Photo by Deborah Doyle
Photo by Deborah Doyle

Hiking Off the Beaten Path in Scotland

Staff member Deborah Doyle hit the trails of Scotland with National Geographic Expeditions. Over eight days, she hiked the western hills and coasts, exploring serene landscapes and learning about the country's rich history. Here's what she had to say about her adventure.

What was your favorite activity on this trip?

Given that this was a hiking adventure, naturally the hiking was my favorite activity! I couldn’t get enough of the lush green hills, the ubiquitous sheep dotting the landscapes, the ancient castles, the stunning magenta foxglove flowers, and the scenic vistas at nearly every turn.

The weather kept things interesting, as it is known to do in Scotland. As often as we donned our rain gear amidst summer sprinkles, we were equally rewarded with hours of energizing bright skies. Those of us from cities felt especially rejuvenated as our lungs drank in the Highlands’ crisp, fresh air. The hiking routes on our itinerary provided just the right amount of exercise for our legs to make us feel like we accomplished something healthy without killing ourselves.

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What was your most memorable hike?

The Quiraing walk on the Isle of Skye is an otherworldly, moody hike featuring unusual rock formations and breathtaking views. The damp morning mist added a feeling of transcendence to a place of solemnity and majesty.

What’s a hidden gem you stumbled upon while traveling?

Hairy cows! Prior to this trip, the existence of these enchanting ungulates (aka Highland cattle) had escaped my attention entirely. I quickly became obsessed. Not having been blessed with one myself, I’ve always been attracted to a good head of hair, whether it be a lion’s glorious mane, the elegant mohawk of an African crowned crane, or the moppy dreadlocks of a komondor dog. Who knew that cows could have enviable tresses too?

Of the few thousand images I took on this trip, I’d say at least half were of the three resident hairy cows near our hotel on Scotland’s west coast, and none of these photos were particularly successful. The cows seemed to spend almost all their waking hours with their heads down, grazing the grass, and weren’t really interested in modeling for me, despite my telepathic pleas and uncharacteristic patience. Good photos notwithstanding, I enjoyed just watching the hairy cows be hairy.

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What dish should everyone try when visiting Scotland and where is a good place to find it?

I was introduced to two new-to-me desserts that are especially popular in Scotland. First, if you’re feeling decadent, try sticky toffee pudding. The “pudding” here is moist bread pudding (rather than jiggly pudding in the American sense) made with finely chopped dates; covered in delectable toffee sauce; and usually served with ice cream, custard, or whipped cream on the side. Mere words don’t do it justice, but trust me, it is heaven on a plate!

My second sweet discovery was cranachan, a traditional Scottish dessert typically made with oatmeal, cream, raspberries, and perhaps most importantly, whiskey! Ingredients are layered in individual glasses dishes much like a parfait. It’s not hard to find either of these treats—in my experience, they regularly (and diabolically) appeared on dessert menus at local restaurants.

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Which historical excursion did you love?

Our walk at Kilmartin Glen combined two of my favorite things—exercise and education. Here, we explored ancient burial cairns and standing stones as we hiked alongside a local guide.

In this area, five remaining burial cairns comprise a “linear cemetery” that spans several miles. We descended into the Nether Largie North Cairn, where archaeologists believe someone of significance was buried roughly 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.

The Nether Largie South Cairn is even older, having been built in the Neolithic era some 5,500 to 5,600 years ago. Visitors are welcome to pass through the burial chamber, but squeezing your way out is not for the fainthearted.

Our Kilmartin walk concluded with a highlight for any fan of Outlander—an exploration of standing stones. There are many theories for the purpose of these stones, but traveling through time was not one espoused by our guide. That didn’t stop a few other tourists from trying to get to Jamie Fraser themselves, though.

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What are some essential items to pack for hiking in Scotland?

The three most important things I can recommend for any hiker in Scotland are layers, layers, and more layers. I packed five different jackets for this trip and found myself wearing them all in the course of one day (a light raincoat, a heavy raincoat, a warm puffy jacket, a light nylon hoodie, and a breathable wind-blocking jacket). Travelers who are more efficient with their packing can get away with less, but I personally prefer to schlep the weight of my luggage and rest easy knowing I’ll be comfortable in any condition.

Also, when layering, don’t forget your bottom half. Rain pants that fit over your regular hiking pants are essential. And don't ignore—as I did—an important tip from National Geographic's packing guide: make sure the pants unzip all the way up your legs! Many rain pants (like mine) only unzip partway up the calf, but when your boots are dripping wet and muddy, these partial zips are no use at all.

Most hikers in our group used rain covers for their backpacks, which was practical yet inconvenient when trying to get items out quickly. One of the best bits of advice shared by our guide was to forget the rain cover. Instead, use clear zip-top bags. The bags allow you to keep similar things together so you can easily access them, and since each one is waterproof, you don’t have to bother with the hassle of the rain cover.

Finally, this should go without mentioning: bring waterproof shoes or prepare for blisters!

Tell us about an interesting hotel or lodge where you stayed.

Ever slept in a castle? I hadn’t…at least, not until this trip! Breaking up the drive from the Isle of Skye back to Edinburgh, we spent a night at Fonab Castle Hotel in Pitlochry. This 1892 mansion was restored and opened as a hotel in 2013. Its interior spaces feature an intriguing blend of modern and traditional decor.

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What surprised you on this trip?

In Edinburgh, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by the National Geographic “yellow border” everywhere I went. As it turns out, a popular style of door handle in the city is a proportionally similar rectangle turned on its side. I could not have felt more at home! Who knows what stories lie within the walls behind these tiny gilded borders?

Did this trip change your travel bucket list?

Yes! There is so much more to see and do in Scotland. My bucket list for my next visit(s) include Glasgow, the Orkneys, hiking up Ben Nevis, and perhaps some Inner and/or Outer Hebrides.

After the National Geographic hiking trip ended, I stayed a few extra days to go see puffins and other seabirds on my own in the Firth of Forth. A three-hour landing on the Isle of May wasn’t enough. I’m not a birder by any means, but I was so enthralled with the puffins and gannets that I hope to make it back for a longer stay someday, ideally with much better camera equipment!