Things to see and do - Scotland
Where to go?
Scotland Leisure tips
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Scotland is renowned for its unspoiled natural state and the attractions of the great outdoors; from a majestic stag in Monarch of the Glen pose, or endearing shaggy Highland Cattle, to the humble thistle and purple heather, all are powerful icons of a land which has remained close to its roots.
A few facts
The mainland of Scotland and the numerous fringing islands cover an area of 30,414sq mi/78,936km2. The coastline is deeply penetrated by the Atlantic on the west and by the North Sea on the east; most places are within 60mi/96km of the sea. There are 787 islands (under one quarter are inhabited) and 6,214mi/10,000km of coastline. The resident population is slightly less than 5,100,000, giving an average density of 167 per square mile (270/km2). 98% of Scotland is classified as countryside.
Although Scotland is generally recognised as a mountainous country, the infinite variety of landscapes is one of its major tourist assets. The country is traditionally divided into three areas, the Southern Uplands, Central Lowlands or Midland Valley and the Highlands.
Here the hills are lower and more rounded than their northern counterparts. In the southwest the smoothly rounded forms of the Galloway hills are dominated by the more rugged granitic masses of the Merrick (2,764ft/843m), Criffel (1,886ft/569m) and Cairnsmore of Fleet (2,331ft/711m). Both the Clyde and Tweed have their sources in the vicinity of the lead-bearing Lowther Hills. The Nith, Annan and Esk drain southwards to the Solway Firth. Hill country continues eastward with the Moorfoot and Lammermuir Hills which demarcate the Southern Upland Fault .
The Highland Boundary Fault extending from Stonehaven to Helensburgh and the Southern Upland Fault delimit this low-lying rift valley which has little land below 400ft/122m and is not without its own hill masses – Campsie Fells , Kilpatrick Hills , Ochils and Sidlaws.
The Lothian plains fringing the Firth of Forth and stretching to the sea at Dunbar are interrupted on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh by the Pentland Hills. Lowland continues along the carselands of the Forth up through Strathearn to the Tay and the rich Carse of Gowrie, overlooked by the Sidlaw Hills . To the north the fertile sweep of Strathmore passes northeastwards, to become, beyond Brechin, the more restricted Howe of the Mearns. Dumbarton, Stirling and Edinburgh Castle rocks, North Berwick and the Bass Rock are associated with volcanic activity.
Though altitudes are low by Alpine standards, much of this area lies above 2,000ft/610m. The Great Glen Fault , stretching from Loch Linnhe to the Moray Firth, acts as a divide between the Grampian Mountains and the North West Highlands. The Cairngorms are an extensive tract of land above 3,500ft/1,067m punctuated by peaks rising to over 4,000ft/1,219m ( Cairn Gorm 4,084ft/1,245m; Ben Macdui 4,296ft/1,309m and Braeriach 4,248ft/1,295m). West of the Spey are the Monadhliath Mountains, a rolling upland of peat and moorland.
Some of the highest peaks ( Ben Nevis 4,406ft/1,344m, Ben Lawers 3,984ft/1,214m), finest saltwater ( Lochs Fyne and Long ) and freshwater lochs ( Lochs Lomond , Katrine , Awe and Tay ) and greatest rivers (Spey, Tay, Dee and Don) can be found here. The Buchan and Moray Firth (Laigh of Moray) lowlands fringe the mountains to the east and north.
The Highlands to the north and west of the Great Glen are a wilder and more remote area where isolated peaks rise above a plateau surface with an average height of 2,000ft/610m. Outstanding examples are the spectacular Torridon peaks of Suilven (2,399ft/731m), Canisp (2,779ft/846m) and Quinag (2,653ft/808m), and in Sutherland Bens Hope (3,042ft/927m) and Loyal (2,504ft/764m). The indented western coastline where sea lochs separate peninsulas, is fringed offshore by the Inner and Outer Hebrides .
Scotland’s long coastline is deeply indented and largely rocky, although the east coast is generally smoother and straighter. The coastline is one of impressive cliff faces with offshore arches and stacks as at Hoy in Orkney, Cape Wrath and St Abb’s Head, or great stretches of dune-backed sandy beaches, the asset of such east coast resorts as Montrose, Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Nairn.
Mainland Scotland is fringed by approximately 787 islands with the Hebrides strung out along the western seaboard, as the largest group (500). The Inner Hebrides include such evocative isles as Skye, Mull, Iona, Jura and Islay. The Minch separates the mainland from the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago stretching 140mi/225km from the Butt of Lewis to Barra Head. The principal islands in the Firth of Clyde are Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes. Beyond the Pentland Firth in the north are two important clusters of isles and islets, the Orkney Islands comprising 90 in all and farther north the Shetland Islands, a group of about 100. Fair Isle, St Kilda and Rockall are isolated outliers of this island fringe. Many are now uninhabited but it was on these distant isles that the Norse and Gaelic cultures resisted the longest. Today each one has a jealously guarded character of its own.
A large percentage of Scotland lies above 800ft/244m and hills and mountains are an ever-present aspect of the landscape. In 1891 Sir Hugh Munro drew up tables of all the Scottish peaks over 3,000ft/910m. With perfected surveying techniques the total includes some 280. To some climbers Munro-bagging, chalking off every single one, is a lifetime task.
The task of reconciling the increasing demand for public access and recreation with the conservation of the countryside and in particular the areas of outstanding scenic value is met in Scotland by the cooperation of numerous bodies. Agreements ensure the conservation of Scotland’s scenic heritage with its wildlife. The National Trust for Scotland owns and administers some of Scotland’s most important mountain areas – Balmacara-Kintail, Glencoe and Torridon – where ranger-naturalists meet the need for public access to the countryside.
In an attempt to reverse the destruction of native forests, Scottish Natural Heritage has launched schemes to regenerate woodland areas. Hawthorn, rowan and alder are planted to replace non-native tree species such as sycamore, larch and beech.
Somewhat surprisingly given Scotland’s northern latitude, gardens are an important part of the country’s natural heritage, both historically and horticulturally.
Gulf Stream gardens
For the foreign visitor these gardens are perhaps the most unexpected. In secluded spots all along Scotland’s Atlantic seaboard gardens with a profusion of tropical and sub-tropical plants flourish. The outstanding example is Osgood Mackenzie’s woodland garden at Inverewe, in its perfect Highland setting. Moving southwards others include Crarae Woodland Garden, the Younger Botanic Gardens, Benmore and the Logan Botanic Gardens, to name a few of those open all year round.
Gardens with a difference
The formal gardens at Pitmedden, Edzell and Drummond Castle reflect the spread of Renaissance ideas from the continent and from France in particular. Gardens came to be mere adornment for ancestral homes as at Brodick, Falkland and Kellie. The intimate enclosures at the garden at Crathes Castle are distinguished by colour, season and plant species.
Scotland is endowed with a rich natural heritage of wildlife, vegetation and land. Humans have been largely responsible for destroying certain habitats (deforestation and in particular the loss of the native pinewoods) and the extinction of the fauna. The first to suffer were the larger animals – reindeer, elk, brown bear and wild boar – which are extinct in Scotland in the wild. However recent cooperation between government and specialised organisations is responsible for the successful conservation of many habitats and wildlife.
Scottish Natural Heritage is responsible for establishing reserves to safeguard certain wildlife communities and the Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 to combat the increasing dangers to Scotland’s wildlife
Birds of prey
The most majestic, if elusive, Scottish raptor is the golden eagle, found on Skye, the Outer Hebrides, Aviemore area, Deeside and North West Highlands, often in the former territory of the sea eagle (reintroduced 1985). The fish-eating osprey is once again to be seen in Scotland, which is a major European stronghold for that other raptor, the hen harrier with its aerial acrobatics and unusual ground nesting habits. Both the peregrine falcon and buzzards are quite common sightings in the Highlands.
