatched.
Usually taking between fourteen and seventeen days to complete, most walkers begin at Fort William to make the most of any prevailing winds and the satisfying finish at the iconic Cape Wrath headland, the northwestern corner of mainland Britain. This is primarily a backpacking route – most hikers will carry a tent and food for several days at a time. However mountain bothies (very basic open shelters maintained by volunteers) are a big part of the trail, providing much-needed shelter in bad weather and friendly evenings swapping bog and midge horror stories. The route requires excellent navigation skills and a fair bit of previous hillwalking experience but most people who complete it describe it as a 'life changing experience' – in a good way, we think!
The prize for this one has to go to the Scottish National Trail. Spanning over 850km this informal network links existing walking routes to form a continuous south-to-north trek, starting in Kirk Yetholm right on the English border and leading all the way to Cape Wrath in the far northwest.
Described by outdoors broadcaster Cameron McNeish as “a route that I believe can stand comparison with the best walking routes anywhere in the world”, the trail has been gaining popularity both from thru-hikers – tackling it in five weeks or longer – and those taking years to complete it in more manageable chunks. Walking south to north means that relatively easy, more established paths are followed to start; the route becomes increasingly more challenging and dramatic as it heads north, ending with a long stretch shared with the Cape Wrath Trail.
So what are you waiting for?
We could go on – there are trails that are great for wildlife, eating wonderful food, pretty villages, beaches, forts and castles, and everyone setting out on a long-distance walk will add their own experiences and discoveries into the mix. What we’ve done with the book is highlight the twenty-five long trails that we think offer the best Scotland has to offer. For each one, the book contains an overview of what to expect from start to finish as well as the highlights and downsides to help you find the perfect walk for your adventure or as a present/hint for the keen walker in your family or group of friends. Go on … what are you waiting for?