There are more than 30,000 lochs in Scotland with the majority located in the Highlands, including the tourist-favourites of Ness, Lomond and Shiel.
Because most of these lochs are situated in stunning landscapes they absolutely have to be on every visitor’s sightseeing itinerary, but they’re also great places to get active with water sports or to go on long picturesque walks.
Discover a collection of wonderful Scottish lochs in this article which explores why each one is such a special place, along with details of what you can expect to find when you visit them and other attractions you’ll find nearby.
The ultimate guide to the best lochs in Scotland
If you’re planning a holiday in Scotland there are more than likely five big attractions sitting at the top of your ‘must-do’ itinerary.
First has to be Edinburgh with its stunning castle, second would have to be the majestic mountain scenery of the Highlands, third the Isle of Skye with its beautiful… well, everything, fourth the gob-smackingly pretty west coast islands, and fifth the spectacular lochs that cover the country from the Scottish Borders to the northern-most tip of the mainland.
The word loch stems from the Scottish Gaelic word for a lake or a sea inlet, so if you’re wondering if there’s any difference between a body of water in Scotland and any other country, basically, there isn’t.
Scotland does differ from many countries in the number of these bodies of water though, and in total there are more than 31,000 freshwater lochs and lochans (a lochan is a small loch) across the country, with the majority located in the area known as the Highlands.
This is the part of Scotland that lies to the west of the Highland Boundary Fault line which runs from the Isle of Arran on the west coast all the way to Stonehaven on the northeast.
The Highland region is frequently cited as the most scenic part of Scotland due to its wild mountainous landscape, but it also has a beautiful coastline reminiscent of the fjords of Norway and of course it’s the region that contains most of those gorgeous lochs.
The lochs of Scotland really are beautiful places to visit and many of them are easy to combine with other attractions, as you’ll see when you visit one of the larger lochs like Ness which has a fascinating castle nestled on its bank, boat cruises galore and enough walking trails to keep families occupied for an entire day.
There are too many wonderful lochs to include in a single article, so instead I’ll show you my personal favourites which I guarantee you’ll fall in love with. Most have visitor facilities somewhere along their shoreline, while a few also have historic buildings, tours and other attractions in the immediate area.
Map of the best lochs in Scotland
1. Loch Ness
2. Loch Lomond
3. Loch Katrine
4. Loch Lubnaig
5. Loch Shiel
6. Loch Tummel
7. Loch Morlich
8. Loch Etive
The best lochs to visit in Scotland
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I couldn’t really begin this list without talking about Loch Ness, the vast body of water that lies between the Highland city of Inverness and the town of Fort Augustus.
Even if the loch didn’t have the legend of the monster it would undoubtedly still be one of the biggest attractions in Scotland due to its size.
Ness is an incredible 23 miles in length with troughs that have been measured at over 800 feet in depth, and at its widest point it measures nearly 2 miles from shore to shore. In total, it holds an estimated 263 billion cubic feet of water – more than all the lakes of England and Wales combined.
Coupled with it’s peat-stained water which is almost completely black, it’s no wonder that tales of a mythical creature living in its secretive depths are so popular, but there’s much more to the loch than Nessie.
First and foremost amongst the attractions on Loch Ness has to be the 17th-century Urquhart Castle which at one time was one of the most important fortifications in Scotland.
Although it’s now a shadow of its former glory due to the English soldiers who partly demolished it in the 1600s, it remains one of the most iconic historic sites in the country and the views across the loch from the castle’s battlements have to be seen to be believed.
Another top-rated attraction located nearby is the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition which tells the story of the loch and the monster with the help of displays and exhibits collected from the surrounding area. This is a great place to take the kids if the weather closes in as the centre manages to be both interesting and fun while weaving in an educational element about the history and geology of Loch Ness.
If you’re hoping to take a boat tour on the loch you’ll find several tour operators at Fort Augustus, though bear in mind that due to its popularity you really need to book in advance to secure a seat.
Most of these boat tours start at the Loch Ness viewpoint which is also the opening to the Caledonian Canal where you’ll find the historic Fort Augustus locks. The locks join Ness to the canal and there are footpaths on either side, with the northern-most path joining Loch Oich for a superb cross-country ramble (wee tip for you).
Although Loch Lomond doesn’t hold as much water as Loch Ness it manages to draw more visitors, primarily due to its location which offers easy access from Glasgow.
It’s a mere 17 miles from the centre of the city to the edge of the loch so it’s not really surprising that so many locals head there on their downtime, especially as the majority of the route is dual-carriageway meaning a journey from the city to the edge of the loch takes just 40 minutes.
