Visit Scotland: everything you need to know about Going Scottish
Visit Scotland: everything you need to know about Going Scottish
Brave, Braveheart, Highlander… Take your pick, there are many films inspired by the mysteries of Scotland. Famous for its breath-taking scenery, strong traditions and fiery party-loving people, the home of many legends will certainly spark your imagination too. This is your guide to going Scottish – what you just shouldn’t miss when you visit Scotland.
1. Go Tartan Shopping
One of the most famous things about Scotland is that the men here wear skirts. More precisely, they wear kilts.
While nowadays kilts are mostly used for festivities and formal events, their material is no ordinary cloth. The colours and lines of a kilt - its tartan, elude to the clan and the heritage of its wearer. There is even a Scottish Tartan Authority, two Scottish Tartans Registers and the Court of the Lord Lyon which regulate the coats of arms and tartan design to make sure the right crest and colours are being used for the right heritage! Today, the clan system is no longer used as a governing structure, but the tartan tradition remains.
While if you have Scottish ancestry you are recommended to look for the appropriate tartan for your heritage, if you don’t, you don’t have to feel left out. Scotland is a big producer of tartan and sees it as its gift to the world. So when in Scotland… You must take a little piece of the amazing check back home with you.
There are many shops that sell tartan souvenirs in the main touristic destinations of Glasgow and Edinburgh. You only have to wonder the main streets to find them. But if you want something a little more distinct… Anta sells beautiful tartans in a series of fashion and home accessories, all made in Scotland, and you can find stores in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Addresses: Anta Edinburgh, 119 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4JN Anta Glasgow, 107 West George Street, Glasgow G2 1QR
Now, if you fancy a drive into the country… Head for DC Dalgliesh in Selkirk. Famous for being the last artisan tartan weaver in Scotland, the small town it calls home still holds some amazing traditions and has very interesting historical connections to Scotland’s fight for independence. Definitely worth the one and a half hour trip outside of Edinburgh. Address: DC Dalgliesh, Dunsdale Mill, Selkirk, Scotland TD7 5EB
2. Visit a Bagpipe Shop
You haven’t been to Scotland until you have heard the hearty sound of a bagpipe.
In more touristic places, you will certainly come across a basking bagpiper basking on the streets. But for a full look into the art of bagpiping and the instrument itself, wander inside a bagpipe shop or centre.
In Glasgow, you can actually visit The National Piping Centre, where you can visit the museum, learn about the history of bagpiping and even learn a thing or two about how to play it! Please visit their website for dates and more information. Also, if you happen to be in Glasgow during August, you will be able to take part in the Piping Live Festival! We promise the sound of bagpipes will be engraved in your memory forever after this one.
Address: The National Piping Centre, 30-34 McPhater Street, Glasgow G4 0HW Prices: Museum & Meet the Piper events: £4.50 per adult; Piping workshops: £10 per adult for larger group or £165 for small groups Meet the bagpiper (museum experience playing event) information here. Try the bagpipe (group workshop) more information here.
In Edinburgh, Bagpipes Galore produces, sells and refurbishes bagpipes. A wonder inside their shop is like visiting Bagpipeland.
Address: Bagpipes Galore, 20 Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh EH12 5JZ More information here.
3. Go Whisky Tasting
Scotch Whisky is another famous Scottish export. Everything from the way it’s made to how it’s labelled is defined by strict guidance and laws, so distilling Scotch, especially really good Scotch, is nothing less than an art.
The Scotch Whisky Shop in Edinburgh holds one of the most amazing Scotch shops in town. They even have an interactive flavour map to help you chose the perfect whisky for your palate. And if you cannot make your mind up, you can take miniature taster bottles as a pick n’ mix option! Now… what you really want to come here for, apart from the golden liquid itself, is their Scotch Whisky Tour Experience. You can start small if you are short for time or not a big whisky fan, or you can go big and try their ‘Taste of Scotland Tour’ including a guided tour of the distilling process, a look at their extended Scotch collection, a tasting session and an amazing Scottish meal. Our mouths are watering already…
Address: Scotch Whisky Experience, 354 Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NE Prices: £14.50 to £65 More information about the tour experiences here.
