Say this for the Vikings: If nothing else, they were good with names.
That’s what occurs to me as the fog rolls in on my first full day of hiking in Scotland’s northern isles. Knee-deep in heather and eye-level with a thick gray mist that seems to have swallowed the island of Skye whole, I can only marvel at the precision with which the Norse once named this place. They called it ski, meaning “cloud,” and on this late September day the Isle of Skye is enthusiastically earning its name.
Of course, not everyone enjoys wet socks and muddy boots, so Skye must have something else to recommend it, right? That something is the raw beauty of sheer cliffs and wind-whipped fjords, of heaving hills, sheep-dotted farms, and jagged black mountains that hug the sea. And in the midst of it all, a strange kind of serenity—a peacefulness that comes from the sense that at any given moment you might just have this weather-tossed wilderness all to yourself.
Thanks to the “clearances” of the 19th century, that feeling isn’t simply part of the imagination. In the mid 1800s, Scotland’s clan chiefs realized sheep were more profitable than farmers and booted their clansmen from the Highlands. On Skye, where farming was life, the population dropped from 23,000 to 8,000. Today those numbers have risen only slightly, to roughly half the pre-clearances total.
Hiking in Scotland
I’m fortunate to be hiking in Scotland’s lonely wilderness with Iain Thow, author of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s official Highland Scrambles North guidebook and a trip leader for local adventure outfitter North-West Frontiers. Shaggy, rugged, and unendingly cheery, Thow has been guiding walkers like me through northern Scotland since 1989. He estimates he’s led more than 6,000 people hiking in Scotland over the years. If my trip is any measure, most of them have gone home happy.
“I like people in all their bizarre variety,” he says. “Otherwise I could never do my job.”
This week that job is to introduce my group—six of us in all, including my wife, two Londoners, a Californian, and a retired judge from Sydney—to hiking on the Hebridean islands of Skye, Harris, and Lewis.
“I love the sense of space, the scale, the jaggedness, the intricacy of northern Scotland,” says Thow. “There’s this feeling that you’re just a small person in a great big world you can never totally know.”
But thanks to Thow we’re getting to know it better than most. And our hiking route, while not exactly flat, is a far cry from strenuous. This Highlands and Hebrides Discovery tour emphasizes the landscape, the history, and the people of northern Scotland in equal measure. You’re on your feet for about eight hours a day, but never in extremely steep areas.
Highlands, Low Budget
The Hebridean Islands, of which Skye is the largest and most well known, form a broad and barren archipelago off Scotland’s northwest coast. The North-West Frontiers hiking tour is a budget-friendly introduction to them (depending on exchange rates at the time you book, it will cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 per person), yet it still offers end-of-the-day comforts like fine dining and three- and four-star guesthouses.
In addition to walking days on Skye, the trip takes you way off the beaten path to the less-traveled outer islands of Harris and Lewis. While actually a single landmass, Harris and Lewis were divided long ago by two branches of the clan MacLeod, and they’re set apart by physical differences that make the division seem natural. Rocky and treeless, the coastal hinterland of Harris (or “Na Hearadh” in Gaelic) has a stark, edge-of-the-world feel to it.
More northerly Lewis (from the Gaelic “Leog,” or “water lying on the surface”) derives its name from the vast peat bogs that blanket it. The well-preserved stone circle at Callanish, where you can freely walk amongst and touch the standing stones, makes Lewis attractive to archeology buffs as well. It’s hiking in Scotland at its most scenic.
Back on the mainland, the Highlands and Hebrides Discovery tour also includes a sightseeing stop at Eileen Donan castle—a marvelously restored 12th-century fortress seen in the original Highlander film. Additional highlights include a weaving demonstration and fireside tales by a traditional Scottish storyteller.
Practicalities for Hiking in Scotland and Its Northern Isles
For hiking in Scotland, the cheapest international flights are in May and September. Scottish weather is unpredictable any time of the year, so if price is a factor I suggest going early or late in the season. That also offers your best bet for pre- and post-trip accommodations availability.
The most convenient gateway airports from the U.S. are Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s about three hours by train from either city to Inverness, the starting point for the Highlands and Hebrides Discovery hiking tour. British Airways also flies to the domestic airport at Inverness from London.
North-West Frontiers’ middle-of-the-road prices attract a varied clientele. The diversity of my trip is fairly typical, says Marco de Man, the company’s owner.
“Seventy percent of our clients are based in the United Kingdom,” says de Man. “About 15 percent are from the U.S., and a further 15 percent from mainland Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.” Hikers typically fall between 45 and 65 years of age.
Most days end with cheery dinner conversation and memories that will linger for years. Me, I think rainy days will always take me back to that serenely wet walk on the Isle of Skye.
It’s a memory worth savoring long after my hiking socks have dried out.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 19, 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information about hiking in Scotland.
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