My Love Affair with Scotland
The question I get more often than any other is, “So what’s your favorite place?”
Truth? I understand why people ask me this question, but I hate this question. Most other travel bloggers hate it, too. It’s not just that we get asked it constantly, it’s that it’s impossible to boil down years of travel and hundreds of destinations into just one place and to cap it at one is a disservice to your travels and life.
But if you tell people that, they get disappointed. They just want to hear a place.
So I’ve come up with a scripted answer that is both truthful and satisfying for the listener: “Well, my favorite countries are Croatia, Italy, South Africa, Japan, and Thailand. And one place that is very special to me is the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand.”
But that answer is incomplete. It leaves out how much I love the food of Emilia-Romagna, Italy. It overlooks the joy of summer in Finland, the quiet paradise of Little Corn Island in Nicaragua, the outstanding natural beauty of Montenegro, the feeling when you watch a sunset from Boracay in the Philippines. It even omits mentions of my favorite city in the world for 16 years running: Paris.
Worst of all, it overlooks Scotland.
Oh, I love Scotland. I love it FIERCELY. It is a destination that brings me endless joy, no matter where I’m going. And I really need to talk about it more for that reason.
I love the cities. Edinburgh looks like a fairy tale and it’s one of my favorite cities on the planet, and Glasgow is a lot of fun, too.
I love the natural beauty. The mountains, the lakes, even the beaches.
I love the people. Scots are so warm and friendly and welcoming. And the accents are out of this world!
I love the castles. They’re everywhere and they vary so much! My favorite ruined castle to photograph is Dunnottar Castle on the East Coast, not too far north from St. Andrews.
I love the food. Haggis is great. Fried Mars bars are…an indulgence. But go to a nice pub that uses local ingredients and you’ll delight in a real Scottish meal. The single best thing I ate in Scotland was an Arbroath smokie (smoked fish) that came right off the smoker. I ate it like an ice cream cone.
There’s only one thing that I don’t love — the whisky. Sorry, guys. I’ve tried whisky (as the Scots spell it) dozens of times, sometimes at outstanding distilleries in the Scottish countryside. And it always tastes like feet to me. I’m a gin girl, I’m afraid.
(My friend Peter even brought a bottle of whisky to Leipzig last week for the Video Summit and had me take a sip. Nope, still tasted like feet.)
The First Trip: An Introduction to Edinburgh
I first set foot in Scotland in September 2011 — a weekend in Edinburgh to visit my friends Kash and Anthony and check out Haggis Hostels, which had just opened back then (and is still going strong — congrats, guys!).
Turns out this was somewhat of an atypical visit. Temperatures were around 30 degrees celsius — 86 fahrenheit — an almost unheard of heat wave. Everyone was lying out in the sunshine! It was crazy — on Anthony’s advice I had packed warm clothing, including tall leather boots, and I went to H&M and Zara to buy sunglasses, only to find out that they sold none!
But I fell for Edinburgh SO hard. The beauty, the friendliness, the walkability, the castle perched on a hill. This was my place.
There were a few late nights at clubs. There were haggis quesadillas (at a place that has sadly closed since). There was a crazy dancing man on the Royal Mile. But above all, this visit lit the spark for everything that came after. I look back at this weekend as a truly happy time in my life.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Trying haggis for the first time and realizing that it’s delicious as long as you don’t think about what you’re eating!
The Second Trip: Shetland, Up Helly Aa, and the East Coast
The second trip to Scotland was one of the greatest things I have ever done: Up Helly Aa. This Viking fire festival takes place in the remote Shetland Islands, adrift between Scotland and Norway.
I did the Haggis Adventures Up Helly Aa tour — it was so good, three of my readers booked the same tour the following year! (Worth noting: the tour they run today includes an extra day in Shetland. Excellent!)
After traveling up the coast, we took an overnight ferry to the islands and explored the ruins and the landscape. Shetland is phenomenally beautiful and even has a double beach!
The next day, the Up Helly Aa celebrations began with a parade and Vikings yelling, “Yarrr!” before breaking into the Broadway standard “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.” We posed for photos with the Vikings and I was even filmed for BBC Scotland!
