Scotland, a fiercely independent little country on Europe’s fringes, is so packed with history and charm that exploring it is well worth a few weeks of anyone’s time. Many potential visitors will already be familiar with the classic Scottish set pieces before they arrive: tranquil lochs, heathery glens, hilltop castles, brooding mountains, idyllic beaches, pretty coastal villages, and homey pubs with fine local whiskies. These are all easy to track down too, but of course there’s far more besides, particularly in Scotland’s two great and very happening cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Edinburgh, the country’s capital, has the edge for beauty, thanks to its hilly topography and coastal location. Meanwhile far larger Glasgow is the better place to really experience big-city Scotland with fewer outsiders; you’re more likely to mix with Scots here. Both have plenty of good museums and some lovely countryside in their immediate surroundings – the Lothians in Edinburgh’s case; Loch Lomond in Glasgow’s.
Between the two big cities lies the Central Belt, a commuting region with few attractions, while south lie the Southern Uplands. This hilly agricultural region borders England and has historically been passed between the two nations fairly regularly. Warfare has particularly left its legacy in beautiful ruined abbeys, but this is also the heartland for the lowland culture that has come to dominate Scotland today. So while the region tends to be overlooked by visitors it has lots to offer, particularly to cyclists of all types – the roads are lovely and several mountain bike centres have been developed in local forests.
On the other, northern, side of the Central Belt, the city of Stirling provides a hub for Central Scotland where the landscape transitions from the Lowlands become the Highlands: from gentle Perthshire hills to proper mountains in the Cairngorms. As a pivotal spot, it’s hardly surprising that Central Scotland has had more than its share of battles, with Bannockburn probably the most famous for the role of Scotland’s most celebrated king Robert the Bruce, though the outlaw William Wallace (“Braveheart“) fought in these parts too.
Just east of Central Scotland lies the Kingdom of Fife, Scotland’s sunniest peninsula and best known for the presence of St Andrews where golf was famously invented. Just north lies the rather depressed former industrial city of Dundee which provides a gateway to Angus with its lonely glens and Pictish treasures.
This landscape leads seamlessly into Aberdeenshire – the agricultural hinterland of the dour oil city of Aberdeen – which is most famous for the many scotch whisky distilleries in Speyside. The river Spey heads north from here and joins the sea at the Moray coast, a region known for some of Scotland’s prettiest coastal villages and beautiful sandy beaches, particularly at Findhorn.
But in landscape terms these areas are just a prelude to the real mountain drama just west in the Scottish Highlands. Here the Cairngorm National Park is just the beginning of a vast area of deep bleak glens (valleys) and inky lochs (lakes) that’s only lightly inhabited and extends all the way to the northern most points of Scotland’s mainland – a good five-hour drive away. The mountain town of Aviemore is the key centre in the Cairgorms, while its mail rival is Fort William to the west. The latter provides a hub for Ben Nevis (Scotland’s highest peak), the dramatic Glencoe valley and the Great Glen, which famously contains Loch Ness and which leads to Inverness, the self-proclaimed capital city of the Highlands and gateway to Scotland’s far north.
But Scotland’s Highlands don’t really stop in the north and west, instead the lochs simply get larger until landmasses become islands, of which Scotland has many. A large number Scotland’s islands are close enough to the shore that they are connected by frequent ferries or even by bridge, as is the case in Skye, a particularly scenic, large and popular island. Other islands require ferries of several hours or more to reach – particularly the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland – and provides a remoteness that makes discovering their prehistoric treasures and experiencing their intriguing slow-paced traditional life even more rewarding.
For an ideal trip around mainland Scotland check our cornerstone Scotland in a Week itinerary.
If school holidays don’t restrict you to visiting during Scotland’s peak June–August season, then visit in September or May. The weather then is often almost as good and there will be fewer other visitors to contend with, making it easy to get deals on accommodation too.
That said, Edinburgh’s August festivals and it’s Hogmanay New Year celebrations shouldn’t be missed if you can make it.
Other than these, there’s always something going on in Glasgow and, to a lesser extent, Edinburgh with multiple venues together offering a packed events calendar. The best place to find out what’s on in these cities is to check in local listings magazine The List, which is available as a magazine in all local newsagents, but also maintains a good website.
There’s far less going on elsewhere in Scotland, so arrive with lower expectations or plan ahead. Visit Scotland, the national tourism body maintains a good Events section on their website. In summer, it’s always worth checking the dates of Highland Games, while fans of Gaelic arts should make a point of finding out when and where the Fèis are on.
Scotland will amply reward trips of all lengths. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow are fantastic city-break weekend destinations, while to get the most out of the far North and Islands you’ll need a few weeks.
