Explore Scotland the second-largest of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. It has a 96km land border with England to the south, and is separated from Northern Ireland by the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The capital is Edinburgh and the largest city is Glasgow.
Scotland is surrounded by the bracing waters of the North Sea to the east, and the North Atlantic Ocean to the west and north. There are over 700 islands, mostly in groups to the west (the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and north (Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands).
Scotland is a beautiful country well known for its dramatic scenery of mountains and valleys, rolling hills, green fields and forests, and rugged coastline. While everyone knows the Highlands for this, Scotland is beautiful in the Lowlands, islands and the flat lands of the North-East as well.
Scotland has lively and friendly cities, often of great architectural significance, and a rich history and heritage dating back thousands of years with many ancient and historic sites. Other characteristics that attract droves of visitors include golf (the game was created in Scotland and it has some of the world’s best and most famous courses), whisky (many distilleries can be visited), family history (millions worldwide are descended from those who emigrated from Scotland when times were tough in the 18th and 19th centuries), hiking, wildlife and winter sports. Around Loch Ness in the north of the Highlands, you can also hunt for the Monster… or at least try.
While the sun may not always shine, the warm welcome and wonderful diversity of places, landscapes and experiences mean that Scotland has much to offer any traveller. Sometimes awe-inspiring and majestic, sometimes ramshackle and faded, proud yet also modest, modern yet also ancient, eccentric yet also charming, few travellers leave Scotland unaffected by their encounter.
Scotland has a rich cultural history much of which is preserved in historic buildings throughout the country. Prehistoric settlements can be traced back to 9600 BC, as well as the famous standing stones in Lewis and Orkney. The Romans, fronted by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, made initial incursions but finally invaded Great Britain in 43 AD, moving into the southern half of Scotland, but not occupying the country due to the fierce resistance efforts of the native Caledonian tribes. The Romans named the mostly area of modern Scotland “Caledonia”. Today, Hadrian’s Wall to the south of the Scottish-English border is perceived by some as one of the most famous Roman remains in the world, arguably on a par with the 8-metre-arch on Naxos.
As befits the nation that gave birth to it, golf is also popular, with a very large number of golf courses. Public golf courses are widespread, inexpensive and typically of high quality. Tennis has recently been increasing in popularity since Scottish tennis player Andy Murray has been enjoying success in major championships.
Scottish people are often passionate about sport and the full range of other sports available in the UK are played, with good facilities for all sports in most parts of the country. Nearly every town will have a “leisure centre” providing sports and exercise facilities, playing fields for outdoor sports, and/or a swimming pool. In sports other than soccer and rugby, Scottish sportsmen and sportswomen make a significant contribution to international competitions in a wide range of sports, representing Great Britain.
Regions of Scotland
- The eastern two-thirds of the districts north of the border with England fought over for hundreds of years. The beautiful rolling hills and fields are dotted with pretty towns, ruined abbeys and battlefields.
- Home of national poet Robert Burns and the Solway Coast (“Scotland’s Riviera”), as well as the beautiful Isle of Arran.
- Scotland’s most urbanised region around and between the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Most of the population of Scotland lives in the cities, towns and conurbations here.
- Scotland’s spectacular, mountainous north-west, encompassing the Great Glen and Loch Ness and at the furthest tip of Britain, John o’Groats. You can also visit the growing city of Inverness.
North East Scotland
- Centred on the cities of Aberdeen and the slightly smaller Dundee, this beautiful region stretches from the Grampian Mountains at the heart of Scotland to the dramatic east coast. It’s a region of scenic agricultural land, quaint fishing ports, rugged mountains and hills, and dramatic castles. It’s also the centre of two important Scottish industries, North Sea oil and whisky.
- The many islands off the north-west Scottish coast, divided into the groups of the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. Well-known islands such as Skye, Mull, Islay and Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides and Lewis, Berneray, North Uist and South Uist in the Outer Hebrides are just some of the spectacular isles here. They share a language (Scots Gaelic) and much of their culture with the Highlands.
- A group of islands immediately to the north of Scotland. The largest of the Orkney Islands is known as the “Mainland” and islanders are called Orcadians. Inhabited for over 8000 years, they are the site of some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, with UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
- A group of islands north of the Orkney Islands, the furthest inhabited parts of the United Kingdom. Like the Orkney Islands, they have been fought over by Scotland and Scandinavia and both aspects of their heritage are important today.
In Scotland, a car enables you to reach almost any part of the country. It is also the best way to take in the spectacular scenery of mountainous, rural and Highland areas. However, although Scotland is not a big country, car travel can take significantly longer than you may expect. The mountainous terrain means that crossing from the east to the west usually involves taking circuitous routes.
Do not drive if you have consumed alcohol. Drink-driving is illegal in Scotland and not tolerated by the police. It can be difficult to estimate how much is within the legal limit so the safe limit is zero. It attracts severe punishments by court judges: Sentences include jail terms (including lengthy jail terms if you cause an accident while drunk), large fines, confiscation of your car (according to recent new laws) and if you are from the UK, disqualification from driving.
English is the administrative language of Scotland, and is spoken fluently by nearly the entire population. Scottish Gaelic is the traditional language of the Highlands and Western Isles, and is spoken by roughly 33% of its people. Scots is the traditional and community language of the Lowlands, and is varyingly intelligible with English depending on the variety and thickness – however, almost all Scots are fluent in English, too, and will be happy to switch once they understand you are foreign.
