Hiking to Loch An Eilein from Aviemore: A Sustainable Travel Experience
Loch An Eilein means “loch of the island” in Scottish Gaelic. Covered by the ruins of a 14th castle with a troubled history, this small island is truly remarkable. In fact, Loch An Eilein is one of the most romantic places to visit in Scotland.
The first time I saw Loch An Eilein in October 2020, I fell in love with the place. The island castle is the main reason visitors come to Loch An Eilein, and for the vast majority, the island is but a distant romantic vision. Without a bridge or boats to get to it, the island is inaccessible unless you swim, kayak or stand-up paddleboard to it. The remoteness adds to the Arthurian appeal of the island, a mysterious ruined castle rising out of the water or the mist in the Scottish Highlands. It is truly a sight.
Why Sustainable Travel?
Though Loch An Eilein is within walking distance from the nearest city, Aviemore, most people reach the trailhead by car. This is what I did the first time I visited. I drove to the car park (only 18 minutes from Aviemore), parked, and reached the loch within minutes. Sure, it was fast and convenient, but this journey to a Scottish paradise seemed rushed. I wanted to find a way to explore Loch An Eilein without a car. Enter my quest to reduce my carbon footprint as a travel blogger.
What does Sustainable Travel Mean?
The words “sustainable travel” may seem great as a concept but sometimes, it’s tricky to know where to start. At FrogMom, my travel content has always focused on environmentally-friendly practices, protecting cultural and natural heritage, and connecting with local communities. However, my modes of transportation were not always environmentally-friendly.
Post-Covid, I changed the way I traveled with sustainability in mind, focusing on modes of transportation with lighter carbon footprints. Rather than planes and cars, this means trains, public transport and walking, all of which are fortunately very easy to organize in the UK and continental Europe.
Example: Cornwall Without a Car
In 2022, I traveled from London to Cornwall by night train with my youngest daughter, and together we crossed the Cornish peninsula on foot. Pre-Covid, this is a journey that I would have done by private car without even thinking twice. Opting for a cross-country romp via an Iron Age village felt fantastic, and made the journey as exciting as the destination.
Sustainable Scotland: Loch An Eilein
Now, coming back to Scotland. In January 2023, I was lucky to get a really good group deal on the Caledonian Sleeper, the night train that connects London to Scotland. That’s how I traveled with my daughters and their partners from London to Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands for a weekend out in nature.
Together, we started our weekend by hiking from Aviemore to Loch an Eilein, which was a great way to unplug and enjoy some fresh air. It helped that when we arrived at Aviemore’s train station that morning, the ground was covered in snow. It had snowed a few days earlier and nights had been cool enough for the snow to linger. Of course for us Londoners, walking through the snowy forest was a little bit like entering into a fairy tale — or a snowball fight arena, depending on one’s perspective.
Though it may look like nighttime, the photo above shows a street in Aviemore at 8.30am. Yes, it’s fairly far north in Scotland and the same latitude as southern Norway.
Aviemore City Center
Aviemore is known as the gateway city to the Cairngorm National Park, the wildest place in Britain, and is home to five of the six highest hills in the country.
Back in the early 1900s, though, Aviemore was only a railway station on the main line to Inverness (completed in 1898), without so much as an inn. That changed in the 1960s when the place was designated as the Highlands’ first purpose-built resort.
2023 Aviemore boasts enough restaurants and sports outlets to power a world-class tourism destination––with only a population of 2,500. The fact is, for a wee city, nay a village really, Aviemore packs an awful lot to do, eat and see.
Starting the Hike to Loch An Eilein
We started from Aviemore’s city center after breakfast. From the main street, we could just about guess the outline of surrounding mountains sprinkled with snow beyond the city’s tallest trees. Paper map in hand, we knew that our path would include a mixture of country roads and forest paths, hopefully more of the latter as we were trying to avoid car traffic, and followed the busy Grampian Road to a ramp and a tunnel leading down to the Old Bridge Inn.
Aviemore | The Old Bridge
Spanning the River Spey, the Old Bridge is an original Iron Truss bridge turned into a footbridge. As soon as we stepped on it, the kids couldn’t resist and saw it as a playground. Jumping on the elevated pathway, they walked and hopped single file, giddy with excitement at the sound of crunchy snow underfoot, trying not to slip and fall (which they didn’t, fortunately). Coincidentally, we’d watched the movie Stand By Me the week before and they started singing the song in unison.
