Ah dinnae ken whit ah dinnae ken... aboot Scotland
April 19, 2016 1:48 AM   Subscribe

Campervanning family holiday in Scotland in early May. Yay! I've googled like mad and bought a guide book, but what's really worth seeing? And what aren't they telling me? In other words: what less obvious things, places, foods, sweets, experiences, etc. would you recommend? This is free form, anything goes.

Sorry about the post title. I promise that'll be the last time I try Scottish. :)

My spouse is always keen to try things "that the locals do", rather than the more touristy stuff. Also, he likes modern art. I'm particularly interested in everything historical or contemporary that involves women. Or animals, or caves and such. Our kids are into fantasy, photography and horses (and the teenager is already dreading spending days in such close confines with us). Our dog is into long hikes and other dogs. We're all nerdy but outdoorsy, and used to crummy weather (alas, coastal Holland).

We'll arrive in Edinburgh on the eve of the Beltane Fire thing. We have no fixed route but will eventually end up on the coast somewhere where the swell hits, for the fella to get his surf on. That's all we know for now. Any suggestions are welcome!
posted by sively to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The 'early people' exhibits in the basement of the National Museum of Scotland (in Edinburgh) are breathtaking (well, they were for me).

has some good surf guides for Scotland's coastal regions.

Nice foods to try:

A scotch pie.
Skirlie, especially if it comes with a fried egg and little bits of fried black pudding as well. Easy to make in a camper van.
I think haggis is best when fried until crispy, and served with HP sauce. No need to simmer for hours, just empty it out of its skin into the pan.

Walk Highlands
is a great source of walking routes for all abilities. I've no idea of your abilities or experience but May can still mean full winter conditions up on the higher hills, which can be atrocious if the weather is bad. Make sure you know what you're getting into. SAIS is your bible for avalanche risk although I think their forecasting season will be over at the end of April. MWIS for weather.
posted by dowcrag at 3:44 AM on April 19, 2016

The drive from Ft William to Edinburgh (passing through Glencoe) easily rates among the most stunningly beautiful drives I've ever done. I'm not sure photography can adequately capture it, but probably worth it if you're hiring a car.

I expect you'd be able to find some tourist-oriented hacking for the horse-inclined among you that could be pretty beautiful. No particular recommendations, though; I'm sorry.
posted by olinerd at 4:11 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: These are things that tourists do but Edinburgh has two modern art galleries right next to each other and there's even a "Modern Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965" exhibition on at the moment. And The Camera Obscura would be of interest to the kids who like photography.

Not quite caves but I liked Kilmartin Glen which has loads of Neolithic/Bronze Age remains.

The Elie Coastal Chain is on my to-do list for the near future and isn't something that many people know about.

Seconding Walk Highlands as a great resource for finding walking routes.

Scottish foods/drinks you should try all or some of: haggis, neeps and tatties, cullen skink, Tunnocks Teacakes, Irn-Bru, good shortbread. There are farmers' markets in Edinburgh on Saturday and Sunday which are worth checking out.

You could go to a ceilidh! Look for Edinburgh Ceilidh Club on Facebook to see if there are any when you're here.
posted by neilb449 at 4:31 AM on April 19, 2016

If I was within several hundred miles I'd detour to see the Falkirk Wheel.
posted by sammyo at 5:27 AM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and the Kelpies too (near the Falkirk Wheel).
posted by neilb449 at 5:56 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Early May should be early enough that the midges won't be out in numbers, but you might want to bookmark the Scottish midge forecast and pack some insect repellant just in case.
posted by penguinicity at 6:15 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Touristy, and weather can make it tricky, but Smoo Cave is pretty awesome.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:15 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Highland Folk Musuem was surprisingly nice. It's more than just highlander huts - there are some old style shops and buildings, a school house, and I think there's even a dogpark for your four legged friend. Volunteers in period clothes abound to answer your questions. It is also free!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:10 AM on April 19, 2016

Best answer: Check out Gilmerton Cove in Edinburgh for your mysterious cave fix (think you might need to book ahead). There's Mary King's Close, too (a street that's buried underground), though that's kind of cheesily touristy. Costumed guides etc. Also shed-loads of ghost tours around the Old Town that I guess might appeal to the kids' fantasy tastes - no specific recommendations, though, I'm afraid.

