Cairngorms Mountains (Paul Hackett)

25 things to do in wild Scotland

30th November 2011

Top ways to celebrate St Andrew's Day... From basking sharks to breathtaking hikes, Jim Manthorpe guides you round Britain's world-class wilderness

Jim Manthorpe

1. Watch sea eagles on the nest

The sea eagle is the fourth-largest eagle in the world, with a whopping 2.5m wingspan. Wiped out in Britain by the Victorians, sea eagles have returned to the west coast of Scotland thanks to a reintroduction programme started in 1975. The RSPB has a hide at Loch Frisa on Mull where you can watch a pair on the nest.

How long? A few hours
How tough? Easy
Get started: The RSPB hide at Loch Frisa on Mull is open April-September and costs £5.

2. Watch whales around Mull

The waters around Mull are the best place to see whales in the UK. Minke whales are the most frequently seen but orca are here too. You also have a good chance of seeing some of the other big beasts of the deep including dolphins, porpoises and the second-biggest fish in the world, the basking shark.

How long? A few hours to a day
How tough? As tough as holding onto your binoculars with one hand and the boat with the other
Get started: Whale Watching Trips and Sea Knoydart are run by marine wildlife experts.

3. Soak up a temperate rainforest

It’s a forest, it rains a lot, it’s a temperate zone… yup, it’s a temperate rainforest – and it once flourished on the coast all the way from Scotland to Portugal. Thankfully, it hasn’t all been hacked down and replaced with sheep-grazing pasture. The Sunart Oakwoods by Loch Sunart are refreshingly undeveloped for tourism so there’s plenty of wildlife including red squirrels,wild cats, eagles and otters.

How long? 1-7 days
How tough? Plenty of easy woodland trails as well as a selection of tough off-piste walks for hardier souls
Get started: Sunart Oakwoods are near Strontian and Salen. For woodland walks try Ariundle National Nature Reserve and the Ardnamurchan Natural History Centre.

4. Climb Britain’s highest peak

If you already have hill-walking experience don’t climb Ben Nevis by the Tourist Path (the name says it all); follow the spectacular Carn Mór Dearg Arête, one of the finest ridges in Scotland, sweeping in a perfect arc towards the North Face. At the top you can join the masses as they descend via the main route and enjoy a pint of real ale in the Ben Nevis Inn at the bottom.

How long? 1 (very long) day
How tough? Very tough; the Carn Mór Dearg Arête is for those with hill-walking experience only
Get started: Ben Nevis is a few miles from Fort William. You can hire a guide from www.westcoast-mountainguides.co.uk or www.highland-mountain-guides.co.uk from £120 per day.

5. Go deer stalking – with a camera

The Knoydart peninsula is accessible only by ferry or a two-day hike over the mountains. But the isolation is the attraction, along with the wild and gnarly peaks. For something more than just a hill walk you can go deer stalking with a difference – swap the gun for a camera and capture that classic Monarch of the Glen photo. Finish off with a drink in The Old Forge, the remotest pub in mainland Britain.

How long? 1 day
How tough? Strenuous hill walking
Get started: Access to Knoydart is by ferry (www.knoydart-ferry.co.uk) from Mallaig to Inverie. See also www.knoydart-foundation.com.

6. Explore Skye and the Small Isles by sail

Editor Dan Linstead, says for the perfect Hebridean walking trip, pack your oilskins. For days we’d hoped for a glimpse of basking sharks, and suddenly we were about to run one over.

Just off the bow of the Eda Frandsen, a dorsal fin lolled – and three metres behind it, a tailfin. A gaping, filter-feeding snout was surely about to encounter our steel hull. The engine cut. We craned forwards. And just in time, with an awkward shimmy, the world’s second-largest fish abandoned its planktonic breakfast and dove down into the dark blue Hebridean Sea.

Such encounters aren’t uncommon aboard Eda (it’s pronounced Ada), a comely 73ft gaff cutter that first put to sea in Denmark in the 1930s. Lovingly restored by skipper Jamie Robinson – an oily-handed mariner of the old school – she now plies the waters around Skye, and charging along, five sails hauling air, she’s a sight to make the nautically-inclined go all soggy-eyed. But even if you don’t know a half-hitch from a halyard, Eda’s a beauty for another reason: she’s surely the most civilised way to reach some of Scotland’s remotest hikes and wildlife areas.

