As befits the home of tartan and whisky, simple definitions don’t really suit Scotland. Clichéd images of the place abound – postcards of wee Highland terriers, tartan tins of shortbread, ranks of diamond-patterned golf jerseys … and they drive many Scots to apoplexy. And yet Scotland has a habit of delivering on its classic images: in some parts ruined castles really do perch on just about every hilltop, in summer the glens inevitably turn purple with heather and if you end up in a village on gala day you just might bump into a formation of bagpipers marching down the street.
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The complexity of Scotland can be hard to unravel: somewhere deep in the country’s genes a generous dose of romantic Celtic hedonism blends, somehow, with stern Calvinist prudence. There’s little more splendid here than the scenery, yet half the time it’s hidden under a pall of drizzly mist. The country’s major contribution to medieval warfare was the chaotic, blood-curdling charge of the half-naked Highlander, yet it’s civilized enough to have given the world steam power, the television and penicillin. Chefs from Paris to Pisa rhapsodize over Scottish langoustine and Aberdeen Angus steaks, while the locals are happily tucking into another deep-fried supper of haggis and chips. It’s a country where the losers of battles (and football games) are more romanticized than the winners.
Naturally, the tourist industry tends to play up the heritage, but beyond the nostalgia lies a modern, dynamic nation. Oil and nanotechnology now matter more to the Scottish economy than fishing or Harris Tweed. Edinburgh still has its medieval Royal Mile, but just as many folk are drawn by its nightclubs and modern restaurants, while out in the Hebrides, the locals are more likely to be building websites than shearing sheep. The Highland huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ set are these days outnumbered by mountain bikers and wide-eyed whale-watchers. Outdoor music festivals will draw thousands of revellers, but just as popular as the pop stars on the main stage will be the folk band rocking the ceilidh tent with accordions and an electric fiddle.
Stuck in the far northwest corner of Europe, Scotland is remote, but it’s not isolated. The inspiring emptiness of the wild northwest coast lies barely a couple of hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, two of Britain’s most dense and intriguing urban centres. Ancient ties to Ireland, Scandinavia, France and the Netherlands mean that – compared with the English at least – Scots are generally enthusiastic about the European Union, which has poured money into infrastructure and cultural projects, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. By contrast, Scotland’s relationship with the “auld enemy”, England, remains as problematic as ever. The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh has helped to focus Scottish minds on Scottish affairs, but many Scots still tend to view matters south of the border with a mixture of exaggerated disdain and well-hidden envy. Ask for a “full English breakfast” and you’ll quickly find yourself put right. Old prejudices die hard.
Even if you’re planning a short visit, it’s still perfectly possible, and quite common, to combine a stay in either Edinburgh or Glasgow with a brief foray into the Highlands. With more time at your disposal, the opportunity to experience the variety of landscapes in Scotland increases, but there’s no escaping the fact that travel in the more remote regions of Scotland takes time, and – in the case of the islands – money. If you’re planning to spend most of your time in the countryside, it’s most rewarding to concentrate on just one or two small areas.
The initial focus for many visitors to Scotland is the capital, Edinburgh, a dramatically handsome and engaging city famous for its magnificent castle and historic Old Town. Come here in August and you’ll find the city transformed by the Edinburgh Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. An hour’s travel to the west is the country’s biggest city, Glasgow, a place quite different in character from Edinburgh. Once a sprawling industrial metropolis, Glasgow nevertheless has an impressive architectural heritage and a lively social and cultural life. Other urban centres are inevitably overshadowed by the big two, although the transformation from industrial grey to cultural colour is injecting life into Dundee, while there’s a defiant separateness to Aberdeen with its silvery granite architecture and prominent port. Other centres are less of a draw in their own right, acting as useful transport or service hubs to emptier landscapes beyond, though some do contain compelling attractions such as the wonderful castle in Stirling or the Burns’ monuments in Ayr.