That night began the burning. Men and boys dressed up in fancy Viking costumes were paraded down the street in a beautifully lacquered Viking boat made for the occasion. Following them were lines and lines of Shetland dressed in various costumes — drag! Marvel villains! Chicken suits! — and holding flaming torches.
The boat was pushed to a field, the Vikings got out…and then EVERYONE THREW THEIR TORCHES INTO THE BOAT AND LIT IT ON FIRE. That beautiful boat had served its purpose.
Next, everyone moved to parties and danced all night long to traditional Shetland music in between performances from the various squads of Shetlanders. They had costumed routines to “Moves Like Jagger” and “Party Rock Anthem.” (I still think of Shetland whenever I hear those songs.)
Our guides taught us all the dances and soon we were whirling around with the kilted locals. And the best part of Up Helly Aa? It goes ALL NIGHT LONG. Seriously. We danced until 8:06 AM and just skipped sleeping that night, falling into bed at around 9:00 PM on the ferry home.
It’s been more than four years and I still consider Up Helly Aa one of the best things I have ever done on my travels. You can read all my posts about it here. Bonus: I’ve stayed close with many of my Up Helly Aa friends and we’ve had reunions in London, New York, Sydney, and even Hvar, Croatia!
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Dancing to traditional music until delirious at 8:06 AM. I will never forget it.
The Third Trip: A Luxurious Return to Edinburgh
I was delighted to return to Edinburgh at the invitation of the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa to check out their new offerings. While this isn’t the kind of trip that I’d do today, at the time I had a wonderful overnight with several of my blogger friends.
And finally I got to experience typical Scottish weather — lots of gray rain!
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Swimming in the outdoor spa at the Sheraton as fierce rain pelted down.
The Fourth Trip: Yet Another Edinburgh Trip
Can you tell how in love with Edinburgh I am yet? With another opportunity to return for a blogger meet up, another opportunity to hang out in Edinburgh with my friends, of course I took it!
This time I got to overturn a new stone: exploring the Water of Leith, a path winding through quiet parts of Edinburgh. Kash and I explored it through the rain, getting soaked before the sun came back out once again — it’s the Scottish way!
Also memorable from this trip is the meetup. It was mayhem, in a nutshell, and I still laugh over the resulting pictures.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Taking a long, rainy walk along the Water of Leith and warming up with a cup of tea at a cafe afterward.
The Fifth Trip: Glasgow
Because I can’t keep going back to Edinburgh every time, on my next trip I went to spend a few days in Scotland’s largest city: Glasgow.
One of my favorite ways to travel is to go to a new city for a few days and pretend I live there. I do my thing: I take long walks, I go to cafes, I people-watch. Whether it’s Helsinki or Bogotá, I like to carve a Kate-sized shape in the city. And I think that was the best way to explore Glasgow.
Glasgow may not have the overwhelming beauty of Edinburgh, but you know what it has? Beauty all its own. Lots of culture. Cool small shops and businesses. Incredibly friendly people. And it has several friends of mine, including Emma, who is an authority on all things Scotland travel.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: finally getting to love Irn Bru, the bubblegum-esque bright orange soft drink, and trying my first-ever deep fried Mars bar.
The Sixth Trip: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and the Highlands
Scotland is world-famous for its New Year’s celebrations: Hogmanay! I was invited to cover the festival for New Year’s Eve 2012, and I was happy to take part in the traditions.
My favorite part was the torchlight procession the night before New Year’s, joining Scots and visitors from all over in marching up the hill, flaming torches in hand. (Yet another moment in Scotland where I thought, “This could never happen in America.”)
New Year’s itself was a giant party with a concert and much revelry. Personally, I preferred the calm torchlight procession to the party night itself — it gets WILD! Also, I saw a girl walking home in bare feet. In Scotland. IN WINTER.
After the trip, our group went on a Haggis Adventures tour of the Highlands, and this is where I felt a connection to Scotland like never before. My Scottish roots on my mother’s side come from Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
What really affected me was hearing about all the tragedies of the Highlands and how difficult life was here. So many wars, deaths, betrayals, massacres. Thinking of my long-lost relatives and how they could have been victims was deeply moving.
The Isle of Skye was the true highlight of the Highlands for me, and I’d love to go back and explore it more.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Learning that there’s no colder winter than a Scottish winter. It’s the dampness that gets you. Even after a scaldingly hot shower, the chill remained within me.
