For many, the epic peaks, sweeping glens and heather moorland of the Highlands are the classic Scottish vista. But the land has other, older stories to tell and the countryside is as varied as it is magnificent: they may not appear on any shortbread tins, but this is also a land of subtropical gardens, ancient swathes of woodland and breathtakingly beautiful beaches.
Then there are the urban centres, headed up by Edinburgh, with its stately castle and famous festival; snapping at its heels, though, is bold, forthright Glasgow, whose cultural reinvention continues apace.
Attractions run from turreted castles to weathered standing stones; polished art galleries to remote nature reserves. Whether you want to camp in the wilds or unwind in a country house hotel, bag a Munro or indulge in some leisurely island-hopping, there is no finer place to do it than here.
Many people who come to Scotland make Edinburgh their first stop – and many Scots who live in the populous Central Belt cast their eyes north when they consider a few days away. The variform delights of Southern Scotland are heinously overlooked, but they shouldn’t be.
You can go surfing on the east coast, explore the pretty, pastel-painted artists’ colony of Kirkcudbright in the south-west, or head inland to the immense Galloway Forest Park. A 212-mile footpath runs from coast to coast, through dramatic scenery and rolling hills, while the mighty River Tweed is renowned for its salmon fishing, and there are world-famous golf courses at Troon and Turnberry.
Men have made their mark on the landscape for centuries. The chambered burial cairns above Wigtown Bay date back to neolithic times, while Christianity first touched Scotland at Whithorn. There is a cluster of resplendent ruined abbeys, along with the moated remains of Caerlaverock Castle and some grand 18th-century country houses, set amid spawling estates; in stark contrast to the latter is the model industrial town of New Lanark, a designated World Heritage Site. Finally, there are cottage industries surrounding two of Scotland’s iconic literary figures, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom have important links to the region.
Things to do
A broad moat surrounds this impressive medieval stronghold, with its unusual triangular shape, twin-towered gatehouse and crumbling red sandstone battlements. Children will relish giving vent to their inner knight or maiden fair, and following the nature trail that winds around the moat and into the woods. The visitors’ centre has more on the castle’s turbulent history; there’s also a small tearoom, open daily in summer and on winter weekends. DG1 4RU (01387 770244, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). OpenApr-Sept 9.30am-5.30pm daily. Oct-Mar 9.30am-4.30pm daily. Admission £5.20; free-£4.20 reductions.
A coastal fortification has stood on this site since the late medieval period, although the extant building is largely a late 18th-century neoclassical mansion. Surrounded by ornamental gardens and a country park, it has remarkable views out to sea towards Arran, the Mull of Kintyre and the volcanic remnant of Ailsa Craig. The interiors are sumptuous, the estate a mixture of formal gardens and terraces, kitchen gardens, woodland and farmland.
An award-winning and hugely popular gastropub with four neat B&B rooms (£50-£90 double incl breakfast), the Sorn Inn sits in the eponymous village of Sorn, 14 miles inland from Ayr on the B743, via Mauchline. The cooking can be quite ambitious: confit of rib of beef with smoked hickory potatoes, vegetables, merlot and thyme jus, for example. Alternatively, you could plump for a no-nonsense plate of cod and chips, or steak pie with mash and buttered cabbage. Booking is recommended, especially on sunny weekends when le tout Glasgow decides to go for a drive in the country.
35 Main Street, Sorn, Ayr, South Ayrshire KA6 6HU (01290 551305, www.sorninn.com). Open noon-2.30pm, 6-10pm Tue-Thur; noon-2.30pm, 6pm-midnight Fri; noon-midnight Sat; noon-10pm Sun. Food served noon-9pm Sat; noon-8pm Sun. Lunch served noon-2.30pm, dinner served 6-9pm Tue-Fri.
Where to stay
An old hunting lodge on the coast, south of Portpatrick, Knockinaam is one of Scotland’s best hotels. It stands yards from the sea on a small private cove, amid 30 acres of gardens and woodland. It has an impeccable pedigree: Churchill and Eisenhower met here to discuss D-Day, and the whole place exudes an easy, timeless elegance. There’s an open fire in the drawing room, fresh flowers in the lounge, and a sterling line-up of whiskies behind the wood-panelled bar. There are ten individually decorated rooms, each with their own charms (Bay has a Victorian half-tester bed, while Churchill is the largest). Chef Tony Pierce has retained his Michelin star year after year with the likes of roast paupiette of chicken with basil mousse, pomme purée, black pudding and tarragon and madeira jus.
A stately home in Scottish baronial style, built in 1870, Glenapp was comprehensively refurbished and opened as a Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel in 2000. It sits in 36 acres of grounds, is resolutely unsignposted and has electronically controlled gates to the estate: ‘discreet’ doesn’t even come close. Once inside, it’s a vision of classical elegance. Antiques, oil paintings and heavy, swagged curtains are par for the course in the public areas and 17 rooms and suites, some of which have sea views. Dinner entails six beautifully presented courses, and is a full-on Franco-Scottish extravaganza. Other assets run from a croquet lawn and tennis court to genuinely charming staff. Ballantrae, Girvan, South Ayrshire KA26 0NZ (01465 831212, www.glenappcastle.com). Rates £345-£385 double incl breakfast.
Edinburgh & the Lothians
Edinburgh is the Scottish capital, a renowned World Heritage Site, an internationally acclaimed tourist destination and host to the biggest annual arts jamboree on the planet. With fewer than 500,000 souls it packs a punch way beyond its size, but also offers more scenic and architectural variety than most first-time visitors would expect: medieval fabric, Georgian terraces, gentrified docklands, a remnant of an old volcano towering above the city centre and a bona fide castle on the main street.
Edinburgh’s recorded history spans almost a thousand years of kings and queens, religious reformers, rogues, poets, philosophers and more. To this human drama you can add the highest concentration of top-class restaurants in Scotland, some very sharp hotels, a royal palace, assorted galleries, museums and theatres, a major zoo, sports stadia and the Royal Yacht Britannia – the Queen’s former home from home on the ocean wave. The city’s history and attractions buttress an urbane self-assurance that comes from centuries as a centre for academia, banking, government and law. Like Glasgow over in the west, Edinburgh does have its pockets of poverty and problem housing estates – this is Trainspotting country, after all – but it is also a prosperous, cosmopolitan city, attracting incomers from all over Scotland and further afield. There is nowhere else quite like it.
