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All things hiking Explaining Scotland Suggested things to do

Midges in Scotland have a reputation which far outweighs their size, but perhaps not their numbers.

Here in Scotland, we’re not subtle in our campaign to drive the visitors away. We emphasise the rain and then we start with the midge stories. And still people want to come. Well we’ve some up with a plan for you. We’re going to try and make sure you go back home without mentioning midge horror stories and without any stories of being drenched by rain. Our plan: visit the east.

How avoid the midges during your vacation in Scotland

1.Come between late September and late May

In the Highlands of Scotland, particularly in the Cairngorms, we can have an early frost in September or a late frost in May. Midges can’t survive a frost. If you arrive in Scotland, before the weather has warmed up too much you are unlikely to see many midges. Also if you visit in May or early September, you are also likely to encounter the best weather conditions Scotland has to offer. May 2018 (and June) have been exceptional in sunlight terms, but there is also now an increasing issue with the swarms of midges. Over on the west coast, it can be difficult to find builders at this time of year. Their work requires that they remain stationary or at least around the same site for extended periods of time, and the midges just won’t leave them alone. However, direct sunlight and windy conditions do mean that there are few if any midges around.

glencoe in winter

This photo was taken in Glencoe in March. This is when you can really enjoy hiking in the area. There is still snow on the ground, so it is not for the faint-hearted but there are no midges in Scotland and the air clarity is amazing. Perfect for photography.

We plan all our west coast walking holidays around both the best weather conditions and the height of the midge season. We rarely if ever, go to the west of Scotland between June and the end of August.

2. Visit the Eastern part of Scotland, including the Cairngorms National Park

We have our home base in Boat of Garten in the Cairngorms National Park for a number of reasons. High on the list is the lack of midges, in general. On a still, damp morning/evening, you definitely become aware of their presence in season, but more often than not we rarely encounter them. They can be a bother in the Cairngorms, but the drier weather here and the sometimes windy conditions, keep the levels of midge down to manageable levels.

Midges in Scotland do love damp forest conditions though as the trees provide them with shelter from the wind and the sun, so be careful if you picnic in the woods.

midges in Scotland

Relaxing in the shelter of the trees – beware the midges on a wind free day.

3. Go to museums, distilleries and castles on dull, dank days

On still, damp days our best advice would be to engage in something high speed (eg mountain biking or road biking or zip lining) which will keep the midges away from you as you generate your own “wind” ie slip stream. You’ll be moving too fast for them to keep up.

Failing something high adrenaline you could just admire the scenery from the seclusion of your car, being sure to insulate yourself from the outdoors with your air conditioning system or alternatively indulge yourself in a bit of culture or city life for the day.

There are plenty of museums you can visit, even in the Highlands. Or try a castle or distillery.

We recommend the following distillery tours:

Tomatin (especially if you have under-18s in your party)

Glenlivet (regular tours which are translated into most major European languages)

Glenfarclas (a more unique and family atmosphere than other distilleries)

Aberlour (highly regarded and recommended to us)

Or try to Speyside Cooperage – a unique opportunity to see the traditional coopers at work making and refurbishing the casks which are a vital part of the whisky industry.

whisky tour

A cooper hard at work repairing casks at the Speyside Cooperage

4. Enjoy the wind

Midges are so tiny that they can’t tolerate any more than a very light breeze. There is a fine balance in how much wind you can enjoy before it starts to affect your enjoyment of your day out, but hopefully you will find there is a strong enough breeze to keep the midges away, but not too strong to prevent you from enjoying your hike. The strength of wind you can tolerate yourself will depend on your experience and body mass. If the wind is starting to push you around, you’ll stop enjoying your day out and be concentrating too much on trying to maintain a straight line to your destination.

5. Avoid the west coast

This is probably the hardest one to do if this is your dream vacation to Scotland. Almost everyone has at least one west coast destination on their itinerary, usually Skye. Stock up on plenty of repellent if you’re heading over between June and mid-September.