Forty minutes from Glasgow, you can go to a distillery tour and tasting session with Glengoyne. Some of the tour options will even allow you to create your own single malt blend! Our favourite, however, just has to be the Whisky and Chocolate Tour. Learning more about the distilling process then finishing it off with the taste of two types of whisky and some chocolate deliciousness, just sounds like a spa date to us! Although, any tour here would be a pleasure and give you a taste not just of the whisky, but also of the beautiful Scottish countryside. During your visit, make sure to take in the scenery as well as the whisky.
Address: Glengoyne Distillery, Dumgoyne, Near Killearn, Glasgow G63 9LB Prices: £9 - £150 More information about the distillery tours here.
Of course, there are other places in Scotland where you can go for whisky tasting. But wherever you go, make sure they are either a respectful whisky specialist or Scottish distillery so you get the best experience. For more information on other Whisky tours click here for Visit Scotland’s guide to whisky distilleries.
Trivia Treat: according to the Scotch Whisky Association, the famous scotch whisky has evolved from a Scottish drink originally called uisge beatha, which means “water of life”.
4. Don’t like Whisky? Go Gin Tasting Instead
If don’t like whisky but like your gin, you will have heard of Edinburgh Gin. And if you are in Edinburgh, it would be rude not to visit the distillery.
Rated excellent by TripAdvisor, there are three different gin tours you can take. Choose from a basic gin discovery experience (recommended for those not familiar with the spirit) all the way to a gin making masterclass if you want insider tips. Now… if you'd rather just taste the goodness, you can also visit their H&T Bar (Heads & Tales Edinburgh Gin) and watch the magic happen through Flora & Caledonia, the two gin stills installed inside the bar. With Elderflower, Raspberry and Rhubarb flavoured varieties, nobody would blame you for heading straight to the bar! Did we mention they also serve food? Food and gin… It would be a sin not to taste ‘a wee bit.’ And the crowd says, ‘Aye’.
Address: Edinburgh Gin Distillery, featuring Heads & Tales Bar, 1a Rutland Place, Edinburgh EH1 2AD Prices: £10 - £75 More information here.
Trivia Treat: did you know 70% of the gin produced in the UK is produced north of the border? Other brands of gin produced here include Hendrick’s, Caorunn and Eden Mill Love Gin. For a full list of Scottish’s gin power click here.
5. Sample the Local Cuisine
Food is when you can tell you are in a different place, even if that is a stone throw away. While Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, it is its own country and you can see that very clearly in their cuisine. Here are some delicacies you need to look out for:
Scotland’s national dish is no beauty queen. You won’t see it looking sexy like French food, but trust us when we say it’s wholesome food.
A type of savoury giant sausage, Haggis is the combination of minced sheep’s liver, heart and lungs with suet (fat), oatmeal, onions, salt and spices. When cooked, it looks a little like stuffing and it’s usually serviced with ‘bashed neeps and mashed tatties’, that’s Scots for turnips and potatoes. Doesn’t look amazing on the plate, but will have you licking your fingers as well as feeling full and happy. As a national dish, it will be easy to spot in several menus. Other local yummy treats to try are:
Sea Kale – truly native to Britain and once a Victorian sensation, today sea kale is a rare and expensive delicacy. This type of vegetable grows on the British east coast and picking or growing the wild variety is now illegal. To make matters even more extreme, there is only a handful of suppliers and sea kale growers, the most renowned of them being Eassie Farm, near the Glamis Estate in Angus. So if you see it on the menu, give it a try. Chances are you might not see it for a while. Sometimes sea kale is also called “winter asparagus”.
