Explore Scotland’s rich and diverse mountain landscape

22 Apr 2022

Written by Alan Rowan, from Munro Moonwalker

Scotland may be relatively small but there are few countries that can come anywhere close to boasting such a rich and varied mountain landscape.

Every area is dramatically different, each staking a legitimate claim to a unique beauty. One day you can be wandering across the high, rolling plateaux of the Cairngorms drinking in forever views, the next weaving a narrow passage through ragged rock towers on the ancient giants of Torridon.

Then there's the long and winding multi-peak ridges of the big glens in the west; the razor-sharp summits of Skye's Black Cuillin; the empty lands of the far north where each lonely mountain seems to have exploded vertically from nowhere; the rough, tough terrain of the Southern Uplands.

The highest Scottish mountains – those summits reaching 914.4 metres or more – are known as Munros. Named after Sir Hugh Munro, who first compiled a list of hill heights in 1891, the quest to climb all 282 has become the holy grail for many hillwalkers. The journey to completion will take them the length and breadth of the country, from Ben Lomond in the south to Ben Hope in the far north and everywhere in between.

Ben Nevis sits at the top of the pile, high and mighty above Fort William, the constant draw for thousands of walkers every year. Glen Nevis is an ideal base that also allows access to many more fine mountains, including the Mamores, a chain of peaks linked by high ridges along the southern side of the glen.

1A Nevis Alan Rowan
The imposing north face of Ben Nevis

The defining image of the Scottish hills, though, is more likely that of Buachaille Etive Mor, the majestic rocky pyramid that rises out of Rannoch Moor at the gateway to Glen Coe, where soaring, precipitous slopes, replete with dripping crags and surging waterfalls, crowd in on both sides of the road. You don't have to venture far to feel you are in the heart of the mountains.

2 Glencoe Alan Rowan
Buachaille Etive Mor at the entrance to Glen Coe

The long glens of Affric, Mullardoch and Strathfarrar to the west of the fault line of the Great Glen are a mountain walker's dream, undulating ridges stretching over multiple peaks, the east to west approach leading you toward beautiful sunsets.

3A West Highlands Alan Rowan
The approach to Beinn Fhada in the North-west Highlands

Glen Shiel is another of these wonderful passes, twisting and squeezing through a profusion of sweeping mountain slopes, including the seven-Munro South Shiel Ridge and the celebrated Five Sisters of Kintail. A high pass, the Mam Ratagan, leads over into Glenelg where the dramatic scree sheets of Beinn Sgritheall await along with a glimpse of the tantalising delights of the remote hills of the Knoydart peninsula beyond.

3C Glen Shiel Alan Rowan
Looking to A’Chraileag and the Glen Shiel mountains
3B Knoydart Alan Rowan
The jewel of Knoydart, Ladhar Bheinn, on the horizon

Heading further north-west, the landscape becomes dominated by giants that are less inter-connected, each more akin to mini-mountain ranges, such as the Torridon trio of Liathach, Beinn Eighe and Beinn Alligin, or the Tolkienesque An Teallach with its tilting spires and bold rock towers.

4 Torridon Alan Rowan
The ancient rock ramparts of Liathach in Torridon
5 An Teallach Alan Rowan
The spires of mighty An Teallach in the North-West

Beyond lie Coigach and Assynt, the shapes becoming even more outrageous with every mile. Munros are few and far between here, but despite the more modest heights, the rugged character of the hills such as Suilven, Canisp and little Stac Pollaidh more than make amends.

6 Far North Alan Rowan
Suilven rises out of the landscape in the far north

The theme of alluring emptiness continues into the far north, passing the great scree slopes of Foinaven where you can hear the mountain slowly crumbling under your feet, and into the ancient landscape of Sutherland where lone peaks such as Ben Hope and beautiful Ben Loyal stand proud amidst an extensive carpet of rock and water.

You don't have to stay on the mainland for your mountain thrills: there are plenty of superb peaks spread throughout the islands. Skye offers the toughest test of all, with 11 of its 12 Munros strung along the arc of the notoriously jagged Cuillin Ridge, where every part of the body will likely be put to use at some point. For those wanting something a little less challenging, the summits of the neighbouring Red Cuillin may be a better bet.

7 Skye Alan Rowan
Skye’s Black Cuillin skyline from Sgurr Alasdair

Nearby Rum also boasts a fine mountain circuit to rival Skye, while Mull has the only other offshore Munro, Ben More, and a host of smaller hills which provide rough walking and sensational views. Further south, Arran is a walkers' paradise with a cluster of fine peaks.

Meanwhile, a traverse of the Outer Hebrides will take you from the hills of Harris, where you can gaze down on beaches of white sand and turquoise water, to the Beinn Mhor group on South Uist with its uninterrupted view over lochan-studded terrain to the endless blue of the Atlantic.

The eastern side of the country is dominated by the sprawling landscape of the Cairngorms, a mountain massif consisting of high plateaux, deep glens, huge cliffs and scalloped corries, split by two high passes, the Lairig Ghru and Lairg an Laoigh. The sheer scale is breathtaking: the walking distances are long but the path network is excellent, the ever expanding vistas unforgettable.

8 Cairngorms Alan Rowan
The mountain landscape of Loch Avon in the Cairngorms

Our connection trickles along Deeside to mighty Lochnagar and downward to the gentler glens of Angus where you can follow in the footsteps of the old cattle drovers on historic rights of way that wind their way through and over the high land. The more rounded hills may look less fearsome and dramatic than their western counterparts but they hold a savage beauty all of their own and should not be underestimated: it can be easy to get caught out here when the weather turns.

The drama continues in the south-west, where the rugged Arrochar Alps refuse to give an inch, every peak having to be scaled from sea level, and the tough little hills of the Trossachs, heather and boulder slopes tucked in amongst a delightful patchwork of lochs and forests.

And don't forget the hills of Galloway and the Borders, a landscape that perfectly encapsulates its turbulent and bloody history, deceptive terrain as rough and challenging as anywhere in the country. 

9 Borders Alan Rowan
The Merrick rising above Galloway’s rough rolling terrain

North, south, east, west: there are jewels to be found at every point of the compass. Scotland's mountains have a wonderful diversity that covers the full 360 degrees.

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