Ancient history melds with cutting-edge technology; long, rainy, or freezing winters contrast against vibrant, endless days of summer. Such are the complexities of Scotland, a land where the gloomy weather very often belies the sunny dispostion of her people.
“Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, the hills of the Highlands for ever I love,” wrote Robert Burns, Scotland’s National Poet, and true enough, the Scottish Highlands have captured the hearts of many. This rugged land is defined by its jagged mountain peaks, verdant valleys, icy lochs, and imposing solitude. It’s a place meant for relflection and with all the solitary activities to take on in the Highlands, it’d be hard not to spend some quality time looking in at yourself. Fishing and hiking are two of the most popular pastimes. The rivers and lakes are filled with trout, and an afternoon of casting flies while waist deep in frigid water (with waders of course) is enough to have you heading to the pub come evening for a pint and a bite. There are marked hiking trails all over the highlands (the West Highland Way, for instance, will take you from Stirling all the way to the base of Ben Nevis–the tallest mountain in Britain–in the town of Fort William), but you don’t need a trail marker to give you permission: rights of way on private land for walkers is a tradition still followed in many parts of Britain. You shouldn’t have too much trouble tramping across a field here and there. Or for a little more social activity, grab your clubs and hit the links. Scotland is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of golf; anybody can get a tee time at the Old Course in St. Andrews, but beware: their next opening may not be for many months.
Head out to the west coast and have access to many of the western isles. Mull is a short ferry trip away from the coastal town of Oban and offers good walking trails and the quaintness of its fishing port Tobermory, without having to travel far from the mainland; others like Islay and Coll are more desolate, with walking trails, castles, distilleries to tour (and taste from), and picturesque scenery. The Isle of Skye, further north and connected to the mainland by a bridge, is larger and more diverse, with small towns like Portree offering a few shopping oportunities, and a dramatic landscape from the rocky Cuillins down to the sea. For even more peace and quiet, make your way to the Outer Hebrides where island names like Harris and Lewis represent the superlative in stark beauty: mountains, moors, beaches, and more, and very few people to distract you. Or head to the far north to the Orkney or Shetland Islands, both known for their prehistoric artifacts (such as Skara Brae on Mainland Island) and diverse bird life. The Shetland Islands were, until 1469, under Norse rule, and the Scandinavian heritage still runs strong there. It is perhaps the most remote region of Scotland from that point of view.
But Scotland isn’t just for escaping. The cities have lots to offer as well. Edinburgh is a thriving metropolis, banking and academic center, and home to the Royal seat in Scotland–the Palace of Holyroodhouse. There are a number of notable museums, such as the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland, as well as unique and beautiful parks like Calton Hill (home to a number of Scottish monuments), Arthur’s Seat at Holyrood Park, Edinburgh Castle, and the Royal Botanic Garden. Take a stroll down the Royal Mile or through New Town and you’ll find pubs, shops, restaurants, and accomodations that will suit your mood. Glascow is a very different kind of city. This one-time shipbuilding capitol has weathered the storms of recession and come out the other side with a fresh, new perspective. Glascow is known for its art, design, and architecture. It’s a decidely more modern city than Edinburgh, and as such, it attracts a great deal of younger people. Make your way to Sauchiehall Street for all of your shopping, eating, and drinking needs; but don’t miss the history that Glascow has to offer too. In the eastern part of the city you’ll find the gothic Glasgow Cathedral, St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, and Provand’s Lordship (built in the 15th century, it’s the oldest house in Glascow). Another interesting attraction is the Tenement House museum–offering a window into middle-class life around the turn of the 20th century.
Traveling in Scotland
Traveling in Scotland is typically less expensive than in England (and certainly less than London). The cities are costlier than the countryside, but rates will rise significantly in the Highlands and Islands due to their inaccessibility. Scotland has its own currency, but the pound stirling is accepted everywhere (just as the Scottish pound is generally accepted in England). Accessing funds in Scotland shouldn’t be a problem as traveler’s checks and credit cards are widely excepted, and ATMs are abundant.
The summer is when most people visit Scotland. Summer days are very long and, on the whole, drier than winter days. Also there are a number of festivals and attractions in the summertime, such as the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe Festival in August and September (a word of warning: accomodations in the city and neighboring areas are booked often a year in advance of these festivals; if you want to go to Edinburgh during this time, you have to plan early). But winter has a lot to offer as well. Skiing is fast becoming a major sport in the Highlands, and other outdoor adventure sports, like ice climbing, are popular. The New Year (or “Hogamanay”) ushers in a seriously fun celebration that can turn the biggest city or the smallest town into a chaotic mass of revelers.
Weather in Scotland
Weather in Scotland can be very grim–it’s true–but the bright side is, it’s beautiful in the rain, and even more beautiful in the sun. The dampness can feel everpresent and farther north, rain turns to snow in the winter. The worst time to visit Scotland, weatherwise, is definitely in the winter. The sun barely comes up (don’t be fooled by the relative warmth provided by the Gulf Stream; Scotland is very near the Arctic circle), and the clouds linger and drip. The best times are between April and September–the weather is warmer and drier then, and most commercial operations are open…and in the north, in the summer, the sun barely goes down.
Population: 5.1 million
Government: Parliamentary Democracy
Square Miles: 30,414 (78,772 sq km)
Capitol: Edinburgh (pop 408,000)
Official Languages: English, Gaelic
People: Celts, Anglo-Saxons
Religion: Presbyterian Church of Scotland, other Presbyterian churches, Anglicans, Catholics
Major products/industries: Banking and finance, steel, transport equipment, oil and gas, whisky, tourism