Scotland: home of kilts, bagpipes, haggis, single malt whisky, and a vast wilderness of extraordinary mountains and lochs. Barren and rocky mountains rise from moorlands pocked with heather, thistle, and wildflowers, and long valleys with deep and mysterious lochs divide the mountain ranges. Ancient castles stand guard over traditional landholdings, and Clans still preserve centuries-old traditions. The Highlands are sparsely populated and mostly desolate save for scattered villages and farms, with many more sheep peppering the landscape than people. Narrow roads wind through the countryside like trails, and solitude is all but guaranteed. It truly is the perfect place to go trekking!
The Highlands are rife with history—including a long record of climbing—which is part of the allure for climbers and trekkers venturing to Scotland. Victorian-era hill walkers rode trains to the Highlands where they spent holidays bagging peaks. Among other things, the development and advancement of climbing equipment and modern rock and ice climbing techniques took place in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s. Volunteer Scottish mountain rescue teams also created many of the skills used by contemporary rescue groups. With the barren mountains, steep faces, and wild weather, Scotland has been the perfect location for the evolution of climbing techniques, clothing, and equipment. Because of this, a culture of characters was forged in the Highlands and those characters were at the forefront of climbing for decades.
If you’re planning a group exploration of Scotland, arrive early and spend a day or two wandering around Edinburgh before heading to Inverness where your trip will really begin. It’s a small enough town that it truly is more fun to ask locals on the street for directions than it is to look at a map or guidebook. Local history, food, architecture, weather patterns, street names, and buskers on the corners all burst with intriguing charm.
Every nook and cranny in Edinburgh seems to have significance, whether it’s a medieval castle or the café where the first Harry Potter book was written. Arched doorways dot the architecture, leading to winding staircases, alleys, and courtyards. Cobblestone streets lined by gothic buildings with towers and turrets aplenty evoke images of ancient Scottish intrigue and feuds as well as the Renaissance era. Statues of famous Scots throughout history stand tall at every turn, and looming over the city is a rather large castle, which serves as a spectacular landmark with which to regain your bearings if you ever find yourself turned around. Despite its cultural heritage, Edinburgh is a modern and busy city. Trams and buses make it easy to traverse the city, but really, if the weather is fine and your shoes are comfortable, Edinburgh is the perfect walking town. With plenty of hills and stairs to help you reach your daily cardio goals, you’ll find most things that you’ll want to see and do are within walking distance.
After you’ve soaked up Edinburgh, fly or take the train to Inverness. Arriving in the largest of the Highland cities, you will stay a night before driving along the shore of Loch Ness to Kinlochleven. Stop at the canal-side village of Fort Augustus for a satisfying lunch and take a leg-stretching hike afterward to shake off the travel cobwebs before you drive to Edencoille—your bed and breakfast—where you will be ensconced for the next three nights.
Over the following days, be sure to hike the Devil’s Staircase, Ben Nevis (the highest peak in the UK), and maybe Bidean nam Bian (The Three Sisters), one of the jewels in Glencoe. Undertaking these hikes in what the Scots call “full conditions” gives them an air of authenticity and seriousness. You will discover that wild weather is a big part of outdoor recreation in Scotland—people are in the hills having fun even in dreary and un-welcoming conditions. The hotels and inns all have drying rooms for your gear, and a stop at the nearest pub (some right at the trailheads) to dry out and rehydrate is the norm. The Ben Nevis Inn, touted as “the wee inn at the foot of the Ben,” will delight with delicious fare, including traditional “cullen skink” (a Scottish soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions), or “neeps and tatties” (rutabaga and potatoes). For those with a sweet tooth, you can’t go wrong with sticky toffee pudding or shortbread to raise spirits and recharge the trekking batteries. Highlanders are also fond of live music and if you’re lucky, you may get to be part of an informal jam session at one of your stops. With this in mind, another can’t-miss stop is Clachaig Inn. It’s a charming place with about twenty-five rooms, two restaurants, and three bars. One of their bars has won multiple awards including “Best Pub” in Scotland and “Best Pub” in the UK. Their dedication to food and drink is a proper introduction to Highland hospitality.
After the excitement of Inverness, head northwest to the mountainous region of Torridon; a haven for many of Scotland’s classic peaks. After a spectacular hike on Kintail, stop off at picturesque Eilean Donan Castle before laying your head down for a couple nights at the lovely Tigh An Eilean Inn, located in the small village of Sheidaig. The rooms overlook the salt water loch just in front of the inn and are comfortable, quaint, and decorated in an eclectic fashion. As might be expected in a remote and tiny Scottish village, the pub next door is the gathering spot for local characters. With no shortage of jokes and spinning yarns to overhear, you will feel as if you’re in the midst of a scene from a BBC show or a movie.
The mountains of Torridon offer many hiking options amidst the unusual ancient landscape of Torridonian sandstone. Opt for a summit hike up Ben Damph for sweeping views, or a steeper, more challenging ascent up Beinn. Whichever you choose, don’t forget that you get to refuel with a heartily delicious breakfast at Tigh An Eilean in the morning!
On your last active day, enjoy another leg-stretcher around Loch Clair, then head back to Inverness for your last night. Hit the town for one more group dinner and enjoy yet another evening telling your own jokes and recalling your wonderful Scottish adventures. Everyone will disperse in the morning, traveling back to their respective realities with the memories of the Highlands.
Scotland leaves you with an air of the familiar—it’s history played out in real time. You will walk in the footsteps of the famous and infamous, climb mountains no matter the weather, soak in the atmosphere of small village life, eat great meals, taste deliciously aged single-malt whisky, and enjoy the hospitality of every Scot you meet; all while traveling with an amazing group of companions. The Highlands will be the historic backdrop of treks you won’t soon forget, and they will most assuredly call out to you long after you’ve left, beckoning you back for another adventure.