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a pontoon stretching out into the still and blue waters of Loch Lomond with hills in the background

Loch vs Lake: What’s the Difference?

Posted on 30 Jan 2023

If you’ve found yourself wondering what the difference is between a loch and a lake, you’re not alone. Many of us are familiar with lakes and if you’ve heard of lochs, it’s natural to become curious about the difference between the two. In this blog we’ll explore the similarities and differences between lochs and lakes. We’ll also share some fantastic facts about their features, their cultural significance and how best to visit them. Whether you're a nature lover, a geography enthusiast, or just fascinated by the world around you, take a deep dive into the watery world of lochs and lakes with us now.

Table of Contents:

the still waters of Loch Lomond reflects the surrounding hills and forests under a misty sky

Loch vs Lake

Lochs and lakes are both large inland bodies of water. So what is the difference between a loch and a lake? Well, the main distinction is where they are located. Lochs can be found in Scotland and Ireland whilst lakes are found elsewhere in the world. This is because the word ‘loch’ comes from the Gaelic languages which were historically used in these parts of Britain.

Another key difference between lochs and lakes is that ‘loch’ can refer to various types of water formations. For example, a loch can refer to:

  • A natural lake
  • An artificial lake
  • A sea inlet
  • A firth

In contrast, a lake is usually understood to be landlocked and not have access to the sea or ocean. In Scotland, you may hear these large ocean inlets referred to as sea lochs.

Why Do Scots Call Lakes Lochs?

Scots call lakes lochs because it’s been passed down in their language. The word ‘loch’ is believed to have been brought to Scotland by the Gaels. Gaels were a Celtic tribe who settled in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. ‘Loch’ was used to describe the many lakes and inlets that are found in the Scottish and Irish landscapes. Nowadays, the word loch is still used, tying Scottish people to their heritage.

the frozen water of Loch Laggan surrounded by snow covered mountains and pine trees

Are There Any Lakes in Scotland?

Yes, there is one official lake in Scotland. It’s called the Lake of Menteith and is located near Stirling in central Scotland. We’re not completely sure why the Lake of Menteith is called a lake and not a loch. However, it’s thought to be something to do with English influence. Until the 19th century, there are records of Menteith being called a loch. However, one theory is that in 1838 when the UK Government’s Ordnance Survey mapped the area they named it a lake instead and this became cemented.

In the Lake of Menteith, you can find the Island of Inchmahome which has had many famous guests throughout history. Mary Queen of Scots used it as a refuge when she was an infant and Scottish hero Robert the Bruce is reported to have visited three times in 1305, 1308 and 1310.

Lochs vs Fjords

Lochs and fjords are also both bodies of water, but they have a few distinct characteristics. Again, lochs are tied to the Gaelic language, meaning you can find them in Scotland and Ireland; whereas fjords are typical for Norway, Greenland, Canada, Chile, and New Zealand. Whilst lochs come in many different shapes and sizes, fjords are formed by a specific geological process. They exist where glacial erosion has created a deep, steep-sided valley between cliffs. These valleys are then flooded by water from the sea to create fjords.

Urquhart Castle sits on the green banks of Loch Ness overlooking the clear, blue water in summer

Lochs in Scottish Culture

Lochs play a significant role in Scottish culture. They’ve historically been involved in many epic Scottish battles. For example the Battle of the Shirts was a brutal clan fight that took place on the banks of Loch Lochy in 1544 between Clan Macdonald and Clans Fraser and Grant.

Lochs have also been an important source of food for the Scottish people. Fish such as salmon and trout have been caught in the lochs for centuries. Now, fishing on the Scottish lochs is not only an important export, but it’s also a popular hobby. Many people flock to Scotland’s Highlands to make the most of the fishing opportunities and to admire some spectacular views whilst they are at it.

Scottish folklore, art, and literature have also been heavily influenced by Scotland’s mesmerising lochs. Legends of the great Loch Ness monster who dwells in Loch Ness are known the world over. The beautiful Loch Lomond inspired the popular Scottish song The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. It’s not surprising that Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns was also inspired by the lochs. His poem On Scaring Some Water-Fowl In Loch-Turit is just one example. In more recent times, the incredible loch views have been used as dramatic filming locations. For example, you may recognise Loch Shiel as Hogwarts’ Black Lake in the Harry Potter movies and Loch Katrine has been used in the popular Outlander series.

How to Explore Scotland’s Lochs

We don’t blame you for wanting to explore the differences between a loch and a lake for yourself. There are a few ways to do this:

  • One way to discover Scotland’s lochs is to walk around them. There are plenty of lovely paths you can choose, but they vary in difficulty, so make sure to pick one that suits your hiking style.
  • Another option is to explore Scotland’s lochs from the water. If you’re brave enough, you could do some wild swimming. Alternatively, there are many places where you can hire a canoe, kayak or paddle board.
  • One of the best ways to discover the many lochs of Scotland is to join one of our small-group tours. For example you can see four famous lochs on our Highland Explorer tour including Loch Ness, Loch Broom and Loch Torridon. Or, hop aboard our Highland Lochs, Glens & Whisky tour from Edinburgh to see the Queen's View overlooking Loch Tummel. You can also do a loch cruise with us on a Stirling Castle & Loch Lomond day tour from Glasgow.

We offer a wide range of loch tours so there are plenty to choose from. Have a specific loch you’d like to visit in mind? Speak to a member of our team to organise a private tour.

the silhouette of a tree growing at the edge of a Scottish loch at sunset

Unlock Scotland with Rabbie’s Tours

Lochs are just the beginning of some of the amazing things you can see on a Rabbie’s tour. From picturesque islands to rugged cliffs and magical waterfalls, Scotland is overflowing with beautiful natural sites. Not to mention all the impressive landmarks and castles that cover the country. Want to judge lochs vs lakes for yourself? You could also do a tour of the Lake District and explore what England has to offer. Book a tour now or sign up to our newsletter to hear about our new departure points.



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