WHAT TO DO - Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides

Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides (2016)


Wherever you might be staying in Scotland, particularly from spring to autumn, there’s plenty to do. There’s a range of information on the VisitScotland website (www.visitscotland.com) and you can download brochures. The outdoors always beckons and you’ll come across many local happenings as you travel around.


Throwing the hammer at the Perth Highland Games

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications


Most newsagents in Glasgow and Edinburgh stock The List (www.list.co.uk), a guide to events, theatre, cinema and clubs in both cities and their surrounding areas, which is published every two months.

Special Events

Highland Games are staged all over the country during the summer months. In addition to kilted titans tossing a huge pine trunk - the famous caber - there’ll be pipe and drum bands and accomplished shows of Highland dancing. The most famous of these events is the Braemar Highland Gathering, in early September, often attended by members of the royal family and the queen herself, a custom started by Queen Victoria. Also of interest are the agricultural shows and sheepdog trials held in a number of farming areas.

Throughout the summer there are country fairs and many re-enactments of battles and other historic events. In July, the Scottish Transport Extravaganza at Glamis Castle, an exhibition of vintage vehicles, is the largest event of its kind in Scotland. Ceilidhs, or folk nights, which are held frequently in all parts of Scotland, feature dancers, pipers, fiddlers and a range of other artists. Folk festivals are staged in centres from Edinburgh to Stornaway. There has been a revival of Gaelic music and both the traditional and the modern-style music performed by groups like Capercaillie, Breabach and Salsa Celtica are enormously popular.

Of course, the most significant special event is the Edinburgh International Festival, which takes place in August. Virtuoso performances of music, opera, dance, and theatre are staged by artists of international reputation. Tickets are in great demand so book early both for tickets and hotel rooms. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is less predictable but increasingly popular and often highly innovative. Other cultural high spots include Glasgow’s West End Festival and the Perth Arts Festival.


Performing on the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

Festival fever

Also held during the Edinburgh Festival are the Military Tattoo, Book Festival, Film Festival and the Jazz and Blues Festival.

Music and Theatre

The redeveloped Theatre Royal in Glasgow is home to the Scottish Opera. The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall is the main venue for classical music, with regular concerts by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Both also perform regularly in Edinburgh, home to the prestigious Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The churches in both cities regularly host excellent concerts. The prestigious BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is based at City Halls in Glasgow, taking live music across the country.

Both cities have first-rate theatre scenes, with high-quality productions all year round. The Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow presents serious drama, with more avant-garde shows at the Tramway and the Tron. In Edinburgh, the Traverse launches experimental work and the Royal Lyceum mounts a classical repertory. Shows, musicals and touring companies are also on the agenda. An important theatre season takes place over the summer in Pitlochry (for more information, click here). Other centres for regional theatre are St Andrews, Banchory, and Tobermory on Mull. Stirling’s Tolbooth is a centre for the arts and music, and a Robert Burns festival takes place in Dumfries.

Major rock bands appear at Hampden Park in Glasgow or occasionally Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. Other main venues in Glasgow are the SECC and the Barrowland Ballroom. The Glasgow International Jazz Festival in June brings in jazz musicians from all over the world.

Clubs and Pubs

Pubs are very popular with the locals everywhere in Scotland and are especially crowded around the end of the working day and at weekends. The scene is lively and while the drinking man’s bar still exists, most pubs now have a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Thanks to changes in Scottish licensing laws, even children are welcome in many pubs. An increasing number serve good food. Many pubs in the cities also offer live music in the evening. Some pubs, especially in Edinburgh, have their own resident folk or jazz musicians. In Glasgow, you can choose between traditional pubs and upmarket, fashionable bars. Café-bars are plentiful in Edinburgh.


Scotland’s outdoors attracts more visitors than its castles, museums or even the Edinburgh Festival.


Scotland’s rivers, lochs and coastal waters offer some of the finest game fishing in Europe. Much of it is free or very cheap; you don’t need a general fishing licence, just a local permit. However, casting your line in the highly prized salmon beats costs hundreds of pounds per week, and you may have to book a year ahead for the privilege.


