Scotland boasts a landscape that, weather conditions apart, is extremely attractive for outdoor pursuits at all levels of fitness and ambition, and legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament has ensured a right of access to hills, mountains, lochs and rivers. Within striking distance of its cities are two national parks, remote wilderness areas and vast stretches of glens and moorland, while sea-kayakers, sailors and surfers can enjoy excellent conditions along the rugged but beautiful coastline. For more on outdoor activities see our special colour section.
Walking and climbing
The whole of Scotland offers superb opportunities for walking, with some of the finest areas in the ownership of bodies such as the National Trust for Scotland and the John Muir Trust (jmt.org); both permit year-round access. Bear in mind, though, that restrictions may be in place during lambing and deerstalking seasons. See snh.org.uk/hillphones for information about hiking safely during the stalking season. In addition, the green signposts of the Scottish Rights of Way Society point to established paths and routes all over the country.
There are several long-distance footpaths, such as the well-known West Highland Way, which take between three and seven days to walk, though you can, of course, just do a section of them. Paths are generally well signposted and well supported, with a range of services from bunkhouses to baggage-carrying services.
For relatively gentle walking in the company of knowledgeable locals, look out for guided walks offered by rangers at many National Trust for Scotland, Forest Enterprise and Scottish Natural Heritage sites. These often focus on local wildlife, and the best can lead to some special sightings, such as a badger’s sett or a golden eagle’s eyrie.
Useful contacts for walkers
hillphones.info Daily information for hill walkers about deerstalking activities (July–Oct).
outdooraccess-scotland.com All you need to know about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
walking.visitscotland.com Official site from VisitScotland, with good lists of operators, information on long-distance footpaths and details of deerstalking restrictions and contact phone numbers.
wildlife.visitscotland.com Highlights the fauna and flora you may spot on a walk.
Clubs and associations
Mountain Bothies Association mountainbothies.org.uk. Charity dedicated to maintaining huts and shelters in the Scottish Highlands.
Mountaineering Council of Scotland mountaineering-scotland.org.uk. The representative body for all mountain activities, with detailed information on access and conservation issues.
Ramblers Association Scotland ramblers.org.uk/scotland. Campaigning organization with network of local groups and news on events and issues.
Scottish Mountaineering Club smc.org.uk. The largest mountaineering club in the country. A well-respected organization which publishes a popular series of mountain guidebooks.
Adventure Scotland adventure-scotland.com. Highly experienced operator providing a wide range of courses and one-day adventures, from telemark skiing to climbing, kayaking and biking.
Bespoke Highland Tours scotland-inverness.co.uk/bht-main.htm. Offers five-to twelve-day self-led treks with a detailed itinerary along routes such as the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way, organizing baggage transfer and accommodation en route.
Cape Adventure International capeventure.co.uk. From a wonderfully remote northwest location near Kinlochbervie, Cape offers day, weekend and week-long individual and family adventure experiences including wilderness trips, climbing, sea-kayaking and walking.
C-N-Do Scotland cndoscotland.com. Prides itself on offering the “best walking holidays in Scotland”. Munro-bagging for novices and experts with qualified leaders.
G2 Outdoor g2outdoor.co.uk. Personable, highly qualified adventure specialists offering gorge, hillwalking, rock climbing, canoeing and telemark skiing in the Cairngorms.
Glenmore Lodge glenmorelodge.org.uk. Based within the Cairngorm National Park, and internationally recognized as a leader in outdoor skills and leadership training.
Hebridean Pursuits hebrideanpursuits.com. Offers hillwalking and rock climbing in the Hebrides and West Highlands, as well as surf-kayaking and sailing trips.
Nae Limits naelimits.co.uk. This excellent Perthshire-based operator offers everything from wet ’n’ wild rafting to bug canyoning and cliff jumping.
North-West Frontiers nwfrontiers.com. Based in Ullapool, offering guided mountain trips with small groups in the northwest Highlands, Hebrides and even the Shetland Islands. April–Oct.
Rua Reidh Lighthouse Holidays ruareidh.co.uk. From its spectacular northwest location, this company offers guided walks highlighting wildlife, rock climbing courses and week-long treks into the Torridon hills.
Vertical Descents verticaldescents.com. Ideally located for the Glencoe and Fort William area, activities and courses include canyoning, funyakking (a type of rafting) and climbing.
Walkabout Scotland walkaboutscotland.com. A great way to get a taste of hiking in Scotland, from exploring Ben Lomond to the Isle of Arran. Guided day and weekend walking from Edinburgh with all transport included.
