10 of the best wilderness holidays in Scotland

Munro-bagging, north-west Highlands

Munros are Scottish mountains higher than 3,000ft, named after Hugh Munro, the man who took it upon himself to count and catalogue them in 1891. Munro-baggers are set on ticking off all of these mighty mountains. At the last count there were 282 – the list has grown and shrunk over the years, with Beinn a’Chlaidheimh downgraded ignominiously to a “corbett” when it was found to be a tad under 3,000ft.

Ben Nevis is the big one, and often sees a heaving scrum of townies in flip-flops and shorts in the summer – though the presence of a well-worn trail doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. The weather can change suddenly, with icy rain or even blizzards sweeping in, or mist coming down.

For a dummy’s guide to Munros – the 10 easiest, the hardest, the most remote – and to learn why all Munros are Murdos but not all Murdos are Munros, check out mountaineer Steven Fallon’s website. He also runs guided trips, including three days of Munro-bagging in the Fannich Forest. The Fannichs are a chain of peaks in the north-west Highlands above Lochs Fannich, Glascarnoch and a’Bhraoin. This remote range has spectacular views out towards Torridon and Assynt. And you’ll bag nine Munros on the way, including Sgurr Mor and Sgurr nan Clach Geala.
From £149 for three days’ guiding, accommodation and travel extra,

Road trip, Applecross peninsula

Applecross Peninsula on the West Coast, Highlands of Scotland.

Photograph: Martin Knight/Getty Images

Scotland is the Top Gear dream: remote road-trip territory. Single-track lanes snake across open moorland that’s a blaze of purple heather in summer, skirt wild, dune-backed beaches, weave through gnarled, lichen-drenched glens beneath craggy peaks and open out into wide-lens panoramas. It can be hard to keep your eyes on the road – especially when you spot a herd of red deer on the hill.

Yes, there have always been roads to avoid in summer – the A82 up Loch Lomond is usually snarled with caravans; the road to Skye slows to a crawl, and the A9, the main route north from Perth, is notorious – for accidents and now roadworks.

The far north was always a safe bet for wide, open roads – until some bright spark decided to give it a name, the North Coast 500, and nickname it Scotland’s Route 66. It’s now very busy, but it is an epic drive – so go off-season.

In summer, take a vintage campervan and veer off the main routes, perhaps with a circuit of the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross. Take the high road in and the low road out. The Bealach na Bà pass is one of Britain’s highest, and normally impassable in wintry conditions. Snake slowly up and over the top and down to the remote peninsula, where you’ll find the cosy Applecross Inn dishing up fresh seafood on the waterfront, and the Potting Shed, a farm-to-table restaurant in a restored walled garden. Then carry on camping around the curving coastline.
Campervans from £399 for three nights,, camping from £9pppn,

The Highlands in the Lowlands, Dumfries & Galloway

Mountain biker on the 7 Stanes forest trail in Dumfries.

Mountain biker on the 7 Stanes forest trail in Dumfries. Photograph: South West Images Scotland/Alamy

While the crowds gallop north to the Highlands in search of jaw-dropping scenery, this corner of south-west Scotland is often bypassed without a glance. But it’s a bucolic pocket.

Dumfries and Galloway has been dubbed Scotland in miniature. It is peppered with pretty villages, such as the artists’ enclave of Kirkcudbright, with its coastline once called the Scottish Riviera, and its gently rolling landscape scattered with sculpture trails – swing by Andy Goldsworthy’s Striding Arches.

Its other nickname is the Highlands of the Lowlands. Annual visitor numbers nudge two million further north, but Galloway Forest park – with its 250 icy lochs and a million trees – sees a mere 150,000. Its remoteness and lack of light pollution led to its recognition as Britain’s first dark sky park. Add tumbling burns, heather-covered hills, tranquil glens, wild moor and mountain, ospreys and white-tailed eagles soaring high above… and no crowds.

At Glentrool there are the award-winning 7stanes mountain biking trails. The Big Country Route is a full-day, 36-mile ride through the wilderness, with heart-skipping views, big descents and lung-busting climbs.

Five bothies within the park provide basic shelter, or bed down within stone-skimming distance of the shore of Loch Ken in three off-grid eco-bothies. Red Squirrel, Otter and Red Kite each comes with its own kayak and wooden hot tub to soak aching muscles.
From £375 for a four-night break,;

Bothy basics, north-west Highlands

Croft House Bothy B&B in Heart of Highlands

Croft House Bothy B&B. Photograph: Robin Haig

“Rough as guts” isn’t your usual sort of holiday brochure blurb, but the bare-bones Croft House (available through Airbnb) mixes plain speaking with a positive spin on its lack of creature comforts.

