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. And out in the Hebrides, the locals are more likely to be building websites than shearing sheep. Find out more about things not to miss in Scotland.
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. Even though, 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.
Still, 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.
"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.
Next to the weather, another timing factor for travel to Scotland is the huge range of cultural and heritage-themed events, combined with 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.
Find out more about the best time to visit Scotland.
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.
While for travel to Scotland the most obvious choice is "by plane", depending on where your starting point is located, there are several interesting and attractive alternatives. Read more about getting to Scotland.
The majority of Scots live in the central belt, with Glasgow in the west and Edinburgh in the east. Public transport in this region is efficient and most places are easily accessible by train and bus. Further south and north it can be a different story: off the main routes, public transport services are few and far between, particularly in more remote parts of the Highlands and Islands. With careful planning, however, practically everywhere is accessible, and the scenery is usually adequate compensation for a long journey. Find out how best to get around Scotland.
Essentials for any trip to Scotland: daily budgets, currency, family travel and much more practicalities for planning and on the ground. Head here for the full travel advice for Scotland.