75, I have spent more of my life in the United States than my
native Scotland but that land was my home for my first 28 years.
For me it's still as wondrous a place as it might be for any tourists
coming to find the land of their ancestors. Every time I visit
this craggy country perched on England's shoulders like a hat
(or like England's brain as I would tease my English college friends)
I feel the years roll by and I'm a child again. I once spent three
years in Texas and when I left that dry, sprawling reddish-brown
state to go home for the first time and looked down from the plane
as we flew over the neat almost manicured fields of my homeland
it came to me that both the Irish and the Scots are said to have
54 different names for the shades of green -- and I thought I
Like any emigrant to North America I miss my memories.
miss my former country folk. I miss their irreverence, their tolerance
for hardship---they take it in their stride. Over the centuries
they've had to, like most agricultural nations in the old days.
Winters were harsh and the soil in the Highlands was so rocky
it could not support large families on the farm. As some historian
said, "The fertility of Scottish women was greater than the
fertility of the soil hence the great Scottish immigrations across
the globe." Which means, I guess, there are people all over
the world talking with thick accents none of the locals understand.
I miss the Scots' simplicity, their common sense, their
frugality. They see North America as a throwaway society; if something
doesn't work it gets thrown out. My favorite aunt used to ask me when
I visited her, "How are the grandchildren?" I didn't have
any then but she had explained all this before: the Old World (Europe)
was the grandparent and the United States will all its albeit well meaning
blunders was the grandchild, making all the mistakes a child could make.
In my youth, children didn't make many mistakes. Life
was simple. There wasn't a great deal of "stuff" going on.
Born during the Depression then raised in wartime Britain we learned
to amuse ourselves with simple things. We would explore river banks,
scramble over heather in gorgeous bloom, surely the original Color Purple,
hike everywhere, anywhere, to find panoramic views of the countryside
or ancient battlefields or ancient monuments, wandering over sprawling
estates whose owners had only one demand, "Close the gates after
I miss Scotland for its legends, its mystique,
its romantic history.
I miss the Scots' dry, self-mocking sense of humor.
Their best stories ---whether around the fireplace or behind the
bar counter in a pub---always made fun of themselves. The Scots
don't take themselves too seriously. I miss that in many of my
American friends and suspect others might agree humorless persons
can be hard to deal with. An old Scottish doctor friend once told
me one of his patients retired, got bored and took a job as the
janitor in a city park. Said my friend, this patient came in one
day with a minor problem. I asked how the job was going. He replied:
"Oh doctor, times are so different. People come into the
toilets for all sorts of terrible reasons. When someone comes
in for an honest to goodness crap it's like a breath of fresh
Joking apart I miss Scotland's fresh air. I miss
the fresh water running down from the hills hurrying in shallow
streams over the river bed gravel that gives the purity, the basis
of the velvet Scotch. I miss the evening light that lasts in summer
almost to midnight even though it made it hard for my kids to
fall asleep when they were on vacation with us. I miss the strange
luminosity in the day when the sun comes out---if only for a moment---until
the next burst of rain, though I curse the weather when I have
to drive alternating sunglasses and windshield wipers every few
Yes Scotland can be wet and cold. Visitors need
to know they're not coming for the sun, although Scotland on a
beautiful day in May or September can be the envy of Europe and,
in the 30 or so trips I've made since 1960, I've often had great
weather by avoiding Scotland's temperamental summer.
One day in late April, for example, I was walking
along a road enjoying the most glorious Scottish spring we'd had
in many a year when I came up on an old lady. "Can you remember
a spring like this?" I asked in passing. She called after
me, "I cannae rrrememberrr a summerrr like this."
But come not for Scotland's weather but for its
scenery: Undulating green hills in the Borders area southern lowlands
not unlike Vermont's; craggy granite peaks in the north like the
foothills of our Rockies; sleepy fishing villages like the Maritime
provinces; magnificent baronial homes like Connecticut's---you'll
see how New England got its name.
And come for quiet times and the simple life.