A week can be a rewarding amount of time if you follow an itinerary like Scotland in a Week. If it’s just Scotland’s famed Highlands you want to explore, you can do so in about 3 or 4 days in a Classic Scottish Highland Trip.
No-one comes to Scotland for the weather, particularly since its famously unpredictable. Average temperatures in any city never rise above 18ºC (65ºF) or drop below 5ºC (41ºF). Of course the mercury can go well above or below these points, but it’s generally rare to see anything much higher than 25ºC (77ºF/) or lower than about 0ºC (32ºF).
More predictable is the variation around the country – the west is at least twice, in some months four-times, rainier than the east throughout the year and the temperature in the hills is always lower – often around 1ºC (approx. 2ºF) less for every 100 meters (328ft) you climb.
The strength of the British Pound (GBP) will make perhaps the biggest difference to foreign visitors, but even then Scotland is, by global standards, fairly expensive.
At the budget end (staying in hostels/camping, rarely eating out and traveling by public transport and visiting mostly free sights), you might be able to get away with about £30/person/day.
A more average budget for most visitors (staying at cheap hotels or B&Bs, eating out once a day and going to whatever sights they want), would be around double that, at £60/person/day.
Double that again and £120/person/day will buy you a pretty high-end experience, with smart hotels, meals at the full range of restaurants and your own car for the duration of your visit.
But if you are keen to explore luxury Scotland then costs can spiral beyond that.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £10 per person
$$ => Tickets £10 – £20 per person
$$$ => Tickets £20 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
$ => Rooms less than £45 for a double
$$=> Rooms £45 – £75 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £75 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
$ => Rooms less than £75 for a double
$$ => Rooms £75 – £110 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £110 for a double
$ => £4 – £8 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => £8 – £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £20 per person
$$ => £20 – £40 per person
$$$ => £40 per person
Tipping is not a big deal in Scotland, though in most cases when you’ve received a personal service (mostly taxis) it’s courteous to round up the bill. In restaurants adding 10% to the bill is pretty standard practice.
There’s no need to tip in bars – I’ve even witnessed a Scottish barman calling American visitors back to the bar as they’d “forgotten their change”.
While getting to Scotland involves a flight to Edinburgh (EDI)or Glasgow (GLA) for most people, once there you’ll probably have little cause to fly unless you are heading for the Outer Isles: Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) and in a hurry. There are also major airports at Aberdeen and Prestwick (a Ryan Air hub southwest of Glasgow). The most important of the other regional airports are Inverness and Dundee.
For any trip longer than a few days driving is the probably the most convenient way to tour Scotland.
Rental car booking can often be most easily done via a price comparison site like Momondo. Prices starting at around £140/week for the smallest cars, but some rental companies will try to scare you into paying as much again to remove a £1,000 excess (deductible) from their cover (or force you, if you can’t pre-pay the amount on your credit card). Note though that this excess can also be effectively removed using the services of a third-party such as Insurance4CarHire, if your credit card doesn’t already provide this cover. Whatever you do, don’t forget to factor in fuel and any city-centre parking as both are expensive.
Otherwise driving rules in Scotland are similar to many European countries – except, of course, that you drive on the left. Note that Scotland’s drink-driving rules are particularly stringent, so it’s best not to drink at all if you’re going to drive.
Caledonian MacBrayne is the largest ferry company and works the majority of west coast routes. Almost all ferries take cars, though at a price. Other ferries to Orkney and Shetland are discussed in the Outer Isles section.
Scotland’s trains connect all it’s main cities and ferry hubs and it’s perfectly possible to plan an entire trip using only the train.
Many routes are also incredibly scenic; with the best being the line between Glasgow and Oban, and between Glasgow and Mallaig (a route also served by the Jacobite Steam Train); as well as stretches of the route between Perth and Aviemore.
Britrail sells passes to overseas customers but unless you want a pass for the whole of the UK you’ll save money by simply buying one over the counter at a any staffed Scottish station. On offer are the Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass(4 of 8 days/8 of 15 days; £134/180) which covers all of Scotland. There is also a ScotRail Highland Rover ticket (4 of 8 days; £82) for just the Highlands and a Central Scotland Rover (3 of 7 days; £36) which covers Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and all the bits between.
Otherwise the cheapest way to secure tickets is online and around two months in advance (prices rise as you get nearer the date of travel); you can arrange to pick these up at any station.
In the cities: Edinburgh has a tram which links the city centre to the airport; Glasgow has a circular underground line.
Scottish Citylink is the largest bus (aka coach) provider, serving over 200 towns and cities. Tickets to their services are often most cheaply bought via Megabus. Citylink also offers multiday passes with 3/5/8 days costing £41/62/93 – however once you have a pass you need to reserve in advance, which means you’ll have to lay down your plans as early as you can to ensure you get a seat.
