Fort William sits nestled beneath the rugged peaks of the Northwest Highlands, with Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, a constant fixture over the town. Each year it celebrates everything great about the outdoors and wild mountain culture through art, photography, film, workshops and well known names in the world of adventure at The Fort William Mountain Festival.
This year I was invited to experience some of what the festival has to offer and also to explore what else there is to do in Fort William in the winter. As it turns out there is a surprising amount of ways to fill your time (you can read some of my recommendations here) and combining a winter break with some of the festival events meant I enjoyed a diverse range of activities during my three days there.
I got my first feel for the festival at the launch night which officially kicked off with a torch-lit descent of Aonach Mor on ski, board and mountain bike before everyone gathered in the warmth of The Pinemartin Cafe at the Nevis Range. Here we were treated to a series of short films and talks before providing an audience for the BBC's Adventure Show live with presenters Dougie Vipond, Cameron McNeish and Michael Stewart keeping us entertained with their witty banter. I also have to give a special shout out to the Scottish stovies served up during the interval, they were amazing!
When winter arrives in Scotland I always find myself drawn north to the Highlands. The mountains seem that bit bigger with their snowy peaks than they do with their green summer coats; the quiet loch surfaces reflect the landscape like mirrors and although many attractions close their doors for some seasonal respite, a whole new world of outdoor adventure opens up.
One of the best places to base yourself for what is arguably the most spectacular Scottish season, is Fort William. The town is the beating heart of the Lochaber region, dubbed the Outdoor Capital of the UK due to the large number of adventurous activities available. While it is popular with tourists in the summer, the area also has plenty to offer visitors in the off-peak season. I visited in February and easily filled the 3 days I spent there, so here are 10 of my recommendations for winter activities in the Fort William area and you might be glad to know not all of them involve being outdoors!
1. Skiing and Snowboarding
One of the most popular winter pastimes in Fort William is a trip to go skiing or snowboarding at the Nevis Range just outside of the town. With an extensive network of graded runs and the off-piste expanse of the Back Corries all under the shadow of Ben Nevis, it is easy to see why this is a popular haunt for snow-sport lovers. It is also the newest resort in Scotland and if taking to the slope on skis is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different, the Nevis Range also offers other fun winter activities including sledging, snowshoeing and even snow biking.
Alternatively, Glencoe Mountain Resort, Scotland's oldest resort can be reached in under an hour by car from Fort William.
Both resorts provide lessons and equipment hire, so even complete beginners can turn up and have some fun on the slopes.
2. Wildlife Spotting
If you want to spot the Scottish big five (golden eagle, red deer, red squirrel, common seal and European otter), Fort William and the surrounding area is one of the few places in Scotland that offers the possibility of seeing all five in one day.
Of course it always helps to have an expert on hand to point you in the right direction and a guided wildlife safari with Ian MacLeod from Wild West will not only greatly improve your chances of seeing these iconic species for yourself but also teach you about the history, culture, language and geology of the region.
Thanks to Ian I discovered a great spot that has been set up especially for watching red squirrels just next to the car park at Glen Righ. I have driven by there on the way to Fort William so many times without realising this wee hidden wildlife gem existed, needless to say I will be stopping off there in the future.
Being situated in the Outdoor Capital of the UK, it is not surprising that the walking possibilities around Fort William are only limited by your imagination. Although winter hill-walking requires some experience and equipment, there are plenty of low level walks that will reward you with stunning snowy mountain vistas and walking around Fort William you are never far from a great view of Ben Nevis towering over the town.
My personal favourite winter walk is through Glen Nevis to Steall Falls, you can read about that and a couple of walks I did in the area here.
The Outdoor Capital website also has a selection of recommended walks for different abilities and if that's not enough the nearby Nevis Range has 25 miles of forest trails to explore.
As a Scottish travel blogger I often get asked for advice when people are making plans to visit Scotland and this usually inspires me to write a blog post on a place or experience that will help to answer some of those queries. However there is one place that I get asked about more than any other and that is Glencoe.
A rugged, dramatic and at times hostile environment, not surprisingly many of you find the thought of exploring it on foot an intimidating one and worry that it is only accessible to accomplished climbers and mountaineers.