Fly fishing

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

The Spey, Tay and Tweed are famous for salmon, sea trout and brown trout, though these fish also run in other Scottish waters. Most angling is fly; occasionally spinner or bait is permitted. If you’d like to learn the difference between a dry fly and an insect or how to stay upright while wading and casting in a rushing burn, experts are on hand all over Scotland. The VisitScotland website (www.visitscotland.com) and www.fishpal.com have information on fishing, with details of the best places, seasons and necessary permits. Fishing for salmon and sea trout is not allowed on Sundays and it is illegal for anglers to sell rod-caught salmon. Coarse fishing for perch and pike is permitted year-round, including Sundays, and can be very good, particularly in southern waters.

Sea-angling trips run from ports along the Scottish coast and the islands; or you can fish from countless perches on the shoreline. Some species of fish, such as dogfish and mackerel, can be found in abundance, and towards the end of the summer you might well hook blue or porbeagle shark.

For more information, contact the Scottish Anglers National Association (National Game Angling Centre, The Pier, Loch Leven, Kinross; tel: 01577-861116; www.sana.org.uk).


Scotland is the original home of golf, a powerful lure for visitors wanting to play on the famous links. Many of Scotland’s courses are municipal courses open to everyone. To play the famous courses, it helps to have a letter from your golf club at home stating your experience and handicap. If you choose your hotels or a special golfing-holiday package with care, you can play a different course each day for a week. The Scots make a distinction between two types of courses: links courses are on or near the sea; parkland (or heathland) courses are inland, often on hilly terrain.

Links Lineage

When exactly golf began along the sandy coast in this chilly and windy land isn’t clear, but the earliest record dates from 1457, when James II tried to outlaw golf as a menace to national security - too many Scots marksmen were skipping archery practice to swing at the little ball. Mary, Queen of Scots loved the game so much that she risked criticism by taking to the fairways while in mourning for her murdered husband. She is thought to have played at Bruntsfield in Edinburgh, probably the oldest course on which golf is still played today.

St Andrews, home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club has seven courses of its own, with a further 45 across Fife. Visitors with an ambition to play the historic Old Course should apply in writing to the St Andrews Links Trust (www.standrews.com) in August/September for the following year for a pre-booked tee-time, or enter the daily ‘ballot’, a lottery to determine which lucky applicants will fill vacancies and cancellations the following day. You can book any of the St Andrews courses at the Club, tel: 01334-466666. Other outstanding Scottish golf courses include Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Gleneagles, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch and Turnberry.

Biking, Hiking and Mountain-Climbing

Biking. For more information about bicycling in Scotland see the VisitScotland website: www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities. The rolling hills of Fife are especially good for cycling and there is a 300-mile (500km) sign posted cycle network. See www.outdoorfife.com for details.


Biking in the Cairngorms

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications

Hiking. Scotland’s beautiful landscape offers unrivalled opportunities for hiking and hill walking. The West Highland Way begins in Milngavie north of Glasgow and continues on past Loch Lomond up to Fort William. The Southern Upland Way and Speyside Way are also popular for long-distance walks. There are also many guided walks. In the Highlands, particularly, you will find nature walks and hill or plateau excursions led by trained naturalists. Week-long hikes over moors and glens include meals and accommodation in the price. At Glen Coe and Torridon the National Trust for Scotland conducts several superb guided walks. VisitScotland (www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities) has a range of walks on its website.

Mountain-climbing. You can take a strenuous walk up Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis (for more information, click here), climb the peaked ridges of the Isle of Arran (for more information, click here) or go rock climbing in the Black Cuillins, depending on your skills. While their height is not great, the remote Cuillins on Skye offer some of the most challenging climbing in Britain (for more information, click here). The Mountaineering Council of Scotland in Perth (www.mcofs.org.uk; tel: 01738-493942) can provide maps and telephone numbers to call for advice.

Climbing caveats

Despite a concentrated campaign for safety, mountain climbers continue to get into trouble in Scotland. Always get local advice on weather and conditions. Weather can change rapidly and suddenly, especially in the Highlands. Be sure you take the proper equipment and let someone know where you are going. Never go alone.

Boating and Watersports

Depending on your expertise, you can hire any sort of boat to explore Scotland’s marvellous inland and coastal waters. Sailing schools offer courses for beginners all along Scotland’s coast. If you have documentation to prove your proficiency, you may be able to charter larger craft without a skipper.

