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10 Best long distance walks in Scotland

With its Munros, glens, wild highlands, verdant pasture, and its wonderful people, trekking in Scotland is rewarding at every level.

An adventurer’s paradise, the country has to be on the list for everyone who is into serious walking and trekking.

The country, sometimes reluctantly part of Britain only for the last few hundred years (and possibly soon independent again) has a rich variety of mountains, lakes, agricultural land and deep-set culture that is as different to Southern England as porridge and kedgeree.

One important factor for the potential walker is the country’s Right to Roam, that allows people to wilderness camp almost anywhere.

England is very restricted by comparison, with heavy fines for those who camp without permission.

The Right to Roam gives you a sense of unparalleled freedom where it comes to hiking and trekking but has its drawbacks with some beauty spots defiled with rubbish by those who don’t respect the landscape as much as they should.

Midges. The safest time to walk in Scotland is summer but this is also peak midge season.

Do equip yourself with a midge net and prepare for the little blighters to bite like fury.

If you can’t face midges and want to do a winter walk?

Prepare for snow, gales and rain (you will see all three in summer at times but less so!).

When you’ve been stalked by a cloud of midges for 10 miles you may wonder whether climbing a mountain pass in a screaming gale is more pleasant but honestly, midges won’t blow you off a cliff!

So here we have it: the 10 best long distance walks in Scotland.

As always we have only ranked these in order of distance.

Beauty and reward are a highly individual thing and we just wish to inspire you to explore part or all of the walks we show.

Scottish National Trail

  • Distance: 525 miles
  • Time: 40 days + rest days
  • Start: Kirk Yetholm
  • End: Cape Wrath
  • Best for: The toughest and most varied walk in the British Isles

Running the length of the country from the border with England to the north coast, the Scottish National Trail is quite unlike any other walk you will do in the British Isles.

Unlike any other ‘National Trail’ we cover in the 10 Best series, this isn’t fully way-marked and there are sections where only experts can manage.

The further you get into the Scottish National Trail the harder it gets.

Though in parts it follows existing, way-marked trails, there are sections where there is no footpath let alone markers guiding you on the route.

Navigating over bare moorland and crossing rivers on foot, this is a trail that is for the adventuring purist.

You will see agricultural land, forest, highland, lowland and lakes as you go, and end at the barren and almost flat Cape Wrath.

 

It should be noted that this last stage is in a military firing range but is open to walkers at different parts of the year.

As with all the walks we cover in this article, you can do any combination of the 40 stages as part of a shorter break.

There are stages for every ability on this epic national trail!

Want to know more? Here’s a video of an interview with the guy who developed it, Cameron McNeish: https://youtu.be/9D6jqIn17Fc

Cape Wrath Trail

  • Distance: 226 miles
  • Time: 16 days + resupply/rest days
  • Start: Fort William
  • End: Cape Wrath
  • Best for: Exploring some of the least inhabited parts of the British Isles

When we described the hardest parts of the Scottish National Trail, we largely referred to the Cape Wrath Trail that forms part of it.

It isn’t way-marked, has extremely difficult sections and you are completely alone for days on end.

Preparing for this trek will require thinking as to logistics. Much like an assault on the North Pole, you will need to think along the lines of how you will feed yourself along the route.

Not all of us are Bear Grylls and can live off the land with a hunting knife and a knowledge of what berries you can eat! That means you need to plan in resupply stops as you go – there will be days of walking when you don’t even see a farm let alone a village.

Navigation and route planning skills need to be up there with Bear Grylls too.

There is no set route for this trek and while you can find suggestions on the internet and through locals you largely need to work things out yourself from end to end.

The terrain can be unforgiving at stretches.

You’ll need to do this in high summer (which is also peak midge season so you’ll be eaten alive) as the rivers will generally be at their lowest – there are unmarked river crossings that in winter could defeat the British Army thanks to their flow!

As walks go, the Cape Wrath Trail is the K2 of British treks. Dare you do it?

