William Wallace and the other heroes of Scottish history might not be around to enjoy them, but with world-class wildlife-watching spots, ancient cities and some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet; Scotland has extraordinary things to offer. From beautiful islands such as Shetland and the Orkneys, where prehistoric remains can still be seen, to the honey-coloured stone buildings of Edinburgh and the pristine, sandy beaches covering 6,158 miles of coastline; the most northerly of the home nations is an enchanting blend of wilderness and wonderfully pretty towns and villages.
The country might be famed for its love of bagpipes, haggis and Irn Bru but they are far from being the only things that Scotland has to offer. Each of its six main cities has a character and atmosphere all its own, whether the cobbled streets and ancient city centre of the capital, Edinburgh, or the urban sprawl and football fanaticism of Glasgow. What’s more, nearly everywhere you go, you’ll find the sort of vigorous nightlife that’s made Scotland the Hootenanny capital of the world. Cutting edge arts and cultural sites abound while in Inverness, you’ll find spectacular views of the emerald green fields and perfectly aligned hilltops that lie beyond the city walls.
Away from Scotland’s urban heartlands, you’ll find the country’s greatest treasure and the real reason why so many people return to Caledonian lands so often. The Grampian mountain range, the picturesque lochs of Lomond and Ness and the rugged purple beauty of the Highlands are totally captivating. Not only are they beautiful, their ethereal wildness gives you a sense of the ancient land beneath and the phantoms, myths and history connected with Scotland’s hills. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Scotland abounds in supernaturally-monikered spots with the Fairy Pool on the Isle of Skye among the most picturesque. Whatever you’re looking for - an historical site, a woodland walk or a locally sourced supper - Scotland is guaranteed to impress.
Scotland and the environment
Since the industrial revolution, Scotland has seen increasing levels of environmental disruption thanks to higher pollution levels created by industrialisation. Like in the rest of the UK, the use of pesticides in agriculture and overfishing are serious issues. The country has also come in for criticism thanks to its North Sea oil terminals and for its grouse-shooting tradition. However, Scotland is working hard to ameliorate its environmental problems and is at the forefront of the drive to switch to renewable energy sources. Both the Holyrood and Westminster governments have introduced initiatives to tackle green issues including creating a zero-waste Scotland and tackling climate change both locally and globally.
On a smaller scale, the Sustainable Scotland Network [SSN] is working with local authorities and businesses to try and raise awareness of global warming. Through campaigning, they hope to reduce carbon emissions and take steps to tackle the consequences of global warming. Scotland is also attacking climate change by installing large numbers of wind turbines in the waters off the coast. Having opened Europe’s largest wind farm in 2009, the country is aiming to make 50 per cent of its energy consumption renewable by 2020. Nonetheless, the North Sea oil industry continues apace, and with an annual revenue of around £12 billion a year, the chances of either the Scottish or UK governments putting a stop to it are slim.
Recorded history begins with the Romans and Tacitus whose father-in-law, Julius Agricola, invaded what was then known as Caledonia in AD 80. Despite seeing off the combined Pictish tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 84, the Romans were unable to hold on to their gains, and by AD 112, Hadrian’s Wall was under construction. Designed to keep the blue-daubed but nonetheless totally ferocious Picts out of the Roman’s English and Welsh territories, the wall kept the Caledonian hordes at bay for 300 years until a combined force of Picts and Dál Riatans swept over the wall, driving the Romans south.
Following the demise of the Roman Empire, England suffered wave after wave of invasion from Germany and Denmark, and became part of the Saxon, or to use Scottish parlance, Sassenach, milieu. Her northern neighbour meanwhile, remained a Saxon-free zone with the disparate tribes eventually coalescing into a single entity named Alba. At the start of the 10th century, Scotland was beset by attacks from Norwegian and Danish Vikings from the north. But the Viking attacks weren’t to last, and King Máel Coluim II [Malcolm] defeated the Danes at the battle of Mortlach in 1010. His grandson Donnchad I [Duncan], succeeded him as king in 1034 but lasted a mere six years before being horribly murdered by the infamous Macbeth of Shakespearian fame. Macbeth ruled for 17 years before being dispatched in turn by Donnchad’s son Máel Coluim III.
