Scotland, Great Britain's oldest geological formation, is divided into three major regions: the Southern Uplands, smooth, rolling moorland broken with low crags and threaded with rivers and valleys, between the central plain and the English border; the Central Lowlands, where three valleys and the estuaries (firths) of the Clyde, Forth, and Tay rivers make up a fertile belt from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea; and the granite Highlands, with lochs (lakes), glens, and mountains, plus the hundreds of islands to the west and north. Each of these regions is then made up of smaller regions.
Edinburgh & the Lothian Region -- This area includes not only the country's capital but also West Lothian, most of Midlothian, and East Lothian. Half medieval and half Georgian, Edinburgh is at its liveliest every August during the International Arts Festival, but you can visit Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse and walk the Royal Mile year-round. This is one of Europe's most beautiful capitals, and in 3 days you can do it royally, taking in the highlights of the Old Town and the New Town, which include some of the country's major museums. Edinburgh is surrounded by such major attractions as the village of Cramond, the ancient town of Linlithgow, and Dirleton, the "prettiest village in Scotland."
The Borders & Galloway Regions -- Witness to a turbulent history, the Borders and Galloway regions between England and Scotland are rich in castle ruins and Gothic abbeys.
Home of the cashmere sweater and the tweed suit, Borders proved a rich mine for the fiction of Sir Walter Scott. Highlights are Kelso, which Scott found "the most beautiful," and Melrose, site of the ruined Melrose Abbey and Scott's former home of Abbotsford. Ancient monuments include Jedburgh Abbey and Dryburg Abbey, Scott's burial place. At Floors Castle, outside Kelso, you can see one of the great mansions designed by William Adam.
Southwestern Scotland is known as the Galloway region. It consists of much of the former stamping ground of Robert Burns and includes such centers as Dumfries, Castle Douglas, and Moffat. Highlights are the artists' colony of Kirkcudbright, the baronial Threave Garden, Sweetheart Abbey outside Dumfries (the ruins of a Cistercian abbey from 1273), and the Burns Mausoleum at Dumfries.
Glasgow & the Strathclyde Region -- A true renaissance has come to the once-grimy industrial city of Glasgow, and we recommend you spend at least 2 days in "the greatest surviving example of a Victorian city." Of course, part of the fun of going to Glasgow is meeting Glaswegians and, if only temporarily, becoming part of their lives. But there are plenty of museums and galleries, too, notably the Burrell Collection, a wealthy shipowner's gift of more than 8,000 items from the ancient world to the modern; and the Hunterian Art Gallery, with its array of masterpieces by everybody from Rembrandt to Whistler. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, home of Britain's finest civic collection of British and European paintings, reopened in mid-2006 following significant restoration.
Glasgow is at the doorstep of one of the most historic regions of Scotland. You can explore Robert Burns Country in the Strathclyde region, especially the district around Ayr and Prestwick, or visit a string of famous seaside resorts (including Turnberry, which boasts some of the country's greatest golf courses). An especially worthwhile destination in this region is Culzean Castle, overlooking the Firth of Clyde and designed by Robert Adam in the 18th century.
Argyll & the Southern Hebrides -- Once the independent kingdom of Dalriada, the Argyll Peninsula of western Scotland is centered at Oban, a bustling port town and one of Scotland's leading coastal resorts. Ace attractions here are Argyll Forest Park, actually three forests -- Benmore, Ardgartan, and Glenbranter -- covering some 24,300 hectares (60,000 acres). You can also visit Loch Awe, a natural moat that protected the Campbells of Inveraray from their enemies to the north, and explore some of Scotland's most interesting islands, including the Isle of Arran, called "Scotland in miniature." The Isle of Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides, with lonely moors, lochs, tranquil bays, and windswept cliffs. The Isle of Jura, the fourth largest of the Inner Hebrides, is known for its red deer, and it was on this remote island that George Orwell wrote his masterpiece 1984. Finally, you can visit Kintyre, the longest peninsula in Scotland, more than 97km (60 miles) of beautiful scenery, sleepy villages, and sandy beaches.
