The Complete Guide To: Scottish lochs

The magical waters of Scotland are as rich and varied as the stunning landscape around them. Rhiannon Batten goes wandering through the country's many glens
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The Independent Travel

ISN'T A LOCH JUST A LAKE?

ISN'T A LOCH JUST A LAKE?

Basically, yes - except when it is a fjord. Scotland has over 31,000 freshwater lochs in Scotland, though only around 350 of any substantial size. The country is also fringed with sea lochs, or fjords. The vast majority of both are in the north and west of the country, but you need not travel far in any direction in Scotland to come up against a picturesque stretch of water. Much more difficult is learning the pronunciation. Say "lock" to a local and you may as well just shuffle off home now. Scots pronounce the "ch" as in "Bach", and will treat you with more respect if you do, too. If you're having trouble with the accent, there is some safe ground; Scotland also has two lakes, Menteith in the Trossachs and Superior in Galloway.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

In the Great Glen. This chain of freshwater lochs runs north-east from Fort William to Inverness, connected by the Thomas Telford-designed Caledonian Canal. The largest of them is Loch Ness, which extends for 23 miles from just south of Inverness.

You can explore the loch by boat. Companies running local cruises include Jacobite, which offers one-hour tours from £8.50 per adult or £6.50 for children (01463 233 999; www.jacobite.co.uk). If you want to spend longer in the area, Caley Cruisers rents out motor boats from £436 per week (01463 236 328; www.caleycruisers.com). Holidays aboard the Fingal of Caledonia barge start from £230 for a four-night cruise, including full-board accommodation and activities (01397 772 167; www.fingal-cruising.co.uk). During these trips along the Great Glen guests usually spend half the day cruising and the other half walking, cycling or otherwise exploring the shore.

MEET A MONSTER?

Your best chance of seeing the infamous monster is at the village of Drumnadrochit, at the village's Loch Ness 2000 exhibition. Entrance to displays on the history of the loch and its monster hunters costs £5.95 per adult or £3.50 per child, and the exhibition is currently open from 9.30am to 5pm daily (01456 450 573; www.loch-ness-scotland.com).

Just outside the village are the ruins of Urquhart Castle, right at the water's edge. Entrance costs £6 for adults and £2.40 for children and current opening hours are 9.30am to 5.45pm (01456 450 551; www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). Other lochside castles includeEilean Donan, set on a spur of rock jutting into Loch Duich just off the main road to Skye. Ruined in the early 18th century, this romantic-looking castle was rebuilt 200 years later and is now open to the public from 10am to 5.30pm daily, April to October. Entrance costs £4.75 per adult and from £1.50 for children (01599 555 202; www.eileandonancastle.com). Similarly, Perthshire's Lochleven castle is set on an island within a loch. In 1567 Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned here, and forced to abdicate. The castle is open from 9.30am to 6pm daily from Easter to the end of September. Entrance costs £3.50 for adults and £1.30 for children, including access by boat (07778 040 483; www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). Don't confuse this with the fjord-like Loch Leven east of Glencoe.

Over on the shores of Loch Fyne is the vast 18th-century Inveraray Castle, home to the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. If Disney did Scottish castles, this is what they would look like, with conical spires set atop castellated towers, whole battalion-loads of armour and even Rob Roy's sporran on show. Entrance costs £5.90 for adults and £3.90 for children; call 01499 302 203 or visit www.inveraray-castle.com for the very complicated opening schedule.

While in the area, call in at nearby Cairndow for the original Loch Fyne Oyster bar - an excellent, unpretentious restaurant (01499 600 236; www.lochfyne.com). Tastings take place on the first Wednesday of every month.

OTHER BONNIE BANKS?

Loch Lomond, for a start. Along with the neighbouring Trossachs, this region of lochs, mountains and forest makes up Scotland's first national park, opened in 2002. Set 20 miles north of Glasgow, it is one of the most popular and most developed lochs. It's also the largest lake in mainland Britain, covering over 27 square miles. Most visitors approach it from Loch Lomond Shores, a gateway centre at the water's southern end, with a modern tourist information centre, well-marked walkways, cafés, restaurants and shops (01389 721 500; www.lochlomondshores.com). If you want to get on the water, the Can You Experience company offers guided canoe trips for £18 for adults or £15 for children over 10 (01389 602576; www.canyouexperience.com). During the summer, Sweeney's Cruises also runs hourly cruises on the loch for £5.50 for adults or £3 for children (01389 752376; www.sweeney.uk.com).

Loch Lomond is also good hiking territory. The West Highland Way (01389 722 199; www.west-highland-way.co.uk), the country's most celebrated long-distance footpath, marks its 25th anniversary this year. The well-marked trail follows the eastern bank of Loch Lomond for 19 miles as part of its 95-mile route from Milngavie to Fort William.