Wilderness Scotland wildernessscotland.com. Guided, self-guided and customized adventure holidays and trips that focus on exploring the remote and unspoiled parts of Scotland by foot, bike, sea-kayak, yacht and even on skis.
Skiing and snowboarding take place at five different locations in Scotland – Glen Coe, the Nevis Range beside Fort William, Glen Shee, the Lecht and the Cairngorms near Aviemore. The resorts can go for months on end through the winter with insufficient snow, then see the approach roads suddenly made impassable by a glut of the stuff. When the conditions are good, Scotland’s ski resorts have piste and off-piste areas that will challenge even the most accomplished alpine or cross-country skier.
Expect to pay up to £28 for a standard day-pass at one of the resorts, or around £110 for a five-day pass; rental of skis or snowboard comes in at around £25 per day, with reductions for multi-day rents. At weekends, in good weather with decent snow, expect the slopes to be packed with trippers from the central belt, although midweek usually sees queues dissolving. For a comprehensive rundown of all the resorts, including ticket prices and conditions, visit wski.visitscotland.com.
Cross-country skiing (along with the related telemark or Nordic skiing) is becoming increasingly popular in the hills around Braemar near Glenshee and the Cairngorms. The best way to get started or to find out about good routes is to contact an outdoor pursuits company that offers telemark or Nordic rental and instruction; in the Aviemore area try Adventure Scotland or G2 Outdoor. Also check out the Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre in Huntly, Aberdeenshire (nordicski.co.uk/hnoc). For equipment hire, sales or advice for Nordic and ski mountaineering equipment, contact Mountain Spirit (mountainspirit.co.uk) located at the southern entrance to Aviemore village.
Pony trekking and horse-riding
There are approximately sixty pony trekking or riding centres across the country, most approved by either the Trekking and Riding Society of Scotland (TRSS; ridinginscotland.com) or the British Horse Society (BHS; bhs.org.uk). As a rule, any centre will offer the option of pony trekking, hacking and trail riding. In addition, a network of special horse-and-rider B&Bs means you can ride independently on your own horse. The Buccleuch Country Ride, a three to four day, 57-mile long route using private tracks, open country and quiet bridleways was the first route of its kind to be opened in Scotland. For more information about this, and the B&B network for riders, contact the Scottish Borders Tourist Board, or visit buccleuch.com.
Cycling and mountain biking
Cycle touring is a great way to see some of the remoter parts of Scotland and navigate city streets (especially in Edinburgh). You’ll find cycle shops in towns but few dedicated cycle lanes. In the countryside it can be tricky finding spare parts unless you are near one of Scotland’s purpose-built mountain-bike trail centres.
Scotland is now regarded as one of the world’s top destinations for off-road mountain biking. The Forestry Commission has established more than 1150 miles of excellent off-road routes. These are detailed in numerous “Cycling in the Forest” leaflets (available from Forest Enterprise offices). Alternatively, get hold of the Scottish Mountain Biking Guide from tourist information centres. Some of the tougher routes are best attempted on full suspension mountain bikes although the easier (blue/green) trails can be ridden on a standard mountain or road bike. Pocket Mountain publish a series of compact cycling guides to the country (pocketmountains.com).
For up-to-date information on long-distance routes, including The Great Glen Cycle Way, along with a list of publications detailing specific routes, contact the cyclists campaigning group Sustrans (sustrans.co.uk).
Another option is to shell out on a cycling holiday package. Britain’s biggest cycling organization, the Cycle Touring Club, or CTC (ctc.org.uk), provides lists of tour operators and rental outlets in Scotland, and supplies members with touring and technical advice, as well as insurance. Visit Scotland’s “Cycling in Scotland” brochure is worth getting hold of, with practical advice and suggestions for itineraries around the country. The tourist board’s “Cyclists Welcome” scheme gives guesthouses and B&Bs around the country a chance to advertise that they’re cyclist-friendly, and able to provide an overnight laundry service, a late meal or a packed lunch.
Transporting your bike by train is a good way of getting to the interesting parts of Scotland without a lot of hard pedalling. Bikes are allowed free on mainline GNER and Virgin Intercity trains, as well as ScotRail trains, but you need to book the space as far in advance as possible. Bus and coach companies, including National Express and Scottish Citylink, rarely accept cycles unless they are dismantled and boxed; one notable exception is the excellent service operated by Dearman coaches (timdearmancoaches.co.uk) between Inverness and Durness via Ullapool (May–Sept Mon–Sat, 1 daily). Large towns and tourist centres offer bike rental. Expect to pay £10–20 per day; most outlets also give good discounts for multi-day rents.
Useful contacts for cyclists
Cyclists’ Touring Club ctc.org.uk. Britain’s largest cycling organization, and a good source of general advice; their handbook has lists of cyclist-friendly B&Bs and cafés in Scotland. Annual membership £34.
Forest Enterprise forestry.gov.uk/mtbscotland. The best source of information on Scotland’s extensive network of forest trails – ideal for mountain-biking at all levels of ability.
Full On Adventure fullonadventure.co.uk. Among its many offerings, provides fully guided mountain-bike tours of Highland trails.
Highland Wildcat Trails highlandwildcat.com. Scotland’s most northerly dedicated mountain-bike centre complete with one of the country’s longest downhill tracks.
The Hub in the Forest thehubintheforest.co.uk. One of Scotland’s most established mountain-bike centres with a huge network of trails for all abilities in Glentress Forest near Peebles.
MBHI Bikes mbhi.co.uk. Whether for bike hire or a guided trip, this Cromarty-based operator is ideal if touring the east coast above Inverness.
Nevis Range ridefortwilliam.co.uk. For information on all the trails around Fort William, including the home of Scotland’s World Cup downhill and cross-country tracks (May–Oct) at Nevis Range.
North Sea Cycle Route northsea-cycle.com. Signposted 3725-mile (6000-km) route round seven countries fringing the North Sea, including 772 miles (1242km) in Scotland along the east coast and in Orkney and Shetland.
Scottish Cycle Safaris cyclescotland.co.uk. Fully organized cycle tours at all levels, from camping to country-house hotels, with a good range of bikes available for rent, from tandems to children’s bikes.
Scottish Cycling scottishcycling.com. Produces an annual handbook and calendar of cycling events (£8) – mainly road, mountain-bike and track races.
Spokes spokes.org.uk. Active Edinburgh cycle campaign group with plenty of good links and news on events and cycle-friendly developments.
Wild Adventures wild-adventures.co.uk. A Speyside operator offering skills courses and biking holidays.
WolfTrax Mountain Bike Centre forestry.gov.uk/wolftrax. This Central Highland bike centre near Newtonmore has over ten miles of routes for every standard of rider, bike hire and an excellent café.
Scotland has its fair share of fine sunny days, when it’s hard to beat scanning majestic mountain peaks, lochs and endless forests from the air. Whether you’re a willing novice or an expert paraglider or skydiver, there are centres just outside Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth which will cater to your needs. There are also opportunities to try ballooning and gliding.
British Gliding Association gliding.co.uk. Governing body for gliding enthusiasts and schools across the UK with information on where to find many clubs in Scotland.
Cloudbusters cloudbusters.co.uk. Highly reputable paragliding school which runs taster and fully accredited paragliding courses in the Lanarkshire hills outside Glasgow each weekend of the year. Around £120.
Flying Fever flyingfever.net. Based on the stunning Isle of Arran, forty miles southwest of Glasgow. From March–Oct, fully accredited paragliding courses and tandem flights can be enjoyed for around £100.
Skydive St Andrews skydivestandrews.co.uk. Year-round, highly professional, fully accredited parachute school that offers tandem, solo “static” line and “accelerated free-fall courses” over the Fife countryside. Tandem jump from £250.
Skydive Strathallan skydivestrathallan.co.uk. Located just outside Auchterarder, this non-commercial school operates year-round. Tandem jump from £250.
There are more than four hundred golf courses in Scotland, where the game is less elitist and more accessible than anywhere else in the world. Golf in its present form took shape in the fifteenth century on the dunes of Scotland’s east coast, and today you’ll find some of the oldest courses in the world on these coastal sites, known as “links”. It’s often possible to turn up and play, though it’s sensible to phone ahead; booking is essential for the championship courses.
Public courses are owned by the local council, while private courses belong to a club. You can play on both – occasionally the private courses require that you are a member of another club, and the odd one asks for introductions from a member, but these rules are often waived for overseas visitors and all you need to do is pay a one-off fee. The cost of a round will set you back around £10 on a small nine-hole course, and more than £50 on many good-quality eighteen-hole courses.