The Zoo has been delighting visitors for almost a century. The Penguin Parade, scheduled for 2.15m daily, is the prime attraction; you can also get close to the zoo’s residents in the walk-through lorikeet exhibit and the chimpanzee trail.
Royal residence, murder scene, birthplace of monarchs, barracks and more – Edinburgh Castle has done it all. Built over hundreds of years, the castle now comprises a collection of buildings within its battery walls; the oldest dates to the early 12th century. The Scottish National War Memorial is sobering; the exhibition of the Scottish crown, sceptre and sword of state testament to an independent past; the dog cemetery an odd intrusion of sentimentality into all the politics and pomp. Castlehill, EH1 2NG (0131 225 9846, www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk).Open Apr-Sept 9.30am-6pm daily. Oct-Mar 9.30am-5pm daily. Last admissions 45mins before closing. Admission £11-£13; free-£10.40 reductions.
Where to eat
Chef Paul Kitching and manager Katie O’Brien made their names at Juniper in Greater Manchester, but opened 21212 in 2009. It instantly joined Edinburgh’s top tier of eateries, and won a Michelin star within eight months. The restaurant name comes from the menu structure: a choice of two starters, then an interim course, a choice of two mains, another interim, then two desserts to choose from. The decor is lush and the cooking extravagantly creative; there are also four plush, spacious bedrooms (from £250 double incl breakfast) upstairs.
3 Royal Terrace, EH7 5AB (0131 523 1030, www.21212restaurant.co.uk). Lunch served noon-1.30pm, dinner served 6.45-9.30pm Tue-Sat.
Tom and Michaela Kitchin set up in Leith in summer 2006 and won a Michelin star by early 2007. Since then, they have operated at the apex of the city’s restaurant scene. The quality of raw materials is impeccable (razor clams from Arisaig, Scrabster-landed skate, grass-fed Scottish beef), while Tom’s cooking has a little more edge than the classic French approach in evidence elsewhere; boned and rolled pig’s head with roasted langoustine and crispy ear salad is a typical dish. In July 2010, a second restaurant opened on Castle Terrace (nos.33-35), under the control of Kitchin’s colleague Dominic Jack.
78 Commercial Quay, EH6 6LX (0131 555 1755, www.thekitchin.com). Lunch served 12.15-2pm, dinner served 6.30-9.15pm Tue-Sat.
Where to stay
There have been numerous arrivals on the Edinburgh hotel scene since the turn of the millennium, but the Balmoral, dating back to 1902, still stands out as the capital’s premier crash pad. It rises above Waverley Station at the east end of Princes Street with its famous clock tower, while its sheer size lends a certain gravitas. Afternoon tea in the Bollinger Bar is a serious treat and it has a Michelin-star restaurant, Number One, plus a decent spa for good measure.
Tigerlily opened in 2006, a brash newcomer on George Street, bringing high-concept interior design and no small amount of pzazz. The 33 bedrooms are designed to the hilt: iPods and docking stations, Wi-Fi and White Company toiletries come as standard, as (very thoughtfully) do GHD hair straighteners. It has a basement nightclub and a ground-floor eaterie and bar, with chic decor and a lengthy cocktail list. Ricks – a smaller boutique hotel at nearby Frederick Street (no.55A, 0131 622 7800, www.ricksedinburgh.co.uk) – is owned by the same company. 125 George Street, EH2 4JN (0131 225 5005, www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk). Rates £135-£195 double incl breakfast.
Glasgow & Strathclyde
Over the last 30 years Glasgow has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, thanks to some serious investment in cultural venues and blue riband events. The city’s post-industrial reinvention continues apace: in 2011, the Riverside Museum is scheduled to open on the Clyde, in a striking, zinc-clad building designed by Zaha Hadid, while the Commonwealth Games is heading this way in 2014.
The economic boom of the 1990s and noughties has also played its part, with service sector jobs taking up the slack left by the demise of old industries decades before. Glasgow is Scotland’s biggest centre for entertainment, nightlife and shopping, with a smart new generation of restaurants and café-bars. Given the local reputation for friendliness and good humour, some would say that Glasgow has the biggest heart of any Scottish city. Its industrial and working class heritage does father a certain demeanour, however: bold, brash and allergic to fuss. A big yes to curry; generally no to nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse (although the citizenry does spend a fair amount on designer clothes).
That said, old social problems relating to poverty and unemployment endure, mostly in peripheral housing estates, lending the city a certain grittiness. Its gravitational pull also drains the life out of neighbouring towns, which tend to be either post-industrial relics or dormitory suburbs. For days out, the southern reaches of Loch Lomond or the Firth of Clyde coast are preferable destinations.
Things to do
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum
Since it opened over a century ago, this has been Glasgow’s must-see museum. In good shape again after an extensive refurbishment and 2006 relaunch, the atrium sparkles in the light flooding through the windows, while the ground-floor exhibitions cover everything from ancient Egypt to Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style. On the first floor, paintings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Millet, Seurat and other artistic worthies constitute one of the finest civic art collections in the UK.
The experience with the biggest wow factor on the Waterfront is this seaplane service, which has a floating dock by the Glasgow Science Centre. From March to November Loch Lomond Seaplanes offers flights in its small aircraft to Oban Bay (25 minutes) or Loch Lomond, along with sightseeing hops around the Firth of Clyde (45 minutes). Aside from the beauty of the scenery, taking off from the heart of the city is never less than a thrill. Loch Lomond Seaplanes Pacific Quay, G51 1EA (01436 675030, www.lochlomondseaplanes.com). OpenMar-Oct times vary, phone for details. Tickets from £99.
Where to eat
Brian Maule at the Chardon D’Or
Maule is an Ayrshire-born chef who worked in some elevated restaurants in London before coming back to Scotland and opening up here in 2001. Since then, he has consistently been regarded as among Glasgow’s very best. Expect classic French-style cooking in mannered, tasteful surroundings: a roulade of duck, foie gras and pistachio with quince purée to start, perhaps, followed by duck breast with braised chestnuts and roast salsify. 176 West Regent Street, G2 4RL (0141 248 3801, www.brianmaule.com). Lunch served noon-2pm Mon-Fri. Dinner served 6-10pm Mon-Fri; 5-10pm Sat.
