Although Scotland constitutes more than a third of the land area of Great Britain, it has a population of only 5.4 million. Most Scots live in the Lowlands, which contain the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but the Highlands are spectacular. Renowned for its whisky, Scotland has also developed a thriving culinary culture and acquired a sprinkling of Michelin stars. The weather can be mercurial, and golfers will need rainproof clothes throughout the year. Here are field notes from The Hideaway Report guidebooks on various regions of Scotland.
Edinburgh is made up of two contrasting halves: Old Town is an austere medieval city constructed along the ridge of a rocky crag, while New Town comprises a network of elegant Georgian streets, crescents and squares. In between is a dramatic ravine spanned by North Bridge. Today Scotland’s capital remains lively, prosperous and picturesque.
For a superb selection of single malts, I highly recommend the independent bottler Cadenhead’s. Its employees hand-select barrels from distilleries all over Scotland.
The Dome, deriving its name from the stunning central architectural feature, is my favorite bar in Edinburgh. Once home to the Commercial Bank of Scotland, it is an ideal spot for a restorative drink or an afternoon tea after shopping on Princes Street.
If you are looking to buy a kilt or any fine Scottish clothing, head to Kinloch Anderson. This is where the royal family buys its kilts.
For some of Edinburgh’s newest and most noteworthy shops, read “Beyond Castles and Closes: Modern Hot Spots in Edinburgh.”
A 90-minute drive northeast of Edinburgh, the dignified stone city of St. Andrews contains Scotland’s oldest university, dating from 1410. However, it is more widely known as “The Home of Golf.” The game has been played on the links beside the North Sea since at least 1552.
The Old Course at St. Andrews is open to all comers, provided they have a handicap of 24 or better for men, 36 or better for women, and can secure the most highly coveted tee times in Scotland. The four primary ways to get on are to enter the ballot, a lottery-style drawing; make advance reservations through the Links Trust around the start of September for play the following year; walk up to the Old Pavilion as a single golfer and wait for an opening in a scheduled group of four; or purchase guaranteed tee times through an established golf tour operator. I recommend Adventures In Golf.
The best 19th hole awaits you at the Golfer’s Corner Pub in The Dunvegan Hotel, a short walk from the 18th green of the Old Course. This is a convivial retreat where the atmosphere is imbued with the royal and ancient game. The Dunvegan also serves simple but satisfying food in the bar and in its Claret Jug Restaurant.
The Lowlands are the non-Gaelic-speaking part of Scotland. Although lacking the drama and grandeur of the Highlands, much of the rolling terrain is still extremely beautiful. The Lowlands contain fertile land suitable for agriculture and beef cattle.
The golf club at Muirfield is not only the oldest in Scotland — its records date to 1744 — but arguably the most exclusive, with an atmosphere not unlike that of Augusta National. Built in 1891, the clubhouse is a traditional place, with jacket and tie required in the smoking and dining rooms after 10 a.m. On the course, white socks are mandatory.
When making a golf pilgrimage to Turnberry, with its marvelous Ailsa course, visitors should not neglect the excellent Prestwick Golf Club, 20 miles to the north. A classic links course that opened in 1851, Prestwick hosted the first British Open, in 1860. Today the course is a first-rate track with varied and interesting holes, such as the famous par-3 fifth, dubbed “Himalayas,” whose blind tee shot over a mountainous dune has been copied by modern course architects for decades.
Although this region cannot boast a wealth of distilleries, there is a Lowland style of single malt. Auchentoshan, just west of Glasgow, makes a gentle, almost floral whisky, while Glenkinchie, east of Edinburgh, produces one with a slightly smoky character.
The Highlands East are not precisely defined, but essentially they are the Gaelic-speaking area that lies north and west of a geological feature known as the Highland Boundary Fault. There craggy mountains are scoured by rushing, peat-stained streams. The Scottish great outdoors has always been a magnet for Americans, thanks to world-class shooting and deer hunting. Today Scotland’s cultural heritage is ever more accessible, and it would be possible to spend several months in the Highlands and still not visit every castle, historic site, notable garden or whisky distillery that is open and welcoming visitors. To the south and east, the Highlands begin relatively gently, especially in the lovely county of Perthshire, famous for its rich agricultural land and fruit orchards, as well as rugged mountains and glens.