The downside to that is the fact that Lomond gets excruciatingly busy at the weekends in summer, so if you’re after a bit of peace and quiet you might consider setting your sights further afield instead.
Each year around 4 million people visit the loch, though unlike Ness, Lomond attracts as many water sports enthusiasts as it does sightseeing tourists.
The southern half is by far the busiest as the majority of visitor facilities are located in the crescent-shaped bay at Balloch which includes the superb Sea Life aquarium, the Loch Lomond Bird of Prey Centre, the Loch Lomond Shores shopping centre, and the ever-popular Maid of the Loch – one of the few remaining paddle boats in Scotland.
The facilities continue further along the shoreline on either side where you’ll find hire shops that will let you try thrilling activities like water skiing and jet skiing and there are even Segway tours of the area if you fancy exploring more of the Trossachs National Park.
If you’ve not spent much time in the Trossachs I highly recommend combining a ramble through its serene forests and gentle hills in addition to your visit to Loch Lomond.
It’s a phenomenal place for walking but you’ll also find some of the best mountain biking trails in the country, plus there are lots of other lochs in the park that are far quieter than Lomond, though none are as big (two of these – Katrine and Lubnaig – are detailed below).
If you’d rather concentrate your activities on the loch you’ll find it’s very popular for swimming and perhaps even more so for kayakers thanks to the small islands in the southern half that are ideal for paddling around.
The pick of the bunch has to be Inchcailloch located in the southeast corner of Lomond near the village of Balmaha. This island is famed for its carpets of bluebells which seem to cover every inch of the forest floor in spring. A path has been created that cuts across the island from the north to the south and there are small jetties at either end if you need somewhere to moor up.
Heading back to Balloch you’ll find you really are spoilt for choice for things to do and I’ve got two recommendations that will keep you busy for a full weekend if you’re pitching a tent in one of the many campsites near Loch Lomond.
First is Balloch Castle and Country Park which is (in my opinion) one of the nicest public spaces in the west of Scotland. The park features a network of paths that are easily accessible for all abilities and there’s a nice wee beach and a causeway on the edge of the loch that’s perfect for family picnics.
My second recommendation is to walk the first section of the John Muir Way which runs across low hills and open grass plains from Balloch to Helensburgh. This section of the cross-country route is exceptionally pretty but rarely undertaken by visitors to Loch Lomond, so if you find yourself itching to get away from the crowds I’d definitely add it to your itinerary.
Loch Katrine lies to the east of Lomond where it’s surrounded on all sides by steep hills and verdant forests, criss-crossed by a number of walking trails that stretch deep into the Trossachs in all directions.
Personally, I much prefer Katrine to Lomond. Not only is it quieter but it has a very easy-going cycle route on its north-east side that offers stunning views along its entire length.
It’s also much smaller than Loch Lomond at just 8 miles in length and around half a mile in width, but in my opinion that makes the freshwater loch far easier to explore and you’ll be able to see everything it has to offer during a single visit.
There’s a lot of history associated with this loch, most notably Scottish folklore hero Rob Roy who was born on the loch’s northern shore. Its natural beauty also inspired the great Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott to pen his poem ‘Lady of the Lake’ and it was the inspiration for several works from Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
You’ll find the main car park by following the A821 and looking for either the Ben Venue or Ben A’an car parks. The road towards Loch Katrine lies between them amongst woodland with a single-track road opening onto the visitor centre which has facilities including a café, toilets, cycle hire and boat cruises.
If you’re going to cycle along the loch you have the option of doing the entire there-and-back route on two wheels, but bear in mind it’s 13 miles each way.
Another option is to book a scenic cruise when you get to the visitor centre and cycle the 13 miles to Stronlachar lodge, then take the ferry back. That way you get the best of the views from the shoreline as well as taking in the breathtaking views from the middle of the loch.
The cruises run every hour between 10.30 am and 3.30 pm so you might be lucky enough to get on by just turning up at the pier, but the boat – The Lady of the Lake – isn’t exactly the world’s biggest and places fill up quickly during the peak-season summer months. Take my advice and pre-book your cruise tickets to guarantee a seat.
In addition to cycling, Loch Katrine is famed for its wildlife which makes it a wonderful spot for photographers. Along the length of the water there’s every chance you’ll get to see red and roe deer, eagles, red kites, foxes, red squirrels and (very occasionally) wildcats.
These animals are most likely to be seen at the southern end of Katrine where it borders the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, but you might be lucky enough to also spot them by heading south to Loch Achray. Either way, a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a good zoom lens are a must.