The Chip is a Glasgow classic that has evolved into an entire complex of venues since it first opened in 1971. At last count, it incorporated a covered, cobbled courtyard restaurant, a more conventional dining room, a brasserie, a mezzanine dining space, three pubs and some celebrated murals by Scottish artist and author Alasdair Gray. The signature dish is a starter of venison haggis; mains bring solid fare such as whole Scottish lobster with garlic butter, or Aberdeen Angus steak with fondant potatoes, mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes. The food and surroundings combined make for a memorable experience.
Shaking up the local hotel scene, Blythswood Square opened in 2009 and was the first Glasgow venture for the Edinburgh-based Townhouse Company. The imposing 19th-century building once housed the Royal Scottish Automobile Club; revamped, it’s a triumph of comfort and contemporary élan, with 100 rooms. Classic rooms have marble bathrooms and king-size beds; as prices rise, floor space expands and extra luxuries creep in, culminating in the opulent Penthouse Suite, which has a rooftop terrace, a private bar and dining room and a butler. The restaurant occupies the former ballroom, and has a menu divided into classic and contemporary dishes: traditionalists can feast on prawn cocktail and rump of Scottish lamb, while adventurous eaters can sample the likes of hand-dived scallops with scallop tripe, basmati crème, vadouvan (an Indian spice blend) and pea shoots.
Consisting of five terraced Victorian townhouses developed into one boutique venue, this place remains Glasgow’s most prestigious crashpad – although Blythswood Square presents interesting competition. Service standards are high and so are prices, although booking a standard room well in advance does help. In a first-past-the-post vote, the bistro here would probably rate among the city’s top five favourite places to eat, serving polished fare in intimate, oak-panelled surrounds.
1 Devonshire Gardens, Great Western Road, G12 0UX (0141 339 2001, www.hotelduvin.com). Rates £150 double incl breakfast.
Argyll & its Islands
Welcome to Earra-Ghàidheal, the romantic, rugged coast of the Gaels. As Glasgow became an industrial behemoth with over a million inhabitants, Argyll was the beautiful, sparsely populated land of islands, mountains and sea lochs just next door. Today, you can get from Glasgow to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute in two hours by train and ferry, although further-flung destinations take longer – a whole day for the likes of the Isle of Tiree, a trip that more commonly involves an overnight stop in Oban.
Back in the period of history known as ‘once upon a time’, Argyll had very close connections the other way, with the old Kingdom of Ulster. The mythical Irish tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows is partly set at Loch Etive, while Dál Riata was a Dark Age kingdom spanning Antrim and Argyll. In the sixth century, Donegal-born St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland’s western seaboard, settling on the Isle of Iona. Coast of the Gaels indeed.
Argyll offers ferry-hopping, hills, big skies, glorious stretches of coastline and perhaps the best whisky in the world. Hubs such as Brodick, Inveraray or Oban can get busy in peak season, although with crowds that would hardly merit the name in a major European city. At the same time of year, it is also possible to walk the pristine sands of a North Atlantic bay, or follow a quiet mountain track, with no one else in sight.
Things to do
The third Marquess of Bute and architect Robert Rowand Anderson started work on this splendid mansion in the late 1870s; after extensive restoration, it offers a thrilling example of Victorian Gothic. The marquess’s passion for astrology and astronomy is much in evidence, from the elaborately decorated ceiling and stained-glass windows of the vaulted Marble Hall to the Horoscope Room, whose ceiling depicts the positions of the stars and planets when he was born. The dining room is another highlight, with portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough and superb carved panelling. A strikingly modern, architect-designed visitor centre houses a restaurant, shop and small art gallery, and there are 300 acres of grounds. Isle of Bute PA20 9LR (01700 503877, www.mountstuart.com). OpenMay-Sept 10am-6pm daily. Admission £8; £6.50 reductions.
A centre of pilgrimage, a testament of faith throughout the ages, the physical manifestation of a narrative thread that reaches back more than 1,400 years to Columba’s arrival on the island – Iona Abbey is all of these things. Physically, it is a much refurbished 13th-century church, with an associated complex of buildings that is still in active use, thanks to the Iona Community. You can wander the cloisters, contemplate the museum’s collection of ancient crosses and grave slabs, and ponder the fact that dozens of the old kings of Scotland are buried around here somewhere, along with various Irish and Viking monarchs.
This 18th-century inn looks its age – but in a good way. With its worn wooden floor, open fire, quirky Highland fixtures, candles and whisky, it seems little changed since the days when passing cattle drovers drank here, some 300 years ago. Throw in a good, traditional pub grub menu and you’re on to a winner. There are also some idiosyncratic rooms – haunted, obviously – and more conventional-style hotel rooms in the Drovers Lodge over the road (£78-£89 double incl breakfast).
Inverarnan, by Ardlui, Argyll & Bute G83 7DX (01301 704234, www.thedroversinn.co.uk). Open 11am-11pm Mon-Thur; 11am-1am Fri, Sat; noon-11pm Sun. Food served 11am-10pm Mon-Sat; noon-10pm Sun.
Oban’s most popular restaurant keeps it nice and simple in a contemporary-rustic venue with views over the water, basing its menu on whatever has been pulled from the North Atlantic that day. Oysters on ice, smoked haddock chowder, dressed crab and lobster with garlic butter might feature – all incredibly good value. Book ahead.
Part of the De Vere hotel group, Cameron House centres on an 18th-century baronial mansion, with many later additions. The 134 rooms and suites are very comfortable, with all mod cons and a contemporary take on traditional Scottish style. Other attractions on the lochside site are legion, including a leisure club and a nine-hole golf course, along with a full 18-hole course and a luxurious spa – the Carrick – a few miles up the loch. The dining room is run by Martin Wishart, whose Edinburgh restaurant holds a Michelin star.
One of Scotland’s very best hotels. The situation is excellent (looking across the Lynn of Lorne to Lismore and the Morvern peninsula beyond), the standard of cooking elevated, the service exemplary and the 11 bedrooms either country house style or something a little more boutique. The best relaxation therapy money can buy.
Spanning the country from the east shore of Loch Lomond to the East Neuk of Fife, and from the flatlands of the Forth Valley up into the Southern Highlands, Scotland’s midriff encompasses a striking variety of landscapes. The region comprises the old counties of Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Fife, with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to the west. The latter’s glens, hills and freshwater lochs make it a popular day trip from both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Outside the park’s boundary, the countryside north and west of the town of Perth is broadly similar, with glorious Highland scenery around Glen Lyon, Loch Tummel and elsewhere.
