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Try a Great Trail

viewpointIN a message on Facebook someone recently asked about finding accommodation on the West Highland Way in June.

“The plan is to turn up each night along the Way and hope to get a room somewhere without booking in advance.”

It didn’t take long before an avalanche of response said “forget it.”

It was clear from all the comments that accommodation is extremely scarce on the West Highland Way in June. Some said they had tried to book rooms in January for a June trip but with little success.

My wife tried to book accommodation on the West Highland Way last May and eventually gave up. She took a tent instead and camped.

There is little doubt about the phenomenal success of the West Highland Way. It is justifiably one of the most popular walks in the world especially amongst first-timers, charity walkers and youth groups.

That popularity is understandable because it is possible to sleep in a soft bed almost every night and the route is well catered for by carry-your-bag type services but I find it a little sad that folk seem unaware that we have many more great multi-day walks in Scotland.

Blackrock Cottage on the West Highland Way

There are 26 different routes categorised Scotland’s Great Trails, nationally promoted (apparently) trails that are waymarked, largely off-road and with a wide range of visitor services.

In addition to those there are many more trails that have been devised and written up by enthusiasts, trails that for various reasons have not been adopted under the Great Trails scheme, so you really don’t have to suffer the overcrowding of the West Highland Way if you want to experience a great multi-day walk in Scotland.

The Great Glen Way from Inverness to Fort William, for example, is an ideal alternative to the West Highland Way. At just under 80 miles it is slightly shorter than the WHW but offers good transport arrangements at the start and finish.

A number of improvements have been made to the route in recent years, particularly by Forestry Scotland, that has really enhanced the scenic qualities of the route and there is plenty of accommodation en route for those who don’t want to carry a tent.

One of the new high route sections of the Great Glen Way above Loch Ness

The Rob Roy Way, from Drymen to Pitlochry, is also comparable in length and difficulty and takes the walker along a scenically diverse route through Stirlingshire and the Big Tree Country of Highland Perthshire and for something quite different think of heading south to hike the St Cuthbert’s Way from Lindisfarne to Melrose.

I think this is a hugely underrated route that offers some lovely walking through the Scottish Borders, areas that are rich in history and legend. And, again, you don’t have to carry a tent for accommodation.

Above Strath Tay on the Rob Roy Way

One excellent route that has not yet been adopted as an official Great Trail is the East Highland Way. For 82 miles it connects Fort William with Aviemore, in the very shadow of the Cairngorms and for much of the way it follows the route of the ancient Rathad nam Meirlach, the Robber’s or Cateran’s Road, once used by marauding clans from the west who were intent on stealing the cattle from the rich pastures of Moray.

In every respect this is as fine a route as the West Highland Way, beginning as it does in the shadow of Ben Nevis taking the walker through Spean Bridge, Tulloch, Feagour, Laggan, Newtonmore, Kincraig and Aviemore. The walking is easy, there is plenty of accommodation and the scenery is glorious. And if you’re travelling from the south you can catch a sleeper from Euston to Fort William for the start and take another sleeper south from Aviemore on completion of the route.

The East Highland Way is also a fine example of how you can vary a route if you can bare to shrug off the notion that you need a soft bed to sleep in each night. With a basic backpacking kit – tent, sleeping bag, mat, stove and some food, you can mix your accommodation between camping, bothies and B&B and really add something to the trip.

Loch Laggan on the East Highland Way

My own personal preference for the East Highland Way would be to walk up the length of Glen Nevis, head over the Tom an Eite watershed to the head of Loch Trieg and then make my way to Laggan via Loch Ossian, the Bealach Dubh of Ben Alder, Culra Bothy and down the River Pattack to Laggan, an infinitely finer route than the official one and one that is truly wild with only Loch Ossian Youth Hostel offering accommodation.

I guess the West Highland Way caters for a different market, those who don’t want to be burdened with carrying a pack, even though modern backpacking kit is extremely efficient and lightweight. I’ve heard some say they can’t afford a backpacking kit for a one-off trip but take the cost of seven nights accommodation and put that towards a lightweight kit and chances are that one-off trip could become a life-long passion, as thousands have discovered.

And with your own backpacking kit and an element of basic fitness your whole horizon changes. You then don’t have to be limited to B&B availability or official trails. You can mix and match trails, you can make up your own routes and all with the added bonus of camping in some remote and magnificent glen, well away from the crowds with only the wildlife for company. That’s surely got to be better than the hassle of trying to book accommodation on an overcrowded route during the busy months of the year.

There are full details of 32 long distance walks in Scotland – including several unofficial routes as well as official Great Trails intended for walkers – on our long distance walks page.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.