6. Check out the average rainfall before you leave, drier areas of Scotland have fewer midge hotspots

average rainfall

7. Check the midge forecast

8. Make sure you’re not out and about at dawn and dusk.

This is relatively easy advice to follow in early summer as dawn takes place so early and dusk so late, but by August it is worth being aware of the sunrise and sunset times.

If you’re planning an active vacation in Scotland, it’s worth checking out our programme as we have planned to include the best of the weather and the best of the midge free opportunities across the Highlands. We can also plan a tailor-made trip for you. If you base yourself with us we have good access to most other areas of the Highlands (except Skye and the Outer Hebrides) and can make the most of the best weather where ever it is.

For a light-hearted summary take a look at the video below:

Midges in Scotland

There’s no getting away from the fact that if you visit Scotland in the summer you will quickly find out that there are midges in Scotland. If you go hiking in Canada and parts of the US, you need to carry bear spray with you. We don’t have any pests on the same scale as that, but you have no doubt heard about the Scottish midge. It seems to be a scary prospect for a large number of people intending to come and visit Scotland. They can be of plaque proportions sometimes but over here in the dry East of Scotland, we really don’t suffer from swarms of midges at all.

The Midge

If you’re concerned about the prospect of midges bear the following tips in mind:

Midge facts from the makers of Smidge – a repellent which works.

A scientific look at the midge from the BBC

Protecting yourself from the midge

  1. Cover up

2. Use repellent, naturally based if possible as deet is not kind to the skin. (A chemical which will melt a plastic bag is surely not designed to be used on the skin repeatedly over an extended period?)

3. Purchase a midge net

4. Use citronella, lavender or bog myrtle candles – preferably in a well-ventilated place or outdoors.

Relief from midge bites

  1. Natural solution: Itch Ease
  2. Antihistamine cream like Antisan
  3. Hydrocortisone cream
  4. Antihistamine tablets like piriton, just as you would use for hayfever relief.

You’ll find that a midge bite from midges in Scotland is itchy and annoying but doesn’t have any long lasting effects. It won’t have any impact on your health long-term. The real pest to be wary of is the tick. I don’t hear anywhere near as much discussion about ticks from visitors planning to come to Scotland, but there is a risk that you should be aware of. Ticks don’t just bite dogs. They don’t just affect hill walkers – in fact, you can be at risk of a tick bite on a dog walk or playing golf.

Midge solutions

Midge hotspots

Most of the west coast including Skye, Torridon and Arran.

midges in Scotland - arran

The peaks of Arran

We camped on Arran one year to check out some new routes we were planning to offer our clients. Found the perfect spot to wild camp, set up the tent, (nice breeze blowing all the while). Woke up, unzipped the tent and rapidly zipped it up again. At some point in the night, the breeze stopped  and the midge clouds arrived.

 

The Tick

You’re most at risk of tick bites if you venture off the main path and brush against any undergrowth as this is where the ticks like to hang out.

heather in bloom

Most Scottish hill walkers are aware of the risk of Lyme disease and do check for ticks when they shower at the end of the day. Some of them can be so tiny that they are very difficult to spot. You pick them up from the undergrowth, just as dogs do. They can hang from the under side of ferns for years waiting for a host to come along. They don’t fly, but they will crawl on you until they find a spot they find warm and dark to attach to you. The most common places to find them are behind your knees, in your groin, or if you’re female, around your boobs.

A tick bite won’t be painful when it attaches to you and it will fall off on its own if left. Once it has finished it’s blood meal. However, it is definitely a good idea to remove it as soon as you can to reduce the risk of Lyme Disease.

Safe tick removal

Do not just pull a tick off if you find one attached to you. My personal early warning system is that I find a tick bite very itchy, worse (per bite) than a midge bite. If you just pull a tick you risk leaving it’s head attached to you. Also if you squeeze it while detaching it from you, you can force it to regurgitate it’s stomach contents into your bloodstream which will increase the risk of Lyme’s disease.

Tick twisters

Tick lasso

References

Tick map and predictions for the future

NHS tick advice

Ticks in Scotland

We rarely see swarms of midges on our guided hiking holidays.