Once again, the hard won peace wouldn’t last and Máel Coluim, married to Margaret, the sister of Saxon prince Edgar Aetheling, came into conflict with William the Conqueror, who by 1072 was already disputing Scotland’s borders. Máel Coluim was defeated by the Norman king and forced to give up his son Donnchad as a hostage. Created the Earl of Huntingdon, Máel Coluim and his successors agreed to pay homage to the English kings; unwittingly setting the scene for centuries of Anglo-Scottish hostility. Trouble really started with the death of Alexander III, whose only surviving child, Margaret Maid of Norway, followed him to the grave in short order. The resulting power struggle saw the powerful English monarch Edward I turn his attentions to the north and depose John Balliol – winner of the original kingship contest - replacing the Scottish king with himself. Balliol’s closest ally, William Wallace, was captured and executed by the English for treason. Several years later, Robert the Bruce of Annandale defeated Edward’s son, also called Edward, at the Battle of Bannockburn and won independence for Scotland.
The last of the Bruce kings, David I, died in 1371, and was replaced by Robert Stewart. Despite producing a succession of weak rulers, and leaving Scotland frequently in the hands of regents, the Stewart dynasty proved to have remarkable staying power, not only hanging on to Scotland but also gaining England on the death of Elizabeth I who left her throne to James VI – the son of Elizabeth’s executed cousin, Mary Queen of Scots – in 1603. Despite sharing a royal family, Scotland remained politically separate until the Act of Union in 1707, when the two countries united to become Great Britain.
With the economic benefits of Union failing to materialise in the Highlands, tensions boiled over into rebellion. The first uprising was defeated at the Battle of Preston in 1715, although another clash occurred four years later at Glen Sheil. But despite the setbacks, the Jacobite cause was far from dead. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – arrived to stake his claim to the double throne. At first successful, his forces were smashed by the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden, which finally ended Jacobite ambitions. In the wake of the rebellion, draconian laws were introduced to destroy the Scottish clan system, while many Highlanders were shipped abroad as indentured labour. By the time the Industrial Revolution arrived, the power of the clans had been broken but the Scots had moved on, and the country became a hotbed of creative talent with many of the new advances in technology and the arts coming from Scottish brains. Not content with becoming an industrial powerhouse, since the mid-19th century, the country has also wielded considerable political power and has provided a steady stream of top politicians, including Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling.
When to go
Despite its reputation for dismal weather, Scotland does enjoy some sunshine with the majority of it turning up in the summer months. Winters, on the other hand, can be bitterly cold with plenty of snow in the Highlands and temperatures dropping well below zero. Rain too, is common, particularly in western regions. Nevertheless, although colder than the rest of the UK, Scottish weather isn’t the drawback you might imagine it to be with plenty of crisp clear days during spring and autumn, and average summer temperatures of around 20 degrees.
From city centre tramlines to train and bus routes scattered across its rural heartland; Scotland is easily navigable by public transport. ScotRail (0845 601 5929, www.scotrail.co.uk) is the national rail provider and is affiliated to England’s National Rail. Its website has comprehensive information on routes and prices, while tickets can be bought online. While many rural destinations are too small to benefit from the rail network, the country’s bus and coach services go practically everywhere. Main providers include Stagecoach (0122 459 7590, www.stagecoachbus.com) and City Link (0871 266 33 33, www.citylink.co.uk). The country’s many islands present slightly more of a problem but can usually be reached by public ferry. North Link Ferries (0845 6000 449, www.northlinkferries.co.uk) is the main ferry operator for Orkney and Shetland and runs services from Scrabster and Aberdeen. For the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Skye and destinations on the Clyde, try Caledonian MacBrayne (0800 066 5000, www.calmac.co.uk) or Argyll Ferries (01475 650 338, www.argyllferries.co.uk) which operates on the Dunoon to Gournock route. Also well worth a look is Travel Line Scotland (0871 200 2233, www.travellinescotland.co.uk), which provides comprehensive, regularly updated information on travelling within Scotland.
