The Mountains In Scotland: A General Guide
Scotland is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular nations in Europe for hiking. The mountains in Scotland consist of hundreds of peaks which can just about all be climbed without too much technical difficulty, but provide a significant enough challenge to attract thousands of hikers every year.
Scotland is the most mountainous country in the United Kingdom by some distance. Under the definition of ‘mountain’, there are 725* in Scotland alone. These come in different categories which we’ll touch on soon.
*This number does change from time to time.
First, you may be asking the question: How do you define ‘mountain’?
Most of us probably just think about a tall mass of land which takes a hell of a lot of time to reach the top of. In Scotland, a mountain is anything greater than 2000 feet (610 metres). This is actually the dictionary definition of ‘mountain’ as well, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
The mountains are divided into three main categories:
Munros are the mountains with summits of over 3000 feet (914 metres). At the time of writing there are 282 of them, although the Scottish Mountaineering Club has been known to change that number from time to time.
Munros are the highest and, for the majority of keen hikers, the most climbed mountains in Scotland.
Over the last few decades, a common pastime has arisen which is commonly known as ‘munro bagging‘.
‘Munro bagging’ is the art reaching the peak of every munro.
Literally, that’s it. There’s nothing special or unique about it, it’s just been given this name over the years as more and more hikers seek to reach every single Munro peak.
If you’re super-fit then you can ‘bag’ up to 12 munros in one day. The most for an ‘average’ hiker would be the 7 munros on the South Glen Shiel Ridge.
If you’re not from Scotland then this might seem like a strange concept. However, it’s not uncommon for the adventurous Scots to strive to climb all of the 282 Munros in their lifetime.
Foreigners often get wind of this concept while visiting and this results in several further visits in order to bag all of the Munros.
Another interesting fact about the Munros is that every single one of them is situated in the Scottish Highlands. This means that if you happen to be on a ‘Munro bagging’ holiday, or just fancy climbing several in a weekend, then they are all relatively close together. You can do several treks where you bag from 2-7 Munros in one day. For the super fit, there are even treks which can take in as many as 12 peaks.
Corbetts are the mountains with summits of between 2500 and 3000 feet (762 – 914 metres). They also have a prominence of at least 500 feet (152 meters). At the time of writing, there are 222 Corbetts.
Corbetts can prove to be good training for those looking to tackle some munros but don’t feel that they are confident or fit enough yet.
Grahams are the mountains with summits of between 2000 and 2499 feet (610 and 762 metres). They also have a prominence of 490 feet (150 metres). At the time of writing, there are 221 Grahams.
As well as Corbetts, Grahams can also prove to be good training for munros.
This is actually only just the beginning of the nomenclature used to describe different peaks in the UK. There are also Donalds, Murdos, Hewitts, and Firths, as well as many more. In Scotland, however, the only ones you really need to worry about are the Munros, Corbetts and Grahams.
Don’t let the relatively small summits (in comparison to some of our European neighbours) fool you into thinking that the Munros are a straightforward climb.
There are some which can be treated as more of a walk than a hike and can be completed by just about anybody. This can be due to the fact that the ascent actually begins several hundred metres above sea level, or that they have a marked and very simple path to follow.
There are, however, several munros which are far out in the Scottish wilderness and a lot more demanding. It’s not uncommon to find yourself hiking over miles of deep moss and wading through rivers.
There’s also the added factor that, due to their isolation, various Munros can potentially require a walk of several miles before you even begin your ascent.
A huge factor in your success when it comes to completing Munros can also be what time of the year you decide to head out. This brings us on to our next point….
Scotland is famous for its unpredictable weather, which is often even more unpredictable when you’re out hiking. You can be enjoying endless views in glorious sunshine at the summit, but suddenly be met with gale force winds and horizontal rain on your decent. Or vice versa.
In winter, all of the Munros should be approached with a certain degree of caution. Mountaineering casualties are at their highest during the winter months in the Scottish mountains. Snowstorms can be brutal and the wind-chill factor makes the temperature feel several degrees lower.
In the depths of winter, you can see as little as 6 hours of sunlight in one day. You should plan your hikes accordingly and be prepared for it to get darker than expected in adverse weather conditions.
The most common accident is, believe it or not, the slip. Although it may seem like such a simple thing to avoid, this is the greatest cause of injury, and sometimes even death, while hiking in Scotland.
Avalanches are also a possibility, especially later in the winter when the snow has had more time to accumulate. It’s also recommended to stay off slopes a good 24 hours after extreme snowfall as this is when avalanches are most likely to occur.