The Seventh Trip: Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival with Mom
Traveling with my mom, we went to Edinburgh as part of our genealogy trip. The timing was perfect: August was the time of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!
This festival features nonstop performances, both paid and free, in the street and in theaters. The Royal Mile in particular is chock full of these performances. I ended up seeing several terrific shows and one truly bad show, roughly half of them paid and half of them free.
The most memorable show, Sing For Your Life!, was a puppet show musical using taxidermied animals for puppets. It was weird and wonderful and hilarious.
During this trip, we stayed with my mom’s friend Sandra, and the two of them often went off while I did my own thing, including hosting my first Edinburgh meetup. I love having alone time in Edinburgh — it gives me time to revisit my favorite places, like The World’s End for a bowl of cullin skink (smokey fish chowder) and a dark beer.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Waiting in line for a taxi next to a thickly brogued, kilt-wearing Edinburgh tour guide as he told me about guiding: “The German tourists, they look angry. They look like a constipated Woody Harrelson. As the tour continues, you think they’re not enjoying it. Then at the end, they come up, shake your hand and say, “That tour was the greatest experience of my life. I will name my grandchildren after you.”
The Eighth Trip: Inverness and Loch Ness
Finally, last month I returned to Scotland for the Social Travel Summit and hit up a new destination: Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands.
Unfortunately, between a late arrival, being busy with the conference, and being worried over lost luggage, I didn’t get to enjoy the region as much as I could have — but I still had a great time. And just like my first trip, we had some very un-Scotland-like weather: clear blue skies!
I did get to experience a lovely cruise on Loch Ness past Urqhardt Castle, a dressed up soirée at nearby Achnagairn Castle, and the local Inverness nightlife: and by that, I mean some crazy nights at Hootenanny, capped off by some locals asking me to dance.
Quintessential Scotland Experience: Becoming fast friends with the taxi driver who took me to the airport to pick up my luggage. And then I find out he has the same last name as my relatives from Inverness! We posed for a selfie that I sent my mom. (Her response: “He doesn’t look like a [name] but he looks very nice.” LOL!)
What’s Next? My Scotland Travel Goals
I know a lot of Scotland travel experts will look at this list and say, “Psssh, you didn’t even go to the best spots!” Oh, believe me, I know that! There’s so much more to see.
The following destinations are particularly high on my list:
St. Kilda. This remote archipelago on the far northwest of the Outer Hebrides has some of the most spectacular landscapes in Scotland.
Lewis and Harris. People say that the further north you go in Scotland, the more beautiful it gets. These islands in the Outer Hebrides are home to long, white-sand beaches with crystal-clear water. That picture above is Harris! How crazy is that?!
Loch Lomond. This lake is great for adventure activities and one of the most popular destinations in the country, yet I’ve always missed it.
Orkney. Whenever I mention that I’ve been to Shetland but not Orkney, Scotland lovers lose their minds. Ornkey is home to some incredible archaeological wonders.
Shetland Folk Festival. I’ve got Shetland fever! If the traditional music I heard at Up Helly Aa was any indication, this festival will be a rollicking good time.
I feel like Scotland is one of the best all-around destinations in the world. Here’s what makes it great:
It’s perfect for solo female travelers. Scotland is one of my top choices for solo female travelers because of the ease of travel, the variety of things to do, the friendly people, the relative safety, the pub culture (great for dining alone), and the lack of language barrier for English speakers, on top of being an overall wonderful destination.
There’s enough variety to customize your trip. Do you want to be in the throes of a festival or have an isolated getaway? Do you want to have an active hiking, biking, and canoeing trip or would you rather visit historical sites? Do you want to drive or take the train? Go solo or with a group? Do you want a foodie adventure or do you have a limited palate? There are endless options.
It’s much cheaper now. The fallout of the pound has caused lots of financial damage to my friends and me (as some of my clients pay me in GBP), which is no laughing matter. But this is good news for tourists to the UK, who now get more for their money than ever before.
The only place where Scotland falls short is the weather. One of my Scottish friends likes to say, “Scotland would be the best country in the world if it had better weather.” Nope, you’re not going to lie around in a bikini here, but if you make peace with that, you’re going to have a great time. I guarantee it.