Scotland (Scottish Gaelic: Alba), one of the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom, is a beautiful country well known for its dramatic scenery of mountains and valleys, rolling hills, green fields and forests, and rugged coastline.
While most know about the magnificent scenery of the Highlands, Scotland is beautiful in the Lowlands, islands and the flat lands of the North-East as well. It also has lively and friendly cities, often of great architectural significance, and a rich history and heritage dating back thousands of years with many ancient and historic sites. Other characteristics that attract droves of visitors include golf (the game was created in Scotland and it has some of the world's best and most famous courses), whisky (many distilleries can be visited), family history (millions worldwide are descended from those who emigrated from Scotland when times were tough in the 18th and 19th centuries), hiking, wildlife and winter sports. Around Loch Ness in the north of the Highlands, you can also hunt for the Monster ... or at least try.
While the sun may not always shine, the warm welcome and wonderful diversity of places, landscapes and experiences mean that Scotland has much to offer any traveller. Sometimes awe-inspiring and majestic, sometimes ramshackle and faded, proud yet also modest, modern yet also ancient, eccentric yet also charming, few travellers leave Scotland unaffected by their encounter.
Administratively, Scotland had been divided into a large number of traditional counties. There are 32 modern unitary authorities. However, these are of only limited use in thinking about travel and an alternative regionalisation — based on culture and geography — is far more useful; from south to north:
|South West |
Best known for Ayrshire, home of national poet Robert Burns and the "Glasgow Riviera", as well as the beautiful Isle of Arran.
The eastern two-thirds of the districts north of the border with England, fought over for hundreds of years. The beautiful rolling hills and fields are dotted with pretty towns, ruined abbeys and battlefields.
|Central Belt |
Scotland's most urbanised region around and between the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Most of the population of Scotland lives here.
Scotland's spectacular, mountainous north-west, encompassing the Great Glen and Loch Ness and at the furthest tip of Britain, John o'Groats. You can also visit the growing city of Inverness.
|North East Scotland |
Centred on the cities of Aberdeen and the slightly smaller Dundee, this beautiful region stretches from the Grampian mountains at the heart of Scotland to the dramatic east coast. It's a region of scenic agricultural land, quaint fishing ports, rugged mountains and hills, and dramatic castles. It's also the centre of two important Scottish industries, North Sea oil and whisky.
The many islands off the north-west Scottish coast, divided into the groups of the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. Well-known islands such as Skye, Mull, Islay, and Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides and Lewis, North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides are just some of the spectacular isles here. They share a language (Scots Gaelic) and much of their culture with the Highlands.
|Orkney Islands |
A group of islands immediately to the north of Scotland. The largest of the Orkney islands is known as the "Mainland" and islanders are called Orcadians. Inhabited for over 8000 years, they are the site of some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe, with UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
|Shetland Islands |
A group of islands north of the Orkney Islands, the northernmost inhabited parts of the United Kingdom. Like the Orkney Islands, they have been fought over by Scotland and Scandinavia and both aspects of their heritage are important today.
Scotland has eight official cities - Glasgow is by far the largest with a population of approximately 620,000 people, with about 1.2 million in the surrounding conurbation. The capital, Edinburgh, has around 450,000, while Aberdeen is next at about 200,000 inhabitants and Dundee is fourth with 160,000 inhabitants.
- 1 Edinburgh (Gaelic: Dùn Èideann) — the capital of Scotland, home to the world's largest Arts Festival every August and the First European City of Literature. It is often known as the "Festival City". Most of the city centre, with the dramatic and contrasting architecture of its Old Town and New Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 2 Glasgow (Gaelic: Glaschu) — Scotland's largest and most vibrant city, with some of the best shopping in the UK outside London and some of its most exciting nightlife. At one time, it was the centre of the largest shipbuilding industry in the world.
- 3 Aberdeen (Gaelic: Obar Dheathain) — Scotland's third largest city. Known for its impressive granite buildings, it is known as the "Granite City", the oil capital of Europe, and home to a large harbour and two renowned universities.
- 4 Dundee (Gaelic: Dùn Dè) — vibrant city with high population of students and one of the most distinct (perhaps incomprehensible) accents you'll hear. It is known as the city of "jute, jam and journalism", and the "City of Discovery" for its history of scientific activities and the home of Scott and Shackleton's Antarctic vessel, the RRS Discovery.
- 5 Inverness (Gaelic: Inbhir Nis) — the fast-growing capital of the Highlands, located on the River Ness and close to Loch Ness, where many tourists try (and fail) to find the monster. It is Britain's most northerly city.
- 6 Stirling (Gaelic: Sruighlea) — a royal fortress city dominated by the historic and dramatic castle, it was said that whoever controlled the castle, controlled Scotland (and many have tried!). Today, it also has a vibrant modern outlook.
- 7 Perth (Gaelic: Peairt) — an ancient royal burgh (i.e. a status of autonomous town/city granted by royal charter). It is the county seat of Perthshire. Smaller than its Australian counterpart to whom it gave its name, it is sometimes known as "The Fair City" following a novel by Walter Scott. Once a major centre of the court of Scottish kings and queens, its city status was restored by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012.
- 8 Dunfermline (Gaelic: Dùn Phàrlain) — a historic city in Fife, 3 miles north of the Firth of Forth in central Scotland. It became a royal residence, ecclesiastical centre and effective capital of Scotland from the 11th century, and many monarchs are buried here. It's also the birthplace of tycoon philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In 2016 the population was 53,100
Scotland has extensive wilderness areas, two of which have been proclaimed as National Parks:
- 1 Cairngorms National Park — the largest National Park in Scotland, containing the Cairngorms mountain range centred on Aviemore
- 2 Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park — Scotland's first national park
Many world-class scenic areas are not (yet) protected as National Parks, though some have other designations such as National Scenic Areas or Forest Parks:
- 3 Glencoe — impressive valley in the Lochaber region, and the site of the infamous Glencoe Massacre
- 4 Ben Nevis — Scotland's highest mountain
- 5 Torridon and 6 Wester Ross — the two areas are popular mountaineering destinations
- 7 Skye — with the Black Cuillin which is most popular of all with climbers, but there's plenty of scope for walkers here as well
It has many historic islands:
- 8 Islay — known as the Queen of Hebrides, has eight whisky distilleries, and you can still see today the parliament site of the Clan Donald from 1200 AD, when the Clan Donald ruled the western seaboard of Scotland
- 9 Isle of Arran — also a fantastic destination
From its destitution of trees, Scotland was once a by-word; now it is a garden of beauty.
Scotland borders England to the south, and is separated from Northern Ireland by the Irish Sea. It is surrounded by the bracing waters of the North Sea to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and north. Scotland forms the northern part of Great Britain, and includes over 700 islands, most in groups to the west (the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and north (Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands). The capital is Edinburgh and the largest city is Glasgow.
A person from Scotland is called a Scot, or described as Scottish. The word "Scotch" applies only to things - for example, whisky, Scotch eggs, Scotch beef and Scotch Corner (a road junction leading to Scotland). Do not refer to Scotland as England, or to Scottish as English: it is very likely to cause serious offence! Further, do not refer to Britain or the United Kingdom as England. England, as is the case with Scotland, forms only a part of Britain and the United Kingdom.
Scotland has a rich and unique history; it first emerged as a kingdom in the ninth century and continued to exist as an an independent country until the seventeenth century, during which time it entered into a political union with England to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scotland has always been the most administratively independent of the four constituent nations of the UK. For example, it has its own educational and legal systems.
Since the 1990s, and particularly since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 (see subsection on "Government" below), a greater sense of self-identity as "Scottish" rather than "British" has been spreading throughout Scotland. Political issues such as Scottish independence have seen growing attention in the 21st century.
This culminated in the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) gaining power in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. On 18 September 2014, after 18 months of debate, a referendum on independence was held, but it failed to garner a majority (45% in favour to 55% opposed). Most Scots were in favour of remaining part of the UK but with increased powers for the Scottish Parliament - an option referred to as "devo plus" or "devo max". The exception was the Glasgow conurbation and Dundee where a majority of residents voted for Scotland to be an independent country. If one were to take the result of the Brexit referendum as a guide, Scotland is also the most pro-EU part of the UK as it is the only constituent country where every subdivision voted "remain" and its lopsided "remain" majority was outvoted by a narrow "leave" majority in England and Wales (Northern Ireland had a "remain" majority which followed the confessional divide to a large extent). In light of the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU, talk of another independence referendum has resumed.
Scotland is a small country about half the size of England, constituting the northern part of the island of Great Britain. Much of the terrain is hilly, particularly in the interior, and mountainous in the Highlands, which constitute the north-western part of the country. Areas in the south, east and north-east are generally flatter and are fertile agricultural land, which is more scarce in the Highlands. The coastline is very long and can be rugged, with many cliffs, inlets, beaches and rocks. There are a large number of islands, clustered into groups: the Inner and Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles (consisting of the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands). There are additional islands in and around the estuary of the River Clyde, such as the Isle of Arran and numerous others. There are many rivers, with the Tay, Forth, Clyde, Dee, Don, Spey and Ness being prominent. Wide river estuaries are known as "firths", with the Firth of Forth, Firth of Tay and Firth of Clyde being particularly large. There are also a large number of inland lakes called "lochs".
There are seven cities, the largest of which are Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the others being comparatively small (usually less than 200,000 inhabitants). There are also a large number of smaller towns in which much of the population reside. Most of the population lives in the conurbations of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the many towns around them. Together, this region is known as the "Central Belt". Other main centres of population are in the east and north-east of the country and particularly the east coast, in the counties of Fife, Angus, Aberdeenshire and the cities of Dundee and Aberdeen. Significant populations are also present in the south of the country and along the north-east coast. However, the Highlands (outside of the city of Inverness) are more sparsely populated. Many of the larger islands are inhabited, although there are hundreds of small islands with no human population.
Scotland has the same time zone as the rest of the United Kingdom. This is Greenwich Mean Time from the last Sunday in October to the last Sunday in March, and British Summer Time (BST = GMT+1) for the middle seven months of the year. So the clock is straightforward, but it means that the word "summer" is a slippery concept in Scotland. It may mean:
- The period of BST: airline and ferry timetables usually mean this. (Often rendered as "April-Oct" on these pages, with "Nov-March" for winter, though these don't precisely match.) But bus and railway timetables do not change with the clocks - they have separate changeover dates. (So the 08:30 train still leaves at 08:30, but you need to adjust your watch to catch it.)
- The summer school holidays, in July and August, when the tourist rush is on (summer holidays for schools in Scotland are 2-3 weeks earlier than those in England). Summer rates for hotels and visitor attractions usually mean this.
