Europe: Scotland | Braveheart, Scotch & the Loch Ness Monster
There's something about Scotland that inspires romance. Maybe it's the windswept hills, moors of purple heather, or gray stone ruins jutting into the sky. Maybe it's the friendly locals at a town pub. Or maybe it's a warm fire at the end of a long day of hiking around the lochs. If all this sounds like your idea of the perfect honeymoon, then romantic Scotland is just the place for you.
Although technically part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has a long (often bloody) history of its own, and a culture shaped by centuries of invasion from its more familiar neighbor to the south, England, as well as by Norse raiders from across the sea. This history has left its mark all over the Scottish landscape in the form of magnificent stone castles, now often in ruins, as well as manor houses, abbeys, and even prehistoric burial sites and rings of standing stones. A sightseer's heaven, these historic spots are quintessential Scotland; you could spend a month there and still not see all of them.
For lovers of the outdoors, Scotland offers an abundance of unspoiled natural resources: clear lochs (lakes) and rivers, miles of sea coast (especially in the west), vast expanses of sparsely populated Highlands (the U.K.'s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is in Scotland), and woods ripe for exploring. Sports of all kinds -- golf, fishing, hiking, skeet-shooting, and horseback riding -- are available in all parts of the country, and some places offer specialty vacations, like a horseback ride around the country or an all-golf package. Try a little bit of everything -- you'll be sure to come back for more.
This is the standard starting point for North Americans visiting Scotland, as it's the only city that offers direct flights from the U.S. and Canada. Glasgow was once infamous for its industrial gloom. Trainspotting notwithstanding, Glasgow is having quite a revival and is now more well-known as the artistic center of Scotland. The architecture of local talent Charles Rennie Mackintosh can be seen all over the city, and some of the best museums in the country can be found here. Check out the ancient Glasgow Cathedral on High Street, built and rebuilt in the 12th century and remaining today the only mainland cathedral in Scotland to survive the Reformation. The more upscale West End -- home to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, the Hunterian Art Gallery, and the Mackintosh House, as well as Glasgow University -- hosts much in the way of shopping, cafes, and pubs, as well as some good-quality, inexpensive hotels and B&Bs.
The dramatic western coast of Scotland is marked by rolling hills and sea lochs, harbors that jut so far inward they look almost like freshwater. This is the seat of traditional Scottish culture as we know it. It was from Dalriada (now Kilmartin), on the Mull of Kintyre, and from Iona, off the coast near Oban, that the Irish brought Celtic Christianity and kingship to their Pictish neighbors. Kilmartin today is a small town, mostly uncrowded with tourists, that retains its original charm and marks its inheritance with Neolithic burial cairns, rings of standing stones, and some intricately carved medieval gravestones and Iron Age crosses on display at the local kirk. Iona, on the other hand, is a pilgrimage site for many tourists coming to visit the local abbey and burial site of St. Columba, the warrior priest credited with converting pagan Scotland and parts of England to Christianity.
Further up the mainland from Fort William is Glen Coe, the "Valley of Weeping," the site at which British Government troops infamously slaughtered the MacDonalds in 1692. Today a visitor's center and several trails mark the battle site, and the steep-sided mountains surrounding Glen Coe, which is technically part of the Highlands, are a must-see for any first-time visitor. The scenery is breathtaking despite the large influx of cars coming in during tourist season, and there are several splendid hiking trails.
The Highlands are what comes to mind for most people when they think of Scotland. Sparsely populated, the area is marked by stunning vistas of mountains, lochs, moors, and pastures. Hiking is an obvious and popular pursuit in this part of the country, but wear sturdy boots and bring your rain gear, as the trails can be rough and the weather unpredictable.
The Great Glen, the string of lochs (Ness, Oich, Linnhe, and Lochy) between Inverness and Fort William, is a popular tourist destination, and worth a look even if you have no interest in the fabled Loch Ness Monster. The small town of Drumnadrochit, situated on the banks of Loch Ness, is home to several exhibits on "Nessie" and boat tours that explore the loch daily. It's also frequently used as a parking space for Castle Urquhart, one of the most famous of Scotland's ruins, though be prepared for an uphill hike if you choose to park in town. Urquhart, a spectacular 14th-century wreck on the banks of Loch Ness, attracts a considerable amount of tourist traffic. Although the older parts of the castle are mere walls by now, the "newer" parts (dating to the 15th and 16th century) are well worth exploring. Many a Nessie photo has been taken from the walls of Urquhart.