By contrast, the course of the River Forth as it meanders east from Loch Ard in the Trossachs is through a flood plain that could have been created with a spirit level. Straddling the river just before it starts to transform into a firth is Stirling, with a castle that looks even more dramatic than its Edinburgh counterpart. Further east into Fife, Dunfermline was the site of Scotland’s royal court for a time in the medieval period, while the village of Falkland, with its impressive old palace, is a discreet gem.
Fife’s eastern extremity, the East Neuk, juts out into the North Sea, and its south-east coast is dotted with attractive fishing villages such as Pittenweem and Anstruther. Some ten miles to the north, St Andrews has the ruins of a medieval cathedral, a university founded in 1410 and – of course – the most famous golf course on the planet.
Things to do
Billed as a high-wire forest adventure, what this actually comprises is the wildest zipwire ride in the UK – more than 400 yards long – high above the trees behind the visitor centre, then the negotiation of rope ladders, nets, high platforms and narrow bridges up in the forest canopy. There is a safety session beforehand, of course, and you’re attached to a safety harness as you make your way through the trees. All the same, this particular activity is not for vertigo-sufferers – but it’s an intense and demanding adventure for anyone else.
David Marshall Lodge Visitor Centre, Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, by Aberfoyle, Stirlingshire FK8 3SY (08456 439215, www.goape.co.uk). Open Feb-Oct times vary; phone for details. Admission £30; £20 reductions.
Sitting on a volcanic crag above the flood plain of the Forth, Stirling Castle looks every bit as dramatic as its Edinburgh counterpart. The first documentary evidence of the castle dates to the early 12th century, when Alexander I dedicated a chapel here; other unsubstantiated stories claim Dark Age roots or even Roman occupation. Most of the buildings within the extant castle complex date from around the 16th century, when it was an important centre for Scotland’s Stewart kings. The vast Great Hall is impressive, the Chapel Royal handsome and the Regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fascinating. The Palace was closed for a major conservation project at the time of writing, but scheduled to reopen in Easter 2011 with new, meticulously researched re-creations of 16th-century interiors.
This restaurant is a stand-alone business within one of Scotland’s iconic hotels: lush, classy and the only venue north of the border with two Michelin stars. Broadly speaking, it is in the premier league of restaurants across Britain and Ireland, and the apparent simplicity of Fairlie’s dishes (home-smoked lobster with lime and herb butter to start, say, followed by a main of venison with baby artichokes and truffled leeks) belies the artistry and hard graft involved in the kitchen.
A few miles south-west of St Andrews on the B940, the Peat Inn has been a fixture on the list of Scotland’s top restaurants since the 1970s. It was taken over in 2006 by Geoffrey Smeddle, won a Michelin star in 2010, and remains a destination diner, with eight very smart rooms (£190 double incl breakfast) for overnight guests. Three small dining rooms provide an elegant backdrop for an intimate fine dining experience, whether you opt for the three-course set menu, the à la carte or the tasting menu; wild venison carpaccio with goat’s cheese cream, cannelloni of hare with ginger-glazed salsify and pine nuts and vanilla parfait with poached rhubarb and blood orange sorbet might be among the six-course feast. For those on a stricter budget, the set lunch menu is a steal. Cupar, Fife KY15 5LH (01334 840206, www.thepeatinn.co.uk). Lunch served 12.30-1.30pm, dinner served 7-9pm Tue-Sat.
Where to stay
Originally built in the 1920s by the Caledonian Railway Company, Gleneagles was always intended as a luxury destination, with golf courses and grouse shooting thrown in for good measure. Successive investments since the 1980s have seen the old place keep its end up, and it remains one of the UK’s smartest stopovers, with swish rooms and suites, an acclaimed ESPA spa, three championship golf courses and a range of dining options that includes the superb Restaurant Andrew Fairlie. Auchterarder, Perthshire PH3 1NF (01764 662231, www.gleneagles.com). Rates £410-£570 double incl breakfast.
Old Course Golf Resort & Spa
Not so much a hotel as a golf experience with a decent spa thrown in, the Old Course sits beside the 17th hole of the legendary Old Course, the home of golf. It’s a big place, with 144 rooms and suites, and the facilities to match: various eateries of varying levels of formality (the Road Hole Restaurant is the flagship dining room), a ‘Luxury Kids’ programme and the aforementioned spa, where friendly staff are at the ready to provide manicures, massages and assorted pampering. The rooms are restrained and tasteful, and the opulent deluxe suites were designed by French interiors guru Jacques Garcia. The hotel owns the championship Duke’s Course for anyone who wants to play 18 holes, and the hotel’s golf stewards can also help with bookings on the Old Course itself – although the two are entirely separate concerns, despite sharing a name. St Andrews, Fife KY16 9SP (01334 474371, www.oldcoursehotel.co.uk). Rates £195-£440 double incl breakfast.
The North East
Although most Scots would tell you that the vernacular North East has the city of Aberdeen as its focus and takes in the North Sea coast from Stonehaven to Peterhead, then along the Moray Firth from Fraserburgh to Banff and Buckie, there is a greater geographical designation that strikes people as obvious when they look at a map. If you consider Scotland as a whole, then the country’s actual North East corner encompasses Dundee and Angus, Aberdeen and its shire, plus Moray.
That’s a big skelp of ground – and, historically, it has always struck a balance between the land and the sea. The region is dotted with working ports: Aberdeen is not only Scotland’s third city but remains the UK’s oil capital, while Peterhead and Fraserburgh are centres for the fishing industry. Turn your back on the coast, however, and you’ll find the bonny glens of Angus, Royal Deeside leading to the Cairngorm mountains, enormous swathes of farmland, and Speyside – home to the greatest concentration of whisky distilleries in the world.
Around the North East you can board the vessel that took Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic in 1901, visit the Victorian castle where the Queen takes her repose every August, walk the hills and beaches, dine in some style overlooking Aberdeen harbour, or investigate the fishing villages of the Moray Firth.
Things to do
Visitors might be forgiven for thinking that the Scots spent the 12th and 13th centuries building elaborate abbeys, fighting in or around them for several hundred years, then happily watching them crumble away to ruin after the Reformation. To some extent this is true, but each abbey has its own attractions; Arbroath’s is notable for its association with the Declaration of Arbroath.
