If you're headed to Scotland to enjoy the outdoors, you can get guidance from Sport Scotland, Caledonian House, South Gyle, Edinburgh EH12 9DQ (tel. 0131/317-7200; fax 0131/317-7202; www.sportscotland.org.uk), open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. It can supply names of nature areas, playing fields, prices, and facilities, as well as send a copy of Arena, a bulletin packed with advice on sporting programs and facilities.
Death Chimes for the Fox Hunt -- Some old-time Scots are rolling over in their graves, but the Scottish Parliament in 2002 outlawed traditional fox hunting with dogs in Scotland. The passage of the Protection of Wild Mammals Bill brings to an end a centuries-old hunting tradition. A last-ditch demonstration by fox hunters failed. Heavy fines or a 6-month prison sentence will be imposed on violators.
Scotland is one of the most gorgeous settings in Europe for a bike trip, but note that bicycles are forbidden on most highways and trunk roads and on what the British call dual carriageways (divided highways). May, June, and September are the best months for cycling, in spite of the often bad weather. Many of the narrow and scenic roads are likely to be overcrowded with cars in July and August.
Your first source of information should be the Scottish Cyclists Union, The Velodrome, Meadowbank Stadium, London Road, Edinburgh EH7 6AD (tel. 0131/652-0187; fax 0131/661-0474; www.scuonline.org), which provides an annual handbook and a regular newsletter for members. It's also one of the most potent lobbying groups in Scotland for the inauguration and preservation of cyclists' byways. It distributes maps showing worthwhile bike routes and supports the publication of technical material of interest to cyclists. Nonmembers are welcome for a small fee.
Although based in England, the Cyclists Tourist Club, Parklands, Railton Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 9JX (tel. 0870/873-0060; fax 0870/873-0064; www.ctc.org.uk), offers details on cycling holidays in Scotland. Membership is £36 a year for adults and £12 for those 17 and under. A family of three or more can get a membership for £59. This organization gives advice on where to rent or buy a bike; it also offers free legal advice to members involved in cycle-related accidents and information on available medical insurance for members.
You may take your bike without restrictions on car and passenger ferries in Scotland. It's rarely necessary to make arrangements in advance. However, the transport of your bike is likely to cost £2 to £10, plus the cost of your own passage. On trains, there is no charge for bicycles.
The best biking trips in Scotland are offered by Bespoke Highland Tours, Tigh Na Creig, Garve Road, Ullapool, Ross-shire IV26 2SX (tel./fax 01854/612-628; www.highland-tours.co.uk), and Scottish Border Trails, Drummore, Venlaw High Road, Peebles EH45 8RL (tel. 01721/722-934; fax 01721/723-004).
Local rental shops offer a wide range of bicycles, from three-speeds to mountain bikes, and may offer organized trips, ranging from tours of several hours to full-fledged weeklong itineraries. We've listed the best local rental shops, with their rates, in the destination chapters that follow.
The moors and Highlands of Scotland, partly because of their low population density, attract millions of birds. For reasons not fully understood by ornithologists, the Orkneys shelter absolutely staggering numbers of birds. Bird-watchers cite the Orkneys as even richer in native species than the more isolated Shetlands, with such species as the hen harrier, short-eared owl, and red-throated diver (a form of Arctic loon) not frequently seen in the Shetlands.
Any general tour of the Orkneys will bring you into contact with thousands of birds, as well as with Neolithic burial sites, cromlechs, dolmens, and other items rich in intrigue and history. A worthy tour operator is Wild About, 5 Cloustons Corner, Stenness, Stromness Orkney KW16 3LD (tel. 01856/851-011; www.wildaboutorkney.com). Tour guides in minivans will help you spot the sites. The per-person cost is £49 for a full day, £39 for three-quarters of a day. In summer, reserve in advance.