Of the better known game birds the capercaillie (reintroduced C 1770), the biggest of the grouse family, has increased in number with the spread of forestry plantations. Red grouse thrive on the heather moors, with black grouse or blackcocks on forest edges and moors. The latter indulge in ferocious-looking mock battles at the lek or traditional display areas. The ptarmigan, the fourth member of the grouse family, with its successful white camouflage prefers the mountain tops. This is also the habitat of that colourful bird but reluctant flyer, the dotterel, and the elusive snow bunting.
The offshore islands (Bass Rock, Ailsa Craig, St Kilda) and cliffs of Scotland are the haunts of a wide variety of sea birds from the comical puffin, to guillemots and kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and other members of the gull family. The Bass Rock, which is one of the easier gannetries to visit, gave the gannet its scientific name Sula bassana . Excursions from Anstruther take visitors to the Isle of May, thronged with sea birds.
The early mammal population counted elks, northern lynx, brown bear, beaver, reindeer, wild boar, ponies, white cattle with black points (still found in some parks today) and the wolf. With re-afforestation Scotland has become the last British stronghold of otters, wildcats, and the secretive pine marten. The fox is a newcomer to the northeastern coastal lowlands and badgers have re-colonised most of the mainland. Some of these animals can now be seen in the Highland Wildlife Park near Kincraig in Speyside or Edinburgh Zoo. Rare breeds such as the Soay sheep from the St Kilda group of islands are part of the Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig while famously photogenic shaggy Highland cattle pasture the parklands of Scotland’s castles.
Sharks and whales
The Basking Shark , most frequently spotted in summer, is the second largest animal in the world, measuring 36ft/11 m long and weighing up to 7 tonnes/7,000 kg. It is usually seen swimming slowly near the surface with its huge fin, up to 6ft/2m high, breaking the water along with the tip of the tail fin and the tip of its nose. As it swims it opens its mouth, which can be over 1m wide, gulping hundreds of litres of seawater, equivalent to around a swimming pool-full an hour, which flows out through its gills trapping plankton.
Orcas , among the fastest sea creatures and the top predators in the ocean, are seen in Scottish waters year-round. Males can grow between 21ft/7m and 23ft/8m and weigh over 5 tonnes/5,000kg. The dorsal surface is mostly black, the underside is white, with a white eyespot behind each eye. The huge dorsal fin can measure 1.8m (6ft) high. Orcas are highly social and live in groups called pods. Minke whales are even bigger, up to 31ft/10 m long and up to 10 tonnes/10,000kg.
Bottlenose dolphins may be seen all around the coast of Scotland in spring and summer – the Moray Firth colony is the most renowned. Their single nostril (blowhole) allows the dolphin to take in air when it comes to the surface. The distinctive bulging forehead contains an organ called a melon, which holds a mass of fat and oily tissue. This allows dolphins to echo-locate food and to communicate with each other in schools.
The harbour porpoise is the most common cetacean in Scottish waters. It may be found year-round in any shallow seas and particularly around the Hebrides and Northern Isles. The animals tend to gather together in pods of 2 to 5.
Seals may be seen year-round. Common seals are often found around shallow inland waters, hauled up on sandbanks and around estuaries, but they will use rocky outcrops on the west coast. This species is roughly 5ft/1.5m to 6ft/2m long with the male (bull) weighing up to 550lb/250kg and the female (cow) around half that size. They fish over wide ar ea, feeding on anything from shrimps to whole herring, and breed between June and July.
The grey seal is slightly bigger and widespread on Scotland’s rocky west coast. They feed on all types of fish, plus crabs, squid and sandeels, and breed in the autumn. The Scottish population is estimated at up to 120,000, 40% of the world total.