- When it's warm and pleasant weather. There's just no saying . . . climate change has reached the lowlands and central cities of Scotland, but is less evident in the north and far west.
The pages here strive to avoid ambiguity but sometimes the businesses themselves are vague. Although the same ambiguity affects all the UK, it's most acute in Scotland, where clock, calendar and climate often feel at odds.
Scotland has a rich cultural history much of which is preserved in historic buildings throughout the country. Prehistoric settlements can be traced back to 9600 BC, as well as the famous standing stones in Lewis and Orkney. The Romans, fronted by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, made initial incursions but finally invaded Britain in 43AD, moving into the southern half of Scotland, but not occupying the country due to the fierce resistance efforts of the native Caledonian tribes. Today, Hadrian's Wall to the south of the Scottish-English border is one of the most famous Roman remains in the world.
After the withdrawal of the Roman Empire around AD 411, the so-called Dark Ages followed. However, since the Roman occupation affected mostly just the south of the island of Britain, Scotland was unaffected as it had been even at the great battle at Mons Graupius. Because the grip of Roman hegemony had now loosened, all sorts of invaders now saw the island as open season. So the Angles arrived on the east coast around North Berwick.
The early history of the new nation was marked by many conflicts with the English, and also the Vikings who invaded the north of Scotland. Today the Shetland Islands retain a strong Viking cultural identity. Another powerful impact on Scotland's story has been religion. Events leading up to the Scottish Reformation of 1560, including the destruction of the cathedral at St. Andrews the year before, had a strong impact on life in the country, and led to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland taking over from the Roman Catholic Church as the established state religion. It was a more strict form of Protestantism than the Anglicanism that developed in England, and was influenced by the teaching of Jean Calvin which had been brought back by John Knox. Religion would lead to many later political and military clashes, such as the Bishops' Wars that were part of the wider civil wars in England, Ireland and Scotland in the 17th century.
Wars with the English would dominate Scottish history for hundreds of years until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the King of Scots, James VI, inherited the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I (who had executed his mother, Mary Queen of Scots). While this put an end to armed conflict, there were still conflicts between the Scottish and English parliaments on which monarch should succeed and various commercial disputes such as the ill-fated "Darien Scheme" to establish a colony in Panama. The disaster of the Darien scheme was due partly to incompetence and partly to interference from England, which feared competition with its own colonies. Almost a quarter of the money circulating in Scotland at the time was invested in the scheme, and its failure caused an economic catastrophe. This was one factor leading to the Act of Union, which involved removal of Scotland's debts and put the country on a much firmer economic footing.
Following negotiations, on 1 May 1707, the Parliaments of Scotland and England were united, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain (it would not become the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" until the forced "union" with the occupied Kingdom of Ireland in 1800). Scotland and England retained their own religion, education and legal systems (which is why these differ between the countries of the UK today). However, the union was controversial, with national poet Robert Burns famously saying that Scotland was "bought and sold for English gold". Despite the controversy, the Union provided a new stability and a climate in the 18th and 19th centuries in which commerce and new ways of thinking could flourish, and led to a major role for Scotland (and particularly its people) in the British Empire and the creation of the world we know today. Historian Simon Schama has written that "What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history."
This began with the growth of commerce. Following the dramatic failure of the "Darien Scheme", Scottish merchants learned lessons from its mistakes and became skilled businessmen very quickly. They began to assert that Scotland had become the world's first commercial nation. From the 18th century, the "Scottish Enlightenment" saw vast industrial expansion, and the rise of the city of Glasgow as a major trading port and eventually "Second City" of the British Empire. However, the dark underbelly was that much of the prosperity of sugar and tobacco merchants, with their lavish houses in Glasgow, was based on slavery in the New World.
At the same time, the Scottish Enlightenment led to an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Major advances in public education led to the most literate society the world had known up to that time. Further, key individuals produced work that is still influential today, such as economist Adam Smith (known as the father of capitalism), philosopher David Hume, poet and songwriter Robert Burns, geologist James Hutton, and inventor and industrialist James Watt whose work led to the Industrial Revolution; see also Industrial Britain. The Scottish Enlightenment is often seen as Scotland's "golden age" (in contrast to England, where the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century is usually seen as such). However, this economic success was not shared with much of the population, and inequality of wealth and opportunity combined with poverty and greedy landlords drove vast numbers to emigrate to America, Canada, and other places. This was particularly pronounced in the Highlands, with the "Highland Clearances" driven by greed as landlords forced tenant farmers from the land and burned their homes to replace them with more profitable sheep.
Universities flourished, and in the 19th and 20th centuries many of the great inventions of the world including television, the telephone and penicillin were invented by Scots. Scotland retained a strong industrial and commercial economy until the mid-20th century. However, following de-industrialization, many areas fell into decline, although the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s reversed this for areas in the North-East such as Aberdeen. In the mid-to-late 20th century Scotland saw increasing calls for autonomy from London, and finally in 1999 a Scottish Parliament was again established in Edinburgh, led by a First Minister and Scottish cabinet. Reforms made by the Scottish Parliament have helped the country to rediscover a level of prosperity, with cities regenerated (such as Glasgow) and industries re-aligned to include financial services (particularly in Edinburgh), retail, tourism, science and technology, oil and gas (particularly in Aberdeen) and renewable energy.
Scotland's history and geography is reflected in the wide range of visitor attractions available, from castles and cathedrals to stunning countryside, and more modern attractions showcasing old and new Scottish cultural achievements.
Scotland operates a devolved government as part of the UK. Matters internal to Scotland are controlled by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass any law, except in those areas "reserved" to the UK Parliament at Westminster. A Scottish Parliament had governed Scotland when it was an independent nation, prior to the Act of Union with England of 1707. As part of a policy and following a referendum proposed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair (who incidentally is Scottish), the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 with powers transferred ("devolved") from the UK Parliament at Westminster. At the same time, similar developments took place in Wales and Northern Ireland. Although the UK Parliament can still pass laws relating to Scotland, it does not do so in the areas where the Scottish Parliament exercises power.
Residents of Scotland, therefore, elect representative to two parliaments and look to two governments - in Edinburgh and in London - each controlling separate aspects of life. For example, while you apply for a passport or a driving licence from the UK Government, complaints about the education system are directed to Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament is based at a modern, architecturally significant (PR-speak for outrageously expensive) building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and you will hear the term "Holyrood" used to mean the Scottish Parliament similar to how "Capitol Hill" means the U.S. Congress. The UK parliament and UK government still control other matters that do not exclusively affect Scotland, such as defence, customs, immigration, etc., and Scots continue to elect members to serve at the UK Parliament in London. Scottish politics is decidedly left-wing compared to the rest of the UK and particularly compared to the United States. Most parties are to some extent socialist and are socially liberal, for example proposals to introduce same-sex marriage enjoyed wide support from all parties in the Parliament. Since it was reconvened in 1999, the Parliament has been dominated by left-wing and socialist parties. The only centre-right party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, is one of the smallest in the Parliament, and it is comparatively socially liberal. Although traditionally a Labour stronghold, since 2007, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has overtaken Labour to become the dominant party in Scottish politics.
The head of the Scottish Government is the First Minister, who is prominent in public life and acts as the de facto leader of Scotland in internal matters and also represents Scotland's economic and cultural interests abroad (although foreign policy is a matter reserved to London). The people elect members to represent their local area and region, but do not directly elect the First Minister - he or she is chosen by the parliament. Following an election, the parliament's first act is to choose a First Minister - usually (but not necessarily) the leader of the largest party. The Queen then appoints him or her based on the parliament's advice. The First Minister then appoints other ministers, subject to parliament's approval.
Scotland has a rich culture that is distinct from the other nations in the UK, though it has similarities (as is typical for countries which are located close together). Scottish people are often fiercely proud of their culture, which in the past was the target of attempts to suppress it to create a single "British" culture - based on English culture. Today, in more enlightened times, Scotland's cultural achievements are evident in numerous areas and are flourishing.
Scotland has a great tradition of festivals (e.g. the Edinburgh Festivals), literature and achievement in the arts. Since the Scottish Enlightenment that followed the Act of Union, it has produced some of the greatest literary personalities, thinkers and writers of the world. Many ideas now seen as key to the modern world derive from the work of Scottish scholars, scientists and authors, such as Adam Smith. Scottish novelists have long enjoyed success, with Irvine Welsh joining this heritage in the 1990s. Scotland's great tradition of science has produced some of the greatest scientists and inventors of the world, including James Watt (pioneer of the Industrial Revolution), John Logie Baird (inventor of the television) and Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin). In the 20th century, scientists in Aberdeen developed the MRI scanner and those in Edinburgh created Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned animal, and innovation continues in the 21st.
There is also a thriving Scottish music scene. Outdoor popular music festivals attract vast crowds and attract internationally-renowned live music acts. Scottish bands and musicians are also prominent, particularly those originating from in and around Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. This city is home to a fantastic music scene; must-visit destinations include King Tut's Wah Wah Hut (where Oasis were spotted and signed for their first record deal).
Scottish folk music is also flourishing, with traditional and modern folk music sung in both English, Scottish Gaelic (and sometimes Scots). Folk music often features instruments such as fiddle/violin, acoustic guitar, harp, accordion, piano, various sorts of bagpipes, and other traditional instruments as well as voice. You may also encounter Scottish forms of dance which are also popular. This may range from simple, as at a ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee", a mix of dances performed to traditional music and descended from ballroom and country dancing), to more complex Scottish Country Dancing which is a form of social dancing descended from renaissance dance styles, to solo Highland Dancing (which has a military heritage) if you go to a Highland Games. These styles exist alongside other popular forms of music and dance also found in other modern countries. See also music on the British Isles.
Scottish people suffer from a stereotype which portrays them as "dour" (i.e. unemotional, reserved and staid), and while this may have been accurate in the past, it no longer is. You will find most Scots to be friendly, warm, and with a strong sense of humour, although it can take more than one meeting with you for them to warm up. Younger Scots are often hedonistic, with the "night out" being a basic unit of social interaction for many people and packed pubs, bars, nightclubs and live music and comedy venues in cities. On the other hand, heavy drinking is a part of Scottish culture despite drink awareness campaigns; you are likely to hear younger people talk of being drunk as a nirvana-like ideal state. However, the flip side to this is that public drunkenness, disorderliness and alcoholism is a problem. While they may not be overly willing to make conversation with a stranger at a bus stop or other public place, nor trust you with their life story the first time they meet you, you will find most Scots to be enjoyable, lively and satisfying companions.
Football, i.e. association football or soccer: the Scottish league system has four tiers, with 12 teams in the Premiership, the top tier. As of 2022, these are Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian in Edinburgh, Dundee United, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone in Perth, Livingston, Motherwell, Ross County in Dingwall and St Mirren in Paisley,.