The striking, red sandstone edifice was built in 1178, so was already well into its second century when a group of Scottish nobles, barons and freemen wrote to the Pope in 1320, making Scotland’s case for independence. The chances are that there was no great meeting at Arbroath, but that senior Church figures of the time, including the local abbot, were central to the production of the document. The most quoted extract reads, ‘It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone which no honest man gives up but with life itself…’ Almost 700 years later, among the ruins, the words can still make the hairs on the back of your neck prickle. Arbroath, Angus DD11 1EG (01241 878756, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). OpenApr-Sept 9.30am-5.30pm daily. Oct-Mar 9.30am-4.30pm daily. Admission £4.70; free-£3.80 reductions.
Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Sitting just above the Upper Dock and Victoria Dock of Aberdeen harbour, the museum incorporates the 16th-century Provost Ross’s House and its adjacent buildings, all redeveloped in 1997. Displays range from old paintings and ship models to displays showing what it’s like to live and work on an oil rig. The diving suits, sailing ships, interactive displays and all the rest tell a living tale of social and industrial history, and an ambitious model of an oil platform – complete with the underwater bits – soars through several floors of the building.
Off the A92 between Arbroath and Montrose at the village of Inverkeilor, Gordon’s has been a beacon of good cooking in Angus for years. In the kitchen are founder Gordon Watson and his son Garry, while the compact dining room has bare stone, stained glass and a wood-burning stove. Typical main courses might include slow-cooked featherblade of local beef with braised ox cheek, butternut squash and roast salsify, or halibut with langoustine risotto, courgette, razor clams, tomato and cardamom. Handy for the beach at Lunan Bay, Gordon’s also has five individually furnished rooms (£100-£120 double incl breakfast) for an upmarket B&B stopover.
Main Street, Inverkeilor, Angus DD11 5RN (01241 830364, www.gordonsrestaurant.co.uk). Lunch served noon-1.45pm Wed-Fri, Sun. Dinner served 7-9pm Tue-Sun.
An airy conservatory-style space on the first floor of an old granite building, right by Aberdeen harbour, the Silver Darling has long been regarded as the best restaurant in the city. It serves polished, French-influenced seafood dishes, including the ambitious likes of halibut ‘steamed with an aroma of seaweed’, with lobster and scallop mousse and a champagne gratinée. Meanwhile, the ships come and go right outside the window.
Pocra Quay, AB11 5DQ (01224 576229, www.silverdarling.co.uk). Lunch served noon-1.45pm Mon-Fri. Dinner served 7-9.30pm Mon-Fri; 6.30-9.30pm Sat.
Where to stay
Somewhat off the beaten track, but all the more of a wonderful surprise for that, Ethie Castle is a striking red sandstone pile with early 14th-century roots. Several major revamps have produced the well-maintained stately home that exists today, on the minor roads around two miles south-east of Inverkeilor. There are just three bedrooms, and the general effect is of being a house guest – which you effectively are, in the home of the de Morgan family. Breakfast and dinner are usually served in the Tudor kitchen. The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of former resident David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, who was murdered by Protestant reformers in 1546; a couple of months earlier, he had arranged to have one of their number, George Wishart, burned at the stake. Inverkeilor, by Arbroath, Angus DD11 5SP (01241 830434, www.ethiecastle.com). Rates from £95 double incl breakfast. No credit cards.
Marcliffe at Pitfodels, Hotel & Spa
Around three miles from the city centre on the main A93, set in wooded grounds, the Marcliffe has 42 elegant, comfortable rooms and elevated service. The Conservatory Restaurant gives you the choice of a 16oz T-bone with all the trimmings, as well as dishes like wild sea trout with samphire and sauce Veronique, while the spa offers massages, facials and complementary therapies. North Deeside Road, Pitfodels, AB15 9YA (01224 861000, www.marcliffe.com). Rates £150-£245 double incl breakfast.
Central Highlands & Skye
For anyone used to the tenement-lined streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, or the polite suburbs found more generally throughout the British Isles, the Central Highlands and Skye might give them pause. Even agoraphobia. In terms of British records, Ben Nevis by Fort William stands at 4,409 feet above sea level, and from its pre-eminent summit you can see for more than 80 miles when the clouds clear. Loch Morar, a freshwater body near Mallaig, goes down 1,017 feet at its deepest. Loch Ness in the Great Glen doesn’t quite match Morar for depth, but it does hold almost 1.8 cubic miles of freshwater, making Windermere and Ullswater in Cumbria seem like mere puddles. A Scottish hillwalking fanzine once dubbed that English holiday hotspot the Pond District, perhaps out of a mildly provocative sense of devilment, but also with a weather eye to actual differences in scale north to south.
You’re not compelled to brave the heights, however, and the Central Highlands and Skye do offer gentler pursuits. There are boat trips, relaxing walks through fragrant pine forest, dinners at superlative country house hotels, castles to see, or the simple enjoyment of never-ending lochside views. Talk of monsters prompts a sceptical smile – or a frantic scramble for a camera.
Things to do
The Bella Jane is a well-appointed little passenger vessel that sails several times a day between Elgol and Loch Coruisk – which is a boon for walkers or anyone who wants to spend time around what is arguably Skye’s most scenic sea loch. Sightseers and day-trippers can set off and return at their leisure; alternatively, you can take a one-way journey and walk out of the Loch Coruisk area to the north (maps, gear and a good sense of direction are, of course, required). Elgol, Isle of Skye (08007 313089, www.bellajane.co.uk). OpenEaster-Oct daily, timetable varies; phone for details. Tickets £12.50-£25; £8 reductions.
Eilean Donan Castle
There is something irresistibly romantic about castles set on small islands – and this medieval fortress, strategically sited at the junction of lochs Alsh, Long and Duich, is no exception. Its fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, but the castle breathed its last as an operational military structure in 1719. Pro-Jacobite Spaniards were in residence – Scottish politics in the 18th century were fairly complex – when the Royal Navy bombarded the living daylights out of the place, then blew up what remained with the Spaniards’ stock of gunpowder; restoration of the ruins didn’t happen until the early 20th century. Given that it sits just by the A87 road to Kyle of Lochalsh, and looks exactly how a craggy Highland castle is supposed to look, Eilean Donan attracts a large number of visitors, who wander through its atmospheric banqueting hall and grey stone courtyard. It’s a popular filming location, too, popping up in everything from Highlander to The World Is Not Enough.
Dornie, by Kyle of Lochalsh, Ross-shire IV40 8DX (01599 555202, www.eileandonancastle.com). OpenJuly, Aug 9am-6pm daily. Mar-June, Sept, Oct 10am-6pm daily. Admission £5.50; free-£4.50 reductions. £13.50 family.
