Scotland is as known for its glens as it for its bens. The word glen comes from the Gaelic and means a steep-sided valley – most of them were carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age; the word strath usually denotes a broader, wider valley. We pick out 16 of our favourite Highland glens, whether for their stunning landscapes, flourishing wildlife or wildness and isolation.
Glen Clova, Angus
Angus is a region where the glens are perhaps better known than the mountains around them. Glen Esk is the longest and a real gem with a great variety of scenery, and Glen Prosen and Glen Isla are well worthy of exploration, but Glen Clova is the best known. As well as the Munros Mayar and Driesh, don’t miss the coire lochs of Loch Brandy and Loch Wharral on the eastern flanks of the glen.
Glen Derry, Cairngorms
Glen Derry ranks amongst the finest of the Cairngorms’ glens, beginning at Derry Lodge and leading through a magnificent remnant of the ancient pinewoods to a wild upper glen, with its source at remote and beautiful Loch Etchachan, the UK’s highest altitude lake of any size. The custodianship of the National Trust for Scotland should slowly see the pinewoods spring into new life.
Glen Coe, Lochaber
Glen Coe is the best known of all Scotland’s glens. The mountains on either side reach almost alpine-like grandeur, and their close proximity to the road means that even the non-mountaineer cannot fail to be impressed. But the glen has a notorious history too – it was here that 38 MacDonalds – including women and children – were massacred by their guests, probably on the orders of King William I.
Glen Feshie, Cairngorms
Glen Feshie is the gem of the northern Cairngorms, enlightened ownership policies in recent years seeing its pinewoods now beginning to return to rude health after years of decline. The glen penetrates far into the mountains and forms a link for walkers heading through to the Geldie – or the Tilt.
Gleann Mor (Alladale), Sutherland
This is one few may have heard of, but Gleann Mor – a branch heading south from Glen Alladale in Sutherland – is stunningly beautiful. Much of its appeal comes from the natural birch woods – both planted and regenerating – whose recovery has been enabled both by fencing and reductions in deer numbers carried out by the estate.
Glen Lyon ranks amongst the longest of all glens, and its reputation for beauty is almost on a par with Glen Affric. The glen runs from the picturesque village of Fortingall in Perthshire for around 25 miles to the reservoir of Loch Lyon in the west.
Few will be able to recall the name of this glen unprompted, but Gleann Mhiabhaig has a stark and dramatic beauty in the heart of the remote and wild mountains of Harris. This bare glen has a golden eagle observatory and is a gateway to some of Harris’ dramatic peaks – in the photo is the nose of Sron Scourst, an outlier of Uisgneabhal Mor.
Glen Nevis, Lochaber
Glen Nevis must rank amongst the most visited glens, leading up as it does from the town of Fort William and lying at the foot of the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
Glen Etive, Lochaber
Glen Coe’s lesser known neighbour was once for the connoisseurs, but achieved wider fame after featuring as a location in the hit film Skyfall. It’s unusual in that visitors usually enter the glen from its head near the Buachaille Etive Mor, from where the dead-end road runs down into the glen before ending at Loch Etive. Like several of these glens, the landscape here is set to be scarred by forthcoming hydro developments.
Glen Quoich, Cairngorms
Something of a twin to nearby Glen Derry in character, Glen Quoich has its own beautiful pinewood, visited by most walkers’ en route to the great mountain of Beinn a’ Bhuird at the head of the glen. A once unsightly bulldozed track up onto the ridge has been repaired through the careful work of the National Trust for Scotland, and the wild landscape here restored.
Glen Sligachan is as rugged and dramatic as anywhere in Scotland, bordered by the incomparable peaks of the Cuillin on the west side, and the Red Hills and Marsco on the other. The Skye Trail heads right through the glen from Sligachan to Camasunary en route to Elgol.
Strathdearn and the Upper Findhorn, Monadhliath
A strath in name only, the uppermost part of the River Findhorn has carved this beautiful and very long glen at the heart of the Monadhliath. It is perhaps more often visited by birdwatchers than walkers, with the golden eagles, peregrines and buzzards leading them to christen it ‘Raptor Alley’. The lower half of the glen is threaded by a tiny road, whilst the upper half is remote and can be reached only on foot.
Strontian Glen, Ardgour
The beautiful ancient oakwoods of Ariundle in the middle reaches of this glen make it perhaps the finest in this part of the Highlands. Higher up are the fascinating remains of the Strontian mines and – towering above – the great peak of Sgurr Dhomhnuill.
Glen Tilt runs far into the mountains of the Mounth from Blair Atholl in Perthshire, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. There is no public road up the glen but there are fine tracks and paths enabling rapid progress into wild country; higher up the glen the Falls of Tarf is a stunning spot which well repays the effort needed to reach it. The glen can be used as a through route to Glen Geldie, enabling backpackers to use it to head through to the Linn of Dee, Glen Feshie or even as a very long approach to the Lairig Ghru.
Glen Torridon, Ross-shire
For those learning to love Scotland’s landscapes for the first time, just the name of the region of Torridon is enough to excite the imagination. The great peaks on the north side of the glen give the area its great reputation, but the glen itself is splendid too, with a grandeur that rivals that of Glen Coe, added to some beautiful pinewood remnants near the great sea loch at the lower end.
Glen Affric, Inverness-shire
Few would dispute Glen Affric’s place in any list of the most beautiful glens, and many regard it as the finest of them all. The middle reaches are clothed magnificently with the glorious remnants of Scotland’s once-great Caledonian Forest, Loch Affric is a jewel amongst Scotland’s freshwater lochs, and the upper glen is guarded by some of the country’s wildest and grandest mountains. Winter or summer, Glen Affric is a place for superlatives. It’s well worth visiting Strathfarrar a couple of glens to the north as well.