One of the most common questions I get asked about is suggestions for easy trails for those with little or no hiking experience, so I wanted to share with you three of my favourite simple but rewarding walks in the area. For me, being among the mountains and forests brings the scenery to life as you start to notice the sounds of rushing water, smell the scent of pine and find yourself encompassed by the brooding atmosphere. It truly is a landscape that makes you feel small and you can't help but feel humbled and in awe at the power of Mother Nature. The best way to appreciate it is on foot, exposing yourself to all it's wonderful, powerful and strangely magical elements.
Can you tell how much I love this place?!
So here are my 3 favourite easy but rewarding Glencoe walks
1, Glencoe Lochan
Glencoe Lochan is an oasis of tranquility hidden away below the mammoth mountains. On the outskirts of Glencoe village this idyllic little spot was planted and modelled to resemble a Canadian landscape by a previous Canadian owner after his wife became homesick.
This is one of my favourite places in the area, the reflections of the mountains and trees in the still water make this a great spot for taking beautiful photographs.
The circular route around the Lochan is flat and easy, with longer woodland trails for those that want to explore further. There is an option to take a higher level route signposted 'mountain path' but to be honest the mature trees now block any view that would have previously made the effort worthwhile and the flat walk around the Lochan is visually the most rewarding.
This peaceful place makes a perfect relaxing escape from the contrast of the wilder landscape that surrounds it. An easy walk for all levels of fitness and mobility through some of the prettiest scenery.
The main reason I started this travel blog was to inspire people to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions and uncover Scotland's hidden gems that without doubt deserve more attention. After a lifetime spent travelling around my home country, I have built up a pretty good knowledge of amazing places that often get missed out in the usual guide books and remain largely undiscovered.
One of those hidden gems is Glenelg, a small village on the west coast, overlooking the Kyle Rhea, a strait which separates the mainland from Skye. Just a 30 minute detour from the hoards of sightseers at Eilean Donan Castle and you will find an area bursting with rich scenery and history, yet largely devoid of tourists.
If you are planning to head along the north west coast towards Skye between Easter and October, I highly recommend avoiding the road bridge and diverting along the more stunning but lesser known route to the island and taking the ferry from the 'Original Gateway to Skye'.
If you need more convincing than just my word to abandon the typical tourist trail, here are 6 reasons that might persuade you...
p.s please excuse any raindrops on the photos as the day I visited it would have been drier standing under a waterfall!
1. The Mam Ratagan Pass
Leave the tourist route behind and follow the Mam Ratagen Pass from Sheil Bridge to Glenelg and you are immediately rewarded with one of the most stunning drives in the country. Climbing to a height of over 1100ft and navigating a few hairpin bends along the way only add to the experience and your prize for taking the road less travelled is superb vistas towards the Five Sisters of Kintail and Loch Duich.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a scenic drive, however you are following an important historic pass which was the original route to Skye, used firstly by drovers heading south with their cattle which they swam across the Kyle Rhea strait, then a military road was built by General Caulfield to reach the barracks at Glenelg before being rebuilt by Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and upgraded again in the 1980s.
With most people now reaching Skye by the main road bridge, relatively few people travel over the pass and many are unaware or have forgotten it's previous historical importance as the main highway connecting the island and the mainland.
2. The Glenelg Inn
To celebrate your arrival in the village or to grab a refreshment between your explorations, you should head to the cosy Glenelg Inn for some traditional Highland hospitality. I love the quirky decor in the bar area and it has a great reputation for locally sourced food.
if you time it right you can also catch some live music and in the winter you can sit by the roaring fire.
I would personally love to stay the night here at some point and spend more time exploring the area and relaxing with a whisky while admiring the views to Skye.
3. Iron-Age Brochs
Follow the road from the village to the twin Iron-Age broch towers, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Standing over 10m high and over 2000 years old, they are the best preserved brochs on the mainland.
Many of the original features including internal staircases still exist and it is fascinating to stand inside and imagine the life of the people that occupied them thousands of years before when the area would have been a more hostile place.
Brochs are circular drystone towers, found mainly in the north and western coastal regions of Scotland. They are thought to have been fortified dwellings with some defensive function and built as a display of status and wealth.
Whenever I visit places like this I always wonder how many modern structures will still be standing in hundreds never mind thousands of years time and can't help but be impressed at the skill of the builders who created such simple yet sturdy constructions that have lasted many, many lifetimes.
