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Scotland Travel Guide

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.

Facts about Scotland

  • Scotland covers an area of just over 30,000 square miles, has a 2300-mile-long coastline and contains over 31,460 lochs. Of its 790 islands, 130 are inhabited. The highest point is the summit of Ben Nevis (4406ft), while the bottom of Loch Morar is 1017 feet below sea level.
  • The capital is Edinburgh (population nearly 480,000), and the largest city is Glasgow (population 580,000). While the number of people worldwide who claim Scottish descent is estimated at more than 25 million, the population of the country is just over 5 million – 1.2 percent of whom (roughly 60,000 people) speak Gaelic.
  • Scotland is a constituent territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. It is a parliamentary democracy whose sovereign parliament sits at Westminster in London, with elements of government business devolved to the separately elected Scottish Parliament which sits in Edinburgh.
  • Whisky accounts for 13 percent of Scotland’s exports and is worth over £3 billion annually.

Where to go in Scotland

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.

Events and Sports in Scotland


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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.

Events calendar

DEC-JAN

  • Dec 31 and Jan 1 Hogmanay and Ne’er Day. Traditionally more important to the Scots than Christmas, the occasion is known for the custom of “first-footing”. More popular these days are huge and highly organized street parties, most notably in Edinburgh (edinburghshogmanay.org), but also in Aberdeen, Glasgow and other centres.
  • Jan 1 Stonehaven fireball ceremony. Locals swing fireballs on long sticks to welcome New Year and ward off evil spirits. Also Kirkwall Boys’ and Men’s Ba’ Games, Orkney: mass, drunken football game through the streets of the town, with the castle and the harbour the respective goals. As a grand finale the players jump into the harbour.
  • Jan 11 Burning of the Clavie, Burghead, Moray hogmanay.net/events/burghhead. A burning tar barrel is carried through the town and then rolled down Doorie Hill. Charred fragments of the Clavie offer protection against the evil eye.
  • Mid- to late Jan Celtic Connections, Glasgow celticconnections.com. A major celebration of Celtic and folk music held in venues across the city.
  • Last Tues in Jan Up-Helly-Aa, Lerwick, Shetland visitshetland.com. Norse fire festival culminating in the burning of a specially built Viking longship. Visitors will need an invite from one of the locals, or you can buy a ticket for the Town Hall celebrations.
  • Jan 25 Burns Night. Scots worldwide get stuck into haggis, whisky and vowel-grinding poetry to commemorate Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns.

FEB–MARCH

  • Feb Scottish Curling Championship royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org, held in a different (indoor) venue each year.
  • Feb–March Six Nations Rugby tournament, between Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy rbs6nations.com. Scotland’s home games are played at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh.
  • March 1 Whuppity Scourie, Lanark. Local children race round the church beating each other with home-made paper weapons in a representation (it’s thought) of the chasing away of winter or the warding off of evil spirits.

APRIL–MAY

  • April Scottish Grand National, Ayr ayr-racecourse.co.uk. Not quite as testing as the English equivalent steeplechase, but an important event in the Scottish racing calendar. Also Rugby Sevens (seven-a-side tournaments; melrose7s.com) in the Borders and the entertaining and inclusive Edinburgh Science Festival sciencefestival.co.uk.
  • April 6 Tartan Day. Over-hyped celebration of ancestry by North Americans of Scottish descent on the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Ignored by most Scots in Scotland, other than journalists.
  • Early May Spirit of Speyside Scotch Whisky Festival (spiritofspeyside.com). Four-day binge with pipe bands, gigs and dancing as well as distillery crawls. Shetland Folk Festival (shetlandfolkfestival.com). One of the liveliest and most entertaining of Scotland’s round of folk festivals.
  • May Scottish FA Cup Final. Scotland’s premier football event, played in Glasgow.
  • Late May Atholl Highlanders Parade at Blair Castle, Perthshire blair-castle.co.uk. The annual parade and inspection of Britain’s last private army by their colonel-in-chief, the Duke of Atholl, on the eve of their Highland Games. Also Burns an’ a’ That (burnsfestival.com), a modern celebration of poet Robert Burns, including gigs by contemporary pop acts.

