Last updated on May 8th, 2020
Travel in Scotland without a car is easy thanks to passes like the Scotrail Spirit of Scotland ticket and the frequent buses operated by First Bus and Megabus. Alternatively, you can use Scotland’s Sustrans national cycle network or hike one of the cross-country trails on the John Muir Way and the West Highland Way.
Can I travel around Scotland without a car?
Quick answer – yes of course you can, as long as you’re prepared to sacrifice some comfort and are well versed in the intricacies of Scotland’s public transport system.
Long answer – It also depends on the amount of time you have and your level of personal fitness – but these are two factors that pale into insignificance against how much effort it’ll take to plan your journey.
Travel in Scotland without a car is certainly do-able, but you need to make sure you know exactly what your public transport options are, where you’ll be heading to each day, and how long you can expect to take to get there.
It’s not always easy to travel in Scotland without a car, but this article will give you some good pointers in planning what could be the most amazing trip of your life.
We all know the car is the most versatile form of transport due to the fact it opens up so many opportunities to explore the remote areas of the country, but is it possible to see as many just as many tourist destinations by bus, bike, or on foot?
Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, and if you’ve got ideas of roaming through the wilderness on foot and catching a bus whenever you get tired I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.
The furthest reaches of this country are undeniably beautiful, but they’re linked by a slightly lacklustre transport system that can often leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere with no hope of finding a train or bus station.
I’m not trying to put you off using public transport in Scotland but you need to be aware just how remote and uninhabited large parts of the country are.
This is a landscape that has regions where the population density is less than the steppes of Russia, so expecting to find an Uber at the end of every long hike is going to be a recipe for disaster.
But even so, if you can plan a route and stick to it you’ll soon discover that Scotland has more epic backpacking and wild camping experiences than you might possibly imagine, where you’ll wake up in front of glassy lochs and heather-covered mountains with absolutely no-one else to be seen for miles in any direction.
Not only that, but travelling without a car means you’ll be able to slow down and really appreciate the sights this amazing country has to offer while meeting some of the friendliest people you’re ever likely to come across, and all without the expense of Britain’s horrendous fuel prices and the frustration of our often poorly-maintained roads.
If you’re still intent on travelling in Scotland without a car you’ll need to know what other forms of transport are open to you, so let’s take a look at your best options in the next section.
Travel around Scotland by air
Scotland is very well connected with the rest of the world thanks to the super-efficient airports you’ll find in the major towns and cities.
From Edinburgh in the south to Wick in the north, It’s possible to fly into Scotland from most international airports where you can then hop on board the country’s interconnecting public transport network.
Visitors will usually arrive via Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen – each of which services the main tourist hotspots – but there are smaller airports dotted across the furthest regions if you’re looking for a quick way to get around the country.
Most people don’t use air travel as the main way to explore Scotland as it means missing out on all the stunning scenery between the airports, but I know from first-hand experience that it certainly has its uses such as when you’re in Glasgow with a limited amount of time but want a quick visit to the west coast islands.
The majority of holiday-makers arrive in Edinburgh and then head elsewhere via Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness airports, with Glasgow being the most popular due to its close proximity to Edinburgh and its excellent travel system.
If you’re interested in visiting the west coast you should know that Loganair operates from all the main airports in Scotland and is currently the only carrier to service the most far-flung destinations after rival airline Flybe collapsed in early 2020.
Currently, Loganair flies to:
- Fair Isle
The main departure airport for Scotlands islands is Glasgow International and example times to get there from Edinburgh are:
- By bus – approximately 2 hours 30 minutes via Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station.
- By train – taking the tram to Edinburgh centre, train to Glasgow Queen Street and bus to GLA for an approximate 2-hour journey.
Total tickets costs are similar so expect to pay around £30 for the train and £25 for the bus in total.
The table below gives examples of flight times to Scotland’s remote airports from Glasgow International.
|Benbecula||1 hour 30 minutes|
|Inverness||1 hour 35 minutes|
|Kirkwall||1 hour 15 minutes|
|Sumburgh||1 hour 30 minutes|
|Tiree||1 hour 15 minutes|
Facts about Scotland’s main airports
Edinburgh airport. Address: Edinburgh EH12 9DN. Code: EDI.