Fife & the Central Highlands -- The "kingdom" of Fife is one of the most history-rich parts of Scotland, evocative of the era of romance and pageantry during the reign of the early Stuart kings. Its most enchanting stretch is a series of fishing villages called East Neuk. And Culross, renovated by the National Trust, could well be the most beautiful village in Scotland. Opening onto the North Sea, St. Andrews, the "Oxford of Scotland," is the capital of golf and boasts many great courses. The area is rich in castles and abbeys, notably Dunfermline Abbey, burial place of 22 royal personages, and Falkland Palace and Gardens, where Mary Queen of Scots came for hunting and hawking. You can also visit Stirling, dominated by its castle, where Mary Queen of Scots lived as an infant monarch. Loch Lomond, largest of the Scottish lakes, is fabled for its "bonnie, bonnie banks," and the Trossachs is perhaps the most beautiful area in Scotland, famed for its moors, mountains, and lakes.
Aberdeen & Tayside & Grampian Regions -- Carved from the old counties of Perth and Angus, Tayside takes its name from its major river, the Tay, running for 192km (119 miles). One of the loveliest regions, it's known for salmon and trout fishing. Major centers are Perth, former capital of Scotland, standing where the Highlands meet the Lowlands; Dundee, an old seaport and royal burgh on the north shore of the Firth of Tay; and Pitlochry, a popular resort that's an ideal base for touring the Valley of the Tummel. The area abounds in castles and palaces, including Glamis, linked to British royalty for 10 centuries, and Scone, an art-filled palace from 1580. The great city of the north, Aberdeen is called Scotland's "granite city" and ranks third in population. It's the best center for touring "castle country." Braemar is known for its scenery as well as for being the site of every summer's Royal Highland Gathering, and Balmoral Castle at Ballater was the "beloved paradise" of Queen Victoria and is still home to the royal family. Finally, you can follow the Whisky Trail to check out some of Scotland's most famous distilleries, including Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.
Inverness & the West Highlands -- Land of rugged glens and majestic mountain landscapes, the Highlands is one of the great meccas of the United Kingdom. The capital is Inverness, one of the oldest inhabited localities in Scotland; another city of great interest is Nairn, old-time royal burgh and seaside resort. Top attractions are Loch Ness, home of the legendary "Nessie," and Cawdor Castle, the most romantic in the Highlands, linked with Macbeth. The Caledonian Canal, launched in 1803, stretches for 97km (60 miles) of man-made canal, joining the natural lochs. As you proceed to the north, you can visit the Black Isle, a historic peninsula, before heading for such far northern outposts as Ullapool, an 18th-century fishing village on the shores of Loch Broom (and, for some, a gateway to the Outer Hebrides), and John o' Groats, the most distant point to which you can drive, near the northernmost point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head.
The Hebridean Islands -- The chain of the Inner Hebrides lies just off the west coast of the mainland. The major center is the Isle of Skye, a mystical island and subject of the Scottish ballad "Over the Sea to Skye." If you have time to visit only one island, make it Skye -- it's the most beautiful and intriguing. However, the Isle of Mull, third largest of the Inner Hebrides, is also rich in legend and folklore, including ghosts, monsters, and the "wee folk." Iona, off the coast of Mull, is known as the "Grave of Kings," with an abbey dating from the 13th century. Those with time remaining can also explore the Outer Hebrides, notably Lewis, the largest and most northerly. Along with the island of Harris, Lewis stretches for a combined length of some 153km (95 miles). This is a relatively treeless land of marshy peat bogs and ancient relics.
The Orkney & Shetland Islands -- These northern outposts of British civilization are archipelagos consisting of some 200 islands, about 40 of which are inhabited. With a rich Viking heritage, they reward visitors with scenery and antiquities. Major centers of the Orkneys are Kirkwall, established by Norse invaders and the capital of the Orkneys for 9 centuries, and Stromness, the main port of the archipelago and once the last port of call before the New World. Lerwick is the capital of the Shetlands and has been since the 17th century. All these islands are filled with ancient monuments: The most outstanding are Midhower Broch (brochs are fortified structures, often called "castles of the Picts"); tombs on Rousay, dating from the Iron Age and called the "great ship of death"; Quoyness Chambered Tomb, on Sanday, a spectacular chambered cairn from 2900 B.C.; the Ring of Brodgar, between Loch and Stenness, a stone circle of some 36 stones dating from 1560 B.C. and called the "Stonehenge of Scotland"; and Skara Brae, a Neolithic village joined by covered passages, last occupied about 2500 B.C.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.