Walking in Scotland, an introduction
A walking holiday in Scotland is high on the wish list of many enthusiastic walkers. The stunning scenery, sense of wilderness and the fascinating Scottish cultural heritage make it one of Europe’s most popular walking holiday destinations.
In this introductory guide, you’ll find information on Scotland’s geography and climate. You can read about the different Scottish regions such as the Highlands, the coast and islands, the Southern Uplands and the Central Lowlands. And you’ll find information on Scotland’s two National Parks: the Cairngorms National Park and Loch Lomond and the Trossach National Park.
Are you considering a walking holiday in Scotland? Have a look at our selection of walking holidays in Scotland.
Introductory guide to walking in Scotland
There’s information here on several important and popular long distance walks, such as the West Highland Way, The Speyside Way, the Southern Upland Way, the Kintyre Way and the Great Glen Way. This introductory guide to walking in Scotland concludes with information on when to head in Scotland for a walking holiday, and information on health safety when walking in the Scottish hills and mountains.
We hope you’ll find this information useful when planning your walking holiday in Scotland. For a wide variety of self-guided and guided walking holidays in Scotland, all offered by local independent businesses, see our holiday overview pages for Scotland: Walking holidays in Scotland.
Scotland takes up about a third of the land area of the United Kingdom, and boasts varied and scenic landscapes. Aside from mainland Scotland, there are 790 islands. The Scottisch landscape is highly varied, from rural lowlands to barren uplands, and from large cities to uninhabited islands. Scotland has the most mountainous terrain of the whole of the UK. The country can be divided into three topographical areas; the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the hills of the Scottisch Lowlands, and the Southern Uplands.
The Scottish mountains and hills
The Scottisch mountains and hills have their own classification system based on their height. The highest peaks are the Munros, with heights over 3000 feet /914.4 m. It currently comprises 283 peaks, and includes the 10 highest mountains in Scotland, that are at the same time the highest in the UK. The most well-known are Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain at 1344m, and the Cairn Gorm at 1244m, a prominent peak that has named the whole Cairngorms mountain area.
View on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, from the south. Ben Nevis is a Munro.
Other categories are the Corbetts (2500-3000 feet / 762-914.4 m), the Grahams (2000-2500 feet / 609.6-762 m), the Donalds (hills in Scottish lowlands over 2000 feet (609.6 m) and the Marilyns (hills in the British Isles that have a relative height of at least 150 m).
The Southern Uplands
The Southern uplands make up about 20% of the country of Scotland , and consist of a continuous belt of hills with broad valleys and fertile plains. The highest peak in this area is 815m, and the scenery is spectacular, even though it is of a gentler nature than that of the Scottish Highlands. The Southern uplands are the least populated area of Scotland, being a very rural and mainly agricultural region.
Parts of the areas are forested and you will also find many areas of open moorland here. Some of the hills in this area include the Galloway hills, the Cheviot hills (along the border with England), and the Moorfoot hills. The Southern Upland way, a 212 mile (341 km) long-distance walk that connects Portpatrick in the west and Cockburnspath in the east runs through the Southern uplands.
Southern uplands near Bogg in Scotland.
The Scottish Highlands
Well know mountain areas in the Scottish Highlands include the Northwest Highlands, the Grampians, the Cairngorms that form part of the Grampians, and the Cuillein that are found in the Isle of Skye.
The Northwest Highlands are found in the Northern part of Scotland, that is separated from the Grampians to the south by the Great Glen. The Great Glen is a series of glens (long u-shaped valleys) much of which consists of a series of Lochs that are connected by rivers. The Great Glen runs along a large geological fault line and has always been an important travelling route.
Northwest Highlands of Scotland, landscape scene between Altandhu and Achiltibuie.
The Northwest Highlands are characterised by steep, glacier-carved mountains, valleys and interspersed plains. Mountain peaks of over 800 m are common in this area, but Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain is found in a mountain range to the south. The Northwest highlands have a surprisingly mild climate considering the terrain and latitude, which is cause by the influence of the Gulf stream. Only very few people live in the Northwest Highlands.
