Hemmed in on three sides by frigid oceans, Scotland is famous for its verdant valleys and dramatic mountains and hills. The nation, however, is also known for its illustrious cultural history and the friendliness of its inhabitants, making it a coveted destination among travelers of all stripes. It’s the second-largest nation of the United Kingdom, after Great Britain, and its terrain varies from jutting cliffs to rolling green hills and gentle forests. Renowned for its beautiful Highlands and their fields of purple heather, its lesser-known Lowlands and outlying islands (of which there are more than 700) are also stunning destinations for wanderers seeking the path less traveled. Scotland is a notoriously magical place, where rumors of faeries and the Loch Ness Monster abound, and once you arrive, it’s easy to see why.
Traces of human occupation of Scotland date back to 9600 BC, when the nation was comprised of diverse clans living under a communitarian system. When the Romans invaded Great Britain in 43 AD, they attempted to occupy Scotland as well, but fierce resistance from these native tribes, known then as Caledonians, beat them back. Today, traces of the Roman occupation still exist, the most famous being Hadrian’s Wall, which lies to the south of the country’s English border.
A series of invading nations followed in Rome’s footsteps, from the seafaring Vikings to the neighboring English. These would-be occupiers met with varying degrees of success in different parts of the country. Their influence can still be seen today in some regions, including the Shetland Islands, which proudly display their Viking cultural identity.
Scotland, as we know it, was founded in 843 AD. It then gradually expanded its borders through a long history marked by bloody conflict, both religious and political. This included the Wars of Scottish Independence in which William Wallace, of Braveheart fame, made his name. The Scottish Reformation of 1560 led to the destruction of the cathedral at St. Andrews and the establishment of Scotland as a Protestant—rather than Roman Catholic—nation. Various squabbles and power struggles with the English Crown defined this period, with Scotland attempting to define the exact degree of its autonomy from Great Britain.
Beginning in the 18th century, commerce in Scotland exploded during what is known today as the period of Scottish Enlightenment, and Glasgow became one of the world’s greatest trading ports. However, greed marred this period of prosperity, and landlords forced tenants from their land in the bloody episode known as the Highland Clearances. Meanwhile, Scotland’s educational system flourished, leading to a period of cultural dominance as Scottish inventors and artists exported their products around the world.
Following deindustrialization in the 20th century, the Scottish economy hit a rough patch, and Scotland’s reputation as an economic powerhouse was mostly forgotten. Tensions with England continue to this day, manifesting as periodic calls for independence. Most recently, however, voters rejected the prospect by a slim margin in a 2014 referendum. Today, the Scottish economy is once again thriving, but this time it’s in a distinctly 21st-century manner. The nation has found prosperity through its well-deserved place on the modern traveler’s map and the continued extraction of oil from the North Sea.
Scots are fiercely proud of their culture. This is due, perhaps, to centuries of attempted repression by the English and other foreign invaders. Many Scots identify with the ancient Gaelic clan culture, which is signified through kilts bearing traditional tartans (plaid patterns) that identify the wearer’s affiliation. Scotland’s cultural achievements are manifold, from the writings of Adam Smith and Irvine Welsh to the music of David Byrne and, more recently, Calvin Harris.
Make no mistake, though; Scotland is a modern country, and its young people are more likely to identify with the local football (soccer) club or their favorite band than any ancient clan. Glasgow is home to a thriving music scene, including several annual massive outdoor festivals, as well as a lively drinking culture. Young Scots are often fun-loving and effusive, shattering the stereotype of the dour, stoic Scot that was widespread only a few decades ago.
Backroads Pro Tip
Glasgow is home to dozens of music festivals every year, ranging from small to massive and encompassing every genre imaginable. If you want to plan your trip around one of these events, make sure to book early—the Scottish music scene is growing fast, and the hotels are still catching up!
Good to Know
When traveling in Scotland, it’s good to keep the following in mind:
Though there is less of a tipping culture in Scotland than in, say, the United States, a 10 percent tip is still standard in most situations. For taxis and sit-down restaurants, 10 percent is a must; for a meal in a pub, the custom is less rigid, and you should use your judgement. Unlike the United States, there’s no need to tip in casual situations, such as self-serve cafes or when you’re just getting a beer.
