The Scottish National Trail is an unofficial route that runs the length of Scotland. Devised by outdoors writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish, the hike links many of Scotland’s existing long-distance trails together to create one mammoth challenge.
McNeish was inspired to launch the trail after visiting Nepal when they had just created the Great Himalayan Trail and believed the UK needed something similar. In 2012 the Scottish National Trail was officially launched and people have been taking to it ever since, to complete it in its entirety or a desired subsection.
The route runs 864 kilometres from Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border to Cape Wrath in the far north of the Highlands.
The trail combines the end of the Pennine Way, St Cuthbert’s Way, the Southern Upland Way, the West Highland Way and the Rob Roy Way, amongst others.
Most walkers tackle individual legs of a section at a time, with the southern half of the route being most accessible.
If you fancy finding out more about what you’re signing up for, Cameron McNeish made a two-part BBC TV documentary and has also written a book about the route called ‘Scotland End to End’.
- One of the most varied and spectacular walks in the world
- Explore the Scottish Highlands by foot to experience it in the same way our ancestors did
- Regarded as Britain’s toughest and most varied backpacking challenge
If you are completing a short section of the route you may choose to drive to your hotel or B&B and leave the car there.
For anyone hiking the full trail, the best option is to use Edinburgh as a base and take the 52 bus to Kelso, where you can take the onward 81 or 81A service to Kirk Yetholm. For middle subsections of the route, you will need to travel by train or bus to the largest town nearby and arrange a shuttle or taxi.
Edinburgh is connected to the rest of the country by regular trains, buses and major roads but also has a cross-border train terminal and international airport.
Completing the Trail in five weeks is doable but Scotland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable and two weeks’ padding will allow ample time to manage contingencies.
If you’re an all-weather hiker and camper, and up for the challenge, it is possible to complete it in a month.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The hike combines sections of various official routes mentioned above, which are maintained and signed by the National Trust and other charities.
However, other parts – including sections through central Perthshire, the Cairngorms and the Northwest Highlands – make for a more serious backpacking route with neither waymarking nor a continuous path.
There are also river crossings along the way that can be hazardous after heavy rainfall. Although this throws in a bit of variety, extreme care and caution should be taken if hiking alone and preparation is a must.
The difficultly of the trail generally increases as the route heads northwards and overall there is around 20,620 metres of climbing.
It goes without saying that anyone undertaking a long-distance hike such as this needs to be physically fit and able. Having walked some of the UK’s longer trails is good training but you should not underestimate the strain from carrying a heavy pack on the steep hills.
On top of this, for anyone tackling the northern-most part of the Scottish National Trail, it is worth doing some serious hill walking off the usual trails.
If you’re going alone it will be a mental test as much as a physical one, so look at all the potential hazards along your hike and research where and when you will stop, or how you’ll handle situations such as injury or getting lost.
As it is an unofficial trail, made up of National Trails and other paths, there is no need for a permit on any part of the Scottish National Trail.
Guided or Self-Guided
Most people will choose to design their own itinerary and tackle the trail self-guided.
The Walk Highlands website provides a great guide on hiking the Scottish National Trail but be prepared to deviate from the recommended course if the weather turns or if there are additional stops you would like to make.
Due to its length and location in the north of the UK, hikers could encounter any type of weather, including thunderstorms, heatwaves, or winds that would knock you off your feet.
The best time to go is to set off mid-May and touch down on the finish line in late June.
Below is a list of stages and distances, where most people would walk one stage per day. The first week has some big distances to be covered, but much of it is on flat or gentle gradients.
