Top universities for the great outdoors – Scotland

Summit of Geal-charn Mor in the Cairngorms
Fancy hiking in the Highlands or kayaking on Loch Lomond when you’re not in lectures?

All of Scotland’s universities have clubs for hiking, climbing and mountaineering – and other outdoor pursuits. Those clubs will put on expeditions throughout the UK and abroad. But each will be near an area of distinct Scottish wilderness. In some areas, the terrain is broken and full of pinnacles with white water thundering through tears in the Earth; other areas are gentler and more rolling. Your triumphs in exploring this great countryside won’t just be to do with your endurance or its exhilarating geography: with luck, you might see a golden eagle, red squirrel or wild cat.

University of Aberdeen/Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

The granite city of Aberdeen is in the north-east of Scotland. This makes it a great base to explore the Cairngorm National Park and also the Grampians, which include the biggies of the UK’s wilderness terrain – Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. There are several ‘Gully’ climbs through the latter, which means climbing through waterfalls.

Ben Nevis is the UK’s tallest mountain; its northern face plummets 2,000 feet. The Ben Nevis Tourist Path (also called the Mountain Track) is the only route up the mountain that should be attempted by a novice walker. For those with more experience there are challenging climbs up a series of corries or glaciated bowls.

The Grampians occupy almost 50% of Scotland’s land mass and have a variety of walking terrain – it’s steeper and rockier in the west and curvier and gentler in the east. But it’s also one of the coldest parts of Britain, so – as ever when exploring wilderness – be prepared for low temperatures.

Clubs and facilities:

  • University of Aberdeen: clubs for canoeing, diving, hillwalking and climbing, mountain biking, orienteering, skiing and snowboarding, sub aqua and surfing.
  • Robert Gordon University: clubs for mountain biking and snow sports, plus a climbing wall.
  • There’s also a public climbing wall in the city.

Abertay University Dundee/University of Dundee/University of St Andrews

Students from this group of universities are in a good location to explore the Cairngorms and the Trossach National Park.

The most famous features of the Trossachs are the pretty waters of Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine. But the park also has plenty of rugged rock to explore. Glen Croe, Glen Ogle, Ben A’an and the Arrochar Alps may not have the heights of the Highland mountains but have excellent routes.

The Cairngorms are twice the size of the Lake District. It’s a great skiing area that’s also popular with off-road cyclists. There are pine-flanked bike trails for riders of all levels.

Mountaineers have plenty of choice: the area has the greatest concentration of high peaks, including Ben Macdui – the second highest mountain in Britain.

There are cliff-edge walks up Mount Cairn Gorm and easier routes through glens (steep, narrow valleys) and straths (wide, shallow ones) alike.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Abertay University: snow sports club.
  • University of Dundee: clubs for canoeing, cycling, sailing, skiing and snowboarding, sub aqua and surfing, plus ‘Rucksack’ (climbing, mountaineering and walking).
  • University of St Andrews: clubs for canoeing, cross country running, cycling, mountaineering, sailing, snow sports, sub aqua, surfing and windsurfing.
  • There are public climbing walls in Dundee and St Andrews.

University of Edinburgh/Heriot-Watt University/Edinburgh Napier University

All three universities in Scotland’s capital city have popular outdoor societies that run trips to the Highlands and Islands. The city itself has what’s been called its own ‘pet mountain’ (more commonly known as Arthur’s Seat) in its centre. In fact, the seat – a craggy remnant of an extinct volcano – more accurately fits the description given to it by Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘A hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design’.

Rock climbing the seat is banned except in Salisbury Crags Quarry, where permission is required. But you can walk to the top via a standard path and there are other paths that require a scramble – ie walking up steep terrain using your hands. It’s somewhere between hill walking, mountaineering and easy rock climbing.

On the east coast near the city is Trapain Law, another volcanic crag with trails, climbs and great views of the East Lothian countryside. South of the capital is the wooded Roslin Glen Country Park with a castle, cave, Bronze Age rock carvings and soft, sandstone crags to enjoy.

Clubs and facilities:

  • The University of Edinburgh: clubs for canoeing, cycling, cross-country running, hillwalking, mountaineering, orienteering, sailing, sub aqua, windsurfing and surfing, plus a climbing wall and a bouldering wall.
  • Heriot-Watt University: clubs for kayaking, mountain biking, mountaineering and snow sports, plus a climbing wall.
  • Edinburgh Napier University: clubs for rock climbing, snow sports, sub aqua and surfing.
  • There are several climbing walls in the city that are open to the public.

University of Glasgow/University of Strathclyde/Glasgow Caledonian University

Glasgow is really well located not only for excellent walks and climbs in Scotland but for excursions to the more remote parts of northern England – in particular, across the border in Cumbria.

To the north and north-west of Glasgow respectively, The Campsie Fells Hills and lower Kilpatrick Hills are mostly rolling but do have some large and interesting rock formations, the Whangie in the Kilpatricks in particular. To the south in Lanakshire is a popular hill walk at Tinto. Down the Firth of Clyde, on the southern and eastern edges of Ayrshire, moorland gives way to the jagged hills of Galloway, where the area around the granite cliffs of Dungeon of Buchan is of special scientific interest and is particularly scenic.

The Trossach National Park is the nearest large mountain range to Glasgow. The lushly wooded range has been nicknamed the 'Highlands in miniature' and combines challenging routes with picturesque scenery.

Clubs and facilities:

  • The University of Glasgow: clubs for canoeing, cycling, mountaineering, potholing, sailing, sub aqua, surfing and wakeboarding.
  • The University of Strathcylde: clubs for canoeing, cycling, cross country running, mountaineering, orienteering, snowsports, sub aqua and wakeboarding.
  • Glasgow Caledonian University: clubs for cycling, kayaking, mountaineering, snowsports and surfing, plus a climbing wall.
  • The city also has climbing walls that are used by students and the public.

University of the Highlands and Islands

The University of the Highlands and Islands has over 70 learning centres spread across the Highlands, its isles and also central Scotland. Its Fort William and Inverness campuses are the closest that university students can study to the majesty of the Grampians. And it has a campus on Skye too.

The attractions of the Highlands are covered in the university descriptions above (see Aberdeen in particular). The landscapes of Skye are spectacular, with the twin mountain chains of The Red and The Black Cuillin among the highlights. Some of their pinnacles look as if they might hide Orcs from The Lords of the Rings, especially the Black Cullin with its dark, moody-looking volcanic rocks.

There are accessible hikes on the island. Other routes are the material of dreams for hardcore climbers.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Clubs for mountaineering, snow sports and sub aqua.

University of Stirling

You can hike from the pretty campus of this university straight up trails onto a lowland plateau called the Ochil Hills that extends across mid-central Scotland to the Firth of Forth, with some charming glens en route. The range is rounded with a steeper escarpment to the south. To the east of Stirling, along the A91, there’s a ribbon of villages called the Hillfoots, which have many paths to the hills. It’s a good area for mountain biking.

The Ochil Hills are by no means Scotland’s highest peaks but they provide good scope for hillwalkers. Ben Cleuch is the highest point at 731m and a popular route. Close to Stirling, Dumyat hill has sweeping views past the meandering River Forth, across the flat, glaciated meadows of Stirlingshire towards the peaks at Loch Lomond.

Clubs and facilities:

  • Clubs for cycling, kayaking, mountaineering, open ocean diving, snowsports, sub aqua, and surfing.
  • There is a climbing wall open to the public in the city.

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