Rugby football in Scotland means Union, ie 15-a-side: rugby league (13-a-side) is seldom played. The top matches are the internationals, played at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, with the highlight being the 6 Nations games played Jan-March each year between Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and England. Edinburgh is packed for these games, which sell out well in advance. Also, regularly during winter there are club rugby matches. There are only two professional teams in Scotland, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby, playing in the Pro-14, the Celtic super-league of mostly Irish and Welsh clubs. Scottish rugby is otherwise amateur. In its top tier, the Premiership, are five Edinburgh teams (Boroughmuir, Currie, Heriot's, Watsonians and Edinburgh Academicals) plus Ayr, Glasgow Hawks, Hawick, Melrose and Stirling County. Tickets will be no problem, just rock up at the stadium.
As befits the nation that gave birth to it, golf is also popular, with a very large number of golf courses. Public golf courses are widespread, inexpensive and typically of high quality. The spiritual home of golf is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in the city of St Andrews, and the Old Course at St Andrews, a public golf course that sits right next to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse and is popularly associated with it. Tennis has increased in popularity since Scottish tennis player Andy Murray has seen success in major championships.
Scottish people are often passionate about sport and the full range of other sports available in the UK are played, with good facilities for all sports in most parts of the country. Nearly every town will have a "leisure centre" providing sports and exercise facilities, playing fields for outdoor sports, and/or a swimming pool. In sports other than soccer and rugby, Scottish sportsmen and sportswomen make a significant contribution to international competitions in a wide range of sports, representing Great Britain.
English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic are the languages of Scotland. English, sometimes spoken with a varying degree of Scots, is the everyday language spoken by all. Dialects vary enormously from region to region, and even between towns! However, all Scots can speak standard English, albeit with a distinctive Scottish accent. Accents also vary throughout the country. Not all Scots speak with a Scottish accent, as many upper class Scots who go to expensive public (i.e. private, fee-paying) schools are trained to speak with the King's/Queen's accent, former British prime minister Tony Blair perhaps being the best-known example.
Scots is an officially recognised language of Scotland, spoken by around 1.5 million people throughout the whole country. As with modern English, the language evolved from Anglo-Saxon. Scots is more or less intelligible to native speakers of English, especially in written form. There are debates over whether Scots is a language or a dialect. In some ways it resembles Middle English, and rather than being spoken purely, it is often found influencing informal English spoken by people in Scotland. A variety called Ulster Scots is spoken on the north coast of Northern Ireland.
A few choice Scots words: Bairn = child, Buroo = dole money (Jobseeker's Allowance), Bridie = meat pastry, Chib = stab, Fleg = fright, Giz = give me, Ken = know, Lift = steal, Puss = face, Scajy = fury, Tatties = potatoes, Teuchter = Highlander, Tube = fool.
Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig, pronounced "Gah-lig"), meanwhile, is spoken by only around 60,000 people, mainly in the Highlands (a' Ghàidhealtachd, pronounced "a Gale-tach") and the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar, pron. "Na hyale-inan shar"). However, within these areas, Gaelic fluency / proficiency can be very high, for instance the island of Barra, where 80% speak the language. You will more than likely hear locals speaking in Gaelic in the Western Isles and on the ferries to and from them. Signs on board some CalMac ferries to the Western Isles are in Gaelic first and English second. In addition, announcements on some ferries may be at least partially in Gaelic. The BBC also broadcasts a free-to-air Gaelic channel known as BBC Alba, and a Gaelic radio station called Radio nan Gàidheal. Everyone, however, speaks English as well, though Gaelic speakers are often enthusiastic about the language and welcome curiosity about it from foreigners.
People in Scotland, like those in the rest of the UK, generally have rather poor foreign language skills, although those in tourism-related industries generally have better language skills. French, German and Spanish are the most commonly known foreign languages.
Here are some words found in Scotland derived from Brittonic, Gaelic, Pictish or Old Norse:
- Aber (or Inver) = river mouth (Aberdeen or Inverness)
- Ben = mountain (Ben Nevis)
- Burn = stream (Bannockburn)
- Dun (or Dum) - fort (Dundee or Dumbarton)
- Cèilidh = informal celebration, party (pr. KAY-lay)
- Firth = estuary (Firth of Forth), cognate with the Norwegian word fjord but broader in meaning
- Glen = valley (Glencoe)
- Kin = head (Kinlochleven)
- Kyle = narrow strait of water, sound (Kyle of Lochalsh)
- Loch = lake (Loch Ness), also fjord (Loch Linnhe) - thus not all lochs are lakes
- Lochan = small lake, pond
- Strath = vale (Strathspey)
Here are some Gaelic phrases often found in the Highlands and the Western Isles. For more, see the Scottish Gaelic phrasebook:
- Fàilte gu ...... = Welcome to ......
- Deas = South
- Tuath = North
- Aiseag = Ferry
- Traigh = Beach
- Port Athar = Airport
Immigration and Visas
- See also: United Kingdom#Get_in
Immigration and visa requirements of the United Kingdom apply to Scotland. If you wish to travel to Scotland from another country, you must have a British visa (if citizens of your country are required to get one, that is) and a valid passport.
There are no border controls when travelling within the United Kingdom. This includes Scotland's land border with England, the sea crossings between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and flights between any points in the UK. However you do need to show photo ID (such as a passport) to board a domestic flight.
Two airports handle the bulk of international flights into Scotland and also have good domestic connections:
- 1 Edinburgh Airport (EDI IATA), 10 miles west of the city, has direct flights from most European countries plus Turkey and the Gulf States, and a few to North America. There are good connections via the London airports, most via Heathrow. There are domestic flights to other UK cities but the train is usually quicker.
- 2 Glasgow Airport (GLA IATA), 8 miles west of the city, likewise has a good range of direct flights to Europe and the Gulf, a few to North America, connections via London and other domestic flights.
Three other airports have international flights, but only a limited selection and pricier, and most routes will involve changing in London or Amsterdam:
- 3 Aberdeen Airport (ABZ IATA) is 8 miles north west of the city.
- 4 Glasgow Prestwick Airport (PIK IATA) is close to Ayr 30 miles south west of Glasgow.
- 5 Inverness Airport (INV IATA) is 7 miles north east of the city.
Several smaller airports have only domestic flights - but these are a good to way to reach the Scottish islands, if you want to avoid a long drive to the mainland ferry port then a lumpy sea crossing. See "Get Around" below for details, but the main ones with daily flights are:
- 6 Dundee Airport (DND IATA), just 2 miles west of city centre, has regular flights to and from London Heathrow and Kirkwall. These are operated by Loganair.
- Campbeltown (for Kintyre), Islay (for Jura), Tiree, Barra, Benbecula (for North & South Uist), Stornoway (for Harris & Lewis), Wick (for John O'Groats), Kirkwall (for Orkneys) and Sumburgh (for Shetland): these are linked daily to Glasgow. Most also have a flight to Edinburgh, and a few link to Inverness.
The regular UK direct domestic flights to Scotland are:
- British Airways is the main operator to London, with frequent flights from Heathrow LHR, Gatwick LGW and London City LCY.
- EasyJet fly from London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted, Bristol, and Belfast.
- See Wikivoyage's guide to Rail travel in Great Britain for more about travelling by train in Scotland.
Scotland is well connected to the rest of Great Britain by rail, with direct trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh departing from London, which is connected to continental Europe via the Channel tunnel.
Daytime there are four train operators linking Scotland with England:
- LNER trains run from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh via Peterborough, York and Newcastle. Some trains continue to Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen or Inverness.
- Avanti West Coast run from London Euston to Glasgow via Wigan, Preston, Oxenholme and Penrith in the Lake District, and Carlisle. They also run from Birmingham New Street to Glasgow or Edinburgh by a similar route.
- CrossCountry trains run a long diagonal route, from Penzance via Exeter, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Newcastle to Edinburgh, continuing to Dundee and Aberdeen.
- The Transpennine Express runs direct from Manchester Airport to Manchester Piccadilly then via Preston and the Lake District to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Most of these trains run at least hourly as far north as Edinburgh and Glasgow. Those from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow depart from 06:00 to 19:30, taking five hours.
The Caledonian Sleeper links London Euston with Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. There are two trains Su-F, no service on Saturday:
- - The Lowland Sleeper departs Euston towards midnight, and divides en route for Glasgow Central or Edinburgh.
- - The Highland Sleeper departs Euston after 21:00, and divides en route for Aberdeen, Inverness or Fort William.
Southbound trains reach Euston around 07:00-08:00; they may arrive much earlier, but you can stay abed till then.
These trains use the west coast line through Preston and Carlisle into Scotland, so they don't serve eastern cities such as York or Newcastle. They stop at intermediate stations in the early hours of the morning, with no cafes open or local transport running. For instance to Stirling, on the Highland Sleeper you'd be woken at 04:30 and off the train by 05:00. You'd do better to take the Lowland Sleeper to Glasgow or Edinburgh then a daytime train the rest of the way. For connections like these or to join the train (say from Brighton), it's cheaper to buy the connecting tickets separately. New sleeping cars were introduced in 2019, and the trains have sitting coaches if you don't want a bunk.
The main road from England to Edinburgh and the east side of Scotland is the A1. This runs north via Scotch Corner, Newcastle, Morpeth, and Berwick-upon-Tweed then turns west past Dunbar to Edinburgh. It's mostly lowland and very seldom blocked by bad weather, but can be congested around the cities. It's motorway standard as far as Morpeth, then mostly single carriageway through to Dunbar, then again motorway standard into Edinburgh. From there, good roads continue towards Glasgow, Aberdeen and the Highlands.
Scenic alternatives towards Edinburgh are A68 from Darlington via Corrbridge and Jedburgh, A696 from Newcastle past the airport to join A68 near the border, and A697 from Morpeth via Wooller and Coldstream. They're undivided highway, often twisty or switchback, a good scenic drive in fine weather but not speedy.
The main road from England to Glasgow and the west of Scotland is the M74 / A74(M). From the London area, follow M1 to M6 towards Carlisle. To reach it from the northeast of England (eg York), leave A1 at Scotch Corner and follow A66 west to Penrith where you join M6. This runs north via Carlisle to enter Scotland at Gretna - turn off onto A75 for routes to Dumfries & Galloway. M6 now becomes A74(M) and climbs the fells over Beattock then (as M74) descends past Motherwell to Glasgow. M6 and A74(M) are good motorways seldom blocked by bad weather or (once you're past Preston) by congestion - the problem is the A66, mostly undivided and beset by caravans and trucks in summer, and by hazardous weather in winter.
