The hidden Borders
Travellers have for years hurtled past the Scottish Borders, eyes on the prize that is the heart-stopping Highlands. But with UK holidaymakers swamping the traditional hotspots, it’s time to check out the southern hinterlands. The Borders mat not have the mighty Munros, but its softly rounded hills, wooded valleys, sleepy towns and ivy-tangled abbeys have their own magic.
In fact, the man whose romantic Highlands-set novels first sent the hordes galloping north, Sir Walter Scott, chose to live in the Borders. This year, Inntravel has two new self-guided walking holidays here. Its Hidden Scottish Borders four-night trip explores the lesser-known landscapes around pretty Peebles and Innerleithen, taking in 14th-century Neidpath Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots once stayed, the bosky banks of the River Tweed, stately 12th-century hunting lodge Traquair House and part of the Southern Upland Way.
• inntravel.co.uk, from £395pp including B&B accommodation, two dinners, map and luggage transfers, available from 17 May
Alternative road routes
The North Coast 500 may be Scotland’s answer to Route 66, but being catapulted into the limelight has its downside. During the summer, the bucket list road trip is booked up and busy, at times turning into one giant jam. There are less famous road trips, however, such as the SWC300 , a 300-mile circular route of Scotland’s south-west corner, and the NE250. This 250-mile loop of Scotland’s north-east is often overlooked but is just as spectacular. The route follows the Moray Firth coast with its quaint fishing villages (check out Portsoy and Cullen, known for Cullen Skink fish soup), dramatic cliffs and long sandy beaches, before rolling down the east coast towards Aberdeen and swinging inland to Royal Deeside. From here it skirts the eastern edge of the Cairngorms national park with its castles, malt whisky distilleries and snaking mountain passes.
• Moray Firth Camper & Caravan Hire has five nights’ hire of a “Blossom” VW T6 sleeping four from 25 August for £450 with unlimited mileage(five-day minimum hire)
Rural glamping in Galloway
Veering left after the border near Gretna Green brings you into Dumfries & Galloway. The south-west corner of Scotland is home to glamping pioneer Feather Down Farms’ latest addition. Near the southern tip of the Machars peninsula, Balnab Whithorn Farm, which opens in July, is a family-run dairy farm (there’s a raw milk dispenser in the honesty farm shop) with cattle, sheep, goats, hens and six rustic-chic safari lodge tents in a field. This low-lying headland jutting into the Solway Firth is peppered with standing stones, stone circles and historic coastal villages such as Isle of Whithorn, with its ancient harbour. The area is threaded with cycle trails and there are walking routes around the farm as well as clifftop paths and miles of sandy shore to explore.
• featherdown.co.uk, from £455 for a three-night stay for six in July
Sea kayaking, Sound of Arisaig
Paddle past hidden coves and drift into secluded sea lochs around the isles and inlets of the rugged west coast before pitching up on a remote sandy beach backed by machair, a carpet of wildflowers and grasses, for a night under canvas. Arisaig Sea Kayak Centre, which reopens on 26 April, organises two-, three- and five-day wild camping expeditions for groups of up to six. Paddlers eat dinner cooked over an open fire and share a dram as the sun sets and terns wheel overhead. The company also does longer trips such as a six-day Small Isles Expedition, paddling out past the Arisaig skerries to the islands of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna, eyes peeled for sea eagles, puffins, otters, dolphins and whales.
• arisaigseakayakcentre.co.uk, trips from £265pp, including equipment, food and guide. Check website for availability: eg, two-day trip 8 and 29 July; six-day Small Isles expedition 6 August
Open-water swimming, Hebrides
Wade out into the waves or slip into the water from the support boat, emerging salt-soaked after a coastline-hugging swim above billowing kelp forests from the island of Shuna to Luing, eyes peeled for deer on the clifftops and seals, minke whales and dolphins breaking the surface. A new trip from Swim Trek explores the sealife-rich waters around the southern Hebrides. Based at the Loch Melfort Hotel in Oban, the island-hopping swimming adventures leave from the local beach. The highlight is a heart-stopping crossing of the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a washing machine cycle of churning currents and choppy waves.
