Colorful kilts, the lilting sound of the bagpipe, stone castles and craggy mountains; there is no place else in the world like Scotland. Though it’s a small place, Scotland packs quite a wallop when it comes to history, culture, natural beauty and literary celebrities. And if you’re just visiting as a spectator, you’re not experiencing the “real” Scotland. Sure, you can hear bagpipes almost anywhere you go, but did you know you can give the pipes a whirl yourself? Or how about making your own custom-blend Scotch whisky?
Stay in a Lighthouse
Scattered atop rocky promontories along some of Scotland’s most breathtaking stretches of coastline, lighthouses once served as vital beacons for sailors. Their keepers have long since been replaced by automated technology to keep the lights burning, but the lighthouses themselves remain — and now the keepers’ cottages serve as unique places for visitors to stay.
One of our favorites is the Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel, which offers luxurious rooms and suites, including one with a conservatory. For a budget stay, try the Rua Reidh Lighthouse, where the former lighthouse keepers’ quarters have been turned into an affordable hostel with spectacular views across the water toward the Isle of Skye. To find other lighthouse accommodations, see VisitScotland.com.
Visit a Neolithic Village
In 1850, damage wreaked by a violent winter storm in the remote Orkney Islands uncovered the ruins of a Neolithic village, dating back some 5,000 years — making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Known as Skara Brae, this unique collection of eight stone dwellings is remarkably well preserved, including the furniture inside the houses (beds, dressers and hearths). The visitor center exhibits artifacts found at the site such as jewelry, pottery and stone carvings. While you can’t walk into the original houses, there’s a reconstruction that visitors can step inside to get an up-close glimpse of how our ancestors once lived.
Skara Brae is located on Orkney’s largest island, Mainland, which you can reach by air (Flybe) or ferry (NorthLink Ferries, Pentland Ferries, John O’Groats Ferries).
Learn the Sport of Kings
A magnificent falcon soars overhead, then banks to the left and heads straight toward you. But that’s okay, you’re prepared. You’ve got your falconer’s glove on, and the bird glides to your outstretched arm and settles its wings. One of the oldest activities known to humanity, falconry is sometimes known as the “Sport of Kings” because ownership of falcons was traditionally pretty much off limits to anyone but royalty.
There are a handful of places around the world to try your hand at falconry, but in Scotland you’ll get the most comprehensive introduction at the British School of Falconry at Gleneagles. From 45-minute introductory lessons to a full-day falconry hunting experience, you can choose from a variety of options that include “hands-on” handling and flying of Harris hawks. You can even combine your hawking experience with a two-night stay, with dinner and breakfast included.
Discover Scotland’s Great Trails
For up-close views of Scotland’s mist-shrouded mountains, tranquil lochs and leafy forests, lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail. Scotland is crisscrossed by more than two dozen Great Trails, each at least 25 miles long. You can tackle the full length of a trail for a rewarding multi-day hike, or you can choose a shorter segment if you’re only up for a day trip.
Trails are located throughout the country, from the Southern Upland Way near the England border to the Moray Coast Trail, which runs along the Moray Firth north of Elgin. One of our favorite hikes is the 79-mile Great Glen Way, which follows a largely flat route between Inverness and Fort William, offering dramatic mountain and loch views. Hiking the full trail generally takes five to six days.
Sample Scotch at a Working Distillery
What beer is to Ireland and vodka is to Russia, Scotch whisky (aka scotch) is to Scotland. The earliest written record of scotch being distilled in the country dates back to 1494, though most believe distillation began earlier than that. Scottish-made scotch whiskies are some of the most popular and include brands like the Famous Grouse, Grant’s, Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker.
There are nearly 100 scotch/whisky distilleries in Scotland, most of which invite visitors in for tours and tastings. We recommend Glenturret, which produces the Famous Grouse and happens to be the oldest working distillery in Scotland (dating back to 1775). You can tour the distillery and, of course, taste a few samples. Want something more intensive? The distillery offers a private tour including a malt challenge in which you test your sensory skills to see if you have what it takes to be a Master Blender. At the end of the tour, you’ll blend your very own malt to take home with you.
Try Bagpiping in Glasgow
There are few sounds more evocative of Scotland than the bagpipe. From its earliest appearance in the country around the year 1400, bagpipes have become a central part of Scottish culture, from the haunting tunes that carry on the winds to the colorful kilts bagpipers wear that make us wonder: just what’s under those?
