Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland
There is something in the air and in the naturally beautiful windswept rugged landscape of the land called Scotland that has captured my soul and I am sure, of the many that has come to her shores. Though known for extreme weather conditions because of its location, the weather in Scotland really is temperate and oceanic with changeable patterns. The diversity in climate provides some of the most stunning scenery in the world. From the wild Scottish Highlands, the jagged peaks of Isle of Skye to the remote, untouched beaches of the Hebrides, Scotland is a land that will fill you with joy. There are so many lochs and glens that one could walk in, and wish for time to stand still, so you never have to walk out. The landscape is incredibly beautiful. I believe that this ancient land of the Celts delivers to every traveller. I welcome you to travel with me to the misty, magical land of legends – Scotland.
Scotland, located on the northern end of mainland Britain neighbours England and retains its unique Scottish identity. Visiting any part of Scotland and you will note that the people of Scotland are incredibly proud of their heritage. It shows.
I am incredibly fortunate to have travelled to Inverness, Scotland recently (late September 2020) and to experience the Highlands along with the hospitality of the people of Scotland. Two weeks was not nearly enough. I share my experiences here, in the Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland to inspire you and to provide you with valuable insights to support your travels to the land of legends, and mystery.
Quick facts about Scotland | Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland
Population: Over 5.4 million (2020)
Common Language: English. Gaelic is spoken by 1.3% of the population mostly in the west and in the Highlands.
Currency: £ – Pound (GBP)
Capital City: Edinburgh. Home to the first fire brigade in the world, and is the second largest city in Scotland. The largest metropolis in Scotland is Glasgow .
High season: Summer (July – August)
Religion: Christianity – 40% Church of Scotland. 15% Roman Catholic and 6% other Christian denominations. Minorities include Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh with a quarter of the population has been recorded as having no religion.
Social courtesies: Handshaking is customary when introduced to someone for the first time. When visiting someone’s home, a small gift such as flowers or a box of chocolates is appreciated.
Geography of Scotland
Scotland shares its borders in the south with England, which runs for 154 kilometres (96 miles) between Marshall Meadows Bay on the east coast and the Solway Firth in the west. The west coast and northern Scotland looks out to the Atlantic Ocean while the east borders with the North Sea. Separated by the North Channel, the island of Ireland is 21 kilometres from mainland Scotland (Mull of Kintyre). To the northeast of Scotland, across the North Sea, is Norway at 310 kilometres (190 miles).
Scotland has a varied landscape – from rural lowlands to unspoilt uplands, and from large cities to sparsely inhabited islands.
The separation of the highlands and the lowlands are distinct, namely the highlands to the north and west and the lowlands to the east and south. These distinctively different physiographic regions is separated by the Highland Boundary Fault – a geological rock fracture that crosses the Scottish mainland from Helensburgh to Stonehaven.
The Highland terrain is mountainous and home to Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain.
The Lowlands are found in the southern part of Scotland with a less elevated terrain. While the Lowlands are flatter, upland and mountainous terrain is located across the Southern Uplands.
Between the Highlands and the Southern Uplands lies a strip called the Central Belt, popularly known as the “waist” of Scotland.
The Lowlands is home to the majority of Scottish population, especially along the Central Belt (between Firth of Clyde and Firth of Forth),
Scotland’s Islands, Lochs and Glens
Scotland has over 900 offshore islands – land surrounded by seawater. These offshore islands can be found in Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides. The Hebrides are sub-divided to Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides. Along with these, there are clusters of islands in the Firth of Clyde, Firth of Forth and Solway Firth. There are many small islands within the bodies of freshwater in Scotland, such as Loch Lomond and Loch Maree. Lewis and Harris is the largest island. Staffa and Flannan Isle is well-known but these are smaller islands.
As for the terrain, the islands of Skye and Mull are mountainous while Sanday is relatively low. Many of the islands have bedrock formed from 3 billion years ago. The Orkney Islands are formed from Old Red Sandstone which is 400 million years old.
There are more than 30,000 freshwater lochs and lochans in Scotland. Of these, there are about 7,500 in the Western Isles alone.