Edinburgh airport is the third busiest in the UK due to the number of international visitors that travel through there on their holidays, and as an Edinburgh resident I can confirm the queues are absolutely hellish in the peak tourist season.
On the positive side, due to the fact the airport makes so much money it’s actually a pretty nice place that’s in stark contrast to some of the other, how can I put this? …crap airports you’ll find elsewhere in Scotland.
You’ll find a good selection of shops and restaurants in the main terminal as well as the usual bars and coffee shops but if you’re just passing through you’ll be pleased to know the transfer services are first-class with a regular airport bus (number 100) running every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day to Edinburgh city centre.
There’s also a tram station on-site that runs into the city – plan for around 40 minutes – and there are several taxi firms stationed at the entrance.
Glasgow airport. Address: Paisley PA3 2SW. Code: GLA.
Glasgow International Airport is around an hour train ride from Edinburgh and it serves lots of destinations worldwide with upwards of 120 routes as of 2020. Due to the fact that it’s the main hub for Scots travelling overseas it’s also horrendously busy in summer, but unlike Edinburgh it seems able to handle the queues fairly efficiently.
There are regular bus links from Glasgow city centre as well as dedicated taxi ranks at the airport entrance, but if you’d rather take the bus then the First Glasgow Airport Express service 500 will take you to the airport from Queen Street and Glasgow Central station.
Aberdeen airport. Address: Dyce, Aberdeen AB21 7DU. Code: ABZ.
Anyone who wants to head straight onto a Speyside whisky tour or get their boots on for a trek into the Highlands should make their way to Aberdeen airport as it’s within easy distance of the Cairngorms (Aberdeen to the popular town of Braemar is just 55 miles).
I wouldn’t plan on spending too much time in the airport if I was you as it’s mostly used by businessmen and offshore workers so it has a bit of a corporate feel about it, but thankfully the connections with the rest of Scotland are really good.
Because Aberdeen airport is a popular business stopover you’ll find loads of hotels nearby including Jurys Inn, Premier Inn and Holiday Inn which are all within a few minutes drive from the main terminal, while bus stops and taxi ranks can be found on the road directly outside the main entrance.
If you want to head into Aberdeen, First Bus Aberdeen has a dedicated No. 727 bus running every 10 minutes to the main bus and rail stations in the city, but if you’d rather take the train the nearest rail station is about 3 miles away at Dyce where passengers will also find a taxi rank in the station car park.
Inverness airport. Address: Dalcross, Inverness IV2 7JB. Code: INV.
You’ll find this international airport at Dalcross, which is roughly 8 miles from the centre of Inverness.
Although it’s much smaller than the other airports I’ve listed it still serves nearly a million passengers annually, mainly for the links to London and the north coast island airports at Sumburgh and Kirkwall.
Inverness is known as the capital of the Scottish Highlands so flying there makes sense if you’re intending on heading straight into a wilderness adventure but bear in mind it only takes 4 hours to get to Inverness by train from Edinburgh and the scenery along the way is very, very nice.
Inverness itself is a lovely city so you might want to spend a little time to explore it rather than rushing straight off to another destination, but if you’d rather hit the open road you’ll find a taxi rank directly in front of the terminal building and bus services that operate every 20 minutes from the airport to Inverness city centre, Nairn and Elgin.
If you want more information about travelling to and around Scotland by air take a look at my Guide to Scotland’s Main Airports.
Travel around Scotland by train
We’ve got a bit of a love-hate thing going on with trains here in Scotland. I personally really like travelling by train as it gives you the freedom to enjoy the scenery whooshing past the window without having to worry about roadworks and traffic jams, but I’ll be the first to admit our rail network is sorely lacking in a lot of areas.
First off, while they’re clean and usually on time they’re also ridiculously expensive for longer journeys so you’d better get a second mortgage or rob a bank (don’t rob a bank) if you’re intending to spend an entire holiday travelling around the country by train.