A bird-watching specialist is Orkney Island Wildlife, Shapinsay 20, Orkney KW17 2DY (tel. 01856/711-373; www.orkneyislandholidays.com). Between May and August, it leads 5-day bird-watching tours that include full board, housing, and exposure to the fields, moors, and wetlands of Shapinsay and Orkney. Tours are conducted from a rustic croft or farmstead that was upgraded and enlarged into a center in 1990. Your hosts are Paul and Louise Hollinrake, both qualified wardens at the Mill Dam Wetlands Reserve and accredited by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Tours depart every morning around 9am (allowing participants to either sleep late or embark on sunrise expeditions of their own). Box lunches are provided. Touring is by minivan or by inflatable boat, allowing close-up inspection of offshore skerries (small islets without vegetation) and sea caves. No more than six participants are allowed on any tour. All-inclusive rates are £1,075 to £1,125 per person for the 6-day/7-night experience.
During winter and early spring, the entire Solway shoreline, Loch Ryan, Wigtown Bay, and Auchencairn Bay are excellent locations for observing wintering wildfowl and waders. Inland, Galloway has a rich and varied range of bird life, including British barn owls, kestrels, tawnies, and merlins. Bird-watching fact sheets are available at tourist offices in Galloway.
Several canoe clubs offer instruction and advice. Supervising their activities is the Scottish Canoe Association (SCA), Caledonia House, South Gyle, Edinburgh EH12 9DQ (tel. 0131/317-7314; fax 0131/317-7319; www.canoescotland.com). It coordinates all competitive canoeing events in Scotland, including slaloms, polo games, and white-water races. It also offers a handbook and a range of other publications, plus such promotional material as its own magazine, Scottish Paddler. (An equivalent magazine published in England is Canoe Focus.)
Horseback Riding & Pony Trekking
Horseback riding and trekking through the panoramic countryside -- from the Lowlands to the Highlands and through all the in-between lands -- can be enjoyed by most everyone, from novices to experienced riders.
Although more adventurous riders prefer the hillier terrain of the Highlands, the Borders in the southeast is the best for horseback riding -- in fact, it's often called Scotland's horse country. Its equivalent in the United States would be Kentucky. On the western coastline, Argyll is another great center for riding while taking in dramatic scenery. The Argyll Forest Park, stretching almost to Loch Fyne, encompasses 24,300 hectares (60,000 acres) and contains some of the lushest scenery in Scotland. Its trails lead through forests to sea lochs cut deep into the park, evoking the fjords of Norway.
Pony trekking across moors and dales is reason enough to come to Scotland. Pony trekking originated as a job for Highland ponies that weren't otherwise engaged in toting dead deer off the hills during deer-stalking season. Most treks last from 2 1/2 hours to a full day, and most centers have ponies suitable for nearly all age groups. You find operators in Kirkudbright and on Shetland, plus several in the Hebrides.
Mountain climbing can range from fair-weather treks over heather-clad hilltops to demanding climbs up rock faces in wintry conditions of snow and ice.
The Southern Uplands, the offshore islands, and the Highlands of Scotland contain the best mountaineering sites. Regardless of your abilities, treat the landscape with respect. The weather can turn foul during any season with almost no advance notice, creating dangerous conditions. If you're climbing rock faces, you should be familiar with basic techniques and the use of such specialized equipment as carabiners, crampons, ice axes, and ropes. Don't even consider climbing without proper instruction and equipment.
Ben Nevis is the highest (but by no means the most remote) peak in Scotland. Despite its loftiness at 1,336m (4,383 ft.), it has attracted some daredevils who have driven cars and motorcycles to points near its top; one eccentric even arranged the transport of a dining table with formal dinner service and a grand piano.
If you want to improve your rock-climbing skills, consider joining a club or signing on for a mountaineering course at a climbing center maintained by the Scottish Sports Council. Also contact the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Perth (tel. 01738/493-942; www.mcofs.org.uk/home.asp). Membership allows overnight stays at the club's climbing huts on the island of Skye (in Glen Brittle), in the Cairngorms (at Glen Feshie), and near the high-altitude mountain pass at Glencoe. True rock-climbing aficionados looking to earn certification might contact the Scottish Mountain Leader Training Board, at Glenmore, Aviemore, Inverness-shire PH22 1QU (tel. 01479/861-248; www.mltuk.org).
Sailing & Watersports
Wherever you travel in Scotland, you're never far from the water. Windsurfing, canoeing, water-skiing, and sailing are just some of the activities available at a number of sailing centers and holiday parks. You'll find it easy to rent boats and equipment at any of the major resorts along Scotland's famous lakes.
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.