“Yes, we’ve been all over Scotland,” said the couple we met on the fast train from Edinburgh down to London. They told how, during two full weeks in the country, they had been to Loch Lomond, Royal Deeside, Balmoral and elsewhere. They had even ventured west to Glenfinnan (where Bonnie Price Charlie and Harry Potter compete with each other for a place in the imagination of visitors) and they had spent one night on the Isle of Skye.
The truth of course is that, like many tourists to Scotland, the couple on the train had barely scratched the surface of the country. Victorian travellers described the “must-see” sights in any region as the “lions” and the standard list of Scottish lions has barely changed in 150 years. The railway viaduct at Glenfinnan, opened only in 1898, is the newcomer to the list.
Over recent decades, great tracts of the Scottish Highlands, which were once so difficult to reach, have become very much more accessible. Distance has been diminished by better roads, improved ferry connections and faster trains. The most frequently visited Scottish island — Skye — is now hardly an island at all. Since 1995, it has been connected by a road bridge to the mainland.
Routes less taken
Move away from Scotland’s principal cities and for many decades the defining characteristic of Scottish rural landscapes was their remoteness. In many cases, there is still a genuine sense of isolation and distance from civilisation. The Shetland capital at Lerwick is still more than twelve hours on the fastest boat from the mainland port of Aberdeen. If, having sailed from Aberdeen to Lerwick, you want to continue on the direct boat from Lerwick to tiny Fair Isle (which runs only on alternate Thursdays), then you are in for another longish voyage — five hours.
Even on the mainland, distances are challenging. The sole daily rail connection from Wick (in the north-east) to Stranraer (in the south-west) takes over twelve hours. Few visitors to Scotland have the appetite for such long hauls. Impatience with travel, lust to be at a destination, means that most visitors focus on easy trips to places that are quick pickings.
Five hidden gems
So you think you know Scotland? Here’s our checklist of five remote spots that well repay the effort of a strenuous journey. None of them are in the canon of accepted tourist “sights.” But each offers a taste of really rural Scotland:
1. The island of North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys, reached by twice weekly ferry from Kirkwall. Travel time 2hrs 40mins to 3hrs 35mins from Kirkwall.
2. The island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, reached by ferry from Oban. Sailings most day, with a passage time of 5 to 7 hours.
3. The Knoydart Peninsula on the mainland. A half-hour hop on the ferry from Mallaig.
4. Kinloch Hourn — one of the remotest spots on the mainland that can be reached by car. But take time, for access is by a fragile ribbon of tarmac: a single-track road that seems to go on for ever.
5. The summit of Merrick in the Galloway Forest Park. No lofty mountain, but a chance to engage with the hills and forests of Scotland’s oft-overlooked south-west corner.