Checking Out the Local Pub
You're in a Scottish pub, talking to the bartender and choosing from a dizzying array of single-malt whiskies. Perhaps the wind is blowing fitfully outside, causing the wooden sign to creak above the battered door, and a fire is flickering against the blackened bricks of the old fireplace. As the evening wanes and you've established common ground with the locals, you'll realize you're having one of your most authentic Scottish experiences.
Visiting Edinburgh at Festival Time
The Edinburgh International Festival has become one of Europe's most prestigious arts festivals. From mid-August to early September, a host of singers, dancers, musicians, and actors descends on the city, infusing it with a kind of manic creative energy. If you're planning to sample the many offerings, get your tickets well in advance, and make your hotel and flight reservations early. Call tel. 0131/473-2099, or go to www.eif.co.uk.
Haunting the Castles
The land of Macbeth contains more castles than anywhere else in the world. Many are in ruins, but dozens of the foreboding royal dwellings are intact and open to the public. Some, such as Culzean, built by Robert Adam, are architectural masterpieces filled with paintings and antiques. Travelers who can't get enough of Scotland's castles should consider staying in one of the many relics that have been converted into comfortable, though sometimes drafty, hotels.
Horseback Riding Through the Highlands & Argyll
There's nothing like an equestrian excursion through the Highlands' fragrant heather and over its lichen-covered rocks. One of Scotland's biggest stables is the Highland Riding Centre, Drumnadrochit (tel. 01456/450-220; www.borlum.co.uk). For scenic rides across the moors, Highlands, and headlands of the Argyll, try the Ardfern Riding Centre, Loch Gilphead (tel. 01852/500-632).
Cruising Along the Caledonian Canal
In 1822, a group of enterprising Scots connected three of the Highlands' longest lakes (lochs Ness, Lochy, and Oich) with a canal linking Britain's east and west coasts. Since then, barges have hauled everything from grain to building supplies without having to negotiate the wild storms off Scotland's northernmost tips. Now cabin cruisers tote a different kind of cargo along the Caledonian Canal: people seeking a spectacular waterborne view of the countryside that was tamed centuries ago by the Camerons, the Stewarts, and the MacDonalds. Caley Cruisers, based in Inverness (tel. 01463/236-328; www.caleycruisers.co.uk), rents out skippered boats by the week.
Attending a Highland Game
Unlike any other sporting event, a Highland Game emphasizes clannish traditions rather than athletic dexterity, and the centerpiece is usually an exhibition of brute strength (tossing logs and the like). Most visitors show up for the men in kilts, the bagpipe playing, the pomp and circumstance, and the general celebration of all things Scottish. The best known (and most widely televised) of the events is Braemar's Royal Highland Gathering, held near Balmoral Castle in late August or early September. For details, call the Braemar Tourist Office (tel. 01339/741-600).
Ferrying to the Isle of Iona
It's an otherworldly rock, one of Europe's most evocative holy places, anchored solidly among the Hebrides off Scotland's west coast. St. Columba established Iona as a Christian center in A.D. 563, and used it as a base for converting Scotland. You'll find a ruined Benedictine nunnery and a fully restored cathedral where 50 Scottish kings were buried during the early Middle Ages. Hundreds of Celtic crosses once adorned Iona; today, only three of the originals remain. Now part of the National Trust, the island is home to an ecumenical group dedicated to the perpetuation of Christian ideals. Reaching Iona requires a 10-minute ferry ride from the hamlet of Fionnphort, on the nearby island of Mull.
Exploring the Orkneys: Archaeologists say the Orkneys, an archipelago comprising some 70 islands, hold the richest trove of prehistoric monuments in the British Isles -- an average of three sites per square mile. Ornithologists claim that about 16% of all winged animals in the United Kingdom reside here, and linguists have documented an ancient dialect that still uses Viking terms. Northwest of the Scottish mainland, closer to Oslo than to faraway London, these islands are on the same latitude as St. Petersburg but much more exposed to the raging gales of the North Sea. The late-spring sunsets and the aurora borealis have been called mystical, and in midsummer the sun remains above the horizon for 18 hours a day. An equivalent twilight -- and even total darkness -- envelops the islands in winter. Only 19 of the Orkneys are inhabited; the others, often drenched with rain, seem to float above primordial seas.
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