What comes to mind when you think of Scotland? The cold? The rain? The heroin? Yes, all of these things feature in the northern country of Great Britain. But if you can cast away your desire to spend your days in the unforgiving sun, if you can let go of the yearning to be consistently dry, if you can resist the urge to intravenously self-medicate with powerful opioids, you’ll find a country with a fascinating history and a wealth of wilderness to keep you occupied for long enough to forget about any other lazy stereotypes that you may have heard about the place.
The dramatic mountains, rolling hills, forests, and coastlines of Scotland rival those of the likes of New Zealand and Canada. With this in mind, and the free camping laws that encompass much of the Scottish countryside, making the wild your home for the night in campervan or tent is the best way to visit the country. Standard manners and respect apply: no camping where prohibited, and leave no trace.
A great place to bag a few more munros.
Two similar attractions that may well already be on your itinerary are beast hunting in Loch Ness and visiting the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Loch Lomond is the larger of the two and generally considered to be more beautiful. If you’re heading north from the largely flat landscape of the South, the mountains will begin to spring from the ground, making it a popular destination for hikers and vantage point seekers. Balloch, on the Loch’s southern shores, is the main village complete with castle, but a day of driving around will take you to plenty of quieter, picturesque villages with plenty of stop offs to look at highland cows, or even better, Highland calves.
In the Sottish Highlands, Loch Ness is, of course, famous around the world for its faked photos of a tim’rous beastie lurking in its depths. That doesn’t stop sprawls of tourists paying for the privilege of a ‘Monster Hunting Cruise’. Presumably there are a few diehard believers who leave disappointed when they are told how to doctor their photos to resemble an image of Nessie. The ruins of nearby 13th century Urquhart castle can provide calming condolences in the wake of your shattered beliefs.
As you’re in the highlands, you may as well ‘bag a munro’ (Munro bagging is the act of climbing every mountain in Scotland over 3000 feet, named after Sir Hugh T Munro, who surveyed and catalogued them in 1891), although you may not have the time to climb hundreds of mountains, you can at least go and see the highest. The tourist track of Ben Nevis isn’t the hardest of the munros, but the hike takes you from sea level to walk every foot of the 4,411 on offer and should not be undertaken lightly. Precautions such as water, food, and appropriate clothing need to be adhered to. Incidentally, if you are an experienced mountaineer, try the tantalisingly named Inaccessible Pinnacle at the top of Sgùrr Dearg.
For many, Glencoe epitomises wild Scotland: Fierce juxtaposition of scrambling mountain passes and woodland dales, with a river chucked in for added value. A great place to bag a few more munros – try your hand at rock climbing, or turn your attention to the river. Watersports such as rafting and kayaking (and other adaptations with varying degrees of terror) are available down the River Coe from well established companies. The area should certainly be a destination on your road trip for more reasons than ‘it’s easy to get to and looks a bit nice’.
Of the plethora of islands that skirt the coastline, the Inner Hebridean Island of Skye stands out. It’s now very easy to get to with the relatively new bridge, and you can set off in any direction and be guaranteed a stunning drive. The mountainous centre is surrounded by a series of peninsulas with their own characteristics for you to explore. The Fairy Pools are a stretch of waterfalls and pools near Glen Brittle, crystal enough to entice those who would otherwise be put off by the cold water. Very cold water. On the drive to and from Skye keep an eye out for Shetland Ponies, who like to hang around in the west.
Perhaps beaches aren’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Scotland, but this reason, combined with the small matter of the climate, is why the Ardnamurchan Peninsular back on the mainland has unspoiled beaches. Not unspoiled in the way described to you by a gap year student on their return from Thailand – actual unspoiled beaches. Head to Sanna Bay to spot whales, dolphins, and the Northern Lights.
Scotland isn’t all about nature, though. At some point you’ll probably find yourself in one of the two big-name cities.
To describe Glasgow in all its glory, the food, arts and culture scene, you’d have to come up with a new concept. A decade or two ago, to sum the city up in a word, ‘cool’ would have sufficed, but over the years it has lost its gravitas and become too wide-ranging. These days ‘hipster’ is used adjectively or nounally, but stirs the unpalatable potion of irritation and disdain deep in the bellies of some. Perhaps, ‘effortlessly cool’ or ‘hipster-without-your-pretentious-beret-wearing-attitude’ kind of cool.
Historically an industrial powerhouse, Glasgow has undergone changes over the last several decades and become a centre of culture and tourism. Being a UNESCO City of Music, you can pretty much pick your genre and attend a gig in the city. The Victorians left behind an array of architecture to make for a pleasant day’s stroll as well as numerous museums and art galleries to keep you walking too far without stopping. There are also more parks here than in any other city of Britain.
As for food, gone are the days where you go to Glasgow for a deep-fried pork sausage kebab and end up with a stroke-inducing lump of beige calories. Vegan cafes are on the rise alongside an abundance of eclectic restaurants boasting recipes from around the world. That being said, you’ve got to try a deep-fried Mars bar. And deep-fried ice cream. Also, apparently, if you talk to the right people in the right way, you get something called a ‘Glasgow kiss’, which sounds lovely. However, deciphering the words of a Glaswegian in the first instance is quite the challenge on any given braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht.
Edinburgh is an incredibly good-looking place. The effortless blend of structures from medieval, through gothic, all the way up to modern architecture merge together in atmospheric streets. The popular tourist attraction of the castle looms over Scotland’s capital, offering elevated views of the city and beyond. Edinburgh counters Glasgow’s music scene with its own status as a UNESCO City of Literature. Robert Louis Stevenson was born here, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by someone he met while studying at University in Edinburgh, and J.K Rowling liked to write in The Elephant House, a cafe in the city. If you miss the book festival, try to make it for one of the world-renown festivals such as The Fringe or Hogmanay.
Stirling is worth a look if you can fit it in. It’s the best place to go to get your fix of Scottish history with many battles for independence taking place in the area due to its strategic positioning. As stated by Scottish poet Alexander Smith: “Stirling, like a huge brooch, clasps Highlands and Lowlands together.” The castle is one of the best preserved in Scotland, and the William Wallace Monument provides the view over the town once you’re finished learning about the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
The more adventurous among us might like to travel further north to visit the Orkney Islands, best known for their Neolithic structures, the country’s northernmost whisky distillery, and, interestingly, the world’s shortest flight, in which the minute or so of airtime between islands is barely long enough to notice the tartan decor. Upon completion you’ll be presented with a certificate to proudly display on the wall with your university degree, that star that’s named after you, and your World Poohsticks Championship certification.
If none of the aforementioned places are enough to lure you to the land of the Scots, perhaps you have a lifelong desire to fill up every page of your passport. With Britain’s promised exit from the EU, Scotland could hold another referendum for their own independence, so you may well get another coveted stamp in your passport.
As a final note and parting gift, it would be unfair of me not to share one of the best things to come out of Scotland: A 1999 picture of (then) first minister Alex Salmond feeding a Solero to a girl, and the ensuing search to find out who she is and what on earth it was all about. (Follow one of the quests at buzzfeed.com/jamieross/do-you-want-a-flake-and-an-independent-scotland-with-that.)