From basking sharks to breathtaking hikes, Scotland offers world-class wilderness thrills. Here are some of our favourites...
The sea eagle is the fourth-largest eagle in the world, with a whopping 2.5m wingspan. Though 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 birds nesting.
How long? A few hours
How tough? Easy
Get started: The RSPB hide at Loch Frisa on Mull is open from April to late summer.
The waters around Mull are the best place to see whales in the UK. Minke whales are the most frequently seen, but orcas 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, basking sharks.
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.
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.
If you already have hill-walking experience, don’t climb Ben Nevis by the Tourist Path (the name says it all). Instead, 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? One (very long) day
How tough? Very tough; the Carn Mór Dearg Arête is for those with hill-walking experience only.
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 most remote pub in mainland Britain.
How long? One day
How tough? Strenuous hill walking
Combining walking trips with hands-on sailing, Wilderness Scotland's boat trips around Knoydart, Skye & the Small Isles get you right to the heart of this windswept idyll – even if you have zero sailing experience. By helping to crew the boat, you'll feel like you're exploring the islands under your own steam – even though there is always expert help on hand. On dry land, enjoy walking trails and wildlife hikes galore; the terrain is spectacular, real edge-of-the-world stuff.
How long? Six nights aboard
How tough? Moderate walking. Life on the boat is close-confines (bring earplugs), but food is excellent. No sailing experience required.
Get started: Specialist tour operator Wilderness Scotland offers several trips, accompanied by an expert walking guide.
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? One (long) day
How tough? A good workout for fit hill-walkers; tough for ramblers.
Get started: The Cluanie Inn is the place for R&R.
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? Two days (at least)
How tough? Easy to get about
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.
Scotland’s reputation as one of the world’s best destinations for downhill mountain biking is well-deserved; dedicated sites have sprung up across the country. One of the best is Laggan Wolftrax. You don’t have to be a teenage thrill seeker to get something out of this, although there are black runs if you are. For those who prefer a nice pootle in 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
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
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 250 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? One day
How tough? Easy
Get started: Loch Garten is 16km from Aviemore. A visit to the hide, open April to August, can be organised through the RSPB.
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’s 37 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.
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 Aviemore in 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. For more info, see the official Cairngorms website.
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 most 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.
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.
The Isle of Barra is home to the UK’s only airstrip made of sand: Loganair's 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.
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. The sights are inspiration enough: 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 Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries. This covers all the ferry journeys you need (bicycles go free). Start from Oban and return from Tarbet via Skye to Mallaig.
The Shetland Folk Festival prides itself in reaching out to even the most far flung areas of Shetland. Concerts are organised throughout the isles, consisting of some of the best international, British and Shetland music – performed in town halls and social clubs all over the area. There are also workshops held by the performers and local musos: take your pick from singing, Shetland fiddle, guitar and even circus skills tuition.
How long? The festival lasts for 4 days, over the May Day bank holiday weekend.
How tough? Fairly – don’t expect much sleep.
Get started: Flights run between Sumburgh Airport and Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and further afield. NorthLink runs ferries from Aberdeen. See the Shetland Folk Festival website for more information.
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 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 3-hour (13km) round trip on foot.
How tough? Easy walk across exposed moorland.
Get started: The path starts at Blairmore car park near Kinlochbervie.
In the summer Handa Island near Scourie is home to thousands of seabirds, a large proportion of which are those 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 (April-September, 9am-2pm). Contact the ranger via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
The North West Highlands is one of only three European Geoparks in Scotland. This extraordinary landscape has barely changed since the ice sheet melted over 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, 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 the official website for North West Highlands Geoparks.
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 guided walks too (recommended).
How long? 1-7 days
How tough? Short, easy walks to nearby beaches.
Get started: Contact Rua Reidh lighthouse for more information.