The 5 Most Beautiful Glens in Scotland

The valleys of Scotland have been shaped by ice to give the stunning scenery we see today. Glens and water often go hand in hand; all of my favorite Scottish glens have a river or loch at their heart. But there's something else which I believe makes Scotland's glens so special.

I come from a place where mountains and hills are covered with forests, and while we have beautiful valleys of our own, it's sometimes difficult to get an impression of scale with so many trees in the way.

Scotland's hills were once covered with vast, Caledonian pine forests but human activities have gradually left them bare. And it's precisely the lack of trees which makes the landscapes so dramatic.

It's the way light and shadows play hide and seek over the steep or gentle slopes that I find fascinating, because they uncover creases and hidden valleys that you wouldn't be able to see if they had been covered with trees. You can almost imagine the glaciers retreating and carving the landscape Scotland offers today.

Bare as they are, the glens of Scotland produce some of the most beautiful colors all year round: from lush green in the spring to combinations of white, red and yellow in the fall.

My Favorite Five Scottish Glens

1. Glencoe

The Three Sisters of Glencoe

Glencoe is by far my favorite glen in Scotland, and many Scots and tourists are also particularly fond of this steep-sided valley. If there is only one glen you have time for while in Scotland, let Glencoe be the one. I believe part of its charm is that it feels much like the end of a journey which starts some 30 miles to the south.

Most visitors approach Glencoe from the south, via the A82 road. It's at Tyndrum that you first begin to gain a sense of the Scottish Highlands - rolling slopes, increasingly high peaks, a vast, desolate moor and then there's the guardian of Glencoe, Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the most recognizable hills in Scotland.

Glencoe itself is amazing: first, there are the Three Sisters of Glencoe, often photographed from the two car parks along the road, then there's Allt Coire Gabhail (The Hidden Valley) and the jagged Aonach Eagach ridge, thought to be one of the most challenging climbs in mainland Scotland and last, but not least, there are the isolated cottages which make life here seem, surprisingly, possible.

I like to think that Glen Coe goes out with a bang - the recognizable shape of the Pap of Glencoe awaits on the North side of the glen as you approach Ballachulish.

Glencoe is equally famous for its history, an episode known in Scottish history as The Massacre of Glencoe when the Clan MacDonald perished at the hands of the Clan Campbell.

More photos of Glencoe
From left to right Beinn Fhada, Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh, Glencoe
Loch Achtriochtan and Aonach Eagach ridge
Allt Coire Gabhail hidden by Gearr Aonach in Glencoe
Lonely cottage and Loch Achtriochtan, Glencoe
Aonach Dubh seen from Clachaig Inn, Glencoe

2. Glen Etive

Beinn Trilleachan dominates the shore of Loch Etive

My second favorite glen is actually just a stone's throw from Glencoe. Access to Glen Etive is via a single track road which splits from the A82 just before you enter Glencoe. Glen Etive is, without a doubt, one of the most scenic detours in the Scottish Highlands.

The 14-mile long journey offers the most beautiful scenery - views of Lairig Gartain and Stob Dubh, when looking towards Loch Etive, and views of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, when looking back. There are few places in Scotland which can match the stunning landscapes of Glen Etive.

Glen Etive is one of the few glens in Scotland where you have the chance to admire it twice (albeit from different perspectives), whether you like it or not. The narrow road that cuts through it is a dead end. Once you reach the head of Loch Etive, you must make your way back.

More photos of Glen Etive
View over Loch Etive
Buachaille Etive Mor from Glen Etive
Stob Dubh reflection in Loch Etive
Stob Dubh and Lochan Urr
Remains of the pier at the road end in Glen Etive

3. Glen Sligachan

Marsco and the Black Cuillins seen from Sligachan bridge

Glen Sligachan is one of the best spots to admire Skye's scenery from without having to climb any of the Cuillins (but it's also the best spot to approach the Red Cuillins from, if hill walking is more to your taste).

The Isle of Skye has the Black Cuillins - jagged, dark peaks - and the Red Cuillins - red, rounded and gentle in appearance. Glen Sligachan offers beautiful views of both. You start at the Sligachan bridge and as you walk deeper into the glen along River Sligachan, you see Glamaig and Marsco rising on your left (Red Cuillins) and the Black Cuillin range on your right (Sgurr nan Gillean is one of the more prominent peaks).

The absolute best view of Glen Sligachan though, is from the Black Cuillins. The view illustrates the vastness of Skye and is a landscape hard to match by other parts of Scotland.

More photos of Glen Sligachan, Skye
Red Cuillins seen from Glen Sligachan
Marsco (left) and the Black Cuillins (right)
Glen Sligachan and river Sligachan
Glen Sligachan between showers
Glen Sligachan seen from Cuillin ridge

4. Glen Affric

River Affric

When I think of Glen Affric, I immediately think: ancient Caledonian pinewood. I've yet to see Glen Affric but the photos I've seen of it over the years are enough to persuade me that it's more than worth a visit.

Unlike Glen Etive, Glen Affric is more than a short detour. It's a National Nature Reserve and boasts a wide range of fun activities, as well as beautiful scenery. Access is via the A831 road from Drumnadrochit to Cannich and then along the Glen Affric road.

More photos of Glen Affric
Caledonian pines, Glen Affric
Loch Affric from Glen Affric
Ancient pinewood, Glen Affric
Landscape of Glen Affric
Ancient Caledonian pine forest

5. Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis wearing autumn colours

Glen Nevis is a prime filming location in Scotland with Braveheart, Highlander, Rob Roy and the first two Harry Potter movies using it for some of the scenes. I was not particularly impressed with Ben Nevis itself, Britain's highest mountain, but Glen Nevis is something else indeed - especially in good weather.

Rolling slopes, hairy cows, ancient Caledonian pines and the Steall Falls, all come together to create a wonderful landscape. This is another of Scotland's one-way valleys as the road through Glen Nevis eventually comes to an abrupt end near the Lower Falls.

Glen Nevis is also the most popular route up Ben Nevis, seeing as it is the easiest. There are lots of activities in the area, with Fort William being an excellent base for exploring the Highlands.

More photos of Glen Nevis, Lochaber
Green slope in Glen Nevis
Sunset in Glen Nevis
Trees near Water of Nevis
Sun playing hide-and-seek on Glen Nevis
Hidden valley in Glen Nevis

Other Scottish Glens Worth Seeing

There are many spectacular, ice-shaped glens in Scotland and I have many yet to see. It was difficult picking my favorite 5, because other glens are equally beautiful. Some of the other Scottish glens I'm fond of include: Glenn Auch - a classic glacier carved, 'U' shaped valley where the man vs nature perspective is most obvious through the Auch viaduct; Glenshiel - a long, beautiful glen, boasting the Five Sisters of Kintail and opening up towards Loch Duich, location of the famous Eilean Donan Castle.

Great Glen - a series of valleys in Scotland running 62 miles from Inverness to Fort William, which follows a large geological fault bisecting the Scottish Highlands; Fairy Glen - located on the Isle of Skye, it is one of the most unusual glens in Scotland and looks a lot like a miniature highland landscape, with small conical mounds and small lochans.