If You Like
Whether a jumble of stones or a fully intact fortress, whether in private ownership or under the care of a preservation group—such as Historic Scotland (a government agency) or the National Trust for Scotland (a private, charitable organization)—Scotland's castles powerfully demonstrate the country's lavish past and its once-uneasy relationship with its southern neighbor.
Scotland has every type of castle imaginable, from triangular 13th-century fortresses such as Caerlaverock, to picturesque stereotypes like Eilean Donan, surrounded by lakes. Royal Deeside, west of Aberdeen, has an eclectic group strung together along a series of roadways called the Castle Trail. Here you can find Drum, Crathes, Balmoral, Braemar, Corgarff, Glenbuchat, Kildrummy, and Dunnottar, all within a 100-mi radius. Glamis Castle, northeast of Dundee, is one of Scotland's most beautiful castles, connecting Britain's royalty from Macbeth to the late Princess Margaret. Farther south, in the Borders, are several stunning castles—all good representations of medieval architecture and lifestyle. Among these, the Hermitage Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots, traveled to visit her lover, the earl of Bothwell, is dark and foreboding; Floors Castle has grand turrets and towers; and Neidpath Castle has dungeons carved out of solid rock.
Scottish castles are not restricted to country roads or seaside cliffs; most are, however, on the mainland. Of the castles in cities and towns, majestic Edinburgh Castle has dramatic views of Fife, and Stirling Castle is a must for anyone interested in Scottish history.
Mountains and Lochs
For the snowcapped mountains and glassy lochs (lakes) for which Scotland is famous, you have to leave the south and the cities behind you—though some Lowland lakes are beautiful. Wherever you go in Scotland, nature is at your fingertips.
Among the loveliest Lowland lakes is Loch Lomond, 20 minutes from Glasgow, which has shimmering shores and plenty of water-sport options. Loch Leven, in Fife, is famed for its birdlife and fighting trout. It was also where Mary, Queen of Scots, signed the deed of abdication in her island prison. Loch Katrine, in the heart of the Trossachs in the Central Highlands, was the setting of Walter Scott's narrative poem "The Lady of the Lake." In summer you can take the steamer SS Sir Walter Scott across it. From the parking lot of Loch Achray you begin the climb to Ben An, the sheer-faced mountain with fabulous views of the Trossachs.
Half of Scotland's highest peaks are in Cairngorms National Park, east of the Great Glen and an excellent place for hiking, skiing, and reindeer sightings. In the Great Glen, monumental Ben Nevis hovers over Fort William; no matter when you visit, you'll probably see snow on the summit plateau. Glen Torridon, east of Shieldaig in the Northern Highlands, has the finest mountain scenery in the country. Loch Maree, also in the Northern Highlands and one of Scotland's most scenic lochs, is framed by Scots pines and Slioch Mountain.
Cultural festivals of all kinds thrive in Scotland; no matter where you are, you can probably find one to suit you. The Edinburgh International Festival is the spectacular flagship of Scotland's cultural events, with everything from orchestral music to comedy skits. Indeed, the capital suffers from festival overkill in August, partly because of the size of the Fringe, the official festival's less formal, rowdier offshoot. Adding to the August pileup in Edinburgh are the Military Tattoo, International Book Festival, and Jazz and Blues Festival.
If crowds and famous faces aren't your thing, plenty of other festivals take place year-round, predominantly in and around the major cities and islands. Edinburgh and other cities prepare for and celebrate the New Year in grand style with Hogmanay, which may include fireworks, music, and other revels. In the last two weeks of January Glasgow presentsCeltic Connections, during which musicians from all over the world gather to play Celtic-inspired music. During October and November Glasgow also hosts Glasgay, a cultural festival focusing on gay and lesbian themes.
One popular festival is Up-Helly-Aa, held in Shetland at the end of January; food, drink, and dressing up come to a spectacular end with the burning of a replica Viking ship. April's Shetland Folk Festival and October's Shetland Accordion and Fiddle Festival draw large numbers of visitors at times of year when the weather is a bit more temperate. Orkney hosts music festivals in spring and summer, including the St. Magnus Festival in June, the Jazz Festival in April, and the Folk Festival in May.
Some of the most scenic, established, and challenging courses in the world are in Scotland, the home of 550 golf courses and, arguably, the game itself. A few clubs are exclusive, but most are affordable and accessible, even to beginners; the cost of a round can go from £35 on a good course to well over £100. Just make reservations in advance, and you won't be disappointed.
Many golf pilgrimages to Scotland begin with a visit to the legendary St. Andrews, now so popular that reservations for summer play are required a year in advance. Nairn, on the Moray Coast, is the regular home of Scotland's Northern Open and has breathtaking views across the Moray Firth; Rosemount, Blairgowrie Golf Club, in Perthshire, is laid out on rolling land with wide fairways and large greens; and Western Gailes, in Ayrshire, is the finest natural links course in the country.
Don't limit yourself to the expensive, well-known greens. Off the beaten track are some good-value classic courses with striking views, particularly in the Stewartry, at Powfoot and Southerness. The Northeast has more than 50 courses, many with exceptional reputations, such as the reasonably priced Boat of Garten, Scotland's greatest "undiscovered" course, at Speyside. Western Scotland has nearly two dozen golf courses; Machrihanish, near Campbeltown, is one of the most popular. Keep in mind that attractive courses can be found in or near the urban centers; there are 30 in or close to Edinburgh and 7 courses in Glasgow.
