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Top Ten Tips for Planning a Scottish Vacation

Autumnal View of the Banks of Loch Lomond (November 2010)

Autumnal View of the Banks of Loch Lomond (November 2010)

About Scotland Vacations

Planning a Scottish vacation will in the first instance be about choosing specific destinations, booking flights and arranging accommodation. While it is necessary that these be the most important tasks, there are other details which can and should be considered to help your vacation run smoothly and ultimately prove most enjoyable.

If you are visiting Scotland on vacation for the first time, you may just have some big surprises in store. This page is intended as a useful guide for anyone visiting Scotland by going beyond haggis and bagpipes, Loch Ness and Edinburgh Castle, to guide you through some of the mists and myths which so often distort people's perceptions of Scotland. It will focus on useful, practical and cultural information for your Scottish vacation, which you are likely to require on a daily basis.

In the first instance, why not take the very quick quiz about Scotland immediately below and gain some idea of how much you already know...?

A Summary of the Categories of Tips You Will Find on this Page

Tip #1: Scotland's Weather

Tip #2: Currency in Scotland

Tip #3: Travel in Scotland

Tip #4: The Transatlantic Language Barrier

Tip #5: Eating Out in Scotland

Tip #6: Fast Food in Scotland

Tip #7: Scottish Pubs and Alcohol

Tip #8: Kids and Candy in Scotland

Tip #9: Take Home Souvenirs of Scotland

Tip #10: Emergency Contact Details and Information

The record snowfalls of December 2010/ January 2011 brought Scotland grinding to a halt for days at a time and saw the Armed Forces mobilised to help clear city streets (not shown)

The record snowfalls of December 2010/ January 2011 brought Scotland grinding to a halt for days at a time and saw the Armed Forces mobilised to help clear city streets (not shown)

1. Scotland's Weather and Sensible Precautions

Although you are guaranteed a warm welcome from the people of Scotland when you visit on vacation, Scotland's weather is not guaranteed to afford you a similar greeting. The past few years alone have seen record winter snowfalls and record levels of summer rainfall; they have seen record winter temperature lows and record summer highs. The message is simple: whenever you visit Scotland, be prepared. A couple of warm winter woollies and a waterproof coat or jacket should always be tucked away in your baggage, just in case.

2. Arriving in Scotland - Travel and Transport

If your Scottish vacation takes the form of an organised package tour, travel and transport will not be an issue. If, on the other hand, you and your family are making your own arrangements, you will need to consider how you are going to get around.

In Central and much of Eastern Scotland (where the major population centres are to be found) public transport is available in the form of trains, buses and coaches, or even taxis. If, however, you are intending to venture to areas such as the Western Highlands and Islands, or much of the Southern Uplands, the same does not apply. The railways in these areas are largely long gone and scheduled buses and coaches are often infrequent. This means that joining an organised tour or private car hire is likely to be the most viable option.

The steering wheel may be on the opposite side of the car in Scotland from what you are used to

The steering wheel may be on the opposite side of the car in Scotland from what you are used to

Typical petrol (gas) prices in Scotland, March 31st 2011.

Typical petrol (gas) prices in Scotland, March 31st 2011.

About Car Hire

Car hire is readily available in Scotland but there are two very important points you should be aware of:

  1. Cars are driven on the left side of the road in Scotland and throughout the UK. This means that not only may you be driving on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to, but the driver's seat will also be on the opposite side of the car. Consider whether this is something to which you think you can easily adapt.
  2. Petrol (gasoline) prices in the UK are among the highest in the world. This is true of the whole country but if you are heading out into rural Scotland, the prices will rise further. In such instances, be sure to determine which is the last major town you will pass through on your route and take a few minutes to fill up your tank in that town. A common example is where you are heading from Glasgow for Loch Lomond and beyond. Fill up your tank at Dumbarton.

In the example pictured right, the price of a litre of unleaded petrol is £1.299. At the exchange rate on the same day (March 31st, 2011), this equates to $7.87 (US) per US gallon...and this is in Central Scotland!

Examples of the different notes you will encounter in Scotland on a daily basis. These are all 10 pound notes and are issued by (from top to bottom) Bank of England, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank

Examples of the different notes you will encounter in Scotland on a daily basis. These are all 10 pound notes and are issued by (from top to bottom) Bank of England, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank

3. Currency in Scotland

The currency in Scotland is Pounds Sterling, as it is throughout the United Kingdom. The difference in Scotland (and Northern Ireland) from the rest of the UK, however, is that there is more than one issuer of banknotes. The main issuer of banknotes in the UK is the Bank of England and this is one type of note you will encounter in Scotland. There are also, however, three Scottish banks which have a special licence to print their own notes and distribute them for use only within Scotland for advertising purposes. These banks are the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank. This can be extremely confusing for overseas visitors but it should be remembered only that these notes should not be taken out with Scotland (unless for souvenir purposes). Problems are likely to be encountered even elsewhere in the UK and the chances of having them exchanged further afield are minimal at best.