To give you an idea, as of 2020 it costs around £45 for a single journey from Edinburgh to Inverness and the same to travel from Glasgow to Aberdeen – and you can double that if you want to upgrade to first class.
A bus meanwhile costs just £20 for the same journeys and takes pretty much the same amount of time. So that’s half the cost to get to the same destination. The bus is a no-brainer, right?
Well, maybe, but if you’re on holiday the extra cost kind of makes sense. For starters, train tracks are often miles away from urban areas and motorways so on some routes you’ll get to gaze at Scotland’s unspoilt wilderness up-close in way you’d never see if you were stuck behind a smoky lorry on the A9.
The second bonus of taking the train is that they’re totally direct from start to finish (bar station stops) so there are no long detours around closed-off roads, and they’ll never get congested like our dual carriageways do.
Simply sit back, press your nose against the window, and enjoy the ride while someone else does all the work for you.
My advice for using the train to explore Scotland on a holiday is to head over to the Scotrail website and order one of their travel passes which drastically reduces the cost compared to buying lots of individual tickets. They’ll also keep you on a selection of the most scenic routes as opposed to just choosing a random destination and hoping for the best.
An example price for Scotrail’s all-in-one tickets is the Highland Rover travel pass which gives you four days unlimited travel in the North and West Highlands over eight days for £95 (as of 2020) using train, ferry and coach travel. An alternative is the Spirit of Scotland travel pass which is the same price but covers the whole of Scotland.
I’ll list a few of my favourite and recommended Scottish railway journeys below.
The West Highland Line.
- Journey time: 3 hours 50 minutes.
- Highlights: The Highlands gateway town of Fort William. Glenfinnan and the spectacular viaduct.
I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the Jacobite Express about two years ago so this railway holds a lot of special memories for me.
Having completed the entire route from Glasgow to Mallaig I can confirm it’s jaw-dropping – especially the section at Glenfinnan – and it totally lives up to its title of being one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world.
Because it starts in Glasgow it’s easy to take this journey but be warned that also means it gets quite busy in peak tourists season so you might not necessarily have the most relaxing of times, but I travelled the length of it in October which was very quiet and I had the carriage to myself in some sections.
If you’ve not heard of the Jacobite Express and Glenfinnan it’s the bit in the Harry Potter movie where the Hogwarts Express goes over an enormous multi-arched viaduct.
The train ride from Fort William to Mallaig is a tourist attraction in itself so you won’t be able to take it with a standard Scotrail ticket, but you can pre-book tickets through Get Your Guide which is one of the biggest tour ticket operators in the world. Pre-book your ‘Hogwarts Express’ Jacobite steam train tickets here.
The Far North line.
- Journey time: 4 hours 30 minutes.
- Highlights: Wick. Dunrobin Castle.
This railway operates between Inverness which is just north of the tip of Loch Ness to Wick which is just a few miles south of the northern-most point of Scotland at John O Groats.
I travelled this route about a year ago and I have to say I really enjoyed it, although it’s not as pretty as the scenery you’ll get on the West Highland Line. Still, it’s attractive in its own desolate way and it’s the best way to see this less-visited part of Scotland.
The stations in between the start and endpoints are a bit uninspiring (Invergordon and Forsinard aren’t much to write about) but it does at least stop at Dunrobin so you can get out and visit the stunning Dunrobin Castle.
The final station is at Wick which is a bit grey to be honest but the coastline further north is spectacular and worth the journey alone, especially at the UKs ‘real’ most northerly point near the Duncansby Stacks.
The Kyle Line.
- Journey time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
- Highlights: The Torridon Peaks, Achnashellach Forest, Ben Wyvis.
Whereas the Far North and West Highland lines stretch south to north, the Kyle line runs between them east to west so it’s unavoidable if you want a mega train journey from Glasgow all the way to the tip of the north-east coast.
