Luke Waterson spent his summers in Scotland as a child, and worked as a reporter in remote Orkney. He’s now a reporter in London, and has an ongoing column in The Guardian comparing life in rural Scotland with London. We asked him to discuss some of his favorite things about Scotland, and he was happy to oblige. Please enjoy!
Luke Waterson on Scotland
1. Where would you take a week-long road trip?
To me a road trip involves getting out into the middle of nowhere, and there’s no better place for that than the Northern Highlands. It is raw, rugged, exhilarating and one of the most remote parts of Northern Europe. The roads are long, narrow and rough, but you’ll be so immersed in the views you won’t mind. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more isolated, you’ll round a corner and come across an out-of-the-way café serving wickedly strong coffee, or a pub randomly perched on the edge of a loch to make the experience perfect.
2. What are your top three places for cheap eats in Scotland?
Whenever I’m broke and in Edinburgh, I head to Made in Italy on the Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle. There you don’t have to part with many pounds to get your fill of scrumptious pizza and Italian sandwiches. Part of any great eating experience for me is the uniqueness of it and there’s nothing more unexpected (or welcome) than wandering drenched through the streets of Lerwick, the tiny capital of the Shetland Islands, and coming across the Peerie Shop Café. This trendy café serves up tasty soup and amazing chocolate cake at bargain prices. I’d also have to mention Oban Shellfish Bar in Argyll, where you can take away gourmet fresh fish for around £5 ($8 USD).
3. What is your favorite castle?
Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle are the most stupendous fortresses in the country. Both are perched on crags towering high above their respective cities with half the history of Scotland to tap into in or around their walls. The most photogenic castle in the country would have to be Ardvreck in the Northern Highlands. It has a battered tower reflected moodily in a loch and surrounded by shaggy Highland cattle. Everything about it shouts “classic Scotland” and the beauty of it is that there’s hardly ever anyone else around.
4. Scotland is the home of golf. Where is the best place to play a round?
The golfers dream would have to be a round at the Old Course in St. Andrews. It’s the world’s oldest course. If scenery is important to you when you’re playing, then you should head to the Isle of Arran, which many say is a concentration of everything that’s great about Scottish scenery. A £95 ($150 USD) pass buys you a round on each of the island’s seven remote courses, views of golden eagles included.
5. What do you consider the best place, or places, to stay on a budget?
Edinburgh has the best range of budget accommodations. Here you’ll find chic hostels like Castle Rock Hostel with all the facilities of a small hotel. As with anywhere though, you have to venture some way off the beaten track to find the best budget options. On the Outer Hebrides, the Gaitliff Trust hostels charge under £10 ($16 USD) to bunk down in a series of traditional croft cottages with views of wide open hills and golden beaches without a soul on them.
6. If money is no option, where is the ultimate place to rest your head?
Even Queen Victoria was impressed when she stayed at Inverlochy Castle, just outside of Fort William in the Southern Highlands. It’s a sumptuous 19th century castle on the edge of a loch set in its own forested grounds, and backed by mountains. The interior alone is enough to take your breath away. You can go hunting or fishing within the grounds, watch the sunset over dinner in the lavish restaurant, or experience one of the most dramatic areas of the country right on its doorstep.
7. When is the best time of the year to visit?
Autumn is generally the best times of year in Scotland. The weather in September is as good, if not better, than the height of summer and you still get plenty of events going on without the August crowds. It’s one of those times of year that really shows Scotland off at its best. The hills and woods are full of vivid reds and yellows and there’s crispness to the light which makes for fantastic photographs. The best time depends on why you’ve come to Scotland though - spring is great for hiking, Edinburgh goes festival mad in August, and January and February are best for skiing. Public transport and pretty much everything else is drastically diminished in the rural areas from October through Easter.
8. What’s your favorite festival?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the Orkney folk festival, which features mesmerizing folk music and friendly locals. Most of the islanders know how to play some kind of instrument, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. The Edinburgh Festivals—held throughout August—have something for everyone. But another town that lends itself well to festivals is Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. They have their very own Jazz Festival, and nearby is the home of the Wicker Man Festival, an independent music and arts festival held on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
9. Name a few of the most kid-friendly places in Scotland?
Edinburgh is one of the most kid-friendly cities in Europe. It’s compact, and has everything from a fairytale castle at one end of its main street, to a huge park with an extinct volcano at the other end. There are also a number of quirky attractions in between that reflect the city’s colorful past. The best place for families though has to be Dumfries and Galloway in southern Scotland—think ruined castles, farm parks, ice cream shops galore and great beaches. Your children won’t want to leave.
10. What are a few of the essential Scottish foods to try when visiting?
Not many people think this, but Scotland is a really gourmet destination. The nation doesn’t just survive on haggis! Given the amount of coast the country has, it would be a crime not to try some fresh seafood. There are top-notch spots to sample tasty seafood in even in the more remote places. Different regions do different specialties and one of the tastiest is the Arbroath Smokie, a lightly smoked herring from the east coast. If you’re ever up in the Orkney Islands, you should try some North Ronaldsay lamb. The meat is flavored with the seaweed on which the animals survive. Scotland does some mean cheeses too, like Arran Blue.