In May and June 2018, I was the first solo female to thru-hike the Scottish National Trail- one of the toughest and most varied long distance walks in Scotland. This is Part Two in a three part series on hiking the Scottish National Trail.
The Scottish National Trail (SNT) begins in Kirk Yetholm and travels 864 kilometres (536 miles) all the way to the most north-western point of Scotland, Cape Wrath. The SNT took me 7 weeks to complete, which included one rest day per week (and a few spare days just in case of bad weather).
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You can read part one of my guide on the Scottish National Trail here.
I also recorded a v-log during my hike of the Scottish National Trail, so make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel to see all my videos!
Hiking the Scottish National Trail: Week 2 Summary
Total distance: 124 kilometres / 76.8 miles
The second week of the Scottish National Trail is actually the easiest week of entire trail. Why? Because it follows a series of canals [the Union canal and the Forth and Clyde canal] that connect Edinburgh and Glasgow. The second week has very little incline, and navigation is easy as you follow the canals for the majority of the way.
This week was a welcome relief as my body adjusted to walking every day, but walking alongside the canals did get a little tedious. The Scottish National Trail doesn’t take you directly into Glasgow, but heads north-west instead to Milngavie (pronounced Mill-guy) which is well-known as the official starting point of the West Highland Way.
This week gives you the most flexibility to explore the historic towns and villages that the canals run by. There is a lot of history to encounter along this section of the trail, and abundant facilities. Make the most of this easy week!
History on the Scottish National Trail: Week II
You begin at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, leaving the Water of Leith Walkway to walk along the Union canal. The Union canal was constructed to bring minerals, especially coal, to Edinburgh. It was opened in 1822, and used predominantly for 20 years until railways were established as the preferred medium of transportation. The canal was officially closed in 1965, but revived in 2001 due to a growing interest in using the canals for leisure.
As you walk along the Union Canal, you pass by many historical villages and towns. Linlithgow and Falkirk both have interesting histories; Linlithgow Palace is famous for being the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Falkirk is home to two historic battle sites: the Battle of Falkirk and the Battle of Falkirk Muir.
The Battle of Falkirk took place in 1298, and was one of the major battles in the First War of Scottish Independence. Led by King Edward I of England, the English army defeated the Scots, led by William Wallace. It was shortly after his defeat at this battle that William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland. It is unknown exactly where the battle took place- but just think, you could potentially be walking through it on the SNT!
The Battle of Falkirk Muir was one of the biggest victories for the Jacobites of the ’45. The site of the battle is on the ground of Callendar House- an incredible mansion which has an interesting history itself. Callendar House was home to one of Scotland’s leading noble families: the Livingstons. Many noteable people have visited and/or stayed there, including Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria.
The house also sits next to the line where the Antonine Wall once stood. It was built in the 2nd century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Don’t let the name mislead you however- what’s left isn’t actually a wall, but a ditch that was build along the wall.
After Falkirk, you will leave the Union Canal to join the Forth and Clyde Canal. The building of the Forth and Clyde Canal or ”The Great Canal” was first discussed during the reign of Charles II. The canal was to be built across the Central Belt of Scotland from east to west. Its purpose was to transport goods and would allow travellers to move across Scotland more swiftly. It was opened in 1790, some 30 years before the Union Canal, which connects the Forth and Clyde and the Water of Leith canals.
Today, many people live in boats on these canals; drifting between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Helpful advice for Week II
- There are several bathrooms equipped with showers and toilets along the canal. They are locked but you can purchase a key to these for only £10 from Scottish Canals. I discovered this part way through my hike and wasn’t able to order a key in time, however the locals that lived on the boats were very kind and let me borrow their key many times.
- It is worth investing in a Historic Scotland membership. For less than £5 a month, you can get free access to over 170 castles and palaces throughout Scotland. During my hike I used my membership to see six different attractions. By the end of the trail I’d already paid off my yearly subscription three times over!
- If you are staying in bed and breakfasts for the first week of the Scottish National Trail, then it makes sense to hike from town to town. If you’re wild camping for the most part, like I was, it’s a better idea to stop either just before or after a town to find a good place to set up camp. Where I camped each night depended on my food supplies. If you have enough food, I recommend camping anywhere you deem suitable before you reach a town. If you are low on supplies, it makes sense to hike to the town, have a meal and re-stock, and continue past the town to set up camp.
You’ll see plenty of colourful and quirky house boats along the Union and Forth and Clyde canals
What you should pack for Week II
Aside from your general hiking kit, here are my suggestions on what to take with you when completing week two of the SNT:
- Insoles. The paved concrete paths along the canal put a lot of pressure on my feet. I recommend buying some Superfeet before you head off.
- OS maps. I also recommend the following Ordnance Survey maps: Explorer 350 – Edinburgh; Explorer 349 – Falkirk; Explorer 342 – Glasgow; Explorer 38 – Loch Lomond South and Explorer 348 – Campsie Fells. You can also get 3x Ordnance Survey maps for £20 using this link.
- Maps and guidebooks. You can purchase the West Highland Way Harvey Map and the Cicerone guidebook, however you only complete the first day of the West Highland Way on the Scottish National Trail. The information in the guidebooks is useful, however it may be worth taking photos of the section you’ll complete on your phone so you’re not carrying the entire book. For navigation I used the ViewRanger app which costs £25 for one year and comes will all of the ordnance survey maps in the UK. You can download these to your phone for offline use (super helpful). Remember, it’s important to carry a hard copy of a map in case your phone malfunctions.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Broxburn
Length: 23.3 kilometres / 14.4 miles
Time: 4-6 hours
Accommodation: Wild camping alongside the canal
Amenities: Edinburgh has full amenities. There is an ASDA supermarket next to the Water of Leith Visitor Centre. Ratho has a small convenience store and a restaurant- The Bridge Inn on the canal (TIP: this is closed between 3pm and 5pm during Monday-Friday, so make sure you check the opening times if you want to have a late lunch here).
Cool things to see:
- Bird life. Look out for ducks and swans swimming along the Union Canal!
- The Bings. Dubbed the ‘Red Mountains’ of West Lothian, the Bings are large heaps of spoil (waste material) from an industrial process to retort crude oil (paraffin) from deep mined oil-bearing shale. They span between 30 and 90 metres high. You’ll see these as you pass through Broxburn, on your right.
- Almond Aqueduct. This offers lovely views of the River Almond.
The official trail has you finishing in Ratho, making this day only 9.5km. I ended up hiking to Broxburn so I was ahead of schedule which would allow me more time to explore Linlithgow Palace and Callendar House in Falkirk later in the week. I was happy with this decision because after a day off my body was rested and rearing to go!
You’ll bid farewell to Edinburgh on the first day of week two of the Scottish National Trail
If you are wanting to stick to the traditional route, The Bridge Inn offers accommodation so you could always leave Edinburgh later in the morning and take your time getting to Ratho, having dinner at the restaurant and catching an early night.
The walk to Ratho and then Broxburn is an easy one; you depart the Water of Leith Visitor Centre to follow the Union Canal all the way to Broxburn.
Broxburn doesn’t have many accommodation opportunities, hence wild camping is recommended. There are a few Airbnb properties to the west of the canal however, so if you’re desperate for accommodation you could check these out or continue on to Linlithgow if you have the energy.
Day 2: Broxburn to Polmont
Length: 23 kilometres / 14.2 miles
Time: 4-6 hours
Accommodation: Wild camping along the canal; The Black Bull Inn.
Amenities: ALDI; Linlithgow has full amenities.
Cool things to see:
- Linlithgow Palace. Birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots and more recently a filming location for Outlander! The palace was one of the principal residences of the monarchs of Scotland during the 1400-1500s.
- Linlithgow loch. This lovely loch surrounds the palace.
- Avon Aqueduct. At 250 metres long and 26 metres tall, it’s the longest AND tallest aqueduct in Scotland!
This is another easy day following the Union canal. Linlithgow has full amenities which makes finding somewhere for lunch easy.
I spent a few hours exploring Linlithgow Palace, before grabbing some lunch at Cafebar 1807. My Historic Scotland membership got me into the palace for free!
I wild camped in some woods just off the canal, close to Polmont.
Linlithgow is a good example of what a traditional Scottish town looks like
Day 3: Polmont to Falkirk
Length: 19.5 kilometres / 12.1 miles
Time: 3-5 hours
Accommodation: Wild camping at the Falkirk Wheel. There are showers and toilets next to the information centre; you can get a key from reception during opening hours. Also try Airbnb as they have a few properties located nearby.
Amenities: Falkirk is a large town that has full amenities, so you’ll have no problem finding a supermarket or somewhere to eat.
Cool things to see:
- Almond Castle
- Callendar House
- The Falkirk Wheel
On this day you will continue along the canal, but you have the option to go off it to explore!
As you leave Polmont along the canal, look to your right to catch a glimpse of Almond Castle, a ruined castle from the 15th century.
Callendar House is located slightly off the route of the Scottish National Trail (a 1 kilometre detour), but is well worth a visit. Best of all it’s free! You’ll walk through the Callendar Wood to get there, and it was somewhere in this area that the Battle of Falkirk Muir took place. This battle was one of the last Jacobite victories before the battle of Culloden in 1746. Lady Anne Livingston hosted and distracted the general of the English army while Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army approached and took the English army by surprise.