A66 to M6 / A74(M) is also an alternative route to Edinburgh, branching off at Abingdon for A702.
Bus and coach services are the cheapest transport to Scotland, with advance fares as low as £10 from London Victoria to Edinburgh St Andrew Square or Glasgow Buchanan Street. National Express and Megabus are the main operators. These services run daily and overnight, taking 10-12 hours and calling at intermediate towns. A few run on to Dundee and Aberdeen but you'll usually have to change.
- See also: Ferry routes to Great Britain
There are no ferries between Scotland and mainland Europe. The closest connection is an overnight ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle upon Tyne operated by DFDS Seaways. Newcastle is 40-70 miles (60-110 km) from the Scottish border, depending on crossing point. The fastest and most frequent daytime ferries from the Netherlands, France and Spain dock at ports in southern England, which are on average 400 miles (640 km) from the border.
Scotland operates a modern and effective transportation system, including high-quality road, railway and bus links, managed and regulated by the Scottish Government's department of transportation, Transport Scotland. Public transportation is generally a mix of state-operated and commercial services. If you are travelling across the water to and between the islands, air and sea travel is also an option.
Urban transport and travel between major and minor towns and cities is effectively provided by public transportation (primarily bus and train). However, if you plan to tour the country, a car allows you to access more remote areas with poor or no public transportation. This applies particularly if you plan to visit the Highlands, Islands, mountains or rural areas. Hire cars are easily available from international companies in towns and cities.
If you will be travelling by public transportation, the government provides a comprehensive website called Traveline Scotland. It includes a very useful online journey planner that allows you to plan a journey from any one point in the country to any other, using all forms of public transport. You can also download timetables for all public transportation services and check next bus times from any bus stop in Scotland. If you have a smartphone, it also provides an app for iPhone/iPad and Android. This app is extremely useful on the go, for example to check the time of the next bus.
Scotland is a small country, and rail travel in the lowlands is rapid, so there are no flights between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. The Highlands and Islands are another matter, with often rough seas, bleak hills, and the long cold fingers of sea lochs forcing the roads to wind around and double back. Flying is therefore an excellent way to reach the islands and the far-flung mainland towns of Campbeltown and Wick. Fares are moderate and most places have at least two flights a day. Fares are subsidised by the Scottish government to keep the islands in business, as much for residents and visiting professionals as for tourists. On many islands, the plane is the school bus.
Loganair operate most of Scotland's internal flights. They're a full-service airline, so your fare includes one checked bag up to 20 kg, and a reviving cup of coffee and shortbread biscuit as you lurch over dark, soggy moors. The aircraft are medium-sized twin turbos eg Saab 340 and can bounce around when it's windy, but flight times seldom exceed an hour, except to Shetland. Loganair fly from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Inverness, Islay (for Jura), Barra, Benbecula (for North & South Uist), Tiree, Stornoway (for Harris & Lewis), Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, and Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands. They fly from Edinburgh to Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and Wick. They also fly from Aberdeen and Inverness to Kirkwall and Sumburgh.
Loganair also operate the inter-island flights in Orkney, in even smaller aircraft (eg BNF Islanders) with a 15 kg checked baggage limit. One of these is the world's shortest scheduled flight, the two-minute hop between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. Another record that Barra has received is the world's only scheduled flight to use a beach as a runway. Naturally, flight schedules there are tide-dependent.
Inter-island flights around Shetland are operated by Airtask. They fly from Tingwall Airport (basically a bungalow in a field 7 miles north of Lerwick), to Foula, Papa Stour and Fair Isle. They too use BNF Islanders and have limited capacity - they prioritise essential travellers and you can't book online, you need to phone +44 1595 840246. These flights don't connect to other air routes.
From Oban, Hebridean Airways fly to the islands of Coll, Tiree, Colonsay and Islay. These flights have very limited capacity and don't connect to other air routes.
Wikivoyage has a guide to Rail travel in Great Britain, including within Scotland.
Train is one of the faster ways to get around many parts of the country. Journey times are often the same as by road - while there may be many stops, high speed between stops compensates for this. On some routes, the train is considerably faster (e.g. Edinburgh to Dunbar/North Berwick). However, on some routes the train is considerably slower than by road because of the convoluted route the train takes. For example, the maximum permitted speed on some sections of the Far North Line from Inverness to Wick is 90 mph, however because the line runs around the Dornoch Firth and calls at Scotscalder, more than an hour is added to the journey.
ScotRail operates the majority of the Scottish rail network, which covers most of the country. You can also travel by inter-city services which will have started or have their final destination in England. These are provided by LNER, Avanti West Coast, TransPennine Express and CrossCountry and are generally more comfortable with more facilities, e.g. wi-fi. LNER services also have a buffet car. The routes operated by LNER and CrossCountry are particularly useful for travel between Edinburgh and stations up the east coast of Scotland to Aberdeen. The main rail terminals are:
- Aberdeen Station with trains to all Scottish cities. Lines radiate in the direction of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness and call at intermediate stations. Services are also provided to London and most other parts of England.
- Edinburgh Waverley Station with trains to Aberdeen, Fife, Glasgow Queen Street, Inverness, Perth, Stirling and the Borders. There are also inter-city trains to most English destinations via the East Coast route.
- Glasgow Queen Street Station with trains to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Cumbernauld, Dumbarton, Helensburgh, Fort William, Mallaig, Perth and Stirling. For trains to Inverness, change at Perth.
- Glasgow Central Station for trains to South West Scotland including Ayr, Kilmarnock and Stranraer; West Scotland including Greenock and Lanarkshire including Hamilton and Lanark. Inter-city trains to English destinations (primarily Manchester, Birmingham and London (Euston)) via the West Coast route, and less frequently via Newcastle upon Tyne to Bristol and London (Kings Cross).
- Inverness Station for trains to Wick and Kyle of Lochalsh. Also connections for the East Coast and London
The trains which run from Glasgow via the West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig take in some wonderful views.
The Borders are served by a new line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, which opened in September 2015.
Generally train fares in Scotland are comparable to the rest of the UK, and are more expensive than most European countries. If you buy a ticket right before you travel, a typical off-peak fare between Glasgow and Edinburgh might be £10 return, and between Edinburgh and Aberdeen £40 return. However, as throughout the UK rail system, advance purchase tickets offer cheaper fares (travellers may wish to read Wikivoyage's guide to Rail travel in Great Britain). It is best to avoid peak time services between Glasgow and Edinburgh or commuter lines around Glasgow, as trains are often overcrowded at rush hour.
There are several rail passes available. The Spirit of Scotland Travelpass gives unlimited travel on trains across Scotland, as well as some ferry and bus services. Costs £134 for 4 days out of 8, or £179 for 8 days out of 15. There is also a Highland Rover pass, covering trains in the north and west highlands, or a Central Scotland Rover for around Edinburgh and Glasgow.
On some of the rural lines, services only run a couple of times a day. For example, the Far North Line (Inverness to Wick) and the Kyle of Lochalsh line (Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh) have only around 3 to 4 return journeys a day Monday to Saturday and just one on a Sunday. So take care when travelling along these lines, as if you miss your train it could be a while to wait for the next one.
- I'm now arrived - thanks to the gods! / Thro' pathways rough and muddy, / A certain sign that makin roads / Is no this people's study
- Altho' I'm not wi' Scripture cram'd, / I'm sure the Bible says / That heedless sinners shall be damn'd, / Unless they mend their ways.
- - Robert Burns
In Scotland, a car enables you to reach almost any part of the country. It is also the best way to take in the spectacular scenery of mountainous, rural and Highland areas. However, despite the fact Scotland is not a big country, car travel can take significantly longer than you may expect. The mountainous terrain means that crossing from the east to the west usually involves taking circuitous routes. With the exception of the Central Belt and the North-East, where there are motorways and dual carriageways and travel is fast and easy, road conditions in Scotland can be below Western European standards. Beware of defects such as potholes, ruts, cracks and patches in both urban and rural roads (but not motorways or dual carriageways which are maintained to a higher standard by the devolved Scottish Government).
Many rural roads are narrow, have many bends and chicanes, are unlit at night, and are vulnerable to bad weather. If you have a car that handles well, these roads can be fun to drive on. Added to this, scenery is often breathtaking. However, do not be fooled into driving too fast or overtaking recklessly. As in the rest of the UK, the speed limit on country roads is usually 60 mph (97 km/h), although the Scottish Parliament has the power to set its own speed limits in Scotland. 60 mph is too fast for many roads, where you may easily run into a sharp blind hairpin bend without warning. Drive cautiously if a rural road is unfamiliar. You will also find frequent speed cameras and traffic patrols on main roads.
As in the rest of the UK and Ireland, traffic in Scotland drives on the left. Drivers from other countries should take special care if they are not used to driving on the left or if your car is left-hand drive. If driving a left-hand drive car, you may find it difficult to see traffic in your passenger-side door mirror and overtaking may be more difficult and hazardous.
There are high accident rates in rural areas such as the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, especially as a result of speeding and reckless overtaking. Aggressive motorcycle riding is also a major problem on some of Scotland's rural roads, and the annual accident rate is abnormally higher than the UK average. Even if a driver is coming up fast behind you, do not be goaded into increasing your speed. They will overtake (at their own risk!) if you keep to a speed at which you are comfortable. Added to this, weather can be poor, particularly in the interior of the country. In winter, you are likely to find roads closed by snow, with "snow gates" being closed (literally a huge gate that traffic police use to close off the road). Most drivers in Scotland do not fit snow tyres or snow chains, and combined with reckless driving, the accident rate in winter weather is higher. In coastal areas, mist or fog can be a problem. Listen to radio traffic reports (e.g. BBC Radio Scotland) and avoid travelling by car in poor weather if you can.
In remote areas, many roads are single track. Passing places are provided at intervals. These are marked by square or diamond-shaped white signs labelled "Passing Place". On older, less-used, single track roads black and white striped poles may still be used as markers. If faster traffic comes up behind you, it is the rule that you should pull into a passing place and allow the other vehicle to pass. When two vehicles approach each other on a single-track road, experienced drivers will both adjust their speed so as to reach the passing place at the same time and pass each other slowly, avoiding the need for either vehicle to come to a stop. You should pull in to the passing place on your left or if the passing place is on the right hand side, stop opposite it so that the oncoming car can pull into it.
Many rural roads are poorly maintained and lack crash barriers, so you should drive carefully and never assume that it is clear around the next bend or over the next hill. Use full-beam headlights if visibility is less than 100 m (110 yards) ahead, but be considerate and don't dazzle other road users. You may also find cattle grids (also known as cattle guards or Texas gates), which are used if livestock is loose in the area and should be negotiated very slowly as they can have an adverse effect on your vehicle's steering. In these areas, keep your speed down and watch out for livestock such as horses, sheep, cattle and deer.