Most historic sites are maintained either by the National Trust of Scotland or by Historic Scotland. Both offer memberships (with free priority access and other discounts) for a year or a lifetime and have reciprocal arrangements with their English and Welsh equivalents. Depending on how much you get around and how long you are staying, they may well be worth buying. Membership also contributes to the sites’ preservation and new acquisitions.
What to do in Scotland
Drive – take a Driving tour of Scotland.
Motorcycling – Scotland has some of the best motorcycle touring roads in the world, although you’ll need good weather to get the most out of them. With good surfaces, little traffic outside of the main conurbations and welcoming cafes touring is a real pleasure. It is also possible to hire a motorcycle.
Cycling – Even though there are only a few cycle trails compared to England, Scotland makes a great cycling country as there are many roads with little traffic.
Rail Travel – Scotland is home to the most scenic railway line in the world – the West Highland Line, and travelling the area by train is very much recommended. Fares can be high, but the scenery can be priceless.
Hillwalking – Scotland is famous for hillwalking. You can try to climb all 284 Munros of Scotland (which are mountains higher than 914.4 m) and become a Munroist, or you could hike the popular West Highland Way, which stretches for 153km, or follow in the footsteps of Rob Roy Macgregor, a Scottish folk hero, on a 124km walk. Scotland’s official National Tourist Board publishes a free Scotland Walks guide, available from their Walking site. There is also an independent site giving lots of details on over 420 routes – Walk Highlands of Scotland.
Whisky Tour – Many of Scotland’s distilleries welcome visitors and many have guided tours. Map of Scotch Whisky distilleries open to the public.
Golf – Scotland is the birthplace of the game of golf and home to the oldest course in the world, St. Andrews. Scotland’s National Tourist Board publishes a free guide to golfing in Scotland.
Edinburgh Festival occurs during late July to Mid September. The Festival is an umbrella term for several festivals, including the International Jazz and Blues Festival, the Fringe Festival, and the Literary Festival. VisitScotland, the official Scottish Tourist Board, maintain a calendar of events and festivals taking place throughout Scotland.
Highland Games – Traditional sports’ and cultural events are arranged in several places. Tossing the caber, for example, is performed by strong men hurling logs end over end. There are bagpiping and Highland dancing competitions, sheep-dog herding (the dogs herd the sheep), Scottish food and other products for sale.
Campervan Adventures – Hire a campervan and hit the open road for a memorable adventure, holiday or escape. Enjoy the wilderness of the outdoors and wild camping in complete comfort.
The Royal National Mod – A celebration of Gaelic culture that is held yearly at various locations throughout Scotland. There are also regional Mods. Events and competitions include those for singing, poetry recitation (original and traditional), storytelling (all in Gaelic, of course), bagpiping and dancing.
What to buy
As in the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland uses British currency which is the Pound Sterling (abbreviated “£”).
Euros are accepted at some High Street stores, but this should not be relied upon and the exchange rates are usually poor, so you’re advised to change your money into sterling.
Scotland offers a range of products, souvenirs and memorabilia unavailable authentically anywhere else in the world.
Scottish Tartans (colorful check-woven woollen fabric) and tartan products (such as kilts). If you have a Scottish family name like MacDonald, Campbell, MacLeod, or MacKenzie (or many others), it may be worth trying to find your own family’s tartan.
The classic tourist souvenir is a kilt and everything else involving tartan. A real kilt costs about £300-400 and is made of heavy wool (so it will not reveal what you might or might not be wearing underneath even in strong winds), but most souvenir stores offer only bogus thin ones. If you really want a genuine kilt or full traditional outfit (kilt, sporran, jacket, shirt, and shoes) the best place to look is a clothing hire shop. These specialize in hiring suits and kilts for weddings and often sell ex-hire stock at reduced prices – otherwise the kilt will have to be made to order – this usually takes several weeks. A bogus kilt set of kilt, sporran, socks and garters of dubious quality for the purposes of a souvenir, can be bought for around £60-100.
The traditional highland kilt is a section of cloth about 6 feet wide and 14 feet long. This is wrapped about the body then then brought up over the shoulder and pinned in place, a little like a toga. The modern short kilt was introduced during the industrial revolution to give more freedom of movement.
Whisky is also a common buy. There are two basic types – blended whiskies which are made from, as the name suggests – several single malts blended together. Beware of souvenir shops selling small bottles of blended whisky for inflated prices – you can more often than not find the same bottle in a supermarket (or in airport duty-free) much cheaper!
Single malt whiskies are more expensive, and worth paying the price premium. Single malts are very diverse depending on the region or town where the whisky was distilled and the type of barley used. The smaller, independent distilleries pride themselves on the quality of their product and their whisky is often only available in a small number of shops, or even directly. Mainstream brand single malts are still sold in supermarkets and duty-free shops.
Tap water in Scotland is safe to drink, if sometimes heavily chlorinated. In some remote or Northern areas it is best to let the tap run for a few seconds before using the water as it may have a slight brown tint. This is due to traces of soil or peat in the supply and nothing dangerous. Generally the further North you go in Scotland the better the water will taste!
What to see. Best top attractions in Scotland
Scotland has a wealth of historic attractions ranging from prehistoric (stone circles, standing stones, burial cairns, barrows), Roman or Romano-British (camps, villas, fortlets, defensive walls, forts), medieval (castles, abbeys, churches, houses, roads) and modern. Since large numbers of people throughout the world have Scottish ancestors, family history is a significant part of the culture and heritage; every region has one or more family history societies and local history societies that help tourists seeking to discover their Scottish ancestry. And grace O’Malley has a grave near her castle.