- Kirk Yetholm to Harestanes – 28km
- Harestanes to Melrose – 24km
- Melrose to Traquair – 29km
- Traquair to Peebles – 12km
- Peebles to West Linton – 21km
- West Linton to Balerno – 25km
- Balerno to Slateford – 5km
- Slateford to Ratho – 5km
- Ratho to Linlithgow – 21km
- Linlithgow to Falkirk – 5km
- Falkirk to Kilsyth – 18km
- Kilsyth to Milngavie – 25km
- Milngavie to Drymen – 19km
- Drymen to Aberfoyle – 5km
- Aberfoyle to Callander – 25km
- Callander to Comrie – 5km
- Comrie to Loch Freuchie – 30km
- Freuchie to Aberfeldy – 20km
- Aberfeldy to Pitlochry – 15km
- Pitlochry to Blair Atholl – 75km
- Blair Atholl to Bynack – 27km
- Bynack to Glen Feshie – 25km
- Glen Feshie to Kingussie – 5km
- Kingussie to Laggan – 25km
- Laggan to Fort Augustus – 5km
- Fort Augustus – Mandally – 75km
- Mandally to Poulary – 5km
- Poulary to Cluanie – 5km
- Cluanie to Morvich – 26km
- Morvich to Maol-bhuidhe – 5 km
- Maol-bhuidhe to Craig – 25 km
- Craig to Kinlochewe – 5 km
- Kinlochewe to Shenavall – 25 km
- Shenavall to Inverlael – 75 km
- Inverlael to Oykel Bridge – 5 km
- Oykel Br. to Inchnadamph – 5 km
- Inchnadamph to Kylestrome – 5km
- Kylestrome to Rhiconich – 75km
- Rhiconich to Sandwood – 19km
- Sandwood to Cape Wrath – 5km
Naturally, few people are able to spare five or so weeks to complete the trail in one continuous walk and will want to split it up instead.
The first week is a good option as you can use Edinburgh as your base and take six to eight days to cover the first 142 kilometres of the trail.
The second week is actually the easiest week of entire trail following a series of canals that connect Edinburgh and Glasgow with very little incline and easy navigation.
If you’re short on time but want to get back to nature, the area surrounding Morvich is impressive. Hiking out of Morvich part way through the Bealach na Sroine pass you can see deer grazing, flowers blooming, towering mountains and there are endless wild camping opportunities.
On this section you can also hike to one of Britain’s tallest waterfalls, the Falls of Glomach, past the original Caledonian forest (home to the oldest tree in Scotland) and past views of the Five Sisters of Kintail.
Accommodation varies along the trail in terms of what is available in each price range.
Most people choose to alternate between camping and bed and breakfasts. If your budget allows, making the most of the Scottish hospitality and staying in a different bed and breakfast a few nights a week will allow you to get the best of the trail. Alternatively, wild camping is a great experience and there are also glamping options en route.
It is only for the final two weeks where you will need to be self-sufficient with food, but the first half passes through so many towns that it is possible to regularly restock and refuel each night with a cosy pub meal.
To strike a good balance between wild camping and the luxury of a warm shower and a decent night’s sleep in a bed, book into a hostel or B&B three or four nights a week and camp the rest.
Along the trail and at various stop-off towns there are castles, ruins and museums. It is therefore worth investing in a Historic Scotland membership, which will give you free access to most of the castles and palaces throughout Scotland.
Soak up some history at the incredible Edinburgh castle or head up Calton Hill for the stunning cityscapes you see on postcards. It is an easy 20-minute walk from Old Town and is a good alternative to hiking up Arthur’s Seat, particularly if you want to catch sunset.
If you do have any energy leftover, hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat – an extinct volcano with outstanding views of Edinburgh. The hike is moderate (although a doddle after the Scottish National Trail no doubt), taking two or so hours.
Otherwise, unwind in one of the many pubs, enjoy afternoon tea as you roam the city on the fully licensed Red Bus Bistro, or visit one of the traditional kilt-makers and kit yourself out like a local.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||Kirk Yetholm, Kelso TD5, UK|
|Finishes at||Braemar, Lairg IV27 4PZ, UK|
|Length of route||864 Km|
|Average time to complete||45 - 60 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||330 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, food supplies, Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots, Water Supplies|
|Countries visited||Scotland, UK|