Scotland: What to Know

loch shiel

Considering or planning a trip to Scotland and wondering what to expect? Here are our top things to know about this beautiful country!

1. If you’re planning on visiting a few historic sites on your trip, consider getting the Explorer Pass. The Explorer Pass gets you entry into all 70 Historic Scotland properties for one price, no matter how many sites you visit (not to be confused with National Trust for Scotland sites – you should also consider their Scottish Heritage Pass). There are two Explorer Pass options: i) a three-day pass you can use over a five-day period or ii) a seven-day pass you can use over a 14-day period. There’s no limit on how many sites you can visit in a given day, but you can only use your pass for the specified number of days. Be sure to have a look at your plans to make sure these parameters work for you. There are a few pricing options including adult, child, and family rates; we purchased two seven-day passes for £42 each which got us entry to Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle, the Calanais Standing Stones Visitor Center, and Urquhart Castle, saving us a few quid and a lot of time. With our Explorer Passes we also got a free audio guide at Doune Castle, (would have gotten a) discounted audio guide price at Edinburgh Castle (had they not all already been rented), and fast-track entry to Edinburgh and Stirling castles.

2. It really does rain nearly every day, even in the summer. Sometimes this was a brief, passing shower, other times it was a persistent misty drizzle, and occasionally it was dreary, all-day rain. One day we even experienced rain despite the clear blue skies all around us. So pack/dress appropriately, and always have your waterproof jacket with you. Umbrellas are pointless – they take up a lot of space and are impractical in crowds, and they’re useless in storms with strong winds and/or sideways rain. The key to surviving unpredictable Scottish weather? Layers! Yes, even in the summer.

3. While planning the trip, we read a lot about midges, tiny flies that bite like mosquitoes and are a nuisance during Scottish summers, so we packed picaridin wipes but actually didn’t need them. Wind and motion (walking, hiking) help keep the midges at bay so that may have saved us, but the wipes are small and a good thing to throw in your suitcase, just in case.

arnie the highland cow

4. Want to blend in, look more like a local, and make packing easy? Stick to neutral-colored clothing and leave the brights at home. You also won’t stand out in someone else’s pretty landscape photo. I was mistaken for a tour guide at Stirling Castle, due to my neutral (aka boring)-colored garb! Neutral colors also make it much easier to mix and match your clothes so you don’t have to pack as much. Scotland is a pretty casual country so you can leave your dresses, heels, and ties at home (unless you have something fancy planned!). 

5. We mostly stayed in local bed and breakfasts, a route we highly suggest taking. You get a better feel for local culture, the owners/hosts are so friendly and welcoming, and your rate includes a freshly-prepared breakfast every morning. Our favorite was West Plean House outside Stirling, where we were welcomed with a fresh pot of tea, homemade shortbread, and the smell of baking bread.

6. Regardless of what kind of accommodation you book, you can count on your room including a kettle and biscuits for in-room tea and coffee, a simple pleasure we very much miss when traveling in other parts of the world.

7. As Americans, we are accustomed to a very particular level of restaurant service, which is very different to what you’ll experience in Scotland. That’s not to say that servers are unkind or impolite – that’s certainly not the case. But they aren’t working for tips like their American counterparts. The biggest service-related lesson we learned is to ask for your bill as your plates are being cleared. If your server clears your table, asks you if you want anything else, and you say “no”, it will be agggeeesssss before they come back to you. Wondering how much to tip? 10% is a good rule of thumb, but be sure to check your bill first as there’s often a 10% service charge already applied. 

8. Brits, to include Scots, love their rules. Whether driving rules (be sure to indicate and only pass on the right), queueing properly, or arbitrary rules that (to you) don’t make much sense, learn them, follow them, and respect them and you’ll get along just fine. 

9. Whether you’re planning a drive from A to B or estimating how long to spend at a particular attraction, allow much more time for everything than your initial estimates. Your 100-mile drive will take three hours (and that’s not including stopping for photos!) and the castle you figured you’d only need an hour to explore will engross you for two and a half.  

