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How to avoid over tourism in Scotland

How to avoid over tourism in Scotland

Like a lot of places in the world, Scotland suffers from over-tourism.

On a busy summer’s day Glencoe can be a sea of selfie sticks, there are crowds jostling to take videos of the ‘Harry Potter train’ going over the viaduct, people get stuck in ravines fulfilling their Outlander fantasies, and locals are frustrated stuck behind convoys of camper vans as people make their pilgrimage to the Fairy Pools on Skye.

Thankfully Scotland is a huge place, and there are loads of places you can visit to get off the beaten track and away from the crowds. I’m not saying don’t visit the popular spots, but don’t make them the focus of your trip or you are truly missing out on the real Scotland – not the one you’ve seen on Instagram.

So, next time you plan a trip, instead of googling the ‘top ten things to do in Scotland’ – here is how to avoid the over-tourism in Scotland hotspots.

The damage to the landscape in the Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

Don’t go to the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is top of most people’s lists of Scottish islands to visit – and it is no wonder. With the Fairy Pools, the Quiraing and Old Man of Storr, Neist Point Lighthouse, and Kilt Rock, the Isle of Skye’s outdoor attractions are legendary.

However,  they are also overrun! From traffic jams in the Fairy Glen (not to mention the damaged landscape) to campervans literally driving off the roads to queues of people waiting to take the same selfie, it could be said in summer the Isle of Skye adds the most to over tourism in Scotland.

If you have to visit the Isle of Skye do it out of season – and follow my guide to visiting the Isle of Skye.

So, why not visit one of these spectacular islands instead?

  • The Isle of Mull – reached from Ardnamurchan or Oban, the isle of Mull is one of Scotland’s best islands, famed for its beaches, wild walks and wild nights in Tobermory. Climb Ben More, Mull’s Munro, visit Calgary Bay, take the ferry over to Iona or visit Staffa before exploring the pubs in Tobermory. Visit the Isle of Mull
  • The Isle of Islay – with 9 whisky distilleries to visit you are always close to a great dram on the Isle of Islay, although the island is also a paradise for walkers – Walk the cliffs of the OA, apot seals on the Rhinns of Islay and otter spot at Bunnahabhain. Visit Islay.
  • The Isle of Arran – with rugged highland mountains in the north, windswept beaches and ruined castles, and, of course, its own Arran whisky, the Isle of Arran truly is ‘Scotland in Miniature’. Despite the whole island being only 55 miles around, there is a lot to see including standing stones, giant’s graves and king’s caves. Visit the Isle of Arran.
  • The Outer Hebrides – one of the best places in Scotland for an outdoor adventure – and with 15 islands making up the chain you could visit time and time again and still find something to do. Base yourself in Harris, North Uist and Barra and go kayaking, swimming with seals and coasteering. Explore the Outer Hebrides.
where to visit in Scotland

It is time to let Glencoe go…

Glen Coe is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Scotland – no debate there. However, Glencoe has become one of the main sites of over-tourism in Scotland.

A sea of selfie sticks in front of the Three Sisters, dangerous parking for the shot of the wee white hoose, the drone of drones over Rannoch Moor, queues of tripods in front of a puddle beneath Buachaille Etive Mor, and most depressingly, red deer leaving their herds behind for a diet of polos and chocolate biscuits in exchange for selfies.

It’s all rather depressing. Instead, let me introduce you to my (other) favourite glens in Scotland. If you have to visit Glencoe – here is my guide to exploring on foot (you’ll see a lot more away from the A82!)

glencoe - where to visit in Scotland

Why not visit one of these glens instead?

Glen Strathfarrar and Glen Affric – Hidden in the wilds beyond Beauly is Glen Strathfarrar, a spectacular 14-mile glen, with a tumbling river, remnants of the Caledonian Scots Pine forest surrounded by towering Munros. Keep an eye out for hundreds of majestic stags on the hillside and eagles soaring overhead. The best bit? Only 25 cars are allowed in a day into Glen Strathfarrar which makes this a wonderfully quiet and traffic-free place to visit.  How to visit Glen Strathfarrar and Glen Affric / Stay at: Eagle Brae

Balquhidder Glen – hidden away of the is A84  in Perthshire is Balquidder Glen. Climb up from Balquhidder to Creag an Turic for a simply stunning the view across Loch Voil. This is Clan MacClaren country and Creag an Turic was used as the lookout/rallying point for the clan in the fight against the MacGregors. You can see why from the top! History buffs will love visiting Rob Roy grave in the churchyard at Balquhidder. Stay at Mhor 84 to make the most of the area.  

