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.
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.
Read more about best places to visit in Scotland.
"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.