Arbroath Smokies – basically a type of smoked haddock originated in the small fishing village of Auchmithie, three miles northeast of Arbroath. Hence the name.
Stovies – classed as ‘working men’s food’ stovies are a stew designed to be made with left-over food. While recipes vary, it will include potatoes, meat, onions, vegetables and lard and should always be served with oatcakes and occasionally beetroot.
Forfar Bridies – Bridie, for short, is a Scottish meat pastry. Lighter than the usual English pasty, they don’t contain potato and are made with shortcrust pastry. Apparently, they are common in Scottish weddings, hence the name.
Cullen Skink – creamy Scottish fish soup containing smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. Must be consumed with toasted bread.
Deep fried Mars Bars – oh, our gym trainer will have a heart attack just hearing these words, but we so love this capital sin.
Rowies – also called buttery, rollie and Aberdeen roll, rowies are essentially a bread roll made with flour, lard, butter, salt, vegetable oil and yeast. Get the feeling the Scots like their lard yet? You will find them served with jam.
Cranachan – Cream, honey, whisky-soaked oats and raspberries. Say what you will, we will count the raspberries as one of our five a day and order five portions. Thank you!
Tunnock Tea Cake – soft marshmallow on a biscuit coated with milk chocolate. Sold!
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you should definitely head to Scotland. Glasgow has been voted by PETA as the UK’s most vegan-friendly city and Scotland, in general, has amazing vegan dedicated and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. You can find out more about it in our posts Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurants in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. You can also read more about Scottish cuisine and national dishes here.
6. Party like the Scots
The Scottish are fiery, fun-loving and love a party. In fact, there are times in their calendar when they stop everything just to throw a good do. So when visiting Scotland, remember to bring your party kilts. And let us tell you… When they party, they party in style.
Join a Ceilidh (all year around) Ceilidh is the name given to parties where traditional Scottish music and dancing take centre stage. These can happen anywhere, anytime so keep your ears to the ground for the word when you visit Scotland. In Glasgow, Sloans 1797, Glasgow’s oldest bar and restaurant, throws a Ceilidh every Friday. In Edinburgh, The Ceilidh Club throws one every Tuesday night. Otherwise, you can find more events here.
Up Helly Aa Fire Festival (December to January)
Also known as Winter Fire Festivals, the Viking influenced celebrations literally set parts of Scotland alight. Visually stunning, the festivals commemorate the arrival of a new year, the end of the winter and the return of lighter days.
The biggest fire festival, Up Helly Aa, actually takes place in the Shetland Islands, at the very north east of Scotland, when on the last Tuesday of January a procession of Vikings runs through the city of Lerwick bearing torches and signing until they reach the sea and set fire to the Viking galley they processed through town. While this is the most famous fire festival, in mainland Scotland you can also be part of the fiery fun at the following locations and dates:
- 30th December – Edinburgh – Torch Procession
- 31st December – Nethy Bridge – Hogmanay Torchlite Procession and Family Ceilidh
- 31st December – Stonehaven – Stonehaven Fireballs
- 31st December – Biggar – Biggar Bonfire
- 11th January (2017) – Burghead, Moray – Burning of the Clavie
Despite all the above being considered fire festivals, please note that only Up Helly Aa burns a Viking galley. Biggar Bonfire burns a big bonfire and Burning of the Clavie will traditionally burn the clavie, a wooden barrel filled with staves. All the other festivals enjoy a torch or fire throwing parade but end in fireworks and light shows. For more information on the fire festivals, click here.
Highland Games (May to September)
Taking place all over Scotland, especially in the Highlands, the Highland Games celebrate Celtic culture by bringing traditional music, dance, traditional sports and clan celebrations together. The games are so popular they are even celebrated in other countries where a Celtic community exists. Check Visit Scotland’s calendar to find the nearest Highland Games gathering to you.