Now across the River Spey, we followed the Old Logging Way, a footpath cutting through a forest to the B970, a long straight road lined by a few local landmarks such as the white Epicospal Church or the Rothiemurchus Visitor Centre. The road was quite busy (aye, lots of cars going fast) and it was with no small relief that we crossed the road to turn southwest on a minor road, and then onto an actual forest trail.
Rothiemurchus | Great Caledonian Forest
Quiet, at long last, or so we thought. We found quiet and snowball fights, because the snow was hard to resist for these youthful souls. We were now hiking through some of the remaining fragments of the great Caledonian Forest known as Rothiemurchus Forest.
Beyond the botanical definition––high woodland dominated by Scots pine––the Caledonian Forest has also been a forest of myth and magic, where hermits dwelled and where monsters and dragons awaited the brave. Rothiemurchus Forest was marked by the Wolf of Badenoch, a tyrant whose folly would sadly be remembered in the pages of medieval Scotland and whose legacy would include the island castle of Loch An Eilein––our destination.
Our trail was pretty heavenly until we were treated to a Serenade in Chainsaw Major, performed by two men and their chainsaws. “Clearing the trail?” I asked. Yes, they confirmed, pulling unstable branches of big trees to saw them clean off and avoid hikers with broken skulls. Good men. We thanked them and carried on.
Rothiemurchus | Lochan Mors
At the next junction, we found a lochan––a small loch––its frozen surface thawing. The top layer of the water was milky and grainy, indicating a transitional state between sludge and ice, on the icier end of things. The kids wanted to play. What better way to gauge the ice’s thickness than by throwing big rocks into the lake, may I ask? No, there was no better scientific way. And so they threw big rocks and whooped.
They cheered when said rocks bounced on the surface and rolled over. Yes, it was definitely frozen over. As I had a swim in mind for the next loch, I started wondering if the swim would even be possible.
Past Lochan Mors, we stumbled upon a herd of horses with questionable hairdos, their mane no doubt sculpted by icy winds into unruly thick strands. They were obviously eager for company and walked to the kids right away, requesting here a scratch, there a caress.
I had the hardest time pulling the kids from petting the horses through the fence, but the day was not getting any younger and we still hadn’t reached the loch. At the next corner, Milton Cottage marked the last turning point on the road leading us south and straight to the parking lot at Loch An Eilein Gate.
Loch An Eilein
Finally, after 4 stop-and-go miles on the trail, we had reached Loch An Eilein. Judging by the number of dogs on the trail, this was a very popular spot for dog-walkers and all sizes of dogs.
As soon as we could, we cut through the undergrowth to the shores of the lake, aiming for the island that gave the loch its name. At loch level, there was no doubt that this side of the loch was as, if not more, frozen as Lochan Mors. Though the ice started a foot or so from the edge, it stretched pretty far until roughly the middle of the loch and the clear water was dark as a witches’ brew. That’s when we spotted the island and its castle in the distance. It was a sight to behold.
As you can see, there’s not much island. At this point, the island and the castle are one and the same, as what used to be the island is now submerged.
Loch An Eilein’s Island – Early History and the Wolf of Badenoch
The island has a fascinating history that I researched in official archives because it was just too intriguing to pass. Standing under a tall Scots pine opposite the island, I started thinking about the obvious: Was the castle always there? Was the island always inhabited?
Interestingly, the little island was originally home to a crannog, an Iron Age lake dwelling resembling a huge wicker hut. These huts stood on elevated wooden platforms raised above the loch surface by pillars. Back then, the water level of Loch An Eilein was much lower and the surface of the island much larger, making the island a comfortable foundation for a feudal stronghold. This was where the history of the island changed to a much darker course.
The Wolf of Badenoch
The Wolf of Badenoch was born in 1343 as Alexander Stewart, the youngest legitimate son of the future King Robert II. After his father acceded the throne, young Alexander became Lord of Badenoch and Justiciar of northern Scotland, meaning that he was the local sheriff and free to terrorize the local population at will without consequences––a familiar theme in world history. Ambitious and hungry for power, he commandeered private militias to beat people up and increase his territory with relative success. Why stop with violence, mind you? He also sought to gain new titles and land by marrying Euphemia, Countess of Ross, but theirs was an unhappy marriage that ultimately led to Alexander’s demise.
By the by, the most notable of Alexander’s castles became another island castle, Lochindorb Castle on an island in Lochindorb, north of Grantown-on-Spey. At age 43, spending more time with his mistresses than his wife, Alexander went on yet another of his power trip rampages and took possession of the lands of Rothiemurchus, previously granted to Andrew, Bishop of Moray, lands that included Loch An Eilein. Anybody could have told him that messing with the Church during the Middle Ages was a bad idea, but there it was. Shortly after, his wife asked for a divorce (and obtained it) and he was excommunicated. He did not take it kindly.