If you want to see my recommendations for wildlife-watching binoculars, check out this post.
We’re not quite finished with the Trossachs yet because there’s also Loch Lubnaig to visit, which is one of the most underrated lochs in Scotland but one that totally deserves its place on this list.
Lubnaig lies on the eastern edge of the Trossachs around 4 miles north of the village of Callander on the A84.
Its proximity to the road means it’s extremely easy to get to and parking is almost guaranteed at one of the two car parks on its south-east shoreline, but if you do happen to find them full there’s another car park just off the A84 if you follow the sign to Strathyre forest lodges.
Lubnaig is one of the smaller lochs in this list at around 4 miles in length but the two car parks on the east shore offer perfect launch points so it’s very a popular location for water sports, and it also serves as the starting point for an excellent mountain hike up Ben Ledi.
You’ll find the start of the Ben Ledi path at the Strathyre forest lodge car park so you could feasibly explore the loch and hike the mountain in one day, with the bonus being you can relax with a cuppa at the Strathyre lodge’s café afterwards.
If you want to know more about hiking this mountain, I’ve created a Complete Guide to Ben Ledi.
If hiking mountains doesn’t float your boat you’ll find a fantastic path that runs alongside Loch Lubnaig on its western edge which starts at Callander and finishes near Loch Tay at Killin. The section at Lubnaig is very picturesque and is also flat and level so if you’ve got young children it’s a great place to take them for a walk or a cycle.
This is part of the immense 540-mile Sustrans National Cycle Network Route 7 that starts in Sunderland and finishes in Inverness which is widely recognized as the most picturesque cycle route in Scotland.
Obviously, you’re not going to be able to complete the whole thing in one day, but you’ll have a very enjoyable ride if you start on the path south of Lubnaig, cycle north to Strathyre, take the spur to Loch Voil to see Rob Roy’s grave and then head north to Loch Earn for a well-deserved coffee at Lochearnhead.
It’s a 32-mile return route but I thoroughly recommend it having cycled it myself.
Sticking with Loch Lubnaig, there are lots of activities to get involved with including wild swimming and fishing and it’s a very popular place for wild camping, although you have to obtain a permit between March and September as Lubnaig is in a Camping Management Zone.
Much of the loch is quite shallow at under 50 feet but there are a few places where it sinks to over 100 feet close to the shore and it’s also prone to waves caused by winds blowing in from the north and south (Lubnaig is one of the few north-south lochs in Scotland).
These winds can make small sailboats difficult to handle so if you’re thinking of using a powered craft instead be aware it is not permitted to take any vessel on the water with an outboard engine over 10hp, and jet skis are forbidden as the loch is frequently used by anglers.
If you’re a keen fisherman yourself you’ll no doubt enjoy casting off at this loch as it’s a prime site for migrating salmon as they make their way to their spawning grounds. Fishing permits are available from the cabin which is located in the second car park heading north along the A84.
Out of all of Scotland’s lochs, I would have to say the most scenic viewpoint – by far – is the northern tip of Loch Shiel at Glenfinnan.
You’ll immediately recognize Glenfinnan if you’ve seen the Harry Potter films as it’s the place where the Hogwarts Express puffs its way across a multi-arched viaduct.
Loch Shiel sits in front of the viaduct running north to south for just over 17 miles, making it the 4th-longest freshwater loch in Scotland.
It narrows at its southern point into the River Shiel which flows into Loch Moidart but its northern end is completely landlocked and access is only possible via the A830.
At this point you’ll find a National Trust for Scotland car park next to a visitor centre that has lots of information about the monument and the Jacobite soldiers that it’s dedicated to.
It’s a genuinely fascinating attraction and if you’ve got even the vaguest interest in Scotland’s history you’ll enjoy a visit, but it’s also a good place to stop for a coffee and a light bite as there aren’t many other visitor facilities in the area.
Loch Shiel is a designated Special Protected Area and also a National Scenic Area due to the wildlife that lives along its steep banks, and there’s a good chance you’ll see golden eagles, falcons, kestrels, ospreys, harriers and even Britain’s largest bird, the white-tailed sea eagle during your visit.
Because the loch mainly attracts coach tours who tend to just spend an hour there, you’ll find it’s relatively tourist-free away from the NTS visitor centre so if you want to explore one of the most scenic parts of the Highlands without any crowds for miles around, Loch Shiel is highly recommended.
The western side is fairly inaccessible as there are no roads and only a few very rough paths but the east side has an excellent track that follows the loch its entire length.
