Saturday, 24 November 2012

British Tourism Part Two - Scotland

This is part two of my summary of British tourism and we’re looking at Scotland. Wales was part one and so far the least popular despite Rhod Gilbert’s excellent adverts. I think it's only because they come last in the comedy stereotype championship. Scotland places in a strong third but it will always be a winner in my heart. I may even be one of the few human beings (or indeed general life forms) that sincerely enjoys the sound of bagpipes.

You can’t tell me that the sound doesn’t stir the heather and mountains in your soul. Now look at this:

After the click we’ll find out about all sorts of things including haggis, whiskey, that damn Nessie and also how you (yes YOU) can become a Scottish Laird for the low LOW price of twenty US dollars!

Brief History

As with the overview I wrote about Wales I’m going to start with a brief history of Scotland – not a proper lesson, just something quick and fun to pique your interest.

The ancient Scots had an aural culture rather than a written one. They had higher priorities – getting drunk, telling awesome stories and joining the rest of the Celts on holiday in the Mediterranean to fight with everyone. The obvious joke is that nothing much has changed.

scotland scottish tourism picts naked
 "I’ve heard Ibiza is great"

Of all the places that the Romans conquered, Scotland was one of the places they held onto for the least time with the most trouble, especially the Highlands. Eventually the Roman solution was to build two large walls across the narrowest parts of the island, the Hadrian and the Antonine walls, for fortification and to control the movement of the population. Hadrian’s Wall is the one that is still semi-famous but is now ridiculously underwhelming.

scotland scottish tourism hadrians wall
 This hardly seems worth it

The Picts were one of the Scottish tribes that were recorded by the Romans and they turned dominant once the Romans buggered off. It’s probably just a semi-coincidence how it sounds like ‘pixie’. This was replaced by/developed into the Gaelic culture and kingdom and eventually Scotland. Crises of succession will occur in any kingdom and King Edward the First of England was alive when Scotland had its worst. He was passionate for power and subjugation, conquering Wales with violence but Scotland with political cunning. This led to the events of the film Braveheart.

scotland scottish tourism braveheart mel gibson
FREEEDDOOOoooohhh crap I’m Mel Gibson

Out of all the nations of the world, Scotland has always been one of the best at resisting English invasion. Nevertheless the Scots have suffered from brutal forced migrations, lack of legal protection and indeed many broad aspects of the Gaelic culture being made illegal. But in the 1500’s the Scots had a general public education scheme, something previously only Sparta and ancient Greece had employed. By 1750 the Scots were among the most literate citizens of all Europe, and Scotland was a major (but currently under-appreciated) participant in the Renaissance.

One of Scotland’s proudest stereotypes is that they are a nation of brains, confirmed especially during the Industrial Revolution when Scottish engineers were some of the best and brightest. The 20th century brought the economic depression with it, then the aerial bombings of the Nazis. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, a Scotsman, is widely credited with developing radar and being one of the key contributors to the Allied victory. This was Britain’s secret technology throughout the aerial bombings and the Battle of Britain.

scotland scottish tourism robert watt-watson
 He’s exactly how I pictured him

For decades after the war there was apparently a pervasive bleakness in Scotland which has only recently started to recede. The argument for Scottish independence seems more and more viable based on centuries of semi-successful international trade, strong scientific contribution and their strong cultural identity.


Speaking of strong cultural identity, you may have been living in ignorance if you haven’t heard of Edinburgh Festival. This usually refers specifically to the Edinburgh Fringe festival which goes on for three weeks in August and is the largest arts festival on the planet – with many low-budget, experimental comedy and theatre acts dominating the city in a crowded swarm of thespians and anyone they could recruit to hand out leaflets. The Edinburgh International festival also happens at roughly the same time. From March to October there are a dozen other festivals including the Science Festival, Children’s Festival, Film, Jazz, Books, Storytelling, Art, Mela, etc.

scotland scottish tourism edinburgh fringe festival
 Who said Scotland is rainy and dour?