WHERE DO THE TROSSACHS COME IN?

Although the Trossachs is technically the name of a glen between Loch Katrine and Loch Achray, its name has been adopted by the wider region north-east of Loch Lomond. If you're staying in Edinburgh or Glasgow and want to see some Highlands scenery without driving for several hours to get to it, this is the place to come. Not that the region is in any way secret. Sir Walter Scott almost single-handedly put the area on the tourist map 200 years ago when he published The Lady of the Lake and Rob Roy after visiting the region. The former was a poem set around Loch Katrine, which today supplies Glasgow with its water and still makes a good day out.

At just under 10 miles long, the biggest attraction here is the elegant old steamer, SS Sir Walter Scott, which has been running at Katrine for over a century. From April to October it leaves three times daily from the Trossachs Pier to Stronachlachar. You can either get off there and walk or cycle back to the start (bikes can be hired at the pier), or stay on the boat for the return trip. Single fares start at £5 per adult and £3.50 for over fives (01877 376316; www.scottishwater.co.uk). Two other picturesque boat trips are with the Loch Awe Steam Packet, east of Oban (tickets £6 per adult and £2.50 for children; 01866 833 333; www.ardanaiseig.com) and with Loch Etive cruises from Taynuilt (£6 per adult or £4 per child; 01866 822 430).

ROB ROY: REMIND ME WHO HE WAS

Scott's book was based on the real-life Robert MacGregor, a cattle dealer born in 1671 near the head of Loch Katrine, who turned outlaw after having been accused of theft ("Roy" was a reference to his ginger mop). He gained notoriety for managing to resist capture and eventually died quietly of old age in Balquhidder. Today the village is a sleepy spot at the western edge of ribbon-like Loch Voil, surrounded by herds of Highland cattle and boasting not only Rob Roy's grave but also one of the best tearooms in Scotland: the Old Library. This tiny but elaborately built room was originally designed to encourage workers from the surrounding estate to read rather than head straight to the pub. Now it serves carrot cake and frothy coffees to a steady stream of walkers and cyclists (01877 384 279).

If you want to find out more about Rob Roy, there's a dedicated visitors' centre in nearby Callander. Entrance costs £3.60 for adults or £2.40 for children and it's open from 10am to 6pm (01877 330 342; www.robroyvisitorcentre.com).

WHAT ELSE IS NEARBY?

Just to the north of Loch Katrine is another well-loved Scottish loch, Loch Tay. Overlooked by Ben Lawers mountain, Perthshire's largest loch is 14 miles long and best known for some unusual archaeology. Iron Age communities once lived here on man-made islands, or crannogs, built out on stilts. At the south-east end of the loch the Scottish Crannog Centre boasts a reconstructed crannog based on a 2,600-year-old site excavated nearby. Entrance costs £4.75 for adults or £3 for children and it's open daily from 10am to 5.30pm from March to November (01887 830 583; www.crannog.co.uk). If you're in the market for souvenirs, just outside Lawers, on the northern side of Loch Tay, is John Lacey's horn-carving shop. Whether you fancy a pair of antlers for the stairs or a delicate bracelet, John's cobweb-filled studio is the place (01567 820 561).

At the western edge of the loch, in Killin, is the pretty Falls of Dochart and the burial ground of the Clan McNab, said to be haunted. The McNabs were a fearsome bunch; in 1612 they carried a boat eight miles over the hills to nearby Loch Earn, now a watersports centre, and slaughtered a rival clan.

MORE GENTLE PASTIMES?

Inverewe Garden, on the edge of Loch Ewe, sticks two green fingers up at the west-coast norm with a garden that's flourishing with colourful, exotic plants. It's nurtured by the warm currents of the North Atlantic Drift, which possibly also explains why its creator, Osgood Mackenzie, was so keen on running naked into the loch each morning. Entrance costs £8 per adult and it's open from 9.30am to 4pm daily (01445 781200; www.nts.org.uk).

Further south is Galloway Forest Park. In this neglected but scenic corner of the country, Clatteringshaws Loch is a large, man-made lake surrounded by conifers, heather and, in spring, a vast carpet of bluebells. There's a large network of forest trails to explore here, or a five-mile hike around neighbouring Loch Trool, to the west. To the east is Loch Ken, home to the Galloway Red Kite Trail, a 30-mile circular path which is designed to help visitors spot one of these recently reintroduced birds. For more information call RSPB Scotland on 0141 331 0993.

To get closer to the water, Loch Ken is also home to the Galloway Sailing Centre, which offers everything from family activity days (£35 per person including equipment and lunch) to five-day residential sailing courses from £320 per person (01644 420626; www.lochken.co.uk). For other sailing companies and schools in Scotland's lochs, visit www.sailscotland.co.uk.

