If you missed my Wales post, I spent a lot of time wrestling with the conundrum that is the UK and the different “national” identities you find in the midst of it. Unlike Wales, which I found to be oddly subdued in its sense of Welsh unity and pride, Scotland comes in with a bang. This is a place, after all, that invented an instrument with only one volume setting: loud.
Despite the current political boundaries, the Scots have more in common with the Irish than anyone else. The Gaelic culture spans the Irish Sea but in Scotland you find this interesting blend of the tough whisky-loving, sheep-herding Highland culture with the more genteel heraldic tradition. The Scots, however, have managed to do what the Irish haven’t; they’ve reconciled their own Scottish-ness with what it means to be a part of the UK. Obviously the (Republic of) Ireland is not part of the UK, but chaffing under British hegemony is ingrained in the culture, in a way that I think most Irishmen are very aware of and don’t take all too seriously, but it’s not completely a joke. By contrast, the British monarchy is loved and respected in Scotland, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are particularly revered, being probably the most Scotland-loving monarchs of the last few centuries and the ones who purchased the royal family’s home in Balmoral.
Even with its strong ties to the British crown, Scotland is not a place you’d mistake for being English. Beginning with it’s charmingly unique capital city.
Keswick—Edinburgh, 134 miles
Edinburgh is a perpetually under-appreciated city. It enjoys a good reputation but I still don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. I would argue it is the most architecturally and geographically interesting city in the whole UK. The Old Town is so atmospheric as to be almost a caricature. Edinburgh castle anchors the collection of cobbled old streets and the dozens of tiny alleyways, called “closes,” that weave and bob between the Royal Mile, the tourist-laden stretch leading up to the castle. In this neighborhood, cocktail bars are loosely modeled after dungeons and everything is lit by long candlesticks atop wrought iron candelabras, but it feels appropriate and not gimmicky. The usual souvenir shops are mixed in with bespoke high-end tweed tailors and tartan emporiums. There are people hired by the city to play the bagpipes on street corners and places selling heraldic crests and family trees that look half legitimate.
The Old City is on a hill looming over the New City, an orderly grid of Victorian row houses, grand boulevards, and quiet courtyard parks. This part of town has less of that medieval spookiness and feels more like other European cities, but it’s also not in the least bit touristy. Summer is certainly a busy time and as famous as Edinburgh has become for its Fringe Fest, it still manages to go overlooked for the usual two-week European tourers.
In almost every way, Edinburgh gives you the best of both worlds. It’s relatively small by most city standards at only 465,000 but it wants for nothing when it comes to good restaurants and funky bars. As with every old city, the traffic is terrible because of the total lack of navigability of the old streets but other than that, it has none of the fuss and franticness of other European capitals.
Southeast of Old Town is Arthur’s Seat, a menacing grassy perch with a fantastic view over the city. For a hike in the middle of a city, it’s relatively challenging but people tend to make heavier weather of it than necessary. Locals treat it like a decent work out; tourists show up either in full hiking apparel or leather boots and jeans. Anything more than sandals will prove sufficient for getting to the top.
Edinburgh is a very easy city to visit because in the central part of town, nearly everything is worth seeing, from the castles and museums, to the promenades, public parks, and gardens that separate Old Town and New Town. I ventured a bit further northwest into the city into the less often visited neighborhoods of Stockbridge and Comely Bank. While they had some beautiful homes and interesting restaurants, it didn’t feel significantly different. Edinburgh is not a place where you have to work hard to see the locals’ side of it. Beyond the stretch of the Royal Mile directly surrounding the castle, locals frequent every part of the city.
Google seems to think otherwise. On the west side of New Town is Dean Village. Google Maps lists it as a “tourist attraction,” which is a bit unfair. The collection of houses along the Water of Leith is secreted in a small valley in the middle of Edinburgh and was its own village until some 200 years ago. Most of the old houses have now been converted into very nice office space and some private residences, but it’s still a bit of a novelty area with its unique architecture and bucolic atmosphere in the middle of Edinburgh. On a slow day, I can’t imagine you’d see literally anyone on the streets. When I went, there were certainly a few other tourists milling around taking pictures, but it was hardly a zoo. I saw at most 10 other people.