There are midge hotspots in the Cairngorms, but it really is nothing like the west coast. Linn of Dee can be a wee bit midge infested if you’re hanging around before setting off into the Lairig Ghru, and if you’re at Corrour Bothy in the evening, you’ll possibly see a fair few – but we rarely have to put off our gardening. If we had more time to enjoy the garden we could without being bothered by midges.

So many people have heard of the isle of Skye, and millions have watched the movies set there. Everyone wants to go and experience the beauty of Skye for themselves. What they forget is that everyone else has now heard about Skye too. There are the down sides … rain, midges, crowds … but it still has a reputation to beat most other places in the Highlands, except perhaps Loch Ness.

Skye is blessed by being mentioned in music, in movies and in history. It has a distillery, castles, stunning jagged mountains and is eminently accessible now there is a bridge. Is it still an island if it is connected to the mainland by a bridge?

The isle of Skye now has iconic status and has made it on to the “must see” bucket list of so many when they plan their visit to Scotland. Unfortunately many just take a day or 2 on a bus tour. If you can, really try to get under the surface and spend a wee bit more time exploring to find those hidden gems most people whizz past.

More people – more the word spreads – more people …

Social media seems to have concentrated the effect of tourists travelling to Skye. You can’t get away from tour minibuses if you’re going to visit all those spots you’ve seen on social media: the Old Man of Storr or the Fairy Pools or the Quirang, unless of course you’re going to go at antisocial times. However, Skye is a very large island and if you’re prepared to divert from the popular hotspots and get away from the road, then you’ll probably be able to find your own peaceful viewpoint – but it will take a little more effort than a 20 minute walk.

The spots most people have heard of will be the busiest. One of the reasons many people have heard of them is that they are accessible. Unfortunately the accessibility generates it’s own issues and if you are driving on the isle of Skye you need to watch out not only for sheep on the road, but also for parking opportunities and take care with motor homes. The roads are not designed for wide vehicles. Be very careful to make sure you are not blocking any access and your car is well off the road if at all possible even if it means you might need to walk a wee bit further to get the best photo.

Skye Munros

Sunset over Am Basteir from Sligachan on the Isle of Skye during the Skye Munros itinerary

Popular sites on the isle of Skye

Quirang

isle of Skye, Quirang

Visiting the Quirang on the Isle of Skye. Easily accessible for most, except wheelchair users.

Heelan Coo

Not unique to Skye but there are many on the island. However, there is also a herd at Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore (Cairngorms National Park) and near Grantown on Spey on the Revack Estate.

Herman Coo locally hiding from the sun

Old Man of Storr

Superlative Skye recon pictures

Clearly visible from the road and from Portree on a good day, the Old Man of Storr is a most photogenic rock formation. You can certainly understand why so many make the short walk up to it. It is on the minibus circuit so even on a bad weather day in the main season, starting in May, it can be difficult to find a space in the car park unless you get out early or arrive late. To be honest, unless you can get away from the other tourists, you may not fully appreciate the site anyway at there is nothing like the presence of other people to destroy a peaceful atmosphere, which could affect your memories.

Cuillin Mountains

Not so popular with most self-drive tourists due to the more serious nature of the walks. Still there are always people stopping by the Sligachan Hotel to take photos. Up close, they are even more stunning but a guide would be advised if you are intending to head into the high Cuillin as the peaks are quite sheer climbs and require some scrambling or in some cases roped climbing.

Dinosaur footprints?

Movie sites/backdrops

All these movies have featured shots of some iconic sites on the isle of Skye

The BFGMacbethStardustThe Land That Time ForgotSnow White and the Huntsman47 RoninKing Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and Transformers: The Last Knight, The Ridge, Highlander, Made of Honour, Breaking the Waves

Movie map of the Highlands and Skye

Disadvantages of high season

Lots of traffic on small roads

Lack of accommodation

Midges

Rain

Alternatives:

North West Scotland is one of the best kept secrets we have had here in the Highlands. While flocks of tourists have visited the isle of Skye, not nearly so many have made the pilgrimage north. This is changing now with the advent of the “North Coast 500”.