You don’t have to travel far north of the Glasgow–Edinburgh axis to find the first hints of Highland landscape, a divide marked by the Highland Boundary Fault which cuts across central Scotland. The lochs, hills and wooded glens of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond are the most easily reached and as a consequence busier than other parts. Further north, Perthshire and the Grampian hills of Angus and Deeside show the Scottish countryside at its richest, with colourful woodlands and long glens rising up to distinctive mountain peaks. South of Inverness the mighty Cairngorm massif offers hints of the raw wilderness Scotland can still provide, an aspect of the country which is at its finest in the lonely north and western Highlands. To get to the far north you’ll have to cross the Great Glen, an ancient geological fissure which cuts right across the country from Ben Nevis to Loch Ness, a moody stretch of water rather choked with tourists hoping for a glimpse of its monster. Scotland’s most memorable scenery is to be found on the jagged west coast, stretching from Argyll all the way north to Wester Ross and the looming hills of Assynt. Not all of central and northern Scotland is rugged Highlands, however, with the east coast in particular mixing fertile farmland with pretty stone-built fishing villages and golf courses, most notably at the prosperous university town of St Andrews, the spiritual home of the game. Elsewhere the whisky trail of Speyside and the castles and Pictish stones of the northeast provide plenty of scope for exploration off the beaten track, while in the southern part of the country, the rolling hills and ruined abbeys of the Borders offer a refreshingly unaffected vision of rural Scotland.
The grand splendour of the Highlands would be bare without the islands off the west and north coasts. Assorted in size, flavour and accessibility, the long chain of rocky Hebrides which necklace Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline includes Mull and its nearby pilgrimage centre of Iona; Islay and Jura, famous for their wildlife and whisky; Skye, the most visited of the Hebrides, where the snow-tipped peaks of the Cuillin rise up from deep sea lochs; and the Western Isles, an elongated archipelago that is the country’s last bastion of Gaelic language and culture. Off the north coast, Orkney and Shetland, both with a rich Norse heritage, differ not only from each other, but also quite distinctly from mainland Scotland in dialect and culture – far-flung islands buffeted by wind and sea that offer some of the country’s wildest scenery, finest birdwatching and best archeological sites.
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Scotland offers a huge range of cultural and heritage-themed events as well as a packed sporting calendar. Many tourists will home straight in on the Highland Games and other tartan-draped theatricals, but there’s more to Scotland than this: numerous regional celebrations perpetuate ancient customs, and the Edinburgh Festival is an arts celebration unrivalled in size and variety in the world. A few of the smaller, more obscure events, particularly those with a pagan bent, do not always welcome the casual visitor. The tourist board publishes a weighty list of all Scottish events twice a year: it’s free and you can get it from area tourist offices or direct from their headquarters. Full details are at visitscotland.com.
Despite their name, Highland Games are held all over Scotland between May and mid-September, varying in size and in the range of events they offer. The Games probably originated in the fourteenth century as a means of recruiting the best fighting men for the clan chiefs, and were popularized by Queen Victoria to encourage the traditional dress, music, games and dance of the Highlands; indeed, various royals still attend the Games at Braemar.
Apart from Braemar, the most famous games take place at Oban and Cowal, but the smaller events are often more fun – like a sort of Highland version of a school sports day. There’s money to be won, too, so the Games are usually pretty competitive. The most distinctive events are known as the “heavies” – tossing the caber (pronounced “kabber”), putting the stone, and tossing the weight over the bar – all of which require prodigious strength and skill and the wearing of a kilt. Tossing the caber is the most spectacular, when the athlete must lift an entire tree trunk up, cupping it in his hands, before running with it and attempting to heave it end over end. Just as important as the sporting events are the piping competitions – for individuals and bands – and dancing competitions, where you’ll see girls as young as 3 tripping the quick, intricate steps of dances such as the Highland Fling.
Football (soccer) is far and away Scotland’s most popular spectator sport. The national team (accompanied by its distinctive and vocal supporters, known as the “Tartan Army”) is a source of pride and frustation for Scots everywhere. Once a regular at World Cups where they were involved in some memorable matches against the likes of Holland and Brazil, Scotland have failed to qualify for an international tournament since 1998.
The national domestic league established in 1874 is one of the oldest in the world, but today most of the teams that play in it are little known beyond the boundaries of Scotland. The exceptions are the two massive Glasgow teams that dominate the Scottish scene – Rangers and Celtic (known collectively as the “Old Firm”). The sectarian, and occasionally violent, rivalry between these two is one of the least attractive aspects of Scottish life, and their stranglehold over the Scottish Premier League or SPL (scotprem.com) makes the national championship a fairly predictable affair.
As in England, foreign players have flooded the league, to the extent that home-grown players can be in the minority in the Rangers and Celtic teams. However, talented local players still have a stage on which to perform, and the new blend of continental sophistication mixed with Scottish passion and ruggedness makes for a distinctive spectacle.
The season begins in early August and ends in mid-May, with matches on Saturday afternoons at 3pm, and also often on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. Tickets range from £15 to £25 for big games; the major clubs operate telephone credit-card booking services. For a quick overview, see scotprem.com which features details of every Scottish club, with news and match-report archives.
Although rugby has always lived under the shadow of football in Scotland, it ranks as one of the country’s major sports. Weekends when the national team is playing a home international at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh are colourful occasions, with kilted masses filling the capital’s pubs and lining the streets leading to the ground. Internationals take place in the spring, when Scotland take on the other “home nations”, along with France and Italy, in the annual Six Nations tournament, although there are always fixtures in the autumn against international touring teams such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Tickets for big games are hard to come by; contact the Scottish Rugby Union (sru.org.uk).
The area where the domestic rugby tradition runs deepest is in the Borders, where towns such as Hawick, Kelso and Galashiels can be gripped by the fortunes of their local team on a Saturday afternoon. The Borders are also the home of seven-a-side rugby, an abridged version of the game that was invented in Melrose in the 1890s and is now played around the world, most notably at the glamorous annual event in Hong Kong. The Melrose Sevens is still the biggest tournament of the year in Scotland, although you’ll find events at one or other of the Border towns through the spring, most going on right through an afternoon and invoking a festival atmosphere in the large crowd.
Played throughout Scotland but with particular strongholds in the West Highlands and Strathspey, the game of shinty (the Gaelic sinteag means “leap”) arrived from Ireland around 1500 years ago. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was played on an informal basis and teams from neighbouring villages had to come to an agreement about rules before matches could begin. However, in 1893, the Camanachd Association – the Gaelic word for shinty is camanachd – was set up to formalize the rules, and the first Camanachd Cup Final was held in Inverness in 1896. Today, shinty is still fairly close to its Gaelic roots, like the Irish game of hurling, with each team having twelve players including a goalkeeper, and each goal counting for a point. The game, which bears similarities to an undisciplined version of hockey, isn’t for the faint-hearted; it’s played at a furious pace, with sticks – called camans or cammocks – flying alarmingly in all directions. Support is enthusiastic and vocal, and if you’re in the Highlands during the season, which runs from March to October, it’s well worth trying to catch a match: check with tourist offices or the local paper, or go to shinty.com.
The one winter sport which enjoys a strong Scottish identity is curling (royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org), occasionally still played on a frozen outdoor rink, or “pond”, though most commonly these days seen at indoor ice rinks. The game, which involves gently sliding smooth-bottomed 18kg discs of granite called “stones” across the ice towards a target circle, is said to have been invented in Scotland, although its earliest representation is in a sixteenth-century Flemish painting. Played by two teams of four, it’s a highly tactical and skilful sport, enlivened by team members using brushes to sweep the ice furiously in front of a moving stone to help it travel further and straighter. If you’re interested in seeing curling being played, go along to the ice rink in places such as Perth, Pitlochry or Inverness on a winter evening.
To celebrate the birthday of the country’s best-known poet, Rabbie Burns (1759–96), Scots all over the world gather together for a Burns Supper on January 25. Strictly speaking, a piper should greet the guests until everyone is seated ready to hear the first bit of Burns’ poetry, The Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
and some wad eat that want it,
but we hae meat and we can eat,
and sae the Lord be thankit.
At this point the star attraction of the evening, the haggis, is piped in on a silver platter, after which someone reads out Burns’s Ode to a Haggis, beginning with the immortal line, “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face/Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!”. During the recitation, the reader raises a knife (“His knife see Rustic-labour dight”), pierces the haggis, allowing the tasty gore to spill out (“trenching its gushing entrails”), and then toasts the haggis with the final line (“Gie her a Haggis!”). After everyone has tucked into their haggis, tatties and neaps, someone gives a paean to the life of Burns along with more of his poetry. A male guest then has to give a speech in which women are praised (often ironically) through selective quotations from Burns, ending in a Toast to the Lassies. This is followed by a (usually scathing) reply from one of the Lassies, again through judicious use of Burns’s quotes. Finally, there’s a stirring rendition of Burns’s poem, Auld Lang Syne, to the familiar tune.
Scotland boasts a landscape that, weather conditions apart, is extremely attractive for outdoor pursuits at all levels of fitness and ambition, and legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament has ensured a right of access to hills, mountains, lochs and rivers. Within striking distance of its cities are two national parks, remote wilderness areas and vast stretches of glens and moorland, while sea-kayakers, sailors and surfers can enjoy excellent conditions along the rugged but beautiful coastline. For more on outdoor activities see our special colour section.
The whole of Scotland offers superb opportunities for walking, with some of the finest areas in the ownership of bodies such as the National Trust for Scotland and the John Muir Trust (jmt.org); both permit year-round access. Bear in mind, though, that restrictions may be in place during lambing and deerstalking seasons. See snh.org.uk/hillphones for information about hiking safely during the stalking season. In addition, the green signposts of the Scottish Rights of Way Society point to established paths and routes all over the country.
There are several long-distance footpaths, such as the well-known West Highland Way, which take between three and seven days to walk, though you can, of course, just do a section of them. Paths are generally well signposted and well supported, with a range of services from bunkhouses to baggage-carrying services.
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For relatively gentle walking in the company of knowledgeable locals, look out for guided walks offered by rangers at many National Trust for Scotland, Forest Enterprise and Scottish Natural Heritage sites. These often focus on local wildlife, and the best can lead to some special sightings, such as a badger’s sett or a golden eagle’s eyrie.
hillphones.info Daily information for hill walkers about deerstalking activities (July–Oct).
outdooraccess-scotland.com All you need to know about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
walking.visitscotland.com Official site from VisitScotland, with good lists of operators, information on long-distance footpaths and details of deerstalking restrictions and contact phone numbers.
wildlife.visitscotland.com Highlights the fauna and flora you may spot on a walk.
Mountain Bothies Association mountainbothies.org.uk. Charity dedicated to maintaining huts and shelters in the Scottish Highlands.
Mountaineering Council of Scotland mountaineering-scotland.org.uk. The representative body for all mountain activities, with detailed information on access and conservation issues.
Ramblers Association Scotland ramblers.org.uk/scotland. Campaigning organization with network of local groups and news on events and issues.
Scottish Mountaineering Club smc.org.uk. The largest mountaineering club in the country. A well-respected organization which publishes a popular series of mountain guidebooks.
Skiing and snowboarding take place at five different locations in Scotland – Glen Coe, the Nevis Range beside Fort William, Glen Shee, the Lecht and the Cairngorms near Aviemore. The resorts can go for months on end through the winter with insufficient snow, then see the approach roads suddenly made impassable by a glut of the stuff. When the conditions are good, Scotland’s ski resorts have piste and off-piste areas that will challenge even the most accomplished alpine or cross-country skier.
Expect to pay up to £28 for a standard day-pass at one of the resorts, or around £110 for a five-day pass; rental of skis or snowboard comes in at around £25 per day, with reductions for multi-day rents. At weekends, in good weather with decent snow, expect the slopes to be packed with trippers from the central belt, although midweek usually sees queues dissolving. For a comprehensive rundown of all the resorts, including ticket prices and conditions, visit wski.visitscotland.com.