If you’re traveling around Scotland, appreciate what you have in Edinburgh when it comes to food. I’ve been a known defender of British food in the past, never understanding why it has such a horrible reputation. Never again will I doubt this claim. Traveling outside major cities in the UK really makes you appreciate even a marginal Italian restaurant, to say nothing of something even mildly more exotic. It’s actually shocking just how un-original nearly every menu is if you’re not in London or Edinburgh or one of the few other major cities in the UK. Such is the state of things that a pasta dish becomes an unusual and highly sought-after item. Anyway, in Edinburgh the food is even better than one would expect in a city of this size. I had some decent Mexican food for lunch one day, a cuisine that no one outside North America is able to get right.
At the risk of getting too cerebral, I think Edinburgh is a rare city that defies representation. Most big cities have been portrayed in movies and literature so many times that there’s an endless feedback loop between art and life. Nowhere is this more true than New York, where practically every corner has been filmed and described so many times and in so many different ways that it can be hard to know in what direction inspiration flows.
Edinburgh is not that kind of place. I don’t think many people come here with a lot of vivid images in their minds and without any assistance, it’s able to produce an almost fantastical aura. One of the city’s more famous cafes is The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book. Immediately, you see the connections between the cityscape and the descriptions and movie versions of Diagon Alley. In a lot of places, this would make the city seem more magical and slowly, the streets would start to take on a kind of cartoonish atmosphere, either intentionally or subconsciously. How much of Café Lalo today is an attempt to approximate the image in You’ve Got Mail? In Edinburgh, the opposite happens. Rather than see Diagon Alley, now you’ll think “That’s not fantastical, that’s Victoria Street.” Victoria Street is a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Edinburgh that cuts diagonally between two larger streets.
That makes Edinburgh sound like a bit of a killjoy but my point is this is not a place concerned with its image. It’s the ur-cool city. Its appeal is immutable and whatever mystic and magic is there existed long before anything else.
Edinburgh—St Andrews, 51 miles
Depending on who you are, or where you are, St Andrews is either the birthplace of golf or a university town that happens to have a popular golf course. The two actually grew up almost concurrently. The university was founded in 1410 and the first mention of golf in a Scottish document was in a 1457 parliamentary act. At this point, the golf has surpassed the college in fame on an international stage.
Obviously this time of year it’s pretty quiet on the university end of town. Unlike a place like Oxford, the campus here feels very approachable. Oxford is such an icon and unfortunately such a tourist trap that it can be hard to imagine people actually going about their work and studies in the middle of it all. St. Andrews looks like any other pretty college campus and a place where people might actually go to school.
Also on this side of town is the old castle and the cathedral, which has been reduced to a pile of stones and a lone bell tower, the tallest structure in town that lends a very stately Gothic air to otherwise unremarkable lanes of well-kept cottages.
The other side of town is the golfers’ domain. Without knowing much about golf, I can confidently say playing the famous Old Course would be a very different kind of golfing experience because you’re playing in the middle of a tourist attraction. Aside from the history, the 18th hole is an ever-changing minefield of tourists and cars. There’s a road that runs right through the middle of the fairway, with cars and pedestrians only taking notice about half the time. One woman, either obliviously or intentionally, teed off while two women were strolling along the road 100 yards from the tee box.
Hole 18 is where you’ll find the famous bridge, Swilken Bridge, which is the site of photo jostling between the golfers and tourists who run onto the course to get a picture, again usually oblivious to the golf. Along the backside of the green is a parking lot and tons of benches for spectators, in addition to a pub and a few shops. Assuming you’re not a professional, I have to think playing in front of this kind of crowd and amidst this level of chaos has to be intimidating and distracting. What is cool though is that you can do this in golf. You can’t have a hit on Centre Court at Wimbledon or take batting practice at Wrigley Field. To be able to actually walk the very path that all the best players in history have is pretty unique.
There’s also a golf history museum near the course with an unbelievably large collection of various memorabilia and an exhaustively thorough history of the game of golf.
As you might expect, the world’s most famous golf course draws a crowd that is a lot of American men: all white, mostly Republican, and often from Texas. I like to think of this as the ex-Cruzer crowd, people who hate Trump but hate Hillary more. I actually found it to be pretty entertaining for a day. No one comes to Scotland to meet Americans but these are also people I’d never meet back in the States. Meeting a diverse group of people is what makes travel interesting and sometimes someone from Texas who’s a member of the NRA is just as different from you as anyone you’ll meet in the furthest, most remote corners of the world.
Despite being a town of only 17,000, St Andrews is big enough for both groups. Even if you have no interest in golf or higher learning, the town is a pleasant coastal city that feels very different from the other frequently visited parts of Scotland. The east coast is much milder than the west coast, so the typical Scottish forecast of wind and rain comes less frequently to St Andrews. Within a few hours of Edinburgh, it’s a doable day trip and not a bad place to stop on a roundabout route up to the famous Scottish Highlands.