10. We visited in late July, in the height of busy season. Since I’m a planner, we didn’t run into any issues with this, but that’s because I booked ahead for all of our must-dos. If anything in your itinerary must happen at a particular time or on a particular day, book it ahead of time. You don’t want to lose a day of your trip, or miss out on a Bucket List experience, because the last ferry was full or the distillery you’ve been dying to visit was booked up all afternoon on the only day you were in the area. Another thing to consider is that most parking lots are very small, so if you don’t arrive in the morning (if you’re self-driving), you’re likely in for some trouble. We ran into overly full parking lots at both Urquhart Castle and the Glenfinnan Monument. Finally, a full restaurant (or long queue, or busy parking lot) is often very stressful to the Scots, so cut them some slack and don’t be pushy and impatient. You’re on vacation!

11. Wondering where you’ll eat on your travels, especially once you’re out of the city? You’re in luck – Scotland has tons of very nice castle/attraction restaurants, roadside cafes, and well-made sandwiches that can be purchased anywhere from gas stations to pharmacies like Boots. We ate many well-priced lunches at castles and visitor centers.

12. I’m sure this isn’t unique to Scotland, but this trip was the first time we took advantage of the self-paced audio guides offered at castles and other attractions, and they’re really excellent. Much better than trying to keep up with a large group and hear over all the other tourists, plus being able to go at your own pace and skip over things of lesser interest to you is a huge bonus. Alternatively (or in addition), there are tons of walking tour apps that you can download before your trip to get acquainted with Edinburgh, Scotland, and other larger towns. 

13. If you’re in Edinburgh in August, be sure to spend some time exploring the International Festival and the Festival Fringe, and we definitely recommend getting tickets to the Military Tattoo, a unique display of music, dance and military pageantry.

14. You’ve probably traveled quite a long way to get to Scotland, so it’s tempting to try to see as much as possible. But take some time to just enjoy the landscape, or go for a hike, or spend an afternoon in a local pub taking in the culture and way of life. You won’t regret it! If anything, we regret not doing it more. 

15. Verizon made it really easy, and affordable, for us to use our cell phones while in Scotland. For $10 for each 24-hour period, we could access all our regular data and calling plan features. However, this was only useful in Edinburgh, because the Scottish Highlands (and other remote areas) don’t have great cell service, even if you’re paying for access. So keep this in mind and have a back-up plan for navigating, etc. if when you don’t have cell service.

16. Most of our B&Bs required payment in cash, which meant we were often searching for an ATM. And they’re not always easy to find once you leave a larger city, so make sure you plan ahead for your cash needs. The most memorable incident was when we were staying in Craigellachie – the ATM in the village was located INSIDE a gas station which wasn’t open in the evenings or on weekends. We drove to the ATM in the next village, which didn’t accept American debit cards. We ended up leaving our luggage with the hostess as collateral while we spent the day in Inverness (where we did find a working, accessible ATM).

17. When talking to friends about our time in Scotland, we often hear “I wish I liked Scotch/whiskey/whisky.” I (and the Scots) am of the mindset that there’s a whisky for everyone, you just have to find it. Add some water, plop in an ice cube, the Scots don’t care. If you’re drinking whisky, they’re happy. If you’re going to Edinburgh, we highly recommend spending a few hours at the Scotch Whisky Experience where you can learn about the different styles of whisky and narrow in on one you like.

speyside cooperage

18. Know some basic Scottish history before you head to the land of the Bonnie Prince. If nothing else, please, PLEASE make sure you know the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobites, and the ’45. Almost 300 years later, it’s still EVERYWHERE and you’ll get so much more out of your trip if you’re familiar with this particular piece of the country’s history. Other important folks to know include Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

Have a fantastic trip!

floral cottage in edinburgh

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