Scotland (Scots Gaelic: Alba) is a nation in north-western Europe, the second largest of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. It has a 60 mile (96km) land border with England to the south, and is separated from Northern Ireland by the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The capital is Edinburgh and the largest city is Glasgow.
Scotland is surrounded by the bracing waters of the North Sea to the east, and the North Atlantic Ocean to the west and north. There are over 700 islands, most in groups to the west (the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and north (Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands).
Scotland is a beautiful country well-known for its dramatic scenery of mountains and valleys, rolling hills, green fields and forests, and rugged coastline. While everyone knows the Highlands for this, Scotland is beautiful in the Lowlands, islands and the flat lands of the North-East as well.
Scotland has lively and friendly cities, often of great architectural significance, and a rich history and heritage dating back thousands of years with many ancient and historic sites. Other characteristics that attract droves of visitors include golf (the game was created in Scotland and it has some of the world's best and most famous courses), whisky (many distilleries can be visited), family history (millions worldwide are descended from those who emigrated from Scotland when times were tough in the 18th and 19th centuries), hiking, wildlife and winter sports. Around Loch Ness in the north of the Highlands, you can also hunt for the Monster... or at least try.
While the sun may not always shine, the warm welcome and wonderful diversity of places, landscapes and experiences mean that Scotland has much to offer any traveller. Sometimes awe-inspiring and majestic, sometimes ramshackle and faded, proud yet also modest, modern yet also ancient, eccentric yet also charming, few travellers leave Scotland unaffected by their encounter.
A person from Scotland is called a Scot, or described as Scottish. The word "Scotch" applies only to things - for example, whisky, Scotch eggs, Scotch beef and Scotch Corner (a road junction leading to Scotland). Do not refer to Scotland as England, or to Scottish as English - it is very likely to cause annoyance.
Scotland is the most administratively independent of the four home nations of the UK, and retained its own legal, religious and educational institutions at the Union in 1707 which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Prior to 1707, it was an independent nation but had provided a monarch for England as well since 1603. Since 1999, it has had limited self-government with a First Minister and devolved parliament which governs nearly all internal affairs.
It is currently an exciting time in Scottish politics. For some years, and particularly since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 (see subsection on "Government" below), a greater sense of self-identity as "Scottish" rather than "British" has been spreading through the country. This culminated in the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) gaining a plurality of MSPs in 2007 and then an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. One of their main acts has been to arrange a referendum on whether to secede from the UK and declare an independent state. In 2014, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom by 55-45% on a record turnout, although feelings generally still run high on both sides. After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, it was announced that a second referendum on independence was 'on the table'.
The physical size of Scotland is comparable to that of the Czech Republic and around two thirds of that of England, constituting the northern third of the island of Great Britain. Much of the terrain is hilly, particularly in the interior, and mountainous in the Highlands, which constitute the north-western part of the country. Areas in the south, east and north-east are generally flatter and are fertile agricultural land, which is more scarce in the Highlands. The coastline is very long (at 6,158 miles, Scotland's coastline is very long compared to similarly sized countries) and can be rugged, with many cliffs, inlets, beaches and rocks. There are a large number of islands, clustered into groups: the Western Isles (consisting of the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) and the Northern Isles (consisting of the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands). There are additional islands in and around the estuary of the River Clyde, such as the Isle of Arran and numerous others. There are around 790 offshore islands in total. There are many rivers, with the Tay, Forth, Clyde, Dee, Don, Spey and Ness being prominent. Wide river estuaries are known as "firths", with the Firth of Forth, Firth of Tay and Firth of Clyde being particularly large. There are also a large number of inland lakes called "lochs" (the Scots word for "lake").
There are seven cities, the largest of which are Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the others being comparatively small (usually less than 100,000 inhabitants). There are also a large number of smaller towns in which much of the population reside. Most of the population lives in the conurbations of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the many towns around them. Together, this region is known as the "Central Belt". Other main centres of population are in the east and north-east of the country and particularly the east coast, in the counties of Fife, Angus, Aberdeenshire and the cities of Dundee and Aberdeen. Significant populations are also present in the south of the country and along the north-east coast. However, the Highlands (outside of the city of Inverness) are more sparsely populated. Many of the larger islands are inhabited, although there are hundreds of small islands with no human population.
Scotland shares the same time zone as the rest of the United Kingdom. This is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) for much of the year, or British Summer Time (GMT+1) in the middle six months of the year.
Scotland has a rich cultural history much of which is preserved in historic buildings throughout the country. Prehistoric settlements can be traced back to 9600 BC, as well as the famous standing stones in Lewis and Orkney. The Romans, fronted by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, made initial incursions but finally invaded Great Britain in 43 AD, moving into the southern half of Scotland, but not occupying the country due to the fierce resistance efforts of the native Caledonian tribes. The Romans named the mostly area of modern Scotland "Caledonia". Today, Hadrian's Wall to the south of the Scottish-English border is perceived by some as one of the most famous Roman remains in the world, arguably on a par with the 8-foot-arch on Naxos.
After the withdrawal of the machinery of the Roman Empire around AD 411, the so-called Dark Ages followed. However, since the Roman occupation affected mostly just the south of the island of Great Britain, Scotland was unaffected as it had been even at the great battle at Mons Graupius. Because the grip of Roman hegemony had now loosened, all sorts of invaders now saw the island as open season. So the Angles arrived on the east coast around North Berwick. It has to be said that the natives here fared rather better than their southern counterparts did at the hands of the Saxons, who, for example, sacked the Isle of Wight, such that not a native male Briton was left alive.
