Taking a Hike: Hiking Scotland and New England - What’s different?

I wasn’t a serious hiker until, 20 years ago in my late 30s, I moved with my family to Connecticut and began to discover our Fairfield County and Litchfield County trails. Hikes all over New England and New York followed, then treks farther afield in the U.S. and Canada. I am definitely — and very contentedly — an American hiker. Most passions, though, have roots in childhood and my youth was not spent in this country.

I first saw the light of day in Scotland and, even after moving away when little more than a toddler, spent summer holidays among her isles and hills. I loved those hills, so steep, so austere and rugged. It was the first landscape I loved and the love has not faded with years or distance. Seven years ago, I was inspired to walk my native land end to end. That journey became a book this year — The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain. And this year, too, for a month from mid-September, I returned to Scotland again.      

I have sometimes been asked how hiking in Scotland differs from hiking the US Northeast, and this is a subject I pondered on my most recent trip. But before I tackle that comparison, let me explain a little about my trip. My end-to-end walk seven years ago did not follow the mountain tops. For the most part, my route took the glen floors, crossing the mountains through passes of modest elevation. But all along the way, I saw hills of great and various beauty that surely commanded stunning panoramas. On this recent trip, I wanted to climb some of those hills — 10 of them in fact, I made a list!

One big difference between Scotland and the Northeast has nothing to do with the qualities of each region, but derives from the fact that Connecticut is my home and Scotland is a place I visit. When you take a hiking vacation, you must take the weather you are given; at home, you can time your outings to sunny skies. I am likely to associate our local woods and hills with decent weather, forgetting all the gray and soggy days I elected to stay indoors. In Scotland, by contrast, I have been forced outside and may exaggerate, if only a bit, her wild and buffeting climate.

The essence of hiking, of course, is the same everywhere — you put one foot in front of the other to work the body and calm the mind in a place you enjoy, and you use experience and common sense to mitigate any dangers presented by your destination. That said, here are some contrasts between hiking in the Scottish Highlands and the U.S. Northeast.

Scotland is windier and wetter

Scotland lies as far north as Labrador, but is kept relatively mild by warm Atlantic currents arriving at her shores. But the Atlantic also delivers a steady parade of weather systems that drench the hills — and the hiker! Far more rain falls on Scotland’s hills than on our Whites, Greens, or Berkshires. Rain, of course, is delivered by clouds, and in Scotland those clouds seem to sit lower, denser, and for longer upon the land than they ever do here. The weather fronts bring frequent gales, too. I recall only once being driven from a New England summit by wind; walking the Scottish hills last month, wind was a big factor in my decision-making. Once, halfway up a modest mountain named Suilven, I met blasts so fierce they might have blown me off the trail and into the loch. Continuing to the summit was out of the question.

Scotland’s landscape is unobstructed

Lest the previous paragraph dissuade you from ever putting boot to Scottish soil, let it be clear that there are breaks in the weather, sometimes long ones. And since Scotland’s landscape is nowhere near as forested as New England’s, those breaks reveal a scene of unparalleled openness and drama. Hiking to the highpoints of the Northeast is so often to trek the woods to a patch of open summit. Climb a Scottish hill on a fine day and the view is open from base to top. This was one of the joys of my walking last month. One perfect day, I set off for a peak flanking Glen Coe (the glen of the infamous massacre of the MacDonalds). From start to finish, every feature and wrinkle of the land was on full view — crags, gullies, scree slopes, the countless bare and rugged hills for miles in every direction.         

Moorland trails can take mud to a new level

The trails of the Northeast and Scotland, in terms of the ease of locomotion they offer, are reasonably equivalent. Both run the spectrum from non-existent to beautifully engineered. On balance, climbing Scottish hills may demand a bit more bushwhacking, but the open landscape facilitates it. Moorland, however, occasionally offers a uniquely Scottish obstacle which I shall call a peat trap (you won’t find the term anywhere else). Water and hiker erosion combine to create ever widening areas of slick, waterlogged, and deeply canyoned peat-mud that is traversable only on any providentially positioned hummocks of rough grass.

Dangers and fears

Statistically, I believe, hiking is everywhere a safe activity; safer than driving or fixing the roof, for sure. In the Scottish mountains, people do suffer misadventure — from falls, exposure, disorientation. This happens no more than in our Northeast, and some dangers are indeed reduced in Scotland; the scarcity of forest lessens the risk of getting irretrievably lost, lightning is less common, dehydration easily avoided. As for behavior-changing fears, Scotland has no bears or ornery moose. As in New England, just take your tick precautions.

Rob McWilliams, a local resident, is the author of The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain: A Walk from Cape Wrath to the Solway Firth.Taking a Hike appears eight times a year. Contact Rob at McWilliams Takes a Hike blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.