The West Highland Way, a long distance walking route, runs through the Scottish highlands.
The Grampians & the Cairngorms
The Grampians are a large mountain area that lie just south of the Great Glen. This area includes the Cairngorms, that form the east part of the Grampians and are a part of the Cairngorms National Park (see further below). Two of Scotland (and Britain’s) highest mountains are found here, the Ben Nevis at 1344 m and the Ben Macdui at 1309 m.
View on the Cairngorms in Scotland, taken from Geal Charn.
The Cairngorms consist of a large elevated plateau with with low, rounded glacial mountains. This is the coldest area in the UK, with the lowest temperature on record and the highest wind speed recorded here. The mountains offer spectacular scenery and are a popular area for walking.
The Cuillin mountains on Skye
The Cuillin mountains on Skye are among the spectacular and most impressive in Scotland. The coastline of Skye is a series of peninsulas and bays radiating out from the Cuillin range. These mountains are very dark in colour, and are said to be the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland. The Red Hills to the south have a more gentle character with more rounded weathered slopes.
View over Loch Leathan with the Cuillin mountains in the background.
The Scottisch coast and the Scottish Islands
The Scottish coast is extremely indented, especially the West coast, where long headlands are separated by long fjord-like sea lochs. The East coast is more regular. Here you will find large estuaries or firths, and long sandy beaches.
Most of the 790 Scottish island are located to the North and West of the mainland. There are three distinct groups of islands, the Shetland islands, the Hebrides and the Orkney islands.
The Hebrides are the many islands located to the west of mainland Scotland. They are divided in the outer and inner Hebrides, with the Inner Hebrides including the island of Skye, Rum, Eigg, Arran. Kintyre and Mull. The outer Hebrides include the Isle of Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist, and Barra (Barraigh). The islands have a varied topography, with Mull, Skye and Arran known for their mountainous terrain. The island of Lewis and Harris is Scotland’s largest island. Many of the islands are swept by strong tides, and the Corryvreckan tide race between Scarba and Jura is one of the largest whirlpools in the world.
Isle of mull, view on Loch Scridain and Ben More.
The Orkney islands
The Orkney archipelago consists of 70 islands, of which 20 are inhabited. These islands are mainly low, with a notable absence of trees and they offer some scenic open landscapes for walking.
The Shetland islands
The Shetland islands lie 80 km north-east from the Orkney islands. The largest island, that is simply known as mainland, is Scotland’s third largest island. The islands have been under Scandinavian influence in historic times, and only in the 15th century did they become part of Scotland. As a result, the local culture is a mix of Nordic and Scottish heritage. Of the 100 islands, only sixteen are inhabited. The islands have a complex geology, a rugged coastline and many green rolling hills. Famous is of course the Shetland pony which has been an important part of the Shetland farming traditions. They are, for their size, the strongest of all the horse breeds.
Tombolo between the mainland und St. Ninian’s Isle, Shetland Islands, Scotland
The Central Lowlands
The Central Lowlands lie in between the Highlands and the Southern Uplands. They form about 20% of the Scotland’ s land area. Large reserves of coal and iron in this area have been the basis of the industrialisation and wealth of Scotland, and many canals and railways were built. Most of the Scottish population lives here, and the country’s largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh are also found in this part. Although this area is known as the Scottish lowlands, also this area has significant hilly areas and because they are close to the urban areas, these are popular with walkers and hikers. Well known areas include the Sidlaws, the Ochid Hills and the Campsie Fells.
The Campsie Fells and Blane Valley, popular areas for walking in the Central Lowlands in Scotland.
Scotland has a surprisingly mild climate when you compare it to other countries on the same latitude such as parts of Canada. Ice bergs are a common occurrence there. However, Scotland is under the influence of the warm Gulf stream, and as result the weather is generally mild. However, the weather is quite changeable, which means walkers need to be cautious and well prepared for all circumstances.
View on a section of the West Highland way in winter.