Scotland was believed to have been founded in 843 AD, and eventually expanded it's borders to the area of modern day Scotland. The early history of the new nation was marked with many conflicts with the English, and also the Vikings who invaded the north of Scotland. Today the Shetland Islands retain a strong Viking cultural identity. Another powerful impact on Scotland's story has been religion. Events leading up to the Scottish Reformation of 1560, including the destruction of the cathedral at St. Andrews the year before, had a strong impact on life in the country, and led to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland taking over from the Roman Catholic Church as the established state religion. It was a more strict form of Protestantism than the Anglicanism that developed in England, and was influenced by the teaching of Jean Calvin which had been brought back by John Knox. Religion would lead to many later political and military clashes, such as the Bishops' Wars that were part of the wider civil wars in England, Ireland and Scotland in the 17th century.
Wars with the English would dominate Scottish history for hundreds of years until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the King of Scots, James VI, inherited the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I (who had executed his mother, Mary I, Queen of Scots). While this put an end to armed conflict, there were still conflicts between the Scottish and English parliaments on which monarch should succeed and various commercial disputes such as the ill-fated "Darien Scheme" to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. The disaster of the Darien scheme was due partly to incompetence and partly to interference from England, which feared competition with its own colonies. Almost a quarter of the money circulating in Scotland at the time was invested in the scheme, and its failure caused an economic catastrophe amongst the nobility of Scotland. This was one factor leading to the Act of Union.
In 1701 England passed an act that meant that if King William III's successor died without children, the Crown would be passed on to a protestant German prince. In response to this, the Scottish parliament passed a law saying that the next King of Scotland would not be a King of England also, effectively ending the 100 year personal union. England retaliated with a trade embargo that would only be lifted if Scotland and England united in a political union. England also offered to pay off all of Scotland's debts from the failed Darien Scheme. Thus, on May 1, 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain (it would not become the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland" until the union with the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800) came into existence. Scotland and England retained their own religious, education, and legal systems (which is why these differ today). However, the union was very controversial, with the apparent bribing and promising of financial gain to the members of the Scottish Parliament (who were mostly nobility), and national poet Robert Burns famously saying that Scotland was "bought and sold for English gold". There were also many riots as the time and the decision was extremely unpopular with the general Scottish population. Despite the controversy, the Union provided a new stability and a climate in the 18th and 19th centuries in which commerce and new ways of thinking could flourish, and led to a major role for Scotland (and particularly its people) in the British Empire and the creation of the world we know today. Historian Simon Schama has written that "What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history."
This began with the growth of commerce. Following the dramatic failure of the "Darien Scheme", Scottish merchants learned lessons from its mistakes and became skilled businessmen very quickly. They began to assert that Scotland had become the world's first commercial nation. From the 18th century, the "Scottish Enlightenment" saw vast industrial expansion, and the rise of the city of Glasgow as a major trading port and eventually "Second City" of the British Empire. However, the dark underbelly was that much of the prosperity of sugar and tobacco merchants, with their lavish houses in Glasgow, was based on slavery in the New World.
At the same time, the Scottish Enlightenment led to an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Major advances in public education led to the most literate society the world had known up to that time. Further, key individuals produced work that is still influential today, such as economist Adam Smith (known as the father of capitalism), philosopher David Hume, poet and songwriter Robert Burns, geologist James Hutton, and inventor and industrialist James Watt whose work led to the Industrial Revolution. The Scottish Enlightenment is often seen as Scotland's "golden age" (in contrast to England, where the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century is usually seen as such). However, this economic success was not shared with much of the population, and inequality of wealth and opportunity combined with poverty and greedy landlords drove vast numbers to emigrate to America, Canada, and other places. This was particularly pronounced in the Highlands, with the "Highland Clearances" driven by greed as landlords forced tenant farmers from the land and burned their homes, in order to replace them with more profitable sheep.
Universities flourished, and in the 19th and 20th centuries many of the great inventions of the world, including the bicycle and the television, were invented by Scots. Scotland retained a strong industrial and commercial economy until the mid-20th century. However, following de-industrialization, many areas fell into decline, although the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s reversed this for areas in the North-East such as Aberdeen. In the mid-to-late 20th century Scotland saw increasing calls for autonomy from London, and finally in 1999 a Scottish Parliament was again established in Edinburgh, led by a First Minister and Scottish cabinet. Reforms made by the Scottish Parliament have helped the country to rediscover a level of prosperity, with cities regenerated (such as Glasgow) and industries re-aligned to include financial services (particularly in Edinburgh), retail, tourism, science and technology, oil and gas (particularly in Aberdeen) and renewable energy.
A referendum on 18 September 2014 resulted in independence being rejected 55%-45% by voters, on the promise that substantial new powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland's history and geography is reflected in the wide range of visitor attractions available, from castles and cathedrals, to stunning countryside, and more modern attractions showcasing old and new Scottish cultural achievements.
Scotland operates a devolved government as part of the UK. Many matters internal to Scotland are controlled by the Scottish Government, at whose heart is the Scottish Parliament, a unicameral legislature of 129 elected members (known as MSPs - "Members of the Scottish Parliament"). The Scottish Parliament has the power to pass any law, except in those areas "reserved" to the UK Parliament at Westminster. A Scottish Parliament had governed Scotland when it was an independent nation, prior to the Act of Union with England of 1707. As part of a policy and following a referendum proposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 with powers transferred ("devolved") from the UK Parliament at Westminster. At the same time, similar developments took place in Wales and Northern Ireland. Although the UK Parliament still passes laws relating to Scotland, it does not do so in the areas where the Scottish Parliament exercises power.
Residents of Scotland therefore have elected officials in two parliaments and look to two governments - in Edinburgh and in London - each controlling separate aspects of life. For example, while you apply for a passport or a driver's licence from the UK Government, complaints about the education system are directed to Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament is based at a modern, architecturally significant building at Holyrood in Edinburgh, and you will hear the term "Holyrood" used to mean the Scottish Parliament similar to how "Capitol Hill" means the US Congress. The UK parliament and UK Government still control other matters that do not exclusively affect Scotland, such as defence, customs, immigration, etc, and Scots continue to elect members to serve at the UK Parliament in London. Scottish politics is decidedly left-wing compared to the rest of the UK and particularly compared to the United States. Most parties are to some extent socialist and are socially liberal, for example recent proposals to introduce same-sex marriage enjoyed wide support from all parties in the Parliament. Since it was reconvened in 1999, the Parliament has been dominated by left-wing and socialist parties. The only centre-right party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, is one of the smallest in the Parliament, and it is comparatively socially liberal.