The five largest lochs , Awe, Lomond, Morar, Ness and Shiel hold about a third of all the water held in lochs in Scotland.
- Lomond – largest surface area at 71 sq km;
- Morar – the deepest loch at 310m;
- Loch Ness – largest loch by volume for it contains more water (7,452 million cubic metres) than all English and Welsh lakes together.
The word “Loch” is Scottish Gaelic for a lake
There are so many glens, absolutely picturesque, glorious glens in Scotland that will take your breath away!. Glen Nevis is a beautiful glen giving views of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. Each has its character and wildness about it that you will feel drawn to its mysterious mist as it rests softly on the high hills.
The Great Glen
The Great Glen is highly recommended. A drive through the Great Glen Way from the wilds of Glencoe to the Highland capital, Inverness is an exceptionally beautiful natural route through the Scottish Highlands with jaw dropping hills, lochs and forests.
I was immensely happy to have experienced the The Great Glen – a fracture that divides the Highlands into two, from Fort William to Inverness. Along the way, stopping to experience Fort Augustus, and admire the boats coming in to dock. As well, the infamous Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness.
Georgina suggests: When in Loch Ness, visit also the Falls of Foyer. The path is a little steep at some places but well looked after. Beautiful scenery and lovely to spend time in the woods. Look out for rocks with Burns poems inscribed on them. There is a little cafe at the top where you can stop for coffee.
As much as the rugged mountains and the pristine lochs form the landscape of Scotland, the castles in this country are an integral part of the landscape as well. Travelling around Scotland, you will note that you are never too far away from a castle or castle ruins. They are worth stopping for.
Here are some castles I recommend you visit:
i | Edinburgh Castle
Set atop an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle is a “must” visit destination when in Scotland. It is famous and important as it houses the Crown Jewels, and Stone of Destiny.
ii | Balmoral Castle
Balmoral is the private home of the Royal family but when the royals are not in residence, some areas open to the public for visits. Once described as a “paradise in the Highlands” by Queen Victoria, you can wander through the gardens and experience the tranquility that exists here.
iii | Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan is one of the most popular and most photographed castle – a 13th century castle that takes you through time. A visit here and you will be drawn to the mystique that surrounds this picturesque setting.
iv | Stirling Castle
Once a favourite among the kings and queens of Stuarts/Stewart, Stirling Castle is now a popular destination for families. Kids meet bodyguards and servants in costume and step back in time to the 16th century by dressing up in period costume and playing medieval instruments.
Edinburgh, is the capital of Scotland and the second largest financial centre in the UK. August is one of the busiest months as the city is home to the world’s largest art festival, Festival Fringe. New Year’s is another amazing time to visit Edinburgh as Hogmanay celebrations takes place.
Nickname: Auld Reekie
Glasgow, is the largest city in Scotland and home to the largest seaport in the UK. Well-known as the second city of the British Empire, Glasgow boasts some incredibly beautiful architecture from the 18th and 19th century alongside new modern architecture. Glasgow has also earned a reputation as a fun city due to its eclectic music scene, thus being a UNESCO City of Music comes as no surprise.
Nickname: Dear Green Place
Aberdeen, is popularly known as the sunniest city in the UK! The northeast is the driest region in Scotland and in never really gets dark here between mid to late June where the sun sets after 10 pm and rises around 4 am. This city is ideally located, giving easy access to the magnificent Scottish Highlands.
Nickname: The Granite City
Scotland’s most northerly city, Inverness is located at the heart of the Highlands. Ideally located as a gateway to the wild, unspoilt north coast, Inverness is also regarded as one of the best British cities for its quality of life.
Nickname: The Capital of the Highlands
Perth, is an ancient and historic place which recently received city status in 2012. It’s influential history stretches back over 800 years and was once Scotland’s capital. Many of the Scottish Kings were crowned in the nearby Scone Palace.
Nickname: The Fair City
The city of Stirling, is located in the beautiful point where the lowland Scotland and highlands meet. Popularly known as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, the city was once an important strategic point and the seat of power was at Stirling Castle.
Nickname: Gateway to the Highlands
The main geographical points of mainland Scotland
North: Easter Head; Dunnet Head; Caithness.