In Edinburgh, Lothian Buses run an excellent Edinburgh-wide bus system – a day ticket for the whole network costs £4 and can be bought from any bus driver. In Glasgow it’s First run the city-wide system. City buses don’t give change.
Notwithstanding the challenges of a damp climate and hilly terrain, getting around by bike is feasible and often pleasurable wherever you are in Scotland.
In the cities there are enough cycle lanes to keep you out of traffic for much of the time (if you plan your route carefully). Cycle theft is a problem, so always lock up your bike; with a quality lock if it’s a good one.
In the countryside you will find most roads not labelled with an “A” pretty good for cycling. There are several national routes that link together quieter roads, helping to make cycle touring in Scotland’s more remote areas a particular pleasure.
Taking your bike on trains is also easily done, though for most longer journeys you’ll need a bicycle reservation made at least an hour before the train leaves. This can be done online at Scotrail when you buy a ticket, as well as at stations.
For shorter journeys between Edinburgh and Glasgow and other central Scottish destinations, bikes cannot usually be reserved – just turn up, look for the bike symbol on the outside of the carriage and hope that another four bikes aren’t already there, since that’s technically the maximum!
Scotland has a proud and fascinating history that’s riddled with myths and legends that make it even more enthralling. All this is just as well, since the more you understand Scottish History, the more you’ll appreciate your visit.
Scottish History loosely divides into the seven eras below. Each contains a summary and links to some of the most spectacular and informative sights of that age.
Hunters and gatherers arrived in prehistoric Scotland around 10,000BC.
The best-preserved of what their earliest descendants left behind lies on Scotland’s more remote islands, particularly Orkney where you can visit the 5000-year-old Neolithic village of Skara Brae and Maeshowe, a burial cairn from the same era. Far more accessible for most visitors though is the rock art at Ben Lawers in Perthshire.
A little later, the Beaker People brought the Bronze Age (c. 3200–800 BC) to Scotland and many Stone circles. This was the era when settlement started at Jarlshof, in Shetland and when the tombs at Clava Cairns were built. There are many more stone circles at, Kilmartin Glen in Argyll. But arguably the most impressive of all is Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Isles.
When, in AD43, the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain, a tribe he called the Picts inhabited eastern Scotland. Some of them lived in dwellings such as that at the Scottish Crannog Centre (though Iron Age in origin); others in structures such as those at Jarlshof in Shetland. Picts were famously much tattooed, but left a more enduring mark with their carvings such as those on display at the Meigle Sculptured Stone Museum near Dundee.
The Pict’s western Scottish rivals were the Gaels, who were related to Irish Gaels. It was Irish Gael Saint Columba,Scotland’s most famous missionary, who founded a monastery on Iona. Meanwhile, in much the same region Gallic kings were being crowned at the hillfort of Dunadd.
In this period Scots lived in an uneasy peace with their northern and southern neighbours and began to adopt some of their cultures.
On the northern islands, particularly Shetland, Viking culture made a mark; in southern border areas Angle and Norman cultural influences left magnificent abbeys (such as at Melrose; Jedburgh and Dryburgh).
This is also the period in which the The Stone of Scone (now in Edinburgh Castle) began to be used for the coronation of kings and an era in which Dunottar Castle proved pivotal in protecting Constantine II, one of the first Scottish kings.
In a particularly brutal and bloody century Scotland established itself by successfully fighting both the Vikings and English.
The period included figures like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the brutal Alexander II and culminated in the Declaration of Arbroath which includes the stirring lines:
“We are an ancient people… for as long as a hundred of us remain alive never will we be brought under English rule… it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting but for freedom for that alone which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
The Declaration of Arbroath is partly reprinted in the National Museum of Scotland.
Key sights to appreciate the era are gathered mostly around Stirling and Fife and include the Wallace Monument, which celebrates life and role of William Wallace; and Bannockburn, which has become the key place to appreciate Robert the Bruce.
The new country of Scotland became led by a dynasty of kings and queens from the Stewart family and for about 400 years their history became Scotland’s. This era was full of tangles with English and French royalty, and a line of pretenders to the Scottish throne who fought to get it back with the help of supporters known as Jacobites.
Most Jacobites came from the Highlands, with many loosely ruled by Clan MacDonald on Islay. Meanwhile Scotland’s Lowlands were firmly in Stewart hands and benefited immensely as they slowly got the upper hand over the Highlanders and eventually completely sidelined and persecuted them and their Gaelic culture.
