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The five choices for Scotland’s new national park – and the one our expert thinks will win

Kilchurn Castle sits beside Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute
Loch Awe, home to Kilchurn Castle, is one of the five nominated areas - Getty

Despite being home to some of the UK’s most beautiful, dramatic and wild landscapes, Scotland contains only two of Britain’s national parks. But that’s about to change. In October 2023, the Scottish government launched its nomination process for a new national park. Four months later, the five areas nominated have just been announced: the Scottish Borders, Galloway, Lochaber, Loch Awe and Tay Forest.

The stipulations were that areas nominated must prove to be of “outstanding national importance” as defined by their natural and cultural heritage, distinctive character or identity.

Scotland’s two current national parks, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, and the Cairngorms, were officially established in 2002 and 2003 respectively. The government has pledged to create at least one new national park by the end of its parliamentary session in 2026. Now it’s up to NatureScot to investigate each bid.

The new national park (or parks) might be the UK’s first since the South Downs was named one in 2010. There is a separate but concurrent search ongoing to select England’s next national park. The race will be on to decide which country gets there first.

The Scottish government says that national parks “bring significant benefits to their communities”, not least in bringing in visitors to support the economy. In 2022, nearly £450 million was generated from tourism in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs. Over two-thirds of people who live in the area work in jobs supported by tourism. For an area like Galloway, one of Scotland’s poorest regions, national park status could be transformational.

“What the national park model in Scotland is doing is asking how people can thrive and work in these parks,” explains Telegraph Travel’s Scotland expert, Robin McKelvie. “It’s not just about protecting red squirrels, it’s about protecting communities.”

Biologically speaking though, the conservation rules which accompany national park status may prove important. Scotland is home to many of Britain’s most endangered species including wildcats, red squirrels, golden eagles and pine martens. A new national park could save some of these species from the brink of extinction. Lochaber, for instance, is home to one of Britain’s only Atlantic rainforests and ancient Caledonian pine forests; both vital habitats.

There will be challenges though, thinks McKelvie. “Across Scotland, people who are already established and invested in the land – who have estates with salmon and trout fishing rights, or game hunting rights – may provide obstacles,” he says.

So which of the five areas will end up winning national park status? We looked at each of the bids and asked McKelvie which might end up being picked.

Scottish Borders

The proposed Scottish Borders national park would abut the top of the existing Northumberland National Park in England. Home to some of the UK’s most dramatic historical sites, the area was fought over by Romans and Pictish tribesfolk and Henry VIII launched several invasions into Scotland during his reign in the area.

Leaderfoot Viaduct, a disused railway viaduct over the River Tweed near Melrose in the Scottish Borders
Leaderfoot Viaduct, a disused railway viaduct over the River Tweed, is a popular spot for walkers - John Lawson/Moment RF

There are a variety of historical sites including Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh medieval abbeys, Smailholm Tower and Floors Castle. Leaderfoot Viaduct provides pleasant walks and St Mary’s Loch is a popular spot for anglers, with the wild moors around the Waterloo Monument offering scenic views.

However, the Scottish Borders have never been particularly popular with visitors. The area came last for overseas visitor spending and numbers in an assessment by VisitScotland.

Robin’s verdict

“The place people blink and they miss when they’re coming up from England. It hasn’t got high mountains, but it has wonderful rolling scenery. Sir Walter Scott loved it. It has the River Tweed snaking through. It’s a bucolic, forested, alive landscape. The imprint of man is there: there are lots of little towns and villages so it’s not as wild and rugged as the highlands, but it is very scenic. It’s an unsung part of Scotland.”

Galloway

Situated west of Dumfries, Galloway was described in its bid as “Scotland in miniature”, due to its dramatic coastlines, rich forests, glens, rivers, lochs and open moorlands. Currently, the main attraction is Galloway Forest Park, a 299 square-mile area which is thought to be the largest forest in Britain.

Mull of Galloway lighthouse above the Irish Sea
Galloway is known for its dramatic coastlines - Moment RF

It’s a wildlife haven where species including red squirrels, black grouse, curlews, adders and salmon thrive. Galloway is also home to a number of intriguing tourist attractions including the ruined Caerlaverock, Thraeve and Dunskey castles, as well as stone circles.