Thankfully then this is a fantastic railway that easily rivals the tourist-favourite route between Fort William and Mallaig and you’ll see a gorgeous landscape of mountains and lochs all the way from Kyle of Lochalsh at the track’s start to Inverness at its end.
It’s a bit of a trek between the end of the West Highland Line and the start of the Kyle Line as you have to go inland to Spean Crescent by rail before doubling back on yourself by road on the A87 which takes around four hours in total plus mountain/loch selfie stops.
Alternatively you can take a ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye and then take the No. 52 and the No. 50 buses across the Skye bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh which takes around three hours. The only downside to this route is that Skye is so beautiful you won’t want to leave.
If you want more information about travelling around Scotland by train take a look at my Guide to Touring Scotland by Train.
Travel around Scotland by bus
Other than cycling and walking, taking the bus is the cheapest form of transport in Scotland. You can quite easily hop on a Megabus in Edinburgh city centre and be in Aberdeen four hours later for just £20, depending on the time of day.
That’s less than you’ll pay in petrol to drive the same distance in most cars.
The biggest negatives for taking the bus are the same as taking the car – traffic jams, road works and winter road closures – but at least you can sit back in a big comfy seat while the driver deals with the tricky job of navigating Scotland’s twisty-turny roads.
If you’re thinking of using buses for long distances you’ll be well covered as the two biggest operators – Megabus and Citylink – operate from all the main cities as well as some of the smaller towns, with both companies offering shuttle services between the centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh every 15 minutes.
It costs about £8 to travel between the two cities with the journey taking just over an hour so it’s certainly worth considering if you want to explore the south of the country, but what about the north?
Well, to be honest you’re in quite a good place if you choose to take the bus as you can easily get to Aviemore, Inverness, Aberdeen, Fort William, Perth, Pitlochry and Stirling with each destination offering a bucketload of attractions for any visiting tourist.
Take a look at the table below for a guide to bus travel times from Edinburgh.
|Aviemore||3 hours 30 minutes|
|Fort William||4 hours 30 minutes|
|Perth||1 hour 30 minutes|
|Pitlochry||2 hours 20 minutes|
|Stirling||1 hour 30 minutes|
As far as fares go they’re already rock-bottom but I’ve got a couple of tips that might help you save a little extra cash when booking your ticket.
- Always book online and compare operators as you’ll often find competing discounts on their websites. An example of this is Megabus which currently has Edinburgh to Aberdeen on a standard ticket at £27 and the same journey on Citylink Gold (luxury coach, leather seats, complimentary snacks) for £23. Same journey but very different experiences.
- Book well in advance. The prices of tickets slowly creeps up the nearer you get to the travel date so you’ll often save a packet by purchasing a few weeks beforehand. But…
- Book at the last minute. You might be lucky and get a bargain seat if you take a chance and leave it till the hour before departure. Bus operators will often drastically reduce the price of unsold tickets in a last-ditch attempt to fill empty seats. In my experience this tactic never works in summer when there are loads of tourists about. Winter is a different story though.
- Megabus are renowned for their special offers so regularly check their website if you’ve got a destination in mind. Edinburgh to Inverness for a quid? Yes please.
Once you’re in the big cities – especially Edinburgh and Glasgow – you really don’t need any other form of transport as the bus network is so good.
Edinburgh in particular has an incredible bus service operated by Lothian Buses which is almost always on time and has frequent buses that are exceptionally clean and modern. I’ve been a lifelong worldwide traveller and I can say hand on heart that Edinburgh’s bus and tram network rivals any other city I’ve been to.
Lothian Buses also have a really good ticket system and you can either purchase books of tickets online or in the city centre travel shop or use contactless payments with your bank card on the bus which means you never have to fumble about looking for change.
Visit the Transport For Edinburgh website for more information on Edinburgh’s trams and buses or download the Transport for Edinburgh App. To help you find your way around the bus network more quickly you can get real-time information on the web and on your smartphone.
Glasgow is a slightly different story as the service is run by First Bus and I’ve always found them to be pretty grubby – although at least they’re cheap and there are a lot of them.
