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Cairngorm in winter 2014

Scotland’s outdoor activities in a nutshell

When moving into another country, it takes some time to figure out how things work. I had some problems finding out where to go, where to find information or what to do. In this post, I will try to put down a short summary of what to do and where to get more information. It might be handy when you get inspiration to get out – or moving into the country like I did.

What you can do in Scotland?

Hills and mountains in Scotland provide it all. From easy walking in the rounded hills to highly challenging winter mountaineering. Being a novice to mountaineering and climbing I can choose routes and places that suit my skills and slowly build my competence and take up harder challenges.

I think that the Munros and Corbetts are the foundation for Scottish outdoor life in any form. A Munro is a term for Scottish hill or mountain that is higher than 914 meters (3000 ft.) so these are the highest peaks in the Scotland. Hills that are between 760 – 914 m (2500 – 3000 ft.) are called Corbetts. Almost all lakes are called Lochs.

Scotland has 2 national parks – Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and Cairngorms National Park. In national parks you can see some of the most amazing landscapes and wildlife. They also have good visitor facilities and there is a lot of information available about routes, nature and wildlife. There are also three smaller Regional parks that you can access very easily from the cities – Pentland Hills Regional Park, Lomond Hills Regional Park and Clyde Muirshiel Regional ParkNational and Local Nature Reserves might be smaller in size but they play an important part in the conservation of Scottish natural heritage. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are features designated under UK law that provide additional protection to habitats and species. Many of these areas also have international importance.

When you are visiting or living in Scotland you have statutory right of outdoor access (or right to roameveryman’s right) as defined by the Land Reform Act. Read more about your rights and responsibilities here.

PRO TIP – Whatever you are into…

Join to a club! There is huge number of different clubs out there, providing a very good way to access local knowledge, meet experienced people from whom you can learn and, most importantly, meet people that enjoy doing the same things that you do. For me, joining Edinburgh Mountaineering Club has made my life in Scotland much richer that it otherwise would have been. Superb people, fantastic days out and good laughs in the pub. So find your own club.

Hiking

Scotland offers you opportunity to enjoy many levels of hiking. You can choose trails from different length from couple hours to long distance trails that takes several weeks to complete. Depending what level walking you are looking for you might enjoy lower level hikes the best or you might get into hill walking. Hill walking (or fell walking) basically means hiking on the hills/mountains and can lead into Munro Bagging.

Munro Bagging

Many people try to collect all 282 Munros and maybe all 221 Corbetts. If you are REALLY keen, you might tick all the 223 Grahams (609 – 760m  / 2000 – 2500 ft.) as well. Almost all of these can be walked all way to the top but if you want, you can take a bit more challenging routes to the top that might involve scrambling or climbing. There is huge amount of guides for the hills and possible routes but of course you are not limited only to these. Don’t be discouraged by the term that might indicate that it’s all about “ticking” the tops. I like to carry my tent and combine hill walking with wild camping. Munro’s provides a good targets to move around in Scotland – especially for people that doesn’t know the country well – and it will take you to areas that you might not go otherwise.

To get started with munros, I recommend checking walkhighlands and if you like books then get The Munros – Hillwalkers’ guide by Scottish Mountaineering Club (Revised 2013 edition).

Scotland’s Great Trails (long distance trails)

These are nationally-promoted multi-day trails that are well way marked and largely off road. Currently there are 26 routes that cover over 2700 km (1700 miles) of paths across Scotland. The shortest great trail is Dava Way in the Cairngorms National Park which is around 40 kilometres (25 miles) long. The longest is the semi-official Scottish National Trail that combines many other great trails or part of them. It is enormous – 864 km (536 miles) long – and crosses the country from Kirk Yetholm to Cape Wrath. I have heard some people saying that you should skip southern areas and go directly to North or North-West but I disagree. It’s true that you can find more “wild” and off-trail there but that is only one aspect of Scotland and its beautiful land. Great Trails offer mountains, lochs, forest, rivers, moorland, historical sites, a variety of wildlife and of course, long distance hiking!

To get started with Great trails, see the official web site or view routes on walkhighlands.com.