When there is snow, you should take an ice axe and crampons even if you feel like it’s unlikely that you’ll need them. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Even at lower altitudes, the weather can turn nasty very quickly, never underestimate the weather in Scotland and always make sure that you are sufficiently equipped.
The summer in Scotland is undoubtedly the most popular time to go ‘munro bagging’ or just hiking in general. On a clear day, you are greeted with stunning views which often consist of rolling mountains as far as the eye can see.
In the height of summer, the days can be as long as 18 hours which gives plenty of time to explore the vast wilderness. If you plan on wild camping in Scotland then this is the optimum time of year. You can basically camp on any piece of unenclosed land in the country, as long as you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The mountain is literally yours!
This is also when wildlife is at its most active in Scotland so keep your eyes peeled for deer, mountain hares, badgers, the golden eagle and much more.
For those of you used to scorching summer temperatures, you’ll be pleased to know that this is a rarity in Scotland. There are very few days of the year which could be deemed as unbearable, with most summer days averaging between 15 and 22 degrees Celsius (59 – 72 Fahrenheit).
Again it has to be stressed, the weather in Scotland is unpredictable at any time of the year. Calm and tranquil conditions can change very, very quickly.
Autumn And Spring
Autumn and spring are generally the more unpredictable of the four seasons. This means that you really can have a whole week of glorious sunshine and then, shortly after, temperatures will be down to single figures or maybe even negatives.
Autumn is traditionally a drier season in Scotland (this should be taken with a pinch of salt), but you should prepare yourself for rain and potentially very cold days.
This cold and sometimes frosty feeling is often accompanied by wall-to-wall blue skies. The transition of the trees going from their summer green to winter bareness leads to swathes of beautiful orange and yellow foliage.
Spring can often boast great weather in Scotland which can often be even better than the summer. It’s also a spectacular time of the year as the trees and flowers burst into bloom following a generally bleak winter. This bloom tends to be accompanied by a lot of rain (a good thing of course!), so it’s important to dress accordingly.
The best resource for keeping up to date with the weather in Scotland and in the Scottish mountains is by using the Met Office App. Check out my detailed review here.
The need for equipment in the mountains of Scotland really depends on your level and what you’re into. If you are a beginner, or simply just don’t fancy taking lots of gear, then you really can take the bare minimum in plenty of the Scottish mountains throughout the summer months. I have even done a munro with my shorts and t-shirt even though I wouldn’t really recommend this. That was in the middle of summer on an exceptionally good day. For those who enjoy hiking in more challenging conditions (such as the winter) then you really will need to be prepared. Scotland can be brutal and the weather can change for the worst very quickly. Every year there are several casualties in the Scottish mountains and sadly the vast majority of these are down to the hikers being ill-prepared.
The equipment list really could go on and on, especially if you’re advanced and into technical climbing but below I have listed the fundamentals for summer and winter hiking in Scotland. Please note that in both cases it’s always recommended that you notify somebody close to you exactly where you are going and roughly when you expect to get back.
For a good summer’s day hike in the Scottish mountains you’ll definitely need:
- Decent boots.
- Comfortable walking trousers.
- Warm layers (yes, even in summer).
- Rain jacket.
- Map/GPS (ideally both)
- Plenty of food & water.
- Sun cream.
If you’re heading out in the winter then, in addition to the above, you’ll need:
- Ice axe.
- Headtorch with spare batteries.
- External phone charger.
- Thermal base-layer on your upper and lower body.
- More calorie dense foods.
- Hat & Gloves (thermal).
- Extra warm layers (prepare to remove and put on layers according to the weather changes).
Please be aware that winter hiking in Scotland is a different ball game altogether. Conditions are often arctic and deadly requiring lots of pre-planning and adequate preparation. Before taking to the Scottish mountains in the winter (especially alone) then I recommend that you go on a winter navigation course. These are available in the majority of outdoor centres in Scotland and are well worth the investment if you’re keen on hiking year-round.
When you reach the summit of most Scottish mountains you’ll find a pile of stones which is called a ‘cairn’.
The highest point will almost always have a cairn, the vast majority of them are very large and cannot be missed.
Please be aware that on a lot of munros there are some false summits which do have cairns, so before assuming that you’ve finished make sure and check that you’re at the highest point!
So the final question is: Are the mountains in Scotland worth visiting?
If you’re a Scot then you’ll already have known before reading this article that the answer is yes.
If you’re contemplating a visit then I hope that this article has been able to provide some useful information and confirmed to you that you should definitely visit!
As always, thanks a lot for reading and please leave any comments below! 😀