Many bypasses have been built to allow faster travel, but the visitor will miss out on some of the beautiful scenery of Scotland. In some areas, road signs will indicate that the road on the next exit will rejoin the main route by showing a semi-circular exit and entrance with the destination name in the middle. This allows the driver confidence to take more scenic diversions into small towns or to find a place to stop and have lunch.
Finally, do not drive if you have consumed alcohol. Drink driving is illegal in Scotland and is not tolerated by the police. It can be difficult to estimate how much is within the legal limit so the safe limit is zero. It attracts severe punishments by court judges: Sentences include jail terms (including lengthy jail terms if you cause an accident while drunk), large fines, confiscation of your car, and disqualification from driving. Since 5 December 2014, the legal drink-driving alcohol limit is lower in Scotland (50 mg per 100 ml of blood) than in the rest of the UK (80 mg/100 ml).
The bus is one of the cheapest ways of getting around in Scotland; however it is also the slowest and least comfortable. Bus journeys in and out of Glasgow or Edinburgh at peak times can become very unpredictable due to the congested motorway network in the Central Belt - therefore think twice before using buses as an option to make tight connections with other transport modes.
Megabus services wholly within Scotland are run on a joint basis with Citylink and buses on these routes can be in the livery of either operator. Tickets for these services can be bought on both companies websites, often at different prices for identical services, or on the coach, subject to seat availability. You can get to most large towns and cities on the Citylink bus, but it is more expensive than Megabus. Megabus is a very cheap way to travel, as ticket prices start at £1 if booked weeks in advance, and rising to over £10 for peak-rate or last-minute fares. A 50p booking charge is applied to every ticket. Megabus departs from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Perth, going between these Scottish cities as well as to English destinations. With Megabus you can book only online, from 45 days up to 30 minutes before departure. Citylink runs a quarter-hourly bus service between Edinburgh and Glasgow which costs £4--you pay the driver. This service runs out of the main bus stations (Buchanan Street in Glasgow and Saint Andrew Square in Edinburgh), and the journey takes about an hour and ten minutes—some twenty minutes slower than the train but half the price of a peak-rate train ticket.
In Argyll and Bute, buses are operated by West Coast Motors on behalf of Citylink. These leave from Glasgow, and travel to Campbeltown and Oban. The journey time to Campbeltown is approximately 4 hours, and Oban is approximately 3 hours. Road closures due to accidents and weather conditions can result in the buses having to take significant diversions which can add a large amount of time to journeys. The A83 from Tarbet to Inverary is often closed during winter due to landslides.
MyBus is a transport scheme in the Strathclyde region (a huge chunk of southwest Scotland including Glasgow) that supplements the regular bus service. This is both for those who can't use regular bus services (eg with physical or sensory or learning difficulties, and their carers), and for areas where the normal bus service is impractical (eg if you live miles from a bus stop) for life's essentials, such as shopping or getting to the dentist. It generally doesn't cover holiday travel, but if you're staying in the area for a long spell (thus, might be considered a temporary resident), and especially if you are a resident of Strathclyde, you may be eligible: ring 0345 128 4025 to check what's feasible. The buses are usually single-decker "kneelers" suitable for wheelchairs, and fares equate to the standard fare - which is free with a concessionary card.
By tour bus
There are many tour operators in Scotland which can take you around the country stress-free and allow you to drink as much whisky as you wish. There are options from budget larger groups in coaches to smaller group tours in luxury mini-coaches. The guides may provide an insight into Scottish history and culture you may not be able to learn on your own. Highland Experience tours and Rabbie's small group tours are two long standing major operators or for a smaller family run tour company, try Heartland Travel - Tours of Scotland
An extensive car ferry service operates between most large islands, usually daily, and frequently across the Firth of Clyde. Ferries have limited capacity and on some routes it is advisable to book a few weeks in advance.
- Caledonian MacBrayne (usually known as CalMac) is the largest ferry operator, serving the west of Scotland. Their main routes are around the Firth of Clyde (Arran, Bute, Cumbrae, Cowal and Kintyre), Southern Hebrides (Gigha, Islay, Jura & Colonsay), Inner Hebrides (Tiree, Coll and Mull), Skye, and the Outer Hebrides (Barra, North & South Uist, and Harris & Lewis).
- Western Ferries operate the short hop across the Clyde between Gourock and Dunoon, every 20 mins.
- NorthLink Ferries sail overnight from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands and Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. They also ply the short crossing from Scrabster to Stromness in the Orkneys.
- Pentland Ferries and John O'Groats Ferries provide alternative short routes to Orkney from the Scottish mainland.
- Orkney Ferries and Shetland Islands Council operate the inter-island ferries in those areas.
Hitch-hiking is surprisingly easy in Scotland, but better to do outside the big cities. In the Highlands you might need to wait for a long time until a car comes by. General caution must be taken.
Most historic sites are maintained either by the National Trust of Scotland or by Historic Environment Scotland. Both offer memberships (with free priority access and other discounts) for a year or a lifetime - and have reciprocal arrangements with their English and Welsh equivalents. Depending on how much you get around and how long you are staying, they may well be worth buying. Membership also contributes to the sites' preservation and new acquisitions.
- Historic Environment Scotland. Sites and prices, yearly membership starts at £47 adult, £87 family (properties include Edinburgh and Stirling Castles). Historic Scotland also offers a 3-day Explorer Pass. Summer 2021: Some manned sites are open, advance booking is required..
- National Trust of Scotland. Sites and prices, yearly membership starts at £45 adult, £100 family (properties include Craigievar and Crathes Castles, numerous wilderness areas). Summer 2021: Most properties open, but advance booking is required and opening hours may be reduced..
- Spectator sport: Football is easily the most popular spectator sport. That said, most teams rarely play to full houses, therefore if you are in Scotland between mid-August and mid-May you should be able to obtain tickets for a match. The main exception is the Old Firm derby in Glasgow between Celtic and Rangers, which is notoriously intense with sectarian undertones, so matches between the two sides are guaranteed to sell out, and often only available to season ticket holders. Rugby union is popular, nowhere more so than in the Borders region. The indigenous game of shinty is played mostly in the Highlands during the summer months.
- Callanish Chambered Cairn and Standing Stones (Lewis), setting of tall megaliths
- Clava Ring Cairn (Inverness), ring cairn between two passage graves
- Dun Carloway Broch (Lewis), one of the best preserved brochs with an elevation of about 30 ft above ground
- Jarlshof Early Settlements and Broch (Shetland), occupied from the early 2nd millennium BC, in the Late Bronze and early Iron Age until the erection of the broch,
- Maes Howe Chambered Cairn (Orkney), chambered cairn representing the high standard of workmanship in Neolithic Britain,
- Mousa Broch (Shetland), best known example of a broch, with walls 50ft in diameter at the base and 43 ft above the ground, with complex internal stairs and galleries
- Ring of Brodgar (Orkney), large henge monument magnificently placed between two lochs and remarkably well preserved
- Rough Castle (Falkirk), Roman remains
- Skara Brae (Orkney), Neolithic settlement of houses built largely of stones which was buried under a mixture of midden material and blown sand until discovered in the 1930s
- Traprain Law (East Lothian), hill fort occupied for 1000 years from the middle of the first millennium BC onward
Pictish and Early Christian Monuments
- Aberlemno (Angus), Pictish Symbol Stones in the churchyard
- Iona (Inner Hebrides), island where St. Columba landed from Ireland in 563 beginning the Christianisation of Scotland, burial-place of the kings of Scotland
- Meigle (Perthshire), Pictish Symbol Stones
- Ruthwell Cross (Dumfriesshire), one of the best examples of Anglian sculpture and one of the major monuments of Europe in the Dark Ages
- St.Vigean’s (Angus), Pictish Symbol Stones
- Balmoral Castle (Aberdeenshire). Summer residence of the Queen in the Dee Valley
- Blair Castle, Blair Atholl (Perthshire), seat of the Duke of Atholl
- Craigievar Castle (near Alford, Aberdeenshire)
- Crathes Castle (Aberdeenshire), L-Plan tower house with magnificent early 18th century formal garden
- Culzean Castle (Ayrshire), fantastic castle created by Robert Adams in the 18th century overlooking the Firth of Clyde
- Dunnottar Castle (Aberdeenshire), on an isolated rock projecting 2 miles off the coast
- Dunvegan Castle (Skye), seat of the Clan MacLeod
- Edinburgh Castle (Edinburgh)
- Edzell Castle (Angus) with a fine tower house and a spacious walled garden with symbolic decorations of the Cardinal Virtues, Liberal Arts and Planetary Deities, unique in Britain
- Eilean Donan Castle (Lochalsh), a picturesque island castle on the road to Skye
- Falkland Palace (Fife), enlarged in the reign of James IV and embellished by James V during preparations for his marriages with Magdalene of France and Mary of Lorraine. It is thought that James V died here after hearing news of the birth of his daughter Mary Queen of Scots.
- Glamis Castle (Angus), castle dating mainly from the last quarter of the 17th century
- Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh)
- Inveraray Castle (Argyll), seat of the dukes of Argyll, completed in 1770
- Linlithgow Palace (West Lothian), one of Scotland’s four royal palaces, birthplace of James V and Mary Queen of Scots
- Scone Palace (Perth), one of the most historic places of Scotland, where the ‘Stone of Destiny’, the coronation stone of the Scottish kings, was kept from the times of Kenneth MacAlpine in the 9th century until the stone was stolen by King Edward of England
- Stirling Castle (Stirling), with superb view and survivals of domestic buildings of the 16th, 17th and 18th century
- Tantallon Castle (East Lothian), stronghold of the Douglas family, in a magnificent situation on the coast opposite Bass Rock
Abbeys and Abbey Ruins
- Dunfermline Abbey (Fife)
- Dryburgh Abbey (Berwickshire)
- Jedburgh Abbey (Roxburghshire)
- Kelso Abbey (Roxburghshire)
- Melrose Abbey (Roxburghshire)
Churches and Cathedrals
- Elgin Cathedral (Moray). Known as "the Lantern of the North", once the most perfect of the Scottish cathedrals, burnt by Alexander Earl of Buchan, the "Wolf of Badenoch" in 1390
- High Kirk of St Giles, High Street, (Edinburgh), first church of the Church of Scotland,
- Roslyn Chapel (Midlothian) well known for its sculpture and elaborated carving with the famous "Prentice Pillar"
- St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall (Orkney) built in the 12th century, the only undamaged pre-Reformation cathedral
- St Mungo's Cathedral, (Glasgow), only example of pre-Reformation Gothic architecture on mainland Scotland
- Bannockburn (Stirlingshire), under the leadership of ‘’Robert Bruce’’ Scotland gained freedom that kept for centuries
- Culloden (Invernessshire), scene of the last battle fought on the soil of the United Kingdom, site of the last battle in the Jacobean Rising of 1745
- Glencoe (Argyll), site of the massacre of the Macdonalds in 1692,
- Killiecrankie (Perthshire), site of a battle between supporters of James VII under ‘’Bonnie Dundee’ and the forces of William III in 1689
- Charles II, Parliament Square (Edinburgh)
- Prince Charles Monument, Glenfinnan (Inverness-shire)
- Robert Bruce. Bannockburn (Stirlingshire)
- Scott Monument, East Princes Street Gardens (Edinburgh) — in honour of Scotland’s greatest novelist Sir Walter Scott
- Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow
- National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh picture gallery with paintings of European painters, as Filippino Lippi, Huge van der Goes, Titian, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, Watteau, degas, Monet, Gauguin and others.
