EY Travel Tips: Scotland

Sunny Spot Scotland

Consider a trip to Scotland: hikes along steely-blue lochs, green glens full of wee-wooly sheep, everyone talking like Sean Connery.  For these features and so many others, the rugged land of the bagpipe and thistle grabbed a place among my three all-time favorite countries after one visit. Scotland boasts the United Kingdom’s highest mountain, the island’s most epic weather and its best-known monster, first reported by a visiting Irish saint in the Loch Ness area during the sixth century.

Cynics might put Scottish sea monsters on the same plane of possibility as sober, reliable Irish saints, but it’s still fun to search the lake. Plus you can always see the many fascinating, albeit less legendary animals, which settled in Scotland, from shaggy highland cattle and Shetland ponies to the reintroduced white-tailed Sea Eagles to the red deer and endangered wild cat.

A fantastically underrated place to eat, Scotland harbors a wealth of fish from the North Sea alongside local meats and dairy, while the confluence of Gaelic, British and Viking culture give the nation a set of vibrant and unique traditions—fashion-wise and otherwise. The many castles Scots built over hundreds of years, existing today as ruins and restorations around the country, offer windows into the rich history and traditions of the country and its numerous clans.

With the considering completed, here are four tips for a first-time visitor:

1.      Feast not Fear-try the local cuisine.

Scottish food has a fearsomely poor reputation, and I’ll be the first to tell you knowing what’s in haggis (sheep heart, lungs, liver, oats) made me question the sensibility of an entire nation. But, like rump steak (which is fine so long as you don’t visualize the source), haggis turns dubious ingredients into a richly appetizing dish. Pair it with tatties (that’s mashed potatoes) and mushy peas, and you’ve got a hearty spread. Or try some of the best fish (and chips) you can find, wash it down with a Scotch whisky, and contemplate the scent of peat and the mercurial Scotch skies from a pub. If you really can’t stomach local food or need a break, there’s plenty of other European and Asian options. But you know the saying: when in Scotland, try some sheep organs; your taste buds might surprise*.

2.     Kilt Etiquette                                          

Calling a Scotsman’s kilt a skirt is a “deadly” insult. I read that in a letter to the New York Times’ editors nine years ago, and as they saw it fit to print I saw it fit to avoid (at least out loud) in Scotland and everywhere else. None of the good-humored Scots I met seemed inclined toward violence for kilt besmirching or any other infraction, and aside from a few older gentlemen the garments weren’t widely worn; however, kilt etiquette is still a hot topic. Last year the Scottish Tartan Authority controversially recommended wearing underwear beneath kilts for the sake of hygiene. Kilt enthusiasts must now choose between “common decency” and the ironclad Highland tradition of going commando under their garments. Both camps make passionate arguments, but if you enter the fray by buying or renting a kilt, it’s wise to assess the strength of the wind before making a final decision.

3.     Layers People

In Scotland, “sunny” easily substitutes as a synonym for light rain. It couldn’t literally be called a sunny spot and it’s definitely not the place to treat a vitamin D deficiency, but it doesn’t resemble perpetually rainy Seattle so much as say Chicago, where (the joke goes) people who don’t like the weather need only wait a few minutes. Yes, the Scottish climate can be temperamental, and its best to prepare accordingly. Heck, even the local cows where coats, so your best solution is to layer up and then remove or add clothing to adjust to the prevailing conditions. For comfort, an absolute essential is a shell that keeps you dry but won’t overheat (the country stays pretty temperate if you’re not on the mountaintops), while gloves in the winter and fall make outdoor adventures much more agreeable. They may not look cool, but those cargo pants that transition to shorts prove very handy.

4.     Winding down for winter

Fancy a magical trek to the seaside on the Harry Potter Train (also known as the Jacobite) or some light washing with Lady MacBeth at Cawdor Castle? Make sure to check opening times and dates, because as Scotland’s weather gets seriously rough many of the country’s sites shut down operations. Typically closures last from late summer/fall to spring, and while there’s tremendous natural beauty later in the year, it appeals largely to rugged outdoor types, and even some of them prefer to steer clear until the situation brightens up. If your profile trends away from mountaineer, and for example, you’re just dying to see the interior of Eilean Donan Castle, just like in the romantic comedy Made of Honor, then a spring or summer trip will suit you better.