CAN SOMEONE ELSE DO THE HARD WORK?

You may not be guaranteed Caribbean-style sunshine, but sailing around Scotland's sea lochs has its own charms. In September the Lodge, a luxury retreat on Loch Goil, an hour north-west of Glasgow, is running weekend trips with a night on land and a night on its elegant yacht, the Andorina, from £400 per person, including breakfast, dinner and afternoon tea (01301 703193; www.thelodge-scotland.com).

Another glamorous yacht is the Corryvreckan, a 65ft boat based in Oban. Full-board prices start at £280 per person for a three-day trip. Be warned, though, that these get booked up early (01631 770 246; www.corryvreckan.co.uk).

If you'd rather travel on something bigger, try the Hebridean Princess. A former Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, it has been refitted and now offers some of the most exclusive (under 50 guests) and expensive cruising on the planet. Prices start at £1,000 per person for a three-night "Taste of the Highlands" cruise around Oban and the Ardnamurchan peninsula (01756 704 704; www.hebridean.co.uk).

SOMETHING WILDER?

Doune, between Loch Hourn and Loch Nevis on the western shore of the remote Knoydart peninsula, is reachable only by boat from Mallaig (which is how pre-booked guests are collected) or by two-day walk. You can either join a live-aboard boat tour or stay in one of Doune's lodges and go out hiking or wildlife-watching from there. The next wildlife week takes place from 18 to 25 June and prices start from £509 per person including full-board lodge accommodation and daily guided tours of the surrounding region by boat (01687 462667; www.doune-knoydart.co.uk).

Almost as remote is Cape Adventure, a comfortable and family-friendly outdoor centre just south of Cape Wrath, in the bleak but spectacular north-western corner of the country. A week of sea kayaking in the surrounding sea lochs here starts from around £465 per person including relatively luxurious full-board accommodation (cosy duvets, wood-burning stoves and gourmet dinners) and all activities (01971 521006; www.capeventure.com).

Other companies worth contacting are Wilderness Scotland, which offers a vast range of walking, sailing, kayaking and mountain biking trips throughout the country (0131-625 6635; www.wildernessscotland.com) and See Scotland Differently, which has a section devoted to lochside travel (08707 606027; www.seescotlanddifferently.com).

ISN'T THERE A QUICKER WAY TO GET ACROSS COUNTRY?

If you've got the funds the fun way to travel is by seaplane. A service run by Scottish pilot David West, the idea is pretty simple. Travelling by road in the region often involves long, meandering detours but, weather-permitting, seaplanes can get you from A to B in minutes.

While you can charter a seaplane to take you wherever you want to go (one recent client was dropped off directly over a wreck he wanted to dive) one of the most popular services is nipping across to the isles for lunch. Lunch flights start at £495 for up to four people, excluding the restaurant bill, and standard 20-minute sight-seeing trips start at £110 per person (0870 242 1457; www.lochlomondseaplanes.com).

MORE INFORMATION?

Contact Visit Scotland (0845 2255121; www.visitscotland.com).

SCOTLAND'S WONDERFUL RAILWAYS

You can fly to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness from all over the UK, and access the lochs easily by car - but some of the world's finest railways run to Scotland's lochs.

The West Highland Line from Glasgow via Loch Lomond, Fort William (for Loch Ness) the Glenfinnan viaduct (star of the Harry Potter films) and Mallaig is truly spectacular. This is part of the First ScotRail network (08457 55 00 33; www.firstscotrail.com). You can also tick off this link aboard the Jacobite Steam Train. These 84-mile round trips take six hours and cost £26 return (adults), £15 (5-15 years); for more details call 01463 239026 or visit www.westcoastrailway.co.uk.

The other great line is from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, passing some of Scotland's most rugged lochside scenery in the two-and-a-half hour one-way journey. A day return costs £16; longer stays cost £27.

FIVE GREAT LOCHSIDE HOTELS

At Monachyle Mhor, Loch Voil, the food is as swish as the welcome is unpretentious. B&B from £95 (01877 384622; www.monachylemhor.com).

Perched above a sea loch in Sutherland, the relaxed atmosphere at The Albannach, Loch Inver, belies an impressive attention to detail. Half-board from £210 (01571 844407; www.thealbannach.co.uk).

Reached down a single-track road, Ardeonaig, Loch Tay, is all about pampered escapism. Doubles from £90, with breakfast (01567 820400; www.ardeonaighotel.co.uk).

Ardanaiseig, Loch Awe, is a country house in Scots Baronial style. B&B from £90 (01866 833 333; www.ardanaiseig.com).

Loch, cows and whisky: it doesn't get much more Scottish than Loch Torridon hotel, Loch Torridon. Half-board from £207 per night (01445 791242; www.lochtorridonhotel.com).

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