Sunrise lighting the trail at Southern Upland Way, 2014
Sunrise lighting the trail at Southern Upland Way, 2014

Mountaineering

You can find the best places in the UK for both summer and winter mountaineering in Scotland. There is a rich diversity of geology – Scotland’s Torridonian rocks are among the oldest in the world – which gives us a fantastic range of mountains and cliffs. Although Scottish mountains cannot compete with the Alps or other ranges in height, they have a world-wide reputation of being a superb playground for mountaineers. The sometimes unstable weathervariable temperatureshigh winds and poor visibility can throw a challenge but also high rewards. It’s said that Scottish mountains are good for training towards higher ranges but for me they aren’t just a training ground, they provide unforgettable experiences.

In the mountains you can do many things. It’s very hard to say where hill walking becomes mountaineering. I think that general definition is when you need to start using technical equipment but I contain also scrambling into this category. In the winter time hills also provide good ski-touring. 

Read more on the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS) site.

Scrambling

I find scrambling is a bit hard to define, it’s something that is between hiking (or hill walking / fell walking) and rock climbing. I feel that I’m scrambling when terrain goes so steep or tricky that I need to use all 4 limbs, but I don’t need to use a rope or protection (bolts or nuts). Some hard scrambles can be easy climbs though and there are definitely situations where you feel that a rope would provide a bit more security! Of course, peoples’ skill levels vary, so some might consider more difficult scrambling routes than others.

I have experienced my best scrambling so far on the majestic Culling ridge at the Isle of Skye but there are a lot of very nice routes all around Scotland.

Scrambling at Forcan Ridge, Glen Shiel, 2014
Scrambling on the Forcan Ridge, Glen Shiel, 2014

Rock climbing

Climbing in Scotland is mainly traditional climbing. This means that there isn’t existing protection that you can use and you need to put your own gear into the cracks to secure you from falling down from the route. There are also sport routes that have fixed protection, such as bolts, placed but these are few and far between. Scotland has large range of different types of rock from granite to gneiss and there are thousand of climbs around the country from roadside cliffs to remote crags requiring a long walk. Through climbing, you can access areas that you just can’t access by foot.

Read more in the MCofS rock climbing section.

Winter climbing

Scotland’s mountains are world-famous for the quality of their winter climbing. From my point of view, winter climbing offers the hardest challenges when talking about outdoor activities in Scotland. Winter climbing needs the highest level of technical knowledge and ability to take the hardest weather that Scotland has to offer. In the winter time the peaks in the highlands are covered in snow and ice providing thousands of climbs in snow and ice gullies, small icefalls and mixed cliff surfaces. The Highlands offer routes from easier snow covered slopes to world-class mixed routes.

Read more in the MCofS winter climbing section.

Ski touring

When snow covers the hills and mountains more and more people in Scotland takes their skis out. Ski touring (ski mountaineering, back country skiing, cross country skiing) offers maybe the most mobility in the snow and you can cover good distances in a day. It combines skills needed when winter walking and skiing and so offering unique way of transportation. While ski touring, you aren’t limited to the areas with ski lifts – basically all the hills that have snow are your playground!

Last year I didn’t get a chance to try ski touring and I’m really looking forward to trying this winter! Hope we get snow soon…

Read more in the MCofS ski touring section.

Mountain biking

Mountain biking is very popular in Scotland. According Forestry Commission Scotland is one of the best places in the world for mountain biking. You can enjoy your day in one of the several Trail centres or you might want to do some back country cycling. The most famous trail centres are 7stanes. These are centres owned by Forestry Commission Scotland and they are developed to provide track for beginners and very experienced cyclers. You can also find very good facilities and car parks from trail centres.

If you like to avoid other people when cycling, then you can head to back country. You can cycle some of the Great Trails with mountain bike if you are willing to carry your bike over the hardest bits. Trails are found everywhere in Scotland which includes both national parks and all regional parks. If you like uphill you can also cycle some munros all way to the top!

MountainBikingWithClaire
Claire rolling down from Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, Glen Feshie, 2014

Read more about trails from TrailScotland.

If you want a bit more relaxed routes, National Cycle Network (NCN) offers over  2400 kilometres  (1500 miles) of marked roads through city and town centres, country trails, old railway paths and canals. NCN routes are also suitable for bike touring.

As you can see, there is tons of things to do in Scotland!