Come to the county where I grew up -- Perthshire, in the very
heart of Scotland. Located in the geographical center of the country
the area has played an important role in this nation's long and
turbulent history. Just as every place in Colonial America brags
"George Washington slept here" so Perthshire can claim
it has hosted Macbeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria and
Robert Burns among many others. It has always been a very stable
community. The population didn't change for 150 years: it was
126,000 in 1801 and 128,000 in 1951. Crieff, my hometown, had
similar statistics. It had 6,000 of a population 200 years ago
and when I was going to school it had the same number. I once
heard an explanation in a pub: "In Crieff, every time a girl
has a baby a boy leaves town."
The population numbers have changed now as a result
of tourism. Visitors come to fish its streams and golf its historic
courses. They come to walk hills and climb mountains, to explore
villages and find castles and to follow distilleries on the Whisky
And to meet its people
You find Scottish folk when you stop at a street
corner, pull out a map, and they come up to ask if they can help.
You encounter them when you stick your head into a store and ask
for directions and a customer pulls out his keys and says, "It's
too complicated. Follow my car and I'll show you. It's easier."
You discover them when you stop at a pub in the evening and they
hear your accent and, with gratitude even after 60 years, come
up and say, because they don't differentiate among the people
from the United States, "Hey, Yank. Have a beer on Britain.
This one's for Ike's army!"
Other armies have visited Scotland. When the Old
World formed the European Union in 1993, the northern Highlands
region of Scotland found itself described as "Europe's last
remote frontier." Indeed. The words carved into the granite
slab at the Queen's View across Loch Tummel above the vacation
village of Pitlochry are more specific: "Only traders, adventurers,
writers and armies visited the Highlands before the 19th Century."
For sure! The savage battle of Killicrankie took
place three miles away in 1689 when 2500 Catholic Highlanders
attacked a force of 4000 English Protestants and killed half of
them in less than an hour. The breast plate of the Highland leader
"Bonnie Dundee" with the hole from the ball that killed
him hangs on display at my favorite castle, Blair, a ten-minute
drive just up the road. Amongst the eclectic array on display
at Blair Castle is an original antique book dated 1673 showing
the travels of Edward Brown, MD, the king's favorite physician.
It's hard not to have favorites when you've spent
your childhood in this land of the bagpipes and the kilt. One
is always Scotland's capital the city where I went to college,
Edinburgh. But I have two favorite towns. First, Pitlochry in
the north part of Perthshire with its main street peppered with
quality restaurants, interesting souvenir shops and expensive
places where tailors can outfit you in tartan outfits that your
kids might use later for Trick or Treat. Pitlochry has a nationally
famous Summer Festival with a summer theater. It has great fly
fishing and great golf and has every kind of outdoor activity.
I have a soft spot for this so-named "holiday town"
because my mother was born 10 miles away in Moulin, a village
whose church dates from 1180 though it was restored more recently
- in 1613. The pub in town dates from 1695. Pitlochry is fun.
Rob Roy's Grave
My other favorite town is my birthplace, Crieff,
at the other end of Perthshire half an hour to the south. Its
attractions include Innerpeffray, founded about 1680, the oldest
free lending library in the country -- its unique exhibits include
the Holinshed Chronicles published in 1577. They were the basis
for some of Shakespeare's plays.
But Perthshire also offers Scone Palace where
the kings of Scotland were crowned for 500 years. It has the gardens
of Drummond Castle that were shown to advantage in the movie Rob
Roy; and the actual grave of Rob Roy lies beside the little
village church in Balquhidder. Scotland's oldest distillery is
three miles outside Crieff at Glenturret and Scotland's smallest
is at Edradour in Pitlochry. History is spanned near Crieff at
Ardoch in Braco where a Roman camp dates back to the 2nd century
and at Huntingtower Castle, a 15th-century castellated mansion,
where the future King James VI was imprisoned for a year. The
Crieff area has old churches, too: St. Bean's, a 13th-century
church in Fowlis Wester with a leper squint -- a small window
through which lepers could watch the service from the garden and
then there's St. Serf's, a 13th-century church in Dunning near
a monument to Poor Maggie Wells who, in 1657, was the last witch
to be burned at the stake in Scotland.