Eight unmissable sights
With human habitation of the site dating back as far as the 9th century, most of the current Edinburgh Castle has been perched atop Castle Rock since the 1550s, although St Margaret’s Chapel was erected during the first wave of building in the 11th century. Until the union of the crowns in 1603, the castle was also a royal residence, and still includes a royal palace among its buildings. The striking views over the Scottish capital from the ramparts and wall walks are not to be missed, nor is, should you arrive in time, the traditional one o’clock salute when a cannon is fired from the Mill's Mount Battery on the north side of the castle.
Benmore Botanic Garden
Situated in the picturesque countryside between Dunoon and Loch Eck, the wonderful Benmore Botanic Garden is steeped in history and contains a huge variety of different plant species. Some of its trees are well over 150 years old and the garden also has some ultra-pretty walled gardens, the remains of a fernery, a waterfall and trails leading up to the hillside overlooking the spectacular Holy Loch.
Founded in 1178 and boasting fantastic views over the town of Arbroath is the famous Arbroath Abbey. Best known for its role in the Scottish Wars of Independence – it was here that the country declared independence from England – it‘s worth visiting on its architectural merits alone. Although the Abbey is now in ruins, its tumbled red bricks are eloquent testimony to Scotland’s religious past. A newly built visitor centre next door has a number of exhibitions focused on the Abbey, including some of the best-preserved stonework and relics and a scale model of the Abbey as it would have looked when first constructed.
Located at the western end of the Grampian Mountain range, Ben Nevis is the largest mountain in the British Isles with its summit hitting 1,334 metres at its highest point. The spectacular views from the peak – stretching as far as Knocklyard in Northern Ireland’s Country Antrim on clear days – coupled with stunning local scenery have made it a hotspot for climbers, with an estimated 10,000 people making the attempt to climb it each year.
Standing proud at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the magnificent Holyroodhouse is the official home of the Queen in Scotland. Built by David I in 1128, it succeeded Edinburgh Castle as the royal family’s Scottish pied-a-terre in the 15th century. Although the Queen owns another Scottish residence – Balmoral – in the Highlands, she still spends at least one week per year in residence. Unless the Queen is at home, the palace is open to the public, which means you too, can attempt to spot the palace ghost – Bald Agnes; an alleged witch put to death in 1592.
Famous for the mysterious monster that is said to lurk in the misty darkness of its depths, Loch Ness is one of Scotland’s most famous landmarks. Not only is the loch surrounded by beautiful rolling hills and asperous mountains, it is also circled by tiny picturesque villages and has some of the best lakeside beaches in the UK. A web of walking and cycling trails surround the loch and there are also plenty of water sports, including canoeing, kayaking and windsurfing, on offer.
Ballindalloch Castle, or, as it’s also known, the ‘Pearl of the North’, is located in the ultra-pretty Moray region of Scotland between Dufftown and Grantown-on-Spey. Built in the mid-15th century, the castle acquired its nickname thanks to the pearl like stone used to create its off-white walls. Like Holyroodhouse, Ballindalloch is home to its own ghost – the Green Lady - and has a wonderful collection of 17th century Spanish paintings. Outside, the grounds include an early 20th century rock garden and are bisected by the rivers Avon and Spey.
Constructed in the wake of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, Fort George near Inverness was constructed to prevent any further uprisings against King George II, after whom it's named. The third military building to occupy the side, Fort George is built on the remains of a mediaeval castle, which was remodelled into a citadel by Oliver Cromwell then abandoned. Although the fort is currently home to the Black Watch or Royal Scottish Regiment, the former Lieutenant Governors’ House hosts the Highlander's Museum, which contains a wealth of memorabilia and historical artefacts related to the two local regiments: the Queen's Own Highlanders and Lovat Scouts.
Ten brilliant things to do
Hike up the Falls of Glomach
At 113 metres high, the Falls of Glomach are the UK’s loftiest waterfall and are part of the fantastically beautiful Kintail region of the north-west Highlands. Located eight kilometres from the nearest road, you’ll have to hike to see it but the awe-inspiring sight of the icy white cascade thundering down from the hillsides makes the trek more than worth it. Also worth a visit are the nearby Five Sisters of Kintail. Three of the ‘sisters’ are classified as full Munros (mountains over 3000 feet) while the other two make up for their relatively small size in stunning views from the top.
