Thru-Hiking in Scotland: A Right to Roam & the Freedom to Adventure
Photos Courtesy: Steven "Twinkle" Shattuck
Is thru-hiking in Scotland a thing? I'm not really sure we've quite cracked it yet, although we are definitely getting closer. One of the major problems is that we are a pretty tiny country–just over 220 miles at the widest point, and 550 miles North to South. So, thru-hiking in Scotland is a little different than in the USA!
Of the four official long-distance hiking routes in Scotland, the Southern Upland Way is the longest; it runs for 212 miles coast-to-coast across the most southern part of the country. By far, the most popular of the four is the West Highland Way (WHW), a 96-mile trail running from Glasgow in the south to Fort William in the North.
These days, the WHW has become so popular that you will find every kind of hiker treading its route. Baggage transfers and a plethora of hotels and bed and breakfasts means that it is now completely accessible to those with no hiking experience whatsoever. The route is still wild in places; crossing Rannoch Moor on a beautiful, clear day in May is a long lasting memory from my hike on the WHW. Another memory for me is the Devils Staircase –t he name alone puts fear into any hiker as they approach this dreaded ascent in the final days of the route. There are many other smaller trails which are perfect for weekend adventures; many follow abandoned railway lines, and others old trading routes.
Other wilder trails are also starting to emerge across Scotland. The Scottish National Trail and the Cape Wrath Trail are among the two most prominent. Neither is waymarked, and both require a very good degree of navigational knowledge.
The Cape Wrath Trail is a huge aspiration; its length is only 205 miles. However, it crosses some of the most remote ground in Scotland, and for much of the trail, there is no path. Starting in Fort William, it heads North through Knoydart to Morvich and the great sandstone mountains of Torridon. From there, it passes through Fisherfield, often known as the greatest wilderness in Scotland–it certainly has the most remote Munros in the country. From there, the trail heads to the westernmost point on the UK mainland, Cape Wrath.
The name itself gives some suggestion of the remote and barren nature of the land that might be encountered on the trail. Four seasons of weather in one day is not uncommon, and the ground underfoot is soaked through with brown peaty water, waiting to swallow up the unsuspecting hiker. The Cape Wrath Trail has a good network of Bothy's available, or small unmanned mountain dwellings maintained for the use of hikers and mountaineers. These offer the possibility of a warm fire and shelter from unfavorable weather.
The Great Outdoors Challenge is a yearly event that offers a unique opportunity to thru-hike across Scotland, and is probably the closest you'll get to social hiking in Scotland. Most Scottish hikers and mountaineers escape to the hills for solitude and a good bit of peace and quiet. You certainly won't find that on the Great Outdoors Challenge, with over 300 people stomping across the country over two weeks in mid-May. The only saving grace is that each participant plans a different route with 12 possible starting points and distances ranging from 180 to 250 miles. The route can be as demanding or as simple as you want to make it, and there are many points across the country where participants gather to compare notes and greet others they met previous years. The event is almost 40 years old and has a great sense of camaraderie.
Scotland has some pretty amazing access rights, which should, in theory, make it a hiker's paradise. The "Right to Roam" legislation means that everyone has a right to responsible access over any land. Obviously, private gardens are not covered, as well as a range of rural activities, such as shooting, but generally, you can ramble across any hill you fancy. Wild camping also follows the same suit, meaning endless possibilities for multi-day trips through the mountains of Scotland without worrying too much about finding a place to sleep for the night.
There are parts of Scotland where you can literally walk for days without seeing another soul. I think it's this freedom that makes it such a special place to explore.