15 of the greatest walks in Scotland
8th May 2019
Scotland draws photographers and hikers from around the world to experience the dramatic mountains, peaceful lochs and rugged coastline. Here, 15 of the world’s top landscape photographers select their favourite walks in Scotland to find unforgettable landscapes.
1: Portencross, Ayrshire Coast
By Mark McColl
I live in Ayrshire on the West Coast of Scotland, an area dotted with the ruins of ancient castles, sandy beaches and rugged coastline. I like to get to the coast as often as I can, usually to walk the dogs with my family, quietly reflect, or to make images when the light is right.
One area in particular that I’ve been visiting for many years is Portencross, near West Kilbride in north Ayrshire. There’s a car park close to Portencross Castle, my usual starting point. From there, a path winds past a small harbour to the old pier. The views across to the Isle of Arran and to Cumbrae are breathtaking.
I usually follow the path on past the pier and explore the geology of this piece of coastline. The areas of sandstone, with their jagged shapes, along this stretch are really unique and mirror those at Corrie on the Isle of Arran, just across the sea. These are well worth photographing, especially towards sunset, when the light is soft.
The walk itself is not that long, only a few miles, but it often takes me hours as I stop to make images or to let the dogs sniff amongst the seaweed.
2: Stacks of Duncansby, northeast coast
By Clive Minnitt
A short drive to the east of the busy village of John o’ Groats is a short but spectacular coastal walk along the far north-eastern tip of Scotland. On a clear day, magnificent views as far as the Orkneys await those who venture out along the three-mile there-and-back clifftop walk. You may even delight in being alone there, as I have was, when I scouted this location for a photography tour of the North Coast 500 (NC500).
Park at the lighthouse and follow the signs south to the Stacks of Duncansby, sticking as close to the cliff edge as possible for the best views of these wonderful sea stack formations standing proud out of the North Sea. Along the way, keep an eye out for the seabird colonies and seals that frequent the area.
For the adventurous, there is a steep and sometimes slippery path that leads down to the rocky shore. Once you have walked to a point beyond the last stack, stay awhile, enjoy the views and take in some of Scotland’s finest fresh sea air.
Ideally, aim to walk this route starting just before dawn with a clear horizon over the sea. Early light illuminating the cliffs and turbulent seas will add to the atmosphere in what is a stunningly beautiful setting. This is both a walker’s and photographer’s paradise. Although this walk could be completed in little over an hour I would recommend taking several hours. There’s no need to rush such a great experience.
3: Stac Pollaidh
By Paul Sanders
I’ve done the walk up Stac Pollaidh in the Northwest Highlands a couple of times. Starting from the car park below, the path can be seen disappearing over the road and walking through the bushes on the opposite side. You pass through a gate and then there’s a steady climb over open moorland.
The path is really good for the most part. Following the path, you start to climb more seriously, although it's not difficult walking. You get amazing views over Loch Lurgainn and Cul Baeg when the path splits head right through a deer fence and up.
You eventually get views of Suilven and the stunning vista of Assynt. The path splits again as you go around, with the left fork going to the ridge and the right fork following the base of the mountain. The ridge climb has some scrabbling involved but the views are just stunning from the top. The Summer Isles are visible on a good day. I love this walk as it really feels like you’re on top of the world. The rocky towers at the top are beautiful in their own right but to sit at the top and survey the whole of Assynt is truly breathtaking.
The ridge walk is an out and back route but you can get all the way around the base if you wish.
4: Sgùrr an Fhidhleir
By Neil Barr (www.neilbarr.co.uk)
I have a love/hate relationship with hiking up hills with camera and camping gear. On some hikes, I question my sanity with every step, especially if I’m on my third or fourth attempt to get the shot I want. But some views more than make up for the effort.
That is certainly the case with the spectacular views from Sgùrr an Fhidhleir in the Coigach peninsula. It’s a two-hour hike from the Achiltibuie road. The epic landscape to the north is like nothing else and well worth the effort. Looking out to Enard Bay, Assynt, Inverpolly and Coigach from Sgùrr an Fhidhleir has to be one of my favourite views.