The population of Edinburgh is around 500,000 but during peak seasons this can increase to two million. Every hotel room is booked months in advance, along with every spare room, sofa, armchair, bathtub and serviceable cardboard box. So consider yourself warned.

On New Year’s Eve (aka Hogmanay) the streets become crowded with jovial partiers, drinking and celebrating happily. Of course, the famous song 'Auld Lang Syne' was written by famous Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose life we celebrate on Burns Night (aka Burns Nicht) with haggis, whiskey and clumsy poetry. The street parties in Edinburgh are some of the biggest in Europe.

scotland scottish tourism robert burns
 He was popular with the ladies

Edinburgh council has been building a tram system for a while now, which is a popular complaint of everyone living there. The project has gone years over its deadline and millions over its budget, even after compromising on how far the tram will run, while being a massive and unpredictable nuisance. Keep this in mind whenever you try to use any of the buses, taxis or indeed roads. The earliest predicted completion date is currently 2014 but the council has been making incorrect predictions for years. Consider yourself warned once again.

Ghosts & Monsters

Scottish ghosts are more modern than those of Wales, especially in the buried streets of Edinburgh. Sort of like the Catacombs of Paris (except with fewer bones) there are tours of the old roads and vaults of the city. Many were places walled up because of the plague and then built over, and over, and over. These days the spaces are well-lit complete with emergency exit signs, but even now there are reported sightings of ghosts (that don’t exist).

scotland scottish tourism edinburgh buried street ghost tour
 Creepy doesn't mean haunted

Alright, I’ve put it off long enough. It’s time to talk about the beautiful lochs of Scotland and especially the things that DO NOT live within them. Nessie is in the top three of modern cryptid favourites, competing with the yeti and sasquatch. While those two primate-shaped creatures have huge unexplored wastelands in which to roam, Nessie’s tiny marine habitat has been heavily analysed, often specifically to find Nessie. The most famous image of Nessie is the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’.

scotland scottish tourism nessie photo surgeon photograph
 Wooden submarine

This photograph was faked in 1934 as part of a revenge scheme against the Daily Mail, a British dead-tree tabloid staffed by pre-internet trolls who will famously publish any nonsense, even back then. To be fair there have been multiple sightings before and since, but some people will see all kinds of things no matter where they are (UFOs, Elvis, black beastly cats, deities…). At the peak of Nessie curiosity in the 90s, it is said to have generated $37million in one year alone. There have been sonar scans and submarine tours.
scotland scottish tourism nessie fantasy
 Maybe one day you can swim with Nessie like you would a dolphin. HA!

Yet nevertheless the tourists of Scotland cannot help but pay a visit, and the various hotels and pubs around the loch are of course always welcoming. After all, who knows? Maybe as you stand looking across the lake in the pre-dawn, the mists will retreat across the loch, fleeing from the silvery sun. Maybe in that dim, mysterious time you too will see some indistinct shape disappear silently into the mercurial waters. It may be a fish or an otter or it may be the beastie herself. Or it may be the same indistinct shape that I see disappear into the waters every morning when I flush the toilet.

Food & Drink

Speaking of hangover-induced hallucinations, Scotland has such a strong culture of food and drink that they have literally become clichés – whiskey, haggis, shortbread and things fried in batter. You can indeed get a deep-fried chocolate-bar if you know where to go. This has been a reality for decades and has been a long-standing source of mockery, highlighting how the old-school depression of Scotland’s zeitgeist runs so deep that their diet is even more self-destructive than the US Americans.

scotland scottish tourism mars bar fried batter
 This is not the cultural phenomenon of a happy populous

If anything, haggis is the healthy option. It’s certainly better than the mysterious fast food that we all happily chomp into on a regular basis. Some people are repulsed by the ingredients list (the internal organs of a sheep plus some herbs) but those same people are strangely happy to consume mysteriously-processed flavour-chemicals with unnatural colours. I can’t speak for the history of Scottish cuisine but modern haggis is quite granular and light. It’s sort of more like risotto rather than the rubbery, meaty mess you expect. It’s so full of flavour that some folks find it uncomfortably spicy.

The record of whiskey production in Scotland goes back over six hundred years. Just like champagne is the name for fizzy wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, scotch whiskey only comes from Scotland. There are whiskey tours of Scotland visiting distilleries around the country with taste sessions and such, because the world is sometimes excellent. The biggest region is the Highlands and the tours can be quite expensive but how can you argue with whiskey?


As I may have mentioned regularly in my overview of Wales, it can be reassuring to know there is a castle nearby. At any point there might be plagues of zombies and you need to know where the nearest fortress is. Right?

Discreet feedback has confirmed what I always suspected – I am not the only one. There are surprisingly few castles in Scotland worthy of fortification, compared to Wales. Some are interesting from a historical perspective though. Some are also available to rent. There is also Edinburgh castle which is amazing.

scotland scottish tourism edinburgh castle zombie fort fortress
 Ain’t no zombies making it inside those walls


The Highlands are beautiful countryside if you’re into that sort of thing. There are low-level forest walks and the aforementioned lochs. There are also more extreme sports like rock climbing – and when talking about the Scottish Highlands, a lot of those extreme rock-climbs are indeed extreme. There are also countless golf courses if you feel like experiencing purgatory while yet living. Going back to the fun activities, there are all sorts of water sports (nope, still can’t use that phrase without thinking awful things) including sailing and canal-exploring. 

There’s also the Highland Wildlife Park which has a safari drive. When you picture a safari you probably imagine lions and antelopes and other creatures of the African savannah. Obviously that wouldn’t work in the Scottish Highlands. There are some camels and ox but it’s mainly animals suited to a colder climate: reindeer, bison, elk, various deer and the Himalayan tahr – which is sort of like a goat. There are enclosures for wolves, arctic foxes, and snow monkeys (aka Japanese macaques).

scotland scottish tourism japanese macaques
Yep, the ones who like to bathe in hot springs

Check back regularly to spot some of the snow monkeys on the Wildlife Park’s dedicated webcam. Who can be unhappy when watching monkeys on a live webcam?

In the skies above all this you might even catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis (aka northern lights) glowing behind the high Scottish hills.

Become a Laird

In the introduction I said you could be a Scottish Laird for twenty bucks and finally we arrive at it. There are many schemes selling this idea but here is the advert for one of them:

Seems legit, right? It even says so! Who would lie about that? ON THE INTERNET?! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not gullible. I’ve learned to check surreal real-estate deals for scams. This is why my great-grand-nephews and nieces will totally rule the moon in the future.

But it turns out not to be legitimate. Not every landowner in Scotland can call themselves a laird otherwise everyone would be doing it as soon as they pay off their mortgage. Also you might imagine (for some reason,*cough* ADVERT SAID SO *cough*) that ‘laird’ was an equivalent word to the English ‘lord’ but it’s not; apparently it’s more equivalent to ‘squire’.  

Although it may sound silly, calling yourself a laird on a driving license or passport when you have no legal claim to the title is actually a criminal offence. Most of the companies operate in the Channel Islands where the UK has no jurisdiction, much like other tax havens such as Monaco or the Canary Islands.

Besides that substantial stumbling block, in this day and age do you honestly imagine anyone would be interested in this for themselves? Nobody would want to put ‘laird’ on their CV or online dating profile. This is why it is often marketed as a gift ‘for the person who has everything’.

scotland scottish tourism scottish lord kilt tartan
 Wait, do I get to carry the stick? SOLD!

The pieces of land usually being sold are too small to be recorded in the official Scottish Land Register, the only legitimate record of real estate in Scotland. Thus they can be sold again and again; then the whole area can one day be sold to some industrial tycoon for another golf course. The poor saps who ‘own’ a square foot of peat bog have no legal rights whatsoever. If the scammers observed the strict rules of contract then maybe the ‘owners’ would have some ground to stand on (haha) but why would the scammers do that?

These schemes have obviously upset some actual Scots. Besides, as generations of conquerors have discovered over the ages, visiting Scotland is much more fun and rewarding than trying to own bits of it.


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