An hour's drive from Loch Ness and just a few minutes from the Isle of Skye is picturesque Eilean Donan castle. Situated on an island at the point where lochs Aish, Long, and Duich meet, and attached to the mainland by an arched stone bridge, this impressive standing castle was originally built in the 13th century. Only a few rooms are open to the public -- though several chambers hold story placards with the history of the castle -- but it is still worth a visit.
The city of Inverness, at the tip of the Great Glen and the crook of the Moray Firth, marks the change between the Highlands and northeastern Scotland. Dominated mostly by the River Ness and the fairly recent pink-sandstone Inverness Castle, this pretty city is a great jumping-off spot for exploring the rest of the Highlands. Don't miss a chance to spot the bottlenose dolphins that live in Moray Firth, the most northerly range for these animals in Europe, either by land or boat cruise.
Though the northeastern coast of Scotland along the Moray Firth looks disappointingly like the midwestern U.S., travel inland a bit and you'll hit the Grampian Mountains. Though not as stunning as the Highlands (well, what could be?), this is still beautiful country. The British royal family's summer residence, Balmoral, is here and, though closed most of the year, it is open to tourists in the early summer. Just outside of Perth is the ancient seat of Scottish power, Scone Palace. This is where Scottish kings came to sit on the Stone of Destiny (see Edinburgh, below) and be crowned. Scone is now owned by the Earl and Countess of Mansfield and is one of the most impressive sites on any Scottish tour.
Between Edinburgh and Glasgow is the lively town of Stirling which, with its medieval castle rising above the surrounding plains, looks like something out of a Mel Gibson movie. It was here, after all, where famed braveheart William Wallace defeated the British at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, and the Wallace Monument, a spire rising from nearby Abbey Craig, houses Wallace's famous broadsword. The castle enjoys the most prominent view and is reminiscent of its larger cousin in Edinburgh. This is the spot where, in 1543, the future Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned, and that alone makes it worth the visit. But don't miss a chance to stay for the weaponry demonstration staged in the castle gardens -- you'll never look at kilts the same way again.
Another famous battle was fought at nearby Bannockburn, just a few miles south of Stirling, where Robert the Bruce defeated the English and united the Scots in 1314. The site is marked now at the Bannockburn Heritage Center with Bruce artifacts and an impressive statue.
This most cosmopolitan and interesting of Scottish cities, dominated by the impressive Edinburgh Castle and the hill strangely named Arthur's Seat, is a vacation in itself. The Royal Mile is most often the destination for first-time visitors; the stretch of road from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the heart of Edinburgh, and though it's sadly marred by overpriced tourist shops hawking tartan, scotch, and golf balls with clan names on them, the historical sites along the route make it worth the trip.
Start at the high end of the Mile with Edinburgh Castle, the seat of Scottish power before its union into Great Britain. Ancient and formidable, the Castle was a military fortress and royal residence for much of its history. The oldest surviving part, St. Margaret's Chapel, at the very pinnacle of the castle, was probably built in the 12th century by its namesake's son, King David I, in memory of his mother. The Palace inside the castle houses the impressive Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels and, best of all, the Stone of Destiny, recently returned by Queen Elizabeth after several centuries of being held hostage under the British coronation throne in Westminster Abbey. The rest of the castle, including the barracks, hospital, military prison, and batteries, could take up to half a day to explore, if not more. The battlements make an excellent vantage point to take in the rest of the city.
Farther down the Mile at Parliament Square is Parliament House, the home of the Scottish Parliament until the Act of Union. Across from Parliament House is the High Kirk of St. Giles, a remarkable cathedral of Gothic design from which John Knox launched the Scottish Reformation. Don't miss the beautiful Thistle Chapel, the private reserve of the knights of the Most Nobel Order of the Thistle, inside the kirk.
For more information, check out the Scottish Tourist Board website or call (800) GO-2-BRIT.
For inspiration, watch Braveheart.