Scotland travel guide: A beginner's guide

Scotland remains one of Europe's most visually - and culturally - absorbing destinations.

Aye or nay, post its monumental ballot, something was never going to change about Scotland. From its endearing cities, which extend well beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow, to its familiar myth-soaked lochs, glens and far-flung islands, bonnie Scotland is one of Europe's most visually - and culturally - absorbing destinations. 

The spotlight on the country's countless charms has never been more intense, or more relevant. Folk with Scottish ancestry may be now even keener to trace their roots (and perhaps don a kilt, sporran and Glengarry bonnet for those family photo albums). You can follow in the footsteps of Scottish legends William Wallace and Rob Roy, warm your bellies with drams of Scotch, and have your spine tingled by marching bagpipe-men and Shakespearean thespians beaming soliloquies from Macbeth under dramatic skies.

Yet one of the great pleasures of visiting Scotland is delving beyond the cliches. For instance, 2015 will be Scotland's Year of Food and Drink. After previous campaigns that highlighted the country's natural beauty and creative zest, this nation-wide event will see Scots celebrating their natural larder and quality produce, with markets and festivals showcasing the fact that there's more to Scottish cuisine than haggis (the national dish of sheep's entrails). Here, then, is Traveller's expert beginner's guide (or, if you've been, a refresher course) to the wonders of Scotland.

THE CITIES

Think about the antagonism between Sydney and Melbourne; multiply it by 10, and you'll have a sense of the historic rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The traditional outsiders' view - that Edinburgh is the genteel, regal, cultured elder brother, a kind of  "Athens of the North"; while Glasgow, 80 kilometres down the road, is the gritty, working-class sibling, a hive of live music and comedy - isn't the whole picture. In fact, it's their myriad contradictory characteristics that make this world-class duo so rewarding.

These days you might hear Edinburghians and Glaswegians bickering about which metropolis is best for gourmands. Both cities' dining scenes have radically improved over the last decade, with everything from ambient Indian curryhouses and Mediterranean brasseries to sophisticated cocktail bars and Scottish tapas haunts. An ex-industrial wasteland on the north bank of the River Clyde, Glasgow's gentrifying Finnieston neighbourhood is a trendy hub of pubs, pop-ups and hip eateries serving cosmopolitan fare, seafood and modern twists on classic Scottish dishes. Edinburgh proudly trumpets its five Michelin-starred restaurants, while newcomers such as Twenty Princes Street, The Gardener's Cottage and The Scran and Scallie gastropub ooze culinary flair. Leith, Edinburgh's scrubbed-up port district, is crammed with food and drink hangouts and is much-changed since Irvine Welsh set his edgy 1993 cult classic, Trainspotting, here.

One of the great pleasures of visiting Scotland is delving beyond the cliches.

Foodies can have a whale of a time in Aberdeen, Scotland's third largest city. Hugging the North Sea, its economy driven by offshore oil and gas reserves, the Granite City has succulent options aplenty, many served in the city's distinctive grey-stone buildings near its working fishing harbour. Langoustines, oysters, haddock and chips and Aberdeen Angus beef - reared in the local countryside - are popular orders. Held on the last Saturday of each month, the Aberdeen Country Fair is one of Scotland's tastiest farmers' markets, its stalls bountiful with local cheese, cured meats and artisan chocolates.

Dundee and Perth - two cities picturesquely nestled by the River Tay - have their own allure, with the former's Verdant Works mill (which heralds the area's jute heritage) and the latter's Scone Palace (a Gothic stately home and crowning place of old Scottish kings) winning admirers.

It is Stirling, however, that ranks as many tourists' favourite Scottish city. Crowning an extinct volcano, reachable via winding cobbled streets, Stirling Castle was a key military fortress and beloved retreat of the Stuart dynasty. The castle's Renaissance palace apartments have been exquisitely restored, while the ramparts grant awesome panoramas of the countryside, including Bannockburn - where, in AD1314, Robert the Bruce led the outnumbered Scots to victory over the Auld Enemy (England). Bannockburn's sleek new visitor centre regales this epic battle.

There's more swashbuckling history at the Wallace Monument, a Victorian-era folly capping a leafy crag overlooking the River Forth - scene of the AD1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, the finest hour of auld "Braveheart", immortalised, of course, by Mel Gibson in that 1995 Hollywood barnstormer. 

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THE HIGHLANDS

Cinematic memories may come flooding back as you immerse yourself in the Scottish Highlands - a mesmerising tapestry of rugged green hills, brooding lochs, snow-dusted peaks, vertiginous spurs, romantic castles and glacier-carved glens (valleys) crawling with heather, thistle and wildflowers, tufted with ancient Caledonian forest and roaming with deer, grouse and shaggy heilan coos (highland cows). 

Britain's most beguilingly scenic region has lured production crews for movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, Highlander starring Sean Connery and Skyfall (remember Daniel Craig whizzing up to Bond's mist-cloaked ancestral home in his vintage Aston Martin?).

