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The many waters of Scotland

Over 30,000 lochs and more than 10,000 miles of coastline are only the beginning of the story of Scotland’s extraordinary waterways.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

MORE INTIMATE ACCESS

With roughly 11,800 miles (19,000 kilometres) of coastline, Scotland’s eclectic shores often prove inaccessible to larger ships. The majority of its lochs can’t be easily accessed via rivers, either. Instead, as here on peaceful Loch Lurgainn, north of Ullapool, smaller vessels such as kayaks and canoes offer the most personal way to experience Scotland’s near-endless waterways, whether you’re planning on capturing reflections of mountains such as Sgorr Tuath here, or perhaps want to take a rod and reel out and try for captures of another kind. And, as Scotland continues to celebrate its Year of Coasts and Waters in 2021, there’s rarely a better time to indulge in a culture and a landscape defined by them.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

GUARDIANS OF THE CANAL

Kelpies had a long place in Scottish folkloric tradition before Andy Scott’s The Kelpies debuted at The Helix in Falkirk in 2013. These spectacular 100 foot- (30m) tall horse heads represent shape-shifting water sprits which have featured in fairy tales for centuries. They form a grand gate to the eastern entrance of the Forth and Clyde Canal, which bisects Scotland across its narrowest part. Not far from there, you can also find the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift, completed in 2002 as part of the same revival of central Scotland’s most important waterway.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

THE WATER OF LIFE

Caol Ila is one of more than 120 whisky distilleries found around Scotland, each drawing on the nation’s remarkably pure water supplies to make their golden spirits. Enormous stills, such as those shot here on the Isle of Islay, are a vital part of the process. Traditionally, they’d have been used exclusively for whisky, which is then aged in oak barrels for at least three years, but today a massive surge in the popularity of gin (which doesn’t need to be aged at all) means these old copper behemoths are rarely out of use.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

THE SHORES OF LOCH NESS

Mighty Loch Ness has a higher volume of water than any other loch or lake in the British Isles. Some argue that these profound measurements are what allow Scotland’s most famous resident, Nessie, to thrive to this day; others are just happy to take in the spectacular scenery around this colossal body of water. The increasingly popular Loch Ness 360 is a route dedicated to hiking and cycling the circumference of Loch Ness, providing more experienced visitors excellent access to most of its highlights, including the 13th century ruins of Urquhart Castle on the north shore.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

LOCH MAREE

With over 31,000 lochs in Scotland and only one official lake (Lake of Menteith, near Stirling) Scots the nation over can make a case for their own favourite being the bonniest in the land. No matter where you’re from, however, there’s no denying the beauty of giant Loch Maree. Located in the extreme north west of the Scottish mainland, it’s the fourth largest loch in the country and is a site of historical significance, with multiple religious sites dating back to the 8th Century. As a bona fide National Nature Reserve, Loch Maree’s abundance of sea trout and salmon attracts human anglers, while sustaining a healthy population of otters and black-throated loons.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

THE HEART OF SCOTLAND

Located close to the very centre of Scotland, Loch Tay is famous for its 18 crannogs (manmade islands) and has traces of human history stretching back to the Iron Age. Many are now submerged but to get an idea of how they were built and used, the Scottish Crannog Centre sits on the banks of the loch. Nearby Ben Lawers is one of Britain’s highest mountains, but if you prefer to stick to the water, there’s excellent salmon fishing here, too.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

GATEWAY TO THE NORTH

Surrounded by some of Scotland’s greatest landscape hits, it’s little wonder that Loch Rannoch receives its fair share of visitors throughout the year. Located between Loch Lomond and The Trossachs and the Cairngorms National Park, it lies in the heart of the country and is framed by mountains on all sides. In its centre, the 18th century folly – a lonely tower standing on a tiny crannog – is one of the most-photographed buildings in Scotland. To the west, the wetlands of Rannoch Moor are one of the most important wildernesses in the country too, teeming with life.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

BRITAIN’S LARGEST NATIONAL PARK

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

THE GREY MARE’S TAIL

Perhaps surprisingly, one of Scotland’s highest and most scenic waterfalls is found near Moffat in southern Scotland. Running out of Loch Skeen, in south western Dumfries and Galloway, the Grey Mare’s Tail is almost 200 feet (60m) high, making for a spectacular sight (and sound), especially following rainfall. A nature reserve of the same name has been set up around the falls, offering protection to ospreys fishing in the lake and to Britain’s rarest fish, the vendace, which has significant population here – providing they stay away from the predatory birds and dangerous falls.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

HEILAN’ COOS

Arguably Scotland’s most instantly recognisable residents, Highland cattle are found across the nation. Here a small herd takes a dip in the scenic waters of Loch Etive, just outside the village of Connel in Argyll and Bute. These handsome, hairy beasts can be seen throughout the country, and are popular with children and photographers who have long enjoyed the cows’ distinctive looks. Fans include Queen Elizabeth II who keeps a small herd at her Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

THE GREAT SALMON LEAP

Scotland’s north east offers great beauty found in Aberdeenshire, where the River Dee bisects the scenic, royally-associated Deeside, a region known for its popularity with anglers. The River Feugh, the largest tributary of the Dee, is especially photogenic between September and November when autumnal colours frame the water and salmon arrive to attempt one of the most dramatic runs anywhere in the country. The fish make impossible-looking leaps up the Falls of Feugh as they seek out breeding grounds farther upstream. It might feel like the kind of natural event that should be very remote but it takes place a short walk from the town of Banchory.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON

A NEW HARRIS TRADITION

Scotland’s booming ‘gindustry’ has spawned success stories all over the nation, but among the most popular is one of the most unlikely: the remote Isle of Harris Gin distillery in Tarbert on the Outer Hebrides. As well as drawing on the island’s pure water, they’ve also made their lead botanical sugar kelp, found in abundance and hand-dived off its remote coast. The island is also the home of the world-famous Harris Tweed which has been handwoven in communities across the Hebrides for centuries.

Before you travel, check local and national Government guidelines for Covid-19. Check operating hours and always plan and book ahead.

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