- National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh with portraits of the Stuart kings and pictures of great events in Scottish history.
- Culross (Fife), remarkably complete example of 16th and 17th cent Scottish architecture,
- Dumfries (Dumfriesshire), the ‘’Queen of the South’’
- Royal Mile (Edinburgh)
- Stirling (Stirlingshire)
- Cairngorms National Park (Aberdeen, Banffshire, Inverness). A magnificent range of mountains between Speyside and Braemar
- Duncansby Head, John O’Groats (Caithness), the most northerly point of the British mainland, sheer sandstone cliffs up to 210 ft (64 m) high
- Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, Inner Hebrides (Argyll)
- Glen Affric (Inverness-shire), the old east-west route through the Highlands of Inverness-shire
- Glencoe (Argyll), famous pass from the Moor of Rannoch to Loch Leven in Inverness-shire, the most celebrated glen in Scotland
- Glen More Forest Park (Inverness-shire) in the north-west corner of the Cairngorms, covered with pine and spruce woods
- Glen Trool Forest Park (Kincardineshire), with the highest hill country in southern Scotland
- Inverewe Gardens (Ross and Cromarty) benefits from the warm and moist Gulf Stream climate
- Loch Lomond (Dunbartonshire, Stirlingshire), the largest inland water in Britain, and one of the country's most beautiful
- Loch Maree (Ross and Cromarty), magnificent loch overlooked on all sides by beautiful mountains
- Loch Ness (Inverness-shire), Great Glen, extending from 7 mi (11 km) south-west of Inverness for 24 mi (39 km) to Fort Augustus
- Loch Torridon (Ross and Cromarty), magnificient sea-loch opposite the North East of Skye
- Queen’s View (Perthshire)
- Smoo Cave, Durness (Sutherland), whose largest cave is 200 ft (61 m) long and 120 ft (37 m) high
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park (Perthshire), romantic valley between Loch Achray and Loch Katrine
Places with Literary Connections
- Abbotsford House (Roxburghshire), seat of Sir Walter Scott
- Burn’s Cottage, Alloway, (Ayrshire)
- The Trossachs (Perthshire), one of the most celebrated literary beauty spots in Scotland, described by ‘’Sir Walter Scott’’ in his famous poem ‘’The Lady of the Lake’’, but also by ‘’Dorothy Wordsdworth’’
Other Places of Interest
- The Blacksmith’s Shop, Gretna Green (Dumfriesshire), famous as the place where runaway couples from England got married under 18th century Scottish law by means of a declaration before witnesses.
- Caledonian Canal (Invernessshire), running across Scotland from the Beauly Firth near Inverness in the North East to Loch Linnhe near Fort Williams in the South West. The canal was built in order to avoid the dangerous sailing round the North of Scotland by the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford.
- Drive - take a Driving tour of Scotland.
- Motorcycling - Scotland has some of the best motorcycle touring roads in the world, although you'll need good weather to get the most out of them. With good surfaces, little traffic outside of the main conurbations and welcoming cafes touring is a real pleasure. It is also possible to hire a motorcycle.
- Cycling - Even though there are only a few cycle trails compared to England, Scotland makes a great cycling country as there are many roads with little traffic. See Cycling in Scotland.
- Rail Travel - Scotland is home to the most scenic railway line in the world - the West Highland Railway, and travelling the area by train is very much recommended. Fares can be high, but the scenery can be priceless.
- Hillwalking and hiking: Scotland has 284 Munros, mountains higher than 3000 feet / 914.4 m. Only one of them requires technical rock-climbing skills, Sgùrr Dearg on Skye. A handful are difficult, but the rest (including the highest, Ben Nevis) are nothing worse than hard slog - though hazardous in bad weather. The best known long distance trail is the West Highland Way, stretching for 95 miles / 153 km from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William. Lots more hikes and strolls everywhere, see the Tourist Board's Walks in Scotland Guide[dead link], and there is detailed route info on Walk Highlands of over 420 routes. See also Walking in the United Kingdom.
- Visit a whisky distillery. Scotland has over 120 whisky distilleries in active production. Only a minority are open for tours, but that's still plenty; they're especially concentrated in the upper reaches of Aberdeenshire, Moray and Spey Valley, and on Islay. Those open to the public (and see the map posted on Scotland Whisky) are usually producing single malt whisky, a premium product but in a crowded marketplace, so the tours are integral to their PR strategy. Many of the new small craft gin distilleries are likewise open.
- Golf - Scotland is the birthplace of the game of golf and home to the oldest course in the world, St. Andrews.
- The Edinburgh Festival occurs during late July to Mid September. The Festival is an umbrella term for several festivals, including the International Festival, the Fringe Festival, the International Jazz and Blues Festival, and the International Book Festival. See Edinburgh for details. VisitScotland, the official Scottish Tourist Board, maintain a calendar of events and festivals taking place throughout Scotland.
- Highland Games are held throughout the country from April to Sept, but mostly on mid-summer weekends. There's food, traditional music and dancing, and vendors selling Scottish handicrafts, but the highlight is large people in kilts in pipe bands, and performing athletic feats such as the unique style of Scottish hammer throwing and tossing the caber, where a huge log has to be thrown so it flips end over end. They're colourful and fun to watch but the competitors are in earnest and have trained hard. Games often coincide with an agricultural or food & flower show, or with a "Highland Gathering" where a particular clan convenes to show each other that they're all wearing the correct tartan.
- Curling is a sport where massive polished granite stones are slid across ice, to come to rest as close as possible to the target (or "house"). Nifty work with brushing the route or sprinkling it with water speeds or retards the stone, and can make it curl around an obstructing stone. The game was first described and painted in Scotland and the Netherlands in the 16th century. Matches are held Sept-April, always on indoor rinks as the Scottish climate is nowadays too mild for reliable natural ice. Beginners' lessons are held at rinks across Scotland. It is also contested at the Winter Olympics.
- See also: Studying abroad#United Kingdom
Education in Scotland is generally taken very seriously, and the country was the first in the world to provide universal education to both boys and girls.
Scotland has its own educational system, which differs significantly from those of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The country is home to 15 universities. All Scottish universities are public institutions, which means they are funded by the Scottish government.
- Scottish country dancing: you might find classes in the larger cities, but it's not difficult to just join in and pick it up as you go along. It's one of those agreeable activities that is flattering to folk devoid of athletic skills.
- Bagpipes: the exact opposite, this will require a full year of daily practice to achieve anything other than painful results, even if you already play a wind instrument. And then practise, practise, practise, as the kilted buskers at the railway stations and coach stops are doing.
- Scottish Gaelic: as with other languages, you can readily learn a few courtesies and basics, while achieving proficiency will take the rest of your life. It's probably best to start with CDs and online material, then consider a short residential course. There's a Gaelic college on Skye but this aims to provide courses on other subjects in Gaelic to those who are native speakers. Of course they teach the language, but at college not beginner level.
The regulations governing who can work in Scotland are the same as for the rest of the UK.
A general shortage of skilled labour in the health sector means the National Health Service (NHS) actively recruits overseas, making it easier for those with specialist skills to work in the UK. The devolved Scottish Government is also keen to attract immigrants to Scotland to plug a perceived declining population.
As in the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland uses the pound sterling (£). Additionally, Scotland's three national clearing banks Bank of Scotland, The Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank issue their own sterling banknotes. These notes are very common in Scotland and can be used interchangeably with Bank of England notes throughout Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Outside of Scotland and Northern Ireland, some merchants may be reluctant to accept Scottish notes, especially larger denomination notes (the largest Bank of England note is £50, but all three Scottish banks also issue £100 notes). If you want to get Bank of England notes in Scotland, make a withdrawal from an ATM run by NatWest, Barclays or HSBC - although they are found only in major cities. In shops you can try asking for your change in Bank of England notes and similarly ask bank tellers for English notes when you exchange cash or travellers cheques. If you're in England or Wales with Scottish notes, then you can exchange them for English notes free of charge at any bank - or spend them at larger high street shops that are less likely to be fussy about what notes they accept. Before leaving the UK, change any excess into Bank of England banknotes, as Scottish banknotes can be difficult to exchange in other countries or have a worse exchange rate.
Scotland like England has switched entirely to polymer bank notes, and paper notes are no longer legal tender. If you have these (for instance the Adam Smith £20, withdrawn in 2022) then change them at a bank.
Euros are not accepted with the exception of a few high street shops and tourist stores, so change your money into sterling.
The classic tourist souvenir is a kilt and everything else involving the tartan. If you have a Scottish family name like McDonald or Clark, it may be worth trying to find your own family's tartan. There is also a large variety of other official tartans, representing anything from military regiments to religious communities (e.g. Scotland's Jewish and Muslim communities both have official tartans). A real kilt costs about £300-400 and is made of heavy wool (so it will not reveal what you might or might not be wearing underneath even in strong winds), but most souvenir stores offer only unauthentic thin ones. If you really want a genuine kilt or full traditional outfit (kilt, sporran, jacket, shirt, and shoes) the best place to look is a clothing hire shop. These specialise in hiring suits and kilts for weddings and often sell ex-hire stock at reduced prices - otherwise the kilt will have to be made to order - this usually takes several weeks.
The traditional highland kilt is a section of cloth about 6 feet wide and 14 feet long. This is wrapped about the body then brought up over the shoulder and pinned in place, a little like a toga. The modern short kilt was introduced during the industrial revolution to give more freedom of movement.