Edinburgh Festival (Summer, mostly in August)
Edinburgh doesn’t do things halfway. Through the whole month of August and most of the summer, the Scottish city is in festival mode. If you love arts, music, dancing and theatre, then you need to be here. Highlights are the Edinburgh International Festival of Performing Arts and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but the event list is huge. We don’t actually know how they can find enough venues for all the festivals that take place here in August!
More information on Edinburgh Festival season here.
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (August)
Originally a military music performance and parade, today, the tattoo includes not only music but also theatrics, dance and light shows. All expertly performed in front of Edinburgh Palace. Honestly, we have no words to explain how beautiful it is. You just have to watch the video below.
More information about the Edinburgh Military Tattoo here.
Trivia Treat: In case you are wondering why on Earth is it called a Military Tattoo… The term comes from the early 17th Century Dutch phrase ‘doe den tap toe’, meaning ‘turn off the tap’, a signal sounded by trumpeters and drummers to alert pub innkeepers to finish last orders so the soldiers could return to their barracks. (source)
Hogmanay & New Year (New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day)
Hogmanay is what the Scots call the passage in between New Year’s Eve (31st December) and New Year Day itself. Several parties take place all over the country, but the biggest and most notorious takes part in Edinburgh. They celebrate New Year over three days! Yes, you read that right. The end of the year is a half week affair over in Edinburgh.
It starts on the 30th December with a Torchlight Procession, when bagpipes and drums meet ‘Up Helly Aaa’s Vikings’ for a torch-lit procession that ends in fireworks.
On the 31st the city stops to throw a giant street party. Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street becomes the place to be with live entertainment, food and dance until the legendary Edinburgh Hogmanay Midnight Fireworks light the sky. But the party is not finished until ‘Auld Land Syne’ takes place. This is a national sing-along while holding hands with the person standing next to you.
And of course, on the 1st of January, the party continues. Follow the Dookers Parade through High Street then deep into the freezing waters of the River Forth by the iconic Forth Bridges in an event called the ‘Loony Dook’. We will go out on the limb and translate this to ‘the crazy dip’. You can read more about the amazing Hogmanay celebrations here.
7. Visit a Castle
Scotland is as famous for its castles as it is famous for its kilts. A sign of their tumultuous history, clan factions and independence struggles, at some point there have been over two thousand castles in Scotland, but some of these are now only known through historical records (source). Here are the castles you just shouldn’t miss visiting:
The second largest castle in the UK and tenth largest castles in the world by area size (source), Edinburgh Castle is closely intertwined with Scottish history, having been the battleground for many conflicts on the struggle for independence. A visit here is just a must when visiting Edinburgh. For starters, you won’t be able to miss seeing it anyway, as it sits imposingly overlooking the Scottish capital from Castle Rock.
Address: Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG Prices: £16.50 per adult, £9.90 per child (5 – 15 years) More visiting information here.
Trivia Treat: Castle Rock is the remains of a volcanic pipe. In short, Edinburgh Castle sits on the plug of an extinct volcano (source).
An hour and twenty minutes away from Edinburgh, Stirling was the setting for one of Scotland’s biggest victories against the English, when William Wallace defeated the troops of King Edward I at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. A statue of Wallace still stands outside the Castle’s walls as a reminder of such feat and his life later inspired the Hollywood award-winning film Braveheart.
On a more baffling note, 300 years later, Stirling was also apparently the setting for one of the earliest flying attempts, when John Damian tried to fly from Stirling Castle to France using a pair of feathered wings. As you can guess, it didn’t work and he broke his thigh bone in the process (source).
Address: Stirling Castle, Castle Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ Prices: £14.50 per adult, £8.70 per child More visiting information here.
An hour from Glasgow, Kelburn Castle is not only the official seat of the Earl of Glasgow and looks like a French Chateau, it is also one of the oldest castles in Scotland and one that has been inhabited by the same family for longer than any other. What is so special about it then? Its external walls are covered in graffiti art by a Brazilian artist! That’s taking the love for street art to a whole new level! Believe us when we say, the photos alone are definitely worth the one hour drive.