Depending whether you park your camper van anywhere near, The Haven cafe in Newhaven is a great local cafe that for a good while had the top Trip Advisor score for any eaterie in Edinburgh, topping all the Michelin-starred places (see glowing write-ups in the national press here and here). Nothing fancy, just a simple, charming cafe done well. IIRC, you can get a great Scottish breakfast (including haggis, black pudding etc) for about £6, and Natalie, who runs it is awesome (can you tell it's my local?).

Here's a list of Scottish horse stables - maybe your teenager could have a day of exploring on horseback without the parents to restore his/her sanity?

Glasgow Women's Library is smallish, but a charming place to while away time, and organises Women's Heritage Walks in various parts of the city. Some of them are guided, looks like there are others which you can download as audio or maps. They have quite a local focus, but it sounds as if that might be what appeals to you - the East End of Glasgow has a really interesting industrial history and hearing about women's lives there would be a great way to get under the skin of the place. Their events calendar looks like it also includes some events listings in locations other than Glasgow.

As well as the modern art galleries, I always get the feeling that the Scottish Portrait Gallery has a really high proportion of Scottish visitors (if you're looking for 'things that the locals do') and gives a good glimpse of Scotland talking about itself. It's also free and has a good cafe. In fact I went there yesterday to a. Have a cup of tea and b. Nip up and see my favourite painting, Leith Races, a fantastic tableau of 19th Century debauchery and drunkenness (complete with tiny skinny dippers taking a dook in the Forth!). Edit: The Portrait Gallery is also in a stunning building - worth popping in just to have a look at the central, galleried hallway).
posted by penguin pie at 9:52 AM on April 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

don't miss the museums in nearby Glasgow!
posted by mollymillions at 8:05 PM on April 19, 2016

Best answer: Food.
Go to a chip shop, get battered haggis. (Haggis Supper, if it's with chips it's supper)
You cannot get chip shop battered haggis outside scotland I HAVE TRIED SO HARD!

Also go to arbroath to smell and maybe eat smokies
(maybe if you're in Edinburgh go up through fife, call in at Anstruther for some fresh lobster on a roll.)

Whilst you're in the area pop over to Forfar, for Bridies.

You can swing by Dunnottar Castle which you might recognise from Windows default wallpapers, but it's a great place to visit.

Whilst there try and find some home made tablet. Smaller confectionary or newspaper shops might sell it. It's basically like some kind of crumbly fudge. It's incredibly sweet, and incredibly addictive.
Oh also try Soor Plooms. But... maybe carefully.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:46 AM on April 20, 2016

Best answer: The North Coast 500 is a new coastal route that I've seen a lot of folk saying is amazing, especially up in Sutherland. You don't need to do the whole thing, but the website is packed with stuff. The people that came up with it were specifically trying to overcome the heavy weighting towards the central belt and southern Highlands in a lot of the guidebooks.

If you have a campervan, then the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides and Inner are definitely worth a trip. Road Equivalent Tariff means the ferries are meant to cost no more than the fuel cost of physically driving the same distance, which opens up a lot of the islands that would otherwise be really expensive to get to. Lewis and Harris, Skye, Arran, Coll - they're pretty much all great, although it's the bigger ones that will be worth visiting in a campervan.

If you're into caves and the kids are into fantasy, a boat trip through Fingal's Cave on Staffa is a must.

For historical and contemporary things to see and do related to Scottish women, you should get in touch with the Glasgow Women's Library - I'm willing to bet they will have an absolute stack of suggestions for you.

Have an amazing time!
posted by Happy Dave at 11:42 PM on April 20, 2016

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions, thank you everyone! My only regret now is that we're only going for 9 days in stead of a month. Anyway, I'll return to this thread after our holiday to mark some best answers, and maybe share my own suggestions for those who come looking for this information later.
posted by sively at 11:32 PM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hopefully it's not too late to add some thoughts sively (although by my reckoning you'll land tomorrow). We've had an unseasonably cold week, so walking around the hilltops will be unexpectedly snowy. Bring appropriate gear, and tell folk where you're going in case something bad happens.

On a cheerful note, the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick is double plus good. You can book boat trips out to the islands, see the incredible number of Gannets on Bass Rock and probably (at this time of year) the wee puffins rafting in the Forth. North Berwick also has an excellent bakery, coffee shop and the Berwick Law to walk up .

As noted above, the Portrait gallery in Edinburgh is ace, and I'd double recommend everything Just this guy, y'know said about food.