Once you’re away from the city you’ll find Scotland’s buses revert to something akin to the transport system they had in medieval times, which is to say it’s virtually non-existant.
Because the Highlands and the far north are so lightly populated it doesn’t make much sense for bus companies to run extensive services so you’ll frequently find villages with only one or two buses per day.
That makes it almost impossible to tour the Highlands by bus as you’ll have to plan your journey between stops to perfection or risk waiting 12 hours for the next one to come along. And even worse, fewer buses means fewer bus stops, so don’t be surprised to find the nearest stop miles away from whatever wee village you decided to spend the night in.
One option I’ve got for you if you want to explore Scotland by bus is to book yourself onto one of the excellent Rabbies small group coach tours which head out to pretty much every single corner of Scotland.
I’ve only ever heard good things about Rabbies as not only are the drivers expert guides full of local knowledge but they only use small coaches so you’re never stuck in the middle of a massive crowd of strangers.
If you’d like to take a look at the tours Rabbies have to offer check out this link.
Aside from Rabbie’s coaches, my personal advice for using buses to explore the wilds of Scotland is don’t bother, but that’s ok because you can take my two favourite forms of transport instead – bicycle and feet.
Travel around Scotland by bicycle
One of the great things about living in Scotland is the vast cycle network which runs in a spiders web across every part of the country.
There are 2,371 miles of National Cycle Network routes in Scotland with almost a third (644 miles) using traffic-free paths that use a mix of disused railway lines, canal towpaths, forest roads, and segregated cycle lanes.
Although I’m a firm believer that walking is the best way to immerse yourself in the landscape I have to say cycling comes a very close second place with the added bonus that you can clock up way more miles on two wheels than you can on two feet.
On a sunny day there’s surely no better way to experience Scotland’s iconic castles, shimmering lochs and peaceful forests than by sitting on a bike.
The custodians of Scotland’s National Cycle Network is the charity Sustrans and they’ve gone to remarkable lengths to ensure you can enjoy a long-distance ride in safety. They’ve also mapped Scotland’s cycle routes in conjunction with OS maps so before jumping in the saddle I recommend checking out the OS website to get an idea of where you can go.
Many of the Sustrans cycle routes connect the major cities so it’s perfectly possible to spend a completely car-free holiday in Scotland as long as you’ve got your trusty bike with you, and if you’re into wild camping you’ll have the best of both worlds as you can combine a venture into the great outdoors with the occasional trip into the urban areas.
Most of the cycle paths in Scotland are wide and pothole-free so you can cycle for miles in relative comfort, and coupled with the fact you’ll be keeping healthy and travelling for no cost (unless you’ve hired your bike) a cycle holiday is definitely one that should be considered if you don’t want to take the car.
Although it’s easy to use the cycle network there are a few tips I’ll give you before exploring the best routes and you’ll definitely need to take note of them if you’re an international visitor that’s not used to Scotland’s roads.
- Each cycle route is numbered and you can work out which route to take by following the Sustrans OS websites and keeping an eye open for the roadside signage. These signs are blue with an arrow pointing in the direction of the route along with an icon of a bike and/or a person walking (indicating the route is suitable for bikes and/or walkers). The signs also have a red box with a white number which relates to the number of the cycle route.
- If the red boxed-number is in brackets it means you heading towards the route. If the number has no brackets it means you’re on the route.
- Some signs also have the name of the route in white lettering inside a brown box.
- Cycle paths that are joint walking/cycling are usually split in half with icons and separating lines indicating which side of the path to cycle or walk on.
- If you’re cycling at night be aware that working front and rear lights are mandatory and you should have a bell on the handlebars to warn pedestrians of your approach.
- Because large parts of the cycle network run into the furthest reaches of Scotland you must ensure you have a map so you don’t deviate from the designated route. I have OS maps loaded onto my phone and always take a spare battery with me along with a backup paper map in case I’ve spent too long looking at funny cat videos on Facebook. You can order Ordnance Survey maps online here.