The head of the Scottish Government is the First Minister, who is prominent in public life and acts as the leader of Scotland in internal matters and also de facto represents Scotland's economic and cultural interests abroad (although foreign policy is a matter reserved to London). The people elect members to represent their local area and region, but do not directly elect the First Minister - he or she is chosen by the parliament. Following an election, the parliament's first act is to choose a First Minister - usually (but not necessarily) the leader of the largest party. The Queen then appoints him or her based on the parliament's advice. The First Minister then appoints other ministers, subject to parliament's approval. The current First Minister (Scotland's first ever female First Minister, since November 2014) is Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (a centre-left, nationalist party), and the Deputy First Minister (of the same party) is John Swinney. Various other ministers are responsible for other areas of government activity. The opposition parties are the Scottish Labour Party (centre-left, unionist), the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party (centre-right, unionist). Scottish Liberal Democrats (left-wing, unionist) and the Scottish Green Party (left-wing, nationalist)
Scotland has a rich culture which is distinct from the other nations in the UK, though has similarities (as is typical for countries which are located close together). Scottish people are often fiercely proud of their culture, which in the past was the target of attempts to suppress it to create a single "British" culture - based on English culture. Today, in more enlightened times, Scotland's cultural achievements are evident in numerous areas and are flourishing.
The country has a great tradition of festivals (e.g. the Edinburgh Festivals), literature and achievement in the arts. Since the Scottish Enlightenment that followed the Act of Union, it has produced some of the greatest literary personalities, thinkers and writers of the world. Many ideas now seen as key to the modern world derive from the work of Scottish scholars, scientists and authors, such as Adam Smith. Scottish novelists have also enjoyed success in recent times, such as Irvine Welsh. Scotland's great tradition of science has produced some of the greatest scientists and inventors of the world, including James Watt (pioneer of the Industrial Revolution), John Logie Baird (inventors of the television) and Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin). More recently, scientists in Aberdeen developed the MRI scanner and those in Edinburgh created Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned animal.
There is also a thriving Scottish music scene. Outdoor popular music festivals such as T in the Park attract vast crowds and attract internationally-renowned live music acts. Scottish bands and musicians are also prominent, particularly those originating from in and around Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland. This city is home to a fantastic music scene; must-visit destinations include King Tut's Wah Wah Hut (where Oasis were spotted and signed for their first record deal).
Scottish folk music is also flourishing, with traditional and modern folk music sung in both English, Scottish Gaelic (and sometimes Scots). Folk music often features instruments such as fiddle/violin, acoustic guitar, harp, accordion, piano, various sorts of bagpipes, and other traditional instruments as well as voice. You may also encounter Scottish forms of dance which are also popular. This may range from simple, as at a ceilidh (pronounced "kay-lee", a mix of dances performed to traditional music and descended from ballroom and country dancing), to more complex Scottish Country Dancing which is a form of social dancing descended from renaissance dance styles, to solo Highland Dancing (which has a military heritage) if you go to a Highland Games. These styles exist alongside other popular forms of music and dance also found in other modern countries.
Scottish people suffer from a stereotype which portrays them as "dour" (ie unemotional, reserved and staid), and while this may have been accurate in the past, it no longer is. You will find most Scots to be friendly, warm, and with a strong sense of humour, although it can take more than one meeting with you for them to warm up. Younger Scots are often hedonistic, with the "night out" being a basic unit of social interaction for many people and packed pubs, bars, nightclubs and live music and comedy venues in cities. On the other hand, heavy drinking is a part of Scottish culture and has been increasing in recent years; you are likely to hear younger people talk of being drunk as a nirvana-like ideal state. However, the flip side to this is that public drunkenness, disorderliness and alcoholism is a problem. While they may not be overly willing to make conversation with a stranger at a bus stop or other public place, nor trust you with their life story the first time they meet you, you will find most Scots to be enjoyable, lively and satisfying companions.
The most popular spectator sport in Scotland is soccer, always referred to as football. The teams of the highest league division, the Scottish Premier League, are said to enjoy the greatest support per head of population of any country in the world. Rugby union is also popular but not to nearly the same extent as football. In these sports, the constituent countries of the UK usually compete as separate nations, i.e. Scotland fields its own national teams.
As befits the nation that gave birth to it, golf is also popular, with a very large number of golf courses. Public golf courses are widespread, inexpensive and typically of high quality. Tennis has recently been increasing in popularity since Scottish tennis player Andy Murray has been enjoying success in major championships.
Scottish people are often passionate about sport and the full range of other sports available in the UK are played, with good facilities for all sports in most parts of the country. Nearly every town will have a "leisure centre" providing sports and exercise facilities, playing fields for outdoor sports, and/or a swimming pool. In sports other than soccer and rugby, Scottish sportsmen and sportswomen make a significant contribution to international competitions in a wide range of sports, representing Great Britain.
Administratively, Scotland has been divided into a large number of traditional counties and (currently) 32 modern unitary authorities. These are of only limited use to the traveller, however, and an alternative regionalisation — based on culture and geography — is far more practical. From south to north:
Scotland has seven official cities - Glasgow is by far the largest with a population of approximately 620,000 people, with about 1.2 million in the whole conurbation. The capital, Edinburgh, has around 450,000, while Aberdeen is next at about 200,000 inhabitants and Dundee is fourth with 160,000 inhabitants.
Scotland has extensive wilderness areas, some of which have been proclaimed as National Parks:
Many world-class scenic areas are not (yet) protected as National Parks, though some have other designations such as National Scenic Areas or Forest Parks. The Lochaber region contains the impressive Glencoe as well as Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. The Torridon and Wester Ross areas are also popular mountaineering destinations. Most popular of all with climbers are the Black Cuillin of Skye - but there's plenty of scope for walkers here as well.
