Anyone planning a first trip to Scotland needs practical information in order to make the most of the trip. With its history, romance, culture, and rugged natural beauty, Scotland is a popular destination. However, for that first-time visitor, Scotland may seem just a wee bit more “foreign” than England. Here are some Q&A’s to answer questions about travel in Scotland first-timers often ask. These Q&A’s assume that most Americans will fly to London first and then make their way to Scotland.
How separate are England and Scotland? Does your passport have to be examined by authorities at the border when you cross into Scotland?
England and Scotland obviously have cultural and historical differences, some of which run deep. (See Braveheart, Rob Roy.) Although modern Scotland is in some ways separate and self-governing, from the visitor point of view there is absolutely no fuss in crossing the border between England and Scotland. If you are on a train, plane, or car, it will be no more dramatic than crossing from Maryland into Pennsylvania or California into Oregon. If you came through immigration on arrival in England, your passport will not be needed again as you travel to Scotland (or vice versa).
Is the money the same? Do both countries now use the Euro?
The countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) do not use the Euro, even though the UK is a member of the European Union. England and Scotland use the same currency-pounds sterling and pence (one pound=100 pence). Banknotes issued by Scottish banks have a somewhat different appearance, including a picture of Sir Walter Scott, and may be not welcomed by every small shopkeeper in London. (I speak from personal experience on this point.) The pound sterling is worth about $1.55 in U.S. dollars, so it is fairly easy to take prices expressed in GBPs (Great British Pounds) and multiply them by 1.5 to get an approximate dollar value.
Do cars drive on the left in Scotland?
Yes, just as they do in England. If you are planning to rent a car in England or Scotland, you must be ready to drive on the left, which is a major adjustment. Think very carefully before you commit to do this! In Britain the cars have the steering wheel on the right side. Also note that rental cars with automatic transmission and air conditioning are somewhat rare in Britain, so you will have to pay premium prices and reserve ahead to get one.
Does everyone in Scotland speak English? Will I be able to understand them despite their accents and quirky terminology?
Yes, everyone you meet in Scotland will speak English. At times you may find local dialects and pronunciation confusing, but you will not have any significant problems communicating. If a term is used that you do not know, simply ask for an explanation. Remember that the typical Scot has seen hundreds or even thousands of hours of American television shows! Your accent will not be strange to them. You may find the Italian accent in the pizzeria or the Indian accent in the corner grocery store more of a challenge.
Should I visit Loch Ness-the lake where the Loch Ness monster supposedly lives-or skip it since it is probably a tourist trap?
Loch Ness is reachable via bus tour from Inverness, which is how we visited it a few years ago. Even in the summer, there were no huge crowds. The lake is large and the area around the lake quite beautiful and scenic. Even if you do not see the monster, it is a lovely place. And it is fun to learn more about the legend and attempts to debunk the legend over the years. Loch Ness is far enough north that it is not likely to draw hordes of casual tourists. (Many tourists never make it farther north than Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland’s two largest cities, located about an hour apart.)
Do men in Scotland actually wear kilts?
Although you may have seen photographs of Prince Charles and Prince Phillip relaxing around the fireplace at Balmoral Castle in kilts, you will not see many men on the street in Scotland wearing kilts. If you do see men in kilts they will probably be performing in a bagpipe band or on their way to a wedding. Kilts are nowadays folk costumes or formal wear. Wool tartan kilts with the coordinating blazer and accessories are available for purchase or rental at specialty scores in Scottish cities and they are quite pricey.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, seems like a “must visit” place on our trip. Should we try to visit during the festival month of August or come at some other less crowded time of year?
This is not a simple question to answer. During three weeks in August, Edinburgh hosts many festivals involving art, music, theatre, dance, film, and more. There are hordes of international performers and visitors. The Edinburgh “Fringe Festival” or simply “The Fringe” is a somewhat loosely organized counter-festival that fills in any gaps left in town with less formal performances. Fringe performances may be on street corners, in the park, or almost anywhere. During the weeks of the festivals, Edinburgh is buzzing and the entertainment options are limitless. On the other hand, accommodations are more expensive and harder to obtain. Restaurants, pubs, and shops will be heavily populated. During August, the days are long and the weather generally favorable. If you want to skip the crowds, consider a late May or a September visit. We visited Edinburgh during September last year and found that to be a great time to see what Edinburgh is “really like” and yet the weather was not too cold.
