You can be assured that Scotland tours will provide plenty of scope for a diverse vacation. From extraordinary scenery and colourful history, to golf and whisky, take the time to get to know Scotland the Brave.
If you are contemplating a trip to Scotland, you need to decide which places and what regions you should consider visiting, for as a country, Scotland is very diverse. As someone with a Scottish heritage, I am rather fond of this destination. What comes to mind when first thinking about Scotland? My list includes (besides heather) natural beauty, majestic mountains and glens (or valleys), spectacular lochs (or lakes), remote islands, castles, battlefields, and colourful, cultural cities. You can add to these, kilts, highland dancing, whisky, bagpipes, golf, and tartans, if you like – in summary, all things Scottish. Let’s look at some of the major places you can visit on various Scotland tours.
It makes sense to start your travel to Scotland with Edinburgh, the country’s capital city and number one attraction. You need a few days here to do the city justice but, if less time available, you can choose from the following. You can’t miss Edinburgh Castle, as it sits on top of a rocky promontory, right in the centre of Edinburgh, surrounded by high walls. It houses the Royal Palace and the Royal Apartments once inhabited by Mary, Queen of Scots, plus the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, St. Margaret’s Chapel. You can head down into the castle vaults which were once a prison. Beware that daily at 1 pm you will experience the very loud noise of the firing of the One O’clock Gun (except Sundays). Another important landmark is the imposing Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence. Here you can visit the 14 historic state apartments and the ruins of the nearby Holyrood Abbey, plus the beautiful gardens.
I should, at this point, mention the Royal Mile. This is a historic, cobblestone street that starts at the Castle and finishes at Holyrood Palace. Along the way, you will see quaint side streets called closes, buildings ranging in design from medieval to Victorian, St Giles Cathedral, and Grassmarket, once a medieval marketplace and site for public executions. Another famous street is Princes Street which runs along the bottom of the Castle with the attractive and popular Princes Street Gardens sandwiched between. This busy thoroughfare is home to many shops, restaurants, and hotels.
Another outstanding place of interest is Arthur’s Seat, situated next to Holyrood Palace. This is a large hill from which you can have excellent views of the cityscape. It is also the site of a large, well-preserved fort and the 15th Century St. Anthony’s Chapel. From a cultural perspective, you can visit the renowned Scottish National Gallery and the National Museum of Scotland, the latter with displays covering science, technology, transport, and much more.
Then, of course, there is the world-famous Edinburgh Festival, which usually takes place in August. This is a major celebration of the arts including theatre, music, and drama, with artists from around the world performing. And don’t ignore the infamous, off-beat Fringe Festival. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place at the same time and is performed by different military bands.
Don’t dismiss Glasgow as just a big city. It has developed over the years to become a major tourist centre. Reasons to visit Glasgow on Scotland tours include its many excellent museums and art galleries, visually outstanding architecture, vibrant nightlife, impressive shopping, and attractive green spaces.
Let’s start with the museums and art galleries. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is possibly the best-known one. Located in the West End, it houses one of Europe’s greatest and most eclectic collections (22 galleries with 8000 objects/paintings). Offering free admission, it has an excellent room of Scottish art, a room of fine French Impressionist works, plus Renaissance paintings from Italy and Flanders. The University of Glasgow’s Hunterian is the oldest museum in Scotland. It covers The Hunterian Museum, The Hunterian Art Gallery, The Mackintosh House, The Zoology Museum, and The Anatomy Museum – all on the campus of the University. Architecture in Glasgow is synonymous with the famous Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. His works include the Willow Tearooms, Glasgow School of Art, House for an Art Lover, Scotland Street School, and The Lighthouse. The Riverside Museum is something special. Basically, its exhibits involve transport and travel. This ranges from horse-drawn carriages and the world’s first pedal-powered bicycle to model Clyde-built ships, plus assorted railway locomotives and streetcars. There is also an amazing recreation of a Glasgow shopping street from early 20th Century.
