A rugged, historic land, Scotland has a lot more to offer than bagpipes, kilts, and a notorious lake monster. The country boasts more than 3,000 castles (or at least the ruins of them), as well as the largest wilderness area in Europe. It’s an outdoor lover’s paradise, with ample opportunities for hiking, biking, sea kayaking, golfing, snowboarding, and more. Decide when and where to go with the help of this Insider’s Guide to Scotland.
Scotland belongs to the United Kingdom and occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain. Its location in the far north means that Scotland enjoys daylight until 11 pm in the summer, but succumbs to early darkness in winter. If you’re lucky on a clear night, you may catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights from the Highlands.
Scotland is a small country, roughly the size of South Carolina, so it’s easy to get around. Trains tend to be expensive, so many visitors rent cars. The population hovers around 5.4 million, with the majority living in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Stirling, and Aberdeen. English is the main language, but as you travel across the country you’ll encounter regional accents. In the Highlands and on the islands, you may hear traditional Scottish Gaelic.
Weather & When to Go
Perhaps the biggest challenge with traveling in Scotland is the weather. It can be…erratic, to say the least. July and August are the most popular months to visit, but they’re also expensive and oftentimes wet. Another summertime drawback is the midges—small, mosquito-like flies that swarm and bite and make themselves nuisances. In the spring, flowers bloom and temperatures top off around 50°F. Autumn is a great time to witness the changing foliage, but be sure to bundle up if you’re traveling in or near winter. The high temperatures in the colder months rarely get above 41°F, and you’ll encounter snow—especially in the Highlands. The Scots have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” Heed this advice.
Money and Tipping
As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland uses the pound sterling. Scots do not expect large tips for their service, but it’s generally a good idea to tip £1 per carried bag at a hotel and between 10 and 15% at restaurants. You can round taxi fares to the next whole denomination.
Adventure and Exploration
Scotland comprises five large regions. Here are the highlights of each:
Glasgow has a reputation as an aging hulk of a city filled with derelict shipyards. In reality, the country’s largest city has become a trendy destination thanks, in part, to its free museums and vibrant nightlife. Handsome Victorian buildings, excellent restaurants, a thriving live music scene, and friendly locals make Glasgow a destination you shouldn’t miss.
The Highlands and Islands
The northernmost reaches of Scotland contain rugged geologic features and landscapes found nowhere else in Europe. Loch Ness is here too, if you’re looking to record some Nessie footage. Many people hike in the Highlands, but you can also opt for the West Highland Rail Line or take a scenic drive on the Road to the Isles.
Islands in the north of Scotland are quite extraordinary. A 90-minute flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow will bring you to the Shetland Islands, frequented by the Vikings 5,000 years ago. You can reach the Isle of Skye (the largest of the Inner Hebrides) by bridge, making it a popular destination. Here you can take a boat trip from Elgol for an intimate view of the Cuillin—a mountain range characterized by rocky, sky-skimming peaks. For a closer peek, take the tougher, overland route around Loch Coruisk.
For a less-traveled island experience, head to Islay Island where eight single malt whisky distilleries can be found. Go in May for the Islay Whisky Festival, but book in advance as the island’s few hotel rooms book quickly. Reach the island on a flight from Glasgow or a ferry from Oban or Kennacraig.
The East Coast
Flanked by the Kingdom of Fife north of Edinburgh, Scotland’s east coast is a relatively undiscovered destination. Here you can wander through the whitewashed fishing villages of Pittenweem, Elie, and Anstruther. After a visit to the Scottish Fisheries Museum, head to a nearby restaurant for authentic fish and chips. This region is also home to St. Andrews—the birthplace of golf.
Argyll and Perthshire
Tucked into one of the most scenic corners in Scotland, you’ll find pristine lochs, rolling hills covered in ancient trees, historic castles, and miles of golden beaches. There are plenty of free walking and cycling paths in Argyll, including the Cowal Way—a 57-mile trail stretching from Portavadie Marina to Loch Lomond. For a memorable meal, stop by Scotland’s seafood capital of Oban. A little further to the east, you’ll find the stunning countryside of Perthshire. Castles, thick forests, historic battle sites, and rugged mountains make this a must-see.
Central Scotland and Edinburgh
West Lothian boasts plentiful exploration opportunities, including the metropolitan hub of Edinburgh. Visitors to the capital never forget their first glimpse of the castle or Old Town, which looks much as it did 300 years ago. On the outskirts of town, be sure to visit South Queensferry. Here a trio of majestic bridges lead visitors and locals to cafes, shops, and picturesque residential roads. Orocco Pier on the Firth Forth contains a bevy of hotels and restaurants. Find plenty of outdoor activities in the Pentland Hills in Midlothian, south of Edinburgh. It’s a favorite for travelers who visit during the winter when it’s too dangerous and cold to hike in the Highlands. A stop in East Lothian offers grand churches, historic homes, swaths of beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife, and serene hillsides.
This region is defined by dramatic castles, romantic abbeys, and memorable coastlines. Surrounded by a moat and flanked by two gatehouse towers, Caerlaverock Castle is one of Scotland’s most impressive and well-preserved medieval strongholds. The Rhins of Galloway, a peninsula that includes the southernmost point of the country, features 50 miles of unspoiled coastline. Perched on the salmon-filled River Nith, the town of Dumfries is home to the 15th-century Devorgilla Bridge. The Borders, near Scotland’s boundary with England, hold charming village markets, grand country houses, and scenic swaths of moorland.
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