• swimtrek.com, four-day trip from £890pp including B&B accommodation, most meals and swimming guide, available 7-10 and 15-18 August
Hike or bike the Kintyre Way
Scotland’s classic long-distance trails – the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way, say – can be back-to-back backpackers in summer, but there are several lesser-known routes. The Kintyre Way, launched in 2006, is a 100-mile waymarked trail for walkers and cyclists that zigzags across the Kintyre peninsula from Tarbet in the north to Machrihanish in the south, on rough forestry tracks, open moorland and rocky shoreline with views to the isles of Arran, Gigha, Islay and Jura. Highlights include the pretty village of Carradale and far-flung castle-guarded Saddell Bay, where Paul McCartney shot the video for Mull of Kintyre. Download the route map from thekintyreway.com for a DIY option.
• Absolute Escapes has a seven-night self-guided trip on the Kintyre Way from £635pp B&B based on two sharing B&B, with baggage transfers and information pack. The company requires at least two weeks’ notice to organise a trip
Canoe the River Spey
The River Spey rises in the remote Monadhliath massif in the Highlands and flows through Insh Marshes nature reserve, Scotland’s largest upland floodplain, before gathering speed through the Cairngorms national park as it winds north to the Moray Firth. The Spey, known for its salmon fishing, is Scotland’s fastest-flowing river. Explore Highland has a range of off-the-beaten-track paddlesport adventures, including an open canoeing expedition down the Spey from source to sea, wild camping on the bank each night.
• explorehighland.com, four-night guided canoe trip from £440pp, including canoe and camping equipment, guide and transfers
The bothy, a simple mountain shelter, originally for farm workers, then for hikers, has had a makeover. With more travellers craving off-grid isolation, architect-designed huts are springing up in remote locations. The Inverlonan estate near Oban has two contemporary cabins on the shore of Loch Nell. There are two simple but sleek structures: black-clad Beatha, and Uisge, clad with corten weathering steel. Interiors are created from local ash, the shower’s outside, and the wifi is nonexistent. The rustic retreats are accessible only by boat, quadbike or on foot. As well as swimming in the loch, guests can use a double kayak, two paddleboards and lifejackets, and there’s a fishing rod under each bothy for catching (and cooking) brown trout or Arctic char. Explore the surrounding woodland, hike to a nearby stone circle, then sit by the fire and gaze up at the stars in glorious seclusion.
• inverlonan.com, from £300 for a two-night B&B break, very limited availability until October
Snorkel safari, Scapa Flow, Orkney
The Isle of Skye is on many travellers’ wishlists, thanks to its jaw-dropping landscape, its bridge to the mainland and the romantic tale of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight to freedom. But if you haven’t booked ahead in summer, you won’t find a bed. Luckily Scotland has more than 800 other islands and three main archipelagos to explore. Off the north coast, the Orkney Islands have history spanning 5,000 years, from neolithic sites such as Skara Brae to the two world wars. In 1919, more than 50 German ships were scuttled in Scapa Flow, the wrecks now one of the most famous and eerie dive sites in the world.
• Kraken Diving operates guided dives (from £90pp) and snorkel safaris above thewrecks (£, minimum two people), krakendiving.co.uk. Wheems Organic Farm on South Ronaldsay has bothies, bell tents and a yurt (from £35 a night) and tent/campervan pitches from £7 a night
Munro-bagging in Knoydart
Knoydart is often called one of the last great wildernesses. This rugged peninsula between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn on the west coast is wild, remote and inaccessible – which is its appeal. There is no road in; access is by foot, or small boat from Mallaig, terminus of the West Highland railway line. There is one tiny settlement, Inverie (with a pub, the Old Forge) and a population of about 120. Scottish Rock and Water does a four-day wilderness walking expedition into Knoydart, starting at Kinloch Hourn and trekking along the shore of Loch Huron to camp at Barrisdale Bay. Along the way there’s the chance to bag two of Knoydart’s three Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft): Ladhar Bheinn – after walking the Aonach Sgoilte ridge on the second day – and Mealle Buidhe.
• scottishrockandwater.com, from £340pp including tent, food and guide, available from 26 April-13 September