Short break: wild Scotland

There's never enough time to see all of Scotland, but take the sleeper train to enjoy a prime slice of mountains, forests and lochs in a long weekend

7 mins
When wilderness was being handed out, Scotland undoubtedly got given an oversized portion. From lochs to mountains, forests to glens, you can’t seem to go for more than 30 minutes without running into another chunk of camera-ready, wild landscape, just waiting to be explored. And even more so when you head north.

Inverness sits at the mouth of the River Ness, which feeds into the Moray Firth and forms part of the 100km-long Great Glen that cuts diagonally across Scotland. The city is a portal into the Highlands, with varied wilderness available in every direction. And it’s not just visitors who are discovering the appeal of the UK’s most northerly city. Since 2001 the population of Inverness has risen by nearly 10%; it has also been ranked as the top Scottish city in terms of quality of life. It’s easy to see why.

From boat trips and kayaking on the Caledonian Canal, to the tempting hills and forests that rise nearby, to the Cairngorms National Park (only a short drive south), the opportunity to get outside is on the city’s doorstep. Getting outside is practically mandatory when you come up this way – the main problem is deciding where to go first.

Head south-west along the Great Glen and you’ll hit the 37km-long expanse of Loch Ness, the freshwater loch famed for its alleged resident plesiosaurus... But whether you believe in monsters or not is unimportant – it remains a spectacular spot. With tree-covered hills flanking the loch on both sides, the area really justifies its ‘Great’ Glen moniker. Lace up to experience it – there are routes along the shoreline and amid the peaks above.

If trees are your thing, visit the National Nature Reserve of Glen Affric, 50km from Inverness. Home to the ancient Caledonian pine that would have covered most of Scotland’s Highlands 5,000 years ago, it offers a glimpse into an ancient wilderness. While away a day by strolling one of the many well-marked tracks to take in waterfalls and look out for osprey, otters or red- and black-throated divers.

For more birds and wildlife at altitude, head further south-west from Inverness to Britain’s biggest national park, the Cairngorms. Here, mountains (including five of the six highest peaks in the country) sprawl in every direction. It’s also home to the renowned RSPB reserve of Abernethy Forest as well as a host of comely villages and whisky distilleries.

To truly discover the Scottish wilderness would take months. However, if you only have a few days, the best way to get a bitesized portion is to catch the train to Inverness on a Friday night. This allows for a mini break that packs a big wilderness punch.

Essential info

When to go: The wilds of Scotland can be enjoyed year round, though winters can be very cold and snowy – especially in the mountains. Spring (May-Jun) and autumn (Sept-Oct) are good times to go to miss the crowds and midges, and enjoy good weather.

Getting there: By far the best way to reach the Highlands is to catch ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper train: you travel at night so don’t waste any time. Running daily (except Saturday), it departs London Euston in the evening, with pickups at Crewe and Preston, arriving in Aviemore (for the Cairngorms) and Inverness the next morning. Journey time is around 11-12 hours; bargain berths are available from £38 return and include a complimentary cup of tea/coffee and a shortbread biscuit, brought to your cabin for breakfast. Booking opens 12 weeks in advance.

Faster, if less romantic, is to fly. Flybe and easyJet offer flights to Inverness from most UK airports.

Getting around: The most convenient option is to hire a car. All the big hitters have bases in Inverness; Europcar/Alamo is a five-minute taxi ride from the station, in the Thistle Hotel. Otherwise Stagecoach runs local services between Inverness, Aviemore and Loch Ness.

Where to stay: Chrialdon House B&B, in Beauly, is well placed for Glen Affric, Loch Ness and Inverness (all under 30mins drive); rooms cost from £40pppn, based on two sharing. For easy access to the Cairngorms try Docharn Lodge Guest House; rooms from £85.

Day 1: Towns and trees

Get off the train at Inverness – the official Gateway to the Highlands – and start with a walking tour. Head along Academy Street then turn left down Friars Lane to visit Old High Church, which dates back to the 15th century.

From here go to Bank Street to take in views of the River Ness from Greig Street Bridge (built 1881). Head to Church St to visit Abertarff House, the earliest surviving house in Inverness (built 1593) then continue to Queensgate to admire the ornate decor (and indulge in retail therapy) at the Victorian Market.

End with lunch at Leakey’s Bookshop and Café. Inside the converted Gaelic Church, it is jam-packed with secondhand books, maps and prints and offers tasty food and coffee.

Once you’ve had your fill, leave the city and head to the forest of Glen Affric. Home to one of the largest patches of Caledonian pine in the country, it shows a snapshot of what Scotland would have looked like centuries ago. There are plenty of walking trails here to keep you occupied for days; one of the best is the trail to Plodda Falls – stroll through the native trees to stand on a viewing platform and gawp as the water cascades 40m below your feet. Also worth a meander is the Viewpoint Trail at the Dog Falls side of the forest.

Day 2: Lovely lochs

Of all the lochs in all the land, the most famous is undoubtedly Loch Ness, home to a legendary monster. On arrival, amid the tour buses, it may not seem like a wild place, but there’s a way to make it so. Start at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition inside the Drumnadrochit Hotel, on the north side of the loch, to gen up on the history of the Nessie sightings and hoaxes and to form your own opinion on what lies beneath the water.

After grabbing some tasty homebaked lunch supplies at The Baking Birds in Drumnadrochit, leave the tourists behind by driving up to the car park at the end of Bunloit Road (reached via Lewiston) to pick up the footpath that will lead you to the summit of Meall Fuar-mhonaidh. At just 699m high, it’s not a giant peak, but it is a prominent point from which to gaze down on the entire loch.

Soon monsters will be the last thing on your mind as you get lost in the views over to the hills and tiny lochans between you and Glen Affric – a true slice of wild paradise. Retrace your steps and leave the loch behind to drive towards Aviemore and the heights of Cairngorms National Park.

Day 3: Magic mountains

Driving south on the A9 from Inverness, something changes. The peaks you’ve seen so far suddenly appear as mere molehills as proper mountains start to spring up from the roadside like giants. In the Cairngorms, a collection of peaks – many over 1,200m – scrape the skyline and offer walkers the chance to get off the beaten track (though map, compass and ability to navigate on pathless terrain are vital).

The most accessible peak is Cairn Gorm. A footpath weaves to its summit from Cairngorm Mountain. Those feeling less energetic can take the funicular railway to a viewpoint to spot ptarmigan, snow bunting, eagles and even reindeer, the only herd in Britain; guided walks to the top are also available from here. Note that snow can linger on top well into spring, and even into the summer.

After a bracing walk visit the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre, which offers husky rides year round. Then head back to Aviemore for a whisky at the Cairngorm Hotel before catching the sleeper train home, ready to be back at work the next morning. A wild weekend indeed.

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