Eight of us sail-walkers had embarked at Mallaig for a week exploring the Inner Hebrides. Although we had a rough itinerary, our real guide was the wind – every morning would begin with a huddle over the weather forecast and a map. As likely as not, the wind would then change, prompting an eye-roll from Jamie and a shift to plan B, or indeed C. So one day’s aim to explore the isle of Canna ended with us moored off Skye; another day we threw the trip dossier to the wind and sailed all the way out to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, accompanied by a pod of dolphins. Night one was straightforward, though: a short motor to Skye’s Sleat peninsula, where we moored by a sandy cove with a trio of seals for company. The nocturnal peace was broken only by the klaxon-blast-grind-gurgle of the heads (for landlubbers, that’s the loos) as one by one we confronted the indelicacies of life afloat.

The next day we headed north, and got a better view of our surroundings. The island of Eigg rose from the sea mist like some Jurassic monster, and gannets dive-bombed mackerel in the glittering waves. The breeze was up: it was time for our first shot at sailing.

Eda is a heavy girl...

65 tons in total – and manoeuvring her is a matter of getting the sails where you want them and holding a course, rather than rapid-fire seamanship. Crewing is more brawn than brain. Under Jamie’s watchful eye, we learned to sweat the rust-red mainsail up, six of us hauling on the hemp halyards until he finally conceded, “Belay it there!”. Then came the jib, the staysail, the jib topsail and – after some surprisingly cat-like action from Jamie high up in the rigging – the topsail. We surged satisfyingly forward. “Bravo!” roared Jamie,“You’re no longer cargo – you’re sailors!”

To be honest, all we’d done was pull on a few ropes when he told us to, but still we grinned with pride. To celebrate, Jamie demonstrated his home-made potato cannon, a drainpipe-and-oven-lighter affair fuelled on pure oxygen that launched spuds impressive distances into the briny.

But the sailing was only the half of it. Every day we’d anchor in some lovely bay, scramble off Eda’s tender like welly-booted commandos and find a hiking trail. On Skye, we moored slap alongside Loch Coruisk – for the boatless, a day-long trudge from the nearest road (see 9, right), but for us just a few steps to an epic view of the Black Cuillin mountains, glowering down like a pack of leashed Dobermans.

On South Uist we anchored off the uninhabited side of the island and walked over the moor to Uisinis lighthouse, with only a golden eagle – fresh kill gripped in her talons – for company. On Canna, we strolled through fields jumping with rabbits to the viewpoint of Compass Hill.

On Rum – shortly after those basking sharks had made their cameo – we made a satisfying traverse of the island from the lonely bay at Harris, past a herd of wild ponies, to the relative bustle of Kinloch (population: 30).

As the sun lowered, we would return to the homely sight of Eda at anchor, a G&T and miraculous aromas from the galley. After supper, the options were simple: reading, or the potato cannon. The reading was inspirational: the ship’s ‘bible’ is a battered, tea-stained copy of Hamish Haswell-Smith’s The Scottish Islands, which could encourage a lifetime of island-hopping adventures. But the cannon was, Jamie twinkled, “about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on”.

As a summary of a week on Eda, it couldn’t be bettered.

How long? 6 nights aboard
How tough? Moderate walking. Life on  Eda is close-confines (bring earplugs), but food is excellent. No sailing experience required.
Get started: Specialist tour operator Wilderness Scotland offers several trips on Eda, accompanied by an expert walking guide. Dan joined their Sailing and Walking – Knoydart, Skye and the Small Isles trip (six nights, £995 incl meals).

7. Bag seven Munros in a day

There are – arguably – 284 ‘Munros’ (peaks above 3,000ft) in Scotland. Seven of them are on one long ridge above Glen Shiel in Kintail, making this the Munro-baggers ‘cricket score’. It’s a steep climb to the top of the first Munro, Creag a’ Mhaim, and then a traverse over six more peaks back to the glen.

How long? 1 (long) day
How tough? A good workout for fit hil-walkers; tough for ramblers
Get started: The Cluanie Inn is the place for R&R.

8. Take a boat trip to Eigg

When the sun shines on the shell beaches of Eigg you could almost believe you were in the Caribbean. OK, so it doesn’t feel like that when the rain’s belting in sideways, but this volcanic island off Skye still has plenty to offer. Look for dolphins from the ferry, then climb the volcanic plug of An Sgurr, before a walk with the ‘Singing Sands’ hissing between your toes.

How long? 2 days (at least)
How tough? Easy to get about
Get started: Calmac Ferries connects Eigg to Mallaig. Check out www.isleofeigg.net for more information.

9. Gaze at Skye’s Black Cuillins

The view of the Cuillin Mountains on Skye seen across Loch Scavaig is one of Britain’s finest. You can take a boat trip to the head of the loch or walk from Elgol to Loch Coruisk in a deep gash in the mountains. If the view whets your appetite you could hire a guide and head for that jagged skyline.