A half-hour drive away towers the Wallace Monument,
a Victorian monument 220 feet high built 572 years after the historic
Battle of Stirling Bridge of 1297 that gave Scotland respite from
the English crown. Unbelievably, Wallace's broadsword was saved
and is on display. Mel Gibson played Wallace in the movie Braveheart
and a statue showing the actor in that role has now appeared
near the monument erected, perhaps, by Scottish tourism.
Tourism is big business in Perthshire. Yet Johnny
Cunningham, the comic founder of Silly Wizard, a Scottish folk
music group, used to kid "Scotland is not for the squeamish."
He claimed he found that phrase scrawled on a toilet wall in the
very shaky handwriting of what he suspected was a tourist. But
Johnny was fiddling around to the singing of brother Phil and
Andy Stewart in the 70s and 80s and even then he was only teasing.
Today's tourists don't have shaky handwriting,
but they do sport steady smiles. Perthshire offers more than 3,000
events for visitors every year, including village galas, country
games, Scottish dancing, Highland nights, folk music, craft fairs,
nature walks, mountain climbs, garden festivals, water sports,
motor tours and golf championships. Perthshire has now 40 golf
courses and five scenic nine-hole courses. The Gleneagles Hotel
has four courses including the renowned King's course and the
equally famous Queen's ((although the hotel is getting to be a
bit pleased with itself and it's very expensive especially if
you're traveling with children).
Children will enjoy Edinburgh. Its castle is the
second most visited historical attraction in Britain after the
Tower of London. Statues of William Wallace and his successor,
Robert the Bruce, grace the castle's entrance and, below the end
of the cobbled street of the Royal Mile, sits Holyrood House with
its 500 years of history including a famous assassination.
Edinburgh is a convenient, even romantic, place
to end a Scottish vacation.
You are surrounded by historical museums, proud
culture, beautiful gardens, one-of-kind hotels and something new
(in a country where part of the joke is "Hell is a place
where the cooks are British"): superb restaurants. Favorites
include the North Bridge brasserie, great food in a fun atmosphere
in a fascinating hotel, the Scotsman. The hotel, one of The Leading
Hotels of the World, was converted in 2001 from the headquarters
of Scotland's famous newspaper. And just round the corner on Princess
Street sits the Balmoral a member of the luxury Rocco Forte group
and winner of the 2004 Scottish Thistle Award - "Customer
Care, Hotel of the Year," with, arguably, the ultimate, perfect
dining experience in Scotland, the number one restaurant.
Dr. Micheil MacDonald, a Scottish anthropologist
friend, tells me why so many North Americans visit his country:
"First," he says. "There's a sense of history.
Where else can you round a bend and find families who've been
living in the same village for 200 years? This land of the Scot
resembles a time capsule but, unlike the world of Disney, it's
for real. Second," says MacDonald, "North Americans
come home to trace their roots. Everyone seems to have a Scottish
Scotland has produced a remarkable crop from its
rocky infertile soil: Baird, who invented television and Bell
the telephone; Carnegie, the gentlest rich man in history and
Burns, the poorest great poet in literature; Hunter, the dean
of surgical anatomy and Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin;
Simpson, who saw a use for chloroform and Watt, who understood
the value of steam; MacMillan, the blacksmith who built the bicycle
and Napier, the mathematician who created logarithms; Mackintosh,
who made rainmacs and Macadam, who made tarmac. Scotland is remembered
for its bridge builders, its authors and its explorers. Scotland
discovered much of Canada, produced the founder of the United
States Navy and the Russian Navy. It had its hand in chemical
oil refining, artificial ice manufacturing and even the first
adhesive postage stamp. Appropriately for a canny country it had
Adam Smith, the first world economist. Even the founder of the
Bank of England was a Scotsman. As the world remarks: "The
Scots interfere with everything!"
Where to Stay
Pitlochry has some terrific lodgings, my favorite
being East Haugh House (011 44 1796 473121 www.easthaugh.co.uk/
) a 17th century turreted stone country house, now a 4-Star 13-roomed
hotel run by Neil and Lesley McGown who bought the house in 1989.
