Top tips for Americans visiting Scotland

Did you know: around 75 percent of American presidents have some form of Scottish ancestry
Is Scotland friendly to American tourists? What can I expect from the food and weather? And do I need to drive everywhere? All of these questions, and many more, are answered below in our useful guide for Americans traveling to Scotland.

Our partners ensure that you enjoy an authentic introduction to Scotland, its culture and communities that often lie well off the beaten tourist track. We explain why rail is the best way to explore the Highlands (and the islands at the end of the line), how you can find truly Scottish souvenirs that directly benefit the craftspeople behind them, and perhaps most importantly of all, the value of traveling with a local guide beside you.

1. You’re better off going by rail

It’s easy, convenient and fun to get around by rail instead of driving. The distances in Scotland shouldn’t be underestimated. What looks like a short way on a map can take quite a while, potentially on narrow, twisty roads which, if you’re not used to them, can at times be difficult to navigate. It’s far better to go by train so you can relax, soak up the views and chat with your fellow passengers.

Plus, if you join an escorted small group rail tour, you’ll also have a knowledgeable local guide accompanying you throughout, able to regale you with stories of myth and legend connected with the places you’re passing through. Scotland rail tours take you on some of the most iconic routes in the country, including the West Highland Line and Kyle Line, and through landscapes you’d miss if going by road instead.

2. Don’t miss the cities

Our Scotland vacations aim to showcase the country’s astonishing natural beauty, as well as tranquil remote areas that see far fewer visitors than the big-name attractions. But there’s much to recommend beginning or ending your vacation with a few nights in a city such as Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness (if you’re taking a rail tour you will start and finish in one of these cities anyway).

Each has a wealth of museums, art galleries and other cultural attractions, not to mention historic landmarks such as the former shipbuilding cranes of Glasgow, or the Culloden Battlefield and prehistoric Clava Cairns just outside Inverness.

3. Expect a warm welcome

You can expect friendly greetings in the picturesque and remote communities you pass through. That’s especially the case when you’re traveling by rail with one of our responsible partners, as whether you’re traveling independently on a tailor made trip or on an escorted small group vacation, they ensure that you stay in small, often family-run hotels, and recommend locally owned restaurants for your meals. Rail vacations are particularly good for meeting local people, with the views from the windows a natural conversation starter.

4. The golf is fantastic

Golf was invented on the east coast of Scotland, supposedly by people using sticks to knock stones around sand dunes. Today, the country is home to around 550 golf courses, including some of the most prestigious in the world, as well as many that form part of a SSSI (Site of Specific Scientific Interest) such as the superb Reay Golf Club which is a leader in making golf friendlier to the natural environment.

If you want to include a round or two on the links during your vacation, then opt for a tailor-made tour. Our partners can arrange sessions for you at championship courses, as well as at many local courses with spectacular coastal views, and where you leave your green fees in an honesty box. They can also help with hiring clubs, assuming you’ve not brought your own.

5. Skip the typical tourist souvenirs

Forget your Loch Ness Monster teddy bears and novelty bagpipes. Our partners purposefully seek out small businesses throughout their tours, giving you opportunities to find genuine Scottish handicrafts from tartan scarves to jewellery that directly benefit local creatives. In cities there are plenty of independent shops away from touristy areas that sell work by Scottish designers and artisans (plus street markets are ideal for finding delicious foodie treats), while in rural areas our partners may arrange visits to artists’ studios and workshops.

6. Pack for all seasons but not all occasions

Scotland’s changeable, but usually mild, weather means that you can never be entirely sure of what to expect, which is all part of the fun. You could have a beautifully sunny morning and then moody skies in the afternoon. Early spring can still bring snow in the Highlands, while even into late autumn you can catch a few blissfully warm days where you won’t need a jacket until evening. However, if you’re traveling by train, remember that you’ll want to keep luggage to a minimum. Most people dress informally in the evenings.

7. You can barely move for castles

Edinburgh Castle, with its vantage point perched atop Castle Rock, is one of Scotland’s most famous landmarks. But Scotland has in total some 1,500 castles dotting its landscapes. Some are little more than skeletal ruins; others have been preserved and continue to be inhabited, sometimes as stately homes which you can visit. Among the most impressive is Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, which dates as far back as the 13th century and is the ancestral seat of the Clan MacLeod.

8. The gin is as good as the whisky

There is good reason why Scottish whisky, or Scotch, enjoys such prestige, and with over 120 whisky distilleries in Scotland, many of which are open for tours and tastings, there’s no reason to limit yourself to what’s stocked behind the hotel bar. Escorted small group vacations in Scotland will often include at least one distillery tour, while on a tailor made trip you will have plenty of time to visit them independently. Keep in mind that gin is also huge in Scotland, having originated in Leith. Gin distilleries will often use botanicals such as apple, mint and gorse flowers from the islands and Highlands to flavour their spirits.

9. Find the truth behind the legends

Scotland is awash with myth and legend, much of which, if ever based in truth, has been distorted by time. The real history of Scotland, though, can be just as fascinating and entertaining, and is best recounted by expert local guides. They can unravel the complexities behind significant events such as the Battle of Culloden in 1746, who William “Braveheart” Wallace really was, and the likely origins of Orkney’s famous Ring of Brodgar.

10. Gaelic is spoken in many areas

You’ll notice Gaelic alongside English on road signs, especially in the Hebrides, where it is still widely spoken – although everyone speaks English too. A few useful phrases include: madainn mhath (good morning), slàinte (cheers or good health), and uisce-beatha eile mas e do thoil e (another whisky, please).

11. Bring your appetite

Many American travelers are pleasantly surprised by the breadth of Scottish cuisine, and the richness of its flavours. Our partners make a point of suggesting locally owned restaurants where you can sample seafood fresh off the boat, immensely tasty beef or venison, and even that quintessential Scottish dish, haggis. Scotland’s natural larder means that a lot of the time what’s on your plate will have a tiny food mileage. For instance, on Iona in the Hebrides you may stay at a hotel that grows its own organic vegetables in the garden and sources its fish from local fishermen bringing in the catch.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Krisjanis Mezulis] [Intro: Bryan Walker] [2. Don’t miss the cities: Connor Mollison] [6. Pack for all seasons but not all occasions: Kieran Osborn] [8. The gin is as good as the whisky: Bryan Walker] [11. Bring your appetite: ShenXin]