Backpacking around Scotland without a car – My firsthand experience

My name is Anirudh and I’m one of the VisitScotland Community Ambassadors (Horizons@ on the VisitScotland iKnow community forum). I’ve lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for 3.5 years now and I have done all of my travel around Scotland by public transport. My single longest trip across the country was an epic 4-week camping and backpacking adventure in the summer of 2016 where I covered the area highlighted on the map below.

campingTrip

I embarked on my solo adventure as part of a work sabbatical to not only reach parts of Scotland that I normally couldn’t on my typical week-long trips but also to learn some practical life skills. I had actually never camped before this trip and threw myself into the deep end. The trip was a transformative experience and I’ll share how I executed my trip, the resources I used, the highlights and lowlights of my trip and some of the favourite places that I got to visit. You can find detailed reports of the trip broken down by day on this blog category.

How I executed my trip

  • The only planning I had done before the trip is making a list of the places that I deemed as a must-see through the month. This list included areas like Orkney, Torridon, Isle of Harris, Isle of Skye and Islay.
  • The other key piece of research I did pre-trip was confirming that one can usually get a pitch in any managed campsite as long as they had a small tent and no car (including on the Isle of Skye). This is the key reason I decided to keep camping and using public transport as the two core elements of my trip.

    skyeCamping

    A Skye summer sunrise: no pre-booking needed

  • As the Scottish weather is unpredictable, I spent the entire trip chasing good weather as long as it led me to check off one of the areas off my list. As an example, I had planned to kick off my trip at the Glentrool campsite in Dumfries and Galloway but saw on the train up to Glasgow that the region was being battered by a storm. So I looked up the Scottish weather forecast for the next 2 days and switched up my destination to Newtonmore in the Cairngorms National Park to spend two sunny days in the area.
  • The predictable consequence of chasing the weather is that I had to cross most of the country 3 distinct times to get to a location on my list with good weather. The longest one of these Scotland crossings involved me getting to Stromness, Orkney from Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. On the plus side, this crossing helped me see my first Highland games at Inverness.

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    A rousing pipe band performance at the Inverness Highland Games

  • My campsite checkout process was down to a science, I’d start 2 hours before the scheduled transport departure from the nearest stop, take 30 minutes to an hour to pack my backpack and start walking to the bus stop/train station. I needed to walk half a mile on average and it takes more time than usual while carrying a 12 kg backpack. I recommend buying all tickets on the bus or on the train (unless the ticket office is open). I do not recommend the Spirit of Scotland travelpass (review).

Key resources that I used during the trip

  • BBC Weather to find the next destination with good weather
  • Google Maps to find optimal public transport schedules.
  • UK Campsite to find managed campsites close to public transport.
  • WalkHighlands to find hikes I want to do within my fitness level constraints.
  • Two SIM cards (one 3 and one GiffGaff) to maximize data plan coverage to access maps and weather forecasts from campsites.
  • £15 worth in coins and £40 in notes at all times. The coins would help me use coin-operated hot showers, pay bus fares and operate laundry machines. The notes would help me pay campsite fees as many of them didn’t have card machines.
  • My trusty Nikon DSLR camera, a waterproof camera bag, and a 20K mAH battery pack. It is imperative to charge your battery pack at any opportunity you get.
  • All the camping gear mentioned in my post about how to get into camping and backpacking

Trip highlights and lowlights

+ I was able to visit many of my favourite distilleries (mostly on Islay) for the first time. Using public transport really helps in visiting distilleries on back-to-back days as the responsibility of driving is in the hands of the bus driver.

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+ I got to see the beauty of Scotland in all its glory – the rugged landscapes of Torridon, the stone age artifacts on Orkney, the sandy beaches on the Road to the Isles and so much more while learning a new life skill (camping). I even got to visit the Ring of Brodgar in 26C temperatures.

orkney

+ Got to meet the friendliest people in the world. Many of them gave me a lift when I thought I was done for with regards to transport failures (described below). I never once felt like an outsider even though I am quite visibly one.

