Scotland is Calling
If the word "Scotland" only conjures up images of "Braveheart" and kilts in your mind, then, my friend, you need to sit down and read a moment. A country at the northern end of Great Britain, Scotland shares its southern border with England, but has a history and culture all its own. Rich in ancient castles, remote wilderness, dramatic landscapes and challenging golf, Scotland offers plenty of unique experiences.
Getting there will soon be easier as well. A number of direct flights are coming this spring from major American cities. Fly from Boston on Delta (beginning May 27); Chicago on United (May 6); New York on United (Newark, available now) or Delta (JFK, May 1); Orlando on Virgin Atlantic (March 30) and Washington, D.C. on United (May 6). Flights from the United States land in Edinburgh and parking yourself in this lively capital city for a few days is recommended to get acclimated to Scottish culture.
Depending on where else you want to explore, your best bet would be either to take the train as Scotland has a good rail network or rent a car for more remote areas (but be sure not to hit one of those Highland cows as you drive on the other side of the road).
Read on to see what you can do only in Scotland.
Taste legendary whisky straight from the cask
There is a Scottish proverb that says, "Today's rain makes tomorrow's whisky" and they weren’t kidding. There are five whisky-producing regions in Scotland – Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland and Speyside – and together, they are home to more than 130 active whisky distilleries. The flavor of the whisky is determined by things like the water source and the presence of peat, which is essentially decomposed organic matter that gets burned underneath the malted barley. The more particular and powerful the flavor profile of the whisky, the more peat is involved. (According to Scottish National Heritage, peat covers approximately 23% of the country, mostly in the Highlands and Islands, so this centuries-old tradition will continue for a long time.)
Speyside is the largest producing whisky region in Scotland and sits in a fertile valley of rivers and secluded glens. Here is where that bottle of Glenfiddich in your liquor cabinet comes from, by the way. The region takes its name from the River Spey, the main waterway that runs through the area, and you can join the Spirit of the Spey, a unique guided canoe trip down the water where you stop at the distilleries that dot the banks for some malt whisky tastings.
Travelzoo tip, if we may? Blend in with the locals by not calling it "Scotch whisky" when you're there as that's redundant, and don't spell it with an "e" as that's the Irish way.
See nature in a new way
American cows will seem boring after you've been close to a Highland coo (also known as a Highland cow). Floppy-haired and cuddly-looking (despite the horns), and incredibly photogenic with their facial expressions and warm, rust-colored coats, the docile coos can be seen lazing and grazing all over Scotland. From villages where the coos roam free to museum and battlefield grounds, there are designated locations around the country for catching a glimpse of this unofficial national animal. (The official national animal is the unicorn, no joke.)
While you won't see cows here, do go underground to see Fingal's Cave, one of the best known in the country. Otherwordly and exceptionally symmetrical, the cavern is one of the best examples of volcanic basalt columns in the world. Situated on the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, Argyll, the cave is accessible only by ferry. During spring and early summer, you can also see nesting seabirds including guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
Thanks to being so remote in parts, Scotland has some of the largest expanses of dark sky in Europe, making it perfect for stargazing. It's also home to the first Dark Sky Park in the UK — Galloway Forest Park in southwest Scotland — which means stargazing is protected there; officially 20% of the park has been set aside for the preservation of dark skies and wildlife, so there can be no permanant illumination. Book ahead though as it's a pretty popular spot.
Stand among Scotland's rock stars
You've probably heard of that other collection of prehistoric stones further down the island, but Scotland is literally littered with mysterious standing stone monuments. When the first settlers arrived here more than 10,000 years ago, they began to erect incredible (yet puzzling) monuments that may have been used for religious or ceremonial purposes. There are six ancient monuments still standing, situated all across Scotland from the northwesterly Hebridean Isles to Dumfries & Galloway; these include Machrie Moor, Ring of Brodgar, Kilmartin Glen, Clava Cairns, Calanais Standing Stones and Standing Stones of Stenness.
Some of Scotland's castles date as far back as the 13th century, but most of them were built in the Middle Ages. While there tends to be design similarities among the castles — features such as tower houses, defensive ditches and stone walls — all Scottish castles are unique and reflect the wealth and status at the time. Some of the most famous ones include Edinburgh Castle, Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands and Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire. Go one step further than visiting a castle and actually stay in a few of them overnight.
Probably one of the most unique castles you might see anywhere is near Largs, Ayrshire. Kelburn Castle is a 13th-century castle that had a modern-day graffiti makeover by a team of Brazilian artists. Currently the private home of the Earl of Glasgow, the castle and its estate features dramatic walks, breathtaking gardens and a secret forest. Tours are available on select dates, but are subject to change due to COVID-19.
If you'd rather glimpse historical sites while traveling from A to B, then a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train may be up your alley. This 84-mile roundtrip adventure is considered one of the greatest railway journeys in the world. Starting near the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, the train travels along part of the legendary West Highland Line, between Fort William and Mallaig, and crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, made famous by the Harry Potter movies.
Play where the greats have
Even if you're not a golfer stateside, it's worth taking a swing at the sport in the country that invented the game in the 1400s. (Back then, it was known as "gowf".) And if you are a golfer, then Scotland should be at the top of your bucket list of places to play. With a legacy that spans six centuries, there are more than 550 courses, including links, parkland and 9-hole courses. Scottish golf is different from the game you may be used to in the States, as fairways and greens on links courses aren't framed by trees and water hazards, but rather offer natural defenses such as undulating terrain and the wind (never forget the wind) that provide a unique challenge all its own.
Top golfers like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have long journeyed to Scotland to prove their mettle at places like the Old Course at St. Andrews, named "The Home of Golf" and host for the 2022 Open Championship. You can play there too, as long as you plan ahead and play to at least a 36 handicap.