The simplest and best way to get straight to the heart of the Highlands from London is by sleeper. Board in Euston, have a plate of haggis and tatties (and perhaps a nip of whisky to knock you out) and before you know it, you’ll wake up the next morning as the train crosses Rannoch Moor. Don’t think about the fact that the train line is effectively floating on a bed of earth and tree roots, since the peat soil was too soft to support its weight. Admire the view — and keep your eyes peeled for the red deer who congregate along the line.
Stepping off at Fort William, you’d be forgiven for being unimpressed by your choice of destination: you emerge into a Morrisons car park. But look behind you and you’ll remember your reason for being there: Ben Nevis soars dramatically upwards, often with its peak hidden by a splodge of cloud.
A steam train might be chugging gently in the station, ready to transport families and Harry Potter aficionados westwards along the route of the Hogwarts Express. This area is a bit of a nirvana for movie lovers: it’s also seen in James Bond films, Trainspotting and Braveheart. But we’re not here for a film tour. We’re here to walk. And this is proper walking country.
For the most dedicated of walkers, there’s the East Highland Way — from Fort William in the west to Aviemore in the east, at the centre of the Cairngorms National Park. The towns aren’t stunning, but their surroundings more than make up for it.
The very thought of camping in Scotland might sound like a nightmare, which is fair enough. I can confirm any rumours about the ferocity of the Highland midge. But at least the midges won’t be the only wildlife around. The Caledonian pine forests of the Cairngorms — or what’s left of them — are home to the portly, turkey-like capercaillie. Some of the last Scottish wildcats live here, too. They’re shy, so don’t expect to see them — but they might well be watching you. The lochs and rivers along the way are home to osprey and otters, and golden eagles, pine martens, red squirrels and the rare Scottish crossbill are all present and correct. If you hear wolves howling, however, you’ve probably strayed too close to the Highland Wildlife Park.
If you prefer something more sedate than an 82-mile walk into the Cairngorms, then a meander along the Nevis Gorge to the base of the An Steall waterfall is short enough for little legs but doesn’t stint on beauty. Of course, if you’re a list-ticker, the choices are endless, from scaling the highest mountain in the British Isles to knocking a few more Munros off your list. There are so many fantastic walks that I could take up the whole magazine writing them down. But a) that might be slightly tedious, and b) I’m a little wary of giving away all of my secrets. So buy yourself an Ordnance Survey map, get some recommendations from a local, and you’ll find your own favourites sooner or later.
And if you find that you’ve caught the bug for the great outdoors, you can always sign up for a course at the excitingly named School of Adventure Studies in Fort William. You’ll have those Munros bagged in no time.