4, The Bernera Barracks
The Bernera Barracks were the last of four Highland forts built at strategic points by the Hanoverian Government to garrison soldiers after the Jacobite risings of the early 1700s. Able to house up to 200 soldiers it was positioned to control the crossing from Skye at Kyle Rhea.
Construction began in 1719 and It is thought that stone from the nearby brochs was used in the building of the barracks which continued to be utilised as a military base until 1797 by which time it was already falling in to ruin. By 1800 the rooms were available to rent for a pound per year and by 1830 it was used as a poorhouse and subsequently by victims of the Highland Clearances.
Although a substantial part of this atmospheric structure still stands, it is currently fenced off for safety reasons.
You can read about days 1 to 3 of my adventure here.
Sitting on the southern tip of Loch Ness, the small population of Fort Augustus is buoyed during the summer months as a stop off for travellers heading along the busy road between Fort William and Inverness, although I suspect just as many drive by unaware of the charms this little hamlet conceals.
Previously named Cill Chuimein, it is a pretty settlement with shops and pubs lining either side of 5 locks that link Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal. After the Jacobite Uprising in 1715, a fort was built here and the village was renamed Fort Augustus after Prince William Augustus, better known as the Duke (or Butcher) of Cumberland. Later the village was famous for it's Benedictine Abbey which closed in 1993 and although the historic complex is still standing today, it now comprises self catering holiday apartments and cottages.
With day 4 providing rain and a free morning to explore Fort Augustus and the only real civilistaion you pass through on the trip, I opted for some retail therapy and picked up some pretty Scottish made gifts from the lovely Coopers on the canal-side.
In the afternoon the all too familiar 'options' were presented and I chose to cycle the 8 miles to our next stop at Loch Oich. Following the canal towpath for the first 5 miles, the tranquility was immediate with bands of trees muffling any noise from the not too distant road. The low hanging cloud on the hills provided an atmospheric backdrop as the rain once again began to fall steadily, creating expanding ring-shaped patterns across the normally glassy canal surface.
Crossing over the road just by Cullochy Lock, the path then follows the old railway line along the shores of Loch Oich. The new track started off smoothly enough until a navigational error saw me leave the tarmacked path and head off road along a more challenging route. I could have rejoined the surfaced cycle track but to be honest I was having much more fun bumping along over the boulders and tree roots!
Ros Crana was just pulling up to moor in Loch Oich for the night as I arrived at our rendezvous point. Shore pick ups and drop offs by RIB were a common occurrence during the week and usually carried out by Lucy, our bosun. Lucy was our final crew member along with Swampy, Chris and Tree and when not maintaining the boat, throwing ropes or guiding the Skipper, she was always there to offer a confident hand to those without sea-legs as we unsteadily manouvered in and out of various vessels.
The earlier rain had long disappeared as I stepped back on board and took in our new surroundings. For me, Loch Oich was the most stunning overnight location of the trip. Straight off a shortbread tin or tourism campaign, it is the Scottish Highlands at it's most romantic and mysterious.
As several of us sat out on deck the encompassing trees and hillsides reflected perfectly in the water, the rutting bellow of a stag surrounded by his hinds on a nearby ridge echoed eerily through the air and a mysterious layer of wispy mist began to rise from the loch surface like an emerging water spirit.
As day turned to night, the stars appeared from the darkness with the Milky Way streaking overhead and the deep roars from the testosterone filled stags could still be heard in the distance.
I was more than aware that our rewarding experience was only possible thanks to our advantageous ability to moor out in the loch; a captivated audience to the best show that nature could put on.
Day 5 dawned and it was time to take to the water again, this time on a gentle canoe trip to explore rusting, abandoned boats and to land on an old causeway, normally submerged, but thanks to the low water levels once again providing a solid link between the shore and an island formed by old crannogs.
Our canoeing party of 6 had mixed experience levels from complete beginner to competent and with my last kayak lesson taking place 25 years ago, I very much classed myself in the beginner category. My partner in canoe crime was slightly more accomplished, having had his first (albeit only) tuition 3 days previous, I was confident that with some guidance from our instructor Chris, we would make a dream team!
