How to Hike the Highlands Without Putting a Foot Wrong

Visit the last great wilderness in the Scottish Highlands without getting yourself in an unnecessary pickle
Visit the last great wilderness in the Scottish Highlands without getting yourself in an unnecessary pickle | © Guillem Lopez / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Liz MacFarlan
8 December 2021

The Scottish Highlands have a reputation as a rain-lashed wilderness best avoided in any month which isn’t June or July. Of those who do bravely venture north of Edinburgh and Glasgow, many prefer to enjoy the scenery through the bay window of a hotel lounge or a brief stop off at a viewpoint. But there really is only one way to properly experience this magnificent part of the world – and you’ll need hiking boots on your feet.

Just an hour-and-a-half from London Gatwick, you’ll be in the Highland capital city, Inverness. From here, pick up a hire car and head out in any direction and there are hills begging to be climbed, hidden waterfalls waiting to be discovered and all manner of adventures to be had wherever you choose to go. Northwest of Inverness is the county of Sutherland, often described as the “Last great wilderness in Europe.”

With mountains tumbling all the way down to the sea, white sandy beaches and salmon-filled rivers chasing through rocky gorges, it’s a hiker’s playground.

An aerial view of Achmelvich Bay and Beach, Sutherland, Scotland | © JOHN BRACEGIRDLE / Alamy Stock Photo

Of course, it’s also a challenging landscape and anyone thinking of doing some serious walking needs to be well prepared. There are several great ways to do this and you should pick the one that best suits your needs.

For total peace of mind, you can hire a mountain guide. Hamlet Mountaineering offers guided hikes, scrambles and rock climbing. You’re guaranteed a safe but challenging ramble with one of their experienced guides. Guide Ben tells a great story about climbing the mighty Suilven with a 76-year-old gentleman who shed happy tears at the summit. The mountain features in the 2017 film Edie – starring Sheila Hancock as a gruff widow in her 80s who heads out on the dream hiking trip her controlling late husband would never let her go on.

Suilven Sutherland, the trail leading to Canisp in Scotland | © JOHN BRACEGIRDLE / Alamy Stock Photo

There are sites such as Walk Highlands with its encyclopedic guide to tackling Scotland on foot, used successfully for the last 15 years by a wide demographic. A newer kid on the block is the Komoot app, covering both hiking and cycling. You can plan your own “Tour”, or search existing Tours and Highlights and choose from there.

The app allows you to check forecasts for local weather conditions, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether to go up high or stay low and sheltered. Pick a planned Tour and Komoot will tell you its length and difficulty – along with the terrain it covers, so you can choose the best gear for your expedition. Remember – there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong equipment.

Cyclists on the Aviemore to Boat of Garten cycle route in the Scottish Highlands | © PictureScotland / Alamy Stock Photo

With a planned Tour you can follow your progress on the map or even choose spoken route instructions – all good news for novices. Once you’ve recorded your route and added photos, you can get bragging about your accomplishments on social media, too. If high winds are forecast, take note as there will be lower-level and more suitable hikes out there.

The Secret Waterfall Tour is one of these. It takes you up as high as you can safely go to the bealach – or mountain pass – at 1,700ft (518m) overlooking glorious Lochan Uaine. You might even long for a dram of Creag Dhu – one of Speyside’s most exciting new whiskies – to warm your insides as winds gusting up to 40mph (64kmh) knock your socks off.

A small but incredibly beautiful Loch near Glenmore Lodge in Glenmore in the Cairngorms, Scotland | © Joe Murphy Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

There could well be some rain slapping you in the face, too – try to think of it as a free exfoliator – and don’t forget to enjoy the view towards the furthest north-west tip of the mainland before you head back down. Then, it’s onwards to find that waterfall, so well-hidden in a clump of trees you’ll almost certainly have missed it when you trampled past earlier.

It’s a fine spot to sit, sheltered from the elements while munching on roasted aubergine rolls and homemade flapjacks. Nothing beats the buzz of reaching a hiking goal and each step will feel that bit lighter on your long walk to catch a ride back to base.

At Braelangwell Lodge, you’re guaranteed an open fire crackling in the grate and a lovely hot shower, too. Slumped in a comfy sofa – with a peaty Talisker in hand perhaps – stories will be swapped while your private chef creates magic in the kitchen.

A cosy warm fire burning in Scotland | © Rawf8 / Getty Images

Sleep will be deep and satisfying in beds warmed by electric blankets and the snuggest of white cotton-swathed duvets. Packed up and ready to go, there may be one last treat. A wander in the grounds could bring you to a squirrel feeder and a quick glimpse of a perfect little gingery-red creature pelting away across the lawn and up a nearby birch.

Scotland seldom fails to enchant, after all.

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