For tips on enjoying the Highlands on a  Low Budget, check out tales from Will’s Scotland travel journal…


Highlands, Low Budget – Scotland Part IV

Part IV

Ben Nevis and Glen Nevis

(This story is a continuation of Part I: London to Inverness ,                Part II: Inverness to Loch Ness and Part III: Kyle of Lochalsh to Fort William)

View of Glen Nevis from Ben Nevis

Sunday, our last day in Scotland, we followed Benny’s directions to Cow Hill for a view of the mighty, 4,000-foot hump of Ben Nevis and its verdant adjoining valley, Glen Nevis.  Zigzagging up the ridge, the sun shone unimpeded for the first time on our trip. We chased sheep, lay in the sweet heather and made up stories about a Highland Goliath as older hikers passed us. I promised to be less of a miser—within reason.

Atop the hill we saw the sparkling expanse of Loch Linnhe and Fort William, and finally got a peek at Ben Nevis as it emerged from its cloudy wreath. We chased sheep back down the hill before returning to town. We only had a few hours left, but Bijani had one more thing on her agenda: the Harry Potter Waterfall in Glen Nevis.

It was too far to walk, and the only way to get there was by cab. I wanted to renege on my promise.

“You only get to go to Scotland once, but we have the rest of our lives to be broke,” I muttered.

“What’s that?”  Bijani asked.


The taxi driver pointed out the sights along the way: a field where Mel Gibson filmed a “Braveheart”  battle, hiring local amputees to fill in as the wounded; a bunch of shaggy highland cattle. He kindly agreed to pick us up in four hours.


A thin but strong current ran along the path to Glen Nevis. We walked through ferns and conifer trees. It seemed like a long way to go for sights from a movie. I walked ahead, rounding a bend past the stony face of a huge boulder and into the opening of the valley. A vast meadow unveiled itself. In the foreground stood the cloudy edifice of Ben Nevis; in the background, the forked deluge of Steall Falls.

A wire bridge traverses the stream to the waterfall trail, and gripping the coiled metal I forgot my fear of heights in the pale mist from the falls and the smell of wet grass. We ran slipping and losing our shoes in the thick mud, to the base of the falls.

It was time to return to the cab. I looked over my shoulder one more time as we re-rounded the bend. Bijani and I waited in the parking lot for the cab that would take us back to the train that would bring us down from the Highlands to our cold London apartment.  I looked in my wallet. I had $30, just enough for the return trip and to buy some snacks for our homeward journey.

“What a wonderful trip,” I said to Bijani and smiled.

She hugged me and for a moment I felt rich.

The End…(for now)


Scottish Lady

Highlands, Low Budget – Scotland Part II

Part II

Inverness to Loch Ness

(This story is a continuation of Part I: London to Inverness )

Inverness to Loch Ness

Adventures shouldn’t start without breakfast, but Bijani decided nothing would suit us better than traditional Scottish Breakfast. She chose the Castle Café, which had all Scotch delicacies on order: mutton, blood pudding and of course, haggis—that’s sheep heart, liver and lungs and oats, boiled for hours in the animal’s mid-section. I ordered pancakes.

The waitress treated us very pleasantly, especially after I shook a container of brown liquid onto my pancakes, took a bite and gagged. “That’s not syrup, dear,” she said over her shoulder, “that’s vinegar.” Taking pity on me, she brought over a fresh stack of pancakes.

My genetic inheritance didn’t include an iron stomach, but after some arm twisting I discovered haggis and blood pudding taste more hearty than terrible: the former tastes like meaty Quaker oats, and the latter like dry, slightly metallic burger.  We ate almost everything before leaving. Next stop: neighboring Loch Ness  and Uruqhart Castle, but first an hour of sightseeing.

It seemed a quiet and even solemn Friday. Inverness’ McDonald’s proved a hub of activity, but screeching tires, a horn and a crash from the pedestrian mall thinned the crowd as people ran to investigate. Sounds of backfire and breaking glass gave way to loud music, as though a driver’s hand suddenly switched the car radio to full volume.

Bijani and I joined a now-large assembly, expecting an accident, but saw only an old lady with a bonnet and umbrella, riding a tall two-wheeled shopping cart, her legs dangling from the side. Then there was another. And another. The trio raced around the brick street on their carts, revving unseen engines, honking unseen horns and grooving to a bagpipe-heavy rendition of “Everybody Dance Now.”

A closer inspection revealed these petticoated grannies to be men in drag, riding converted Segways, with fake appendages on the outside, but that only raised more questions. I laughed, until I finally asked Bijani, what was going on?

..Check out the Scottish Ladies on our facebook page..

She had no idea. The guidebook hadn’t mentioned Scottish humor. After a few minutes, we ducked into a dollar store and questioned the cashier about the “ladies.”

“No one knows,” she said. “They just arrived yesterday. Scotland’s a wee bit crazy like that. Some days things just happen.”