Glen Trool – The Galloway Forest Park was designated a dark sky park in 2009, the UK’s first. Walk around Loch Trool in Dumfries and Galloway and up to Bruce’s Stone, a memorial commemorating Robert the Bruce’s first victory in 1307 over an English army. From Bruce’s Stone, you can climb The Merrick, the highest hill in southern Scotland. Book into Balloch O’Dee to explore the area.

Day Walks in Scotland

Turn off the North Coast 500

There’s a growing furore around the popularity of the North Coast 500, the road trip driving route which has successfully brought tourists to some of the remotest parts of Scotland, but without the infrastructure to deal with them. 

With frustrations including, but not limited to, campervans clogging up single track roads, frustrated locals stuck behind queues of traffic going 20mph, horrendous displays of reversing (seriously, you don’t wildly swing your wheel around driving normally do you?) and waste dumped at the side of the road, or in the rivers… the NC500 is contributing to overtourism in Scotland.

If you have to drive the NC500 – here is my guide to the North Coast 500

Why not drive one of these road trips instead?

The North East 250 – competing with the NC500 for the best road trip in Scotland is the NE250. Go dolphin spotting, walking on the Moray Firth Coastal Trail, visit the Aberdeenshire Coast, the Cairngorms National Park and Royal Deeside, the city of Aberdeen and through Speyside – all along the North East 250 around the spectacular edge of Aberdeenshire.

The Heart 200 – love lochs and mountains? Head to the heart of Scotland and road trip 200 miles through Perth and Stirling, along Loch Tay, exploring the wooded Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and stunning Highland Perthshire – and taking in both of Scotland’s national parks on the way – Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms. The perfect way to see the heart of Scotland. 

The Caledonian Canal – stretching the length of Scotland’s spectacular Great Glen, the 62 mile Caledonian Canal is still one of Scotland’s best driving routes – by boat! Pick up a motor cruiser and sail coast to coast across Scotland from Fort William beneath the mighty Ben Nevis, through the maelstrom of the Fort Augustus Locks, across the huge expanse of Loch Ness.

The South West Coastal 300 – don’t miss the south of Scotland. Drive along the stunning Solway Firth, to the remote Mull of Galloway Scotland’s most southerly point, through the Galloway Forest Park and to Wanlockhead, Scotland’s highest village! The South West Coastal 300 is a paradise for walkers so take your time and get out of the car.

Moray Firth Aberdeenshire - where to visit in Scotland

Say goodbye to Jamie & Claire

There is no debating that Outlander has become a cultural phenomenon, leaving Braveheart and the Outlaw King in the dust.

However, Outlander overtourism in Scotland has lead to flowers being left for a fictional Fraser at Culloden (not to mention the war grave selfies) parking problems at the Devil’s Pulpit, overwhelmed residents of little Culross and Falkland, and trampled ground around the Callanish Stones on Lewis – just in case you get transported back to 1743. It could be said that our obsession with Outlander has got a little out of control. 

As an Outlander fan, I understand the desire to visit the main Outlander filming locations, but here are 3 of the lesser-known filming places to visit in Scotland you could visit instead. 

Little known Outlander spots

  • Preston Mill, East Lothian – Jamie’s home Lallybroch (Midhope Castle on the Hopetoun Estate) is one of the most popular Outlander stops – but being part of a working estate, access to this ruined tower house is limited. Instead, buy a National Trust for Scotland pass and help save Preston Mill & Phantassie Doocot near East Linton from dereliction. You might recognise Preston Mill from season 1, where Jamie goes for a swim, Mr Darcy style. 
  • Dysart, Fife – whilst Culross (the village of Cranesmuir) and Falkland (Inverness) both welcome tourists to explore their pretty streets, there are other Outlander filming locations in Fife. My favourite is the village of Dysart, which stands in for Le Harve in the 1740s – where Claire and Jamie arrive in France and home to Jamie’s and his uncles’ wine business. The hidden harbour at Dysart is lovely – and you have to walk through a cliff to get to it!
  • The Highland Folk Museum – if you really want to get a taste of life in the 1740s in Scotland then head to the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore – the blackhouse village period scenes throughout Outlander where filmed here in the museum’s replica township. 
  • Outlander Fan? Take a look at Visit Scotland’s Outlander Map 

Don’t climb Ben Nevis 

The UK’s biggest hill is actually one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland with 150,000 people attempting to climb to the summit each year – mountain overtourism in Scotland! The main route up Ben Nevis is the ‘Mountain Path’ – also known as the ‘the Ben Nevis tourist slog’ – which makes it sound easy – it is not.