What is the most important thing to see or do in Edinburgh?
Edinburgh Castle, which looms over the town, dates to medieval times, is very much worth visiting and qualifies as a “must see.” The view from the castle is spectacular. Also, you can see the room in which King James I was born, the “Stone of Scone” or “Coronation Stone” upon which Scottish and English kings sat during their coronations, the “Honors of Scotland” (jeweled crown, sceptre, etc.) and other treasures. During August, a huge military review called a “tattoo” is held each year on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Tickets should be purchased in advance because it is very popular. Huge banks of bleacher seats accommodate the audience. The program is elaborate, very enjoyable, and the last show on Saturday evenings ends with fireworks over the castle.
The open-top bus tours of Edinburgh are highly recommended. You can catch them at many different locations and can hop on and hop off at various sites, such as the Scottish Parliament building, Holyrood Castle, Princes Street Gardens, University of Edinburgh, etc.
What are essential items to pack for a trip to Scotland?
Must-bring items include: a raincoat or jacket with hood or hat, a folding umbrella, sturdy comfortable shoes, makeup and toiletries (all much more expensive in the U.K.), adequate supplies of your prescription and over-the-counter medicines, several washcloths (these are generally not used in the U.K.), and a current passport (no visa needed for vacation-length stays). A guidebook such as Michelin or Eyewitness is good as well as any maps you have acquired that will be helpful. Also bring a Capital One Visa credit card because it is the one card that does not charge a foreign currency exchange fee. Bring your debit card/cash card for obtaining funds from your bank account using the widely available ATMs.
Is Scotland as cold, dark, rainy, and gloomy as it is sometimes depicted on television, in novels, etc.?
Scotland, and the British Isles generally, are not known for loads of bright sun! In fact, the weather reports on TV are amusing because the weather reporters work so hard to find words more encouraging than “cloudy,” “overcast,” and “rainy.” So they will describe the day as “partially bright” or “patches of brightness turning later to light rain” in order to accentuate the positive. Although it is often overcast and rainy, there are sunny days and sunny afternoons, particularly in summer. And temperature extremes are rare-generally the daytime temperature is in the range of 40-65 degrees (F) year round. Except in the mountains of Northern Scotland, snow and freezing temperatures are infrequent in the winter. Uncomfortable heat is rare in Scotland.
One point worth noting is that Scotland is quite far north (same latitude as some really North-sounding places like Sweden and Labrador) and therefore it has very short days in winter and really long days in summer. In the winter, it can be dark by 4:00 pm, but in the summer it may stay light out until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.
Will the food in Scotland be weird? Will I have to eat haggis (a Scottish delicacy made from sheep heart, liver, lungs, and intestines)?
The good news is that the visitor to Scotland will feel no pressure to eat haggis or any other old-fashioned Scottish dish, although you surely can find those dishes if you are interested and adventurous. Also good is that in Scotland’s cities, food of all sorts is widely available-Italian, Greek, Indian, and even McDonald’s! The bad news is that Scotland is not a gastronomic paradise. Fish and chips, roast lamb and potatoes, roast beef and peas—those are typical menus. Salmon is a treat in Scotland. Scots are not on the cutting edge of culinary innovation. Vegetarian visitors will have to do some fancy footwork. Whatever your taste, you will find food you like, but you should go to Italy or France if food is going to be the centerpiece of your vacation experience.
What are the best items to bring home to family and friends from Scotland?
Great ideas for gifts include: shortbread, wool sweaters, kilts, and scarves, recordings of Scottish music, calendars with photographs of Scottish scenery, Celtic themed jewelry, Christmas ornaments of Scottish kings, kilt pins, and whisky (if you are into that, which I am not…). Prepare to see many items that relate to Robert Burns, the beloved Scottish poet. Be careful that you do not purchase DVDs that are in UK format, not compatible with U.S. DVD players. CDs are OK to purchase in Scotland. Do not expect any of the items above to be less expensive than in the U.S. However, they will be authentically Scottish!
Source: Personal experience, most recently in September 2009.