Take a ride on the Jacobite
Taking in an 84-mile stretch of Scottish countryside, the Jacobite is an old-fashioned steam train, which chugs around the countryside near Ben Nevis and Loch Morar. As well as offering you the chance to see some of Scotland’s finest views, and giving Switzerland’s famed mountain trains a run for their money in the process, the Jacobite also lets you follow in the footsteps of Harry Potter, having stood in for the Hogwarts Express in the film franchise.
See red kites in the wild
Argaty Red Kites in Doune is a working farm that, with the help of the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage, has become a hotspot for birdwatchers thanks to the presence of a flock of endangered red kites. Once widespread, the depredations of egg collectors and angry farmers had seen the population reduced to a small rump, all nesting in Wales. Thanks to public pressure and dedicated conservationists, the birds have now been reintroduced to Scotland and England, and the RSPB estimates that there are now around 2,000 breeding pairs in the UK. Along with the kites, the farm is also home to red squirrels, roe deer and a vast array of flora.
Try your hand at winter sports in the Cairngorms
Although you can also have a crack at wintry sporting pursuits in the Nevis range, the best Scottish snow is to be found in the Cairngorms and is centred on the pretty town of Aviemore. Part of the Cairngorms National Park; along with pristine white slopes and an extensive range of snow-based activities, Aviemore has its very own druidic stone circle and a café (the Ptarmigan restaurant) that does the best hot chocolate in the world.
Take a stroll along Lunan Bay
Lunan Bay was voted the best beach in Scotland in 2000 and it’s easy to see why. Masses of yellow sand stretches as far as the eye can see, with enormous dunes behind and crystal clear waters in front. The only jarring note is the small concrete blocks that dot parts of the beach – the remains of World War II tank traps. Just north of Dundee, the bay, along with the tiny hamlet of Lunan, offers spectacular views of the North Sea and the burnished crimson sandstone remains of Red Castle – a mediaeval castle built to repel Viking attacks in the 1100s.
Learn more at one of the many museums
From the National War Museum to the Museum of Rural Life, Scotland is guaranteed to have at least one museum to suit you and your interests. Scottish museums are among the best in the world, and no matter where you are, there’s bound to be a museum around to give to the skinny on the local history. One of the best is the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which includes an exhibition dedicated to one of the most controversial scientific breakthroughs so far: cloning. The display also includes the embalmed remains of Dolly the Sheep – the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell.
Dig up the past on Shetland
Shetland is a subarctic archipelago located around 60 miles off the northwest Scottish coast. Famous for its tiny, shaggy ponies, the island group (along with Orkney) was once part of Norway following colonisation by the Vikings but was returned to Scotland in 1468 by King Christian I of Denmark and Norway, after he failed to pay his daughter, Margaret of Denmark’s (wife of Scotland’s James III) dowry. Since then, the archipelago has made a name for itself as the home of some of Scotland’s finest nature reserves and as one of the best places in the world to go fossil hunting. You don’t have to be a palaeontologist to do it either; all you really need is an idea of where to look and a little patience. While you’re digging, keep a weather eye out for some of the island’s feathery inhabitants, which include the Atlantic Puffin and the Snow Goose.
Get lost in sound and light at the Enchanted Forest
A little bit out of the ordinary, the Enchanted Forest is an award-winning outdoor light show, which attracts around 20,000 visitors each year. An annual event that runs for a month, this year’s show will take place at the Explorers Garden in Pitlochry and offers the chance to learn more about Britain’s wild places via an extremely colourful display. The theme for this year’s show is ‘Transitions,’ and will use light and sound to explore environmental issues such as climate change.
Visit the Auchentoshan Distillery
The Auchentoshan Distillery first opened in 1823 and is located between Glasgow and Loch Lomond, overlooking the River Clyde. Whether you’re partial to a spot of Scotch or not, a visit to Auchentoshan is a fantastic way to get to grips with a Scottish tradition and learn everything you need to know about making an award-winning blend. Distillery tours start at £5 and include a wee dram of Auchentoshan’s finest single malt. Whisky fans (and old soaks) can try the Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience, which for £45, will give you a thorough grounding in whisky making, and better still, allow you to sample a range of blends past and present.
