From nature to culture and hikes to paddle steamers, Scotland truly has a pinch of everything so you can find a classic adventure perfect for you...
Popularly known as ‘Scotland in miniature’, Arran’s tapestry of vertiginous mountain peaks, sweeping forests and craggy coastline means it’s awash with natural drama. But to explore its larger-than-life landscapes properly you’ll need plenty of body fuel, so it’s good to know Arran’s thriving food scene is more than up to the task. For an island that’s no more than 32km long, Arran punches well above its weight with its farm-to-table culinary offering. Its three dairy farms supply milk that turns into cheeses and ice creams while butchers make traditional black pudding and haggis. As well as this, an array of jams, preserves and chutneys complement the island’s renowned oatcakes that bakers have been firing in their ovens for well over 150 years. Arran even has its own brewery and whisky distillery you can visit to try its beer, ales and whiskies – ideal for toasting this mini Scotland.
Whisper it quietly but one of Europe’s finest road trips can be found on the northern tip of Scotland. The North Coast 500, named so because it’s roughly a 500-mile loop beginning and ending in Inverness, is a road trip that cuts through some of Scotland’s wildest scenery. You’ll find yourself motoring past barren moorland, cloud-baiting peaks, sugar-white beaches and lush meadows. This is a place that’s deserving of slow travel: take your time and dedicate an entire week to this remote road so you can really appreciate the route. This way, you’ll afford yourself time to stop off and really tap into the local area. You can spot basking seals in Eddrachillis Bay or admire the seabirds perching on the sea stacks of Cape Wrath. If you’re in favour of wider exploration, then you can hike up Conival Munro or stare in amazement at the rushing white waters of Rogie Falls.
With towering sandstone peaks overlooking Loch Torridon to the north, you could be forgiven for a second for believing you were on the shores of a Norwegian fjord. Its imposing nature is certainly reminiscent of its more illustrious equivalents and these rusty red peaks are an attraction in themselves, regularly seeing a stream of hillwalkers. This makes the admiral-blue waters of Loch Torridon ever more enticing and despite its status as a sea loch, its millpond-like waters are ideal for cooling off those weary feet. These can be icy glacial waters out of the regular summer months, so if you’re new to wild swimming it’s worth edging into the water slowly. In general, when wild swimming you should always exercise caution, adhere to safety advice and not leave young people unattended.
For something a little different, the walk from Diabaig to Inveralligin passes crags, emerald fields, charming cottages and several lochans (smaller lochs), the latter of which act as refreshing pit-stops along the way, especially on a hot summer’s day.
Spawned from the Edinburgh International Festival that began in 1947, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has usurped its older brother in nearly every sense. It’s now the world’s largest arts festival and descends on the Scottish capital every August, where performers, from the amateur to the world-class, deliver a packed line-up of comedy, drama, musicals, dance and variety acts. Venues across the city play host to around 3,000 shows, while there are thousands more free performances on top of that (although a donation is appreciated). With everything the Fringe offers, it can be easy to forget there are several other festivals going on at the same in Edinburgh and while you’re there, it would be churlish not to investigate. Movie buffs will love the arthouse productions at the Film Festival, while major musicians flock to the Jazz & Blues Festival. Make sure you stay for the grand finale – a show-concluding pyrotechnic display of tens of thousands of fireworks dancing above Edinburgh Castle.
Munro-bagging is something of a sport in Scotland, where walkers try to claim as many Scottish summits over 3,000ft (munros) as they can. With 282 of them in the country there are plenty to pick from and there’s more good news if you’re a first-timer – most can be summitted without any climbing experience needed. Schiehallion is the ideal first choice, rewarding you with views of lochs Tay and Rannoch for comparatively little effort. The top of Buachaille Etive Mòr gives you the chance to see legendary Glencoe at its grandest, while the Five Sisters seem so close to the clouds that on a good day you can spy the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye. For something a little trickier you’ll have to head far north, where Scotland’s most northerly munro rises out of the surrounding moorland, Ben Hope. The scree makes it a troublesome climb but you’ll be handsomely afforded unadulterated views of the Orkneys in return.
Whisky is Scotland’s (and the UK’s) largest food and drink export, so it would be rude not to try a dram or two in the land of the single malt. Home to half of the country’s whisky distilleries, Speyside has created a signposted trail to link eight of its distilleries and a cooperage, where barrels to keep whisky are made. It encompasses some of the more well-known producers such as Glenfiddich and Glen Moray, as well as unsung distilleries such as The Glenlivet, which sits snugly in a wild glen, and Cardhu, the first one to be spearheaded by a woman. Every distillery also has its own informative audio-visual guided tour, as well as the chance to pick the brains of these masters of whisky themselves. Of course, the all-important bit is trying them for yourself, and there are plenty of opportunities to do that – some of the distilleries encourage you further by discounting your entry fee in return for buying a bottle.