In revenge, the monk who brought him news of his excommunication was drowned in a dungeon pit at Lochindorb Castle. That was only the appetizer. Leading a band of wild highlanders, Alexander then sacked the town of Forres, before heading east, destroying Pluscarden Abbey en route to Elgin where he arrived on June 17, 1390. Here, he burned much of the town and destroyed Elgin Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in Scotland, widely known as the Lantern of the North. After this massacre, Alexander Stewart had made a point but was defeated by his brother, Robert III, who ordered him to do penance and stop messing about. Which he did. About time too.
Though the particulars are unclear, the castle island on Loch An Eilein had a fairly bloody past during the life of the Wolf of Badenoch but fortunately, all that has been forgotten for the sake of romanticism and mass tourism.
Since then, I’ve also learned that Loch An Eilein may hide a mystery zigzag causeway underwater leading to the island and the castle door, but as nobody has ever been able to find it, it’ll have to remain a rumor.
Icy Dip in Loch An Eilein
Back to the present, I was more concerned with how in the Mighty Haggis I was going to be able to have the swim I had been planning. I changed into my bikini and stepped into the water. Around the edge, it was crystal clear, and I tiptoed around sizable round rocks until I was waist-deep in the water a few meters away. That’s when I was blocked by the ice. Trying to press on it with my fingers achieved nothing. It was bouncy and firm. Well then, I picked a big rock from the bottom of the loch and started chipping away at the ice, trying to create a passage. Yes it may seem crazy, but I am a cold water swimmer and swimming here is not that much different from last winter when I swam in Stockholm. I understand it’s not for everyone; you have to be trained, as I train year-round in cold outdoor locations.
Back in Loch an Eilein, unfortunately my rock bounced as well. The ice must have been at least an inch thick, perhaps thicker.
Trying to make an impression, I threw the big rock in the direction of the island and it just skidded on the ice. The nerve! Throwing my hands up in the air, I lost my balance and comically ended up bottom first in the loch, fortunately not cutting myself in the process but laughing so hard that I attracted the attention of dog walkers on the path. After a glory pic holding a chunk of ice bigger than my head, I headed back to shore.
Loch An Eilein’s Little Shop
By now, it was 2pm and my teenagers were starving. They needed food, food, glorious food! Ah, why hadn’t I packed any snacks? Surely, I could have anticipated hungry teenagers? Alas, we were quite far from the center of Aviemore and there wasn’t much in the way of facilities around the loch, except a tiny cottage house. Good grief, could they be serving food?
Excitedly, we pushed the door of the cottage open and discovered an adorable shop with great upcycled whisky barrel and other wood crafts, but very limited café options.
Food was limited too but two of my teenagers were happy to dig into two miniature chocolate ice cream pots. Indeed, who wouldn’t jump on an ice cream in the middle of winter in snowy Scotland? I wondered.
Returning to Aviemore
We returned to Aviemore pretty much the same way, startling a white-tailed deer before Lochan Mors and walking so fast that despite the low temperature, we were sweaty and out of breath. Luckily, the sun made a brief and welcome appearance right around Lochan Mors, shining a warm light on the thawing loch.
Rothiemurchus Centre Café
My very resourceful oldest daughter had found a café about 30 minutes’ walk away, so we pressed on.
It was with no small pleasure that around 2.45pm, we pushed open the door to the Rothiemurchus Centre Café. They had everything to please our small crowd: Mushroom stroganoff casserole! Vegan sausage roll! Sodas! Cullen skink! Cullen skink, in case you’ve never encountered it, is a traditional Scottish smoked fish soup and it’s delicious.
Finally sitting down, we enjoyed a delicious lunch before returning to Aviemore by way of the Old Logging Road and the Old Bridge.
If you consider the same hike from Aviemore to Loch An Eilein and back, here are few pointers:
- Distance: 8 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 381 feet
- Time: 1.5 hours each way
- Food: hot drinks and light snacks at Loch An Einlein’s shop; full meals at Rothiemurchus Centre Café; pack your own snacks.
- Amenities: restrooms at Loch An Eilein’s car park and at Rothiemurchus Centre.
- Difficulty: medium. Trails are generally wide and flat, with a few ups and downs.
- Distance with tour of Loch An Eilein: 10 miles
- Gear: good walking shoes, dress is layers.
Not mine, but very handy.