In common with the rest of Britain, accommodation in Scotland is expensive. Budget travellers are well catered for with numerous hostels and those with money to spend will relish the more expensive country-house hotels. In the middle ground, however, the standard of many B&Bs, guesthouses and hotels can be disappointing. Welcoming, comfortable, well-run places do, of course, exist in all parts of the country.
Booking hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs
VisitScotland, the country’s tourist board, operates a system for grading accommodation, which is updated annually. However, not every establishment participates, and you shouldn’t assume that a particular B&B is no good simply because it’s not on VisitScotland’s lists. The tourist board uses star awards, from one to five, which are supposed to reflect the quality of welcome, service and hospitality – though it’s pretty clear that places without en-suite toilets, a TV in every room, matching fabrics or packets of shortbread on the sideboard are likely to be marked down.
Most tourist offices will help you find accommodation and book a room directly, for which they normally charge a flat fee of £4. If you take advantage of this service, it’s worth being clear as to what kind of place you’d prefer, as the tourist office quite often selects something quite randomly across the whole range of their membership. Bear in mind, too, that outside the main towns and cities many places are only open for the tourist season (Easter to Oct): you’ll always find somewhere to stay outside this period, but the choice may be limited.
Hotels come in all shapes and sizes. At the upper end of the market, they can be huge country houses and converted castles offering a very exclusive and opulent experience. Most will have a licensed bar and offer both breakfast and dinner, and often lunch as well. In the cities the in-creasing prevalence of modern budget hotels and travel lodges run by national (and interna-tional) chains may not win any prizes for aesthetics or variety, but they are competitively priced and for the most part meet criteria for clean, smart, serviceable accommodation. Also making a bit of a comeback are inns (in other words, pubs), or their modern equivalent, “restaurants with rooms”. These will often have only a handful of rooms, but their emphasis on creating an all-round convivial atmosphere as well as serving top-quality food often make them worth seeking out.
Guesthouses and B&Bs
Guesthouses and B&Bs offer the widest and most diverse range of accommodation. VisitScot-land uses the term “guesthouse” for a commercial venture that has four or more rooms, at least some of which are en suite, reserving “B&B” for a predominantly private family home that has only a few rooms to let. In reality, however, most place offer en-suite facilities, and the different names often reflect the pretensions of the owners and the cost of the rooms more than differences in service: in general, guesthouses cost more than B&Bs.
Some guesthouses and B&Bs have decor that consists of heavy chintz and floral designs, but the location, and the chance to get an insight into the local way of life, can be some compensation. Many B&Bs, even the pricier ones, have only a few rooms, so advance booking is recommended, especially in the Islands.
There’s an ever-increasing number of hostels in Scotland to cater for travellers – youthful or otherwise – who are unable or unwilling to pay the rates charged by hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs. Most hostels are clean and comfortable, sometimes offering doubles and even singles as well as dormitory accommodation. Others concentrate more on keeping the price as low as pos-sible, simply providing a roof over your head and a few basic facilities. Whatever type of hostel you stay in, expect to pay £10–20 per night.
The Scottish Youth Hostels Association (syha.org.uk), referred to throughout the Guide as “SYHA hostels”, run the longest-established hostels in the Highlands and Islands. While these places sometimes occupy handsome buildings, many retain an institutionalized air. Bunk-bed accommodation in single-sex dormitories, lights out before midnight and no smok-ing/no alcohol policies are the norm outside the big cities. Breakfast is not normally included in the price, though most hostels have self-catering facilities. If you’re not a member of one of the hostelling organizations affiliated to Hostelling International (HI), you can pay your £10 joining fee at most hostels. Advance booking is recommended, and essential at Easter, Christmas and from May to August. You can book online, by phone, post and sometimes fax, and your bed will be held until 6pm on the day of arrival.
There are also loads of independent hostels (sometimes known as “bunkhouses”) across Scotland. These are usually laidback places with no membership, fewer rules, mixed dorms and no curfew. You can find most of them in the annually updated Independent Hostel Guide (independenthostelguide.co.uk). Many of them are also affiliated to the Independent Backpackers Hostels of Scotland (hostel-scotland.co.uk), which has a programme of inspection and lists members in their Blue Hostel Guide, available for free online.
Camping and self-catering
There are hundreds of caravan and camping parks around Scotland, most of which are open from April to October. The most expensive sites charge about £10–15 for two people to pitch a tent, and are usually well equipped, with shops, a restaurant, a bar and, occasionally, sports facilities. Most of these, however, are aimed principally at caravans, trailers and motorhomes, and generally don’t offer the tranquil atmosphere and independence that those travelling with just a tent are seeking.
That said, informal sites of the kind tent campers relish do exist, and are described throughout this guide, though they are few and far between. Many hostels allow camping, and farmers will usually let folk camp on their land for free or for a nominal sum. Scotland’s relaxed land access laws allow wild camping in open country. The basic rule is “leave no trace”, but for a guide to good practice, visit outdooraccess-scotland.com.
The great majority of caravans are permanently moored nose to tail in the vicinity of some of Scotland’s finest scenery; others are positioned singly in back gardens or amidst farmland. Some can be booked for self-catering, and with prices starting at around £100 a week, this can work out as one of the cheapest options if you’re travelling with kids in tow.
If you’re planning to do a lot of camping at official camping and caravanning sites, it might be worthwhile joining the Camping and Caravanning Club (campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk).
A huge proportion of visitors to Scotland opt for self-catering, booking a cottage or apartment for a week and often saving themselves a considerable amount of money by doing so. In most cases, the minimum period of let is a week, and therefore isn’t a valid option if you’re aiming to tour round the country. The least you can expect to pay in the high season is around £250 per week for a place sleeping four, but something special, or somewhere in a popular tourist area, might cost £500 or more. A good source of information is VisitScotland’s self-catering guide, updated annually and listing more than 1200 properties, or try one of the web-sites listed below.
Cottages and Castles cottages-and-castles.co.uk. A range of self-catering properties, mostly in mainland Scotland.
Cottages4you cottages4you.co.uk. Hundreds of reasonably priced properties all over Scotland.
Ecosse Unique uniquescotland.com. Carefully selected cottages across mainland Scotland, plus a few in the Hebrides and Orkney.
Landmark Trust landmarktrust.org.uk. A very select number of unforgettable, upmarket historical properties; first, however, you must buy the brochure (£13, refundable on first booking).
Mackay’s Agency mackays-self-catering.co.uk. A whole range of properties in every corner of mainland Scotland (plus Skye and Orkney), from chalets and town apartments to remote stone-built cottages.
National Trust for Scotland nts.org.uk. The NTS lets around forty of its converted historic cottages and houses.
Scottish Country Cottages scottish-country-cottages.co.uk. Superior cottages with lots of character scattered across the Scottish mainland, plus some of the Inner Hebrides.
A different and generally cheaper self-catering option, especially if you’re staying a week or more in one of the cities, is campus accommodation. The universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Stirling, St Andrews and Dundee all open their halls of residence to over-seas visitors during the summer break, and some also offer rooms during the Easter and Christmas vacations. Accommodation varies from tiny single rooms in long, lonely corridors to relatively comfortable places in small shared apartments. Prices start at around £20 per night, not always including breakfast.