St Andrews is the top destination for golfers: it’s the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the body that regulates the rules of the game. Go to wwww.scotlands-golf-courses.com for contacts, scorecards and maps of signature holes for most main courses. If you’re coming to Scotland primarily to play golf, it’s worth shelling out for one of the various multi-course passes or packages available that gives you access to a number of courses in any one region. There’s more information at scottishgolf.com and visitscotland.com/golf.
Scotland’s serrated coastline – with the deep sea lochs of the west, the firths of the east and the myriad offshore islands – ranks among the cleanest coasts in Europe. Combine this with an abundance of salmon, sea trout, brown trout and pike, acres of open space and easy access, and you have a wonderful location for game, coarse- or sea-fishing.
No licence is needed to fish in Scotland, although nearly all land is privately owned and its fishing therefore controlled by a landlord/lady or his/her agent. Permission, however, is usually easy to obtain: permits can be bought at local tackle shops, rural post offices or through fishing clubs in the area – if in doubt, ask at the nearest tourist office. Salmon and sea trout have strict seasons, which usually stretch from late August to late February. Individual tourist offices will know the precise dates, or see Visit Scotland’s excellent “Fish Scotland” brochure (fishpal.com/VisitScotland). For more information and contacts see fishscotland.co.uk.
Opportunities for sailing are outstanding. However, even in summer the full force of the North Atlantic can be felt, and changeable conditions combined with tricky tides and rocky shores demand good sailing and navigational skills. Yacht charters are available from various ports, either bareboat or in yachts run by a skipper and crew; contact Sail Scotland (sailscotland.co.uk) or the Associated Scottish Yacht Charters (asyc.co.uk).
An alternative way to enjoy Scotland under sail is to spend a week at a sailing school. Many schools, as well as small boat rental operations dotted along the coast, will rent sailing dinghies by the hour or day, as well as windsurfers, though you’ll always need a wet suit. Scotland’s top spots for windsurfing and kitesurfing are Troon on the Ayrshire coast, St Andrews and Tiree. The last named is internationally renowned for its beaches and waves and has an excellent surf, windsurfing and kitesurfing school, Wild Diamond Watersports (surfschoolscotland.co.uk).
In recent years sea-kayaking has witnessed an explosion in popularity, with a host of operators offering sea-kayaking lessons and expeditions across the country. Canoe Scotland (canoescotland.org) offer useful advice, while Glenmore Lodge (glenmorelodge.org.uk), Canoe Hebrides (canoehebrides.com), Uist Outdoor Centre (seakayakouterhebrides.co.uk) and Skyak Adventures (skyakadventures.com) are highly reputable for either training or tours.
In addition to sea-kayaking, Scotland is fast gaining a reputation as a surfing destination. However, the northern coastline lies on the same latitude as Alaska and Iceland, so the water temperature is very low: even in midsummer it rarely exceeds 15°C, and in winter can drop to as low as 7°C. The one vital accessory, therefore, is a good wet suit (ideally a 5/3mm steamer), wet-suit boots and, outside summer, gloves and a hood, too.
Many of the best spots are surrounded by stunning scenery, and you’d be unlucky to encounter another surfer for miles. However, this isolation – combined with the cold water and big, powerful waves – means that many of the best locations can only be enjoyed by experienced surfers. If you’re a beginner, consider a lesson with a BSA-qualified coach such as Craig “Suds” Sutherland at Wild Diamond Watersports in Tiree (surfschoolscotland.co.uk).
Surf shops rent or sell equipment and provide good information about local breaks and events on the surfing scene. Two further sources of information are Surf UK by Wayne “Alf” Alderson (Fernhurst Books), with details on more than four hundred breaks around Britain, and the British Surfing Association (britsurf.co.uk).
Surf information, schools and shops
Adventure Sports 13 High St c2cadventure.com. Year-round surfing lessons and surf safaris across Scotland.
Boardwise 1146 Argyle St, Glasgow boardwise.com; 4 Lady Lawson St, Edinburgh t0870/750 4420. Surf gear, clothes and short-term rental.
Clan Surf 45 Hyndland St, Partick, Glasgow clanskates.co.uk. Combined surf, skate and snowboard shop. Lessons available.
ESP 5–7 Moss St, Elgin. Sales and rental only.
Granite Reef 45 The Green, Aberdeen granitereef.com. Sales, hire and lessons.
Tempest Surf Riverside Road, Thurso. At the harbourside, you’ll find lessons, a shop and a café that may tempt you to remain snug indoors.
Wild Diamond Watersports Isle of Tiree surfschoolscotland.co.uk. Professional instruction and hire for surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking.