Scotland

From Capital City to Highland Wilderness

The magnificent Edinburgh CastleEdinburgh, the vibrant, modern, chic capital of Scotland, is home to some of Northern Europe’s oldest buildings, most pompous castles, ancient alleyways, grand parks and stylish boutiques. The city is not only the one that offered up inspiration for JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels; it's also a great place to begin a tour of the country. It is well served by an international airport, with rail and air links to the larger cities of Glasgow and London. Accommodation in the capital varies from grand luxurious hotels to convenient castle cavern youth hostels, which cater for all tastes and budgets. Fine dining, evening entertainment and cultural delights are abundant in both the modern financial hub and in the antiquated hillside quarter of the town. The city is home to a number of highlight must sees, as well, not to mention the lengthy list of must do's.

There are a number of highlight events ongoing on the city throughout the year, though one of the most exciting is the fringe festival to which Edinburgh plays host during the month of August. The 'fringe', which is described as a unique explosion of creative energy, draws in performers from around the globe and has produced some internationally recognized stars. With a host of hilarious entertainments in a number of venues around the city, the festival is not to be missed.

Throughout January, world famous mass piped bands draw musicians ‘from the far east, Africa and the Americas in a cacophonic Scottish celebration of 'hogmanay'", known as New Year to most. It’s a phenomenal extravaganza with Edinburgh Castle and a fantastic fireworks display providing the perfect atmospheric backdrop. In addition to this, a tour along the Royal Mile – the primary street approaching the castle – wouldn’t be complete without visiting some of the cultural museums tucked away in the medieval buildings.

By contrast the very modern parliament at the bottom of the street, which opened in 1997 after a 300 year absence, is a pleasant visit. The building, which was designed by a Spanish architect, cost significantly more than was expected and houses an exhibition and viewing gallery where you can watch Parliamentary business and catch an interesting glimpse into modern Scottish life. A breath of fresh air can be enjoyed on neighboring Arthur’s Seat, a small, now extinct volcano that is popular with walkers and tourists.

Edinburgh is a great jumping off point to many points throughout the country, particularly the famed Scottish Highlands; tours can be arranged at any one of a number of operators along the Royal Mile. Buses leave from designated spots around the area and take up to a week touring the hill valleys of central and western Scotland. A stop at the ancient City of Stirling, just a short distance north of Edinburgh, is a dramatic way to start one of these tours. This ancient capital, the setting for the events in Mel Gibson’s 'Braveheart', is simply peppered with attractions relating to the history of the times of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. A highlight is the Wallace monument, which towers over the ancient battlefields at Stirling, where Scotland first earned its right as a nation. A visit to Stirling Castle, perched upon its hill, is a glimpse into both the country's past and its modern day. The castle harkens to days gone by when the Scots raged for their independence, while the sights from its tower include views of the world class golf resorts of Glen Eagles and St Andrews. Beyond those, however, visible in the distance mountain valleys, you can see a warm and mysterious welcome to the Highlands.The Wallace Monument towers over Stirling, Scotland

One of the first stops in the central highlands is Avimore, renowned for its conservation and sporting activities. The area, designated Scotland’s first nature reserve, boasts ancient pine forests, a variety of wildlife and a mountain monorail servicing Scotland’s premier ski resort and the highest restaurant on the British Isles. The mountain tops here are devoid of most life, almost arctic in character, home for only some of northern Europe’s most rare and spectacular plants and birds. These delicate ecosytems cling to survival amid the cliff grags and rocky summits. Accommodations, fine dining and sporting activities, however, are abundant in this quaint mountain resort town. Winters, skiing and dog sledding, are replaced in summer with mountain biking, shooting, fishing, kayaking and sailing, and so much more.

The next stop in a highland itinerary can be planned a little further north, from the highland capital, Inverness. In recent years Inverness has grown to become a small city. Many a traveler opts to rest here and makes plans for a trip into one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Motorcyclists enjoy the summer mountain roads to the west, while mountaineers hone their skills on the infamous Isle of Skye ridge. Artists and adventurers move on to visit the far western Islands, home to ivory white sandy beaches and communities of Gaelic speaking natives who keep the traditions and culture of Pictish and Celtic culture alive and well. Inverness is a good stopping point to refuel and plan, but also worth a holiday visit in its own right. The friendly tourist centre by the river is always on hand for advice. Accommodation and activities in the city are generally very plentiful. A tale of the islands, which stretch half way to Scandinavia in the far north and well into the Atlantic to the west, is perhaps best left for another article.

The delights and surprises on offer in these places could not fail to inspire. Travel can be easily planned independently in these areas, or for those who prefer more organized trips, Edinburgh based tours also continue to Inverness and beyond. A visitor to the mountain and lake areas of Scotland may well find delights they did not expect. Highland log fire hospitality will sure to please. An opportunity to discover culinary delights of Atlantic salmon, Haggis, Whiskey and shortbread, among others, give the visitor a pleasant taste for Scotland, while the scenery is sure to leave a lasting impression.

About the Author

With a background in sociology, education and social justice, Stephen Lee Mowat has strength in visual arts and is currently teaching English. He enjoys sports, the outdoors, experiencing life in other cultures and traveling in Asia & Europe.

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 Full name: Scotland

 Population: 5.22 million (2010)

 Capital: Edinburgh

 Largest city: Glasgow

 Area: 78,387 sq.km. (30,414 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: English, Scottish Gaelic,  Other

 Major religions: Protestant, Roman Catholic,  Islam, Other

 Monetary unit: Pound Sterling

 GDP per capita: US $41,189 (2012)

 Internet domain: .uk

 International dialling code: +44

 Source: CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia