Scotland Travel Guide
Your choices in Scotland range from small, local B&Bs to large, elegant hotels—some of the chain variety. Bed-and-breakfasts tend to be less expensive than large hotels because many are spare rooms in spacious homes. Proprietors keep costs down and guests get a more personal, Scottish touch. Accommodation can seem expensive because the pound has been strong against the dollar, but the economic downturn since 2009 has brought some special deals. For example, some lodgings offer discounted rates for stays of two nights or longer.
If you haven't booked ahead, you're not likely to be stranded. Even in the height of the season—July and August—hotel occupancy runs at about 80%. However, your choice of accommodations will be extremely limited if you show up somewhere during a festival or golf tournament. Your best bet will be to try for a room in a nearby village.
To secure your first choice, reserve in advance. One option is to reserve through local tourist information centers, making use of their "book-a-bed-ahead" services. Telephone bookings made from home should be confirmed by email or fax. Country hotels expect you to check in by about 6 pm.
Be sure you understand the hotel's cancellation policy. Some places allow you to cancel without any kind of penalty; others, particularly B&Bs, require you to cancel a week in advance or penalize you.
Smoking is banned in all indoor public spaces in Scotland, and this includes hotel rooms. Most hotels allow children under a certain age to stay in their parents' room at no extra charge, but others charge for them as extra adults; find out the cutoff age for discounts.
VisitScotland classifies and grades accommodations using a simple star system. The greater the number of stars, the greater the number of facilities and the more luxurious they are.
The lodgings we list are the cream of the crop in each price category. Unless otherwise noted, all lodgings listed have a private bathroom, a room phone, and a television. When pricing accommodations, always ask what's included. Many hotels and most guesthouses and B&Bs include a breakfast within the basic room rate. Meal-plan information appears at the end of a review.
Local Do's and Taboos
Although many Scots are fantastic talkers, they're less enthusiastic with greetings on the physical front. If you're in less familiar company, a handshake is more appreciated than a kiss or hug.
When you are visiting houses of worship, modest attire is appreciated, though you will see shorts and even bared midriffs. Photographs are welcome in churches, outside of services. Shorts and other close-fitting attire are allowed just about anywhere else at any time, weather permitting; these days locals tend not to cover up as much as they used to.
It's the same with food; Scots eat and drink just about anywhere, and much of the time they do it standing up or even walking.
In Scotland it's rude to walk away from conversation, even if it's with someone you don't know. If you're at a pub, keep in mind that it's very important to buy a round of drinks if you're socializing with a group of people. You don't simply buy your own drink; you buy a drink for all of the people you're there with, and those people do the same. It can make for a very foggy evening and public drunkenness, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Conversational topics that are considered taboo are money matters; the Scots are private about their finances. You should give up your seats for elderly people or pregnant women without a second thought. Hold the door open for someone who is leaving or entering the same building as you. Say please and thank you.
Driving etiquette is carefully observed, too; be courteous and allow people to pass. Jaywalking isn't rude or illegal, but it's much safer to cross with the lights, especially if traffic is coming from a direction you might not be used to.
As for waiting in lines and moving through crowds, put your best foot forward. The Scots are very polite and you'll be noticed (and not in a good way) if you're not.
Out on the Town
People may dress up for a special restaurant or for clubbing, but other people will be casual. Some restaurants and clubs frown on jeans and sneakers.
If you're visiting a family home, a simple bouquet of flowers is a welcome gift. If you're invited for a meal, bringing a bottle of wine is appropriate, as is some candy for the children. To thank a host for hospitality, either a phone call or thank-you card is always appreciated.
Punctuality is of prime importance, so call ahead if you anticipate a late arrival. Spouses do not generally attend business dinners, unless specifically invited. If you ask someone to dine, it's usually assumed that you'll pick up the tab. However, if you're the visitor, your host may insist on paying. Nonetheless, it’s always polite to offer to pay.
The Scots language, which borrows from Scandinavian, Dutch, French, and Gaelic, survives in various forms, with each region having its own dialect. In the northeast they speak Doric, while the Shetland and Orkney "tongue" is influenced by the now-extinct Norn. The Gaelic language, the indigenous language of those from the Western Isles and Highlands, has been given a new lease of life. Many primary schools in the region are teaching a new generation of Gaelic speakers. The language has its own TV channel, BBC Alba, and is being promoted in a huge signage campaign. Otherwise, Scots speak English often with a strong accent (which may be hard for non-native Brits and Americans to understand), but your ear will soon come to terms with it.
Apartment and House Rentals
Rental houses and flats (apartments) are becoming more popular lodging choices for travelers visiting Scotland, particularly for those staying in one place for more than a few days. Some places may rent only by the week. Prices can be cheaper than a hotel (though perhaps not less than a bed-and-breakfast), and the space and comfort are much better than what you'd find in a typical hotel.