Southern Upland Way

  • Distance: 210 miles
  • Time: 12 days + rest days
  • Start: Portpatrick
  • End: Cocksburnpath
  • Best for: Walking from the west coast of the country to the east coast

This biggie is the first of our fully way-marked trails in this article, and takes you from Scotland’s west coast to its east coast along the Southern Uplands. Though the colonialist mapmakers of old didn’t always observe this when drawing the maps of today (the Indian subcontinent breaks the rule as do parts of Europe), many countries with land borders have topographical barriers.

The Southern Uplands separate the English from the Scots with their imposing hills and mountains.

Starting and ending on high cliffs, you will cross lowland and upland as you go on this journey, with a large part on a sandstone foundation called greywacke that makes for low, rolling hills.

There are granite outcrops on the route that force you high up jagged mounts as you go.

The human history of the route is compelling too, with Victorian mansions, standing stones and managed wildernesses for different hunting, not to mention long stretches of forest track.

If you’re relatively new to multi-day walks and have perhaps crossed the Brecon Beacons then this is a sensible next step before tackling one of the harder Scottish routes as you develop your trekking career.

There are stages where you may need to pitch camp thanks to their length and difficulty – this can’t always be B&B hopped.

John O’Groats Trail

  • Distance: 146 miles
  • Time: 14 days
  • Start: Inverness
  • End: John O’Groats
  • Best for: Exploring Scotland’s NE coastline – or a final leg of a Land’s End to John O’Groats walk.

Eleven of the 14 stages of this walk are effectively coast path with high cliffs that also mean brutal ascents at times.

The British Isles coastline is one of the last truly wild margins of the archipelago we call home, and is often some of the most stunning to behold.

The route from Land’s End to John O’Groats is a classic for UK adventurers and charity fundraisers with people heading between the two farthest points on the UK mainland in all sorts of sane and insane ways.

This partially way-marked route would form the final two weeks of a trek on this 874 mile challenge.

We would put this route above the Southern Uplands trail if we were putting the treks in order of difficulty.

Though some of it involves minor roads, there are parts where you will have to ford rivers on foot and jump fences (perfectly legally!) to carry on your way.

Other sections are high on cliff edges – check the weather forecast as a good blow could end your walk in rescue.

In addition there are bog and tussocky stretches that make this a challenging walk at times, even if you can sleep in a warm bed every night as you go!

A charity has been formed to improve this route so as the years go by the more technical sections will be made safer and easier.

West Highland Way

  • Distance: 93 miles
  • Time: 8 days
  • Start: Milngavie
  • End: Fort William
  • Best for: The first way-marked long distance Scottish trek and still one of the best

If you’re fit enough to walk on Southern English terrain, perhaps the South Downs Way, for a week non-stop then you should manage this.

That said much of the views you will have are just a different league to that of England!

This is the first fully way-marked long distance walking route to be launched in Scotland and remains one of the most popular.

This doesn’t mean 10-long queues at stiles but it does mean if you’re a complete sociopath then you should consider another walk!

Leaving the suburbs of Glasgow you start in verdant agricultural land before passing through glens and highlands until you reach the ‘adventurer’s capital of Scotland’, Fort William at the base of Ben Nevis.

There are tough climbs but you won’t bag any Munros as you do this – it is one of appreciating such peaks from near and far but never quite getting to the top.

If wilderness camping is your bag, then you can stop and camp but for those who like a warm bath to loosen their limbs every night, you can B&B hop this too.

If you fancy another seven days on the hill, add this to the next walk – the East Highland Way.

East Highland Way

  • Distance: 83 miles
  • Time: 7 days
  • Start: Fort William
  • End: Aviemore
  • Best for: A lesser known (and non-way-marked) Highland route

For those exploring Scotland over a longer period of time, you can use this as an interconnect between three other routes – the Great Glen Way and the West Highland Way to the west and the Speyside Way to the east.

That said, this isn’t just a route to be trudged between two other links on a longer journey. It is wild and challenging at places and is one where you need navigation skills up there above the John O’Groats trail (but nowhere near the Cape Wrath Trail!).

Like the West Highland Way you don’t need to be super-fit for this but obviously that will help.

You both need sharp route planning and navigation skills, some knowledge of fording rivers and other obstacles, and the ability to handle the odd lung-busting climbs.