Cross-country skiing (along with the related telemark or Nordic skiing) is becoming increasingly popular in the hills around Braemar near Glenshee and the Cairngorms. The best way to get started or to find out about good routes is to contact an outdoor pursuits company that offers telemark or Nordic rental and instruction; in the Aviemore area try Adventure Scotland or G2 Outdoor. Also check out the Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre in Huntly, Aberdeenshire (nordicski.co.uk/hnoc). For equipment hire, sales or advice for Nordic and ski mountaineering equipment, contact Mountain Spirit (mountainspirit.co.uk) located at the southern entrance to Aviemore village.
There are approximately sixty pony trekking or riding centres across the country, most approved by either the Trekking and Riding Society of Scotland (TRSS; ridinginscotland.com) or the British Horse Society (BHS; bhs.org.uk). As a rule, any centre will offer the option of pony trekking, hacking and trail riding. In addition, a network of special horse-and-rider B&Bs means you can ride independently on your own horse. The Buccleuch Country Ride, a three to four day, 57-mile long route using private tracks, open country and quiet bridleways was the first route of its kind to be opened in Scotland. For more information about this, and the B&B network for riders, contact the Scottish Borders Tourist Board, or visit buccleuch.com.
Cycle touring is a great way to see some of the remoter parts of Scotland and navigate city streets (especially in Edinburgh). You’ll find cycle shops in towns but few dedicated cycle lanes. In the countryside it can be tricky finding spare parts unless you are near one of Scotland’s purpose-built mountain-bike trail centres.
Scotland is now regarded as one of the world’s top destinations for off-road mountain biking. The Forestry Commission has established more than 1150 miles of excellent off-road routes. These are detailed in numerous “Cycling in the Forest” leaflets (available from Forest Enterprise offices). Alternatively, get hold of the Scottish Mountain Biking Guide from tourist information centres. Some of the tougher routes are best attempted on full suspension mountain bikes although the easier (blue/green) trails can be ridden on a standard mountain or road bike. Pocket Mountain publish a series of compact cycling guides to the country (pocketmountains.com).
For up-to-date information on long-distance routes, including The Great Glen Cycle Way, along with a list of publications detailing specific routes, contact the cyclists campaigning group Sustrans (sustrans.co.uk).
Another option is to shell out on a cycling holiday package. Britain’s biggest cycling organization, the Cycle Touring Club, or CTC (ctc.org.uk), provides lists of tour operators and rental outlets in Scotland, and supplies members with touring and technical advice, as well as insurance. Visit Scotland’s “Cycling in Scotland” brochure is worth getting hold of, with practical advice and suggestions for itineraries around the country. The tourist board’s “Cyclists Welcome” scheme gives guesthouses and B&Bs around the country a chance to advertise that they’re cyclist-friendly, and able to provide an overnight laundry service, a late meal or a packed lunch.
Transporting your bike by train is a good way of getting to the interesting parts of Scotland without a lot of hard pedalling. Bikes are allowed free on mainline GNER and Virgin Intercity trains, as well as ScotRail trains, but you need to book the space as far in advance as possible. Bus and coach companies, including National Express and Scottish Citylink, rarely accept cycles unless they are dismantled and boxed; one notable exception is the excellent service operated by Dearman coaches (timdearmancoaches.co.uk) between Inverness and Durness via Ullapool (May–Sept Mon–Sat, 1 daily). Large towns and tourist centres offer bike rental. Expect to pay £10–20 per day; most outlets also give good discounts for multi-day rents.
Scotland has its fair share of fine sunny days, when it’s hard to beat scanning majestic mountain peaks, lochs and endless forests from the air. Whether you’re a willing novice or an expert paraglider or skydiver, there are centres just outside Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth which will cater to your needs. There are also opportunities to try ballooning and gliding.
There are more than four hundred golf courses in Scotland, where the game is less elitist and more accessible than anywhere else in the world. Golf in its present form took shape in the fifteenth century on the dunes of Scotland’s east coast, and today you’ll find some of the oldest courses in the world on these coastal sites, known as “links”. It’s often possible to turn up and play, though it’s sensible to phone ahead; booking is essential for the championship courses.