Where to eat
Everyone from hairy hardcore climbers to random tourists turns up here in the evening for a conveyor belt of decent pub grub: boar sausages, venison casserole or spinach and chickpea pie, for example. The Boots Bar has a stone floor, wooden tables, an open stove, regular live music and cask ales from breweries like Atlas, Houston Brewing Company or Williams Brothers. With the hubbub of conversation, bar staff shouting food orders and background music that runs from Black Sabbath to the White Stripes, it can get pretty lively; the Bidean Lounge provides a more placid and child-friendly alternative. The Clachaig also has 22 decent rooms if you want to stay over (£88-£92 double incl breakfast). It’s around two miles south-east of Glencoe village, on the minor Glen Coe, Argyll PH49 4HX (01855 811252, www.clachaig.com).Open noon-11pm Mon-Thur, Sat; noon-midnight Fri; 12.30-11pm Sun. Food served noon-9pm daily.
This small and much-lauded country house hotel, set in a splendid Georgian mansion, is a delightful place to stay. The eight rooms (£320-£420 double incl breakfast & dinner) are tip top, and thanks to chef Charlie Lockley – who earned a Michelin star in 2009 – it is an even better place to eat. In a candlelit dining room, the talented Mr Lockley serves up the likes of onion squash soup to start, followed by local pork belly with quince and chorizo, scallop with leek, truffle and egg cream, roe deer with chard, liquorice and parsnip as a main, a cheese course, then rhubarb, custard and sorbet to finish. Utterly wonderful.
Auldearn, Nairn, Nairn-shire IV12 5TE (01667 454896, www.boath-house.com). Breakfast served 8.30-9.30am Mon-Sat; 9-10pm Sun. Lunch served 12.30-1.15pm, tea served 2.30-4pm, dinner served 7-7.30pm daily.
Where to stay
This boutique, multiple-award winning establishment is altogether quite a fabulous place to stay. Bedrooms sport muted colour schemes, vast beds and luxurious touches (plush bathrobes and toiletries, flatscreen televisions and DVD players, for example, and outdoor hot tubs in the priciest rooms). A cool cocktail bar completes the picture, along with an Albert Roux restaurant. Feel like dining on lotte de l’estuaire de Pentland, cuite au four avec haricot blanc et tomate? D’accord.
Although this is technically a restaurant with rooms, the eight rooms are well worth staying in: simple, fresh, bucolic and comfortable. A converted, late 19th-century tweed mill, the building itself has lots of character, and there is a pretty terrace for summer drinks. The small restaurant remains one of the best places to eat between Perth and Inverness, using ingedients of excellent provenance to concoct dishes like mackerel with rhubarb salsa to start, and free-range pork loin, cheek and belly with kale, caramelised onion, and potato and truffle gratin as a main. Tweed Mill Brae, Ardbroilach Road, Kingussie, Inverness-shire PH21 1LB (01540 661166, www.thecross.co.uk). Rates £200-£270 double incl breakfast & dinner.
The North of Scotland is everything on the mainland above and beyond Inverness – and make no mistake, there is a lot of it. From the capital of the Highlands, you can go all the way up the east coast via the sweeping firths of Cromarty and Dornoch, past the home of Glenmorangie whisky on the way, to the ostentatious château of Dunrobin Castle at Golspie, and still be 70 miles shy of John o’Groats – traditionally acclaimed as the other end of Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall. It’s another 95 miles along the top – or the north coast – past Dunnet Head, through Thurso, via beautiful, lonely beaches, across the Kyle of Tongue and around Loch Eriboll to the village of Durness in the north-west, the stopping-off point for Cape Wrath.
Heading south again, the Atlantic coast is fractal and direct routes are few and far between. The scenery is bliss, though, and the entire north-west corner has been designated as a European Geopark for its idiosyncratic geology; the land around Assynt and Coigach, in particular, feels more like the moon than the Highlands. Just to the south, Ullapool is the only settlement of note for many miles, and although hardly rammed with people, it’s an important regional centre, working port and point of departure for the Stornoway ferry.
Before you get back down to the Central Highlands, however, there is still a looping drive to take via the coastal villages of Poolewe and Gairloch, through Torridon and around Applecross. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe these latter stretches of country – they’re more like states of grace. Inland and away from the main coastal routes, the North has major freshwater lochs, extraordinary mountains, just a handful of A roads and very few people. To the north-east, in the old counties of Caithness and Sutherland, the Flow Country is Europe’s largest expanse of blanket bog – more than 1,500 square miles. This may not leap out at the casual sightseer as an aesthetic delight, but it is environmentally important and rich in wildlife, especially birds. Whether you like geology or greenshanks, quaffing whisky or messing about in wetsuits, hills or history, the North covers all bases. There are even a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants in Achiltibuie and Lochinver, if you’re seized by the need for an evanescent beetroot soufflé or freshly landed langoustine and spiny lobster in a piquant hollandaise.
Things to do
Although the site has been occupied by some sort of fortification since the medieval period, the current look of the building – ostentatious, with turrets and formal gardens inspired by Versailles – dates to a major mid 19th-century makeover by Sir Charles Barry, while the interior was restored by Sir Robert Lorimer after a fire in 1915. The tension in visiting Dunrobin comes in the interplay between its fairytale good looks and the trauma of the Highland Clearances. The castle is ancestral home of the Sutherlands, and the first Duke – whose statue is up on Ben Bhraggie – was instrumental in throwing local people off land they had farmed for generations. His son, the second Duke, created Dunrobin as you see it today; the gap between well-heeled aristocrats and dispossessed tenant farmer couldn’t be more stark. Or you might just want to visit for the falconry displays.
By Golspie, Sutherland KW10 6SF (01408 633177, www.dunrobincastle.co.uk). Open June-Aug 10.30am-5.30pm daily. Apr, May, Sept, Oct 10.30am-4.30pm Mon-Sat; noon-4.30pm Sun. Admission £8.50; free-£7 reductions.
Osgood Mackenzie was a Highland aristocrat who bought a large estate around Poolewe in 1862, and set about creating one of the world’s premier gardens over the decades that followed. It was Mackenzie’s daughter who gifted it to the nation in 1952, since when it has been run by the National Trust for Scotland. Built up a hillside on Loch Ewe, it has a beautiful setting. The main question that strikes people is how does this exist at all? After all, Poolewe is at a slightly higher latitude than Moscow, so finding so abundant a wealth of flora in this spot seems almost miraculous. The answer is the Gulf Stream and very clever gardening. The walled garden is at its best in spring and summer, and the deciduous trees in autumn, but there is always something to provoke a mental jig of delight.
