Walking in Scotland – Part 1

More and more people in Scotland are taking to walking.  The reasons for this are as diverse as the walks available to them.  Some folk enjoy the challenge of a long-distance walk, some others have joined a walking club for company.  Many people walk regularly in order to benefit from the proven health-giving effect of regular exercise, while others simply are out to walk the dog.  Other categories include mushroom hunters and other wild food foragers, botanists and bird watchers.  Walking can be viewed as the ultimate Slow Travel experience, enabling you to take in the ever-changing landscape, to stop wherever you wish to explore an old building or an interesting plant, and to share your experience with others whom you meet on the way

In this blog I will be exploring the range and the categories of available low-level walks, with some practical tips on how to best prepare for them.  In my next blog I will be focussing on the Munros and the Corbetts – categories of mountain in Scotland that are respectively over 3,000 feet, and between 2,500 and 3,000 feet.  I will be looking also at some of the 26 long-distance trails that now criss-cross some of the most interesting parts of Scotland.

All towns and most villages have one or more established walks.  In some cases these are based on ancient rights of way, in some other cases they have been created in recent years for the benefit of the people, in response to popular demand or specific campaigning.

A short walk from a parked car - and a meeting with Highland cows

A short walk from a parked car – and a meeting with Highland cows

The Forestry Commission is the largest land-owner in Scotland, and in the last twenty-five years or so they have gone to great lengths to open up the forests to visitors.  Much of the network of paths utilise the forest roads that are needed to manage the woods and to extract the timber.  We have seen the development of car parks leading to woodland walks, with new paths to specific viewpoints and with information boards detailing some of the history of the wood, as well as details of some of the fauna and flora that might be seen.  The Forestry Commission encourages visitors to use the entire network of their forest roads, not just the established trails that are way-marked.  This introduces one particular subject, which is the need for careful navigation.  In some cases one forest road can look very much like another, and it is easy to take a wrong turn and so spend far longer on the walk than originally intended.  Even in these benign walking conditions a map and a compass are strongly recommended.

Woodland walk in winter

Woodland walk in winter

Another important resource for walkers is to be found in the canal systems.  Some of Scotland’s canals were allowed to fall into a very bad state of repair, but these have largely been restored now and they attract many walkers using the old tow-paths, many of which have been improved considerably with all-weather paths in order to cater for the greatly increased volume of foot traffic. The Crinan Canal, on the west of the country, is just nine miles long and it takes a shortcut across the Kintyre peninsular from Loch Fyne to Crinan and the Firth of Lorne.  A walk from east to west ends up in the pearl of a harbour village called Crinan, with wonderful views that provide a great introduction to the coastline of Argyll.

Part of the Crinan Canal, from the towpath

Part of the Crinan Canal, from the towpath

The other Scottish canals are the 35 mile Forth and Clyde Canal, which goes from the River Carron by the tidal River Forth west to Bowling on the Clyde, the 30 mile Union Canal which continues the Forth and Clyde eastwards into Edinburgh, and the Monklands Canal which is just 12 miles long, and which was formed as a commercial link between the coal mining areas and Glasgow city.

Finally, the only Scottish canal that still carries commercial traffic is the Caledonian Canal, which runs north eastwards from Fort William to Inverness.  This canal is in a way a series of canals joining a series of lochs, including Loch Ness, that all lie in the Highland rift valley known as the Great Glen.

A long-distance trail alongside the Caledonian Canal

A long-distance trail alongside the Caledonian Canal

Canal walks have become very popular, not least because of the wide variety of wildlife that is to be found, as well as the fact that in general the walks are reasonably level.  The canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh in particular take interesting routes past the ‘back doors’ of many towns and villages, and when walking these canals you will find features and places that can only be seen from on foot.

There is one other category of walking route that can be expected to be reasonably level, and that is disused railway lines.  Many of these were closed to railway use in the nineteen sixties, and they have been turned into a valuable resource of footpaths, many of them spreading out from towns and villages.  The old railway line between Craigellachie and Ballindalloch is used in this way, as is the old line from Callander to Crianlarich.

Leaving Callander towards Crianlarich - where the trains used to run

Leaving Callander towards Crianlarich – where the trains used to run

All the walks so far described are relatively modest. The walks that I will describe in my next contribution are much more challenging and require careful preparation.  Some preparation is needed even for these modest walks.  In terms of equipment, if the proposed walk is anything more than a gentle stroll from a car park in good weather the minimum equipment you will need consists of walking boots, a waterproof jacket, a map and a compass.  This is a very modest list of needs for a pass-time that can provide so many hours of such pleasure. The minimum level of map you will need is one or more maps from the 1:50,000 Landranger series;  this is the modern version of the old Ordnance Survey 1” series, the maps are priced at around £8 each, and the series covers the entire country.  Considerable detail is shown, including contour lines and spot heights, individual houses, woods, paths, railway lines (both active and disused!) , post offices and pubs.  The Explorer series of map is at double the scale of the Landranger series (1:25,000) so they are able to contain a certain amount of additional information.  They too cover the whole country. For the Slow Traveller, whether he is a walker or not, one of these maps is the essential first step towards learning and experiencing the detail of the area in which he finds himself.

Happy walkers in Glencoe

Happy walkers in Glencoe


Alasdair & Barbara Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.

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