The river flooded the area some years ago giving the McGowns the
chance to redo the whole house. With free parking, interesting
architecture, comfortable beds, a great cook, a terrific restaurant,
a cozy bar, a really friendly staff and knowledgeable, agreeable
hosts, what more could a visitor want? Rates through May tend
to run about £99 pp (per person) for dinner, room and a
Crieff has a lot of enthusiastic B & B inns
and small hotels. The top dog hotel is the Crieff Hydro 011 44
1764 655555 http://www.crieffhydro.com/
which opened in 1868 at the height of that century's fascination
with hydropathic hotels and their apparent cures for what ails
you. The Victorians wouldn't recognize its resort now. It sprawls
over 900 acres with a golf course and riding stables. Rates would
be about the same as East Haugh House but the Hydro has more than
200 different types of room including traditional and contemporary
-- all the 200 or so ensuite rooms meet 4-Star standards.
Edinburgh I like Channings 011 44 131 274 7401 http://www.channings.co.uk/
another 4-Star hotel. It emerged as a 46-room boutique hotel in
1990 from several Edwardian town houses. (Shackleton, the famous
Antarctic explorer, once lived at number 14; it's now the hotels'
library and living room.) It's a ten minute walk to the West End
of Princess Street. The hotel has a quiet location on a cobbled
back street but the last time I was there the street parking was
not exactly generous. You should call the hotel for directions.
Rates are about the same as the previously mentioned hotels.
The common sense rules for those who've never
driven in Britain (on the left hand side of the road) are to check
into a hotel near the airport the first night to get over jet
lag before tackling Britain's roads, to have a companion who keeps
chanting, "Left, left, left" as you drive especially
at those rotaries the British call "round-a-bouts,"
to plan not to drive too far each day the first few days, to rent
an automatic to reduce the challenges of what's so different from
driving in North America and to go for as small a car as baggage
allows because you are going to be shuddering at the price of
Finding your way around the UK can be difficult.
Christopher Ward, a writer and director of Redwood, Europe's largest
publishing agency, explains tongue in cheek, "During the
Second World War Britain removed all signposts to confuse the
enemy in the event of an invasion. The process of replacing those
signs is now well under way and due to be completed sometime next
Visit Britain finds it necessary to point out
Ward's just joking especially when it comes to Scotland where
a ground swell of tourist interest has followed movies like Braveheart
and Rob Roy. A film critic described the latter, despite all its
swashbuckling Errol Flynn-like action as a "love story"
and followed up with, "Scotland is so romantic, Victoria's
Secret will soon be carrying the kilt."
Stretching the Dollar
Britain has always been expensive, even before
North America currency started its slide against the Euro and
the pound. The Scots are frugal. They're aware lunches are less
expensive in department cafeterias and pubs -- and, in restaurants,
drinks are cheaper in the bar than at a table. They know expected
gratuities are less in Scotland so don't over-tip. Hotels seem
to charge three times what you'd pay over here, restaurants about
twice and everything else is dollar for pound. By that I mean
if 4 Canadian dollars roughly is equal to 2 British pounds and
you can buy something in Canada for 4 dollars, in the UK a similar
item should have a price tag of 2 pounds, but no, it often is
priced at 4 pounds. This is why British visitors love North America:
they get such bargains.
So how can we stretch the dollar?
Avoid peak season travel. April and September
can be great months in Scotland, kids are in school, the roads
are not so busy with vacationers, and hotels and air may cost
be less. Choose flights that leave midweek. If with a group consider
renting an apartment; you can save more by eating there sometimes.
Hotels outside the major cities or on the outskirts may be less
expensive. Local newspapers may have coupons to attractions.
In Europe busses are cheaper than trains especially
in the UK which has Europe's most expensive rail system. Banks
have better rates than currency booths at airports but credit
cards and ATMs may offer better deals than banks. If you are leaving
Scotland for a subsequent trip to London get Bank of England pound
notes in your dollar exchanges as some English establishments
won't accept Bank of Scotland banknotes.
Check out prices of European goods in local discount
stores before you leave North America: their prices may be less
than some items in Britain. Similarly don't be too impressed by
duty-free shops in airports. What may be a good buy in Scotland?
Tartan (plaid) clothing, woolens, cashmere, tweeds, sheepskin-lined
jackets, leather goods, linen tablecloths, silverware, staghorn
items, Celtic jewelry, glass paperweights, golf knickknacks, and,
of course, Scotch whisky.