Things to do in Scotland
Although Scotland is the proverbial crown of the United Kingdom, it’s easy to overlook it—the greatest city in the world (according to the English, anyway) sits less than 600 km to its south. Travelling through Scotland is nonetheless a singular experience. Where else on Earth can you have breakfast beneath a castle, lunch with history’s most infamous monster and skip dinner for a magical gay burlesque show? Even if Scotland never regains its independence, it remains peerless. Wondering what to do in Scotland? Mr Hudson has got you covered.
To do and see
Edinburgh is at once Scotland’s capital for tourists and for hipsters, although you aren’t going to find many of the latter in the old town that sits beneath Castle Rock, where Edinburghers first set up shop during the Iron Age. (They built their iconic castle about a millennium after that.)
“The cool kids hang out in Leith,” Andrew says, as we walk northward away from Calton Hill (Edinburgh’s answer to the Acropolis) and toward the sea. We’re strolling the eponymous Leith Walk, where cafés and boutiques are approximately equal in number to the restaurants and sundry shops set up by the South Asian immigrants who made up most of this district’s population before the cool kids came.
It’s only upon travelling this long distance that you can hope to understand the vast gulf between Scotland’s two large cities
“Do you want to know a funny piece of trivia?” Andrew, the official photographer for Edinburgh Festivals but for now, just my walking companion, asks as we near the waterfront.
“You know that song—’I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more’?” He continues, humming the tune as we walk. “Well, the band who sang it—The Proclaimers—they’re from Leith. There was even a musical film [2013’s Sunshine on Leith] made about them.”
It’s a funny piece of trivia indeed, but it’s appropriate for a place like Scotland, whose long history is only as sacred as the limits of Scots’ irreverence toward it. They’re just as likely to praise the beauty of the Scottish Highlands or the medieval castles that line the road to Skye, a mystical island off the country’s north-western coast, as they are to mock the hordes of foreigners who flock to Loch Ness, which is perhaps the country’s ugliest body of water.
Whether you meet your own Scotsman to guide you or not, hire a car when you finish up in Edinburgh and point your GPS toward the charming town of Portreigh on Skye. Make sure to choose a route that skirts Glencoe, in the Highlands and Eilan Donnan Castle, just beyond them. Do try Nessie’s Hot Pot Pie at the Loch Ness Boathouse if you stop at the lake in spite of my warning. After all, it’s basically on the way to where you’ll be ending your Scottish road trip: In Glasgow, not Edinburgh.
Indeed, it’s only upon travelling this long distance that you can hope to understand the vast gulf between Scotland’s two large cities, which sit only 80 km apart as the crow flies. To most Scots I meet, Andrew included, Edinburgh’s history and beauty cancel out the kitsch—and gratuitous busking bagpipe players—mass tourism has imparted upon it, leaving it with a timeless authenticity that overshadows Glasgow’s galleries, government houses and public greens.
(Glasgow does have a city “City of the Dead” though, the aptly-named Necropolis. Andrew never does explain to me how Edinburgh can one-up that.)
Andrew is wearing a kilt, although I comment neither on how much it suits him (his fiancée is standing between us) nor about how bad I feel for his man parts, given the cold temperature of the air. I imagine there’s nothing more emasculating to a Scotsman than being seen as a weak kilt-wearer.
My shyness, however, doesn’t stem from Andrew’s straightness or a fear that he might feel threatened by my gayness, even if there would be historical precedence for this. It was only in 1980, after all—the year he was born—that homosexuality became legal in Scotland.
The good news is that Scots have quickly forgotten their backwards past, not only the heteronormative portion of it (gay marriage became legal here in 2013, a full year before it did in England) but also the barbary that occurred farther back in history, which comprised assassinations, to coups, to witch hunts and beyond.
Yet in spite of how independent Scots are in mindset, language and character, they proudly (and overwhelmingly) voted to remain, both in the United Kingdom in 2014 and in the European Union in 2016. It’s a strange paradox, but not an unfounded one, as you’ll see when you explore the excellent museums divided between the country’s two principal cities.
In Edinburgh, those craving a more cerebral account of Scotland’s past can visit either the National Museum of Scotland or, brave the throes of tourists to explore Edinburgh Castle. The Scottish National Gallery, on the other hand, offers more esoteric windows into the fabric of Scotland, a concept you can understand quite literally if you happen upon any of the textile exhibits (tartan, it turns out, is only the beginning) that rotate through Glasgow museums such as Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Hunterian Art Gallery or the Gallery of Modern Art.
At one Glasgow gay bar in particular, every night is a celebration
I mentioned earlier that Andrew works for Edinburgh Festivals, so you might be wondering: Why, exactly, does a sleepy city like Edinburgh have a festivals department? The answer is that Edinburgh is not sleepy.
