Scotland: Hiking in the Highlands

“They may take away our lives, but they’ll never take away our freedom!”

If the inspiring words of William Wallace ring in your ear, or perhaps the phrase “Sassenach,” is whispered by a young Jaime Fraser instead, you should take to the hills – or, the Highlands!

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The Scottish Highlands are something often seen in movies or television and admired, but when it comes to vacation planning, it always seems to be skipped over. Bottom line, it shouldn’t be.

I cannot fathom how this amazing place isn’t teeming with hikers, photographers, thrill-seekers, travel enthusiasts, or honestly anyone looking for a mind-blowing vacation. But perhaps its underrated nature is part of its charm, preserving its authenticity.

History and Location

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The Highlands occupy the north-western part of Scotland, deriving its name from the imposing mountain ranges that cover the region. The Lowlands fall south of the mountains and are home to the major cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow (the Southern Uplands are technically their own area but are considered part of the Lowlands).

The two opposing lands can differ in tradition, although they are apart of the same country. This has been true for centuries, with the Highlands speaking Gaelic and the Lowlands speaking a mix of shared Celtic roots but with Germanic influences – called “Scots,” but this has differing opinions on whether or not it can be considered a true language.

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The Lowlands have been subjected to the most foreign influences, due to its closer proximity to the rest of Europe. This is true in the language, as mentioned above, and is especially seen as the English language came with British control. These influences have gained the Lowlands the reputation as being “British-Scots”, and Highlanders as being “true Scots.”

Whether or not the Highlands contain the “true Scots,” it is certainly the most famous part of Scotland, represented in many movies and television shows – most recently, the hit show Outlander. How accurately these media sources define them is debatable, for instance, much of Braveheart is said to take place in the Scottish Highlands, but large scenes were actually filmed in Ireland because it was cheaper. In addition, William Wallace was actually a lowlander, not a highlander, but this fact goes unknown by most.

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Then why would they use the Highlands when he was actually a lowlander? The Highlands are the most romanticized part of Scotland, where as I said, the “true-Scots” live. It’s the spirit of Scotland, where traditions and legends live on. Filming in such a place will let that spirit easily reach audiences (the Lowlands are still cool guys, I’m not knocking the Lowlands).

That is why I am constantly baffled why the Highlands aren’t more popular with tourists. Perhaps they find the drive too long, or the weather too gloomy. But isn’t all that just a part of Scotland? Additionally, the west side drive was one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen, weaving in and out of the striking mountains.

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Hiking

There are many popular hiking spots in the Highlands, but the trails I chose from were near the town of Kinlochleven. This is in the western parts of the Highlands, bordering Loch Leven.

(Below, the town is mostly hidden but you can see Loch Leven and the surrounding mountains)

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There are a crazy amount of hiking and biking trails, and more are being made every day. For those long distance hikers out there, the West Highland Way runs past Kinlochleven as part of its 96 mile hike.

You can find these hikes online or follow be adventurous and follow the beaten path (and the convenient signs that dot the path every so often). They can range anywhere from being only 15 minutes long, to hours – but then again, it depends on how fast of a walker you are anyways so this is relative.

The views from the top of the mountains will always be spectacular, but my favorite part about hiking was finding the little hidden things. Some of these things were closer to the ground, like the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. It starts higher up and traces the carved edges of the mountains until it drops down into its own hidden pool, a “plunge” pool.

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Getting to the pool can be a bit of a challenge for those who aren’t able to climb or maneuver things well, but for those who can it’s definitely worth the trek. One side can be accessed from climbing over fallen trees and being careful with the rocks you choose to stand on. The other was for the adventurous, where you could use climbing ropes and metal hand holds that had been nailed into the cliff. I think it’s used for hard-core mountain climbers because it pretty much gives you a straight shot up the cliff face – think Frodo and Sam climbing up the stairs of Cirith Ungol in Mordor. You definitely want a professional to come with you on that. But for us lesser folks who didn’t know that was an option, you can climb down safely before it gets too high up and drop down to the plunge pool.

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Obviously I had to jump in and when I was submerged, I thought for the briefest of moments that a Scottish kelpie would grab me by the ankle and drag me down because that pool was DEEP. Just the side effect of an overactive imagination I guess…

If you do go in, make sure it’s at the end of your hike so you aren’t soaking wet for hours afterwards. I saved it for last and the fifteen minute hike back to the car still had me shivering.

By far the funniest part of the hike was when we were at the waterfall and another family was there, one with small kids who wanted to climb everything we did but their parents wouldn’t let them because they weren’t old enough yet. So when I jumped in, all of the kids starting egging their parents on for not jumping in too, because “they were old enough,” and I swear I’ve never gotten as many dirty looks from adults before.

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Things you should know:

The weather in Scotland is usually moderate, no extreme highs or lows. It does snow during the winter, especially in the Highlands, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it much too cold to handle. The summer doesn’t really get above the mid 60s, so shorts with light jackets were what suited me best.

You will experience bouts of rain and lots of clouds, especially on the west side of the Highlands, but this makes for dramatic pictures.Β Bring sturdy shoes and lightweight rain-proof jackets. Everyone strives to keep the Highlands trash-free and beautiful so bring reusable water bottles and don’t litter.

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KinlochlevenΒ is not the only hiking town to visit, most people actually prefer going to Fort Williams (a short drive north from Kinlochleven), to start out their hiking adventures.

Each spot can cater to a different demographic, some might be folklore-lovers who want to track down Nessie in Loch Ness, some Instagram stars want epic pictures from Torridon, or those Outlander fans out there (yasssssss) who want a history lesson can go see the famous Callanish Stones – filmed as Craigh na Dun in Outlander.

The Highlands have something for everyone to explore, you just have to go and find it! Or, in the words of our favorite Scottish Disney princess, “Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.”

Or is that too cheesy?

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