While Scottish people are generally more reserved than other Europeans, on the whole they still are a lively, fun-loving people. Heavy drinking is common, especially among young Scots, and for many people a night on the town is the quintessential social gathering. Don’t expect them to invite you into your home the day they meet you, but most travelers will find Scottish people to be welcoming and open once you’ve built a friendship.
Scotland uses the same plugs as the rest of the United Kingdom, which means travelers from the United States or from mainland Europe will need to use a converter to charge their devices.
There are not many public bathrooms in Glasgow, Edinburgh or the rest of the country. Expect to buy a coffee or a beer in order to use the bathroom in a restaurant, pub or gas station.
The water in Scotland is safe to drink.
Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland uses the pound sterling. Travelers should have no trouble using credit cards, even international ones, in major cities, though rural travelers might want to carry cash just to be safe.
When to Visit Scotland
A popular saying in Scotland goes: if you can’t see the mountain, you know it’s raining. And if you can see the mountain, you know it’s going to rain in five minutes. The weather in Scotland is notoriously temperamental. The most popular tourist season is June through August, when the days get longer and the cracks in the weather grow wider, but savvy travelers might choose to visit in September or May—dodging the crowds and taking about the same odds with the weather. Whenever you go, bring your rain gear and prepare to work around the weather—and try not to get too annoyed with the locals telling you that you should have been here last week.
Backroads Pro Tip
Due to its northerly latitude, Scotland has long days during the summer, especially in June. If you’re looking to pack the days of your vacation, the “midnight sun” can be your friend—not to mention the nightlife that comes along with it!
Read our When to Visit Scotland article for more info.
● Scotland is home to the oldest tree in Europe, a twisted yew in Fortingall. It’s more than 3,000 years old and, according to legend, Pontius Pilate was born in its shade.
● The official animal of Scotland is the unicorn.
● Scotland has the highest population of redheads per capita in the world.
● It might feel like home—there are as many Scottish people living in North America as there are in Scotland!
● The importation of Scotland’s famous dish, haggis, has been banned in the US since the 1970’s.
● A Scot, Charles Macintosh, invented the raincoat in 1824, and raincoats are still called “macs” in much of the UK.
Regions and Cities
Perhaps the most famous feature of the Scottish landscape, the Northwest Highlands are a stunning, mountainous region that’s crisscrossed with trails and dotted with quaint villages and sheep farms. The Highlands contain some of the largest wilderness areas in Europe, including the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond National Parks. It’s a must-see for outdoor enthusiasts.
Inverness: This fast-growing city, promoted as the “Gateway to the Highlands” by the Scottish tourism board, is a destination in itself. It’s home to several impressive castles and churches and a vibrant nightlife that goes mostly under the radar.
The country’s southeastern region, where it borders Great Britain, has been a site of conflict for centuries, though its idyllic hills and quaint towns belie this bloody history. For visitors interested in the history of the Scottish-English conflict, this region abounds with ancient battlefields and ruined abbeys.
Known for its rolling hills and pristine golf courses, this region is worth a visit for travelers looking for a low-stress vacation in a charming landscape. The southern coast, known as “Scotland’s Riviera,” is a destination in itself.
Isle of Arran: Scotland’s seventh-largest island, the Isle of Arran is a sort of microcosm, compacting mainland Scotland’s diverse geography into an area of only 167 square miles. A popular tourist destination for hiking, the Isle of Arran is accessible only by ferry from the mainland. A smaller nearby island known as the Holy Island is home to a community of Buddhist monks.
The country’s most heavily urbanized region, the Central Belt is home to Scotland’s two main cities—Glasgow and Edinburgh—as well as most of Scotland’s population.
Glasgow: The biggest city in Scotland, as well as the country’s cultural capital, Glasgow is home to a thriving nightlife and a fast-growing music scene. Most visitors to the country will arrive at the Glasgow International Airport.
Edinburgh: Scotland’s official capital, Edinburgh is a city of rich history, which is embodied in the proliferation of castles and churches that lie within its walls. Nicknamed the “Athens of the North,” Edinburgh is a must-see for intellectually hungry travelers, who will surely find something to enthrall them in the city’s massive assortment of galleries, museums and architectural marvels.
Stirling: This city, said to be the gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands, lies near the country’s exact geographical center, which mirrors its significance as an epicenter of Scottish culture. Stirling was long a stronghold of the Kingdom of Scotland, and its military history can be felt today in the imposing presence of Stirling Castle, which towers over the city. Outside its walls are the battlefields where William Wallace fought, some of which were depicted in Braveheart, making Stirling a destination for fans of history and Hollywood alike.
