Lush rolling green mountains dotted in fluffy white sheep, enchantingly historic cobblestone cities, Celtic culture sprinkled in every direction, and an overall jolly atmosphere are just some qualities Scotland embodies. This British Isles country oozes history, charisma, and cultural masterpieces. Here's everything you need to know before traveling to Scotland.
A Look at Scottish History
First things first, let's get globally educated with a bit of history. Scottish history is full of twists and turns, so buckle in for a recap.
Recorded history may have begun during the Roman Empire, but humans have been stomping upon the dewy grass of Scotland since at least the Stone Age when hunter-gatherers were running amuck. Scotland's first known name, however, was Caledonia. Named by the Romans, Caledonia was any land north of the River Forth, which was almost entirely Scotland.
Fortunately for Scotland, the Romans never truly conquered Caledonia. Thanks to the stubborn fighting of the Caledonians and Picts, the Romans eventually retreated.
The Middle Ages in Scotland
Flash forward to the Middle Ages of 800 AD when Norwegian and Danish Vikings began sailing the seas to Scotland. The land eventually turned from Caledonia to the Kingdom of Alba. Fun fact, Alba means "Scotland" in Gaelic.
1040 AD meant Macbeth was in power. While Shakespeare's embellished retelling of Macbeth may forever live in our brains, he is also probably the best-known early Scottish king. Throughout the following century, after the death of Macbeth, Scotland grew into a feudal society alongside the reigns of Alexander II and III. It was a time of growth while developing a flourishing agriculture and beginning to trade with the continent.
It's not until 1297 when Scotland began to fight for its independence. If you're up to date with Scottish current events, you know that there is a long, long journey ahead for these "rebellious" Scots. The death of Alexander III led to a succession crisis and a time of unrest among Scots.
Scotland is declared an independent sovereign state.
In 1320, Scotland wrote up one of its most important documents. The Declaration of Arbroath proclaimed Scotland's status as an independent sovereign state. Some historians believe this document inspired the Declaration of Independence.
As we move into the 15th century, the beauty of the Renaissance period takes over in Scotland. It's a cultural, intellectual, and artistic wave that moved through Scotland, shaping much of its education and arts.
The lady in power
You probably know Mary Queen of Scots, but did you know she became Queen at just six days old? She reigned for 44 years until her death by the hand of Queen Elizabeth I at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1567.
She spent her youth in France while regents ran Scotland. At the age of 18, she left Calais for Scotland where she spent the next years living and reigning from Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.
Protestant Queen Elizabeth I worried about a Catholic plot against her, which eventually led to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots on the basis of treason. Mary was renowned for her beauty and strength as well as her tragic and romantic life in both France and Scotland.
Fun fact! Mary Queen of Scots was crowned Queen at just six days old on December 8, 1542.
A major turning point in Scotland comes in the 1700s during the second Jacobite Rising, the first taking place in the early 1500s. Imagine Scottish clans in kilts fighting to the death in hopes of a better life, free from England's grasp.
The Jacobite Rising of 1745 was led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, to reclaim the British throne for his father. Many Scots, several English, and even some French and Irish fought alongside Stuart in his quest for the throne. These supporters were known as Jacobites.
Jacobites supported the rebellion for various reasons. Some were committed to the Stuarts' right to the throne of Britain. Others hoped that a Stuart king would result in a return to the Protestant form of church government. Some were moved by family loyalties, and some simply got caught up in the adventure. Without a doubt though, many Scots became Jacobites because they resented the Union and believed a Stuart king would restore their parliament, freeing them from Britain's chains.
However, on an eerie April morning in 1746 on the Culloden Battlefield, the Jacobites lost their final battle against the government, changing Scottish and Highlander culture forever. Traitors and suspected families were slaughtered by Redcoats and life as a Scot took a turn. More on that later!
Scotland stands strong.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Scotland continued to shape large cities, working on its exports and imports, engineering techniques, medicine, creative arts, and more. Figures like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott were celebrated for their achievements during the Age of Enlightenment.
Scotland votes for freedom.
Flash forward to 2014 when Scotland has a referendum to release the UK's grip on the country. The vote was scarily close, with 45% voting yes to leave the UK And 55% voting to remain. It’s unclear whether there will be another vote in the near future, but many Scots are eagerly anticipating another chance at freedom.
Religion in Scotland
Little is known about religion in Scotland before the arrival of Christianity. However, it's believed that Celtic Polytheism was the norm, with Druids serving as beacons of knowledge.
Once Christianity arrived and began to flourish, Scots, like the French, were almost exclusively Catholic. England was protestant. During the Reformation in the 1600s, being Protestant grew in Scotland. Nowadays, it is much more diverse.
The Church of Scotland, a Protestant church, is the largest religious body in Scotland, but it's not the majority. A 2018 survey shows that 51% of people in Scotland, 16 and up, said they don’t affiliate with any religion. After the Church of Scotland, other Christian religions are most common.
But you can find heaps of other practices and religious buildings like the Hindu Temple of Scotland, Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Glasgow or the Edinburgh Central Mosque. All religions are widely welcome in Scotland.
Languages in Scotland
When you visit Scotland, you'll quickly notice that many signs are written in two languages: English and Scottish Gaelic. Though only a small percentage of Scots speak this rare language, it's still recognized as an official one, and there are plans to ensure Gaelic has a sustainable future in the country.
Scotland's official languages are English, Gaelic, Scots, and British Sign Language. When watching TV, you'll often see sign language interpreters conveying news or governmental updates. Actually, only 41 countries recognize sign language as an official language.
Fun fact! Did you know Scotland's national animal is the unicorn?
Yep! It dates back many centuries, but the basis behind it is intertwined with myths and legends. England has long been represented by the lion. England and Scotland have been at odds, and sometimes war, with each other for centuries. Old myths claim that the only animal that can defeat a lion is a unicorn. And so, Scotland's national animal was chosen!
Cities of Scotland
As a smaller country, Scotland has just seven cities, including its mesmerizing capital. Is Scotland home to the world's most beautiful capital city? Ah, it could very well be. An ancient city with much of its architecture remaining from the Middle Ages, like its 900-year-old castle, Edinburgh is full of charm. It's a smaller-sized capital compared to cities like Paris or London, with a population of around 540,000.
Despite being the capital, Edinburgh is not even Scotland's largest city. Glasgow, Scotland's most populated and largest city, is just an hour-long train ride away from the capital and offers an entirely different vibe. While Edinburgh can feel a lot like a fairytale, Glasgow is where the real world exists — in a sense. You'll find more office buildings and shopping; the city has even been proclaimed as the best shopping in the UK outside of London.
Scotland's other five cities include Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Perth, and Stirling. They are spread out primarily along the east coast and central areas of Scotland, with Inverness the furthest north. Stirling, known as the Gateway to the Highlands, is the smallest city in Scotland.
While Scotland may only have seven cities, it's flourishing with picturesque towns and cozy villages. From far-off islands to the mountainsides, you'll find inhabitants across the country.
Fun fact! Edinburgh is the greenest city in the UK with more trees than residents. This fact is majorly thanks to its 112 parks spread through the city.
Geography & Climate of Scotland
Taking up about one-third of the island of Great Britain, Scotland fills much of that space with thousands of lochs (or lakes), rugged mountains, majestic forests, ultra-green fields, and picturesque waterfalls.
Scotland is bordered by England to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the North Sea to the east. The country's west coast is scattered with islands and inland sea lochs. Off the northern tip of Scotland, you'll find the island cluster of Orkney, and even further into the North Sea are the windy Shetland Islands. It's a long, yet picturesque, journey away from Edinburgh to Shetland.
With nearly 800 islands, many are uninhabited or sparsely so. Larger islands like Skye and Mull are well developed but still largely unspoiled. Skye, for example, has more sheep than people, and its largest village has just roughly 2,500 residents.
Scotland can be divided into three main regions: The Highlands, the Central Lowlands, and the Southern Uplands.