JUNE–JULY

  • June–Aug Riding of the Marches in border towns such as Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh, Langholm and Lauder. The Ridings originated to check the boundaries of common land owned by the town and also to commemorate warfare between the Scots and the English.
  • June Beginning of the Highland Games season across the Highlands, northeast and Argyll. St Magnus Festival, Orkney, is a classical and folk music, drama, dance and literature festival celebrating the islands stmagnusfestival.com. The Edinburgh International Film Festival (edfilmfest.org.uk) runs from mid-June for 10 days.
  • Late June Royal Highland Agricultural Show, at Ingliston near Edinburgh royalhighlandshow.org. Old wooden boats and fishing craft gather for the Traditional Boat Festival at Portsoy on the Moray Firth coast (scottishtraditionalboatfestival.co.uk). Glasgow International Jazz Festival (jazzfest.co.uk).
  • Early July T in the Park (tinthepark.com). Scotland’s biggest outdoor music event, held at Balado near Kinross with a star-studded line-up of contemporary bands.
  • July Scottish Open Golf Championship. Held each year at Loch Lomond golf course, just before the British Open tournament, which is played in Scotland at least every alternate year.
  • Late July The Wickerman Festival of alternative music is held near Kirkcudbright (thewickermanfestival.co.uk).

AUG–SEPT

  • Aug Edinburgh Festival edinburghfestivals.com. One of the world’s great arts jamborees. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo (edinburgh-tattoo.co.uk) features floodlit massed pipe bands and drums on the castle esplanade. There’s also the World Pipe Band Championship at Glasgow (seeglasgow.com/piping), and plenty more Highland Games.
  • Early Sept Shinty’s Camanachd Cup Final shinty.com. The climax of the season for Scotland’s own stick-and-ball game, normally held in one of the main Highland towns. Also various food festivals and events under the banner of Scottish Food Fortnight (scottishfoodfortnight.co.uk).
  • Late Sept Doors Open Day (doorsopendays.org.uk). The one weekend a year when many public and private buildings are open to the public; actual dates vary. Also another Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival (spiritofspeyside.com), and the Scottish Book Town Festival in Wigtown (wigtown-booktown.co.uk).

OCT–NOV

  • Oct Tiree Wave Classic (tireewaveclassic.com). Annual event attracting windsurfers from around the world to the breezy Hebridean island.
  • The National Mod (the-mod.co.uk). Held over nine days at a different venue each year, the Mod is a competitive festival and features all aspects of Gaelic performing arts.
  • Nov 30 St Andrew’s Day. Celebrating Scotland’s patron saint. The town of St Andrews hosts a week of events leading up to it (standrewsweek.co.uk).

Highland Games

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

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.

Rugby

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.

Shinty

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.

Curling

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.

Burns Night

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.

Outdoor activities in Scotland

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.

Walking and climbing

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.

Useful contacts for walkers

General information

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.

Clubs and associations

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.

Tour operators

  • Adventure Scotland adventure-scotland.com. Highly experienced operator providing a wide range of courses and one-day adventures, from telemark skiing to climbing, kayaking and biking.
  • Bespoke Highland Tours scotland-inverness.co.uk/bht-main.htm. Offers five-to twelve-day self-led treks with a detailed itinerary along routes such as the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way, organizing baggage transfer and accommodation en route.
  • Cape Adventure International capeventure.co.uk. From a wonderfully remote northwest location near Kinlochbervie, Cape offers day, weekend and week-long individual and family adventure experiences including wilderness trips, climbing, sea-kayaking and walking.
  • C-N-Do Scotland cndoscotland.com. Prides itself on offering the “best walking holidays in Scotland”. Munro-bagging for novices and experts with qualified leaders.
  • G2 Outdoor g2outdoor.co.uk. Personable, highly qualified adventure specialists offering gorge, hillwalking, rock climbing, canoeing and telemark skiing in the Cairngorms.
  • Glenmore Lodge glenmorelodge.org.uk. Based within the Cairngorm National Park, and internationally recognized as a leader in outdoor skills and leadership training.
  • Hebridean Pursuits hebrideanpursuits.com. Offers hillwalking and rock climbing in the Hebrides and West Highlands, as well as surf-kayaking and sailing trips.
  • Nae Limits naelimits.co.uk. This excellent Perthshire-based operator offers everything from wet ’n’ wild rafting to bug canyoning and cliff jumping.
  • North-West Frontiers nwfrontiers.com. Based in Ullapool, offering guided mountain trips with small groups in the northwest Highlands, Hebrides and even the Shetland Islands. April–Oct.
  • Rua Reidh Lighthouse Holidays ruareidh.co.uk. From its spectacular northwest location, this company offers guided walks highlighting wildlife, rock climbing courses and week-long treks into the Torridon hills.
  • Vertical Descents verticaldescents.com. Ideally located for the Glencoe and Fort William area, activities and courses include canyoning, funyakking (a type of rafting) and climbing.
  • Walkabout Scotland walkaboutscotland.com. A great way to get a taste of hiking in Scotland, from exploring Ben Lomond to the Isle of Arran. Guided day and weekend walking from Edinburgh with all transport included.
  • Wilderness Scotland wildernessscotland.com. Guided, self-guided and customized adventure holidays and trips that focus on exploring the remote and unspoiled parts of Scotland by foot, bike, sea-kayak, yacht and even on skis.