Also located next to Callendar House is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Antonine Wall, a Roman fortification which was built in AD 142 (20 years after Hadrian’s Wall). If you follow the path that leads from the front of the building out to the road, you will see the ditch which ran along the northern side of the wall.
You’ll end your journey today at the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal to the Union Canal. It’s an impressive site- especially when it is lit up at night!
There is an area at the Falkirk Wheel near the small Kelpie statues that is suitable for wild camping, next to the car park. Campervans usually park up here overnight too, so there can be a nice wee camping community here.
Day 4: Falkirk to Kilsyth
Length: 18 kilometres / 11.1 miles
Time: 4-5 hours
Accommodation: Wild camping along the canal next to the The Boathouse (which also provides accommodation).
Amenities: The village of Kilsyth is 1.5 kilometres from the canal and is well-stocked with a Co-op, pharmacy, Lidl supermarket, and much more.
Cool things to see:
- You’ll follow a section of Antonine’s Wall. Also keep an eye out on your OS map for roman fortifications.
Today you’ll join the Forth and Clyde Canal, which you will follow all the way to Kilsyth.
The section on this day is particularly uneventful, and is your last full day of canal walking for this section of the trail.
You’ll finish the trail at the Auchinstarry Marina, which has a large community of friendly people who live in their boats. There are also showers and toilets located here. I wild-camped on the grassy section near the bathrooms.
Day 5: Kilsyth to Milngavie
Length: 21.25 kilometres / 13.2 miles
Time: 5-5.5 hours
Accommodation: West Highland Way Rooms.
Amenities: Milngavie has full facilities (including a leisure centre if you fancy a swim!). It is also the official start of the West Highland Way, so it is well equipped with hiking supplies if you need to restock.
You’ll start off following the canal towpath but partway through the day you will veer off and follow golf courses and farmland to reach Milngavie. Take care to watch for golf balls flying through the air!
Kirkintilloch is a good place to stop for lunch and/or restock; there is a McDonald’s and supermarket located next to each other.
There are also some quirky houseboats on the canal as you follow the canal out of Kirkintilloch.
Once you leave the canal towpath, there were a few times I did get lost, as I was following the written directions from Walk Highlands which I didn’t find super clear. I recommend you download the GPX waypoints to ViewRanger so you can find your way more easily.
Stealth camping next to the canal
Day 6: Milngavie to Drymen
Length: 19 kilometres / 11.8 miles
Time: 4-6 hours
Accommodation: Drymen Camping; The Clachan Inn and The Drymen Inn. Book accommodation in advance, as rooms get booked up quickly due to the popularity of the West Highland Way!
Amenities: Drymen has a Spar (small grocery store) and at least three pub/restaurants. The Clachan Inn was established in 1734 and is the oldest licensed pub in Scotland. The Drymen Inn has live music some nights, and is a little more upmarket.
Today you’ll walk the first portion of the West Highland Way, so expect to meet a lot of hikers! The West Highland Way is very popular and as a result there are plenty of amenities along the route, including regular drinking fountains/taps, The Beech Tree Inn (which is also home to a bunch of farm animals!) and an honesty box selling ice blocks and other treats.
Navigating is easy as the trail is well signposted with the West Highland Way symbol.
You’ll realise your fitness is improving on this day, as you pass many walkers starting out their West Highland Way adventure.
If you’re hiking the Scottish National Trail in May, make sure to look out for bluebells which take over the woodland when you first leave Milngavie.
If you intend to stay at the campsite in Drymen, you’ll stop 20 minutes shy of the village. You’ll continue following the road which eventually curves left to reach the village to treat yourself with a warm meal and a dram to celebrate completing the second week of the Scottish National Trail!
Day 7: Drymen (Day off)
Drymen is a great place to spend your day off. I booked 2 nights at the campground here for only £7 per night for a single pitch. The campground also has pods (I’d book these in advance). There are basic showers and toilets here too.
The simplicity of the campsite is great as you’ll want to rest if you plan on continuing on the Scottish National Trail. Make sure you have some reading material with you to pass the time!
The Falkirk Wheel and the mini Kelpies at sunset- an unforgettable experience on week 2 of the Scottish National Trail
While the second week of the Scottish National Trail is a lot easier on your body than the first, the canal walking can get rather tedious, so I recommend you break it up by exploring the incredible history along the trail.
The majority of this hike can be cycled too- and perhaps rather than deviating off the canal to head to Milngavie, it would be better for cyclists to continue to follow it all the way to Glasgow. I plan on cycling this route someday soon!
Part III of my guide on hiking the Scottish National Trail will be available soon, as well as a comphrehensive packing list for long distance hiking in Scotland. Make sure you subscribe to my mailing list to receive an email when these go live.
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