It has many historic Islands. Islay is known as the Queen of Hebrides, has eight whisky distilleries, and you can still see today the parliament site of the Clan Donald from 1200 AD, when the Clan Donald ruled the western seaboard of Scotland. The Isle of Arran is also a fantastic destination.
Glasgow has some of the best free museums in Europe. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, in the West End, has some of the most famous exhbits, and is surrounded by the beautiful urban park, Kelvingrove Park.
Immigration and Visas
There are no border controls when travelling within the United Kingdom including the land border with England. You also do not need a passport to travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Although passport checks for passengers from Ireland entering Scotland are rare, the same immigration and visa requirements observed by the rest of the UK are in force in Scotland - see the main UK article for details.
There is a wide selection of direct European flights into Scotland from most major cities on the Continent; and a growing number of direct long haul routes from further afield. Most long haul passengers will still usually enter Scotland via a connection from London Heathrow or another major European hub airport such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Paris.
There are many UK domestic flights operating to Scotland including:
No airport in Scotland, except Glasgow Prestwick, is connected to the rail network, meaning travellers have to use a dedicated bus service to the city centre, or take a taxi. However, a tram line links Edinburgh Airport to Edinburgh city centre. Passengers arriving at and departing from Prestwick may use their boarding pass to claim a 50% discount on single train tickets between the airport and any station in Scotland.
Scotland's railway system is seamlessly integrated with England, and hence forms part of the National Rail system. Scotland is connected to cities in England via the West Coast and East Coast main lines, both of which originate in London, and serve several major cities in England en route. Hence, arriving in Scotland from England by rail is not going to be much of an issue. Railcard discounts from National Rail are fully applicable here as well. For those unused to the vagaries of the UK rail network, Wikitravel has a useful guide to Rail travel in the UK.
There are five day train operators linking Scotland with England:
The Caledonian Sleeper links London Euston with Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Fort William, and many other towns and villages along the way. There are two Caledonian Sleeper trains which leave every night (except Saturdays) from London Euston:
Note if you are intending to use the Caledonian Sleeper to an intermediate destination between the Central Belt and the Highlands (e.g Stirling, Perth, anywhere in Fife or Dundee) - the Highland train will drop you off at an unsociable time in the morning possibly before any other public transport is running. For this reason it is often more convenient to use the Lowland train to either Glasgow or Edinburgh and use a daytime service to complete the journey. In addition, passengers who wish to travel in the seated coach to any destination on the West Highland Railway to Fort William must change coaches at Edinburgh Waverley.
For international travellers, Scottish Rail passes  are available, as are BritRail passes. See Wikitravel's guide to Rail travel in the UK for more info on booking and travelling by train in Scotland.
The main road linking Scotland and England is the M74/A74 (M) motorway which runs from Glasgow to the English border north of Carlisle. The A1 road links Edinburgh and the North East of England; however, this road is single carriageway in some areas and not considered the best route into Scotland. Hence the place name "Scotch Corner" on the A1 where traffic heading for most Scottish destinations turn to cross the Pennine hills on the A66 to enter Scotland via the M6 and M74.
Bus and coach services are the cheapest way to get to Scotland from England, but are also the longest and the least comfortable. National Express is the main operator, with services from most major UK cities to Glasgow's Buchanan Bus Station and Edinburgh Bus Station. In addition, Megabus operate services to Scotland from a number of towns and cities in England, and Citylink operate direct services from Blackpool to Glasgow during the summer season.
From Northern Ireland
Scotland operates a modern and effective transport system, including high-quality road, railway and bus links, managed and regulated by the Scottish Government's department of transport, Transport Scotland. Public transport is generally a mix of commercial and state-operated services. If you are travelling across the water to and between the islands, air and sea travel is also an option.
Urban transport and travel between major and minor towns and cities is effectively provided by public transportation (primarily bus and train). However, if you plan to tour the country, a car allows you to access more remote areas with poor or no public transportation. This applies particularly if you plan to visit the Highlands, Islands, mountains or rural areas. Hire cars are easily available from international companies in towns and cities.
If you will be travelling by public transport, the government provides a comprehensive website called Traveline Scotland. It includes a very useful on-line journey planner that allows you to plan a journey from any one point in the country to any other, using all forms of public transport. You can also download timetables for all public transportation services and check next bus times from any bus stop in Scotland. If you have a smartphone, it also provides an app for iPhone/iPad, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone. This app is extremely useful on the go, for example to check the time of the next bus.
As Scotland is a small country, air travel is uneconomical on most short routes. However, it is the fastest way to reach many of the islands. Flights can be very turbulent, as Scotland is notorious for rain, wind and storms and the planes used are small, e.g. Saab 340s, Twin Otters and Islanders.
Loganair  operates the majority of Scotland's internal flights, under a franchise to FlyBe through whose website you can book flights (until July 2008 Loganair had been a franchisee of British Airways). FlyBe offer a number of connections to UK and European airports from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow. FlyBe also has a codeshare with British Airways so you can book through-tickets from more distant parts.
Flights are available from Glasgow International Airport to Campbeltown, Islay, Barra, Benbecula, Stornoway, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. Flights are also available from Edinburgh Airport to Stornoway, Wick, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands.
Flights can be expensive, although Loganair-operated flights to the islands are sometimes included in FlyBe sales and special offers. It should be noted that flights can be disrupted or cancelled due to weather conditions, particularly in Winter. Flights heading to and from Barra can also be disrupted or cancelled owing to the state of the tide, as the island's runway is a beach. As a guide, the flight time from Glasgow to Barra is approximately 1hr, and the flight time from Glasgow to the Shetland Islands is approximately 2hrs & 30 Mins.