Permeated with gripping tales of clan warfare and vivid age-old traditions, the enigmatic Highlands provide an inspirational backdrop for your own thrills and spills. Kayaking, cycling, abseiling, white-water rafting, ziplining, quad-biking, skiing, salmon fishing and golfing are all possible here. You can drive, picnic and walk to your heart's content. Hundreds of marked footpaths, bikeways and serpentine country lanes criss-cross the highlands, with the Cairngorms National Park and Glen Coe among the most alluring areas. 

The 75-kilometre Cowal Way (cowalway.co.uk) and 154-kilometre West Highland Way (west-highland-way.co.uk) entice hardy hikers. Watch out for the summer midges. Queen Victoria is said to have smoked cigarettes to deter these pesky insects. Nicknamed "Fort Bill", Fort William touts itself as "the Outdoor Capital of the UK". 

Edging Loch Linnhe, the town hums with adrenalin-seekers and climbing enthusiasts (especially from July to September). Many come to scale Ben Nevis; at 1343 metres, Britain's loftiest peak. "The Ben" can be done in six to eight hours if you're reasonably fit, but beware: the highlands' climate is fickle in a turbo-charged Melburnian "four-seasons-in-a-day" type of way. Conditions can turn treacherous. Fast. In any season. A Highlander told me: "Dunnae like the weather now laddie? Wait 10 minutes and it'll change."

Boutique hotels, hostels, log cabins, B&Bs and camp-sites - plus numerous cosy, welcoming pubs - dot the region. Alternative bases include wee seaside "toons" like Findhorn and Lossiemouth, and Aviemore - the gateway to both the Cairngorms and Speyside's marvellous Malt Whisky Trail.

A magnet for Nessie hunters - Loch Ness, Scotland's most mystical lake, is close by - Inverness is the Highlands' largest town. It's ideal for souvenir fossickers (you can buy everything from tartanwear to butterscotch here). There's good wining and dining and a decent live music scene (including ceilidh bands, featuring Gaelic folk music and dancing). 

THE ISLANDS

Mainland Scotland has enough adventures to fill a dozen holidays, but travellers' wanderlust is inevitably stoked by the country's 800-plus islands. About 10 per cent are inhabited; dozens cater for visitors. Jagged, windswept cliffs. Flickering lighthouses. Ancient Viking and Celtic ruins. Haunting moors. Surreal sunrises and sunsets. 

Tight-knit fishing villages. Astounding Atlantic swells. Waters alive with whales and seals. Moody skies abuzz with eagles and puffins. The islands are rich in postcard-perfect vistas and soul-stirring human encounters (think: chatting with local characters in snug inns heated by roaring pub fires).

Some isles are a breeze to get to. Both Arran (labelled "Scotland in miniature") and Bute (which hosts a popular May jazz festival) are roughly a two-hour road-and-boat trip from Glasgow. Slightly further afield, Jura was where George Orwell wrote 1984 and Islay has been a premier whisky destination since Irish monks started distilling the stuff in the 14th century. Islay has eight distilleries and loads of tours and tastings.

Rum, Muck, Mull, Iona and Eigg are some of the other seductive islands of the Inner Hebrides, while the Outer Hebrides' poster boys are Lewis and Harris, which are joined at the hip and have idyllic white-sand beaches and turquoise bays that wouldn't look out of place in the tropics. When you dip your toes in the icy waters, however, you're reminded that you're in Scotland instead of St Lucia. 

On Lewis' west coast, the neolithic Callanish Stones date back 3000 years and carry the moniker "The Stonehenge of Scotland". Car and passenger ferries to the Hebrides are operated by Caledonian MacBrayne - or "CalMac" - which sails to over 20 destinations. Attached to the mainland by bridge, the enchanting Isle of Skye takes its name from old Norse, meaning "Cloud Island". Bed down in homely capital Portree and explore the otherworldly landscapes that grace the new movie adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. 

Ferries for more distant pastures depart John O'Groats (the start, or end point, of that iconic cross-Britain trek from Land's End in Cornwall).  Comprising 70 low-lying islands, linked by inter-archipelago ferries, the Orkneys claim to possess Britain's oldest village. The stone Skara Brae was cobbled together in 3100BC, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids.

Even more remote, the Shetlands are closer to the Arctic Circle than Manchester, nearer Bergen than Edinburgh. Marketed as "Scotland meets Scandinavia", the Shetlands are home to those famous little ponies and fascinating Bronze Age and Viking heritage. Though infused with different flavours, the Scottish isles have something in common. In summer, they bask in 17-19 hours of daylight. In winter, the skies darken early and the ethereal Northern Lights are known to come calling.

THE JOURNEYS

Scotland's tour operators serve all tastes and budgets, from boisterous backpacker buses to chauffeur-driven Mercs and deluxe coach trips. There's a plethora of self-drive itineraries, opportunities to sail and cruise coastlines, lochs and canals and the chance to glimpse Scotland from the sky. Award-winning companies like McKinlay Kidd arrange tailor-made land-sea-air holidays.