It’s very quiet and there are no houses for miles around which makes it ideal for cycling along so if you have your bike with you I recommend joining it by taking a small signposted walkway that spurs away from the monument over a wooden foot bridge.
The track runs very close to Loch Shiel’s shoreline for the majority of its length and it’s flat and level enough for younger children to enjoy, but be aware there is no return route around the other side so once you reach the end of the loch you’ll have to double back on the same track.
Tay Forest Park in Perth and Kinross is a firm favourite with many visitors to Scotland due to the number of attractions within easy driving distance of each other. Highlights include the River Tay, the Hermitage Forest, Schiehallion Mountain, Blair Castle, and of course, Loch Tummel.
This narrow loch lies 6 miles west of the pretty town of Pitlochry in the heart of Perthshire’s Big Tree Country, surrounded on all sides by Tay Forest Park.
The main claim to fame for Loch Tummel is the Queen’s View, a viewpoint named after Queen Victoria who visited the site in 1866 and declared the scene looking down over Loch Tummel was one of the finest in Britain (although some stories suggest it was actually named after Mary Queen of Scots).
Whatever the real reason for the name it’s certainly fit for royalty, and today it is one of the most photographed views in Scotland.
There’s a visitor centre at the Queen’s View that has displays and exhibits about the people that lived in this part of Perthshire over the years as well as information about the forests, lochs and animals that can be seen in the area. The centre also includes a café, toilets and a shop, so it’s certainly worth visiting if you’re near Loch Tummel.
The 7-mile-long loch isn’t quite as popular for extended visits as Loch Lomond but it’s a great destination for camping and there are a couple of campsites on either shore if you fancy pitching a tent for a day or two, whether it’s for the trout fishing or exploring the splendid countryside.
Just like Loch Shiel, Loch Tummel is a National Scenic Area and wildlife-lovers will be in for a treat with the loch and the nearby River Tay providing a home to salmon, otters, black grouse, red squirrel and capercaillie (a type of grouse).
If you’re a keen mountain biker you’ll be in your element with a spiders-web of excellent biking trails running throughout Tay Forest Park that offer lots of action for adrenaline junkies, whereas those that prefer a more sedate ride will enjoy the scenic south shore road which closely follows the shoreline from the hydroelectric dam at the east end to the start of the River Tummel on the western side.
One area where Loch Tummel falls behind others in this list is sailing as there are no public car parks along its length and therefore it’s difficult to park up and carry your canoe or kayak to the water’s edge.
That being said, if you prefer cycling and forest walks to getting out on the open water, basing yourself at Loch Tummel will give you ample opportunities to explore this truly stunning part of Scotland.
The Cairngorms National Park covers a vast 1,748 square miles of the Scottish Highlands and it’s officially the largest national park in Britain. The park is famed for its stunning mountain ranges, pretty villages and lush forests, but it’s also the location of one of Scotland’s most surprising lochs.
You’ll understand what I mean by ‘surprising’ when you visit it yourself.
Getting there is easy if you follow the A9 and take the junction to Aviemore, then follow the signs to Glenmore Forest Park.
The loch is set amongst the thick pine forest of Glenmore which surrounds it on all sides, while the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorm mountain range are clearly visible in the distance. As far as Highland landscapes go, it really doesn’t get any better.
However, the best feature of the loch is evident as soon as you step foot out of the car.
Ahead, you’ll see a wide sweeping arc of soft golden sand that wouldn’t look out of place on a tropical desert island, but what you’re looking at is, in fact, the highest beach in the United Kingdom.
Having visited it myself many times I have to rate Loch Morlich alongside Loch Lomond as a fantastic spot for a family day out. Kids can safely play in the water while mums and dads chill out on the beach, and there’s a water sports centre on the northern edge where you can hire sailing, paddleboarding and kayaking equipment if you’re in an adventurous mood.
Circling the loch are a number of paths that extend into the forest so if you’ve got your mountain bikes with you, you’ll have lots of opportunities to go for a ride, and there are even more trails across the road in Glenmore Forest.
If all that activity gets bellies rumbling you’ll find cafés at the watersports centre as well as the forest visitor centre and there’s also a designated picnic area if you’d rather take a packed lunch. The only negative is that you’re not allowed barbecues, but then that’s understandable with so many trees nearby.
If you’re feeling particularly brave you can swim in the freshwater loch perfectly safely as it’s completely enclosed save for the minor River Luineag on its northwest corner, though it won’t take you long to get around it as it’s just one mile in length – far smaller than the other lochs in this list.
What it loses in size it makes up for with the area it’s located in though, and I have to give two big shout-outs to a couple of other attractions that are worth including in a visit to Loch Morlich.