5: Scarista Beach, Harris
By Valda Bailey
One of my favourite Scottish walks is the stretch of white sand that is Scarista Beach. Perhaps it’s not the longest walk in the world, but for me it is one of the most uplifting. To amble alongside any lapping tide is to immerse oneself in the natural world and give pause for thought, but to walk beside the very edge of the North Atlantic ocean, where nothing much stands between you and Newfoundland, only increases the feeling of awe and appreciation for man's vulnerability and insignificance.
If the weather’s right, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the Bahamas, such is the intensity of the turquoise sea. When set against the white sand and with the distant heather-covered Ceapabhal mountain, its natural beauty more than makes up for the occasional midge that tries to impose itself on the absent-minded ambler.
I first visited the Hebrides five years ago, just as photography was slowly taking over my life, and I realised the raw landscapes that I sought to capture were abundantly evident in the Outer Hebrides. I am lucky that I now get to return there as a teacher of photography on workshops and tours. It’s a privilege I hope I’ll always appreciate.
6: The Quirang, Isle of Skye
By Terry Gibbins
I love the Isle of Skye, especially the Quiraing. The Quiraing really is quite magical. The light is ever-changing. Skye is one of the locations I first went to very early on when I started taking photography very seriously, when I first started paying to go on photography workshops. I went there with Ian Cameron, a photographer who is a bit of a hero of mine. I met some great people on that workshop that I stayed friends with. It’s a great happy time, so there’s a little bit of romance and nostalgia when I think of that place.
As a location, it’s stunning. It looks so prehistoric. The landscape is so unique there. You could imagine it’s not changed in thousands of years. The birds are flying around you but a million years ago it might have been pterodactyls or something. It feels prehistoric and it has a really special feel about it.
I tend to pick my way into places. The Quiraing is a great walk. I’ve done that walk at least four or five times. The walk is a loop, with the car park as the start and end point. You walk out to the Needles and beyond. The whole walk is just a little bit under seven kilometres, so you could do it in two hours, but I tend to stay out longer with my camera. I take a bit of lunch with me and I can go out around there for hours.
7: The Study in the Pass of Glencoe
By Phil Malpas
I first completed this walk in 2006 and have repeated it almost every year since, as part of the Winter In Glencoe photography workshops that I guide. It is always a highlight of my year and something I really look forward to. I feel the mountains call me back, a call that I can’t ignore. We’re so lucky to have some of the world’s best scenery right on our doorstep. Even better for me is when this majestic scenery is transformed during winter into a magical wonderland that cries out to be photographed. Winter not only enhances the big view, but snow and ice can offer an infinite number of compositions, particularly in the details where frozen streams, waterfalls, water in general, trees and rocks suddenly reveal a myriad of intricate patterns and forms.
For this walk, you need to park in one of the lay-bys on the north of the A82 where the old military road crosses the main road. Follow the old military road in a westerly direction for about a kilometre before a final scramble up to the viewpoint from which this photo of The Three Sisters was taken, at The Study.
The beauty of this walk is that the full view doesn’t present itself until the last minute, when it becomes possible to see the full majesty of Glencoe laid out before you. The Three Sisters are often shrouded with cloud and the best photographic opportunities occur either in late morning or at the end of the afternoon.
This is a short easy walk, mostly on a good path with a fantastic reward at the end. For me, it’s perfect.
8: The Choire Mhic Fhearchair, below the Triple Buttress, in Torridon
By Joe Cornish
This walk is only around ten miles, so it’s not a marathon in distance. But as an experience, it is mythic, epic, and unforgettable. There are two short (five mile) routes to approach Coire Mhic Fhearchair. All others are longer.
From the north, it’s a long steady slog from Grudie Bridge beside lovely Loch Maree. By far, the better way is from Glen Torridon.
Coire Mhic Fhearchair is an immense rock amphitheatre hidden between the twinned mountain ridges, Ruadh Stac Mor and Sail Mhor. It shelters a beautiful loch, 667 metres above sea level. Framed by this awe-aspiring geology is the Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe, a magnet to superhuman rock climbers and mere mortal landscape photographers alike.