Loch Lomond Seaplanes also operate from Glasgow Science Centre with flghts to Loch Lomond, Tobermory and Oban. Flights however are expensive. A return flight to Oban for example costs £129. The plane can also be chartered, but to do so generally costs in excess of £1000.
Wikitravel has a guide to Rail travel in the United Kingdom, including within Scotland.
Trains are one of the faster ways to get around many parts of the country. Journey times are often the same as by road - while there may be many stops, high speed between stops compensates for this. On some routes, the train is considerably faster (e.g. Edinburgh to Dunbar/North Berwick). However, on some routes the train is considerably slower than by road because of the convoluted route the train takes. For example, the maximum permitted speed on some sections of the Far North Line from Inverness to Wick is 90mph, however because the line runs around the Dornoch Firth and calls at Scotscalder, more than an hour is added to the journey.
A number of railway companies operate trains within Scotland:
The main rail terminals are:
The train services which run via the West Highland Railway to Fort William and Mallaig from Glasgow Queen Street were voted as the most scenic in the world by Wanderlust in 2009 - they take in some wonderful views of the Scottish landscape. Fans of the Harry Potter franchise will recognise a lot of scenery from the films on this route.
Generally train fares in Scotland are comparable to the rest of the UK, and are more expensive than most European countries. If you buy a ticket right before you travel, a typical off-peak fare between Glasgow and Edinburgh might be £10 return, and between Edinburgh and Aberdeen £40 return. However, as throughout the UK rail system, advance purchase tickets offer cheaper fares (travellers may wish to read Wikitravel's guide to Rail travel in the United Kingdom). It is best to avoid peak time services between Glasgow and Edinburgh or commuter lines around Glasgow, as trains are often overcrowded at rush hour.
On some of the rural lines, services only run a couple of times a day. For example, the Far North Line (Inverness to Wick) and the Kyle of Lochalsh line (Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh) have only around 3 to 4 return journeys a day Monday to Saturday and just one on a Sunday. So take care when travelling along these lines, as if you miss your train it could be a while to wait for the next one.
In July 2012, it became illegal to consume alcohol on ScotRail trains at certain times. This means that on ScotRail trains, alcohol may not be carried or consumed before 10:00 and after 21:00. This policy does not apply on trains operated by any other company. It is also illegal to be drunk on a train at any time, however it is likely this would only be enforced if you were behaving in a disorderly manner or disturbing other passengers. However, passengers seen breaking these laws by train staff are liable to be met at the next station by the UK railway police - the British Transport Police - and arrested.
In Scotland, a car enables you to reach almost any part of the country. It is also the best way to take in the spectacular scenery of mountainous, rural and Highland areas. However, although Scotland is not a big country, car travel can take significantly longer than you may expect. The mountainous terrain means that crossing from the east to the west usually involves taking circuitous routes.
With the exception of the Central Belt and the North-East, where there are motorways and dual carriageways and travel is fast and easy, road conditions in Scotland are often below Western European standards. Beware of defects such as potholes, ruts, cracks and patches in both urban and rural roads (but not motorways or dual carriageways which are maintained to a higher standard by the Scottish Government).
Many rural roads feature are narrow, have many bends and chicanes, are unlit at night, and are vulnerable to poor weather. If you have a car that handles well, these roads can be fun to drive. Added to this, scenery is often breathtaking. However, do not be fooled into driving too fast or overtaking recklessly. As in the rest of the UK, the speed limit on country roads is usually 60mph (100km/h), although the Scottish Parliament has recently acquired the power to set its own speed limits in Scotland. 60mph/100kmh is too fast for many roads, where you may easily run into a sharp blind hairpin bend without warning. Drive cautiously if a rural road is unfamiliar. You will also find frequent speed cameras and traffic patrols on main roads.
As in the rest of the UK and Ireland, traffic in Scotland drives on the left. Drivers from other countries should take special care if they are not used to driving on the left or if your car is left-hand drive. If driving a left-hand drive car, you may find it difficult to see traffic in your passenger-side door mirror and overtaking may be more difficult and hazardous.
The accident rate is higher in rural areas such as the Highlands and Aberdeenshire due to the nature of the roads as well as the severe winter weather in these areas. Locals usually drive faster than tourists due to their knowledge of the roads, don't feel obliged to speed up as well. Aggressive motorcycle riding can be a major problem on some of Scotland's rural roads, and the annual accident rate is higher than the UK average. Even if someone is coming up fast behind you, do not be goaded into increasing your speed. They will overtake (at their own risk!) if you keep to a speed at which you are comfortable. Added to this, weather can be poor, particularly in the interior of the country. In winter, you are likely to find roads closed by snow, with "snow gates" being closed (literally a huge gate that traffic police use to close off the road). In coastal areas, mist or fog can be a problem. Listen to radio travel bulletins (e.g. BBC Radio Scotland) and avoid car travel in poor winter weather.
In remote areas many roads are single track. Passing places are provided at intervals. These are marked by diamond shaped white signs labeled "Passing Place". Sometimes, these are incorrectly installed as a square sign. On older, less-used, single track roads black and white striped poles may still be used as markers. If faster traffic comes up behind you it is the rule that you should pull into a passing place and allow the other vehicle to pass. When two vehicles approach each other on a single track road, experienced drivers will both adjust their speed so as to reach the passing place at the same time and pass each other slowly, avoiding the need for either vehicle to come to a stop. You should pull in to the passing place on your left or if the passing place is on the right hand side, stop opposite it so that the oncoming car can pull into it.
Many rural roads are poorly maintained and lack crash barriers, so you should drive carefully and never assume that it is clear around the the next bend or over the next hill. Use main-beam/high-beam headlamps. You may also find cattle grids (also known as cattle guards or Texas gates). These are used if livestock is loose in the area and should be negotiated very slowly as they can have an adverse effect on your vehicle's steering. In these areas keep your speed down and watch out for livestock such as horses, sheep, cattle and deer.