Inverness and Cairngorms National Park
St Andrews—Inverness, 149 miles
If there was a needle scratch moment in Scotland for me, this was it. As a city, Inverness is a lot of nothing. Somehow everything looks like it’s from the 1980s and the cool bars and restaurants are far outnumbered by pool halls and Ladbrokes. Inverness has a reputation for being a gateway to the Highlands and it should be treated as such: as something to pass through. The scenery here is nice enough but as you’ll soon see, it’s light-years away from other parts of Scotland that are nearby. Cairngorms National Park, to the northeast of Inverness, would be spectacular anywhere else. By Scottish Highland standards, it’s pretty nice.
If you happen to find yourself here at the end of July though, it’s worth making the trip up to the town of Fochabers, a place half of Scotland has never heard of, for Speyfest. I only ended up in this area through a comedy of booking errors and when someone tipped me off to Speyfest, my initial first impression was not overwhelmingly positive. I drove up to find a few tents in a school soccer field and a guy selling venison burgers out of a food truck, a tableau that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. But clearly less is more with Scottish music festivals. The first act was a band headed by a guy who looked like an uncool substitute teacher, but whipped the place into a frenzy with some insane fiddle playing. Next up was an Irish accordion and fiddle player who I’d actually heard of before and was involved in the original recording of “Galway Girl.” The headliner was a Scottish band, Skerryvore, that is probably your standard Scottish C-list rock band but to an American, it’s a completely novel experience. I don’t care how many music festivals you’ve been to in the States; I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen an electric bagpiper who looks like Thor and is wearing a kilt. I don’t think this is anything of interest for a Scot but I found the whole thing to be fantastically unusual.
Anyway, heading west, the reason you come to Inverness is twofold, the first being its proximity to Loch Ness. Of all the lochs I saw in Scotland, Loch Ness was the least impressive, but it’s the only one with an internationally known legend attached to it. On paper, Loch Ness is pretty astounding: 745 feet at its deepest point, with an average depth of more than 400 feet. The water is almost black because of the peat content and as the weather in Scotland is often so foggy and rainy, it’s easy to see how a legend of a monster was born here.
The boat tour I went on did a good job actually addressing certain elements of the myth—how you could photoshop a picture in 1934, why such a large animal couldn’t live in the loch anyway due to lack of food—but they still have a sense of humor about it and don’t get too bookish and insistent on throwing science at you. The boats on the lake have sonar under them to track underwater activity and at least according to these people, when a triathlon was held in the loch a few years ago, competitors were actually insured against bites from Nessie. As they very wisely pointed out, if an insurance company is willing it put money on it, maybe there is something to be said for the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
The other reason to visit this part of the Highlands is for its Scotch country. Many of Scotland’s distilleries are along the River Spey, just east of Inverness. As anyone who’s done more than one brewery or distillery tour knows, they are all basically the exact same. I’ve done the Jack Daniels tour in rural Tennessee and they practically use the same script at points in the tour, both talking about the whiskey lost in evaporation during aging as the “Angels’ share,” a comment that seemed completely fitting less than 40 miles from the Alabama border but a little less natural in northern Scotland.
Inverness is one of those places that suffers largely because of its location. By most standards, it’s an above average town when it comes to natural beauty, but it’s the ugly ducking of the Highlands. But if Inverness didn’t put the Highlands’ best foot forward, the Isle of Skye more than made up for it.
Isle of Skye
Inverness—Portree, 113 miles
In the past year I’ve seen some of the most amazing landscapes in the world, from the Himalayas in Bhutan, to the coastline in Maui; the Andes in Patagonia; Australia’s southern coast; New Zealand’s South Island; the fertile grasslands of the Okavango Delta; the arid expanse of the Wadi Rum desert; the Amalfi Coast; and the Swiss Alps. The Isle of Skye can hold its own among that crowd.
Skye is not big. If you never got out of the car, you could easily drive around and see the whole thing in a day. Of course the beauty is slowing down to get out and look around, and some of the best hikes I did in all of Scotland were on Skye. If I was underwhelmed by the Highlands in Inverness, Skye more than made up for it. This is some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. It reminded me a lot of New Zealand, which is itself impressive for having so much diverse landscape packed into such a compact area. And Skye is only .6 percent the size. Yes, .6%
Skye is a fork-shaped island and the eastern section is slightly more dramatic and scenic than the western half, with many of Skye’s most distinctive features and iconic mountains. Hiking in and around these alien-like rock formations is absolutely the way to enjoy Skye, even if it will completely ruin your shoes. In general, hiking in Scotland is a messy affair. I don’t think I finished a single hike with dry feet or without mud caked halfway up my legs. It’s part of the experience.
There’s really only one town on Skye, Portree, which is about as centrally located as you can get and pretty lively. Getting a table for dinner without a reservation during high season is no small feat. The secret is out on Skye so summer is definitely busy. For such a compact area, it could be worse, but you’ll have to be willing to get up early or wait until the afternoon (when the rain often comes) if you want places to yourself. Except for the weather, I’m actually a proponent of going to places late in the day. At this point, everyone thinks the way to beat crowds is to get to places early and be the first in line, so much so that on multiple occasions, in places all over Europe, I’ve seen the crowds significantly taper off by mid-afternoon. In Skye though, you have to strike when the weather is good. I got almost two full days in Skye with sun and considered myself exceptionally lucky. In plenty of places, people will tell you the weather changes quickly but in Scotland, they really mean it. Skye isn’t even as bad as further south in the Loch Lomond area. The clouds move so fast here that often while I was getting out and adjusting my camera, the lighting would change completely.
The names of places in Skye are fittingly fantastical, from the Fairy Glenn and Fairy Pools, to the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr. It definitely has that Lord of the Rings vibe you get in New Zealand. With a place like this, there’s only so much you can say. Such spectacular scenery is better served with a lack of commentary.
More than anywhere else I saw in Scotland, Skye requires you to suck it up when it comes to crowds in the summer months. Generally speaking, it’s not bad. Nothing compared to the Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera in July. One thing that’s nice about Skye is that in many of the areas where you can hike, there aren’t really trails so you can sort of wander whenever you want and leave the crowds behind. Even so, even with the crowds, it’s spectacular. Really, if you want to avoid crowds and get the best shot at good weather, winter is the best time to go. February is the driest month and even though it’s a bit colder, the island will be empty and the odds of you having good weather are a lot better. Even in cold weather the scenery would be breathtaking, but on a sunny day, there are few places I’ve seen anywhere that are quite like it.
Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park
Portree—Glen Coe, 126 miles
If it weren’t for the Loch Ness Monster, Loch Lomond would be a household name, as it is so much more spectacular. Loch Lomond National Park and the area north in and around Glen Coe are huge, and there’s nothing there to mitigate that. When you’re not on the windy, lakeside roads, the stretches of highway cut tiny channels between cloud-draped mountains, broken up by foggy glens. Whereas in Skye the distances are surprisingly short, the scale of this region of the Highlands is deceptively large. It doesn’t seem possible for there to be so much empty, open space in a region smaller than the state of Maryland. The mountains have a presence far beyond their altitude. Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, is in this area at an altitude of 4,416 feet, but all the peaks here feel enormous.
Glens, like moors and heaths, are geographic phenomena that seem only to exist in 19th century English literature. In the real world, a glen is essentially just a valley, usually a very long and narrow one.
The most almost-famous glen in this area is Glen Etive. It’s written about like it’s completely unknown, but when every travel article mentions it, it loses its claims to anonymity. Recently it’s gained more notoriety, as it was used for filming in Skyfall and was previously in Braveheart. Heading south from Glen Coe, you’ll pass through the huge Glen Orchy as you head south toward Loch Lomond. Glen Etive tees into this and it’s a long, windy way down the road that dead-ends into Loch Etive.
Like with the Isle of Skye, this is a region better served by pictures than commentary. You almost become jaded after a few days in this part of the Highlands, where every hike ends in a 360-degree vista overlooking several rocky mountains and the finger-like lakes that cut between them.
For the most part, Scotland is a place where what you see is what you get. People are very friendly and outgoing. The scenery is so dramatic, and from the food to the music, nothing is particularly subtle. And yet, it still maintains a certain mystique. Tucked away in the north at the top of the world, it still feels like some final frontier, even though it’s as famous and well-trod as anywhere. As annoying as the often bad, ever-changing weather can be, it does lend Scotland that totally unique air. In surveying the landscape, the word that kept popping into my head was “brooding.” This is not a light and chipper country for the faint of heart, but neither is it a meat-eating land of machismo. It’s a very stoic place, a Thoreauvian testament to the sublime. Even the screech of a bagpipe is lost in the middle of such daunting and imposing nature.