I’m in town for Hogmanay, a raucous New Year’s celebration that dates back centuries, but the city hosts world-class celebrations year-round, from Fringe Festival, the largest art festival in the world, to Edinburgh Book Festival, to Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, which features its own self-contained versions of Carnival and Mardi Gras.
Of course, you needn’t plan time your trip to Scotland to correspond with one of the country’s many festivals. At one Glasgow gay bar in particular, every night is a celebration—the Waterloo has been in operation since well before the legalisation of homosexuality in Scotland.
It’s not quite as exciting as, say, Glasgow’s Riding Room, where burlesque, magic and live music collide, or Edinburgh’s CC Blooms, where you can look out onto Calton Hill if you can squeeze through the packed dance floor to a window. But there’s a palpable energy here, not unlike the faeries that waft through the wind on the Isle of Skye or the terror each creak of a door in Edinburgh Castle conveys.
One advantage of Edinburgh’s longstanding prominence as a top tourist destination is the large selection of luxury and boutique hotels it boasts. If you’re looking for classical ambience coupled with unparalleled convenience, stay at the century-old Balmoral Hotel, which sits walking distance from Waverley Train Station and offers views of Edinburgh Castle that are as five-star as its offerings, which include a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Objectively speaking, The Witchery possesses a similar level of luxury to the Balmoral, although its décor is more flamboyant, with Gothic architecture and opulent touches of gold, velvet and freestanding silver bathtubs. Alva House, on the other hand, has the distinction of being Edinburgh’s only guesthouse exclusively for gay men.
Glasgow is grittier than Edinburgh on the whole, a characterisation that could also apply to many of its finest hotels. Hotel Dakota is industrial, both in terms of its factory-looking exterior and the grey tones that decorate its interior, although you’ll feel more like a foreman than an assembly line worker as you unwind in its champagne room. Malmaison Glasgow, meanwhile, rests in a converted church and is home to the award-winning The Honours brasserie.
Utility tends to supersede exorbitance in the Scottish Highlands, with Glencoe House being a notable exception. Featuring spectacular views of the Highlands and more than 10 acres of private gardens to explore, it’s the standout accommodation in a region whose exclusivity admittedly rests in the otherworldliness of its landscapes.
The futility of man-made competing with nature-made is even more apparent in Skye, although a pair of hotels on the island may impress you as much as the alien-looking Storr rock formation. Book a suite at Portree’s harbourside Bosville Hotel, where fresh seafood is available morning, noon and night. Or, take advantage of the seasonal fishing rights at Skeabost House Hotel, which overlooks Loch Snizort.
It’s impossible to bring up Scottish gastronomy without mentioning haggis, although the infamous dish consistent of sheep’s unmentionables is more nuanced than you think. Pop in at Edinburgh’s Apex Grassmarket Hotel to sample Indian-inflected Haggis Pakora, a brainchild of Scotland’s most famous chef Tony Singh, who like The Proclaimers happens to be a native son of Leith.
Pop in, but don’t bother sitting down. If it’s ambience and not culinary novelty that you seek, make a reservation at Number One, the aforementioned Michelin-starred restaurant at the Balmoral or Aizle, which offers a foodie experience that should be pretentious, but isn’t. In Glasgow, Ox and Finch couples shareable, Scottish-ish plates with a world-class wine list, while Opium serves up intoxicating high-end Asian cuisine.
While it’s true that none of us will probably ever look as hot as Andrew did in his kilt, you can’t come to Scotland without at least trying one on, right? To be sure, designer Howie Nicholsby has given a decidedly modern bent to his kilts, which he sells at the appropriately-named 21st-Century Kilts in Edinburgh. If window shopping suits you more than seeking out a particular item, traipse around the city’s Grassmarket (where you can find the quirky Mr Wood’s Fossils) or along Leith Walk, where the definition of “vintage” extends to the fine furniture you find at Bra Bohag.
Cresswell Lane in Glasgow provides something of a mix of the shops you’ll find in Grassmarket and Leith in Edinburgh, while Voltaire and Rousseau Bookshop offers a range of books so staggering (and a mildew smell so strong, be warned) that you might feel like you’re at the Book Festival back in Edinburgh. High-street fashion is, unfortunately, predominate over high-end fashion here (at least for men) but who knows: if you take your time at Mr Ben Retro Clothing, you might just find something runway-worthy.
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Skye | Photo: Robert Schrader
Glencoe House Highlands | Photo: Robert Schrader
Photo: Robert Schrader
Skye | Photo: Robert Schrader
Glencoe | Photo: Robert Schrader
Photo: Robert Schrader
Photo: Robert Schrader
Skye Storr | Photo: Robert Schrader
Sligachan Bridge Skye | Photo: Robert Schrader
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