- Another necessity is to make sure you pack a puncture repair kit, spare inner tubes, a hand pump, basic tools like Allen keys and an adjustable spanner, and additional clothing and a lightweight tent in case you unintentionally get stuck outdoors in the middle of nowhere.
- Following on from the above pack plenty of food and water as well. Those panniers are going to be quite full with that lot…
Now we’ve got the necessities out of the way let’s take a look at some of the amazing cycle routes we’ve got in Scotland.
Caledonia Way. 234 miles (377km) from Campbeltown to Inverness. Cycle path No. 78.
The Caledonia way runs from Campbeltown on the west coast to Inverness across a variety of terrains. This cycle route is a favourite with British cyclists as it showcases the best of Scotland’s dramatic Highland scenery with a series of incredible views of west coast islands and dramatic coastlines.
Beginning at Campbeltown you follow the Kintyre Peninsula and the Great Glen Way where you’ll pass two of Scotland’s greatest natural wonders at Loch Ness and Ben Nevis.
The only downside (depending on how off-grid you want to get) is that the 120-mile section between Campbeltown and Oban is on roads, though it does change to a traffic-free path once you pass Oban and get on the section that leads to Fort William.
Expect the entire 234-mile route to take 20 hours on a bike.
Hebridean Way. 184 miles (296km) from Vatersay to the Butt of Lewis. Cycle path No. 780.
If you want to escape the mainland and explore the west coast islands there’s no better place to take your bike than the Hebridean Way which winds through the spectacular wilderness of the Outer Hebrides.
Starting at the remote island of Vatersay you’ll island-hop by ferry towards Harris and Lewis with the final destination 15 hours away at the Butt of Lewis. This is one of the wildest, most windswept and utterly captivating regions of Scotland and it’s the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern city life.
Because the Outer Hebrides are so lightly populated you’ll need to ensure you take plenty of provisions with you and have a back-up plan in case you get lost as mobile phone coverage is sketchy at best, but let me assure you the views are utterly spectacular and the Isle of Harris has the most beautiful beaches you’re ever likely to see.
Coast & Castles North. 172 miles (276km) from Edinburgh to Aberdeen. Cycle path No. 1.
Aberdeenshire is known as the ‘castle county’ so it’s not really surprising that Sustrans created a cycle route that showcases a few of the most impressive fortresses in Scotland.
This route starts in historic Edinburgh before taking cyclists on a long-distance adventure across Fife and up the north coast towards the ‘granite city’ Aberdeen.
The coastline along the way is amazing and you seem to stumble across castles every few miles, but I have to say the best (in my humble opinion) is Dunnotar Castle which lies about 18 miles south of Aberdeen on a rocky outcrop that overlooks the north sea.
It’s a real spectacle but there are loads of other highlights on this journey like the famous Forth Rail Bridge and the gorgeous countryside between Dunfermline and Dundee.
Plan on taking 14 hours of uninterrupted cycling to complete this cycle path.
Edinburgh to Glasgow. 57 miles (92km) from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Cycle path No. 75.
As I’m lucky enough to live in Edinburgh this cycle route is right on my doorstep and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been on it, which is why I’m recommending it along with the more remote cycle trails above.
You might think that travelling between Scotland’s two biggest cities would mean you’d be stuck on boring urban roads but you couldn’t be further from the truth as this route crosses an extraordinarily attractive region of Scotland where you’ll be able to enjoy picturesque meadows, gentle canals and peaceful woodlands.
Starting in Edinburgh the route passes Livingston (great shopping mall), Bathgate, Coatbridge and Uddingston towards the River Clyde and the final destination of Glasgow city centre.
So not only do you get to admire the sights of the two great cities but you get to enjoy central Scotland’s unspoilt landscapes as well. You’ll even pass two nature reserves – Bogburn Flood Lagoons Nature Reserve and Blawthorn Moss National Nature Reserve.
The entire route should take around ten hours to complete on a bike.
Travel around Scotland by walking
This last method of travelling around Scotland without a car is possibly the hardest but also the cheapest – using your own two feet.
Hiking in Scotland has always been a popular activity thanks to superb walking trails like the John Muir Way and the West Highland Way that are largely off-road and pretty much entirely free of traffic.