The Albannach is a small, upmarket hotel, a little removed from the centre of Lochinver village, round the other side of Loch Inver at Baddidarroch (although the distance is measured in hundreds of yards rather than miles). The jewel in its crown is the dining room, which has held a Michelin star since 2009 – although it had been an excellent restaurant for almost 20 years before that. The decor is dark and traditional, a good setting for five courses that might be built around roast saddle of wild roe deer with candy beetroot, truffled squash and more – or roast turbot with leek, sorrel, asparagus, black potatoes and red wine sauce. There are six elegant rooms and suites (£260-£355 double incl breakfast & dinner); note that the hotel closes from January to mid March each year. Baddidarroch, Lochinver, Sutherland IV27 4LP (01571 844407, www.thealbannach.co.uk). Dinner served 8pm daily.
Summer Isles Hotel
On the coast opposite the Summer Isles, this bright, neat and accomplished hotel has won an impressive reputation, and a Michelin star for its food. The only drawback is that it closes from approximately November to March. Catch it in season, though, and you could have a light lunch focused on locally landed shellfish, blow £60 on the seafood platter for two at dinner, or try a five-course dinner with scallop mousse, then wood pigeon, Lochinver halibut, a sweetener from the dessert trolley, then cheese. It also has a fine little bar, open to non-residents, where you could grab a superior lunchtime sandwich and a decent pint of local cask ale. Achiltibuie, Ross-shire IV26 2YG (01854 622282, www.summerisleshotel.co.uk). Food served 8am-9.30am, 8pm dinner sitting daily.
Where to stay
Glenmorangie House Highland Home at Cadboll
The name of this hotel tells you almost everything you need to know: owned by the Glenmorangie whisky people, this is their take on a luxury Highland home in a quiet corner of the North. (It’s south-east of Tain on minor roads off the B9165, near the hamlet of Fearn and not far from the sea.) There are just six smart bedrooms in the main house, plus three cottages in the grounds; dining is house-party style with everyone at one big table, so evenings are convivial (don’t expect romantic dinners à deux). You can try lots of different expressions of Glenmorangie, of course, or even arrange a formal whisky-tasting, but the price might make you wince. It’s a nice place to drink it, though.
Lush and upmarket, with celebrity endorsements and six rooms, Pool House is plainly not your casual wee B&B. Instead, expect palatial themed suites, liberally sprinkled with grand antiques, a serious dining room with a set four-course dinner each evening, public rooms with a period feel and high standards of service. This is one of Scotland’s top romantic getaways, if your credit card can take the strain (the rates rise pretty steeply for the undeniably magnificent suites). It’s also handy for Inverewe Gardens. Poolewe, Wester-Ross IV22 2LD (01445 781272, www.pool-house.co.uk). Rates from £190 double incl breakfast.
The Western Isles
There is a romance to far horizons. Set in the north-west of Europe, relatively distant from the continent’s core power centres, Scotland as a whole is imbued with a sense of being at the edge. Within Scotland, the further north and west you go, away from Edinburgh and Glasgow, there is a similar effect. By the time you get to the Western Isles, especially having made the ferry journey from Oban, Uig or Ullapool, the voodoo is at its most intense; visitors tend to forgive the almost inevitable wind and rain for the thrill of setting foot on this sparsely populated North Atlantic archipelago.
Fewer than 27,000 people live on these islands, also known as the Outer Hebrides, which run 130 miles from the Butt of Lewis in the north to tiny Mingulay and Berneray in the south. The islands also remain a stronghold for the Gaelic language, with the majority of the population speaking Gaelic as well as English. The landscape ranges from peat bogs to hills, and breathtakingly beautiful beaches backed by machair – fertile grassland dotted with wild flowers in season. The surface rock you see is among the most antique on the planet, up to three billion years old, and small lochs are everywhere; you often get the impression of a drowned land, with water supplanting earth as the prime element.
There is only one town that merits the name, Stornoway on Lewis; together with its immediately surrounding townships it has around 8,000 souls, so hardly constitutes a metropolis. But then, no one comes to the Western Isles to be at the centre of an urban culture. Instead, there are standing stones up to 5,000 years old, traditional blackhouses to visit and some bewitchingly unorthodox landscapes. There are geographical conundrums to be unravelled, too, since the island names can mislead to a glorious degree: Lewis and Harris is one landmass, for example, while North and South Uist are not adjacent but have Benbecula wedged in between. Most of all, however, there are those extraordinary Atlantic beaches, right at the margin of the Old World – and the temptation of St Kilda, further away still.
Things to do
Callanish Standing Stones
Around 16 miles west of Stornoway on the A858, Callanish is an impressive Neolithic standing stone ring – with associated lines of stones – older than the main circle at Stonehenge in England. Given its isolation and the prevailing local weather conditions, it remains relatively unmolested by stone-stalkers, leaving visitors who have made the effort to get here sufficient mental space for their own communions, whether spiritual or post-Enlightenment in style. The visitor centre has a shop and café and the majority of people visit in season (Apr-Sept) when the site is open daily. Alternatively, turn up on a foul afternoon in the winter when the site opens Wed-Sat only, and you will probably have the New Stone Age all to yourself.
St Kilda is a small North Atlantic archipelago with three principal islands – Hirta, Soay and Boreray – just over 50 miles west of Harris. With the extraordinary scenery, huge cliffs and sea stacks, seabirds and vanished way of life, St Kilda is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Scheduled Ancient Monument and an EU Special Protection Area. In addition it is one of the very few places on the entire planet that holds World Heritage status on both environmental and cultural grounds. Today, it’s managed jointly by Scottish Natural Heritage, the National Trust for Scotland and the MoD, but visiting Hirta is possible. Not everyone can come on a cruise ship, though, owns their own yacht or can take a few days for a special tour – but more can manage a day trip. Some companies on Lewis and Harris offer this option for anyone hardy enough to endure up to three hours in a fast boat getting there, several hours ashore, then the trip back. In the 2010 season, prices per head were in the £170-£180 bracket – but it’s a memorable experience.
These are not daily jollies where you drop by the pier and see if there are spaces – call in advance to check sailing times and weather conditions. www.kilda.org.uk.