Whisky (Scotch) is also a common buy. There are two basic types - blended and single malt whiskies. Blended whiskies are made from, as the name suggests - several single malts blended together. Beware of souvenir shops selling small bottles of blended whisky for inflated prices - you can more often than not find the same bottle in a supermarket (or in airport duty-free) much cheaper! Single malt whiskies are more expensive, and worth paying the price premium. Single malts are very diverse depending on the region or town where the whisky was distilled and the type of barley used. The smaller, independent distilleries pride themselves on the quality of their product and their whisky is often only available in a small number of shops, or even directly. Mainstream brand single malts are still sold in supermarkets and duty-free shops.
Orkney silver jewellery is produced in the Orkney Islands but available throughout Scotland. Styles are generally traditionally "Celtic" or modern variations of that style. Jewellery produced by highly regarded designers tends to be very elegant and not cheap.
Woolen goods besides kilts are widely available. Scotland produces a lot of wool, much of it very high quality, so you can find very comfortable yet durable and attractive scarves, coats, sweaters/jumpers, etc., often for quite reasonable prices if you shop around. Harris Tweed, from the island of Harris, is particularly well-regarded. If you want something with your family tartan but don't want to spring for a kilt, then hats, handbags, ties, scarves, etc. are all available in a variety of official tartans.
Cost of living
Most visitors are disappointed by the high cost of living in Scotland. Although prices in Scotland are not as bad as in the south of England, compared to the United States, or most other parts of Europe, basic living expenses are still high. Most goods have an additional 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) applied although this is always included in the marked price for general consumer purchases. Petrol has a massive 70% excise tax and 20% VAT on top of that. Costs are highest in Edinburgh and in very remote places such as Stornoway (for example petrol prices often hit £1.50 per litre in some areas). As a basic rule, the further north you venture, the more expensive it's likely to get, mostly because of the expense of long supply chains and small turnovers.
- See also: Cuisine of Britain and Ireland
While Scotland has suffered from the stereotype for producing dreary food, things have changed now with excellent modern Scottish restaurants, and numerous quality Indian, French, and Italian options on offer. In fact, in parts of the country such as Edinburgh, it has become quite difficult to get a really bad meal. As in the rest of the UK, Indian and Chinese food are popular and readily available even in many fairly small towns. In fact, the classic Indian dish Chicken Tikka Masala was (debatably) invented in Glasgow. Below are listed some of the highlights of the Scottish culinary scene:
- Cullen skink - A hearty and delicious fish soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes, cream, and shellfish. Partan bree is a traditional seafood soup sometimes found in the northeast, made mainly of crab and rice. Other Scottish soups include the humble but very traditional cock-a-leekie - chicken soup with chopped leeks, and the heartier scotch broth, made with barley, lamb or mutton, root vegetables, and dried peas or lentils.
- Seafood - Scotland produces some of the best seafood in the world. Its langoustines, oysters, scallops, crabs, salmon and lobsters are prized by the finest chefs all over the world...and hence are mostly exported. Try half-a-dozen fresh oysters followed by langoustines in garlic butter mopped up with a chunk of organic bread at the Three Chimneys in Skye. Heaven on a plate. If you're lucky enough to be near the coast you can buy freshly caught seafood at very good prices; just go to the docks and wait, it's worth it. Scotland also has some truly glorious fish and chips: fresh haddock fried and battered to perfection with a side of golden chips and vinegar (haddock is traditional for fish and chips in Scotland, though higher-end chippies will often offer a choice of fish). Kippers (cured and smoked herring) are a breakfast favourite. Scottish smoked salmon is world-famous, and is eaten for breakfast all over the UK, typically served with scrambled eggs. If you're from North America, some fish, particularly cheaper ones, have different names in Europe than you're used to - for example "plaice" refers to what you likely know as "flounder," and "coley" is the same as "pollock."
- Sizzling sirloin of Scotch beef- The five best beef breeds in the world are Scottish, the best-known being Aberdeen Angus. The others are Highland, Longhorn, Shorthorn and Galloway. There is a vast difference between how beef cattle are raised for the lower-cost end of the market and the top end of the market. Slap a sirloin of Aberdeen Angus on a hot grill and find out why.
- Game - Scotland has game aplenty, from pheasants to venison. An inexpensive Highland autumn favourite is pheasant layered with a few strips of bacon and baked with seasonal vegetables. Venison (deer) is a common variety of game, prepared in similar ways to beef, commonly burgers, stews and pies; it is leaner and more flavoursome than beef.
- Haggis - Scotland's national dish does sound quite disgusting to foreigners because of its ingredients, but is in fact surprisingly good. The texture is fairly similar to meatloaf like you might find in the USA, with a slightly stronger, more pungent flavour. Unless you simply can't abide any hint of organ-meat flavours, you should give it a try. Haggis is made up of chopped heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onion, oatmeal and spices and then cooked in a sheep's stomach bag. Nowadays, you can buy and cook Haggis in plastic bags. It is served with turnips and mashed potatoes (often referred to as Scots words "neeps and tatties"). For the faint-hearted, vegetarian haggis is available.
- Porridge - an oat meal many Scots eat for breakfast, usually with salt as a topping however other toppings like milk, cream, honey, fruit and jam are popular.
- The square sausage is another common breakfast favourite — it is a flavoured thin square of beef (steak sausage) or pork (lorne sausage), fried or grilled, often served in a roll.
- A full Scottish breakfast is similar to a "full English" or "full Welsh," consisting (usually) of a bacon rasher, a link or square sausage, a slice of black pudding (a kind of blood sausage), an egg or two, baked beans in tomato sauce, sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes, toast, and a tattie scone, which is a type of potato pancake. Sometimes white pudding (a coarse sausage of pork meat and fat, cereals, but no blood) is substituted for black pudding. Not the kind of thing most people eat on a daily basis, but hits the spot if you went a little too hard the night before, or if you need to fuel up for a day's rambling in the countryside.
- Scotch pie is a much-loved local delicacy. Originally containing mutton, but now usually made with an undefinable meat. Good ones are really good - slightly spiced and not greasy. Try one from a local bakery. A bridie is somewhat similar but is shaped more like a pasty, and sometimes contains onions. The ubiquitous Scotch Egg is another perennial dodgy favourite, which is essentially a boiled egg breadcrumbed with sausage meat.
- Scotch tablet is another local delicacy. It is very similar to fudge - but is slightly brittle due to its being beaten for a time while it sets! Great for any cold hikes you may be planning.
- The deep fried Mars bar, regarded by many as an urban myth, does exist in Scotland. An NHS survey reported that roughly 22% of fast food joints and fish and chips shops in Scotland sell the item, at roughly 60 pence a go, mainly to school children and young adults. You will have to ask them to put one in the fryer, though. Despite being extremely rich and feeling very unhealthy, they are quite tasty. Your best bet is to share one with a friend. A chippy in Stonehaven claims to be the birthplace of this, er, "delicacy." Another equally improbable artery-clogging treat is deep-fried pizza. The ultimate 'heart-attack-on-a-plate' has to be the fribab, the deep-fried kebab which can be done for ya in some of the crazier parts of Glasgow. Really, Scottish chippies will deep fry just about anything, including haggis.
- The munchy box is probably the ultimate in late night Scottish takeaway cuisine. The exact contents vary, as you can get them variously from chip shops as well as Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese places, but it's a variety of fast food classics, e.g. kebab meat, fried chicken, pakora, chips, etc. thrown together in a flat pizza box. Sometimes it will include a salad, you know, to make it healthy. It's unknown whether anyone has ever purchased a munchy box while sober.
- The mass produced varieties of cheese are similar to the rest of the UK, although some is made in Scotland. Smaller specialist cheeses are worth looking for. Dunlop is similar to a Cheddar, and is named after a village in Ayrshire. Crowdie is a soft curd cheese, sold in tubs. Caboc is a soft cream cheese which is usually rolled in oatmeal to form a small log; variations are rolled in black pepper or garlic leaves. Mull Cheddar is a very strong artisan cheddar cheese from the Isle of Mull. Try spreading your cheese on an oatcake, a biscuit ideally suited to cheese (or honey).
Vegetarian food isn't as hard to find as you would think, with virtually all restaurants and cafés offering more than one vegetarian option. Vegan food is harder to find, but not impossible. Edinburgh especially has a good number of exceptional vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Scotland, and especially the Highlands, is famous for the hundreds of brands of Scotch whisky it produces (note the lack of an 'e'). It seems to the visitor that every village makes its own particular brand, so much so that somebody compared a tour of the Highlands as being similar to "driving through a drinks cabinet"! There are around 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland and nearly half of them welcome visitors. Opening days and times can be up to seven days a week in summer and sometimes they close in the winter. A good way to instantly endear yourself to the locals is when ordering Scotch in a pub, always ask for a "whisky" or simply "a half" - and the bartender will know exactly what you mean, in much the same way as asking for "a pint" in Ireland will mean you are automatically served Guinness. Asking for a "Scotch" or putting anything other than water in malt whisky will immediately identify you as a foreigner!
Pubs are the places you meet people and where you have a good time. More than in other countries, pubs are very lively and it is easy to get to know people when you're travelling alone. Most Scottish people are usually very welcoming, so it's not unusual that they will buy you a drink even though you just met them.
The legal drinking age is 18 years old, and many pubs and clubs will ask for ID of anyone who happens to look younger than 25. Penalties for those caught buying alcohol for those under 18 can include a large fine, and the penalties for drink-driving are severe. Drinking laws are complicated slightly by the fact that a single glass of wine may be served to a sixteen-year old, provided it is with a meal and are accompanied by an adult who is at least 18 years old.
Beer, especially the ales, is measured in pints. One pint equals just over half a litre (568 mL). Scottish micro-breweries are doing quite well, possibly thanks to the "Campaign for Real Ale".
From 1 May 2018 there is a legal minimum price of 50p per UK Unit of Alcohol. This means that the minimum price of a bottle or 500ml can of beer or cider is around £1.25, depending on the strength, a bottle of wine is around £5 and a 70cl bottle of whisky is £14. This has no impact on prices in bars, but the cheapest drinks in supermarkets are more expensive than in England.
Irn Bru, also known as Scotland's other national drink (after whisky), is a very popular, fizzy, bright orange-coloured soft drink that is supposed to be the best cure for a hangover: it is full of caffeine and is acidic enough to clean coins, but then so can cola. In 2017, it was widely reported that Scotland is the only country in the world where the best-selling soft drink isn't Coca-Cola, which no other native soft drink can claim. Supposedly it is made from iron girders. Cream soda, Red Kola and Sugarelly (liquorice water) are similarly consumed.