These trails allow you to explore the length and breadth of the country from the coastline to the mountains at your leisure, and due to the fact each has its own website you can easily plan whether to combine the trails, just do one short section, or embark on an epic hike across hundreds of miles.
Many of these walking routes follow the same pathways that cyclists follow but there are a few that are only accessible on foot like the ones that run off-track through Scotland’s mountains and remote Highland areas. I’ll offer a few suggestions for you to explore further below.
But before you set out on a long-distance hike you need to take a few simple precautions and bear a few things in mind which aren’t too much of a necessity in the Lowlands abut are absolutely vital if you’re thinking of trekking at higher altitudes.
- Prepare for bad weather even if it’s the middle of summer. The number of tourists that get lost in the Highlands is astonishing and the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service is constantly called out to retrieve unprepared walkers who decided it was a good idea to hike Ben Nevis in flip-flops or camp overnight in a T-shirt. Each year the SMRS rescues around 350 people in non-mountaineering incidents.
- Following on from the above, if you’re setting off on a hike into the wilds – even if it’s the middle of summer – make sure you’ve got a spare set of dry clothes as the wind chill on wet clothing can easily cause hypothermia. I never go hiking without my trusty waterproof backpack which has never let water inside even during the most ferocious downpours.
- Never, ever set off without a map. It’s so easy to get lost in the Highlands and because the area is so vast you’ll often find you’re the only person for miles around. You can download maps onto your phone but bear in mind batteries don’t last forever so you’ll need to take a power pack with you. This one is tiny, weighs almost nothing and easily fits into my backpack side pocket. As a backup, I recommend you get a paper OS map. Buy OS Explorer Maps direct from Ordnance Survey.
- If you’re visiting from overseas you should know that throughout Scotland’s wilderness are a collection of shacks, huts and wee buildings known as ‘bothies’. A bothy is a place where you can take refuge from the elements if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no camping equipment and they’ve saved countless lives over the years. The best resource to learn about them is The Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Allan.
Now let’s take a look at a selection of the best walking trails in Scotland.
The John Muir Way. This trail stretches 134 miles across Scotland’s heartland from Helensburgh on the west coast to Dunbar on the east, and I’m including it first because it’s my absolute favourite walking route in Scotland (admittedly I’m biased because I live on part of it).
The John Muir Trail is dedicated to the father of America’s great national parks including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park who lived most of his life in the US but was born in the East Lothian town of Dunbar.
Crossing vast stretches of pristine countryside, tranquil lochs, peaceful woodland, and glorious coastline, the John Muir Way allows you to see all of the best bits of Scotland in a relatively compact area.
Unlike the trails that meander through the Highlands, this walk takes you close to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh so you can quite easily spend a little time exploring the best urban attractions before getting back on the trail.
You can choose to do the separate sections that are detailed on the John Muir Way website or do what many hikers prefer and complete the entire route in one go. Expect to take 9-11 days to walk all of it.
The West Highland Way. This route celebrated its 40th birthday in 2020 so there’s a big push to advertise it to tourists – not that it needs much advertising as it’s arguably the most popular walking trail in Scotland.
Stretching 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort William you’ll pass through some of the most beautiful parts of the Highlands including Loch Lomond, Glen Etive (read my Glen Etive guide for info) and Ben Nevis.
It’s an absolutely jaw-dropping journey at every step of the way and has to be attempted if you’ve got any interest in exploring the landscapes of Scotland’s west coast.
It’ll take around 7 days to complete the entire route depending on your level of fitness but as it’s so far off the beaten track you’ll need to arrange some form of overnight accomodation, whether that’s a tent or pre-booked B&Bs.
Just be aware that as the trail is so busy in summer it’s almost impossible to find a vacancy unless you pre-book several weeks in advance.
The Southern Upland Way. This is another coast to coast route in southern Scotland but it’s different to the John Muir Way as it doesn’t get close to any built-up areas and instead lets you concentrate on exploring the countryside of the Lowlands in all its glory.
