IN SCOTLAND, ADVENTURE, LEGEND, AND BEAUTY WALK HAND IN HAND
BY MARISA PROCOPIO
A country of 5.5 million people and a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland occupies the northern third of the island of Great Britain, and maintains a spirited and sociological and political identity unique in the world for its at once patriotic and fraught tries with its southern neighbor. The struggle to identify and articulate that uniqueness has run a course from the early Middle Ages, through dozens of parliamentary struggles and open warfare, and most recently to a 2014 referendum vote, that, for the moment, resulted in sustained political ties to the U.K.—but to say that Scotland as a
people finds pride and purpose in its own identity would be a considerable understatement.
In our travels, its people have proven a gregarious, droll, and generous lot, and its startlingly dramatic landscape an impossibly lovely presentation of glittering lochs, thick woodland, miles of golden beaches, lush farmland, and craggy Highlands peaks. Residences run from bucolic assortments of cottages, castles, and cairns to the ultra-urban sophistication of the capital, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, Dundee, and Aberdeen. In all its large cities, an air of inclusion is apparent and fi nding even newer blossom, resulting in a tourism industry that totals some £9 billion ($11.7 billion).
Scotland’s land and sea products and classic dishes register several
notches up from commonplace: its Heather honey owes musky sweetness
to Scotland’s national fl ower and tastes unlike anything on a supermarket shelf; fresh local salmon is so fork tender that it could be spread on toast; locally produced whiskies (taken with a splash of water) and ales contribute local character to any meal; and (readers know this is coming) haggis, with its buttery, earthy richness, earns enduring adoration, if ingredient alarm.
This is a country to taste… in every way.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
“If you can see the loch from the top of the Wallace Monument, it will rain in an hour. If you can’t, it’s already raining,” goes the saying. “We can have four seasons in one day,” goes another. The sun makes welcome appearances, but weather here is decidedly erratic. Pack layers (including a rain jacket) and sturdy shoes with good traction; the latter are especially useful for Edinburgh’s sharply-inclined succession of historic streets collectively known as Royal Mile.
Cafes are open for breakfast and lunch; for dinner, visit hotel restaurants or pubs. Traveling by rail is reliable and—what’s this? Carpeted doors? Cloth-covered seats with little built-in tables? NJ Transit this ain’t.
No need to connect through London on your way, either (and try hard not to: London security in the connection process is famous for its rigor); Aer Lingus, Delta, British Airways, and American Airlines all over non-stops from JFK to Edinburgh, with fares as low as $650 round-trip if made 30 days in advance (connections to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, and other urban airports are typically made through the capital city).
If you can, go to the trouble of getting UK Registered Traveller status—the UK’s equivalent to the U.S. Customs Global Entry program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low risk travelers. It’s a huge line time saver.
When shopping, pay in pounds (the country has its own printed version of the pound sterling, by the way) when presenting your credit card. Transactions specifed as “U.S. dollars” typically include an added fee. And speaking of money, Scotland seems committed to ongoing EU membership, despite England’s recent Brexit move.
Unlike metro area Garden Staters and New Yorkers, it’s customary here to sit alongside the driver in a taxi, unless the cabbie has piled possessions on the left seat. It never hurts to ask in any case.
Lastly, a Scottish accent can be tough at first to understand, so see a bunch of authentic regional films beforehand to ease the transition (we did well on Trainspotting (1996), Ratcatcher (1999), and My Name is Joe (1998).
Clouds loom grey and white against Glencoe’s dusky hills, but when they part and the sun pokes through, the peaks are glorious in dizzying shades of green. A mystical experience. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sets were built here, and the nearby viaduct was used for a scenic shot featuring the Hogwarts Express.
Though a golf-like game was first played in 1297 in Loenen aan de Vecht in today’s Netherlands, modern golf was born at St Andrews, over 600 years ago on windswept banks overlooking the North Sea, 25 miles northwest of Edinburgh. (A fact that explains the profusion of golf bags at the airport.) Tee times at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews usually need to be secured years in advance—and in the April to October high season run $225 per person—a walk through the grounds feels momentous enough. A lunch of fish and chips in the adjacent village of Anstruther (pronounced “Enster”) tastes especially good outdoors: It’s a true taste of the north, with a view of the sea.
DUNADD FORT, KILMARTIN
St Andrews may be the birthplace of the links, but Kilmartin is the birthplace of the country. Legend has it that the first settlers of Scotland stood at this spot, surveyed the sweeping 360-degree view below, and decided to stay. Near the top of the 175-foot peak lies a at stone into which is carved a footprint, now thousands of years old. Kings were crowned here. An exquisitely beautiful, powerful, and otherworldly place.
WHERE TO STAY
The Witchery by the Castle, $$$
The Royal Mile’s Gothic stunner. Centuries ago, this was a jail for alleged witches; today, it’s one of Scotland’s most famous hotels. Choose from among nine themed and sumptuously appointed suites that include Champagne, turndown service, a hearty breakfast, and more. From £345 ($449) per night. Castlehill, Edinburgh. thewitchery.com
Blythswood Square, $$
Situated within ornate gardens in Glasgow, this palatial hotel features grand architecture and cozy Harris tweed chairs. At the end of a busy day of shopping and exploring, wind down by taking afternoon tea and visiting the spa. Starting at £133 ($173). 11 Blythswood Square, Glasgow. blythswoodsquare.com
Macdonald Rusacks Hotel, $$$$
Don’t let the hostel-sounding name fool you; this renowned lodge overlooks the Old Course at St Andrews and has accommodated some of the biggest names in the sport (and how many hotels feature a Golf Concierge?), and its Rocca Restaurant serves delectable Scottish dishes using the finest produce from local suppliers. It’s also steps away from the Cathedral, aquarium, shopping, and West Sands Beach (where Chariots of Fire was filmed). From about £399 ($520). Pilmour Links, St. Andrews. macdonaldhotels.co.uk
DAY TRIPS AND TOURS
Imposing…magnificent, no word is superlative enough for this masterpiece, high on a hill, which has held citizens and visitors in awe since the reign of David I in the 12th century. At night it’s lit until the scene becomes magic. Go and be amazed. Open daily at 9:30 a.m., and a two-hour visit is suggested. edinburghcastle.gov.uk
It’s just as pretty as the traditional song suggests. Take a pedal boat out into the middle and enjoy the stillness of the surrounding countryside. Part of the ecologically minded National Park, and features stunning woodlands and a terrific Visitors’ Center. lochlomond-trossachs.org
DINE AND DRINK
The Airds Hotel & Restaurant, $$$
Seasonal produce and the finest fresh-caught shellfish from local waters are the ingredients that make this elegant spot special. Appin PA38 4DF, Port Appin. airds-hotel.com
Oban Inn, $$$
Try a local whisky with tiny, tender mussels harvested from a nearby loch, steak pie, and wonderful soups to fend off the wind near the water. Stafford Street, Oban, tel. 01631 567441
Albert and Michel Roux Jr at Inverlochy Castle, $$$
Here, award-winning father-and-son chefs serve traditional English fare with French influences… against the haunting beauty of the Highlands. Fort William PH33 6SN, Torlundy. inverlochycastlehotel.com