How long? Boat trip: 2-8 hours; Elgol-Loch Coruisk walk: 19km
How tough? Easy on a boat; the walk is long and arduous
Get started: For boat trips see Misty Isle Boat Trips. For mountain guiding, contact Skye Guides.

10. Go mountain biking (with tea & cake!)

Scotland’s reputation as the world’s best destination for downhill mountain-biking is well deserved; dedicated downhill sites have sprung up across the country. One of the best is Laggan Wolftrax. You don’t have to be a teenage thrillseeker to get something out of this – although there are black runs if you are. For those who prefer a nice pootle around the woods, there are blue runs, easy flat trails and tea and cake in the café at the end.

How long? Half a day will leave you satisfied or exhausted depending on your fitness level
How tough? Easy to strenuous
Get started: Wolftrax is 2km from Laggan, near Kingussie. There is a café and bike hire too. Contact Base Camp Mountain Bikes and www.forestry.gov.uk/wolftrax.

11. Lose yourself in a vast ancient forest

The Caledonian pine forest in the Cairngorms is the greatest tract of ancient forest in Britain. A walk through this wild wood feels like stepping into a Lewis Carroll novel – twisted granny pines stretch their woody fingers over deep beds of heather and juniper. You can explore alone, but for a chance of seeing pine martens, badgers and capercaillie, visit the hide in Rothiemurchus Forest.

How long? As long as you like
How tough? Easy
Get started: Rothiemurchus Forest is a couple of miles from Aviemore. Hide visits (heated, night-vision cameras) cost £20pp. For more info, see www.speysidewildlife.co.uk.

12. See ospreys up close

After a long absence, the beautiful osprey returned to nest in Scotland in the 1950s, and it all started at Loch Garten. Today there are still fewer than 150 breeding pairs estimated in the UK, so watching from a hide offers the best chance of seeing these distinctively white-bellied fish-eaters. The RSPB reserve at Loch Garten allows you to watch nesting ospreys, and there are also woodland trails and other wildlife including red squirrels, red deer and crested tits.

How long? 1 day
How tough? Easy
Get started: Loch Garten is 16km from Aviemore. A visit to the hide, open April to August, costs £3. See www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/l/lochgarten.

13. Dog-sled, Scots style

Husky sledding in the UK? Yes, and not only in winter. Sleds with wheels are used if there’s no snow but winter is the best time for the real thing, when a team of racing sled dogs will pull you and your musher around the forest trails of the Cairngorms. The centre’s30 sled-dogs hail from all over the world, but live in unmistakeably Scottish surroundings: their kennels are converted Macallan whisky barrels!

How long? 1-2 days
How tough? Easy for you, a good workout for the dogs
Get started: The Sled Dog Centre is a family-run business in Glenmore near Aviemore. The Sleddog Experience costs £60; the overnight version costs £85.

14. Traverse the Cairngorms

You don’t have to be as rufty-tufty as Roald Amundsen to appreciate the mighty Cairngorm Mountains. Just don your boots, pack a map and compass, clad yourself right and set off over the Lairig Ghru. This glacial breach cuts through the mountains linking Aviemorein the north with Braemar in the south. The top of the pass is over 800m so be prepared for any kind of, and very changeable, weather; it can snow even in summer.

How long? 1-2 days
How tough? Tough; 30km of rough country. Start early or wild camp
Get started: Start at Aviemore, end at Braemar. OS Explorer maps 403 and 404. For more info, see www.walkhighlands.co.uk.

15. Sea kayak around an archipelago

Landing a boat on an uninhabited island and lighting a fire on the beach may sound like the stuff of dreams, but it’s perfectly possible in the Outer Hebrides where 90% of the 200-odd islands are deserted. The best way to see the archipelago is from the clear waters that surround them. This is one of the world’s best destinations for sea kayaking,and it hosts international events for the seriously committed.

But you don’t need any experience to give it a go, and there are a number of companies who will take you out for a paddle.

How long? A few hours’ splash to a few days’ camping expedition
How tough? Trips are graded to suit all experience levels
Get started: Barra, Uist, Lewis and Harris all have a range of opportunities. For a list of operators see www.visithebrides.com.

16. Visit the very remotest spot in Britain

Around 65km west of the Outer Hebrides, the tiny St Kilda archipelago teeters on the edge of the continental shelf. Towering sea cliffs stretch into a sky busy with gannets. Puffins wheel past you as you bob about in the boat on the swell. On the main island of Hirta, the remains of the only village are a poignant reminder of the community that once scratched out a living by harvesting fulmars and growing oats. The last residents (bar today’s small military garrison) were evacuated in 1930 after population drift made their lives unsustainable.

