Despite its small geographical size, Scotland has become a major tourist destination – the language is English (with a “wee bit o’ brogue”), the scenery stunning, the history fascinating, the people friendly and the memories indelible.
This year, dubbed the Year of Homecoming in Scotland, more than four million American tourists – many of Scottish ancestry – will visit Bonnie Scotland and tour ancient castles, mist-shrouded lochs and glens, famous battle sites and pubs serving countless drams of malt whiskey.
It’s a banner year for the country as Scotland votes on becoming independent from the United Kingdom and also hosts the 70-nation, 17-sport Commonwealth Games, as well as the international Ryder Cup golf tournament.
Begin with Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the capital city’s skyline and is one of the country’s most visited attractions. The colorfully orchestrated Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo performs on the castle’s Esplanade. Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a series of Old Town streets full of shops, pubs and restaurants that thrive on and cater to tourists.
Nearby is Melrose Abbey, a grand masonry ruin built in 1136 by Cistercian monks at the request of Scotland’s King David I and thought to hold the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce, another Scottish king and one of the central characters in the popular movie “Braveheart.”
Next is St. Andrews and its 7,500-student University, Scotland’s oldest, and the famous golf course, home of the modern game of golf. Nearby is Glamis Castle, considered Scotland’s most beautiful. After traveling to Aberdeen, walk the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside, where some of the best-selling malt whiskies are produced and a “wee dram” is offered of the Local Specialty.
Near Inverness, the Battle of Culloden was fought in 1746, a Scottish attempt to take over the British throne. The British won and it was the last pitched battle ever fought on British soil.
Overnight in Inverness and head to Highland’s Thurso, gateway to the Orkney Islands. Along the way see Loch (lake) Ness, watery home of the alleged creature affectionately known as “Nessie,” and visit Dunrobin Castle with its beautiful formal gardens.
Ferry to the Orkney Islands, scoot along Scapa Flow bay where the Germans scuttled part of their Naval fleet after World War I, walk through Skara Brae, home to one of the best preserved Stone Age villages in Europe. View the stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar on the way to Kirkwall, founded by Vikings and home to St. Magnus Cathedral, which contains the remains of 12th Century Norsemen.
Next cruise the rocky, green patched scenic coastline to picturesque and famous Eilean Donan Castle, isolated on an island where three sea lochs meet before going to picturesque harbor of Portree on Isle of Skye, the largest island in the Hebrides.
Next is the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the elevated railway featured in some Harry Potter films. Glimpses of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain are next on the way to Ballachulish and the Craignure ferry to the Isle of Mull, the location for several popular films. The Isle of Iona, once known as the isle of beautiful women, is where the stone-walled Iona Abbey – one of the oldest religious sites in Western Europe – still holds services.
The tour continues through the Glen of Weeping site of the 1692 massacre of 38 members of the MacDonald clan, to Trossachs National Park, the first national park established by the Scottish Parliament, for lunch before arriving in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city.
Visits include St. Mungo’s Cathedral, described in Walter Scott’s novel “Rob Roy”; Stirling Castle, once an important fortification guarding the River Forth; and the battlefield of Bannockburn, site of a famous Scottish victory 700 years ago in a battle between Scottish King Robert Bruce and a superior force led by Edward II of England. The largest ever reenactment of that battle will take place in June 2014.