The whole landscape is so north-facing and so overshadowed by its flanks that it almost never sees direct sunlight except at sunrise and sunset in mid-summer, and then only fleetingly. It’s a huge lighting challenge to the photographer, although, as I discovered by walking there once in the middle of winter, snow and soft light relieves the situation.
Whether you take a camera or not, this walk is hardcore, requiring plenty of drinking water, especially in summer, and food and clothing that can help you survive the inevitable changes in conditions. Apart from the ‘goal’ that is the Triple Buttress, the truth is that photographic wonders await all around, as you’ve entered the heart of Torridon, arguably the most dramatic region in all of Scotland.
9: Eilean Donan Castle
By Mark Gray (www.markgray.com.au)
Eilean Donan Castle on the west coast of Scotland is my favourite photography location in Scotland. It’s a magnificent castle and has featured in James Bond, Highlander and other movies and TV commercials.
Capturing the castle at it’s best can be tricky. You need to do some careful research into aligning the best tides, weather conditions and time of day then plan your trip accordingly. Thankfully, I love a good challenge.
There’s a good walk along the shore of Loch Duich, which takes around two hours and gives you great views over Eilean Donan Castle.
10: Little Loch Broom
By Dave Stamboulis (www.davestamboulis.com)
I have extremely fond memories of walking the coastline of Little Loch Broom from Badrallach to Scoraig. Scoraig is an alternative community, with folks living off the grid, and the sense of isolation there is tremendous, just a meandering dirt track seemingly going to nowhere, with superb views of the Loch and the wild Scoraig peninsula, and with bulky Beinn Ghobhlach peak separating it from the rest of civilisation.
It’s rare in landscape photography these days to find places far removed. Even the most isolated spots seem to now have road development, litter, or a cell phone tower marring the shot. But in Scotland you can still find wild, untouched locations.
11: Luskentyre Beach, Harris
By Doug Chinnery
This is the finest of all beach walks. To wander through the high dunes and out onto the pristine white sands of Luskentyre on the Hebridean island of Harris & Lewis is to enter a place of absolute tranquility and sublime beauty. Emerald waters and ever-changing skies with views across to the Isle of Taransay make this often-deserted beach my favourite place to walk, not just in Scotland, but anywhere in the world.
The beach is located a short drive from the small harbour of Tarbet. A right turn from the ‘main’ road always quickens my heart, as you snake out along the single-track road to Luskentyre. The views to your left into the bay will transport you to a place of utter peace.
Nothing can prepare you for the combination of white sand with the deep blue and turquoise waters here. You can walk westwards around the headland for two or three miles at mid-to-low tide, often barely seeing a soul.
It is a place of supreme wilderness. Some places on Earth have the ability to feel special to just us. This is one of those places. It will always feel like yours and yours alone.
Take your camera and you are guaranteed images to treasure. No one will believe your description otherwise. If you can take a dog, your walk will be complete, for there can be no finer companion on this walk than your dog.
12: Galmisdale Bay to Cleadale, Isle of Eigg
By Damian Shields (damianshields.photoshelter.com)
I've been visiting the Isle of Eigg every June for the past six years to attend the annual anniversary Ceilidh in honour of the time (June 12, 1997) the Islanders took ownership. The arrival from Mallaig at the pier tearoom in Galmisdale Bay is a always joyous occasion, with loads of catch-up banter over a “wee can” before what has become for me a tradition, the four-mile walk north to Cleadale.
Given the long drive and ferry trip, it feels good to get your legs going up and across the back of the isle, with stunning views over the Sound of Arisaig to keep you smiling.
The last leg of the hike is when the magic happens, and it never ceases to take my breath away. Just before the road begins to slope downwards into Cleadale, you catch tantalising glimpses of the tips of the triangular peaks of Rum above the trees on your right, and, shortly after, the whole view is revealed: the little bothies and cottages dotted among the green fields of Cleadale and Howlin, with the mighty ridge of Beinn Bhuidhe curved at their back. The glistening waters of Laig bay sparkle all the way across the sound to the rugged peaks of the Rum Cuillin, standing ancient and proud in the distance, telling you, you have finally arrived.
