They’re the places in Scotland we dream about. They’re the things we associate with Scotland. They are icons of a country with a history as rich as any other, and a natural beauty that surpasses many places on this earth. These are the Highlights of Scotland.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Skylining Edinburgh for over 800 years, this castle is the place that people most love to visit. Edinburgh takes its name from this site, called Din Eidyn, or the “Stronghold of Eidyn.” It has been vital to Scotland as a stronghold and as a symbol of identity. Edinburgh Castle has played many roles, including that of barracks, royal palace, prison and parliament according to the country’s needs. It is home of the Scottish Crown Jewels and of the legendary Stone of Destiny.
2. Loch Ness
Loch Ness is 1,000 feet deep and her waters are inky-black. The eerie, other-worldly atmosphere of this lake, and the surrounding area, is rich with legend and feeling. Loch Ness is 26 miles, Scotland’s longest. On either side of the lake, the mountains rise up. They are dotted with castles, ancient abbeys, and a few quaint villages lost in time. The north road along her bank is where the Loch Mess monster has been sighted. Take the road. First seen in the 7th century, the “monster” sightings continue. Take a moonlight ride on the lake and see for yourself. Unforgettable.
3. Isle of Skye
Skye has everything that symbolizes the Highlands. There are jagged mountain peaks that reach for the misty sky. A wild coastline that invites exploration. Waterfalls, pinnacles, standing stones that defy description, and several charmed, mysterious lochs. There are also squares of crofting villages (farmlands), ancient Dunvegan Castle with its fairy flag given for protection, and exceptional Gardens. Visit Talisker Distillery. Their whisky is called, “The lava of the Cuillins,” and visitors are most welcome. The Highland games here are a big event—see them played out where they feel very real.
4. Culzean Castle
In a country filled with castles, Culzean is a true masterpiece. In 1777 the Kennedy family began revamping the castle, and the work continued for 20 years. It is sumptuous, it is magnificent, and its grounds became Scotland’s first country park. Culzean is everything a castle should be. The oval staircase, with its Ionic and Corinthian pillars, swirl through several stories with perfect grace. There are cliff top and shoreline trails that lead to a swan pond. An armory that is organized in such a way that it is a work of art. A home farm, Great Gallery, Camellia House, Chinese-decorated private rooms, and a saloon with Louis XVI furniture overlooking the sea. Culzean is truly a premier Scottish Highlight.
5. Battle of Bannockburn
Visit Stirling, one of the most striking cities in Scotland, and you’ll see the place where more history took place, it would seem, than a small area could hold. The Battle of Bannockburn was a turning point for the beleaguered Scots. Facing a thorough onslaught by the English in 1314, Robert the Bruce led the Scots to an astonishing victory. The Scots won their independence, their nation, and their pride. In 1329, due to this battle, their independence was ratified by the Pope. (This should have been the end of it, but unfortunately the battle raged for another 300 years. Finally the Scots could not hold out over England’s vast fortune and mercenary armies.) This one battle, though, gave them the strength to fight on, and is still a source of pride and a symbol of freedom for the Scots.
6. The Industrial Revolution
In the 18th century James Watt was strolling through the park in Edinburgh when he came up with an idea that would change history forever. He rushed back to his workshop. He began repairing a working model of a steam engine. Watt noticed the ways it could be improved, and came up with a plan that would increase the engine’s efficiency by 300%. His engine was put to work for mechanical transportation. This had a radical repercussion in factories and plants throughout the western world. His invention is the shift that is now known as the Industrial Revolution. The Scots are great inventors and have been responsible for logarithmic tables, fax machines, anesthetics during childbirth, linoleum, color photography, pneumatic tires, the thermos, penicillin, the telephone, and antiseptic (thanks to Joseph Lister) among other inventions.
7. Tartans and Kilts
The oldest tartan we know about was dated at 245 AD. By 1746 there were enough clan tartans to cause prohibition by the English for 38 years. (This was part of England’s attempt to completely purge Scotland of its Highland culture.) We don’t know why Highlanders originally adopted this unique way of dressing, or precisely when various clans adopted their own family tartans or patterns. Today there are over 2,000 registered designs. With Scottish independence becoming more important today, you may walk into a very hip restaurant in Glasgow and see a few young men wearing kilts as part of the movement. It is truly amazing how many patterns and colors there are. Make the time to visit a kiltmaker, and possibly have one made for you!
8. Edinburgh’s Royal Museum and Museum of Scotland
The Royal Museum’s forte is artifacts from around the world. The more modern Museum of Scotland is a small miracle and dedicated to the story of Scotland and its people. They have separate identities, while sitting right next to each other. Very handy. Together, they are considered one of the finest collections in the world. The rarest antiquities in Scotland create a treasure trove for the senses and imagination. Some highlights include: Ivory chessmen made by invading Vikings in the 12th century; Holy relics, one linked to St. Columba and Iona and the other to Robert the Bruce; A staff carried by St. Fillian in the 8th century, one of the finest examples of artistry present 1,200 years ago; The Maiden, a 16th century guillotine; Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Canteen—all the stuff he needed to travel and dine in style!; Egyptian mummy cases, decorated with Egyptian symbols of death and resurrection; a 3,500-year-old Egyptian toy mouse with string that would have been pulled by a child. When it walks the tail wags. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)
9. The Glasgow Science Center
This project for the 21st century has something to delight, edify, and amaze anyone. (We won’t talk about the cost here, but it’s a safe bet that it wouldn’t have been funded in the last few years. It is totally over the top in the best of ways.) The heart of the Center is called the Science Mall. The mall is a glass-and-silver half moon that is three stories high. Every inch is packed with hands-on exhibits, interactive amazements, live demonstrations and special-effects theaters. Next to the center is the world’s only revolving tower and an IMAX theater. You’ll see plenty of amazing things, including: The Glasgow Tower–all 300 feet, and three stories, revolves. When you get to the top, you’ll see renderings of futuristic cities, and amazing views of Glasgow; state-of-the-art planetarium; Funny banter, flying objects, strange gases, eerie magical effects are produced—and explained—at the Science Show Theater; Make your own global decisions at Science Mall Three; Interactive biotechnology at every level at Science Mall Two. WOW! There’s a lot more, and plenty of theaters, and it’s all a fitting tribute to the Scot scientists who have been saving our collective backs for centuries. A great time in Glasgow for all.
10. Scotch Whisky
Whisky has existed almost as long as Scotland has. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but we do know that people have been drinking fermented beverages here for thousands of years. At this point, they have it down to a fine art. A few of our favorite distilleries, and it’s hard to narrow them down, follows: Laphroaig, with a heavy smoked peat flavor. Near Port Ellen, Islay; Lagavulin is distinctive and made in pear-shaped stills. A great, intimate tour. Port Ellen, Islay; Glenkinchie, only 15 miles from Edinburgh. A rare Lowland distillery founded in 1837; Edradour is Scotland’s smallest distillery and hasn’t changed in 150 years. Near Pitlochry, this place is a treat; Glenlivet is one of the first distilleries, legalized in 1824. Check out the warehouse—it fills your senses delightfully. Ballindalloch; Glenfarcias is one of the few indies left. Run by the same family for 5 generations, sip and enjoy! Ballindalloch; Macallan is one of the queens of Speyside. There’s an interactive whisky-making tour and a tasting. Craigellachie; Cardow is the only distillery founded by a woman! A great single malt. Knockando; Talisker is the only distillery on Skye, producing since 1830. (Drum roll, please…) Last, and certainly not least, is Highland Park. It’s the best tour going and an exceptional whisky. Go for the scent of peat! Kirkwall, Orkney.