Edinburgh, whose Old and New Towns are now a World Heritage site, is less than five hours from London’s Kings Cross station via rail and the Scottish city also has excellent road links and its own airport. Famous for its Military Tattoo and annual Comedy Festival, Edinburgh’s chief attractions can be explored in a couple of days and the city has plenty to occupy the visitor all year round, including the magnificent castle that has kept guard over the citizens for almost a thousand years.
The seat of Scotland’s Royalty in the Middle Ages, the castle has been battered and besieged by some notable dignitaries through the years but never surrendered. Nowadays, its impressive walls guard the Scottish crown jewels (the Honours of Scotland) and the Stone of Destiny (Scotland’s coronation stone), while the fortress also houses the Scottish National War Memorial.
A walk down the ancient Royal Mile brings you to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, official Scottish residence of The Queen whose former yacht, the Britannia, is also now a permanent exhibit in Edinburgh. A climb up Arthur’s Seat, the remnants of a long-dormant volcano, gives stunning views of the new Scottish Parliament Building and the surrounding countryside, while shoppers can hunt for a bargain in the many stores that line Princes Street. For the sentimental, the grave of faithful terrier Greyfriars Bobby can be found at the gate to Greyfriars Kirkyard in the Old Town. His master, John Gray, is buried within.
Glasgow’s history may not be as impressive but this former European city of culture has much to recommend it nowadays. The Science Centre is proving a big hit with children, while the Gallery of Modern Art and the Burrell Collection house significant collections and Loch Lomond and the magnificent Trossachs National Park are only 20 minutes by car or taxi from Glasgow Airport.
, with a surface area of around 720 square miles, is the largest lake in the Trossachs but there also numerous other lochs and rivers as well as almost 40 mountains over 2500 feet. Following the river from Glasgow down to the Firth of Clyde brings you to the islands of Argyll and Bute. Steamers still service islands like Arran and Islay but there is also an airport on the latter which handles short-haul flights. International access can be made via Prestwick on the mainland.
Further north, within a short drive from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, is Stirling Castle. Guarding the Ballingeich pass and surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, strategically Stirling Castle was one of the most important strongholds in Scotland and will be linked forever with the great Scottish patriot William Wallace, whose imposing monument is also situated in Stirling.
Scone Palace, the Palace of the Kings and original home of the Stone of Destiny, has ties with Robert The Bruce and can be found at Perth, the gateway to the Highlands, which can be viewed in all their majesty by a trip to the Cairngorm National Park. Aviemore is a ski resort in winter and a centre for hikers, walkers and cyclists in the summer months. From its main tourist information booth, tickets can be bought for the nearby Cairngorm Mountain Railway which takes passengers to within 122 metres of the summit of Cairngorm Mountain itself. From the visitor centre, views are available across the whole of Scotland to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, which towers above Fort William at the foot of the Great Glen. But, be warned, you won’t be allowed to proceed to the very peak of Cairngorm unless you’ve walked the whole way.
Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s favourite castle and still a Royal residence today, is open to the public when the The Queen is elsewhere but this area’s other great attraction is Scotch whisky. Following the route of the A95 and A96, there are eight distilleries on the Highland Malt Whisky Trail where you can find out what causes the difference in taste between the brands and who gets the angels’ share, though if you’re planning to sample the product at each one it’s probably advisable to let someone else take the wheel or book a tour with one of the many bus companies that operate in the Highlands.
Dolphin-spotting in the Moray Firth is becoming increasingly popular and a visit to the haunting Culloden battlefield, which saw Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion brought to a bloody end, is highly recommended but no visit to Scotland would be complete without joining the tourists who drive from Inverness to stare across Loch Ness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled monster ‘Nessie’.