I absolutely loved canoeing and I learned some useful tips which will remain with me for the future
It's an unseasonably warm October's day and I'm standing on the deck of Ros Crana, a colourful Belgian barge which is gliding almost silently down the deep, glassy channel of the Caledonian Canal towards Loch Ness. The surrounding Highland landscape looks twice as imposing with the autumnal colours reflected on the mirror like surface and the crisp air carries a hushed soundtrack of birdsong as we leisurely motor along.
The carbon copy clouds floating lazily on the inky water have a hypnotising effect and only the occasional surface bubble from a hidden fish breaks my trance like state.
I'm on day 2 of a week long cruise through the Great Glen with Caledonian Discovery and I'm already wondering if life can get any better than this; sun, scenery, stillness and Scotland.
There are many ways to explore the Highlands of Scotland and a boat may not be the first mode of transport that springs to mind, mainly because not many people realise that it is a viable option.
A trip along the Caledonian Canal will take you from coast to coast through the Great Glen, a Highland wilderness with satisfyingly spectacular scenery. A long straight valley which slices the Scottish Highlands in two, it is home to imposing mountains, native pine forests, tumbling waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and steeped in clan and Jacobite history.
Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath. The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument. The 60 mile long route connects four lochs with man-made waterways and during it's construction, provided much needed employment to those struggling after the Highland Clearances.
Nowadays the area is frequented by pleasure craft and outdoor enthusiasts with options to walk, cycle or canoe along the alluring setting of the canal.
After my week travelling it's length from Inverness to Banavie near Fort William I can confidently say that Caledonian Discovery have devised a unique Classic Cruise that provides a rewarding Highland adventure by land and water which really gets you off the beaten track to uncover the hidden gems away from the tourist traps.
'Options' becomes a familiar word during the trip. While you could choose to stay on board and watch the world go by for a week, you really would be missing out on immersing yourself in the variety of landscape that Scotland has to offer. Daily 'options' are weather dependent but include a mix of sailing, canoeing, cycling and walking which are suitable for all levels of fitness and experience (or lack of experience!).
We had barely motored out of Inverness on day 1 when we were confronted with our first 'options' and I chose to leave the city behind on a flat 5 mile cycle along the canal towpath before meeting up with the barge again at the next lock.
Rust tinted trees and frosty cobwebs lined my route, a constant reminder that autumn had arrived. The traffic noise from Inverness gradually began to fade away, replaced by the occasional put-put of a passing boat and a sense of escape from the urban hustle and bustle began to wash over me. Pedaling casually along the canal-side, my anticipation of a new adventure ahead increased with each rotation of the wheel and by the time I had reached our destination for the night at Dochgarroch Lock I was looking forward to settling into my new home for the week.
My latest #SYHAdventure may only have involved a journey of less than 55 miles but I assure you that it is a road-trip that should be on every Scotland travel bucket list and is up there with any adventure!
The SYHA in Torridon stands nestled between the water of Upper Loch Torridon and the foot of the mighty Liathach, rated by many climbers and hill-walkers as Scotland's finest mountain. As this was my third #SYHAdventure I was getting used to the fact that Scottish Youth Hostels are inevitably situated in some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring locations in Scotland and Torridon didn't fail to live up to my new high expectations.
With an outdoor paradise on the doorstep it was tempting to lace up my boots and venture off on my usual walking expeditions but I had an even bigger temptation on this excursion and it involved jumping behind the wheel and heading off on a road-trip.
Despite only being officially launched 2 months ago, the North Coast 500 has been creating a huge buzz in the global travelsphere and has already been listed as one of the top coastal road-trips in the world by Travel Now magazine and has been dubbed Scotland's own Route 66.
Split into 6 route sections, Torridon SYHA very handily sits midway along the Wester Ross segment and makes an ideal base for those undertaking this breathtaking and adrenaline pumping section, as this part of the route encompasses the notorious Bealach Na Ba (pronounced Bay-Lach-Na-Ba and means Pass of the Cattle).
WHAT TO DO IN TORRIDON
I started my adventure in the pretty little village of Torridon which is dwarfed by some spectacularly huge mountains and sits on the edge of Loch Torridon. It would be easy to drive through thinking that such a small place might not have much to offer but looks can be deceiving and delve a little deeper and you will find plenty to keep you occupied.