A bothy is the Scottish term for a labourer’s cottage or mountain hut where hikers can shelter. The photos hammer it home: planks of wood are stacked in the living area against bare stone walls, and there’s a double bed up in the rafters, or a “rickety” sofa bed.

There’s no shower – in fact no running water – but there is a nearby spring, and you can have a “bird bath” indoors with an old-fashioned jug and basin, or bathe in pools in the burn. There’s a wood-burning stove and hot water bottles. It’s more camping than self-catering cottage, but if you think bedding down under the eaves to the sound of rain on an old tin roof is romantic, you’re all set – if not, bring earplugs. And midge repellent.

The real selling point, of course, is the location: up a dirt track, hidden among the trees, with sweeping views towards Kintail – but just a half-hour’s walk to tiny Eilean Donan castle (remember Highlander?) and with the Five Sisters of Kintail (for a heftier hike) on your doorstep. The crofter owners are across the yard to help with lighting the fire or to take you on guided treks, and to make breakfast – homemade bannocks and jam made with berries from the garden, fresh mint for tea picked from the croft. For everything else, the village of Dornie is a 40-minute walk, with bakery, shop, cafe and pub.
From £55 a night B&B for two, two-night minimum,

Sea kayaking, north-west coast

Woman Sea kayaking, north-west coast of Scotland

For a wild, watery adventure, kayaking around tiny, uninhabited islands and remote stretches of coastline, and camping under the stars on the shore takes some beating.

Outdoor adventure specialist Wilderness Scotland leads sea kayaking expeditions each summer to the aptly named Summer Isles, a low-lying archipelago off the north-west coast, and to isolated spots around the coastline of Knoydart and Skye.

Paddling through the waves, drifting into narrow channels between the islands, keeping eyes peeled for dolphins, porpoises and whales, you need a little kayaking experience.

Seabirds wheel high above as you paddle past colonies of playful seals near picturesque Plockton, with its palm trees and sheltered bay.

The West Coast Explorer is a flexible five-day trip, based at a bunkhouse in the West Highlands, but packing all the equipment necessary for a wild-camping foray depending on weather and sea conditions. The route is unmapped, your destination unknown.
From £995 for a five-night trip all-inclusive,

Set sail for St Kilda, Outer Hebrides

Factors House on the island of Hirta, St Kilda

Photograph: Alamy

The most westerly of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda is a cluster of four islands cast adrift in the rolling swell of the Atlantic. The 1,000ft cliffs of Boreray soar out of the sea, the sheer rocks a breeding ground for gannets, fulmar-petrels, hunted by great skuas or “bonxies”.

It’s a primeval place. Inhabited for 2,000 years by a hardy group of islanders, it was eventually evacuated in 1930, their life no longer sustainable. Their abandoned settlements are in ruins, deserted apart from volunteers from the National Trust for Scotland working on conservation projects.

During the summer a handful of small cruise companies sail to this remote archipelago – a Unesco world heritage site – if weather conditions allow. One is Lewis-based Island Cruising, whose boat MV Cuma, once a marine research vessel, has just six twin cabins. The skipper, Murdo Macdonald, checks the charts, waiting for the right weather window – killing time exploring other islands en route, such as Scarp, Taransay, the Monach and Flannan Isles.

Passengers can spot sea birds, and waves broken occasionally by orca, minke whales, dolphins and seals. Anchoring in lonely bays, dipping into hidden coves, the prize is a St Kilda sunset, a landing at Hirta, the largest of the islands, and a pint in the MoD watering hole the Puff Inn.
From £840pp full-board for the six-night trip,

Hike the Affric Kintail Way, Glen Affric

Glen Affric, spring, Inverness, Highland Region, Scotland

Photograph: Dennis Barnes/Getty Images

Scotland is crisscrossed with waymarked walking trails. If you want to bag the big one, the most famous long-distance schlep is the West Highland Way. But with fame comes fans, and in summer it’s a slithering, Gore-Tex-clad snake of backpackers. For a route less travelled, the Affric Kintail Way was launched in 2015, and stretches from Loch Ness to Loch Duich on the west coast via one of the most spectacular glens in Scotland, Glen Affric.

The 44-mile route meanders along ancient drovers’ roads, forest tracks and footpaths through pungent pine forest and beech woods, past crystal-clear lochs and sheer-sided glens. You can hike the trail independently; the website divides it into four bitesize chunks and even suggests which direction to tramp – east to west with the sun at your back. Or Macs Adventure has an extended coast-to-coast six-day self-guided walking holiday, starting in Inverness, where you pocket a pebble on the shore of the Moray Firth before following the River Ness and Great Glen Way to Drumnadrochit.

After reaching the head of Glen Affric, bed down for the night in the remote , eight miles from the nearest road. From there trudge on beneath brooding Beinn Fhada and the Five Sisters of Kintail until you reach the sea at Shiel Bridge.

