Wild, rugged Scotland is the heart of heroism, strong individuals, wry wit, ancient architecture, golf, fishing, gorgeous wildlife and parks, castles, and welcoming people. Any Scotland vacation should include the legendary sites you’ve dreamed about. Consider adding one or two lesser-known authentic experiences that take you deep into the culture and the landscape.
The Edinburgh International Festival, Fringe, and Military Tattoo is an extravaganza dedicated to the best of drama, dance, music, and costumes. This summer Festival features world-renowned artists, while the Fringe introduces the avant-garde and lesser known. The star of the entire show is the Military Tattoo. The parade is the epitome of Scottish pride and energy. Let go, and get carried away in the moment! In May, the Shetland Folk Festival takes place in the center of traditional Scottish music. If you’re planning a winter vacation, and ready to get down and wild, head to the Up Helly Aa on the Shetland Islands. This is a fire festival where islanders dress as Vikings and burn a longboat replica. Amazing!
Ride the Falkirk Wheel
Just 23 miles outside Glasgow, you can sail through the sky on the world’s only rotating boat lift. This is an engineering wonder that connects two canals, the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, on different levels. Boats enter a giant bucket-type mechanism, the wheel turns and raises a boat 79 feet, and the boat is then moved. Boats also pass through a pair of locks between the top of the wheel and the Union Canal.
Dive into Edinburgh Bars & Pubs
The number of bars and pubs in Edinburgh is legendary, but there are a few so thoroughly Scotland that you’ll want to put them on your list. The Dome Bar has Romanesque columns, a tall, round ceiling, doormen, palms, chandeliers, and a choice of two bars inside—the dramatic circle bar and the posh-deco side bar. The mysterious Bramble bar is entered down candlelit stone steps, taking you to the cellar. It’s here that mixologists create some of Edinburgh’s finest cocktails. In Old Town, head to the BrewDog. This artisan brewery has been called an “altar to craft beer.”
50 miles NE of Edinburgh, a bend (Newk is the Scot word for corner) in the coastline is home to a string of colorful fishing villages and a haven for artists. The villages run from Earlsferry to Crail, with Crail and Elie being a particular favorite for artists. Pittenweem is a workingman’s harbor, while Anstruther’s harbor is filled with yachts. When you’re done ogling the yachts, head to the Scottish Fisheries Museum—you’ll discover a surprisingly intriguing world of boats, nets, and fisheries. Then, pick any of these seaside towns and prepare to savor one of the best seafood meals of your life.
Time Travel in Glasgow
Board the last seagoing paddle steamer in the world and step back in time. The steamer is magnificent, and you’ll experience authentic sights and sounds, beginning with the ring of a telegraph. The paddle steamer Waverly is registered with the National Historic Fleet. Preserved since 1975, she is a national treasure that has carried over six million passengers. While on board, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the coast and watch its triple-expansion steam engine in operation. There’s a dining saloon, period lounges, and a Victorian postbox—send a postcard back home!
The Real Balmoral Castle Grounds
Prince Albert bought this castle for Queen Victoria in 1852. She called it “her dear paradise.” It has been the royal family’s getaway ever since. Each generation has made additions, repairs, and purchased parcels of surrounding land. While there, consider a Balmoral Expedition in a Land Rover. Your guide takes you through the manicured gardens, and then you enter the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest. This pristine area then opens up, and you’ll travel through heather and hills up a mountain. Imagine the view… On the way back to Balmoral Castle, you’ll pass monuments, historic buildings, and hear stories about resident wildlife. With luck, you’ll see eagles, red squirrels, red deer, grouse, snow bunting, and rivers teeming with salmon.
Explore the Whisky Trail
For those who love whisky, or just the Scottish culture that goes with it, the Whisky Trail is home to many of Scotland’s finest distilleries. The stills, the process of making whisky, and tasting the uisge beatha (water of life) are all available. The Malt Whisky Trail is an immersive experience, and along the way you’ll find cozy villages, textile mills, seaside cafes, and opportunities for outdoor adventures. The nine distillers along the Trail include: Benromach, Speyside Single Malt; Cardhu; Dallas Dhu; Glenfiddich; GlenGrant; The Glenlivet; Glen Moray; Speyside Cooperage; and Strathisla, home of Chivas. This is extraordinary country. Take your time, relax, and enjoy the water of life.
Experience the Eras in Jarlshof, Shetland
In Scotland’s far north, there’s an exceptional group of underground chambers, representing five eras of human habitation. There are oval houses from the Bronze Age; Iron Age wheelhouses; dwellings built by the ephemeral Picts; Viking longhouses; and a medieval farm. This archaeological site is second to none.
Eat a Tablet
This tablet is not medicine nor is it an ancient stone carved with arcane symbols. In Scotland, a tablet is a scrumptious treat. It’s most like a fudge brownie, but it crumbles easily and is quite sweet. Bring some tablets home as gifts. They’re absolutely unique to the country and last for up to six months! You can buy them absolutely everywhere.
Visit a Kiltmaker
Inverness is the gateway to the Highlands. It’s here you can visit a real kiltmaker, learn about the tradition and culture of kilts, and watch them being made for exportation around the world. Witness the care that goes into each kilt, and you’ll find how much material they take, the exact number of pleats it takes for one to hang properly, and the correct way to wear a full Highland dress kilt. Every kilt has the romance and history of the Highlands woven into it.
Kilts were so important to Scottish identity that they were banned by the English in 1746. That ban lasted for 35 years and was created to repress the Jacobite rebellion in the Highlands. Punishment for wearing a kilt was harsh. There are more than 3,500 family tartans in Scotland. Check the display. You might find one that belongs to your own clan. If you find one that you love, take it home. A man looks extraordinarily attractive wearing full Scottish regalia.