This helped make the Stewarts impressively wealthy stimulated their brand of Renaissance culture. Scotland’s thistle symbol dates from this era.
Eventually, the Stewarts married the English Tudors bringing them onto the thrown in both countries: A Union of the Crowns. This wasn’t too welcome in either, particularly because of the differences between the Anglican and what had become the Scottish Presbeterian church (thanks to John Knox and other reformers).
Attempts to Anglicise the Scottish church caused open rebellion by people known as Covenanters. These rebels first became embroiled in the English Civil War (1642–1651), changing the course of that conflict, then sided with the Jacobites which ended in disaster.
Finally, this period was also notable for Scotland’s first major (and disastrous) international investment into a failed attempt to colonise Panama known as the Darien Scheme. It drained about a quarter of Scotland’s capital and brought its economy to its knees. This desperation is often seen as a powerful reason for the decision to seek a Union with England.
Whatever people’s feelings about the 1707 Union with England, the move certainly sparked a politically stable era that allowed Scots to focus on other things.
This helped lead to time of great wealth based on successful colonial projects – such as Jamaican sugar and Virginian tobacco plantations. Involvement in many of these made the merchants of Glasgow some of the richest in the British Empire and made their area of town, the Merchant City one of Britain’s most impressive urban areas.
Scotland’s industrial revolution followed and made it a worldwide powerhouse for heavy industries like shipbuilding and cotton mills, including New Lanark, which has since been beautifully restored.
All this wealth and urban development provided a backdrop to great thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume. Their powerful theories prompted a retreat from the church in daily lives and stimulated a cultural blossoming dubbed the Scottish Enlightenment.
Part of this enlightenment concerned the way in which Scotland began to see (then market) itself. The poet Robert Burns became instrumental in expressing Scottish identity; while writer Sir Walter Scott played a vital role in the mythologisation of Scottish History – not only in his writing, but also on his Abbotsford estate – one of many great estates being developed at the time. His romance captured the imagination of most British Hanoverian monarchs – from King George IV to Victoria – who in turn actively sponsored this history, including developing holiday home at Balmoral.
As a result, this era saw a reemergence of Highland culture. The gathering of the clans, kilts and tartans became part of a Romantic tradition which began to bring numbers of tourists to Scotland.
This Romantic thinking also liked to champion historical figures such as Rob Roy and William Wallace. Not only were they seen as passionately Scottish, but they also seemed relevant to both class and urban-rural tensions that were fast developing in Scotland.
These tensions partly surrounded Highlanders who were increasingly being pushed off ancestral lands by their landlords, in favour of sheep farming, in what became known as the Highland Clearances.
The physical results of this can still be seen in places such as the Mull of Oa on the island of Islay. Here piles of stones among the bracken hints at the cottages where 800 people lived before the Highland Clearances. Now some 40 people live here.
These and other refugees created by the Clearances either forged a new life trying to subsist on the coast as crofters; went to work in Glasgow factories; or emigrated to the New World (typically North America, Australia or New Zealand).
After WWII Scottish heavy industry began to decline, steadily worsening conditions for its toiling masses.
This arguably brought to an end 200 years of useful economic alliance with England and made the London government look increasingly out of touch with Scotland’s needs ever since.
The response to this has been an increasing celebration of all things Scottish – a so-called Scottish Renaissance. The passion of involved can be seen at this 1990 singing of the Flower of Scotland, the country’s unofficial national anthem at a Murrayfield Rugby match against England.
Associated are ongoing demands for increasing self-government from the political wing of this Renaissance: the Scottish National Party (SNP). This part has been increasingly successful in recent decades and vital in helping Scotland to secure its own parliament and wide-ranging independent powers.
Despite the results of a 2014 independence referendum it looks likely that Scotland will devolve further from England in the coming years and perhaps even become independent after all. Differences between the two countries’ relationship with the European Union and the use of a common currency would be high on the list of priorities to be discussed in this case.
Present-day Scotland is of course all around to view, but nonetheless two museums – the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh and the People’s Palace, in Glasgow – include sections on contemporary Scotland that make them worth a look.
For too long Scottish cuisine languished behind a reputation for deep-fried mars bars and the like – and for a time it had some of the highest heart disease statistics in the world.
But these days visitors can enjoy a renaissance in the use of fresh local ingredients – think venison and salmon – and then of course there’s whisky to enjoy. That’s always been good – which is why we have produced a Whisky Guide.
If you’re really keen on links between historical events and sights you can visit, get hold of a copy of the book a Traveller’s History of Scotland by Andrew Fisher (@ Amazon UK).
Our cornerstone Tour is Scotland in a Week – which let’s you dip a toe into many of Scotland’s most accessible areas in just a few days.