Many bypasses have been built to allow faster travel, but the visitor will miss out on some of the beautiful scenery of Scotland. In some areas, road signs will indicate that the road on the next exit will rejoin the main route by showing a semi-circular exit and entrance with the destination name in the middle. This allows the driver confidence to take more scenic diversions into small towns or to find a place to stop and have lunch.
Finally, do not drive if you have consumed alcohol. Drink-driving is illegal in Scotland and not tolerated by the police. It can be difficult to estimate how much is within the legal limit so the safe limit is zero. It attracts severe punishments by court judges: Sentences include jail terms (including lengthy jail terms if you cause an accident while drunk), large fines, confiscation of your car (according to recent new laws) and if you are from the UK, disqualification from driving.
Buses are usually the cheapest way of getting around in Scotland, however they are also the slowest and least comfortable option.
Scottish Citylink has the most extensive network, operating 19 routes linking the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling and Inverness, as well as linking a number of rural Highland communities to the main urban areas of Scotland. In some remote parts of the Highlands, Citylink buses double as the only local bus service.
Megabus is a very cheap way to travel, as ticket prices start at £1 if booked weeks in advance, and rising to over £10 for peak-rate or last-minute fares. A 50p booking charge is applied to every ticket. Megabus departs from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Perth, going between these Scottish cities as well as to English destinations. Note that with Megabus you can book only online (from 45 days to 30 minutes before departure).
Megabus services within Scotland are run on a joint basis with Citylink, and buses can be in the livery of either operator. Tickets for these services can be bought on both companies' websites (often at different prices for identical services) or on the coach, subject to seat availability.
Especially in the Highlands, it is not uncommon for buses to operate in the livery of a different operator. For example, the Citylink buses from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Oban and Skye often operate in the livery of West Coast Motors or Shiel Buses. Road closures due to accidents and weather conditions are not uncommon on Highland routes: hence this can result in the buses having to take significant diversions which can add a large amount of time to journeys.
It is important to remember that, if buying tickets on the bus, credit cards are not accepted as payment.
A regular and extensive ferry service operates between most large islands, and across the Clyde estuary.
Hitch-hiking is surprisingly easy in Scotland, but better to do outside the big cities. In the Highlands you might need to wait for a long time until a car comes by. General caution must be taken.
English is the administrative language of Scotland, and is spoken fluently by nearly the entire population. Scottish Gaelic is the traditional language of the Highlands and Western Isles, and is spoken by roughly 33% of its people. Scots is the traditional and community language of the Lowlands, and is varyingly intelligible with English depending on the variety and thickness - however, almost all Scots are fluent in English, too, and will be happy to switch once they understand you are foreign.
Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) is spoken by only around 87,000 people, mainly in the Highlands (a' Ghàidhealtachd) and the Western Isles (Na h-Eileanan Siar). You will more than likely hear locals speaking in Gaelic in the Western Isles and on the ferries to and from them. Signs on board some CalMac ferries to the Western Isles are in Gaelic first and English second. In addition, announcements on some ferries may be at least partially in Gaelic. Everyone, however, speaks English.
Scots ('Wir ain leid', literally 'Our own language'), although being an officially recognised minority language, is understood by around 80% of the population, throughout the whole country, and is widely spoken in a mixture with Scottish English. The language evolved from Old English, and was the national language of Scotland for most of Scotland's life before the 1707 union with England. Scots is more or less intelligible to English in written form.
The Scots generally have rather poor foreign language ability, although those in tourism-related industries generally have better language skills. French, German and Spanish are the most commonly known foreign languages.
Here are some useful Scots words derived from Gaelic, Pictish or Old Norse:
Here are some Gaelic phrases often found in the Highlands and the Western Isles:
Scotland offers a range of products, souvenirs and memorabilia unavailable authentically anywhere else in the world. A few examples:
Visitors from outside northern Europe may find Scotland a relatively expensive country.
As in the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland uses British currency which is the Pound Sterling (abbreviated "£").
Scotland's three national banks issue their own sterling banknotes (Bank of Scotland, The Royal Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank) which circulate alongside Bank of England notes in Scotland. Many shops do not accept £50 notes, due to the perceived fear of counterfeits.
Scottish banknotes are valid as legal currency in England and Wales and there is no reason for them to be refused, however some businesses may not accept Scottish banknotes often due to the sales staff's ignorance, or concern that they unable to verify whether the note is genuine or that later customers will not want to receive Scottish money as change. If you experience problems, then simply exchange them for Bank of England notes at any bank at no charge. You should never experience such problems in areas near the border (for example, the Lake District).
Scottish banknotes are very difficult to exchange outside the UK, where foreign banks are generally unfamiliar with the notes, so they should be either spent or exchanged for Bank of England notes before leaving the UK.
Euros are accepted at some High Street stores, but this should not be relied upon and the exchange rates are usually poor, so you're advised to change your money into sterling.
Scotland is relatively expensive when compared to some other European countries. As a basic rule, the further north you venture, the more expensive it likely gets, mostly because of the difficulty and expense of supply.
The classic tourist souvenir is a kilt and everything else involving tartan. A real kilt costs about £300-400 and is made of heavy wool (so it will not reveal what you might or might not be wearing underneath even in strong winds), but most souvenir stores offer only bogus thin ones. If you really want a genuine kilt or full traditional outfit (kilt, sporran, jacket, shirt, and shoes) the best place to look is a clothing hire shop. These specialise in hiring suits and kilts for weddings and often sell ex-hire stock at reduced prices - otherwise the kilt will have to be made to order - this usually takes several weeks. A bogus kilt set of kilt, sporran, socks and garters of dubious quality for the purposes of a souvenir, can be bought for around £60-100.
The traditional highland kilt is a section of cloth about 6 feet wide and 14 feet long. This is wrapped about the body then then brought up over the shoulder and pinned in place, a little like a toga. The modern short kilt was introduced during the industrial revolution to give more freedom of movement.