However, Galloway is also noted for being one of the poorest regions of Scotland whose rapidly ageing population may simply not have the resources or facilities to sustain a major national park into the future.

Robin’s verdict

“Galloway is wonderfully scenic. The UK’s first-ever forest park was the Galloway forest park, which was a precursor of any Scottish national park. It was also the first dark skies park in the UK. It has things going for it, but most people go straight from Gretna to Glasgow on the motorway and completely miss Galloway. Unlike the Highlands, which were cleared, it is very wooded. It’s where Robert the Bruce used to fight guerrilla campaigns against England. It deserves more attention.”

Loch Awe

Twenty-five miles long, Loch Awe certainly lives up to its name. The proposed national park would extend beyond the loch, offering scenic views into the highlands, from the Bridge of Orchy to the Sound of Jura incorporating Kilmartin Glen.

Loch Awe offers obvious parallels with the Lake District for watersport activities, walking and cycling
Loch Awe offers obvious parallels with the Lake District for watersport activities, walking and cycling - VWB photos

Loch Awe’s bid for national park status brings to mind much of what has endeared visitors to the Lake District over the years; the loch itself offers obvious parallels for watersport activities, walking and cycling around its edges. Hill sheep farming on the volcanic foothills of Ben Cruachan is a major focus for the area too, just like in Cumbria.

However, given its proximity to Loch Lomond, detractors may argue that Loch Awe doesn’t offer much variety. The area is also a huge source of hydroelectric power with large dams whose presence might dampen the rugged wild atmosphere of a national park.

Robin’s verdict

“It’s already quite touristy because it’s on the way to Oban and it has the famous Kilchurn castle. It’s a loch which a lot of Scots don’t know, despite it being the longest freshwater loch and famous for fishing. Of all of the options, I’d say it doesn’t have the same grandeur. It’s not too far from Loch Lomond and you might say it’s ‘more of the same’.”

Lochaber

Already attracting visitors due to Ben Nevis, Lochaber’s bid to become a national park is partially a plea for more funding to help communities manage those drawn to the UK’s highest mountain. But there’s more to Lochaber than just Ben Nevis.

The Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct
Lochaber is home to the Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct, which gained fame after appearing in a Harry Potter film - iStockphoto

The area is also home to the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets as part of the Hogwarts’ Express route. There are white-sand beaches on its eastern shores, chambered cairns, castles, and the remains of cleared settlements on the land. Golden eagles, red deer, common seal, otter and red squirrel are common.

However, judging by the comments from locals on the Lochaber bid’s public website, there is resistance to the proposed national park from some quarters, who fear that it will take rights and ownership away from local people.

Robin’s verdict

“The national park would have to be careful not to damage the fragile economy. It’d need to be carefully managed. However, it would be my number one choice. We’re into the Highlands here so everything is big: big skies, big mountains, big ocean. This is Hollywood Scotland; easily the most scenic of them. This is where you’ll find the UK’s highest mountain, vaulting rivers, endless Atlantic skies. Everything in Lochaber is bigger, brighter, and better. It’s got all of Scotland’s big five wildlife, plus whales and dolphins.”

Tay Forest

Located just off the A9 between Edinburgh and Inverness, the Tay Forest would place a national park in the heart of Scotland. With more than 200,000 acres of woodland (some of it ancient bluebell woodland) the area is already popular for outdoor pursuits, balancing its tourism with biodiversity.

The River Tay from the Jubilee Bridge near Dunkeld
The River Tay from the Jubilee Bridge near Dunkeld - ANDREW MITCHELL/ISTOCKPHOTO

Designated as a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation for salmon, otters, and lampreys, Tay Forest has got wildlife coming out of its ears. There are also stone circles, historic scotch distilleries, waterfalls and breathtaking views.

Given its success in attracting tourists, NatureScot may see it as a shoo-in, though it could decide the area is coping well enough already.

Robin’s verdict

“Spectacular highland Perthshire. This is where Queen Victoria fell in love with The Queen’s View. The forests are lovely. It’s wild, there are Munro mountains, and Scotland’s longest river: the Tay. It feels the most likely option because it is already set-up with transport networks. It’s popular for outdoor and adventure sports so a lot of the white-water rafting, hiking, and mountain-biking infrastructure already exists. All that will count in its favour.”