Water-skiing is popular on the placid waters of Scotland’s lochs. Windsurfing is available at all levels inland, on lochs, or on the open sea. Summer days can be surprisingly hot, and swimming opportunities are abundant. Be alert, however, for dangerous undertows and rip currents off western coasts.

The transparency of Scotland’s waters makes them ideal for scuba diving. There are sub-aqua sites all around the coast, in various inland lochs and on the islands.

For further information on watersports in Scotland, see VisitScotland’s website (www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities).

Pony Trekking and Riding

All over Scotland there are horse and pony centres where you can ride by the hour, half day or full day. Pony treks are led by expert guides and some are suitable for young children. Horseback trail riding is only for experienced riders. Some centres offer accommodation and weekly programmes with a different excursion each day. See the VisitScotland website (www.visitscotland.com/see-do/activities) for a list of reputable riding stables.


Scotland has five major downhill ski centres: Cairngorm in Inverness-shire, Glen Coe Mountain Resort in Glen Coe, the Nevis mountain range in Inverness-shire, the Lecht and Glenshee, both in Aberdeenshire. The Cairngorms are Britain’s highest mountains, and Aviemore, its centre, has buses to the ski areas, which have runs for skiers of all abilities. You’ll find instructors, chairlifts, equipment hire, tows and accommodation at all the main ski areas; there’s also the Cairngorm Mountain Railway. The ski season is December to May, though snowfall can be unpredictable (for updates: http://ski.visitscotland.com).

Spectator Sports

Rugby and football are as popular in Scotland as in the rest of the UK. Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers are the most successful soccer teams. International competitions take place in Hampden Park Stadium. You may also want to observe the Scottish game of curling, a bit like bowling on ice, which has been practised in Scotland for at least 400 years.


Football is hugely popular

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications


Shops are generally open 9am-5.30pm Monday to Saturday (a few places may close on Saturday afternoon), and major shopping centres in cities are also open on Sunday. In the Highlands, however, Sunday closing is the rule. In smaller towns, check whether there is an early closing day.


Glasgow’s Princes Square

Mockford & Bonetti/Apa Publications

Glasgow is Scotland’s major shopping city. Main areas are the smart, upmarket Princes Square, the newly developed Buchanan Quarter and Ingram Street, known as Glasgow’s style mile. Also popular is the St Enoch Centre, the largest glass structure in Europe. In Edinburgh the main shopping is on Princes Street, with fashion chains, bookshops and department stores. For gifts, tartans and other Scottish wares, there are plenty of shops on the Royal Mile. For upmarket shopping, visit Multrees Walk just off St Andrew Square, centred around the Harvey Nichols store, and for vintage and boutique shops check out Stockbridge.


Edinburgh’s Grassmarket

Mockford & Bonetti/Apa Publications

Value Added Tax (VAT). Almost all merchandise and services are subject to 20 percent Value Added Tax (VAT). For major purchases over a certain amount of money, overseas visitors can get a VAT refund. Note that this applies only to shops that are members of the Retail Export Scheme. When you make your purchase, request a signed form and a stamped pre-addressed envelope; have your form stamped by British Customs as you leave the country and post the form back to the shop to obtain a refund. You can also avoid the VAT if you do your shopping in duty-free shops - look for the sign.

Visitors from EU countries should present the form to their home customs, who will insert the local VAT rate for the goods. This form should also be posted back to the shop for a refund.

What to Buy

Art and Antiques. The Scottish art scene is an active one. Look for prints and affordable works by young Scottish artists. Victorian antiques and old prints and maps are also a good buy.

Crafts. In the Highlands you will find interesting stoneware and salt-glazed pottery. There are potters, jewellery makers and other craftspeople on the Isles of Mull and Skye. Unusual ‘heathergems’ jewellery is made from stems of heather. Look out for wood and stag-horn carvings, Celtic designs, handknits and handmade greetings cards.

Crystal. A number of high-quality glass and crystal producers have come from Scotland, including Caithness Glass, Selkirk Glass, Edinburgh Crystal and Stuart Crystal. There’s also the Caithness Glass visitor centre in Crieff (www.caithnessglass.co.uk), where you can buy beautiful paperweights.

Kilts and Tartans. A number of shops in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Aberdeen specialise in made-to-measure kilts, or full Highland dress. These shops will be glad to help you find your family tartan.