The Highlands is one of Scotland's most famous features, known for its quaint winding roads surrounded by lush valleys, wild mountains, and long lochs. The rocky, barren summits of the Highlands were carved by Ice Age glaciers and rainfall throughout many centuries. The Highlands is also home to the infamous Loch Ness, where centuries of folklore have spread across the globe. Of course, this region houses Scotland's, and the UK's, tallest peak. The wondrous and admittedly rainy Ben Nevis stands at 4,413 feet, nestled at the western end of the Grampian Mountains.
On the other hand, the Central Lowlands is home to cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling. The terrain is less mountainous than the Highlands, but rolling hills are easy to come by. Notably, the land here is more fertile, making up much of the country's farmlands. If you know someone who lives in Scotland, nine times out of 10, they live in the Central Lowlands. That's because nearly 90% of Scotland's population call this area home. Whether they are in one of the cities or a surrounding town, this is the most central area to live.
The Southern Uplands are greeted by low hills, generally less than 2,000 feet tall. The slopes of this less-visited region are sweeping with vivid green grass and heather. As this region moves south, it runs into the Tweed Valley, which is the main gateway into England.
Let's talk about Scotland's infamous weather.
Scottish weather gets a bad rap. Many outsiders think it's always cold and burdened with never-ending rain, but that's not quite the case. As for cloudy? Well…
Scotland has a temperate oceanic climate, which does keep the country generally cool and damp. This means it often feels like fall year-round. Not bad, right? Precipitation is pretty standard, but wind patterns mean that the mountainous regions of the west are generally rainier than the rest of Scotland.
However, precipitation varies. Around two-thirds of Scotland receives more than 40 inches of rain annually. The wettest areas experience an average of 250 days of rain every year, and the driest parts enjoy only an average of about 150 days. Dundee is generally the driest city in Scotland, as the east is drier than the west.
Summers are a mix of cool and warm temperatures, fall is often gloomy and brisk, winters are cold and the days are short, and spring is cool. Winter can experience some snow, but the dewy climate means that the snowfall doesn't often stick around on the surface.
There's a saying in Scotland that the country can experience all four seasons in one day. Layer up and pack a rain jacket!
Fun fact! During the Summer Solstice, or the longest day of the year, there is no complete darkness over the northern isles of Scotland. This includes Orkney and the Shetland Islands.
Scotland's Economy & Major Produces
With such an abundance of unspoiled land, endless lochs, and surrounding seas, much of Scotland's economy thrives in the outdoors. With the help of sheep, cattle, and fish, Scotland uses its wildlife to produce for its people and the world altogether.
Hill sheep farming is common in the Highlands and Southern Uplands, and with Scotland's chilly weather, wool fiber is generated quite abundantly. In the southwest, dairy farming suits the wetter climate. Then, of course, livestock farming has a solid place in the economy.
Forestry helps bring populations to rural areas of the country, with Scotland responsible for nearly half of the UK's timber production. However, it is fishing that really spreads throughout the country. From the west coast Argyll area to way up north in the Shetland Islands salmon fishing is prevalent. Aberdeenshire is one of the UK's main centers for fish processing where haddock, cod, herring, sole, and mackerel are the main species caught.
Let's talk about whisky. From the Highlands to the islands to the Central Lowland, whisky is easily one of Scotland's most praised products. Malted barley is the key ingredient in Scotch whisky, and is majorly produced throughout the country. Glenmorangie's Original 10 Year whisky has been the most popular single malt in Scotland for several decades. Some other popular whiskies include Laphroaig from the Isle of Islay, Glenfiddich from the Speyside whisky region, and Talisker from the Isle of Skye.
Fun fact! In Scotland, Scotch is called "whisky" without the letter "e". Scots would never refer to it as Scotch.
Kilts, bagpipes, Ceilidhs, Highland games, and vibrant celebrations wash over Scotland, breathing life into the gloomy air. Most of these traditions have been around since at least 16th century Scotland. Here's a closer look.
Using pleated wool plaid cloth, kilts are knee-length skirts, traditionally worn by men. The plaid, or tartan in this case, worn on a man's kilt is traditionally a symbol of his clan. For example, the tartan of Clan Mackenzie combines dashing blues and greens with small streaks of red and white.