Rail buffs love Scotland. You can arrive on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper, which spirits between London Euston and major Scottish towns and cities. Regular trains also connect London with Scotland throughout the day (average journey time: five hours). 

Scenic lines snake through the country, yielding spectacular window-seat views of sites such as the Grampian Mountains, Loch Lomond and Rannoch Moor. In summer, the Jacobite Steam Train chugs from Fort William to Mallaig, a port on Scotland's north-west coast. It travels via the Glenfinnan Viaduct, a 21-arched jewel of 19th century engineering, which carried the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. Incidentally, as a fledgling author, JK Rowling whiled away her time in Edinburgh's cafes, conjuring up fantastical stories about the boy wizard.

Glenfinnan is also traversed on the wonderful West Highland line, which runs several times daily from Glasgow to destinations including Mallaig and the harbourside town of Oban - the springboard to the Hebridean islands.

On your Scotland travels, you might stumble across photo-worthy road signs. Dull, Twatt, Lost, Brokenwind and Backside are some of the rib-tickling Scottish place names.

The writer's visit was supported by Visit Britain and Visit Scotland. See visitbritain.com; visitscotland.com.. Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Glasgow via Dubai. From June 2015, Etihad flies daily to Edinburgh via Abu Dhabi, from Sydney and Melbourne.

FIVE ESSENTIAL SCOTTISH EXPERIENCES

Snap the quintessential shot of Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat - one of the city's seven hills - then embrace the Scottish capital's festive side. August is peak time, with the International Festival, The Fringe and the Military Tattoo. But the Hogmanay New Year's Eve celebrations are unforgettable, especially when everyone sings Auld Lang Syne. See edinburghshogmanay.org 

Scotland is a passionate sporting nation, and it's a hair-raising experience when the Flower of Scotland anthem is belted out, by bagpipes, before a Six Nations rugby game at Murrayfield, or a soccer match at Hampden Park. Prefer tranquillity? Do a round at St Andrews - the  "Home of Golf" - or Gleneagles (host of this month's Ryder Cup). See sportscotland.org.uk

Fuelled by haggis, whisky and witty entertainment, Burns Night is an annual ode to Scotland's bard, the 18th century poet Robert "Rabbie" Burns, voted greatest-ever Scot by Scottish TV viewers. The Big Burns Supper festival coincides with Burns Night in Dumfries and Galloway, south-west Scotland (January 23-31, 2015). See bigburnssupper.com

The "bonnie bonnie banks" of lochs Lomond and Katrine have long enchanted visitors. Katrine moved Sir Walter Scott to pen The Lady of the Lake poem and you can cruise it on the SS Sir Walter Scott steamship. The lochs are part of the Trossachs - a national park revered as Rob Roy Country (it's named after the 18th century folk hero, dubbed "the Scottish Robin Hood"). See lochlomond-trossachs.org

Scotland has almost as many castles as Australia has kangaroos. Beyond Edinburgh's and Stirling's, Balmoral, Doune and Cawdor are crowd-pullers. Fife is full of photogenic fortresses. Some castles - like Duchray - are now luxury hotels. Historic churches also sprinkle Scotland, like the Rosslyn Chapel, which appeared in The Da Vinci Code. See historic-scotland.gov.uk

FIVE ESSENTIAL SCOTTISH EXPRESSIONS

Slainte mhath. Scottish Gaelic for "good health" - ideal for whisky toasts.

Whit dae ye cry thon yin? What do you call that one?

Dinna fash yerself  Don't trouble yourself.

Gie it laldy! A plea to do something with gusto (for example, someone may shout "gie it laldy!" if they think your ceilidh dancing needs more effort).

Crivvens! A mild expression of shock or surprise (eg "Crivvens! There's not a cloud in the highlands today!").

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SCOTLAND AND THE SCOTTISH

About 5.2 million people live in Scotland. There are three official languages: English, Scots and Scottish Gaelic. Just one per cent of the population uses the last.

Thanks, in part, to fearsome tribes like the Picts, Scotland was never properly conquered by the Romans. Hadrian's Wall marked the border between Britannia and Caledonia - modern Scotland. 

After centuries of fighting the Auld Enemy - aka England or the "southern softies" - Scotland joined the United Kingdom of Great Britain after the Acts of Union were passed by the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707.

Scots invented the television (John Logie Baird, 1925); the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, 1876); penicillin (Alexander Fleming, 1928) and the raincoat, or mac (Charles Macintosh, 1824). Some Scots, however, say the best thing to come out of Scotland is Irn Bru - a fizzy soft drink that out-sells Coca-Cola here.

Scots may have been divided over the independence issue, but they were united in their ire for the politicians responsible for Edinburgh's much-vaunted tram. It finally started running in May - three years late and $500 million over budget. 

ABOUT THE WRITER

Based in the (still intact) UK, Steve McKenna has visited and written about more than 80 countries, reserving special affection for Europe, Latin America and south east Asia. It's the endless diversity of travel that excites McKenna. This is his umpteenth article for Traveller.

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