On Edinburgh museums: The People's Story Museum is just that, telling the story of the people of Edinburgh not just the Great Men. Nearby are both the Scottish Poetry Library (which has occasional live poetry readings - our current and previous Makars, or national poets, are incredible women, and their work is well represented) and the Scottish Storytelling Centre. You're actually arriving in Edinburgh during TradFest, so there are some excellent events on. A walking poetry tour of the old town, and some story tours of the old town are being organised, both from the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile.

Also good is Sandy Bell's a folk pub, that has frequent sessions (and sometimes during the day).

On Glasgow museums: the Scotland Street School museum (set in an old school, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh) tells the story of eduction in Scotland and also the destruction of some of the local neighbourhood by building a motorway through the middle of town. It's very of Scotland - my dad says how much it reminds him of his school days.

On outdoorsy tips: there's so much. Quick highlights would be the Pentlands, popular with families for weekend walks, exploring Arran and walk a bit of the West Highland Way, popular with folk on the east coast.

Have a great time!
posted by sarcas at 6:35 AM on April 28, 2016

Oh also: Innerpeffray Library. The oldest lending library in Scotland, and you can just go in and read the books. Librarians and volunteers are good at providing colour and information for wee'uns too.
posted by sarcas at 2:22 PM on April 28, 2016

Jupiter Artland is a fabuous collection of contemporary scultpure, and a beautiful country walk.
It's expensive but buy a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass this will get you into most of the decent castles (and there's always one nearby)
Edinburgh Castle is de-rigeur, and is a fine example of medieval military technology
Stirling Castle is a good contrast to Edinburgh.
Castle Campbell is spectacular (and per the original names; how can you not visit Castle Gloum, standing betwixt the streams of Care and Sorrow). Walk up to it through Dollar Glen.

Just quickly:
If you are coming from the South; turn of the A68 onto the B6360 which passes back under the bridge; you'll see the modern bridge, the railway bridge, the old bridge and the ford. This crossing of the Tweed has always been important; the Roman camp of Trimontium is just across the river.
Ciarnpapple near Bathgate was a sacred site for some 4000 years. Still a place with a unique atmosphere.
Rosslyn Chapel is well worth a visit, despite the hype. Take a walk down into the Glen; walk around the base of the castle if you can. Rosslyn stands on the South Esk rive, on the North Esk is the village of Temple, also with Templar connections. The Ruined Kirk is a peaceful and contemplative contrast to the energy and bustle of Rosslyn.
If you are going up North then, as olinerd says, the A82 across Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe is amazing.
The A87 to the Kyle of Lochalsh is also beautiful; you can either continue to Skye or turn North and head for Applecross over the Bealach na Ba. Skye would take a whole new post; Cuilins, Storr, Quirang, Dunvegan... you could do a lot worse than spending 3 or 4 days on the island.
posted by BadMiker at 6:11 AM on May 11, 2016

Response by poster: So, Scotland is officially amazing. I'm so bummed out that it wasn't possible for me to follow even half of all the suggestions here. I marked as best answers some of the things I did do/see and can thus vouch for, but I really have to go back and do everything else, too.

And adding to the list:
- Beltane Fire Festival was kind of trippy, and a lot of fun. (Book tickets in advance, because queues. And watch out for pickpockets.)
- Taking the Nevis Range gondola (near Ft William) and walking the mountaintop trails; breathtaking views, and snow!
- The Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides (we went to Harris) are gorgeous beyond words.
- Coming back from Skye we took the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig in stead of returning across the bridge to Kyle (it's always nice to avoid backtracking).
- Just south of Mallaig, between Arisaig and Morar, there's a series of small, sandy beaches and coves which the kids really liked.

The one thing I'm really sorry about missing was the Leault Working Sheep Dogs near Aviemore. They cancelled the demonstration the day we were there.

Oh and a heads-up for anyone else travelling with a dog: it was a disappointment to find out you can't take the dog inside most pubs or tearooms. On our holidays in England that has rarely been a problem, but the Scots are much more strict about it.
posted by sively at 7:23 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh and a heads-up for anyone else travelling with a dog: it was a disappointment to find out you can't take the dog inside most pubs or tearooms. On our holidays in England that has rarely been a problem, but the Scots are much more strict about it.

Damn, I wish I'd noticed that you mentioned having a dog in your initial post - there's a great website called Dugs In Pubs that is a really good index of all the dog-friendly pubs in Scotland (and England and Wales now too apparently).

Ah well, there's your reason to come back.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:03 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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