Public courses are owned by the local council, while private courses belong to a club. You can play on both – occasionally the private courses require that you are a member of another club, and the odd one asks for introductions from a member, but these rules are often waived for overseas visitors and all you need to do is pay a one-off fee. The cost of a round will set you back around £10 on a small nine-hole course, and more than £50 on many good-quality eighteen-hole courses.
St Andrews is the top destination for golfers: it’s the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the body that regulates the rules of the game. Go to wwww.scotlands-golf-courses.com for contacts, scorecards and maps of signature holes for most main courses. If you’re coming to Scotland primarily to play golf, it’s worth shelling out for one of the various multi-course passes or packages available that gives you access to a number of courses in any one region. There’s more information at scottishgolf.com and visitscotland.com/golf.
Scotland’s serrated coastline – with the deep sea lochs of the west, the firths of the east and the myriad offshore islands – ranks among the cleanest coasts in Europe. Combine this with an abundance of salmon, sea trout, brown trout and pike, acres of open space and easy access, and you have a wonderful location for game, coarse- or sea-fishing.
No licence is needed to fish in Scotland, although nearly all land is privately owned and its fishing therefore controlled by a landlord/lady or his/her agent. Permission, however, is usually easy to obtain: permits can be bought at local tackle shops, rural post offices or through fishing clubs in the area – if in doubt, ask at the nearest tourist office. Salmon and sea trout have strict seasons, which usually stretch from late August to late February. Individual tourist offices will know the precise dates, or see Visit Scotland’s excellent “Fish Scotland” brochure (fishpal.com/VisitScotland). For more information and contacts see fishscotland.co.uk.
Opportunities for sailing are outstanding. However, even in summer the full force of the North Atlantic can be felt, and changeable conditions combined with tricky tides and rocky shores demand good sailing and navigational skills. Yacht charters are available from various ports, either bareboat or in yachts run by a skipper and crew; contact Sail Scotland (sailscotland.co.uk) or the Associated Scottish Yacht Charters (asyc.co.uk).
An alternative way to enjoy Scotland under sail is to spend a week at a sailing school. Many schools, as well as small boat rental operations dotted along the coast, will rent sailing dinghies by the hour or day, as well as windsurfers, though you’ll always need a wet suit. Scotland’s top spots for windsurfing and kitesurfing are Troon on the Ayrshire coast, St Andrews and Tiree. The last named is internationally renowned for its beaches and waves and has an excellent surf, windsurfing and kitesurfing school, Wild Diamond Watersports (surfschoolscotland.co.uk).
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In recent years sea-kayaking has witnessed an explosion in popularity, with a host of operators offering sea-kayaking lessons and expeditions across the country. Canoe Scotland (canoescotland.org) offer useful advice, while Glenmore Lodge (glenmorelodge.org.uk), Canoe Hebrides (canoehebrides.com), Uist Outdoor Centre (seakayakouterhebrides.co.uk) and Skyak Adventures (skyakadventures.com) are highly reputable for either training or tours.
In addition to sea-kayaking, Scotland is fast gaining a reputation as a surfing destination. However, the northern coastline lies on the same latitude as Alaska and Iceland, so the water temperature is very low: even in midsummer it rarely exceeds 15°C, and in winter can drop to as low as 7°C. The one vital accessory, therefore, is a good wet suit (ideally a 5/3mm steamer), wet-suit boots and, outside summer, gloves and a hood, too.
Many of the best spots are surrounded by stunning scenery, and you’d be unlucky to encounter another surfer for miles. However, this isolation – combined with the cold water and big, powerful waves – means that many of the best locations can only be enjoyed by experienced surfers. If you’re a beginner, consider a lesson with a BSA-qualified coach such as Craig “Suds” Sutherland at Wild Diamond Watersports in Tiree (surfschoolscotland.co.uk).
Surf shops rent or sell equipment and provide good information about local breaks and events on the surfing scene. Two further sources of information are Surf UK by Wayne “Alf” Alderson (Fernhurst Books), with details on more than four hundred breaks around Britain, and the British Surfing Association (britsurf.co.uk).