Whisky is also a common buy. There are two basic types - blended whiskies which are made from, as the name suggests - several single malts blended together. Beware of souvenir shops selling small bottles of blended whisky for inflated prices - you can more often than not find the same bottle in a supermarket (or in airport duty-free) much cheaper!
Single malt whiskies are more expensive, and worth paying the price premium. Single malts are very diverse depending on the region or town where the whisky was distilled and the type of barley used. The smaller, independent distilleries pride themselves on the quality of their product and their whisky is often only available in a small number of shops, or even directly. Mainstream brand single malts are still sold in supermarkets and duty-free shops.
Cost of living
Most visitors are disappointed by the high cost of living in Scotland. Although prices in Scotland are not as bad as in the south of England, compared to the USA or most other parts of Europe, basic living expenses are still high. Most goods have an additional 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) applied although this is always included in the marked price for general consumer purchases. Petrol (gasoline) has a massive 70% excise tax and 20% VAT on top of that. Costs are highest in Glasgow and Edinburgh and in very remote places such as Stornoway - petrol prices often hit £1.50 per litre in some areas.
While Scotland has suffered from the stereotype for dreary food, things have changed now with numerous quality Indian, French, Italian and Modern Scottish options on offer. In fact, in parts of the country such as Edinburgh, it has become quite difficult to get a really bad meal.
Vegetarian food isn't as hard to find as you would think, with virtually all restaurants and cafés offering more than one vegetarian option. Vegan food is harder to find, but not impossible. Edinburgh especially has a good number of exceptional vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Scotland (especially the Highlands) is famous for the hundreds of brands of Scotch whisky it produces. It seems to the visitor that every village makes its own particular brand, so much so that somebody compared a tour of the highlands as being similar to "driving through a drinks cabinet"! There are around 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland and nearly half of them welcome visitors. Opening days and times can be up to seven days a week in Summer and sometimes they close in the Winter.
Bars are the places you meet people and where you have a good time. More than in other countries, bars are very lively and it is easy to get to know people when you're travelling alone. The Scottish are very welcoming, so it's not unusual that they will buy you a beer even though you just met them.
The legal drinking age is 18 years old, and many pubs and clubs will ask for ID of anyone who looks younger than mid-twenties, penalties for those caught buying drink for those under 18 can include a large fine. The penalties for drinking and driving are severe. Drinking laws are complicated slightly by the fact that a single glass of wine may be served to a 16-year old, provided it is with a meal.
Self catering holidays, in cottages wooden lodges or city flats, in Scotland have become very popular over recent years. Many cottages are now furnished to a very high standard.
Scotland has plenty of hostels, both the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA)  and a large and developing network of Independent Hostels. Some of the buildings are very impressive. The SYHA traditionally involved guests performing chores and a ban on alcohol. The new breed of independent hostels have eschewed these concepts, causing the SYHA to loosen up its attitudes too.
Camping is another inexpensive way of touring Scotland, though the unpredictable weather makes it less appealing than in some other countries. In remote areas camp sites can be a significant distance apart so buy an up to date guide and plan your route. Booking is not usually necessary except in peak season. Generally, the rule is the more remote the camp site, the better the scenery and the lower the cost. Some camp sites may provide only basic amenities. Camping rough is possible in remote areas, but observe local signs, and never camp next to a stream that could rapidly become swollen by overnight rain. Midges (tiny biting insects) can be a particular nuisance during August and September: the insects are harmless but incredibly irritating.
Bed and Breakfast accommodation is widely available, even in remote areas and some very good deals can be found. Many people consider these to be more friendly and welcoming than a hotel. Local tourist information centres will help you find a room for the same night, and you may expect to pay in the region of £25 per person per night for room and full Scottish breakfast. The Scottish Guest House and Bed & Breakfast Association (GHABBA)  have a range of Bed and Breakfasts and Guest Houses across Scotland.
The Travelodge and Premier Inn motel chains are widespread in Scotland. In cities these are likely to prove cheaper than a hotel.
Most historic sites are maintained either by the National Trust of Scotland or by Historic Scotland. Both offer memberships (with free priority access and other discounts) for a year or a lifetime and have reciprocal arrangements with their English and Welsh equivalents. Depending on how much you get around and how long you are staying, they may well be worth buying. Membership also contributes to the sites' preservation and new acquisitions.
In the bigger cities you can learn highland dancing. If you're interested in learning how to play the Scottish bagpipe, you should know that it takes about one year to play on an actual bagpipe for the first time. It is really more difficult than it looks and needs daily practice!
If you are interested in learning more about Scotland you can visit www.scotland.org .
The regulations governing who can work in Scotland is the same as for the rest of the UK.
A general shortage of skilled labour in the health sector means the British health service actively recruits abroad, making it easier for those with specialist health care skills to work in the UK. The Scottish Government is also keen to attract immigrants to Scotland to plug a perceived declining population.
Scotland's weather is highly changeable, but rarely extreme. In the mountainous regions of the north and west of the country the weather can change swiftly and frequently even in Summer. What started as a bright morning can end as a very wet, very windy and very cold afternoon. Packing extra warm and rainproof clothing is advisable, whatever the time of year.
Like the rest of the UK, cars drive on the left. In urban areas, many intersections are controlled by roundabouts as opposed to traffic lights. In rural areas roads can be narrow, very twisty and road markings are rare. Some single track roads have "Passing Places" which allow vehicles to pass each other. Passing places are generally marked with a diamond-shaped white sign with the words "passing place" on it. Signs remind drivers of vehicles to pull over into a passing place (or opposite it, if it is on the opposite side of the road) to let approaching vehicles pass, and most drivers oblige. Use your common sense on these roads and it is a courtesy to politely acknowledge the other driver if they have stopped or pulled over to let you pass. Also use Passing Places to allow following vehicles to overtake - locals who are familiar with these roads greatly appreciate this. In addition many motorists will have to sometimes share the road with stray sheep and occasionally cattle, so extra vigilence is required. These roads pass through some of Scotland's most spectacular areas and while the scenery may be awe-inspiring, extra attention and concentration is required when using them.