Knitwear and Woollens. Scottish knitwear includes cashmere pullovers and cardigans and Shetland and Fair Isle sweaters. Tartan woollens can be bought by the yard, and you can see them woven at several woollen mills. Harris tweed and sheepskin rugs are also popular buys.

Jewellery. In Glasgow (and elsewhere), look for sterling and enamel jewellery made from the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Silvercraft from Orkney and Shetland has designs inspired by Norse mythology. Celtic-designed jewellery, clan brooches and ornate kilt pins are often produced in pewter. And for the romantics there’s the delicately worked luckenbooth, a traditional Scottish love token.

Whisky. Scotch whisky is not necessarily less expensive in Scotland, but you’ll find brands that you never knew existed, so take the opportunity to discover an unusual malt.


Dog and whisky in Edinburgh

David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications


VisitScotland’s website (www.visitscotland.com/see-do/family) gives information on where to take the kids. Children enjoy exploring Scottish castles and there are many country parks with farm animals and playgrounds. Highland Games offer colourful spectacles with plenty of side shows (for more information, click here).

In Edinburgh, children will enjoy the Museum of Childhood on the Royal Mile (for more information, click here) and the National Museum of Scotland (for more information, click here). Older children will like the scary thrills of the Edinburgh Dungeon, (www.thedungeons.com; 31 Market Street, next to Waverley Bridge; daily 10am-5pm, mid-July-Aug until 7pm). Both children and adults will find Our Dynamic Earth (for more information, click here) fascinating. Edinburgh Zoo, 3 miles (5km) from the centre, is Scotland’s largest, on 80 acres (32 hectares) of hillside parkland (134 Corstorphine Road; tel: 0131-334 9171; www.edinburghzoo.org.uk; daily Mar and Oct 9am-5pm, Apr-Sept until 6pm, Nov-Feb 9am-4.30pm; penguin parade daily at 2.15pm, but only if the penguins feel like it).

At Coatbridge on the M8 motorway near Glasgow, the Time Capsule (www.thetimecapsule.info) offers fun for all with water chutes, ice skating and a soft play area.


Star-gazing at the National Museum of Scotland

Mockford & Bonetti/Apa Publications


January Celtic Connections, traditional music festival, www.celticconnections.com, Glasgow. 25 January: Burns Night, Scotland-wide. Last Tuesday in January: Up Helly Aa, fire festival, Lerwick, Shetland.

February Fort William Mountain Film Festival, for outdoor enthusiasts, www.mountainfilmfestival.co.uk.

March Glasgow International Comedy Festival, www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com. Easter ski events at Scotland’s ski resorts, www.ski-scotland.com.

April Edinburgh International Harp Festival, www.harpfestival.co.uk. Scottish Grand National, Ayr, www.ayr-racecourse.co.uk.

Late April-May Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Moray & Speyside www.spiritofspeyside.com. Perth Festival of the Arts, www.perthfestival.co.uk.

June Common Ridings, festival of marking town boundaries on horseback, Scottish Borders. West End Festival, including the Festival Sunday Parade, Glasgow, www.westendfestival.co.uk. Royal Highland Show, farming event, Ingliston, near Edinburgh, www.royalhighlandshow.org. Edinburgh International Film Festival, www.edfilmfest.org.uk. Glasgow International Jazz Festival.

July Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, Portsoy, Aberdeenshire, www.stbfportsoy.com. Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, golf tournament, courses vary, www.aamscottishopen.com. The Wickerman Festival, alternative music festival, East Kirkcarswell, Dumfries & Galloway, www.thewickermanfestival.co.uk. Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

August Edinburgh International Festival, www.eif.co.uk. Edinburgh Fringe Festival, www.edfringe.com. Edinburgh Military Tattoo. World Pipe Band Championship, with over 200 bands, Glasgow.

September First Saturday: Braemar Highland Gathering, www.braemargathering.org. Doors Open Days, visit the country’s best architecture for free, Scotland-wide, www.doorsopendays.org.uk.

October Royal National Mod, Gaelic language festival, different locations.

November 30 November (and week running up to it), St Andrew’s Day, St Andrews and Scotland-wide.

December 31 December: Hogmanay, Scotland-wide. Stonehaven Fireball Festival, traditional parade, www.stonehavenfireballs.co.uk.