In the country your chances of finding a small house to rent are good; in the city you're more likely to find a flat (apartment) to let (rent). Either way, your best bet for finding these rentals is online. Individuals and large consortiums can own these properties, so it just depends on what you're looking for. The White House is a good, central place for rentals in Glasgow, and Scottish Apartment is a good source for apartments in Edinburgh. The National Trust for Scotland has many unique properties, from island cottages to castles, for rent.
At Home Abroad (212/421–9165. www.athomeabroadinc.com.)
Barclay International Group (800/845–6636. www.barclayweb.com.)
Drawbridge to Europe (541/482–7778. www.drawbridgetoeurope.com.)
Home Away (www.homeaway.com.)
Interhome (800/882–6864 in the U.S. www.interhome.us.)
Villas & Apartments Abroad (212/213–6435. www.vaanyc.com.)
National Trust for Scotland (0131/458–0303; 866/211–7573 in U.S. www.nts.org.uk.)
Scottish Apartment (0131/222–9670. www.scottishapartment.co.uk.)
White House (0141/339–9375. www.whitehouse-apartments.com.)
Common throughout Scotland, B&Bs are a special British tradition and the backbone of budget travel. Prices average about £40 to £100 per night, depending on the region and the time of year. They're usually in a family home, occasionally don't have private bathrooms, and usually offer only breakfast. More upscale B&Bs, along the line of American B&Bs or small inns, can be found in Edinburgh and Glasgow especially, but in other parts of Scotland as well. Guest houses are a slightly larger, somewhat more luxurious version. All provide a glimpse of everyday British life. Note that local tourist offices can book a B&B for you; there may be a small charge for this service.
BedandBreakfast.com (512/322–2710 or 800/462–2632. www.bedandbreakfast.com.)
UK Bed and Breakfast Accommodation (www.bedandbreakfasts.co.uk.)
Farmhouse and Crofting Holidays
A popular option for families with children is a farmhouse holiday, combining the freedom of B&B accommodations with the hospitality of Scottish family life. You'll need a car if you're staying deep in the country, though. Information is available from VisitBritain or VisitScotland, from Scottish Farmhouse Holidays, and from the Farm Stay UK.
Farm Stay UK (024/7669–6909. www.farmstayuk.co.uk.)
Scottish Farmhouse Holidays (01334/476370. www.scottishfarmhouseholidays.com.)
With a direct home exchange you stay in someone else's home while they stay in yours. Some outfits also deal with vacation homes, so you're not actually staying in someone's full-time residence, just their vacant weekend place.
HomeExchange.com. From $5.95 per month. 800/877–8723. www.homeexchange.com.
HomeLink International. $89 for full membership for one year. 800/638–3841 in U.S.; 01962/886882 in U.K. www.homelink.org.
Intervac U.S. Various online packages ranging from $8.33 per month. 800/756–4663. www.intervac-homeexchange.com.
Membership in any HI association, open to travelers of all ages, allows you to stay in HI-affiliated hostels at member rates. One-year membership is about $28 for adults. Rates in dorm-style rooms run about $15–$25 per bed per night; private rooms are more, but are still generally well under $100 a night. Members have priority if the hostel is full; they're also eligible for discounts around the world, even on rail and bus travel in some countries.Most hostels in Scotland are very basic, but some, on the other hand, are stunning castles. Hostels in rural areas tend to fill up with older people, hill walkers, and nature lovers (a quieter bunch). Hostels are not good for people who want privacy or don't want to sit around a communal table to eat meals and talk to fellow travelers. Most hostels have very few rooms with double or triple accommodation, so book well in advance.
Hostelling International USA (240/650–2100. www.hiusa.org.)
Scottish Independent Hostels (www.hostel-scotland.co.uk.)
Scottish Youth Hostels (0845/293-7373. www.syha.org.uk.)
Large hotels vary in style and price. Many lean toward Scottish themes when it comes to decoration, but you can expect the same quality and service from a chain hotel wherever you are in the world. Keep in mind that hotel rooms in Scotland are smaller than what you'd find in the United States. Today hotels of all sizes are trying to be greener, and many newer chains are striving for government environmental awards. Discounted rooms are another trend, as are discounts for room upgrades.
In the countryside some older hotels are former castles or converted country homes. These types of hotels are full of character and charm but can be very expensive, and they may not have elevators. Normally they have all the amenities, if not more, of their urban counterparts. Their locations may be so remote that you must eat on the premises, which may be costly.
Some small regional chains operate in Scotland that are not internationally known. Apex (in Edinburgh, Dundee, and London) is modish and has Scandinavian-inspired bedrooms; Malmaison (in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow) is luxury on a budget; Hotel du Vin (Glasgow and Edinburgh), with its chic bistros, sumptuous bedding, and original art, may blow the budget.
Apex Hotels (www.apexhotels.co.uk. *.)
Hotel du Vin (www.hotelduvin.com. *.)
Malmaison (www.malmaison.com. *.)