How long? A day visit (8am-7.30pm) is a long one.
How tough? It can be a rough crossing – bring your sea legs
Get started: Kilda Cruises runs day trips out of Leverburgh, Harris, for £180pp.

17. Kitesurf over the beach

The Isle of Barra is home to the UK’s only airstrip made of sand: Loganair Twin Otters land on the beach at Traigh Mhor. You can fly, too, by taking advantage of the wide open spaces, the near-constant wind and a kite. Not the little diamond-shaped ones you see on Hampstead Heath but a power kite that’s so big it will lift you – and the wheeled buggy you are in – from the sand.

How long? 1-5 hours
How tough? Brave beginners are welcome
Get started: To book a session contact Barra Power Kiting.

18. Cycle the length of the Hebrides

The second-best way to see the Outer Hebrides (and the first choice for landlubbers) is by bicycle. It’s 175km from Vatersay on Barra in the south to Stornoway on Lewis in the north. The cycling is easy and mostly follows traffic-free single-track roads. Just don’t do a Lance Armstrong – there’s no yellow jersey at the end and you’ll miss all the sights if you speed: the mountains, the moorland, the corncrakes croaking in the irises, the dunes, the Callanish standing stones and, at the end of the day, the sun setting below the Atlantic swell over your left shoulder.

How long? 5 days
How tough? If you’re reasonably fit this isn’t a difficult cycle
Get started: Get yourself an Island Hopscotch ferry ticket from www.calmac.co.uk. This covers all the ferry journeys you need (bicycles go free). Start from Oban and return from Tarbet via Skye to Mallaig.

19. Enjoy the UK’s northernmost festival

Ross Skelton shimmies in the Shetlands

Standing in the face of a refreshingly brisk wind, watching the smooth-headed seals hoist themselves up onto the rocks, a fiddle player mused on our situation. “We’re all stuck here together,” he said, picking up a glistening granite pebble and tossing it into the slate-grey sea. “There’s no getting off the islands. But it gives the festival a good sense of camaraderie.”

The camaraderie all started on the ferry that set sail from Scotland’s northern port town, Aberdeen. It was rammed with musical instruments – accordions, violins, Norwegian flutes, concertinas, double basses, guitars, mandolins and banjos – and their owners who, in various states of jetlag (many having just flown over from the US), gulped pints of cider while whipping up a frenzy of notes to the entertainment of all on board.

This all-night music session, staged under the neon lights of the ferry bar, was to be the opening night of Britain’s most northerly folk festival, and by far its most adventurous. Remote, windswept and beautifully wild, the Shetland Islands – steeped in Viking history and with a distinct Scandinavian feel – are a fitting backdrop for this musical array.

While visitors can explore the puffin-peppered cliffs by day, by night they can enjoy exceptional experimental folk concerts, collaborations and sessions from some of the world’s best musicians. For the adventurous, some of the best concerts take place not in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, but on one of the hundred or so remote, rugged islands.

Island-hopping in Shetland is relatively easy, thanks to regular ferry services, and experiencing this music in a small community hall in some remote outpost is to get a picture of music’s role on these islands.

On the eastern island of Whalsay I spent the afternoon tramping along high cliffs that swooped down to secluded beaches and seal-covered rocks, the air thick with the smell of sea salt and peat. As night fell I watched a Swedish banjo-led trio pushing musical boundaries in the local village hall, while the audience whooped in encouragement.

At Bigton, 30km south of Lerwick, keen walkers and bird spotters can get in an afternoon of hiking the magical cliffs of St Ninian’s Isle, connected to the mainland by a sand bar, before heading down to the village hall for an evening of exceptional music – blues, folk, fiddle mania – shared with the ultra-friendly locals.

These isolated community halls seem unlikely settings to hear some of the folk world’s most respected artists, but with the entire community involved, from the volunteers who run the hall bars to the locals who invite late-night revellers back to their houses for music sessions that go on till well into the day, it all works. It’s a great way to see a remote corner of Scotland through a totally different looking glass.

How long? The festival lasts 4 days (over May Day bank holiday weekend)
How tough? Fairly – don’t expect much sleep
Get started: BA runs regular flights between Sumburgh airport and Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and further afield. NorthLink runs ferries from Aberdeen. For more on the Festival visit www.shetlandfolkfestival.com.