The adventure ends after the final furlong along the drovers’ road to Glenelg, where you’ll find the whitewashed Glenelg Inn, a cosy gastropub on the shore, looking over the sea to Skye.
From £620pp including accommodation and some transfers,

Highland estate, Cairngorms

View across Loch an Eilein to the Cairngorm mountains beyond, Rothiemurchus

Photograph: Alamy

The Cairngorms is the UK’s largest national park, a whopping 4,500 sq km – 6% of Scotland – and a giant outdoor playground. Check out the roll-call: 55 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft), five of the six highest mountains in the UK, a quarter of Scotland’s native woodland and Springwatch-style wildlife on a plate: not just red deer and golden eagles, but wild reindeer, ptarmigan, ospreys and otters.

Around 1.7 million tourists schlep up here each year, and its main gateway, Aviemore, is heaving. It’s also an eyesore – think French ski resort circa 1960, with a low-slung shopping drag and a shiny new concrete retail park. But with so much space to play with, there are still plenty of hidden corners – the Angus Glens on the eastern fringe, for a start, where you can hike through Glen Esk without seeing a soul.

Nearby is Rothiemurchus, a 10,000-hectare estate that has been in the Grant family for five centuries. Pocked with lochs, tumbling rivers and misty glens, its moors, ancient Caledonian pine forest and silver birch are threaded with hiking and mountain-biking trails. The estate rangers offer many guided activities, from Land Rover safaris to wildlife photography, kayaking to gorge swimming.

Accommodation ranges from a cute converted cottage to a woodland campsite, and there’s a rustic-chic cafe and farm shop with produce from the estate (wild venison, Highland beef and trout) – as well as Inshriach gin, made by the neighbours.
From £10pp camping, cottage from £650 for a short break,

Wildlife watching, Shetland: the northernmost archipelago

Atlantic puffins at clifftop edge, Shetland Islands, Scotland.

Photograph: James Warwick/Getty Images

“Skye is full, stay away!” screamed the headlines last summer. Luckily, there are 800 more islands off the Scottish coast. The UK’s most northerly archipelago, Shetland, upped its cred recently after the BBC’s eponymous dramatisation of Ann Cleeves’ cult crime novels, while Springwatch crews are regular visitors. This wild, windswept, almost treeless island chain is now on most nature lovers’ bucket lists. In summer the sun barely sets, and the cliffs are crammed with breeding birds, the waters with seals and minke whales.

The Late Summer Experience (28 July-4 August) from operator Shetland Nature is a seven-day trip led by local naturalists. It starts on “Mainland” at Sumburgh Head before heading via St Ninian’s Isle, linked to Mainland by a perfect arc of white sand, and on to Unst, the most northerly island in the UK.

Guests explore on foot the Hermaness nature reserve, where great and Arctic skua dot the moorland, and the haunting call of the curlew floats on the air. There are usually 25,000 breeding pairs of puffins herein the summer, while the surrounding stacks and cliffs are jammed with 17,000 pairs of gannets, the largest colony in Shetland. There has been concern about falling seabird numbers due to climate change, but Shetland Nature’s twitter feed shows “puffins and gannets galore” at the moment.

You’ll also spend a day spotting otters before hopping to nearby Fetlar island (red-throated diver, golden plovers and dunlin) and exploring Mainland safari-style (mountain hare and red grouse), before boarding the MV Dunter for a sealife cruise.
From £1,395 all-inc for seven nights, excl travel to and from Shetland,

Activity barge, Caledonian Canal

Caledonian Canal at Dochgarroch, Inverness

Photograph: Dennis Barnes/Getty Images

The Great Glen slashes diagonally across Scotland, from Fort William on the west coast to Inverness in the east. Its string of lochs (Lochy, Oich, Ness and Dochfour) were linked with canals at the start of the 19th century to form a watery highway between the North Sea and the Atlantic, so that ships could give the perilous route around the north coast a miss.

Thomas Telford’s Caledonian Canal is one of the UK’s great engineering achievements, although now it’s mainly tourists who make the 60-mile journey, negotiating 29 locks and 10 swing bridges.

The Fingal of Caledonia (or its sister boat the Ros Crana) is a companionable way to cruise the canal. A jaunty old Belgian barge, it was once a cargo vessel plying the Rhine. In style, it’s floating activity centre meets youth hostel, and life onboard is relaxed, with board games and books to thumb in the saloon. There are themed weeks, such as Walk the Great Glen, where passengers use the boat as a base, trekking chunks of the long-distance Great Glen Way by day and sleeping in the cabins at night, or Canoe the Great Glen, where … you get the idea. Classic cruises offer sailing, walking, cycling and canoeing. Or you can just chill out on deck, watching the dramatic scenery and wildlife…
From £887pp full-board for a week’s cruise,

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