Address: Kelburn Castle, Fairlie, Ayrshire KA29 0BE Prices: £5 - £9 Adult, £4 - £7 Child More information on visiting here.
8. Stand in a Stone Circle
Scotland has some amazing ancient sights and high up in the list are the stone circles and standing stones.
Whether they were designed for religious purposes, to navigate aliens or just to mark the location of ancient raves, modern archaeology is still at a loss. But one thing is for certain, they are amazing sights and have an element of mystical mystery. Move over Stonehenge, there are several of such beauties in Scotland.
The most prevalent ones are in Orkney and the Shetland Islands, but you can also find them in Dumfries & Galloway and Argyll. Two and a half hours from Edinburgh and two hours from Glasgow, The 12 Apostles near Dumfries is the largest stone circle in mainland Scotland, the seventh largest in Britain.
More information on Scottish standing stones and stone circles click here and here.
9. Enjoy Loch Life
Who has not heard of the Loch Ness Monster? The myth of a gigantic create lurking in lake waters was the inspiration behind Hollywood film Water Horse. Just one thing… don’t call it a lake. It’s a Loch and the Scots will have you know it.
Scotland has a wealth of lochs and lochans (baby lochs). In fact, it’s estimated there are over 30,000 of them in the country, with the two biggest by volume being Loch Ness, near Iverness in the north of Scotland, and Loch Lomond, near Glasgow. Both hold boat cruises all year round, but it’s really during warmer seasons that you get the most of loch life, especially in Loch Lomond.
Set as part of Trossachs National Park and further south in Scotland, Loch Lomond benefits from warmer weather during spring and summer and so an array of water and land activities become available. Watch loch life tick along from the shores; go cruising, canoeing, kayaking, jet skiing and in short getting wet; or go wildlife spotting while you walk the ‘glens’ and ‘munros’, as the Scots call their stunning valleys and mountains.
10. Bag a Munro
Feeling a little adventurous or athletic? With all the mountains around it, 282 over 3,000 ft to be precise, any hiking lover with be in heaven in Scotland.
This is serious business. Every time you hit a summit, you bag a munro. Completion of a round, climbing all 282 munros, would make you a ‘Munroist’ or ‘Compleatist’. With the highest peak being 4,411fit, this is no small feat. More advice on munro bagging here.
11. Go Skiing
Did you know Scotland is the only place in the UK where you can ski? Head to Glenshee, Cairngorm, Glencoe, Nevis Range or The Lecht if you fancy hitting the slopes. More information on snow conditions and seasons here.
12. Get the Train
We can’t say it enough, Scotland has some amazing scenery! Really, we mean jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring views. And there is no better way to explore it than going on the train, where you can sit back and enjoy the views.
Whether you just want to dip your toes, see the scenery and go back to your city break or if you want to explore and conquer the whole of Scotland, there is a scenic train route just for you. You might even travel on a steam or heritage train!
If you just want to have a quick nosy, pick a short round trip. From Glasgow, the Glasgow-Ayr-Stranraer only takes two and a half hours one way and goes by beautiful lochs, ruins and coastal scenery. From Edinburgh, take The Forth Rail Bridge route from Edinburgh to Fife and travel not by, but through a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now, if you really want to explore, we would highly recommend you get yourself a Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass, which basically allows you to travel the whole of Scotland including trains, coaches and ferries with one ticket. Choose a week or two-week pass and travel to your heart’s content. This will be a trip you will never forget. More information on routes here. Prices: Spirit of Scotland Travel Pass – 1 Week Pass £134 (4 days of travel over 8 consecutive days), 2 Weeks Pass £179.70 (8 days of travel over 15 consecutive days) Short trips depend on where you want to go. Glasgow to Edinburgh takes about 1hr each way and costs around £13 for the return ticket.