(It stayed a mystery until that evening, when a grizzled pub owner responded to my very earnest query: “They’re not serious, ya know… They’re clowns.” He was still laughing when we finished our fish and chips and left.)


Amber birch and reddening ferns lined the road from Inverness to Uruqhart Castle, which skirts the edges of Loch Ness. Long, narrow and pristine, the lake widens briefly before its shore peaks at a tiny cape, dotted by the ruins.

The MacDonald clan, the castle’s last keepers, blew it up because the site proved indefensible and therefore, I imagine, too expensive to maintain. One sympathizes, but the decision must have been difficult because the lake glimmers magnificently, even under the faintest light.

Shapes of the Purported Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster as shown on Wikipedia

Bijani and I walked down the steps toward the stone towers overlooking the water. Rain alternated between sheets and drizzle, but for a moment the sun broke through the bank of clouds to make a golden pathway on Loch Ness. We clambered through various passageways and chambers, taking occasional shelter, and searching for Nessie. We didn’t spot the monster, however, until we stopped in the small town of Drumnadrochit on the road back to Inverness.

Large enough for a single convenience store, the town found room for rival monster museums: the Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition Center (formerly the Official Loch Ness Exhibition Center) and the adjacent Original Loch Ness Exhibition Center. Both were closed, but one had erected a goofy-faced fiberglass Nessie, and we hopped on for a quick free ride.

Adventures shouldn’t end without dinner, so Bijani and I returned to Inverness for some affordable and surprisingly good fish and chips, then headed back to the hostel to prepare for our upcoming trip across the Highlands.

To Be Continued in Part III: Kyle of Lochalsh to Fort William


will & bijani on train

Highlands, Low Budget — Scotland: Part I

Part I

London to Inverness

Things started poorly.   Beneath a gloomy London sky at King’s Cross Station, my fiancée and I (see our Engagement Story Parts 1 & 2) boarded the Caledonia Sleeper  for Inverness, the Scottish Highlands’ largest city. Bijani had mapped a triangular tour of the region by train and bus, incorporating Loch Ness, the United Kingdom’s tallest mountain and many, many things Harry Potter.

Fun? Sure. Affordable? Probably not.

Early on there was tension: if nine years together had demonstrated anything, it would be the futility of lobbying me to “splurge” on a sleeping berth, and she didn’t even try. But my future wife clearly wasn’t keen on the half-empty railcar and reclining chairs we settled into, premade salami sandwiches in hand.

The situation didn’t improve. Near the end of our journey I awoke to a man shouting at his phone, “Yeah, Mate. I’ve been sitting next to a convicted murderer since Perth. Just introduced himself. Had his daughter with him. He was all right, but…”

I closed my eyes. When seats don’t actually recline and railcar temperatures fluctuate between steam-room sweaty and walk-in-freezer, murder seems less disturbing. For nine hours I’d questioned the wisdom of saving $20 to the point where my core beliefs faltered.

Then the brand new light unveiled our first real view of Scotland: fresh green pastures; sheep, cloud-like in their fluffiness; friendly white cottages economically trimmed with red.

As the train rambled into the unofficial Highland capital, I prepared for a wonderful time in Scotland, home of my ancestors, at whatever price—within reason.


A city by population, Inverness (meaning “Mouth of the River Ness”) charms like a slightly stern European village. Inverness Castle, the modern day incarnation of a former Pictish stronghold, overlooks the city center from a small hill, while the Ness’ clean, industrious waters divide a picturesque downtown. Its main thoroughfares are appealingly cluttered with church steeples and stone buildings, many of which border an idyllic pedestrian mall.

Our guidebook compared the city’s High Street to London’s frenetic Oxford Street, just less crowded and with a kilt store instead of Dolce and Gabbana; a dollar store instead of a Gap, and instead of a Virgin Megastore, a dollar store.

The guidebook also noted Scots, perhaps by undue reputation, are notorious penny pinchers.

This was my kind of place.

“Does my Scotch ancestry explain why I’m so cheap?” I asked as we walked the empty mall toward our hostel.

“I don’t think there’s any question.”

“Oh good, it’s genetic.”

She laughed, though some resentment lingered in her voice. She’s still upset we’ve seen every breath in our London apartment this winter because I insist layers are more cost effective than heating, microwaves are luxury items for the upper classes and an authentic Dickensian experience will advance her literature studies.

Working back toward her good graces, I requested a private room at the BazPackers Inn,  a cozy site across from Inverness Castle, for $10 extra. Seated on a warm bed, we unloaded our stuff, took inventory and prepared for a full day of exploration.

…To Be Continued in Part II: Inverness to Loch Ness