In my last blog, I set the scene for recreational walking in Scotland. I listed and described some of the many categories of walk that are available for the person who seeks to do relatively modest walks; these would include walks on forest tracks, canal-side walks, and walks on the routes of disused railway lines. In this blog I will be looking at some of the more adventurous options.
It must be remembered that, unsurprisingly, according to statistics scenery and landscape lead the decision-making of more than half the visitors coming to Scotland from overseas. Scotland is in parts a mountainous country, with outstanding scenery. In general, the scenery becomes better and better in the more mountainous and the more remote parts of the country. For this reason, a high proportion of visitors spend at least part of their vacation enjoying some of the superb walking opportunities. It has become a real feature of our active tourism that people will come to these shores to de some fairly serious walking on long-distance routes or on high mountains, with more conventional tourist visits and activities (including of course golf, whisky tours, castles and boat trips) taking place before and after the serious walking part of their holiday.
There can be found a huge number of these more adventurous walks. They divide very readily into two distinct categories. Firstly, there are now many Long Distance Routes, and secondly there are the walking routes to the mountain tops.
Long distance routes There are now 26 long-distance routes in Scotland. These are generally low ground routes of between 50 and 212 miles. The routes are now way-marked, and facilities such as bed-and-breakfasts, cafés and shops have grown up in places along some of the routes. This must be the perfect way for a slow-travel enthusiast to experience the real Scotland. For most of the time you will be away from urban development, and you will naturally give yourself plenty of time to enjoy your encounters with the farmers and villagers whom you meet along the way.
One of the most interesting of Scotland’s long distance routes is the John Muir Way. John Muir founded America’s National Parks. He was born in 1838 in Dunbar, and he sailed to the USA from Helensburgh. Appropriately the 134 mile Way runs – from Helensburgh to Dunbar!
Other long distance routes have equally evocative names, such as the Fife Coastal Path, the Southern Upland Way, the Rob Roy Way, the Speyside Way, the Great Glen Way, and the West Highland Way.
The last one mentioned, the West Highland Way, deserves a special mention. This was the first long distance way to be established in Scotland. It takes a journey from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow (starting just outside the railway station) north into the Highlands to end up in Fort William – just along from the railway station! The West Highland Way is 96 miles long, and it is remarkable in that it takes you on a special journey that reflects an evolution in geography, geology, human settlement and land use – starting on the outskirts of one of our biggest industrial cities and gradually, hour by hour, taking you on a transformation that takes you into astounding Highland landscape, finishing just at the foot of Ben Nevis which is Britain’s highest mountain.
Scotland’s Mountains In comparison with Andes, Alps or Rockies, the mountains of Scotland are not particularly high; for example Ben Nevis is just 4,409 feet. What they lack in height above sea level they gain in beauty, and in the highly developed way in which they are classified and in which walking routes up them are well detailed. A Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet in elevation is called a Munro,(named after Sir Hugh Munro, 1855 – 1923) and there are 282 Munros in Scotland, all to be found in the Highlands. Walking to the summit of the Munros is called Munro Bagging, and there are very many people (Scots and visitors) who are passionate about “bagging” all the Munros. Naturally, this has given rise to a community of like-minded people, and people sometimes give themselves special (sometimes bizarre) challenges, such as bagging the Munros in alphabetical order, or in order of ascending elevation.
The next category down from the Munros, in terms of elevation, are the Corbetts. These are mountains that are between 2,500 feet and 3,000 feet in height. There are 221 Corbets, and the classification was established by a mountaineer called John Rooke Corbett.
In the more remote areas, particularly in north-west Scotland, walkers sometimes avail themselves of bothies to stay the night. These are free-to-use simple houses made of stone or timber that enable walkers to pass the night without having to carry camping equipment. Cooking and sleeping facilities are provided, and one of the rules is to ‘leave the place as you find it’. Often walkers leave surplus food, drink and equipment for the use of people coming behind them.
We have seen that between Munros and Corbetts there are over 500 mountains in Scotland that can be described as “serious”. There may be established footpaths up many of them, but they still require a reasonable level of fitness, and a sensible approach to clothing and equipment. One of the issues here is that on the high ground weather conditions can change rapidly; even in summer many hill walkers have been caught out by a change of weather – what starts out as a lovely sunny day can quickly deteriorate, with rain, cold and bad visibility. Some preparation is needed even in the most benign conditions. 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-inch 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 , 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, and greater clarity. 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 proposes to travel.
There can surely be no better way of discovering a country than to do so on foot, perhaps this being the ultimate Slow Travel experience. The fauna and flora of the countryside is there to be seen in your own time, you can have unhurried contact with people living in the countryside, and often you can have great contact with other foot travellers.
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.