20. Walk to a wild and deserted beach

Sandwood Bay, just 13km from Cape Wrath, is a raw and rugged beach protected at both ends by sheer cliffs and a sea stack. The nearest road is 6.5km away across the moor. Despite a lot of recent publicity you still have a good chance of getting the sand, the sea and the wailing cries of curlews to yourself. And not a deckchair in sight. How long? At least a three-hour (13km) round trip on foot

How long? At least a three-hour (13km) round trip on foot
How tough? Easy walk across exposed moorland
Get started: The path starts at Blairmore car park near Kinlochbervie. For more see www.jmt.org/sandwood-estate.asp.

21. Get in a flap over puffins

In the summer Handa Island near Scourie is home to 200,000 seabirds, a large proportion of which are those ones with the rainbow-coloured bills – puffins. They nest in burrows in the cliffs and are surprisingly tolerant of human onlookers. A short boat trip gets you to the island, run as a nature reserve by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Look out too for razorbills, great skuas and kittiwakes.

How long? 4 hours
How tough? Easy, apart from dodging dive-bombing skuas
Get started: Catch the ferry from Tarbet (Apr-Sept, 9am-2pm). It costs £10 to visit Handa. Contact the ranger at handaranger@swt.org.uk (www.swt.org.uk).

22. Climb Scotland’s sugarloaf mountain

731m-high Suilven is a monolith rising sharply from a rolling floor of bare rock and heather. If it were south of the border it would be a honeypot hill with streams of walkers treading trenches into its steep flanks. But Suilven, tucked away in Assynt, is two hours’ drive from Inverness, and a 22km round trip to the top so you can count on it being crowd-free.

How long? 7-9 hours
How tough? A long day – you need to be fit
Get started: The walk starts near Lochinver. You’ll need OS Explorer map 442 and the usual hill gear. Wilderness Scotland runs guided holidays to Assynt including an ascent of Suilven.

23. Hike a real wilderness

Approached along the A832 ‘Destitution Road’, Fisherfield is a huge, remote tract of glacially scoured peaks and glens in Wester Ross. Home to deer, eagles and wildcats, it takes three days to walk across. The only places to stay en route are a bothy with mice in the walls and a barn with a mud floor; for greater luxury pack a tent. Your reward: some of the best wilderness walking in Europe.

How long? 2-3 days
How tough? Wild river-crossing; hill-walking experience needed
Get started: To safely plan this walk you’ll need OS Landranger map 19, a GPS or compass and all the essential outdoor kit. For a route description get a copy of Scottish Highlands – the Hillwalking Guide (www.trailblazer-guides.com).

24. Go back in time at Scotland’s geopark

The North West Highlands is one of only three European Geoparks in Scotland. This extraordinary landscape has barely changed since the ice sheet melted 11,000 years ago. Drive or cycle the 110km north from Ullapool to Durness and you’ll pass some of the park’s most intriguing sights including the splintered sandstone ridge of Stac Pollaidh, Eas a’ Chual Aluinn (the highest waterfall in Britain at 200m) and Smoo Cave (below), a sea cavern straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean.

How long? 2-7 days
How tough? Easy in a car, harder on a bicycle: take your pick!
Get started: See www.northwest-highlands-geopark.org.uk.

25. Gaze out from your own lighthouse

Rua Reidh lighthouse near Gairloch is at the end of a 19km single-track road used as an ambling highway for sheep and deer, and perched on black rocks wetted by sea spume from the Minch. The lighthouse is now fully automated, like all in the UK, and the former keepers’ quarters have been converted into bunkrooms, en-suite bedrooms and a cosy living room with a wood-burning stove. The owners offer (recommended) guided walks.

How long? 1-7 days
How tough? Short, easy walks to nearby beaches
Get started: Contact the lighthouse (www.ruareidh.co.uk); double rooms from £28 a night.

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 Your Comments (2)

  • 1st December by KDBR

    Great idea Liz, but let's not be picky.  Find the distillery nearest each adventure and create your own whisky trail.  There's plenty to chose from, each with their own individualities.  Start with Talisker and Mull, there's a new one on Lewis these days, then Balblair and Old Pulteney.  Oh, I'm salivating already.  25 different whiskies, perhaps 25 accompanying books for the journey too, Harpoon at a Venture on Eigg.  Off again, but the dinner's burning so it must be time for a dram........


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  • 2nd December by Liz Cleere

    Haha... Do all "25 things" as listed above, but also visit a distillery at each place. What an adventure that would be.

    I love Scotland. I still have a yearning to retire to a remote cottage overlooking the sea with no-one else around... I'll go for walks on a freezing, windblown beach every day with three dogs, and return to a toasty kitchen where I'll listen to the radio and stay in touch with those I love (and those I don't) through the internet. Mind you, the cottage would have to be near a distillery, and not far from a good pub in a small village, where I could share the occasional glass when I'm feeling sociable.


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