Do judge rivers according to safety – remember that wading through even a foot of running water can be extremely dangerous.

Don’t attempt these in spate conditions.

Though a lot of the walk is on forest tracks you will be rewarded with views of some of the highest mountain ranges in Scotland as you go, with the ski resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms at the very end.

Skye Trail

  • Distance: 80 miles
  • Time: 7 days
  • Start: Rubha Hunish
  • End: Broadford
  • Best for: Taking in the best views the Isle of Skye has to offer

This is another walk for experts only.

The rewards of the un-marked and often pathless trek are some of the best views in the whole of the British Isles.

To get that reward you need to know what you’re doing as a hardcore trekker.

As well as the extraordinary topography you will see sad dead villages that were destroyed during the Highland Clearances, a dark spell of Scottish history where effective robber barons stole the land from those who lived on and worked it.

The Trotternish Ridge is one of those stages where once you’ve committed to starting it the only way off is by finishing it.

There are also stretches that lack paths and you will have to navigate by map and compass as you go.

Rob Roy Way

  • Distance: 80 – 109 miles
  • Time: 7-9 days
  • Start: Drymen
  • End : Pitlochry
  • Best for: Forest, glen, highland and lowland…

You will wander through small towns and villages as you take this walk in, and get to enjoy the human and geographical splendour of this wonderful area of Scotland.

It isn’t the toughest technical walk on our Top 10 list but you need to be able to handle some big climbs on tired legs to manage it.

There are two routes on this walk – the shorter, seven day route takes in the views and stops in more villages while the longer, nine-day route dog-legs 29 additional miles through a wilder section, taking in the Highlands at some of their finest.

As ever you won’t hit any great summit but you will see many as you go.

A fair bit is on minor roads but you will leave these for decent periods as you head up tracks, cycleways and footpaths.

Overall, a great introduction to the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands without needing Bear Grylls skills!

The Great Glen Way

  • Distance: 73.5 miles
  • Time: 6 days
  • Start: Fort William
  • End: Inverness
  • Best for: Lake views and highland scenes

The Great Glen is a topographical split running NE-SW across Scotland.

Passing between high mountains and hills, you won’t be brutally challenged unless you take the high route of stage 5 between Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit – otherwise you can stay relatively low on undulating but un-challenging terrain.

Even if it isn’t going to require the navigation skills of an SAS soldier and the leg muscles of a highland bull, you will still see Scotland in some of its finest attire. There is a sea-to-sea route for ships that follows canals, rivers and the great lakes along the waterways of the trek, but it certainly isn’t flat!

Walking along the lochs of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, and the forests above Loch Ness from Fort William to Inverness, this is an immensely satisfying route that if you’re new to multi-day walking and want to be impressed, will not leave you short of things to appreciate.

Speyside Way

  • Distance: 72 miles
  • Time: 8 days (more if you enjoy the whisky too much)
  • Start: Buckle
  • End: Tomintoul
  • Best for: Whisky at its best!

One of the best ways to get over a hangover is to sweat it out.

Passing several of Scotland’s best distilleries, this is one of those walks where human endeavour is as important to the walk as the sheer beauty of the landscape.

This could be described as the mother of all drinking sessions with a walk every so often to clear the fog.

We don’t recommend getting pie-eyed too often but those with a taste for Scotland’s greatest export may have problems tasting everything they can get their hands on.

Just have your wallet handy and a clear conscience as some of those brews are extremely expensive!

This isn’t a case of stumbling down a riverside between sessions – there are some challenging sections such as Ballindalloch and Grantown, where you need a clear head and your body well hydrated to manage between the villages.

The route is well way-marked though, and can be very enjoyable, especially if you only wet your lips and don’t treat this as a challenge for your liver!

Final Thoughts

These walks give a broad geographical spread across Scotland.

All the treks can be done in part – a few days here and a few there, and present a way of seeing Scotland in all its faces from wild isolation to busy city and friendly villages.

Distinctly culturally separate and in many places fiercely independent from their English overlords, this is a country that simply has to be explored whether you’re a mountaineer of the highest calibre or someone who like a very good walk.

There’s something for everyone here, and that is the beauty of Scotland in a nutshell.

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