Bagpiping buskers are a common sight in the more touristy areas of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but if you want to learn about the art of bagpiping, head to the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. The Centre’s museum holds 300 years of piping history and offers a 50-minute “Come and Try” tour that gives participants the chance to try their hand at a bagpipe. Want more than just a little bagpiping to accompany your time in Scotland? Visit Glasgow during the annual Piping Live! Festival for a week’s worth of piping-themed activities.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
A Year in Scotland by soliteyah
“Glasgow’s cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the city, huge and dark and ornate. I spent a bit of time wandering around its sprawling graveyard, called the Necropolis, and then went to the adjacent St. Mungo Museum of Life and Art. The museum is small but has a lot of fascinating displays, including exhibits on different religions and cultural practices around the world.” Read more!
Snap Wildlife Photos on the Isle of Skye
It would be impossible to call any single Scottish island the most scenic, because quite frankly they’re all almost perfectly picturesque. But the Isle of Skye may be one of the country’s most recognizable islands, having been used as the backdrop for films like “Dragonslayer,” “Highlander,” “Stardust” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
The Isle of Skye also offers a wonderful array of wildlife. Otters, seals, white-tailed sea eagles and red deer are just some of the creatures that call this island home. But don’t just settle for spotting these wild critters; capture them on film with help from a local expert who will take you to the best locations and advise you on the savviest photographic tactics. Shutterbugs can turn to Portraits of a Land for half-day to full-day tours, as well as Tim Wilcock Photography for a three-day workshop.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
A Year in Scotland by soliteyah
“Skye carried the dramatic scenery to a greater extreme. For a while it looked a lot like what we’d already seen on the mainland (mountains, glens, sheep), but at some point I started to get a different feeling from it. The high point (literally) was the Quiraing — basically we climbed this little mountain and got an absolutely amazing view. The late afternoon sun was out, and we could see for miles, over the craggy green landscape of Skye and across the deep blue water to mainland Scotland.” Read more!
Play the World’s Oldest Golf Course
Golf is one of only a handful of sports that inspire its enthusiastic players to travel from venue to venue throughout the entire world to try out new challenges. What better place to test your iron swinging skills than in the country that started it all? Scotland has more than 500 golf courses in a space slightly smaller than South Carolina. That’s a lot of holes! So which course to tackle?
Start by hitting the links at the oldest golf course in the world. Musselburgh Links, also called the Old Golf Course, near Edinburgh, has been around since at least the 17th century, though rumor has it that Mary, Queen of Scots played there in 1567 and King James VI in 1603. Visitors are welcome to try their skill on the course throughout the year.
Attend the Highland Games
No trip to Scotland would be complete without a jaunt into the Highlands, and for as close a taste of old Scotland as you can get, you’ll want to time your trip around Highland Games season, which runs from May to September. These festive sporting events feature a brawny display of kilt-clad men wrestling, pole tossing and more, mixed with Highland dancing, pipe bands, ceilidh music and local food.
Starting in mid-May with the Gordon Castle games and ending in mid-September with the Invercharron games, visitors can choose from some 60 festivals. Choose the early fall Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire and chances are good you’ll spot a royal or two (the royal family traditionally attends every year). The honor of the biggest games of the year goes to the Cowal Highland Gathering, which runs for three days in the small town of Dunoon. The highlight is 1,000 pipers and drummers playing “Highland Laddie” as the sun sets over the Firth of Clyde.
Take a Literary Look at Edinburgh
If you’ve ever curled up on the couch with a copy of “Treasure Island,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” you’ll appreciate a literary tour of Edinburgh — once home to all the authors of the books mentioned above.
For dramatic poetry readings and fascinating tales, take the two-hour Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, led by professional actors who spirit guests to various taverns that influenced the lives of Scotland’s greatest authors, from Sir Walter Scott to Robert Burns. For a more contemporary focus, check out the “Harry Potter and Edinburgh” excursion on; see where J.K. Rowling wrote her famous series and find out which streets and monuments may have inspired the settings of the books.
Best Time to Go to Scotland
The most popular time to travel to Scotland is summer, when the weather is warm and daylight stretches well into the evening. Art lovers and culture vultures flock to Edinburgh for its August festival season (hotels fill up months in advance). Spring and fall offer cooler temperatures, lower airfares and smaller crowds around the country’s castles, hiking trails and historic sites. Days are short and the weather can be forbidding over the winter, particularly on the blustery east coast. Many attractions close or reduce their hours over the winter.
Scotland on a Budget
Skip the pricey rental car and use local trains and buses instead; they serve most cities and towns, including many smaller ones. (If you’ll be hopping a lot from place to place, consider a rail pass.) Hostels often offer private rooms at inexpensive rates; B&B’s can also be quite affordable in comparison to hotels. Self-catering cottages, campgrounds and homestays can also help you trim your accommodation costs. Pubs offer cheaper eats than restaurants. You can also create your own picnic lunch by stocking up on food at grocery stores.
–written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter