‘Auld Reekie’, Scots dialect for the old smoke, has long been an outdated name for this handsome, clean-aired city on the Firth of Forth. The elegant Georgian architecture of its squares and streets are matched by the pleasantly formal manners and accents of the inhabitants. Viewed from the Castle, the old town spreads out below, neatly divided by the ‘Royal Mile’ and shopping-target Princes Street. The Castle is the venue for the spectacular ‘tattoo’ (military display) that closes the Edinburgh International Festival which combines world class performers with the now vast ‘Fringe’ arts activities. Edinburgh has one of the strongest literary pasts and presents of any city in the world, from Sir Walter Scott, ‘Treasure Island’s RL Stephenson, Conan Doyle, right up to Harry Potter’s creator JK Rowling.
The home of golf, the home of the Loch Ness Monster … oh and the home of Scotch whisky. Not that there’s any connection, but a couple of drams after 18 holes on one of the best courses in the world and who knows what you might see. The Scots went out to provide the world’s engineers and financiers but what riches they left behind. St Andrews, the engineers’ city Glasgow, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and Castle (try to get there for the Festival and Tattoo); Burns’s ‘banks and braes’; the heather and mountains; the Great Glen that splits the country and provides an unrivalled inland cruise through the Caledonian Canal from Inverness to Fort William. And forget the myth of ‘dour Scots’ – they’re the most hospitable folk you could find. Enjoy the many attractions on the mainland … but don’t overlook the islands. The Orkneys and Shetlands further away north, and the multitude of smaller, closer, Hebrides off the west coast. Islay (for the single malts), Harris (for the tweed), Lewis, and ‘over the sea’ (despite the new bridge) to romantic Skye with its own spectacular mountains and wildlife.
The ‘Granite City’ for the locally quarried stone used to build much of the modern city (it also has an attractive metallic glister). Created a Royal Burgh by Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century, it thrived as a port and especially for its North Sea fishing fleet (plus arguably the best kipper smokeries anywhere). The city was transformed by North Sea oil, becoming the main on-shore base for rigs throughout the Scotland-Norway shelf – its heliport is the busiest in the world. Catering for roustabouts and top executives alike (and their families) has turned the dour Scottish city into an international centre – think Dallas with a Scottish accent.
Glasgow builds things – better than anywhere else, Glaswegians would say. Built itself by a saint (St Mungo aka ‘Kentigern’) who founded his church from which the city developed in 540AD, it is still renowned for its superb buildings, becoming World City of Architecture and Design in 1999. Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed many, notably ‘The Lighthouse’ now a visitor centre with panoramic views across the city. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed the University; more recently Norman Foster’s Clyde Auditorium, with its concentric shell roofs, acquired a typical local nickname ‘The Armadillo’. The River Clyde was key to Glasgow’s prosperity. The major British port to the Americas turned to shipbuilding after the Civil War interrupted trade and John Brown’s Clydeside yard created the maritime design icons of the 1930’s original ‘Queens’ as well as the later QE2. Glasgow has also ‘built’ probably the fiercest sports rivalry in the world between Rangers and Celtic, once religion-based, now pure fanaticism.
Scotland’s most northerly city, the ancient town of Inverness lies at the mouth of the Moray Firth into the North Sea and, to the west, the start of the Great Glen and Caledonian Canal that almost splits off the Highland region from the rest of Scotland. Following the hills, overlooking the Glen, is ‘General Wade’s’ old military road, peaceful now after the ’15 and ‘45’ risings, and offering magnificent views across the heather landscape. Just outside Inverness itself is Fort Augustus, a still-used army post, while a few miles inland is the battlefield of Culloden, that even today – with a visitor centre – has a grim aspect that easily conjures up one of the bloodiest fights on British soil. The present Inverness Castle is relatively modern but stands on a site that has had successive fortifications for a thousand years (including the replacement for the razed castle in which Macbeth murdered Duncan).
The importance of Stirling is where it lies. ‘The Gateway to the Highlands’ may now apply primarily to visitors leaving the Lowlands and Edinburgh for wilder landscapes but it was the strategic key to repeated Anglo-Scottish expeditions and battles over centuries. It became a Royal Burgh in 1134 and the infant James VI (later James I of England) was crowned here. Nine hundred mostly bloody years later, it became a city in 2002 as part of Elizabeth II’s jubilee. The still-impressive castle perched high on its craig was besieged many times, including by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Earlier, even greater moments in Scots history were William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Robert the Bruce, at Bannockburn (1314) sending King Edward ‘hame to think again’. Wallace’s story was brought vividly to life in the film ‘Braveheart’.