The last official private army in Europe, the Atholl Highlanders, falls under the command of the Duke of Atholl. His ancestral home, Blair Castle, in the town of Blair Atholl, draws visitors for its fine Georgian interiors, period antiques and old armaments.
Just outside Blair Atholl, The House of Bruar brings together one of the finest collections of Scottish products that I have ever encountered. For those hankering after fine Scottish cashmere, this is the place to come. There is also a tempting selection in the food hall, which makes an ideal stop for lunch before or after a visit to Blair Castle.
The smallest distillery in Scotland, Edradour, lies tucked in a tiny glen near Pitlochry, southeast of Blair Atholl. Its white buildings with bright-red doors make for a charming scene. The tour is eminently worthwhile. This is the place, if ever there was one, for a wee dram.
The northeast Highlands are dominated by the majestic Cairngorms mountains. The Spey River remains one of Scotland’s more productive salmon rivers, and surrounding Speyside is the heartland of the Scottish whisky industry.
Queen Elizabeth II has her summer retreat at Balmoral on Deeside, and parts of the castle are open to visitors when no members of the royal family are in residence.
The earliest documented date for Cawdor Castle is 1454. It is complete with towers, fortifications, stone gables and a drawbridge and is surrounded by lovely manicured gardens. The interior is filled with historic paintings, gorgeous tapestries, fine portraits, period antiques and beautiful furniture and is still home to the Cawdor family.
The battle of Culloden (six miles east of Inverness) on April 16, 1746, was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. Among the touching sights here are the simple stones carved with the names of clans to mark their communal graves. The excellent visitor center contains exhibits of weapons and shows an informative film.
In May 2015, Scotland opened a beautiful drive, the North Coast 500. Beginning in Inverness, the 500-mile circular route takes drivers up through Brora, on to John O’Groats, west to Durness, then south to the dramatic Applecross Road. The route shows the Highlands at their best, with mountains, glens, castles, seaside cliffs and stunning beaches.
This is one of the two principal regions for single-malt production (the other being the Hebridean island of Islay), with more than half of Scotland’s distilleries. I particularly recommend a visit to Glenlivet, north of Tomintoul. Maker of the best-selling single malt in the world, The Glenlivet, this distillery gives an exceptionally detailed and informative tour.
The most dramatic scenery in Scotland is to be found in the western Highlands, especially in glorious Wester Ross, where the mountains rise directly from the sea. Off the coast are the lovely and romantic islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides.
If you stay at The Torridon Hotel, you will have the chance to drive one of the most dramatic roads in all of Europe. The Road to Applecross ascends to offer a sensational panorama of the Isle of Skye and descends into Applecross (where the Applecross Inn, a simple place, serves fine seafood). From this dot of a village, it then climbs to the Bealach na Bà (“Pass of the Cattle”) at a height of 2,053 feet; on a clear day, the vistas are unforgettable.
The Isle of Skye has some fine restaurants. The Three Chimneys has long been regarded as one of the top dining rooms in western Scotland. The charming Eilean Iarmain hotel, located in the movie-set-perfect enclave of Isle Ornsay, also has an excellent restaurant and a charming little bar.
Islay is easy to get around, and the distilleries are conveniently clustered. I have stayed in two comfortable hotels on the island. Both had their charms, but neither was up to Hideaway Report standards. The 11-room Bridgend Hotel is well-located in the center of the island. The Port Charlotte Hotel, set by the sea, features 10 rooms that are snug but attractively decorated in a country house style. Tasty fare is served in an appealing bar and a pleasant stone-walled dining room. Be sure to book a sea-facing room. There are good restaurants in Bowmore, the best being at the seven-room Harbour Inn, which is now owned by the noted Bowmore distillery.