A remote, windswept world of white-sand beaches, forgotten castles, and crisp, clear rivers awaits you in the Scottish isles. Out of the hundreds of isles (islands), only a handful are actually inhabited, and here ancient culture and tradition remain alive and well. Each island has its own distinct fingerprint; getting to some might be awkward and costly, but the time and expense are worth your while.
Near Glasgow, the Isle of Bute is one of the more affordable and accessible, drawing celebrities to its estates for lavish weddings and Glaswegians to its rocky shores for summer holidays. Like Bute, Arran is not too costly and mirrors the mainland, with activities from golf to hiking, but on a smaller, more intimate scale. Islay, near the Kintyre Peninsula, is where you go to watch rare birds, buy woolen goods, and taste the smoothest malt whiskies. Spiritual and spectacular Iona was the burial place of Scottish kings until the 11th century. Smaller isles like Rum, Eigg, Muck, and Canna are isolated and atmospheric but offer nothing in the way of lodgings or eateries. Although more populated and touristy, Skye, with its legends, hazy mountains, hidden beaches, and glens, is unsurpassed. It also has good hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants.
Orkney and Shetland, two remote island groups collectively known as the Northern Isles, have a Scandinavian heritage that adds color to their severe landscapes. If you're after remarkable prehistoric artifacts and festivals, go to Orkney; if you prefer something with more sophistication, Shetland is your isle.
People who have hiked in Scotland often return to explore the country's rural landscape of loch-dotted glens and forested hills.
From Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat to Ben Nevis, Britain's tallest peak, the country holds unsurpassed hiking possibilities, no matter what your ambitions. Moderate hikes can be found in places like Glen Nevis, with footpaths leading past waterfalls, croft ruins, and forested gorges. Even parts of the Southern Upland Way, the famous 212-mi coast-to-coast journey from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath, can be comfortably walked in sections. A local's favorite, the West Highland Way, from Milngavie to Fort William, is a well-marked 95-mi trek with various hotels to stay in along the way. Other popular Highland trails are on Ben Lawers, Ben Ledi, and Ben Lomond.
Scotland has two national parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in the Central Highlands, and Cairngorms National Park east of the Great Glen. Some park trails are unmarked, so check with area tourist information centers before you set out. In the Great Glen area, some of the best routes can be found near Glen Nevis, Glencoe, and on the mighty Ben Nevis.
As you would for all outdoor activities, be sure you're properly equipped with appropriate shoes and clothing. Keep in mind that weather conditions can and do change rapidly in the Scottish hills, even at low altitude. The best time for hiking is from May to September, the same time the country's native insect, the midge, makes an unfavorable appearance (no amount of repellent will deter it).
Scattered throughout the Scottish landscape are prehistoric standing stones, stone circles, tombs, and even stone houses that provide a tantalizing glimpse into the country's remarkable past and people. If you're interested in ancient remains, leave the mainland and head for the isles, where the most impressive and important are found.
Arran's Machrie Moor Stone Circles, a mixture of granite boulders and tall red-sandstone circles, are in the middle of an isolated moor 11 mi north of Lagg. Calanais Standing Stones, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, are reminiscent of those at Stonehenge; it's believed they were used in astronomical observations. Tiny Colonsay in the Western Isles has the standing stones at Kilchattan Farm, called Fingal's Limpet Hammers after Fingal MacCoul, the larger-than-life warrior in Celtic mythology.
Orkney, however, has the greatest concentration of these types of prehistoric structures. Between Loch Harray and Loch Stennes is the Ring of Brodgar, a magnificent circle made up of 36 Neolithic stones. Maes Howe (circa 2500 BC) is an enormous burial mound measuring 115 feet in diameter, with an imposing burial chamber. The Vikings raided the site in the 12th century and Norse crusaders used the area for shelter; you can still see the runic inscriptions they left behind. Orkney's Neolithic village of Skara Brae, first occupied around 3000 BC, was well preserved in sand until it was discovered in 1850. Here the houses are joined by covered passages, with stone beds, fireplaces, and cupboards—more intriguing remnants from the distant past.
No longer is Scotland simply the land of whisky and wool. International names from Louis Vuitton to Versace have all set up shop here, and top British department stores like John Lewis, Harvey Nichols, and Debenhams, as well as stylish boutiques, are peppered throughout the major cities. Prices may not be cheap, but quality is first class and products are fashionable and long-lasting.
Glasgow claims the best shopping in Britain, outside of London's Oxford Street; Buchanan Street is the best place to start. Edinburgh is popular for crystal and clusters of antique shops, especially on St. Stephen and Dundas streets. Just outside of Perth is Caithness Glass, a factory renowned for its attractive glassware. Aberdeen and the Northeast are good places for trying and buying malt whisky.
If your shopping agenda favors the traditional, head to the islands of Shetland, Skye, and Arran for tweeds, knitwear, woolens (including knits), tartan blankets, Celtic silver, and pebble jewelry; these items can often be found in urban specialty shops as well. The Scottish Highlands bristle with old bothies (farm buildings) that have been turned into small crafts workshops selling handmade pottery and wood, leather, and glass items.
Rich chocolates (often with whisky fillings), marmalades, heather honeys, and the traditional petticoat-tail shortbread are easily portable gifts. So, too, are the boiled sweets (hard candies) in jars from particular localities—Berwick cockles, Jethart snails, Edinburgh rock, and more. Dundee cake, a rich fruit mixture with almonds on top, is among the other prize edibles on sale in the city they're named after.
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