Glasgow was designated “UK City of Architecture and Design.” Everywhere you go, you will see why. In Glasgow’s West End, this includes the University of Glasgow and Ashton Lane, a bohemian quarter of ornate sandstone tenements and cobbled streets which are well worth exploring. You will also find an outstanding range of vintage and design stores, cafes, and bars.
For shopping, head to Style Mile, the area between Buchanan Street and Argyle Street, packed full of high street stores, independent boutiques, and vintage fashion shops. Glasgow is UK’s best shopping destination outside of London.
Green spaces abound in the city, which has a total of 90 parks. No need to worry about them closing early in the summer as it stays light until 11pm. The best-known green space is Kelvingrove Park, a classic Victorian park by a river next to the renowned Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. You can take a riverside walk and visit the Botanical Gardens.
The Scottish Highlands
There is plenty of heather to be seen in the Scottish Highlands, which does add to the charm of this area. Easily accessible from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland’s Highland region covers the northern two-thirds of the country and contains much of the country’s most spectacular scenery and unspoilt natural beauty. To describe the make-up of this region in a few words, it is a combination of mountains, glens, lochs, and rivers surrounded on three sides by a rugged coastline. It also contains some of Europe’s most extensive wilderness areas, many of which have been designated as national parks. The views are simply awe-inspiring.
Fort William is a town which is overshadowed by Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain, Ben Nevis – 1,345 metres/4,370 feet high. You can hike up the mountain, but allow 8 hours just to get to the top! There are other less strenuous but charming walks available on Scotland tours. The town itself is attractive and offers cozy pubs and cafes.
Inverness is an excellent centre for touring the Highlands. It is known for its castle perched on a hill as well as a number of historic buildings in the Old Town. The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery provides a good general overview of the development of the Highlands. There are many lovely riverside restaurants and bustling pavement cafes as well as a wide range of shops in the Old Town. Loch Ness is not far from here. This 36 kilometre/23 mile long lake is extremely deep and is ‘home’ to one of the world’s most mystical tales – the legendary Loch Ness Monster, also known as Nessie. You can take a boat tour from Inverness (no monster guaranteed).
Loch Lomond is UK’s largest lake, located right in the centre of Trossachs National Park (UK’s fourth largest). It is 8 kilometres/5 miles wide at its broadest point and there are 30 islands, three of them inhabited. Known as “The Queen of Scottish Lakes” due to its natural beauty, it attracts visitors of all kinds, day-trippers, watersport enthusiasts, hikers, and anglers. For a short cruise on the Loch, you can board the paddle steamer, the Maid of the Loch, at Balloch.
Twice the size of the Lake District, Cairngorms National Park has mountains, huge forests, rivers, waterfalls, lochs, wildlife, small villages, and whisky distilleries to satisfy every visitor. It is also the centre of Scotland’s ski industry with Aviemore being the main ski resort.
Glencoe is a picturesque village at the mouth of the famous glen of the same name where you can experience rugged mountain scenery at its best. It is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.
The Scottish Lowlands
Roughly speaking, the Scottish Lowlands are simply the region south of Edinburgh and Glasgow. They consist of rolling hills and moorland in the west and gentle valleys and a picturesque coastline in the east. But that’s not all. There is lots of history to be experienced through ancient abbeys, stately homes, and historical castles. These include Melrose Abbey, a magnificent ruin with incredibly decorated masonry dating back to the 15th century, Jedburgh Abbey, dating back to the 11th century and again in ruin, Abbotsford House, former residence of the novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, and Mary, Queen of Scots House, a museum with displays of memorabilia of Mary including jewellery, belongings, documents, and paintings.
Back in history, a lot of blood was spilt in fierce battles. There are many places where these took place. The best known are the Battle of Culloden, just outside of Inverness, site of the battle in 1746 between the English and Bonnie Price Charlie and the Jacobites, Battle of Bannockburn, nearby Pitlochry, which took place between the Scottish and the English in 1314, and the Massacare of Glencoe, site of the battle between the two clans, the Campbells and the MacDonalds, in 1692.
