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.
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.Read More
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing”, the poet laureate Ted Hughes is alleged to have said when asked why he liked holidaying on Scotland’s west coast, given that it always rains there. For those who don’t share Hughes’ cavalier attitude to the elements, the weather is probably the single biggest factor to put you off visiting Scotland. It’s not so much that the weather’s always bad, it’s just that it is unpredictable: you could enjoy the most fabulous week of sunshine in early April and suffer a week of low-lying fog and drizzle in August. Out in the islands, they say you can get all four seasons in a day. The saving grace is that even if the weather’s not necessarily good, it’s generally interesting, exhilarating, dramatic and certainly photogenic. Then, the sun finally coming out is truly worth the wait. A week spent in a landscape swathed in thick mist can be transformed when the clouds lift to reveal a majestic mountain range or a hidden group of islands far offshore.
From wintering wildfowl to cliff-breeding summer sea birds, Scotland is a year-round wildlife destination – all you need is a bit of patience and a pair of binoculars. While the region’s vast tracts of moorland and forest support a relatively small human population, they harbour a surprisingly healthy quota of mammals and birds. Herds of red deer roam the hillsides, while buzzards and eagles patrol the skies. Out at sea, the west coast, in particular, is one of the best places in the world to spot marine mammals, from the humble porpoise to the humongous humpback whale.
Just as the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow, so in Scotland a hill is rarely just a hill. Depending on where you are in the country, what it’s shaped like and how high it is, a hill might be a ben, a mount, a law, a pen, a brae or even a pap (or in Gaelic, beinn, cnoc, creag, meall, sgurr or stob). Even more confusing, if you’re keen on doing a bit of hillwalking, are “Munros”. These are the hills in Scotland over 3000 feet in height, defined by a list first drawn up by one Sir Hugh Munro in 1891. You “bag” a Munro by walking to the top of it, and once you’ve bagged all 284 you can call yourself a Munroist and let your chiropodist retire in peace. Of course, there’s no need to do them all: at heart, Munro-bagging is simply about appreciating the great Scottish outdoors. It’s advisable, however, not to get too obsessed by Sir Hugh’s challenge: after the Munros you might hear the call of the “Corbetts” (hills between 2500 and 2999 feet) or even the “Donalds” (lowland hills above 2000 feet).