Drunk driving is not tolerated by the authorities in Scotland and if you find yourself involved in any form of road incident that requires police attention, you will be breathalysed. If caught and convicted, a driving ban and/or imprisonment will normally follow.
Crime and safety
In any emergency call 999 (or 112) and from a land-line if you can and ask for Ambulance, Fire, Police, Mountain Rescue or Coast Guard when connected.
To contact the Police on Non-emergencies you should dial 101.
Scotland is generally a very safe country to visit. Like England and Wales, violent crime is a problem in some inner city areas, however, much of it occurs amongst hooligan-type, normally unarmed gangs, thus violent crime against tourists is rare. Petty crimes such as thefts and pickpocketing are lower than many other European countries, but vigilance at all times is required, especially in crowded areas. Crime rates vary greatly from urban to rural areas. You should approach clubs and bars at night with caution, especially around closing time when drink fuelled violence occurs, the best thing to do is use common sense and avoid any fighting. The same advice extends to using public transport - especially buses - after dark.
After around 9pm it is unlikely to see Conductors or Ticket Examiners (they are two separate things, although share near-identical public-facing roles) going about trains which are travelling to or from Edinburgh or Glasgow (for example - Ayr to Glasgow, Glasgow to Edinburgh or Kirkcaldy to Edinburgh) - if they cannot be found in the passenger areas of the train, they are likely to be found at the very rear of the train in the rear Driving cab. If you feel insecure, or have a problem on the train - sit close to the back of the train or knock on the door, if you have a problem. Some trains however, are operated entirely by the Driver. While the majority of these trains have Ticket Examiners, they can and do run without them. Again, late at night, they are more likely to be found in their "safe area" in the rear cab of the train. A simple knock should gain their attention if there is a problem. If there is no staff onboard and you are unhappy, try to sit where most passengers are. The British Transport Police's number is 0800 40 50 40, in an emergency call 999. If there is an incident which requires urgent attention operate the emergency alarm - this WILL stop the train - so it is usually best to operate the alarm at a station stop if your safety is not threatened by the movement of the train.
When hillwalking, you should always take along a compass, detailed maps, waterproof clothing, a torch (flashlight), and a good pair of boots. A charged mobile phone can be a lifesaver as some mountain areas have cell coverage, but networks like T-Mobile and Orange don't cover the Highlands very well - however, ANY phone is capable of making a 999 or 112 call if there is a signal available on any network, so an Orange phone with no Orange signal is most definitely better than no phone. The weather on the hills can change suddenly, with visibility falling to just a few metres. If hillwalking alone tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. More advice is available from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland
Beware of midges! These small biting flying insects (similar in looks to small swarming mosquitoes) are very prevalent in damp areas, particularly Western Scotland, from around May to September. The bites can itch but they don't carry disease. Midges don't tend to fly in direct sunshine or if it's windy, the worst times are dawn and dusk and near still water or damp areas. Males are often bitten more than females. It is advisable to take some strong insect repellent spray or if outdoors for a while, consider a face net.
Tap water in Scotland is safe to drink, if sometimes heavily chlorinated. In some remote or Northern areas it is best to let the tap run for a few seconds before using the water as it may have a slight brown tint. This is due to traces of soil or peat in the supply and nothing dangerous. Generally the further North you go in Scotland the better the water will taste!
It is important not to confuse or assume that Scotland is a part of England as this could cause annoyance. It is considered respectful to refer to Scottish people as Scots or Scottish. Some Scots may feel offended by the words "Jock" or being referred to as "Scotch" as opposed to Scottish. The vast majority of Scottish people, despite the stereotypes, are not in any way anti-English. Although most Scots respect and have strong ties with England, Scotland is a very proud nation and many still feel it important to differentiate themselves as having a separate sense of nationality.
The issue of independence is certainly much debated in Scotland. Although independence was rejected in a referendum in September 2014 by 55% of voters, feelings still run high. Whilst it is nowhere near as sensitive or divisive as in other parts of the world where such movements exist (such as Northern Ireland), it is best not to argue an extreme position on either side, as this may cause offence.
Rivalry between various football clubs is a rather more sensitive issue. It's a bad idea to wear the colours and shirts of football clubs as this may cause offence and/or intimation, or even lead to violence if worn in the wrong place. This is a problem mainly confined to Glasgow's 'Old Firm' (Celtic and Rangers) derby where there are still sectarian tensions. Celtic wear green and white, and Rangers wear blue and white, however orange is also often worn by them, and the clubs are often associated with the religious conflict in Northern Ireland. As such, association with Irish and British flags may cause similar offence, and like wearing football colours will be seen generally as attention seeking. It is also best to not express political views for the same reason.
See the UK contact entry for national information on telephone, internet and postal services. See Contact entries under individual cities for local information.
If you're travelling to Scotland from abroad, it is a good idea to get a UK Pay As You Go SIM which you can insert into your unlocked handset- you can pick one up from most local stores for about £0.99. This will be very useful if you're staying for more than 1-2 weeks and especially if you need mobile internet. Expect your signal to drop very frequently if travelling by train or car. The main mobile networks are EE, Vodafone, Three and O2. However there are a host of MVNOs that use the infrastructure of these networks, these often offer plans tailored towards expat communities and tourist who wish to call abroad, the main players are LycaMobile, Lebara and giffgaff. Most of these sim cards can be picked up in local shops however giffgaff do not have shops and only post out sims to the UK.
Scotland has a wealth of historic attractions ranging from prehistoric (stone circles, standing stones, burial cairns, barrows), Roman or Romano-British (camps, villas, fortlets, defensive walls, forts), medieval (castles, abbeys, churches, houses, roads) and modern. Since large numbers of people throughout the world have Scottish ancestors, family history is a significant part of the culture and heritage; every region has one or more family history societies and local history societies that help tourists seeking to discover their Scottish ancestry.