The modern community centre has a surprisingly large display of local arts and crafts for sale, in fact it is one of the best ranges of handmade Scottish products that I have found anywhere outside of a craft market and an ideal place to pick up an authentic souvenir of your trip while supporting the local economy.
Torridon sea tours offer a range of excursions from the nearby village of Sheildaig which take you wildlife spotting on half-day trips around the loch or full-day adventures to some of the remote isles.
The nearby Torridon Inn not only serves delicious local produce but offers bike hire and an assortment of outdoor activities including canoeing, archery, rock climbing and gorge scrambling. If that's not enough to keep you busy then the walking options, wildlife watching and dramatic scenery will!
I stayed in one of the dog friendly private rooms at the Youth Hostel and although not en-suite it did have it's own sink and was clean and comfortable. After travelling for more than a week it was great to make use of the washing and drying facilities and to finally have a choice of fresh, clean clothes.
A large well equipped self catering kitchen allows easy cooking and a choice of heat your own meals are available to purchase in case you didn't realise that rather surprisingly there are no supermarkets in the remote Highlands!
The social interaction is one thing I have really enjoyed on my SYHA trips and finding out what has brought my fellow hostelers to the area. In Torridon I was surprised at the mix of nationalities and found out most of them were also there on a scenic Highland road-trip or cycling adventure.
As Torridon SYHA has an alcohol licence and two panoramic lounges where you can relax and watch the wildlife and landscape, there is every reason to spend your evening chilling out there. However, for those wanting to eat out or venture to the pub, I highly recommend the nearby Torridon Inn which is also dog friendly.
I drove anti-clockwise along the coastal road from Torridon following the breathtaking route to Applecross before negotiating the steep and sharp narrow curves of Bealach Na Ba, an unmissable driving experience although not for the faint-hearted!
My first stop was at the village of Shieldaig which dates back to 1800 and and is mainly comprised of a row of pretty whitewashed cottages sitting on the shore of Loch Shieldaig. A short distance out in the loch rises the distinctive Sheildaig Island, clad in Scots pine trees and home to a pair of nesting sea eagles. A birders paradise, look out for a thoughtful set of binoculars fixed on the shore allowing you to zoom in for a close up.
The best views of the village, island and loch are definitely from further along the road as it rises up the hillside and the little cottages shrink to toy size!
As you travel further along the route look out for the well photographed cottage with the red roof and try not to be too envious of their view!
One question I am asked over and over again is about the best way to see a lot of Scotland in a short space of time. I always recommend small group tours as they are economical, take you to the most popular tourist sites and the guides keep you informed and entertained as you sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Most people coming to Scotland want to visit the Highlands, even if they are on a city break. If you only have a day to spare then you are pretty restricted in where you can visit as transport in the Highlands is limited and being such a vast area means that unless you have a car seeing much of it in a day is impossible. This is where group tours come into their own as you can explore large parts of the country in hours rather than days.
Rabbie's is one of the most popular small group tour operators in Scotland and I really enjoyed taking a day tour with them last year to visit Stirling, Loch Lomond and Glengoyne whisky distillery. Deciding it was time to check out a different route, I opted for their longest day tour which takes you all the way from Glasgow to Loch Ness and back in 12 hours. This is the ultimate day tour if you want to go Nessie hunting or admire many of the mountain peaks and lochs of Scotland.
An early start in Glasgow and I was joined by a full bus of fellow tourists from countries as diverse as Brazil, China, India and the Netherlands. There were also a few tourists from closer to home including a couple of fellow Glaswegians. As we left the city behind and headed along the open road past Loch Lomond, I enjoyed watching the faces of my fellow passengers light up as they got their first glimpse of the mountain and loch scenery that Scotland is famous for. With the fitting soundtrack of Runrig and Loch Lomond being played as we rolled along, our driver/guide Tony regaled us with tales of Jacobites, Sir Walter Scott and some trivia about the many islands that are dotted around the loch itself.
Several suitably picturesque photo stops later and we were entering into the impressive landscape of Glencoe. This is the reason many people choose to take this particular trip and phones, cameras and tablets were being well utilised to capture the famous panorama. There was also much excitement among the group when we were able to get out of the bus and up close to a herd of red deer thanks to our knowledgeable driver.
With the weather haunting and gloomy we learned the history behind the notorious Glencoe massacre which had taken place that very same day in 1692 making our visit there all the more poignant.
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