13: The West Highland Way
By Charlie Waite
My favourite walk in Scotland is the West Highland Way, from Glasgow to Fort William. I did it with a wonderful writer, Adam Nicolson, for the National Trust Book of Long Walks. The West Highland Way is a classic, and rightly it’s both famous and popular, as it takes in such a range of Scottish scenery.
The West Highland Way is great, partly because it’s semi-threatening, but also a very safe, dramatic mountainous landscape. You can walk along it and you might feel quite heroic and advnturous, but at the same time you know you’re really as safe as houses and that you’ll have definitely have somewhere to eat and somewhere to sleep each night. If you’re not particularly a butch heroic sort of person, a rugged Ranulph Fiennes-type of explorer, you can still feel a great sense of achievement, even though you know you’re very safe.
It takes about a week to do the whole thing. That’s a really lovely walk, and it has the mountains, glens and lochs and so much contrast. It seems to change all the time along the route, which is, of course, wonderful for a landscape photographer.
14: Glen Sligachan, Isle of Skye
By Nick Hanson (www.nickhanson.co.uk)
My favourite walk for photography in Scotland is in the area of Sligachan and through Glen Sligachan on the Isle of Skye, where you find mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lochs. You can walk anywhere from a few feet of the Sligachan Hotel to a 16-mile round trip through the Glen to Sgurr na Stri, which provides what many say is the best views on Skye: looking down on Loch Coruisk.
I love photographing this area, especially when there is snow on the mountains as it adds an extra dimension to the landscape.
15: The Road, Isle of Muck
By Ben Osborne
The Isle of Muck is one of the most peaceful places on Earth, and spending an afternoon there is like re-entering the real world. It’s is the smallest of the Small Isles, which is the small archipelago of islands in the Inner Hebrides, off Scotland’s west coast that also includes Canna, Eigg and Rum.
I visit this island every June, landing at Gallanach on the north coast where ponies, cattle and sheep drift across the white sandy beach, grazing on seaweed and sweet machair grasses. The piping calls of oystercatchers echo around the bay.
The walk is just one mile, so quite short and it’s incredibly simple. Getting there is less simple. Once you’re there, you just follow the road to Port Mor on the south side of the island. There is only one road. It is fringed with meadows that are full of flowers, from which the rasping calls of corncrakes can often be heard. Larks and pipits provide a higher stratum of sound, as they hover in the clear blue sky. There is a wonderful tea shop at Port Mor and an attractive harbour. For me, completing this walk and spending time there is completely relaxing.
Photographers Valda Bailey, Joe Cornish, Paul Sanders, Mark McColl, Charlie Waite, Terry Gibbins and Doug Chinnery lead photography tours and workshops for Light & Land, including Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland and around the world, from Vietnam to Albania. See tours here for North Coast 500, Isle of Skye & Torridon, Winter In Glencoe and more at www.lightandland.co.uk/photography-tours.
Their work will be on show at Evolving Landscapes, an exhibition of 25 years of landscape photography at the OXO Gallery on London’s Southbank from July 18-22, alongside photos by Joe Cornish, Antony Spencer, Valda Bailey and more. See www.lightandland.co.uk/25-year-anniversary for details. A limited edition book, Evolving Landscapes, will be published to coincide.
Photos in descending order:
Loch Torridon by Clive Minnitt (top/lead)
Portencross, Ayrshire Coast by Mark McColl
Stacks of Duncansby by Clive Minnitt
Stac Pollaidh by Paul Sanders
Sgùrr an Fhidhleir by Nick Hanson
Scarista Beach, Harris by Valda Bailey
The Quirang, Skye by Terry Gibbins
The Three Sisters of Glencoe by Phil Malpas
The Choire Mhic Fhearchair in Torridon by Joe Cornish
Eilean Donan Castle by Mark Gray
Little Loch Broom by Dave Stamboulis
Luskentyre Beach, Harris by Doug Chinnery
Isle of Rum from Laig Bay, Isle of Eigg by Damian Shields
Buchailletive, Glencoe by Charlie Waite
Glen Sligachan by Nick Hanson
Horses on Isle of Muck by Ben Osbourne