If you are obtaining Pounds Sterling (in cash) prior to visiting Scotland, try to ensure that you do not have any notes larger in denomination than £20. A lot of shops (stores) will not, as a matter of policy, accept £50 notes and visiting a bank to have them exchanged will be an inconvenience you don't need. This does not apply to travellers' cheques (checks).

Sidewalk in the USA - pavement in Scotland

Sidewalk in the USA - pavement in Scotland

Car trunk in USA - car boot in Scotland

Car trunk in USA - car boot in Scotland

4. The Transatlantic Language Barrier

English is spoken in a great many countries around the world but equally there are a great many variances in the words which are used to imply certain meanings. This is never more in evidence than those differences in words used in the UK and the USA. Often, these words are simply different and no great confusion will arise but there are certain circumstances where either words which are perfectly innocent on one side of the Atlantic have a more risque meaning on the other side, or expressions can be entirely misleading.

It is not appropriate to look at the risque examples here but more than worthwhile considering the latter circumstance. Two examples which an American visitor to Scotland may very well encounter are detailed below:

  1. American guests check in to their Scottish hotel. They are directed to a room on the 6th floor. They will not be able to find it. Why? In Scotland, the floor of a building at ground level is called the ground floor and the 1st floor is the 1st floor above ground level. The American guests will be looking for their 6th floor room on - what is in Scotland - the 5th floor...
  2. American visitors are walking in Edinburgh on August 6th, 2011. They see a poster for a show at the Edinburgh Festival which they would like to see. The date of the show is advertised as 7/8/2011. They regretfully assume they have missed it by about a month. They haven't. Why? The American visitors will read the date as July 8th, 2011. In Scotland the date is stipulated as 7th August, 2011 and so written. In actual fact, the show they wish to see does not take place until the following day...
Scottish Steak Pie with Mashed Potatoes, Carrots and Peas

Scottish Steak Pie with Mashed Potatoes, Carrots and Peas

British Pub Grub

5. Eating Out in Scotland

If you are staying in a hotel or bed and breakfast in Scotland, breakfast at least is likely to be included in your price. One option which you will almost always have in this respect is a full, fried Scottish breakfast. This is similar to a full English breakfast but the sausage you are likely to be offered will be a Lorne sausage, a type of sausage where the meat is compressed in to large blocks and sliced, rather than being stuffed in to a skin. You are also likely to be given a tattie (potato) scone, as opposed to fried bread or hash browns. Both are delicious and more than worth trying.

Lunch and dinner may both be at your discretion, dependant on your accommodation deal. There will be a variety of restaurants or hotels at which to sample dining of various types and ethnic origins but why not try a traditional Scottish pub lunch? This is a hugely popular option in Scotland, is usually much cheaper than a restaurant and the food is more often than not very good. Try to avoid the big chain pubs, however, and go to the privately owned establishments, where you are much more likely to experience real, Scottish home cooking. If you are looking for haggis, you may well find it; but why not try something less well known that Scots eat on a regular basis? Steak pie is not just for New Year, it is eaten and enjoyed by Scots all year round. Delicious succulent steak and sausages in gravy, topped with crispy and golden puff pastry. Unless you happen to be vegetarian, this is a must try during your Scottish vacation.

A Scottish Fish Supper

A Scottish Fish Supper

6. Fast Food in Scotland

Although some of the big American fast food chains have established a presence in Scotland over recent years, fish and chips - the traditional British classic - still remains Scotland's favourite. Unlike the remainder of the UK, however, takeaway fish and chips in Scotland is likely to be referred to as a Fish Supper. It is traditionally comprised of a fillet of white fish (usually haddock in Scotland) dipped in a flour and water batter and deep fried in beef fat, though oil is often used instead of the beef fat in slightly more health conscious times. The chips are simply sliced and chopped potatoes, similarly fried. Salt and malt vinegar are the favoured seasonings.

At one time, fish suppers were placed on greaseproof paper and subsequently wrapped in brown paper, then old newspaper. Health and safety sadly outlawed this practice but to be enjoyed at its best, a fish supper should still be eaten with the fingers, straight from the wrapper in which it is served...

Fraoch Heather Ale

Fraoch Heather Ale

Pint of Orkney Dark Island Ale

Pint of Orkney Dark Island Ale

7. Scottish Pubs and Alcohol

The pub is a mainstay of Scottish society. It is a gathering place for friends and families, it is a place for playing pub games such as pool or darts and it is a place for watching live sports such as football (soccer) and horse racing.

Scottish pubs which tend to be frequented only by those in local, urban communities will be likely to serve little other than the tap beers of the brewing giants and common blended whiskies and other spirits. In the major cities, however, and in popular visitor areas, you will find a wealth of Scottish beers and malt whiskies for your tasting pleasure. There are some points, though, which should be carefully noted and remembered, if potential difficulties are to be avoided.