The first is the Cairngorm Reindeer centre which you’ll find over the road near the forest visitor centre. At the reindeer centre you’ll be able to get close to Britain’s only wild reindeer herd on guided hill trips that take you to see them on the mountainside, but if you’re unable to climb up there the centre keeps a few animals in their own paddocks as well.
The second attraction is Cairngorm Mountain where you can go for a walk up the mountain, each lunch in the mountainside café and even make a call from the UK’s highest phone box!
Another superb Scottish loch – and one that seems to go unnoticed by the majority of visitors – is Loch Etive.
Loch Etive is a seawater loch on Scotland’s west coast that’s quite difficult to get to as it only has rough tracks partway along its length and there’s no parking other than a small space for a handful of cars at its northern end.
It’s also surrounded on both sides by steep hills that were carved by glaciers in the last ice age, and due to its rough terrain there are no facilities for miles in any direction, which makes a visit to Loch Etive a true off-grid experience.
While it’s possible to visit the loch at its southern end near the village of Taynuilt it’s quite tricky to get further up the shoreline as the River Awe blocks the way. An alternative route is to follow the (very) minor road off the A85 to Inverawe, but it’s a twisting road with nowhere to leave the car.
The preferred option in my book is to follow the drop-dead gorgeous B road that leads to the loch through Glen Etive. You’ll find this road at a junction on the A82 a few miles west of the turning to the Glencoe Mountain Resort on Rannoch Moor.
The single-track road runs for 12 miles across a picturesque Highland landscape that includes rivers, forests and mountains, to its final destination at Loch Etive on a route that has to be one of the most scenic in Scotland.
Even if you don’t spend much time at the loch I thoroughly recommend you drive (or better still, cycle) this road as it’s genuinely breathtaking, but before you head out the door take a look at my Complete Guide to Glen Etive for a few visiting tips.
Loch Etive stretches 19 miles south to the sea at Connel where it exits into Ardmucknish Bay and the Sound of Mull, while the northern end joins the River Etive which runs deep into the heart of the Glen Coe National Scenic Area.
The car park has space for around twenty vehicles and once you’re past it you can follow the loch on its northern side on foot as there’s a rough trail that follows the shoreline, but as there is no way to cross over the water you’ll have to return to your car on the same path.
If you do hike that route, make sure you’ve got your camera with you because the views are stunning at every step of the way, especially with so many mountains in view including the 3,690-foot Ben Cruachan to the south-east overlooking Taynuilt and the 3,070-foot Beinn Sgulaird looming over Loch Etive to the west.
If you’ve a penchant for Munro-bagging you could do a lot worse than use Loch Etive as a base for mountain hikes.
If mountain climbing isn’t your thing you could always stick to the footpath with a pair of binoculars as the relatively undisturbed landscape is a haven for wildlife and you’re almost guaranteed to see herds of red deer roaming about on the slopes as well as seals at the water’s edge.
It might take a lot of effort to get there, but Loch Etive is most definitely worth it.
The biggest lochs in Scotland
Frequently Asked Questions about Scotland’s lochs
How many lochs are there in Scotland?
There are an estimated 31,460 freshwater lochs and lochans in Scotland, mostly located in the Scottish Highlands with 7,500 located in the Western Isles. Only 350 of these lochs are notable for their size. Some are actually reservoirs but they are classified as lochs if they originated from natural bodies of water.
Why does Scotland have so many lochs?
The Highlands of Scotland is the region to the west of the Highland Boundary Fault line – an area of intense prehistoric geological activity. During the last ice age, monumental ice sheets carved their way across Scotland which left behind great depressions in the earth that filled with water to form Scotland’s lochs. Smaller lochans have also formed in the soft peaty areas of Scotland where people have altered the land for farming and where the peat has been eroded by weather.
What is the deepest loch in Scotland?
Loch Morar is officially the deepest loch in Scotland with a maximum depth of 1,017 feet. The freshwater loch is located in Lochaber in the Highlands, 13 miles south of the fishing town of Mallaig. The loch is landlocked and has a surface elevation of 30 feet above sea level. The second-deepest loch is Loch Ness at 745 feet.
What is the biggest loch in Scotland?
The biggest loch in Scotland is Loch Ness which has a total volume of 1.79 cubic miles. The loch with the biggest surface area is Loch Lomond at 27 square miles.
What is the longest freshwater loch in Scotland?
The longest freshwater loch in Scotland is Loch Awe in the Scottish Highlands which is 25 miles long. The second-longest is Loch Ness at 22.5 miles, followed closely by Loch Lomond at 22 miles.
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