Where to eat
It’s not easy to run a good stand-alone restaurant on Lewis and Harris, given the small local population and highly seasonal tourist trade, but the smart, contemporary Digby Chick seems to have carved out a niche for itself. Three courses here could bring mussels with garlic, white wine, parsley and cream to start, grilled sirloin with pepper sauce and chips as a main, then comforting rice pudding with rhubarb for dessert. It’s deservedly popular, so do book.
5 Bank Street, Stornoway, Lewis HS1 2XG (01851 700026). Lunch served 11.30am-2pm, dinner served 5.30-9pm Mon-Sat.
You’re in the Outer Hebrides – and not even on one of the larger or more populous islands, at that – so you probably won’t expect curry to be on the menu, or Italian food. You certainly wouldn’t expect an establishment that serves both. Praise be, then, for Café Kisimul, an informal venue right by the bay whose chef takes local seafood, beef and lamb, then whips them up into dishes like prawn jaipuri, Barra lamb bhuna, Barra beef bolognaise, or a simple haddock and chips. It’s popular, so book ahead. Main Street, Castlebay, Barra HS9 5XT (01871 810645, www.cafekisimul.co.uk). Food servedEaster-Oct 10am-8pm daily. Nov-Easter 10am-8pm Sat, Sun. No credit cards.
Where to stay
Perhaps the classiest joint on Lewis and Harris, this white-painted former manse was built during the reign of George IV. There are three guest rooms in the main house, two suites in an annexe and a couple of self-catering cottages, all comfortably and quietly furnished in a style that doesn’t jar with the building’s history. After breakfast (freshly made yoghurt, own-made preserves and a fine choice of cooked breakfasts), stroll to the stunning, three-mile-long Scarista beach. The dining room is open to non-residents and focuses on upscale Modern European cooking (seared loin of lamb in Burgundy sauce with dauphinoise potatoes and aubergine purée for a main, for example). Scarista House gets very busy at the height of the season, so book ahead for dinner or accommodation.
Scarista Bheag, Harris HS3 3HX (01859 550238, www.scaristahouse.com). Rates £180-£200 double incl breakfast. Self-catering £375-£480 per week for 2 people; £550-£780 per week for 6 people.
The Northern Isles
Compared to the baroque delights of Edinburgh or the energetic bustle of Glasgow, the Northern Isles are vanishingly sparse – the central feature of their appeal. Altogether they have just 42,500 inhabitants, with more than a third of this number in the main centres of Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland – both modest towns. The rest are spread out over the 32 permanently inhabited islands of the two groups. Given their position, way up beyond Scotland’s north coast, and relative lack of residents, what Orkney and Shetland hold in common is space, dominated by seascapes and big maritime skies. They also share some of the best prehistoric sites in the whole of the British Isles (some having official World Heritage status), an independent outlook and a Norse heritage – the Vikings turned up in the eighth and ninth centuries and the islands didn’t come under Scottish control until the 15th century.
Yes, it can be wet, and it’s almost always windy, but at high summer the sun hardly dips below the horizon – and although the winters are dark, the Aurora Borealis provides occasional, cosmic entertainment.
Things to do
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The western part of the Orkney Mainland is so stuffed with stone circles, burial chambers and more – under the general stewardship of Historic Scotland – that the entire area has been designated a World Heritage Site. There are four main locations: the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and Maeshowe.
The most arresting experience of all may be at Maeshowe. A large, chambered burial tomb dating back around 5,000 years, it was designed so that the entrance passage lined up with the setting sun at the moment of the winter solstice. At sunburst time, it can make even the godless feel spiritual; solstice places are limited, however, so book in advance. Skara Brae (phone number as above) and Maeshowe (01856 761606) also have dedicated visitor centres.
Various sites, Mainland (01856 841815, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk). Open 9.30am-5.30pm (last admission 4.45pm) daily. Admission £6.70; free-£5.40 reductions.
Shetland Folk Festival
Held over four days around late April and early May, the festival celebrates a wealth of local musicianship but also draws acts from all over the world. Although Lerwick is the key locale, organisers ensure that the rest of Shetland shares in the fun with gigs elsewhere on the Mainland, as well as on islands such as Yell and Whalsay.
On South Ronaldsay, but linked to the Mainland by the causeways, the Creel has long been regarded as among the best eateries anywhere in Orkney. Local ingredients play a major part: terrine made with North Ronaldsay mutton fed on seaweed, porbeagle shark landed locally served in a langoustine bisque, or wolf-fish served with seared scallops. The setting is a simple room where a window seat affords views over St Margaret’s Hope Bay. There are also three neatly appointed B&B rooms (£110 double incl breakfast).
Front Road, St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay KW17 2SL (01856 831311, www.thecreel.co.uk). Dinner served 7-8.30pm Tue-Sun June-Aug; 7-8.30pm Wed-Sun Apr, May, Sept.
A pub-with-food overlooking the harbour, Helgi’s feels a little like a modern intrusion into Kirkwall, less because of its menu – panini at lunchtime, simple mackerel pâté as a starter, fish and chips to follow, perhaps, or some fajitas – but more because of the sensibility. The food is decent enough, but equally importantly the atmosphere is friendly and informal and there is good local beer. 14 Harbour Street, Kirkwall, Mainland KW15 1LE (01856 879293). Open 11am-midnight Mon-Thur, Sun; 11am-1am Fri, Sat. Lunch served noon-2pm Mon-Sat; 12.30-2.30pm Sun. Dinner served 5-9pm daily.
Where to stay
Set in the west of the Mainland, this was originally a mid 18th-century family home. The six guest rooms are decorated in a variety of styles, from one with simple pine furniture to a chic, boutique-style loft. Dinners feature great seafood and good lamb, while breakfasts are worth getting up for. Burrastow House lacks a bar, but the location is excellent and this is by far the most tasteful small hotel in the whole of Shetland. Walls, Mainland ZE2 9PD (01595 809307, www.burrastowhouse.co.uk). Rates £80 double incl breakfast.
All of three miles from Kirkwall, the Foveran looks less like a hotel from the outside and more like a generic Scottish bungalow of the last 30 years. It does have placid views down to the water, however, tidy decor, one of the highest-rated dining rooms in the islands, and staff who seem pleased to see you. Not one for party animals, it is perhaps best suited to those seeking a quiet night or two.
St Ola, by Kirkwall, Mainland KW15 1SF (01856 872389, www.foveranhotel.co.uk). Rates £105-£110 double incl breakfast.