Scotland travel

Chances are that the name Scotland evokes certain images in your mind: kilts, tartan, bagpipers, sheep and rain. Dig deeper, though, and you will find a complex nation with a rich, fascinating heritage and (when the sun shines) some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.

Scotland occupies one third of the island of Great Britain and is part of the United Kingdom, sharing its southern border (and a volatile relationship) with England. Scotland covers a little over 30,000 square miles, and has a 2300-mile-long coastline and more than 790 islands.

The Scots are rightly proud of their country’s colourful history and make great effort to preserve its ancient castles and archaeological sites. It is certainly not stuck in history, however: Glasgow has some of the world’s best nightclubs; Edinburgh hosts the world’s largest arts festival; and Scottish music, literature, film and architecture often makes an impact at the international level.

The rugged landscape of the Highland region, with its misty glens (valleys) sparkling lochs (lakes) and mountains, offers opportunities for hillwalking, mountain biking and just getting away from it all. You can experience Gaelic culture on the Western Isles, and the strong Norse heritage of the islands of Orkney and Shetland.

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City focus: Glasgow

While Glasgow doesn’t boast the fairytale-like beauty of Edinburgh, it still has a certain rugged charm. The city has some of the best museums in the United Kingdom, including the vast Kelvingrove Museum, which is free to visit. One of Glasgow’s most famous sons is the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and you can see the best of his work on a tour of Glasgow School of Art, one of the UK’s most prestigious art schools.

With a large student population, Glasgow is also a great nightlife destination. The Arches always makes DJ Mag’s list of the world’s top clubs; the Nice n’ Sleazy bar on Sauchiehall Street hosts live music and club nights, and the intimate King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is famously the place where Oasis were discovered.

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Getting to and from Scotland

From England, or indeed anywhere in the European Union, passports and visas are not required to enter Scotland. Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have fairly large airports, which serve most major destinations throughout Europe as well as a few places in the United States and Canada. The best fares within Europe are often with Easyjet and BMI.

To and From the Airport has the rundown on getting you from the airport to the city. Frequent Flyer Masters learn to earn their miles fast, and get free flights around the world.

By train: Trains leave London’s King’s Cross Station for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen at least once an hour. There is also a nightly sleeper train service, the Caledonian, which departs from London’s Euston station in the evening and arrives in Scotland in the early morning.

By bus: You can visit Scotland via long-distance bus services from almost anywhere in Europe, though you will usually have to make a transfer in London. There are eight buses a day from London to Edinburgh, including two overnight services. The bus trip takes around nine hours.

By sea: There used to be ferry services between Scotland and Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Isles, but these services have been cut back over the past couple of years. Currently you can travel to Scotland by sea from Holland, Belgium and Northern Ireland.

Getting around Scotland

Scotland has a comprehensive and convenient public transportation network, which can unfortunately get rather expensive. Wherever possible, book travel at least two weeks in advance for better rates.

Bus

The Citilink network covers all main areas, as well as the Isle of Skye. Popular routes can sell out during peak season (June – August) so, wherever possible, book in advance.

You can also get cheap deals through Megabus and National Express if you’re travelling between major cities (eg Glasgow-Aberdeen).

Train

Train travel in Scotland can be spectacular: particularly along the West Highland route, and from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness.

Train journeys don’t usually sell out (with the exception of the Jacobite steam train), but tickets are cheaper the further in advance you purchase them.

Car and camper rental

Travelling by car is a good way to get around Scotland. All major car rental companies operate in Scotland, as well as smaller independent companies, which may be your best bet on the islands.

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Cycling and hiking

With thousands of miles of isolated terrain, Scotland is a great destination for cyclists. The Great Glen Cycle Way shares some of the walking route, but also utilizes back roads and specially-built cycle paths. The path takes one to two days to complete.

Scotland has several long-distance trails, such as the 95-mile West Highland Way, which runs from north Glasgow through Loch Lomond and Rannoch Moor, and the 73-mile Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness.

Boat

The CalMac company has practically a monopoly on services between the west coast and the Hebridean islands.

You can get to Shetland and Orkney by Northlink ferries, or by plane.

Top 10 things to do in Scotland

  • Ride the Jacobite from Fort William to Mallaig. This old steam train recently played the part of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
  • Eat haggis, neeps and tatties. This traditional dish, made from sheep lung, liver and heart, is far tastier than it sounds.
  • Visit whisky distilleries. Learn about whisky production by visiting one (or more) of the country’s 100-plus distilleries.
  • Celebrate Hogmanay in Edinburgh. This massive street party is one of the world’s biggest New Year celebrations.
  • Wander around Edinburgh’s Old Town. The medieval cobblestone streets offer plenty of opportunities to get lost.
  • Explore the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. This massive museum offers a comprehensive history of the nation, with exhibits ranging from the world’s oldest known reptile, through medieval chess pieces, and a Trainspotting script signed by Ewan McGregor.
  • See the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. This stone circle resembles a Celtic Cross and was formed between 3000 and 1500BC — no-one is sure why.
  • Visit Eilean Donan Castle. The castle dates from the 6th century. It protected the area from Viking attacks in the 13th century, and was partially destroyed in the Jacobite uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • Lose yourself at Rannoch Moor. An isolated area of lochs, heather hillocks and striking scenery.
  • Visit Culloden. This eerie, windswept moorland was the site of the massacre of 1500 Highlanders by English forces in 1745.

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This page by Karen Dion.