Discover more about John Muir
Considered to be the father of modern conservationism, John Muir was a geographer and environmentalist who spent his life battling to protect the natural environment. Born in Dunbar in 1838, his house has now been transformed into a museum dedicated to all things green. After his family emigrated to the USA in 1849, his early interest in nature blossomed into a fascination with botany, which in turn led to a life spent conserving some of America’s most beautiful landscapes. Among his successes were the preservation of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in the United States and the foundation of the Sierra Club – one of the most important American conservation organisations.
Four great places to stay
A striking Victorian building located in the middle of Fort Augustus on the site of the old Kilwhimen Barracks, the Lovat is part of the Highlands and Islands Resource Efficiency Project and has put a raft of environmental measures in place. Recently renovated, the hotel now has 28 beautifully furnished rooms heated using a biomass boiler and a restaurant serving up lovingly cooked, locally sourced produce. The grounds also include the remains of the west curtain wall of the old fort – one of four Hanoverian military sites built to pacify the Highlanders in the wake of the Jacobite uprisings – complete with 10 gun embrasures.
Glenora Guest House
Located in the heart of the Scottish capital Edinburgh, the Glenora Guest House combines luxe décor with emerald green eco-credentials. Along with an organic breakfast menu, the hotel also uses Fairtrade, eco-friendly or locally made toiletries. A small hotel with just 11 rooms, the Glenora is within walking distance of the Haymarket Railway Station and the big historical attractions, including Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.
St Andrews Hotel
Situated in the picture-perfect 1,200 acre Cambo Estate in Fife, St Andrews is an enormous stately pile with excellent green credentials. Heat is generated using biomass boilers, while the extensive surrounding woodland is managed with the local fauna in mind. If stately homes aren’t your thing, the estate is also home to three well-appointed cottages complete with open wood-burning fireplaces.
For those unfamiliar with gypsy lingo, a roulotte is a French type of caravan, considered to be the crème de la crème of mobile accommodation. At the Roulotte Retreat in Melrose on the Scottish Borders, you’ll find a choice of five roulottes, sleeping between two and four people and decorated to luxury standards. Better still, not only are the roulottes built from sustainably sourced timber, owners Alan and Avril Berry have planted a range of native trees and fauna around them to encourage biodiversity, and have introduced low flush toilets to reduce water wastage.
Four excellent places to eat
The Old Bakehouse Bistro and Grill
Just outside of Edinburgh in the pretty village of West Linton is a quirkily rustic eatery named The Old Bakehouse Bistro and Grill. With an interior crammed with antique chairs and tables, and with vintage plates hanging from the walls, the Old Bakehouse looks like a cross between a Cath Kidston boutique and an old-fashioned pub. All food is locally sourced and the menu changes daily to reflect the local produce discovered at market that day. What’s more, nearly everything that ends up on the menu at the family run business is organic to boot.
63 Tay Street
Winner of a prestigious ‘Eat Scotland’ gold award in recognition of its commitment to serving up quality local fare, Perth’s 63 Tay Street is the brainchild of chef Graham Pallister – a man whose CV reads like a guide to Scotland’s most venerable eating establishments. His combination of seriously high end cooking and local produce has resulted in an ever-changing menu of excellent – and frequently unexpected – dishes.
One of the first ethical eateries to open in Edinburgh, Iglu offers a range of dishes based on a mixture of wild, organic and locally produced ingredients. Working closely with local farmers, the restaurant prides itself on using only the finest local meat, cheese and vegetables, with the result that the menu is bursting with colour and offers new variations on traditional Scottish dishes. Along with the Scottish classics on the food menu, Iglu also offers tasting sessions based on that other edible Scottish classic – whisky.
Unsurprisingly given its coastal location, Asknish Bay’s menu is dedicated to making the most of local seafood. Islay scallops and locally caught langoustines have proved popular, while those who can’t stand fish can get to grips with seasonal game or beef produced at Barbreck Farm in nearbyt Ardfern. Perhaps the best bit though, is the desert menu, which includes homemade Tablet – an ultra-crumbly, extra-delicious Scottish take on fudge.
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