It’s interesting isn’t it, what can be done by packaging something in marketing terms. There has always been a road around the north coast of Scotland. The road has always been there. Someone had a great marketing idea and renamed the road as the “North Coast 500” and introduced it to the general public as a must-see driving tour to rival Route 66 in the US. They have done an amazing job and now more and more people are driving up round the north of Scotland. New companies and tour experiences are popping up all over the place. If you do go up, more than likely you’ll meet either a convoy of Lamborginis or a convoy of motorhomes!

Torridon:

walking holidays scotland

The spectacular sandstone peaks of Torridon, over 2500 million years old

This is one of our favourite areas of north west Scotland. Personally we think it is more stunning than the isle of Skye and certainly has hiking to rival the isle of Skye. We take groups over to Torridon nearly every year using a variety of large holiday cottages and getting to know the area well. There’s a small community there so much so that we are recognised in the gallery now.

If you do go to Torridon, be sure to pre-book your accommodation and any places you’d like to eat out as there are a limited number of places to go and also a very limited number of places to top up your supplies. It’s a great area for galleries and crafts with many artists taking their inspiration from the surrounding landscape. If you’d like to explore the Torridon area in depth, you should join us for our Classic Torridon itinerary.

Knoydart

knoydart

The ridges of the Knoydart peaks

Another favourite area of ours but only really appreciated by those who are looking to get away from mainstream living or those who love to hike. Knoydart is only accessible by boat or by a long walk-in. Wifi has reached the area so you don’t need to be completely without access to the outside world, but don’t expect to get a strong phone signal.

Knoydart is more remote than Skye but just as beautiful. There are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife as there are far fewer people around and there is a gorgeous beach which is right next to the main campsite. The beach is a definite plus – something which Skye lacks mostly.

We’re heading over to Knoydart again in September so if you have a week to spare at the beginning of September, do come and join us.

Assynt

mountains of scotland

Stac Pollaidh, Assynt, Scotland – north of Inverness

Needless to say we love Assynt and choose to take personal breaks here if our free moments coincide with good weather over there. Our Empty Quarter itinerary makes the most of the most spectacular walking in the area. As with all our trips, you need to take time to slow down and appreciate this area rather than rushing from place to place to fill up your camera with the same shots as everyone else.

Lewis and Harris

images of the Outer Hebrides

Beautiful beaches at Seilbost and Luskentyre on Harris in the Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides are famous for their beaches. You need to look a little harder to find the hiking, but it is glorious wild country not much explored by others. The islands can absorb a lot of visitors particularly if you can get away from the roads. If you follow the coffin road across Harris, you’re unlikely to see many people at all until you look down on the sandy stretches of Luskentyre. Should you be there at low tide, you’ll probably find a long stretch of empty sand pretty much to yourself.

If you like hiking, you’ll love the Western Isles Wilderness itinerary we’re running at the end of September. Looking forward to some glorious light and photo opportunities.

Arran

isle of arran

We often talk about Arran being Scotland in miniature. It is very much true. Arran has mountains, beaches, castles and amazing fresh produce. It is relatively accessible from Glasgow, but really you can easily spend a week on the island without being bored.

Kintail & Glencoe

glencoe

The dramatic hills of Glencoe

Do you really need to say more than just “Glencoe“? The scenery is very dramatic. You can appreciate it from the road, but there are even more fabulous sites to be seen if you are able to hike up into the peaks which line the road. Summer programme will be forthcoming 2019 or 2020.

glencoe

Atop the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe

In short

Planning a summer trip to Scotland and want to go to the Isle of Skye? Make sure you pre-book and resign yourself to being in company if you want to visit the popular sites. All is not lost though as there are ways to avoid the crowds. Personally we like to head out and find our own space, so we tend to keep our visits to Skye out of the main season, which fortunately also means away from the midges and most of the campervan!

 

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