It’s a long trail at 214 miles so completing it in its entirety is best left to seasoned walkers but it can be broken down into smaller sections and returned to at a later date which is what the majority of hikers tend to do.
Starting in Portpatrick on the south-west coast you pass through much gentler and easier-going landscapes than you’ll find on the West Highland Way, but be aware there are quite a few hill sections that rise to more than 2,000 feet.
However it’s not the elevation that catches out unwary walkers it’s the duration, with stretches like the 25 miles between St. Johns Town of Dalry and Sanquar being very hard on the feet.
It’s for this reason I suggest you break the walk into two sections with the first from Cockburnspath to Moffat taking a week and the second section from Moffat to Portpatrick taking another week.
The Great Glen Way. My last recommendation is the Great Glen Way which starts in the Highlands gateway town of Fort William and finishes in the Highland capital of Inverness – two towns that are worth visiting whether you’re intending to complete the entire route or not.
The Great Glen is the longest glen in Scotland (a glen is a valley) and it more-or-less follows the line of the geological Great Glen Fault.
This trail is the most northern of the bunch that I’ve listed so it’s a little less-used than the others and some sections really make you feel like you’ve gone totally off-grid, especially once you get past the village of Drumnadrochit.
Even though it’s the most remote trail I’d have to say the sections I’ve walked are the easiest out of the others I’ve mentioned as a lot of the paths are either forest tracks, canal towpaths or purpose-built paths – but that’s not to say it’s all easy going and you’ll find some bits of the trail ascend to nearly 1,400 feet.
The highlight of this 77-mile walk is Loch Ness which is even prettier in real life than the tourist guide books would have you believe.
My advice is to take a slight detour off the trail once you get near Drumnadrochit and go visit Urquhart Castle which is an impossibly picturesque fortress with amazing views over the loch and a first-rate visitor centre.
Resources for air travel:
- Skyscanner – The premier internet flight booking website.
- Loganair – Scotland’s main airline for travelling to remote airports.
- Flightstats – Flight tracking website.
Resources for train travel:
- Scotrail – Scotland’s rail network. Get travel passes here.
- Caledonian Sleeper – Luxury overnight train service between London and Scotland.
- Traffic Scotland – Mainly car travel information but also has links to rail information pages.
- West Coast Railways – Operators of the Jacobite Express.
Resources for bus and coach travel:
- Rabbies Coach Tours – Recommended small group coach tours.
- Citylink – Coach travel company. Go here for their Gold service.
- Megabus – Coach travel company.
- First Bus – Bus operator throughout Scotland.
- Lothian Buses – Edinburgh bus operator.
- City Sightseeing – Open-top tour bus operator.
Resources for cycling:
- Sustrans Cycle Network – Charity that maintains Scotland’s cycle trail network.
- Komoot – Cycle travel planning app.
- Forest and Land – Official forestry website with details of forest cycle paths
Resources for walking:
- UK Campsite – Lists campsites in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
- Walk Highlands – the best resource for finding walking routes in Scotland.
- Scotland’s Great Trails – Details all of Scotland’s walks in one website.
- Google Maps – Still the best digital mapping service.
- Ordnance Survey Maps – The best paper maps. These are a necessity.
Frequently Asked Questions
As of 2020 it costs around £45 for a single journey from Edinburgh to Inverness and the same to travel from Glasgow to Aberdeen with a standard ticket. Prices can double by upgrading to a first-class ticket.
The West Highland Line – Glasgow to Mallaig. The Far North Line – Inverness to Wick. The Kyle Line – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. The Carlisle Line – Carlisle to Glasgow. The Borders Line – Tweedbank to Edinburgh. The Stranraer Line – Stranraer to Glasgow.
Examples from Edinburgh: Aberdeen – 3 hours, Aviemore – 3 hours 30 minutes, Fort William – 4 hours 30 minutes, Inverness – 4 hours, Perth 1 hour 30 minutes, Pitlochry – 2 hours 20 minutes, Stirling – 1 hour 30 minutes.