Don’t expect to get a view from Scotland’s highest mountain, the top of Ben Nevis is clear on average just 14 days a year! Unless you really want to climb Ben Nevis…

Here are a few much better hills to climb instead…

Buachaille Etive Beag – The Litte(R) Herdsmen – Driving through Glencoe the mountains will call your name. However, don’t ever underestimate the mountains of Glencoe – they are not for the faint of heart. After a very steep ascent, you will be bagging two Munros – Stob Coire Raneach and Stob Dubh – giving you a whole different perspective on Glencoe.

The Cobbler, Arrochar – one of the best known Scotland mountains, famous for its distinctive shape and rocky crags – and the challenge of ‘threading the needle’. It looks hard – but you really just need a good head for heights – and an Instagram account to show off that you’ve done it. How to climb the Cobbler.

Suliven, Assynt – At just 731m Suilven (pronounced Sool-ven) might be considered a wee mountain in Scotland (Ben Nevis is nearly twice its height) but once seen Suilven’s 2km long rocky ridge is never to be forgotten.

Getting to (and back from) Suilven is a challenge – the walk to Suilven will take you most of a day – but as you finally reach the bealach and unsteadily get to your feet the view opens up all around you – it is not hyperbole to say it is simply awe-inspiring. How to climb Suilven.

If you have to climb Ben Nevis – here is my guide to bagging the Big Ben

Want more off the beaten track places to visit in Scotland?

Read my guide to off the beaten track places to visit in Scotland

How to visit Scotland in Winter 

Love, from Scotland x

Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

Saturday 5th of October 2019

I just did the north coast 500 a couple of weeks ago (I've been meaning to do it for years before it became known as a thing, I've driven the east coast more times than I can count) and actually it was nowhere near as busy as I expected! So I think it's still fine outside of tourist season. It was well worth doing, too - very beautiful! Funnily enough I also went to Skye on the same trip (because I had NEVER been there either!) but I did also do one of your alternative options (while visiting another place to avoid in this post, haha!) - climbed Buachaille Etive Beag. That said, I do want to do Ben Nevis at some point...

Love all your suggestions anyway! Still got a few to check out. :)

Mary Mayfield

Tuesday 27th of August 2019

I'm just back from a few days in Scotland - but fortunately at a quiet, overlooked corner of Argyll between Inveraray and the coast. We explored the forests and Crinan canal, and went swimming in Loch Fyne, and everywhere was lovely and peaceful :)

Ami Schwabenland

Thursday 22nd of August 2019

Great post, great ideas! (Except where you give away our secret places! Haha) We go after the high season, and we keep returning to the same place for hiking, nature, and wildlife - where we grumble about "too many tourists" if we bump into 3 people all day! I like Outlander also, but traveling around Scotland just to see film locations, pretending it's real and ticking off a list is a bit daft. To each her own. We're heading to Scotland again soon, and when people ask where, I say, "An island, but not Skye." (since that's the only one people know) :-) I'd offer as an alternative to Rosslyn Chapel (or in addition) the Great Polish Map of Scotland near Peebles - the largest terrain relief map in the world. Have you seen it?


Wednesday 21st of August 2019

Such a great list, Kate! It's unfortunate how overtourism has reached a place that I always imagine to be so quiet and peaceful, but these are great recommendations to get away from the crowds. In many cases, I'm convinced that those off the beaten path spots are just as worthwhile, if not more so, than the biggest tourist attractions.

Dee ~ Vanilla Papers

Melanie Chadd

Tuesday 20th of August 2019

Great post Kate. Something I have been trying to also convey in recent posts. It's a shame we have to write about these things but the "Top spots" aren't the be all and end all to visiting Scotland