Generally, Scotland is colder than the rest of the UK, and the Western coastal areas are warmer than the East and inland areas. The amount of rain that falls in Scotland varies widely by location. The Western Highlands are one of the wettest places in the UK. This is because warm air coming from the sea is forced up at the mountainous coast, cools down and condenses, forming rain clouds. Eastern Scotland receives much less rain, lying in the rain shadow of the mountains in the west. Snow falls in the high mountains, especially in the West. Total hours of sunshine also vary wildly, with the east and south-western coast being the sunniest places. Scotland can also be very wind, with the windiest places being the North and West, and the islands.
The changeable weather conditions in Scotland often result in amazing sights and very photogenic dramatic landscapes.
Scotland’s National Parks
There are two National Parks in Scotland. The Cairngorms national Park is Britain’s largest National Park, and twice as big as Scotland’s second; Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
The Cairngorms National Park
The park was established in 2003, extended in 2010, and covers the Cairngorms range of mountains, and surrounding hills. The Cairngorm Mountains are a spectacular landscape, similar in appearance to the Hardangervidda National Park of Norway in having a large upland plateau. The park is huge, being twice as big as for example the Lake District National Park. Five of Scotland’s six highest mountains are found within the park. A major feature is the arctic wilderness, the montane zone that is found above 600 m.
View on the Cairngorms in Scotland, with the river Dee in the valley below.
Over 17,000 people live in the area in towns, villages, hamlets, and houses in the countryside. Interesting wildlife includes Golden Eagle, Osprey, Dotterell, Capercaillie, Wildcat and Otter. The Spey, Dee and Don valleys are all easily accessible and beautiful popular areas. The Cairngorms National Park is criss-crossed by a huge network of routes, paths and tracks both over low and high ground. There is also one recognised Long Distance Route within the Park, the Speyside Way. The heart of the mountains offers some of the most challenging high level walking in Britain.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
Loch Lomond and the Trossach National Park is where the highlands meet the lowlands. Here you can walk in a wide variety of landscapes near lochs, in the mountains, near rivers, in woodlands and on Moorland. The landscape has been shaped by vulcanism, ice, and the activities of man over thousands of years. The area around Loch Lomond is the most visited and can get quite crowded in high season. Also the Trossachs part of the park has a few lochs, with varied and interesting mountain scenery that is more off the beaten track for people preferring walking in a more quiet area.
View on Loch Lomond in Loch Lomond and the Trossach National Park.
There is a wide variety of walking trails and paths in the area, along the shores of the lochs, along rivers and mountain streams, and many are signposted. The West Highland Way, one of Scotland’s long distance path, runs through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, all along the length of Loch Lomond.
Long distance walks in Scotland
The “official” long distance walks in Scotland are proposed and financed by Scottish Natural Heritage, but maintained by local authorities. They are the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way, the Southern Upland Way and the Speyside Way. There are also many other popular longer walking routes. One of them, the Kintyre way, is also discussed here.
The West Highland Way
The West Highland way was Scotland’s first official long distance route.The route is 96 miles (154.5 km) long and uses many ancient roads such as drovers’ roads (a route for droving livestock on foot from one place to another, such as to market or between summer and winter pasture), military roads and old coaching roads. It is traditionally walked from South to North, starting at Milngavie town centre and ending at Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, Scotland and the UK’s highest mountain.
View on a section of the West Highland Way near Meall a Bhuiriadh.
There is wonderful variation in scenery and landscapes as you walk this route from the Lowlands to the Highlands. The West Highland Way also runs along the length of Loch Lomond. The route is very popular with more than 70,000 people walking the route each year. If you prefer more quiet walking, then the local holiday providers for advice on when to time your walking holiday along the West Highland Way.
The Great Glen Way
The Great Glen Way follows runs through a series of glens (long u-shaped valleys) much of which consists of a series of Lochs that are connected by rivers. The Great Glen runs along a large geological fault line and has always been an important travelling route.
View of Loch Ness from Fort Augustus, along the Great Glen Way.
The 73 miles (117 kilometres) long trail is usually walked from West to East, in about 5-6 days, following the direction of the prevailing wind.