Winter sports

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.

Pony trekking and horse-riding

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.

Cycling and mountain biking

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.

Useful contacts for cyclists

  • Cyclists’ Touring Club ctc.org.uk. Britain’s largest cycling organization, and a good source of general advice; their handbook has lists of cyclist-friendly B&Bs and cafés in Scotland. Annual membership £34.
  • Forest Enterprise forestry.gov.uk/mtbscotland. The best source of information on Scotland’s extensive network of forest trails – ideal for mountain-biking at all levels of ability.
  • Full On Adventure fullonadventure.co.uk. Among its many offerings, provides fully guided mountain-bike tours of Highland trails.
  • Highland Wildcat Trails highlandwildcat.com. Scotland’s most northerly dedicated mountain-bike centre complete with one of the country’s longest downhill tracks.
  • The Hub in the Forest thehubintheforest.co.uk. One of Scotland’s most established mountain-bike centres with a huge network of trails for all abilities in Glentress Forest near Peebles.
  • MBHI Bikes mbhi.co.uk. Whether for bike hire or a guided trip, this Cromarty-based operator is ideal if touring the east coast above Inverness.
  • Nevis Range ridefortwilliam.co.uk. For information on all the trails around Fort William, including the home of Scotland’s World Cup downhill and cross-country tracks (May–Oct) at Nevis Range.
  • North Sea Cycle Route northsea-cycle.com. Signposted 3725-mile (6000-km) route round seven countries fringing the North Sea, including 772 miles (1242km) in Scotland along the east coast and in Orkney and Shetland.
  • Scottish Cycle Safaris cyclescotland.co.uk. Fully organized cycle tours at all levels, from camping to country-house hotels, with a good range of bikes available for rent, from tandems to children’s bikes.
  • Scottish Cycling scottishcycling.com. Produces an annual handbook and calendar of cycling events (£8) – mainly road, mountain-bike and track races.
  • Spokes spokes.org.uk. Active Edinburgh cycle campaign group with plenty of good links and news on events and cycle-friendly developments.
  • Wild Adventures wild-adventures.co.uk. A Speyside operator offering skills courses and biking holidays.
  • WolfTrax Mountain Bike Centre forestry.gov.uk/wolftrax. This Central Highland bike centre near Newtonmore has over ten miles of routes for every standard of rider, bike hire and an excellent café.

Air sports

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.

  • British Gliding Association gliding.co.uk. Governing body for gliding enthusiasts and schools across the UK with information on where to find many clubs in Scotland.
  • Cloudbusters cloudbusters.co.uk. Highly reputable paragliding school which runs taster and fully accredited paragliding courses in the Lanarkshire hills outside Glasgow each weekend of the year. Around £120.
  • Flying Fever flyingfever.net. Based on the stunning Isle of Arran, forty miles southwest of Glasgow. From March–Oct, fully accredited paragliding courses and tandem flights can be enjoyed for around £100.
  • Skydive St Andrews skydivestandrews.co.uk. Year-round, highly professional, fully accredited parachute school that offers tandem, solo “static” line and “accelerated free-fall courses” over the Fife countryside. Tandem jump from £250.
  • Skydive Strathallan skydivestrathallan.co.uk. Located just outside Auchterarder, this non-commercial school operates year-round. Tandem jump from £250.

Golf

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.

Fishing

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.

Watersports

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.

Surfing

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).

Surf information, schools and shops

 

  • Adventure Sports 13 High St c2cadventure.com. Year-round surfing lessons and surf safaris across Scotland.
  • Boardwise 1146 Argyle St, Glasgow boardwise.com; 4 Lady Lawson St, Edinburgh t0870/750 4420. Surf gear, clothes and short-term rental.
  • Clan Surf 45 Hyndland St, Partick, Glasgow clanskates.co.uk. Combined surf, skate and snowboard shop. Lessons available.
  • ESP 5–7 Moss St, Elgin. Sales and rental only.
  • Granite Reef 45 The Green, Aberdeen granitereef.com. Sales, hire and lessons.
  • Tempest Surf Riverside Road, Thurso. At the harbourside, you’ll find lessons, a shop and a café that may tempt you to remain snug indoors.
  • Wild Diamond Watersports Isle of Tiree surfschoolscotland.co.uk. Professional instruction and hire for surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking.


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