East: Keith Inch; Peterhead; Aberdeenshire.
South: Mull of Galloway; Dumfries and Galloway.
West: Corrachadh Mor; Ardnamurchan; Lochaber.
Dunnet Head is a peninsula in Caithness, located in the north coast of Scotland. It is the most northerly point in mainland Britain.
Best time to Visit Scotland | Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland
It is often said that it always rains in Scotland, so don’t forget your umbrella!
Scotland is well-known for extreme weather conditions and although one can experience all four seasons in a day, this country’s weather tends to be moderate and changeable.
I was fortunate to experience brilliant weather when I visited late September for two weeks. Although it rained intermittently, it cleared up very quickly. The air was fresh. The sight of the sun trying to break through the clouds was special AND RAINBOWS! There were so many rainbows that added the extra touch to beautiful days in the Highlands.
Generally, the further north tends to be much colder than the rest of mainland Britain. The west is wetter and warmer than the cool and dry east. In the Upland areas, snow is common in winter. Fog and mist may occur at anytime of the year.
I had visited Scotland in spring, summer and autumn. When it comes to selecting the best time to visit, there really isn’t one that tops my list because regardless of the elements, there is plenty to see and do wherever you visit in Scotland. However, the following can be used as a general guide to plan your visit to Scotland.
Seasons in Scotland | An overview
Best time to visit Scotland is Spring, between May and June. As well, Autumn/Fall , between September and October. Weather at this time is most likely to be dry and pleasant.
High season is most popular and it is in the summer, July to August. Being popular also means that it is crowded and long queues to attractions. There are chances of rain as well.
The low season is during winter, November to April. During this time some accommodation in rural Scotland is closed. There is heavy snow to the north and the hills.
Ski season – December to March.
Getting to and around Scotland | Ultimate Travel Guide
Car – Driving is a great way to experience Scotland and there are extensive road network that makes it possible to get around the country seamlessly. However, note that in Scotland, as is in Britain, we drive on the left hand side of the road.
Air – Scotland has several airports and you can fly in to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness as well as smaller airports such as Stornoway, Isle of Isla and Lerwick.
For a full list of airports in Scotland, go to this page on Airports in Scotland
Train – Scotland boasts an extensive and well-developed rail network that serves good cross-country links. As well, there are regular connections to the rest of the UK.
Bus/Coach – Using the bus/coach is an affordable way to travel across and around Scotland. It is easy to get to where you are going with Scotland’s extensive road network.
Ferry – There is something special about going across waters and watch your destination get closer over the horizon as you approach it. Both passenger and car ferries are available. There are a number of routes that serve larger islands.
A point to note is that ferry journeys may be weather dependant in some instances especially across to the Orkney or the Shetlands. Always check before arriving at the ferry port.
My thoughts on Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland
My trip to Inverness reminded me of how beautiful Scotland is and brought back many memories of my previous visits to Dumfries and Galloway, Hadrian’s Wall and Edinburgh. There is still so much to explore in this beautiful land and I hope to return soon. In the meantime, learn more about Scotland and enjoy the articles penned here, in the Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland. Do let me know if I have missed anything that you would like to learn more of about Scotland. This page will evolve as I continue to add more articles – so, Subscribe to timelesstravelsteps to ensure you do not miss out on valuable travel insights.
Have a splendid time exploring Scotland!
Georgina: I love going on guided tours especially when I am on my first visit to a destination. I find guided tours to be great value for money activities and an excellent tool to get the best overviews of a region.
I went on a number of small group tours when I visited Scotland. Safety precautions were in place. Guides are Scottish who have first hand knowledge of the regions I visited. They shared fascinating stories of legends and history of the Highland, both the bad and the ugly! With this overview, and time on my hands, I explored specific areas of interests for a more personal experience.
My trip to Scotland was self-funded, and none of the activities were sponsored in any way. All opinions, views and experiences are my own. I happily share them with you to inspire you to visit this magical land.
June 2021, Update
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The Highland, Scotland
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Ultimate Travel Guide to Scotland first published at timelesstravelsteps.com and is regularly updated. Last updated June 2021