– Some connections are terribly inefficient as the timetables of the different modes of transport are not guaranteed to be integrated (unlike Switzerland). I found myself sitting around needlessly at a bus stop or a ferry terminal for more than an hour a few times on this trip. Similarly, I have had train/bus cancellations which really snowball into big delays as there are so few journeys a day in the remote parts of Scotland.

– I learned to steer clear of destinations that are request stops on a bus route. I was left stranded at a request stop at one location. In another instance, I could make a request stop to get to a certain village but was expected to walk 8 km to the official start of the bus route. Thankfully, was given a lift after walking 4 km by a very kind family with 2 dogs.

– After one point in time, solo travel became unbearably lonely. This did make meeting up with my lovely partner an absolute joy at the end of the trip. The views are only the most beautiful if shared with someone you love. I felt this the most standing at this spot near Torridon.

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My personal top 3 views from the trip (and how I got there)

  1. The Old Man of Hoy and blowing clouds on Hoy, Orkney: This was one of my top bucket list items and getting here from Inverness was quite a challenge. I took a ScotRail train to Thurso, a taxi to the Scrabster ferry terminal, a Northlink Ferry to Stromness, slept overnight, took the Orkney ferry to Moaness on Hoy, a local shuttle to Rackwick and the hour-long leisurely walk up the coast to see this view! Note the manner in which the clouds are blowing on the right side of the image, it was so stunning. hoy
  2. View from my tent at Ardgualich Farm campsite, Perthshire: In comparison, getting to my favourite campsite in Perthshire is a piece of cake. I took the ScotRail train to Pitlochry followed by an Elizabeth Yule bus headed towards Kinloch Rannoch to get off at this campsite. I woke up to a mirror-like Loch Tummel every morning.DSC_0048
  3. The white sands of Arisaig looking towards Eigg during dusk: Arisaig was home to the only campsite that turned me away as a solo backpacker as it was packed to the rafters. So I “settled” for this view by walking to a Back of Keppoch croft campsite. I reached this part of the Road to the Isles by taking the Mallaig bound Shiel buses from Fort William.DSC_1061ig_1c

Resources I have written up

I have used the wealth of Scotland travel experience gained across this 4-week trip and others to create some resources that should help both locals and visitors with a week or two of holidays to see Scotland by public transport.

P.S. This is one of my first non-anonymous and personal posts. Thanks for reading 🙂

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10 thoughts on “Backpacking around Scotland without a car – My firsthand experience

    • yodandalek says:

      Hey MistyNites, this is just a partial map actually. My full map from across all my Scotland travel can be seen in this post on the VisitScotland forums : https://community.visitscotland.com/discussion/comment/7310#Comment_7310

      I agree, I don’t think Scotland has Western European standards of transportation yet. That said, its public transport network is much stronger than most parts of England and Wales. And the local tour operators and drivers fill that gap in handily. I am looking forward to write a series on how to explore Scotland where public transport ends by working with a few of these guides (similar to what I recently wrote for Skye), stay tuned.

      Like

      • mistynites says:

        Always love reading posts about my homeland so look forward to your future ones. If you love camping, I highly recommend freedom camping. The Right to Roam means you can camp anywhere that isn’t privately owned or covered by a local By-Law. Most of my Scottish camping was done not in paid campsites but wherever I found a flat piece of ground at the end of a hike. There might not be a toilet or shower block but it’s liberating being self-sufficient.

        Liked by 1 person

      • yodandalek says:

        Wild camping is the next adventure on my list for when I have an extended holiday. Real life has gotten in the way 🙂 I think I’ll have a spare week later this year to go on my first wild camp. I am prepared already with my kit and even got cooking equipment in the form of a burner. I have long admired your posts about places where you went on long distance walks or wild camped, haven’t done either myself ❤

        Like

      • yodandalek says:

        Yes. Glen Affric. Never been, the bus goes up to Kintail and I want to walk across the Kintail – Affric way to end up at the hostel and ask for a lift back to Inverness.

        Like

    • yodandalek says:

      Thanks a lot Samantha for the appreciation. I wish I could say that it is as easy to chase good weather by public transport as it might have been in a car but as they say – the shortest way from Stornoway to Stromness goes through Inverness (it just doesn’t)

      Liked by 1 person

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