You will walk along Lochs, including famous Loch Ness, the Caledonian Canal towpaths and see many locks along along the way. The route generally keeps to low levels and is a good introduction to long distance walking.
The Southern Upland Way
The Southern Upland Way is the only coast to coast path in Scotland that takes you right from the west coast to the east coast. The route is 212 miles (341 km) long and runs from Portpatrick in the west to Cockburnspath in the east. You will will walk through areas of gentle rolling moorlands, but there are also areas of steeper, higher and more rugged terrain. There are many interesting historical sights along the way. The sections of this long distance walk are fairly long, but can often be broken into smaller chunks.
The Southern Upland Way starts in Portpatrick and runs all the way across Scotland from coast to coast.
The Speyside Way
The Speyside Way follows the course of the river Spey in east-central Sc otland, just north of the Grampian mountains. The route is 65 m (104 km) long, starting at the Spey estuary on the coast, heading south west along the river to Aviemore in the Cairngorms. You will pass through a wide variety of scenery including woodland, moorland and pastures, passing through beautiful villages along the way.
The Speyside Way near Cromdale.
There are plans to further extend the Speyside Way to run to Newtonmore which would add another 22 miles (34.8 km) to the route. It is also possible to add a side spur, known as the Tomintoul spur, that takes you to Tomintoul, said to be the highest village in the Scottish Highlands. This addition is challenging but rewards you with spectacular scenery. The route is normally walked in 4-7 days.
The Kintyre Way
The Kintyre Way explores the remote and less visited Kintyre peninsula in West Scotland. The path literally criss-crosses the “island”, guiding you through a wide variety of landscapes with plenty of fishing villages, conifer forests, moorland and coastline along the way. The total distance of the route is 89 miles (142 km), often walked over 4-7 days. Generally the walking is easy, but one last section is a bit more challenging, being longer and going across more steep and rough terrain. The Speyside way starts at Tarbert Harbour in the north and ends at Dunaverty Bay in the south of the peninsula.
The Kintyre Way near Tarbert.
The best time for walking in Scotland
Statistically, the best chance of good weather are the months of May, June and September. In April there is still snow lingering in many places which enhances the beauty of the scenery, but the weather can be changeable in April, one moment feeling like summer and the next still like winter.
Early spring, with lingering patches of snow, can be a great time for walking in Scotland.
The most popular time of the year for walking in Scotland is May. It can get very busy on popular walking routes in May, especially on some of the popular long distance routes such as the West Highland Way. At this time of the year it is important to book your walking holiday well in advance to ensure there is accommodation available. You could also consider to start walking away from the weekends, when it will be most busy.
Beautiful dramatic skies over the Trossachs mountains in Scotland.
The summer months are also generally busy months, especially around the school holidays in July and August. Generally, the weather is more changeable in this period with also a high chance on rainy days. September to about mid October is also a beautiful time for a walking holiday in Scotland, with the changing autumn colours and often some crisp days. The East coast is generally drier and sunnier than the West coast. Winter weather prevails in the period November to March, with many footpaths covered with snow. This is not suitable for inexperienced walkers. If you do want to walk in Scotland at this time of the year it is best to not walk alone, but to be accompanied by experienced local guides.
Walking in winter in Scotland can be an great, but its best to not go alone if you are inexperienced.
Safety and walking in Scotland
In general, the weather can be extremely changeable in Scotland at any time of the year. It is important to be adequately prepared for any weather conditions, even if you set out on a beautiful bright day with blue skies. Before going walking at any time of the year in Scotland, check the weather forecast. Let someone know you are heading out for a walk, where you are going and also when you have returned.
Always be prepared for changes in the weather while walking in Scotland.
To take warm, wind and waterproof clothing is important for all body parts at any time of the year when heading for the mountains or hills. Always carry a map and a compass and know how to use them. Take enough food and water with you and also some reserves just in case. Taking extra high energy bars and hot drinks is recommended especially during the colder seasons. Wear sturdy footwear with good ankle support and carry a first aid kit.