Balmoral Castle is one of the four residences belonging to Queen Elizabeth. Between April and July, the grounds, gardens and one room, the Ballroom, are open to the public – otherwise, no admittance. Balmoral has been a residence for members of the British Royal Family since 1852. Queen Victoria described Balmoral as her “Dear Paradise in the Highlands.”
Braemar Castle dates back to the 17th century and has been a hunting lodge, fortress, and family home. It is located in the stunning Cairngorm mountains. Rooms available for viewing include a grand dining room, gracious drawing room, Victorian bathrooms, and delightful morning room.
Glamis Castle is an impressive, majestic building featuring turrets and towers. It was the legendary setting for Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. It has also been the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth and the late Queen Mother. Every painting and piece of furniture is real and not items from a museum. The gardens surrounding Glamis Castle are beautiful all year round.
Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s most historically important sites. It has been the home of many Scottish kings and queens. Today, there are costumed characters in the roles of bodyguards, court officials, maids of honour, and servants who all embody life as it was in 16th Century. Highlights include the Great Hall, Chapel Royal, Castle Exhibition, Regimental Museum, Great Kitchens, Tapestry Studio, and the nearby Argyll’s Lodging, a 17th Century town house.
The Road to the Isles is a famous Scottish traditional song which you may know. However, a ferry ride is needed to reach most of them. There are many wonderful islands that make up the Inner and Outer Hebrides. My favourite is the Isle of Skye which actually can be reached by ferry or bridge. It is an island which has dramatic mountains in the middle, surrounded by a coastline of peninsulas and bays with dramatic sea cliffs. As the saying goes, “In Skye, the lochs are deep and the mountains high.” In fact, Skye has some of the most stunning mountain scenery in Scotland. Apart from the scenery, there are castles, museums, cozy pubs, art galleries, and craft shops to visit. Dunvegan Castle has a 14th Century dungeon and Duntulm Castle is allegedly haunted.
The Orkneys are a group of 70 islands, 20 inhabited, situated 16 kilometres/10 miles off the extreme north of Scotland. The landscape is fairly flat but enchanting. There is much folklore associated with the Orkneys. It has been invaded by the Norse and the Vikings centuries ago who have left their legacy. There are mystical stone circles and monuments dating back thousands of years. The best-known sites are the Ring of Brodgar – built around 2500-2000 BC and covering an area of almost 8,500 square metres/9,200 square feet, site of ancient rituals and ceremonies – and Skara Brae, a prehistoric village, older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge. As for wildlife, everywhere you go in the Orkneys, you will wildlife which include seals, puffins, and many other sea birds. Off-shore, there are whales and dolphins.
The Shetlands are further north, 80 kilometres/50 miles from the Orkneys. Probably best known for its knitwear and ponies, the 100 islands, 16 inhabited, are also an overall nature reserve. There are deep glens and steep hills, allowing for scenic walks. Numerous seabird colonies exist which include puffins, storm petrels, and more rarely, albatross and snow geese. You can easily see dolphins, seals, porpoises, and killer whales. You might consider purchasing locally made, quality glassware, jewellery, and knitwear while in the Shetlands.
Let’s Not Forget…..
The first record of golf in Scotland dates back to the 15th century, believe it or not, so Scotland can rightfully claim to be the home of golf. I’m sure, because of this heritage, there are many excellent, renowned golf courses such as St. Andrew’s, Gleneagles, and Muirfield, plus some associated with Donald Trump, Turnberry and Troon.
Note the spelling. Spelt w-h-i-s-k-e-y, that’s the Irish way, just as Scotch is a drink and Scots are people. By the way, Scotch can only be made in Scotland and must be matured for a minimum of 3 years. There are over 100 distilleries in Scotland. The success of the industry, it is said, is because of the water in Scotland, plus of course, the distillation process.
So, if you are contemplating taking any Scotland tours, hopefully you will have the time to spend to get to know one of the bonniest destinations anywhere.