Craft or boutique spirits have blossomed since 2009. It's long been legal in the UK to make your own beer or wine - and it used to be a common pastime, but supermarket products are nowadays so cheap. It was and remains illegal to distil your own spirits for personal consumption, but you're permitted under licence to set up a commercial distillery. That was held to mean a still of at least 1800 litres capacity, but in 2009 a legal case overthrew that minimum, and opened the door to micro-distilleries. These then popped up all over UK but very noticeably in Scotland. They usually produce gin, less often vodka, seldom whisky which has extra rules and has to mature several years before it may be sold. So you may well encounter "craft" or "boutique" gin from one of these new distilleries.
All short-term accommodation in Scotland must be registered, otherwise it's illegal and probably a flea-pit or fire-trap. This applies throughout Scotland but is especially pertinent to Edinburgh, where demand far exceeds supply and encourages exploitive providers. The law (which does not apply to England) was introduced in 2022 but there is considerable wriggle room until July 2024, so for the time being proprietors can reasonably say that their registration is still being processed. Be increasingly sceptical as the deadline approaches. It's a bit of unwelcome extra bureaucracy for B&Bs, campsites and so on but in the long-term should better protect travellers and honest providers.
Self-catering holidays, in cottages wooden lodges or city flats, in Scotland have become popular. Many cottages are now furnished to a very high standard.
Scotland has plenty of Hostels, both the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA) and a large and developing network of Independent Hostels. Some of the buildings are very impressive. The SYHA traditionally involved guests performing chores and a ban on alcohol. The new breed of independent hostels have eschewed these concepts, causing the SYHA to loosen up its attitudes too.
Camping is another inexpensive way of touring Scotland, though the unpredictable weather makes it less appealing than in some other countries. In remote areas camp sites can be a significant distance apart so buy an up-to-date guide and plan your route. Booking is not usually necessary except in peak season. Generally, the rule is the more remote the camp site, the better the scenery and the lower the cost. Some camp sites may provide only basic amenities. "Wild camping" on private land outside recognised campsites is a legal right in Scotland (but only well away from roads and inhabited buildings): you are expected to move on after two or three nights in the same spot, not least to allow the ground to regenerate. Never camp next to a stream that could rapidly become swollen by overnight rain. Midges (tiny biting insects) can be a particular nuisance during August and September: the insects are harmless but incredibly irritating, especially when you are trying to sleep, so zip your tent religiously every time you get in or out. The good news is that midges fly more slowly than most people walk, and they dislike smoke. Chemical repellents are widely available but some people find them ineffective, unfortunately.
Bed and Breakfast accommodation is widely available, even in remote areas and some very good deals can be found. Many people consider these to be more friendly and welcoming than a hotel. Local tourist information centres will help you find a room for the same night, and you may expect to pay in the region of £35 per person per night for room and full Scottish breakfast.
The Premier Inn and Travelodge chains of motels in Scotland are widespread, with double rooms priced at around £55. In cities these are likely to prove cheaper than a hotel, especially if you are able to book in advance.
Scotland's weather is highly changeable, but rarely extreme. In the mountainous regions of the north and west of the country, the weather can change swiftly and frequently even during the summer. What started as a bright morning can end as a very wet, very windy and very cold afternoon. Packing extra warm and waterproof clothing is advisable, whatever the time of year.
Like the rest of the UK, cars drive on the left-hand side of the road. In urban areas, many road junctions are controlled by roundabouts as opposed to traffic lights. In rural areas, roads can be narrow, very twisty and road markings are rare. Some single-track roads have "Passing Places" which allow vehicles to pass each other. Passing places are generally marked with a diamond-shaped white sign with the words "passing place" written on it. Signs remind drivers of vehicles to pull over into a passing place (or opposite it, if it is on the opposite side of the road) to let approaching vehicles pass, and most drivers oblige. Use your common sense on these roads and it is a courtesy to politely acknowledge the other driver if they have stopped or pulled over to let you pass. Also use Passing Places to allow following vehicles to overtake - locals who are familiar with these roads greatly appreciate this. In addition, many motorists will have to sometimes share the road with stray sheep and occasionally cattle, so extra vigilance is required. These roads pass through some of Scotland's most spectacular areas and while the scenery may be awe-inspiring, extra attention and concentration is required when using them.
Drink-driving is not tolerated by the authorities in Scotland and if you find yourself involved in any form of road incident that requires police attention, you will be breathalysed. If caught and convicted, a driving ban and/or imprisonment will normally follow. The drink-driving limit is stricter in Scotland than in England. If you have some drinks in England (for instance in a border town such as Berwick-upon-Tweed) and drive into Scotland, what was legal in England may immediately become illegal the moment you cross the border into Scotland.
Crime and safety
In any emergency, call 999 or 112 (from a landline if you can) and ask for ambulance, fire, police, coast guard or mountain rescue when connected.
Scotland is generally a very safe country to visit. Like England and Wales, violent crime is a problem in some inner city areas, however, much of it occurs amongst hooligan-type, unarmed gangs, and violent crime against tourists is rare. Petty crimes such as thefts and pickpocketing are lower than many other European countries, but vigilance at all times is required, especially in crowded areas. Crime rates vary greatly from urban to rural areas.
Public intoxication is a common occurrence, especially in some urban areas. You should approach pubs and nightclubs at night with caution, especially around closing time when drink-fuelled violence occurs, the best thing to do is use common sense and avoid any fighting. The same advice extends to using public transport - especially buses - in the evening.
After around 21:00 it is unusual to see conductors or ticket examiners going about trains which are travelling to or from Edinburgh or Glasgow - if they cannot be found in the passenger areas of the train, they are likely to be found at the very rear of the train in the rear driving cab. If you feel insecure, or have a problem on the train - sit close to the back of the train or knock on the door, if you have a problem. Some trains however, are operated wholly by the driver. While the majority of these trains have ticket examiners, they can and do run without them. Again, late at night, they are more likely to be found in their "safe area" at the rear cab of the train. A simple knock should gain their attention if there is a problem. If there is no staff onboard and you are unhappy, try to sit where most passengers are. The British Transport Police's number is 0800 40 50 40, in an emergency call 999. If there is an incident which requires urgent attention operate the emergency alarm - this will stop the train - so it is usually best to operate the alarm at a station stop if your safety is not threatened by the movement of the train.
There are no COVID-related restrictions in place in Scotland, however, the government recommends the wearing of a mask in indoor public places, such as shops, cafes, pubs and venues.
When hillwalking, you should always take along a compass, detailed maps, waterproof clothing, a torch (flashlight), and a good pair of boots. A charged mobile phone can be a lifesaver as some mountain areas have cell coverage from one or more of the networks, any phone is capable of making a 999 or 112 call if there is a signal available on any network, so a phone with no signal is most definitely better than no phone. The weather on the hills can change suddenly, with visibility falling to just a few metres. If hillwalking alone tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. More advice is available from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland The Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) provides detailed weather forecasts for the mountain areas.
Beware of midges! These small biting flying insects (similar in looks to small swarming mosquitoes) are prevalent in damp areas, particularly Western Scotland, from around May to September. The bites can itch but they don't carry disease. Midges don't tend to fly in direct sunshine or if it's windy, the worst times are dawn and dusk and near still water or damp areas. Men and boys are often bitten more than women and girls. It is advisable to take some strong insect repellent spray or if outdoors for a while, consider a face net.
Tap water in Scotland is safe to drink, if sometimes heavily chlorinated. In some remote or Northern areas it is best to let the tap run for a few seconds before using the water as it may have a slight brown tint. This is due to traces of soil or peat in the supply and nothing dangerous. Generally the further North you go in Scotland the better the water will taste!
It is considered respectful to refer to people from Scotland as "Scots" or "Scottish" as opposed to "British". Most generally feel more Scottish than British so the latter term could cause annoyance with some. Some Scots may get offended by the word "Jock" or being referred to as "Scotch" as opposed to Scottish.
Scottish people are often stereotyped as "anti-English" or "anti-British". The truth is that many Scots are critical of the way the United Kingdom is run. Most Scottish people still feel it's important to differentiate themselves as having a separate sense of nationality.
While it's debated whether or not the Scots language is a variety of English, many Scots proudly consider it to be a separate language altogether.
The issues of Scottish nationalism and Scottish independence are certainly much debated, and both issues have seen growing attention in the 21st century. An independence referendum was conducted in 2014 which resulted in a 55/45 vote in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom. However, many people who voted for secession remain deeply committed and continue to campaign for the cause. It remains a politically divisive issue, with the 2021 Scottish Parliament election resulting in an almost even vote share between pro-independence and pro-union parties. Whilst nowhere near as sensitive or divisive as in other parts of the world where such movements exist, taking a strong position in favour of either side or their associated political parties could cause some annoyance.
Rivalry between various football clubs is a rather more sensitive issue. It is a bad idea to wear the colours and shirts of football clubs on match days as this may cause offence or lead to violence if worn in the wrong place. This is a problem mainly confined to Glasgow's "Old Firm" (Celtic and Rangers) derby where there are still sectarian tensions (Celtic wear green and white, Rangers wear blue and white, however orange is also often associated with them). Due to the rivalry between the national teams of England and Scotland, you should also avoid wearing England national team shirts.
The traditional outfit being mocked or called the wrong name may cause annoyance. The "skirt" is called a kilt. The "purse" at the front (commonly accented with deer skin, leather and tassels hanging from a chain) is called a sporran. The hat with the red pom-pom on top is called a glengarry. It's common practice to carry a sgian-dubh (small knife) in the sock whilst wearing a kilt. Don't be alarmed by this as they are primarily for aesthetics (although in past times did serve their proper use for a knife) and are usually quite dull or artificial. Kilts are worn by men at formal occasions such as weddings, highland games, and traditional dances. It is crass to make jokes or ask about what someone wears under their kilt.
Although it's becoming less common, you may see a burning cross occasionally used as a national symbol. It has historical roots in Scotland: a man would ride through the Highlands with a burning cross to raise an army if Scotland was invaded. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the U.S. adopted it. While most Scots are aware of this, here it is just a harmless patriotic image and has no connotation of racial hatred or violence.
The Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the national church in Scotland, which stands in contrast to Anglicanism that is the state religion of England and Wales. That said, modern Scotland is a largely secular society, and only a minority of Scots attend church regularly, though the religious background of someone's family often has an influence on the sports teams they support. Most Scots take a live and let live approach towards religion, and as long as you do likewise, you should generally not run into any problems regardless of what religion you choose to practise. Many of the Hebrides and a few pockets of the Highlands lean heavily toward the Free Church of Scotland, with its austere and strict version of Presbyterianism. Its adherents won't try to impose their religion on you, but you should expect many businesses in these areas to be closed on Sunday. You may hear some Scots refer to them as the "Wee Frees" but you shouldn't repeat that as it's often considered pejorative.
See the UK connect entry for national information on telephone, internet and postal services. See Contact entries under individual cities for local information.