Never visit Scotland without packing your walking boots: the country is chock-full with world-class walks. The over 100km-long Great Glen Way probably squeezes in more dramatic landscapes per footstep than any other, linking Fort William with Inverness. In between you’re treated to pure natural theatre, with the route skirting the tree-shaded banks of lochs Lochy and Oich, all under the watchful gaze of Ben Nevis. Much of the Great Glen Way traces the towpath of the Caledonian Canal, Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel that took so long to construct newer ships were too big for it – what was their loss is now your gain. The only challenging section is the climb up high over Loch Ness, where the widescreen views are matched by a supporting cast of wildlife, including ospreys, golden eagles, pine martens and deer.
If you thought you’d missed the boat for a trip aboard a paddle steamer, then fear not: you haven’t. Paddle steamer Waverley is the last of its kind in the world and has been operating seagoing trips from all across Scotland since 1946. Named after a minesweeping steamer during the Second World War, it was rescued from the scrapheap in the 1970s and is enjoying its second lease of life, taking its passengers for a cruise and regularly recalibrating its sextant to ensure a variety of voyages. Every year is a revolving calendar of destinations, including lochs Long and Goil in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and seabird-rich Pladda. A roster of special excursions beef up the calendar, too, so time your visit right and you could be quenching your thirst among the distilleries of harbourside Campbeltown, savouring the serenity in the fishing village of Ardrishaig or visiting Aisla Craig, an island whose granite is used to make curling stones.
There are certainly Scottish castles with more history and we’d say there are others encased in more dramatic landscapes but few would look happier on a postcard than 13th century Eliean Donan castle in the Scottish Highlands. Located at the union of a trio of lochs – Alsh, Long and Duich – Eilean Donan presents a more romantic, photogenic side to Scotland’s collection of otherwise moody ramparts. Once a Jacobite fortress, it was flattened by England battleships in 1719. It was meticulously restored in the early 20th century and even though everything you see inside is essentially a recreation, the rooms are faithful to the originals. The exhibition shouldn’t be missed, with its signature pieces being a lock of Bonnie Price Charlie’s hair and a sword that was used at the battle of Culloden in 1746. We won’t blame you if you’re prefer to be outside soaking up the loch scenery, though.
They say the best places are hard to reach and that’s certainly true with St Kilda. The simplest route is via a one-hour flight from Glasgow to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, before a two-and-a-half hour ferry to St Kilda. Regular day trips from Harris or the Isle of Skye give you around five hours ashore. But it’s worth the journey and the UNESCO-protected archipelago even nails the first impression, as huge hunks of rock and sea stacks rise out of the storm-tossed Atlantic like a dramatic reveal of an unknown world. Uninhabited since the final few islanders left in 1930, St Kilda is home to around one million seabirds, including the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins, as well as gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes. It’s that remote it even has its own subspecies of mouse, wren and sheep – St Kilda really is like going to the ends of the Earth.
Seeing either one of seals, dolphins or whales is a magical moment for any traveller. But to see all three in one place? Now we’re really talking. You can witness this spectacle at the Moray Firth, an inlet lying off Scotland’s northern coast. Its waters are home to a resident population of 200 bottlenose dolphins – the largest of their kind in the world – as well as white-beaked dolphins, porpoises and harbour seals that can be spotted all year round. Completing the set, they’re joined by minke whales from July to late September. You’ll want to witness the marine life up close and the sand spit Chanonry Point is your best bet, where the dolphins in particular appear so close it seems they could jump out of the water right into your lap. The nearby WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre is a wealth of extra information and also offers guided tours.
Stonehenge may be the UK’s most familiar Neolithic site but it’s time to spread the word that Scotland has its own ancient rocks worth shouting about. Mainland Orkney has no less than four sites comprising the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, with the Ring of Brodgar the most striking, a huge stone circle of 60 stones (36 survive today) and 13 burial mounds. The Neolithic village Skara Brae and chambered tomb Maeshowe complete the site, but not all of Orkney’s top rocks have you going round in circles. In fact, the only way for the Old Man of Hoy is up, a 137m vertical stack that’s become an iconic landmark and a challenge for rock climbers.
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