  1. Scottish beers will vary hugely in terms of ABV and may be considerably stronger than the beers you are used to at home. This is worth checking in each instance prior to acquiring a taste for a particular brew.
  2. Scottish beers are usually served in pubs by the pint. Although a fluid ounce in the British imperial system is similar to that in the American system, a British pint is comprised of twenty fluid ounces, rather than sixteen. It is therefore entirely possible that you could be drinking a beer which is stronger than you realise, in quantities approximately 25% greater than you realise. The dangers and potential consequences here are probably self-evident.
  3. Scottish beers vary hugely in taste, as well as in alcoholic strength. The good news is that most pub landlords will happily pour you a small taster before you commit to ordering a pint and you therefore shouldn't hesitate to ask. Sadly, this courtesy is unlikely to be extended to single malt whiskies...
  4. Particularly where you are in a pub which specialises in single malt whisky, the prices of the drams (measures) are likely to vary significantly. Rare single malts, perhaps where the distillery is no longer in operation, can be beyond expensive and careful check should be made of the prices before ordering.
Cross-section of a Lees' Macaroon Bar

Cross-section of a Lees' Macaroon Bar

Bottle of Barrs' Irn Bru

Bottle of Barrs' Irn Bru

8. Kids and Candy in Scotland

If you are travelling to Scotland with children, it is likely that your offspring will have some vacation expectations and requirements of their own. While many of the multi-national products such as Coke, Pepsi and Mars Bars can be found in Scotland, there are equally those products unique to Scotland which are more than worth trying and a couple of options are pictured to the right.

Candy in Scotland is referred to as sweets, or sweeties in some areas. A traditional Scottish offering in this respect is the Lees' Macaroon Bar. This consists of a sweet, creamy fondant, coated in chocolate and rolled in toasted coconut.

The most popular soft drink in Scotland is the legendary Irn Bru. The precise recipe for Irn Bru is known only to two living people at any one time, with back-up details in a Swiss bank vault. The taste is extremely difficult to describe or compare and is definitely something for all the family - not just the kids - to try during a Scottish vacation. Note that Irn Bru is a perfect and traditional accompaniment to a fish supper.

The legal age for consuming alcohol and even entering a pub in Scotland is eighteen. The one exception to this rule is where the pub serves meals and children of all ages will be admitted during the hours where meals are being served. (They still can not, of course, consume alcohol.)

There are a great many products representing Scotland which can be purchased from reputable online retailers. This also saves you having to carry them home in your baggage.

There are a great many products representing Scotland which can be purchased from reputable online retailers. This also saves you having to carry them home in your baggage.

9. Take Home Souvenirs of Scotland

There are many wonderful souvenirs of Scotland which it is possible to purchase to take home with you as a permanent reminder of your Scottish vacation. Craft shops, woollen mills and of course dedicated shops selling, "Liquid," reminders of Scotland can be found in most areas commonly visited by those on holiday or vacation from overseas. Sadly, however, it is a sign of the times that there are now more than ever those less scrupulous outlets in Scotland, selling allegedly Scottish souvenirs which have been mass produced in places such as Taiwan or Hong Kong at a tiny fraction of the price for which they are subsequently sold.

There is no foolproof way of avoiding the fake, substandard souvenirs but in most instances, careful consideration of the outlet in which the product is sold, careful examination of the product and even pertinent questions asked of the sales assistant can go some way to ensuring that you are really getting the quality and authentic merchandise you are paying for, expect and deserve.


10. Emergency Contact Details and Information

There are some unpleasant things in life which it is not nice to think about but being sufficiently aware of them at a critical moment can make all the difference in the world. Hopefully, these facts will not be required but should an emergency crop up during your Scottish vacation, there is information it is advisable to have to hand. You may wish to make careful note of some of these details:

  1. The emergency assistance number for Police, Fire and Rescue, Ambulance or Coastguard in Scotland is 999. Dialing this number will connect you to an operator who will ask which of the emergency services you require and put you straight through
  2. The Emergency Rooms in Scottish hospitals are known as Accident and Emergency (A & E) or Casualty Departments
  3. Drugstores in Scotland are Chemist Shops or Pharmacies and are denoted by a white vertical/horizontal cross on a green background

Lost your Passport? Need to Speak to Your Embassy in the UK Urgently?

Below are the emergency contact numbers for some of the major embassies in the United Kingdom. Limited consular services can be found in Edinburgh but the London embassies should be contacted in emergencies. These numbers appear as they should be dialled from within Scotland or anywhere else in the UK.

United States of America - 020 7499 9000
Canada - 020 7258 6600
Australia - 020 7379 4334
New Zealand - 020 7930 8422
South Africa - 020 7451 7299

Welcome to Scotland!

Thank you for your visit to this page. I hope that you have found it enjoyable reading and that if you are intending visiting Scotland, the information will prove useful to you. Any comments or feedback which you have may be left in the space below.

© 2011 Gordon Hamilton