The kilt's pleated design was well suited for battle as it allowed plenty of movement. Its warm wool material kept soldiers warm and even doubled as a blanket during the night.
Nowadays, it's the national dress of Scotland and is often worn during wedding ceremonies, at Ceilidhs, and special events.
The high-pitched sound of bagpipes can be heard all over Scottish cities. Take a stroll along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh or up Buchanan Street in Glasgow and you're bound to hear a bagpipe or two. Bagpipes are prominent in Gaelic culture and have been played in times of both joy and tragedy for many centuries.
Not so fun fact! During the first and second Jacobite Uprisings, bagpipes were classified as instruments of war. After the tragic Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British parliament attempted to stomp out clans. An Act of Parliament passed making carrying weapons (like bagpipes) and wearing kilts a crime.
Ceilidhs & Celtic Dancing
Ceilidh (kay-lee) comes from Gaelic meaning "gathering" or "party", and if put simply, that's what it is. It's a gathering among Scots (and other guests) involving storytelling, traditional Ceilidh dancing, live music, and good times! A Ceilidh often involves dinner and drinks combined with the twists and turns of Ceilidh dancing.
Another aspect of Scottish culture is the Highland games. It is like Field Day meets the Olympics meets Men in Kilts. The Games involve a series of athletic events like the hammer throw, tug o' war, and shot put. Beyond that, there are also Highland dancing competitions, live music, and the Celtic spirit in the air! One of the biggest Highland games is the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon on the west coast.
One of the most quintessential Scottish celebrations is Burns Supper, a day which celebrates the Scottish poet Robert Burns every January 25th. Burns Night involves readings of Burns' poetry, dinner like haggis, neeps, potatoes, and whisky, and likely some dancing and lots of kilts and tartan pride. Oh, and Auld Lang Syne is always played!
Scotland has its own word for New Year's Eve, and that's Hogmanay! It's common to attend a Ceilidh, listen to Auld Lang Syne at midnight on January 1st, dance, drink, and celebrate to the fullest.
Edinburgh's Hogmanay is one of the biggest NYE celebrations in the world. Thousands gather along the chilly, medieval streets of Edinburgh to ring in the new year in the best way. There are street performers, live music, fireworks, bagpipes, and happy spirits everywhere you look.
What is a culture without its food? If you want to learn about a country, you've got to try its food. Scottish food may often be overlooked by more notable cuisines, but don't let that steer you away.
Some of Scotland's most popular foods are haggis, potato scones, Scotch pie, and porridge. The most controversial of those? Haggis, easily. This dish combines spices with minced meat, onion, oatmeal, and other dried herbs. Traditionally, haggis has been prepared within a sheep's stomach, but that's less common now. Haggis is popularly served with a heaping side of mashed potatoes.
Scotch pies may be small but they are packed full of flavor and character. Traditionally, they are meat pies, but modern Scotch pies can be prepared for vegetarians and vegans alike. Take minced meat or veggies, combined with spice and wrapped in a pie crust to create this delicious Scottish dish.
Travel Tips for Scotland
With all of this in mind, there are a few more things to know before you visit Scotland.
People drive on the left in Scotland and the UK as a whole. Steering wheels are also on the left-hand side as a result. If you plan to drive in the UK, don't fret. It's not as scary as it might seem. Just stay aware, review road signs before you travel, and be cautious at roundabouts.
Scotland uses the pound (£). One pound is a coin, not a bill (or notes as they are called in the UK). Cards are commonly accepted through Scotland, but it is still handy to carry some pounds on you as well.
Choose a rain jacket over an umbrella. Umbrellas can be very handy in Scotland, but sometimes it's a bit too windy. Unless you have a very durable umbrella, it may be best to wear a rain jacket and get a little wet.
Scotland is well connected with trains, buses, and ferries to access even the most remote areas. While in cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, walking is most common, there are still transportation options like buses, trams, and trains to get you around. Glasgow even has a subway system.
Fun fact! Glasgow is the only Scottish city with an underground metro system. Only four cities in the UK have one: London, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Glasgow.