Worth a Visit
Shetland Islands: Closer geographically to the Norwegian city of Bergen than to Edinburgh, this Scottish archipelago represents a curious mix of the Scandinavian and Scottish cultures, and its residents are fiercely proud of this fact. Known for its stunning array of wildlife, especially birds, and its unique cultural identity, the series of islands is accessible by ferry from mainland Scotland.
Aberdeen: This harbor city, located in the less-traveled Scottish northeast, is a great stop for travelers looking for an authentic Scottish experience. Its remote location on the northeastern coast makes it difficult to access, but those who make the journey are rewarded with classic medieval architecture, as well as a string of Scottish whiskey distilleries.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Scotland
A US citizen doesn’t need a visa to enter Scotland for tourism purposes and can stay up to 90 days.
A US citizen needs a passport with at least six months of validity to enter Scotland.
Most travelers coming from North America will need to change planes at a major European hub, such as London Heathrow, before arriving in the country. Glasgow International is the country’s largest airport, though it’s also possible to arrive into Edinburgh or Aberdeen.
Getting Around - Transportation
Scotland prides itself on its national infrastructure and maintains excellent roads, railways and bus routes. Transportation between and around cities is possible using public transit, which also suffices to access most major tourist destinations. However, for travelers looking to access Scotland’s more remote regions, a car rental might be a good idea. Just remember to stay to the left!
Nearly everyone in Scotland speaks English, though it might be spoken with a thick accent that can take a bit of getting used to before you fully understand every word. You’ll likely understand most administrative documents and websites, particularly those geared toward tourists.
Scottish Gaelic is spoken by nearly 90,000 people in Scotland, most of which are concentrated in the Highlands and the Western Isles, where you’re likely to hear locals conversing in the tongue. A few common phrases include:
“Thank you”: Tapadh leat (TAH-puh let)
“Hello”: Halò. (ha-LAW)
“Nice to meet you”: 'S toil leam gur coinneachadh. (STOL lum gur KEN-yukh-ugh)
“Goodbye!”: Tioraidh! (CHEE-ree)
If that seems intimidating, don’t worry: there are no monolingual Gaelic speakers left in Scotland, even in the older generations. That being said, if you want to pick up a few words of Gaelic, the locals will appreciate the effort!
Food and Drink
While Scotland, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, used to suffer from the stereotype of being a culinary wasteland, that perception has changed in recent years. Immigration has brought diverse cuisines to the cities, including modern Indian, French and Italian options.
For traditional Scottish food, you can’t go wrong with Scotch beef, especially at higher-end restaurants. Scotland is also home to some of the world’s finest seafood, including oysters, crabs, scallops and salmon. In the autumn, you might find pheasant on offer, which is often served with bacon and seasonal vegetables. And, of course, there’s always haggis. What Scottish travel guide would be complete without mentioning this famous (or, perhaps, infamous) Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s chopped heart, liver and lungs cooked inside the animal’s stomach? Yum!
Read our full article: Food in Scotland: What to Know and Eat
There is very little violent crime in Scotland, making Scotland travel generally quite safe. What does occur is mostly “hooliganism” among drunken, unarmed gangs, and it’s very rarely directed toward tourists. Of course, it never hurts to be cautious, especially in Scottish bars around closing time and possibly—in some major cities—on public transit at night.
The more serious threat to safety in Scotland comes from the weather. Though it’s rarely extreme, it can change very quickly. If you’re planning a day of hiking, you’d be well advised to pack for all conditions—even if it looks to be a beautiful day.
Similarly, many tourists have trouble with driving in Scotland. In Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, automobilists drive on the left side of the road. Roundabouts are common, as are wandering sheep and cattle on the road. Take your time to get accustomed to these particularities of the road system in order to avoid any accidents that could ruin your vacation.
Scottish police are generally responsive and helpful for tourists and locals alike. In case you find yourself in trouble, here are the relevant numbers:
- Any emergency: 999
- Non-emergency line: 101
The tap water in Scotland is safe to drink, though you should exercise caution when drinking from streams or other unprotected water sources.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. Explore all our Scotland tours here, and we hope this guide will be enlightening as you plan your next great adventure!