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Castles

Whether a jumble of stones or a fully intact fortress, whether in private ownership or under the care of a preservation group—such as Historic Scotland (a government agency) or the National Trust for Scotland (a private, charitable organization)—Scotland's castles powerfully demonstrate the country's lavish past and its once-uneasy relationship with its southern neighbor.

Caerlaverock. This triangular 13th-century fortress with red sandstone walls was a last bastion in the 17th-century struggle for religious reform.

Castle Trail. Along Royal Deeside, west of Aberdeen, the Castle Trail has an eclectic group of castles all within a 100-mile radius. There’s stirring Drum; stately Crathes; baronial Balmoral; memorabilia-packed Braemar; Corgarff; Kildrummy; and windswept Dunnottar.

Edinburgh Castle. This royal palace dominates the capital’s history and skyline.

Eilean Donan. A ruin on the edge of several lochs, this is the most photogenic of Scottish castles and inspiration for the castle in the animated movie Brave.

Floors Castle. On the Duke of Roxburghe’s estate, this castle has grand turrets, pinnacles, and cupolas.

Glamis Castle. Northeast of Dundee, Glamis Castle connects Britain's royalty from Macbeth to the late Queen Mother.

Hermitage Castle. This dark and foreboding place is where Mary, Queen of Scots traveled to visit her lover, the earl of Bothwell.

Stirling Castle. Beautifully restored Stirling Castle is the childhood home of Mary, Queen of Scots and one of finest Renaissance palaces in the United Kingdom.

Mountains and Lochs

For the snowcapped mountains and glassy lochs (lakes) for which Scotland is famous, you have to leave the south and the cities behind you—though some Lowland lakes are beautiful. Wherever you go in Scotland, nature is at your fingertips.

Ben Nevis. Looming over Fort William is dramatic Ben Nevis. No matter when you visit, you'll probably see snow on the summit.

Cairngorms National Park. The Great Glen is home to half of Scotland's highest peaks, many of them in Cairngorms National Park. This is an excellent place for hiking, skiing, and reindeer sightings.

Glen Torridon. East of Shieldaig in the Northern Highlands, Glen Torridon has the country's finest mountain scenery.

Loch Achray. This pretty loch is where you set out for the climb to Ben An, a sheer-faced mountain with fabulous views of the Trossachs.

Loch Katrine. In the heart of the Trossachs, this lake in the Central Highlands was the setting of Walter Scott's narrative poem The Lady of the Lake. In summer you can take the steamer SS Sir Walter Scott.

Loch Leven. Located in Fife, this loch is famed for its birdlife. It was also where Mary, Queen of Scots signed the deed of abdication in her island prison.

Loch Lomond. Among Scotland's most famous lakes, Loch Lomond's shimmering shores, beautiful vistas, and plethora of water-sport options are 20 minutes from Glasgow.

Loch Maree. One of Scotland's most scenic lakes, Loch Maree is framed by Scots pines and Slioch Mountain.

Fabulous Festivals

With a culture that dates back hundreds of years, there's always something to celebrate in Scotland. No matter where you are, you can probably find a festival to suit you.

Celtic Connections. During the last two weeks of January, musicians from all over the world gather in Glasgow to play Celtic-inspired music.

Edinburgh Fringe. Running at the same time as the Edinburgh International Festival, this is a less formal, rowdier celebration.

Edinburgh International Book Festival. Some of the world’s most famous authors head to this annual festival, along with an audience that knows and loves literature.

Edinburgh International Festival. The most spectacular and famous event on Scotland's cultural calendar, August's festival has everything from traditional music to modern dance to cutting-edge theater.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Three weeks every August you can listen to the sound of pipe and drum while fireworks explode overhead.

Glasgay. During October and November, Glasgow hosts a massive celebration of gay and lesbian culture.

Hogmanay. The world's biggest New Year's celebration takes place over several days in Edinburgh.

St. Magnus Festival. Held in Orkney in June, this classical festival draws musicians from all over the world.

Up Helly Aa. This festival comes to a spectacular end with the torching of a replica of a Viking ship. It takes place in Lerwick, Shetland, on the last Tuesday of January.

Whisky Tours

Even for non-connoisseurs, whisky tours are a great way to appreciate the many varied flavors of Scotland's signature drink. Many distilleries are in lovely settings, and tours give you a sense of the craft that transforms malted barley, water, and yeast. In-depth tours and special tastings are available at some places, but it's always best to check ahead and reserve if needed. Here's a sampling of distilleries from around the country.

Bladnoch. Scotland's southernmost whisky producer, in Galloway, offers tours and tastings of its single malt.

Edradour. This small distillery near Pitlochry makes a fine single malt and offers an informative and fun tour.

Glenfiddich. An entertaining visitor center enhances the tour of this Dufftown distillery; it also has an art gallery.

Glenlivet. Tours at the first licensed distillery in the Highlands include not only whisky making but also the fascinating story of the founder.

Highland Park. If you make it north to Orkney, visit Scotland's northernmost distillery and try its smoky but sweet malt.

Lagavulin. Among Islay's whiskies, this one has the strongest iodine scent; the distillery offers a number of special tours.

Laphroaig. Its distinctively peaty, iodine-and-seaweed flavor has earned this Islay whisky many devoted followers.

Macallan. There's a choice of two tours at this distillery that matures its whisky in sherry and bourbon casks.

Talisker. The single malt from the Isle of Skye's only distillery has a peaty aroma but is less intense than other island whiskies; tours are popular.

Island Havens

A remote, windswept world of white-sand beaches, forgotten castles, and crisp, clear rivers awaits you in the Scottish isles. Out of the hundreds of isles (islands), only a handful are actually inhabited, and here ancient culture and tradition remain alive and well. Each island has its own distinct fingerprint; getting to some might be awkward and costly, but the time and expense are worth your while.

Arran. With activities ranging from golf to hiking, this island has everything you'll find on the mainland but on a smaller, more intimate scale.

Bute. One of the more affordable and accessible islands, Bute draws celebrities to its estates for lavish weddings and Glaswegians to its rocky shores for summer holidays.

Iona. This spiritual and spectacular island was the burial place of Scottish kings until the 11th century.

Islay. Near the Kintyre Peninsula, this island is where you go to watch rare birds, purchase woolen goods, and sample the smoothest malt whiskies.

Northern Isles. Orkney and Shetland, two remote island groups collectively known as the Northern Isles, have a colorful Scandinavian heritage. Both have notable prehistoric artifacts and rollicking festivals. The green pastures of Orkney are an hour from the mainland, and wind-flattened Shetland will suit those who want a more remote feel.

Skye. With hazy mountains, hidden beaches, and shady glens, the Isle of Skye is unsurpassed for sheer beauty. It also has good selection of hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants.

Hiking

People who have hiked in Scotland often return to explore the country's memorable rural landscapes of loch-dotted glens and forested hills. From Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat to Ben Nevis, Britain's tallest peak, the country holds unsurpassed hiking possibilities, no matter what your ambitions. Keep in mind that weather conditions can and do change rapidly in the Scottish hills, even at low altitude. The best time for hiking is from May to September.

Fife Coastal Path. This seaside trail is 116 miles long, but can be done in chunks. It skirts along golden beaches, rocky inlets, and picturesque fishing villages.

Glen Nevis. Home of the magnificent peak of Ben Nevis, Glen Nevis has a number of moderate hikes with footpaths leading past waterfalls, ruined crofts, and forested gorges. There are also some more challenging climbs.

The Grampians. In the northeastern part of the country, this mountain range offers walks through some of the country's most varied terrain. The 8-mile route around Loch Muick, which passes Glas-allt Shiel, Queen Victoria’s holiday home, is beautiful in any weather.

Southern Upland Way. The famous 212-mile coast-to-coast journey from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath is an undertaking, but it can be tackled in sections.

Trossachs National Park. In the Central Highlands, this vast area includes everything from quiet country strolls to ambitious climbs up craggy cliffs.

West Highland Way. From Milngavie to Fort William, this well-marked and well-trodden 95-mile trek follows a series of old coaching roads.

Megalithic Monuments

Scattered throughout the Scottish landscape are prehistoric standing stones, stone circles, tombs, and even stone houses that provide a tantalizing glimpse into the country's remarkable past and people. If you're interested in ancient remains, leave the mainland and head for the isles, where many of the most impressive and important sites are found.

Calanais Standing Stones. On the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, this ancient site is reminiscent of Stonehenge. The impressive stones are believed to have been used for astronomical observations.

Jarlshof. A Bronze Age settlement dating from 2500 BC, Jarlshof has been called the most remarkable archaeological site in the British Isles.

Machrie Moor Stone Circles. On the Isle of Arran these granite boulders and reddish sandstone circles have a startling setting in the middle of an isolated moor.

Maes Howe. An enormous burial mound on Orkney, Maes Howe is renowned for its imposing burial chamber.

Mousa Broch. Accessible by boat, this beautifully preserved fortified Iron Age stone tower is now a bird sanctuary. Each summer bird-watchers gather here at dusk to watch up to 40,000 storm petrels return from sea.

Ring of Brodgar. Between Loch Harray and Loch Stennes sits this magnificent circle made up of 36 Neolithic stones.

Skara Brae. Orkney's Neolithic village, first occupied around 3000 BC, was buried beneath the sand until its discovery in 1850. The houses are joined by covered passages, and with stone beds, fireplaces, and cupboards are intriguing remnants from the distant past.

Retail Therapy

No longer is Scotland simply the land of whisky and wool. International names from Louis Vuitton to Vivienne Westwood have all set up shop here, and top British department stores like John Lewis, Harvey Nichols, and Debenhams, as well as stylish boutiques, pepper the major cities. Rich chocolates (often with whisky fillings), marmalades, heather honeys, and the traditional petticoat-tail shortbread are easily portable gifts. So, too, are the boiled sweets (hard candies).

Aberdeen. If trying and buying malt whisky is on your itinerary, you won't find a much better spot than Aberdeen.

Central Highlands. Bristling with old bothies (farm buildings) that have been turned into small craft workshops, the villages in this region sell handmade crafts.

Dundee. Topped with a rich fruit mixture and almonds, Dundee cake is among the other prize edibles on sale in the city they're named after.

Edinburgh. Jenner’s, Scotland’s most prestigious department store, is a must-see in Edinburgh. Head toward the New Town for clusters of antiques shops.

Glasgow. Scotland's biggest city claims the best shopping in Britain, outside of London's Oxford Street. Start at Buchanan Street with Princes Gardens and Buchanan Galleries before heading to the West End for clothing boutiques and antiques shops.

Perth. A shopper's paradise, Scotland's former capital city offers a wide array of crafts, including fine china, exquisite jewelry, and freshwater pearls.

Shetland. Traditional crafts such as tartan blankets, Celtic silver, and pebble jewelry are among the big draws.

Updated: 02-2014

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