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Ten Things to Do in Scotland That Bring the Nation to Life

3 November 2023

Romance, history, old-world lore, and cinematic scenery welcome travelers to Scotland. This is a proud nation whose stories are written into centuries-old cities and the heathered mountains of the Scottish Highlands. It is one of the best places to visit in Europe if you enjoy legends of years past and castle spotting; it is even better if your tastes lean to whisky and hearty cuisine. Whether you are traveling to live out your Harry Potter or Outlander fantasies or want to start checking items off your Scotland bucket list, there are many ways to experience this dynamic country. Instead of trying to cram everything into your rail vacation, use this list of things to do in Scotland to inspire your travels. Here are some of the best ways to fill your time in this beautiful nation.

1. Cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct Aboard the Harry Potter Train

Since the release of the Harry Potter films over 20 years ago, the famous Jacobite Steam Train has taken on a new identity. Now sometimes referred to as the Harry Potter train, this Scottish train continues to follow the same iconic route it has for over 120 years. The Jacobite Steam Train departs from Fort William under the shadow of the British Isles' highest peak, Ben Nevis. The sounds and smells of a classic steam train journey add to the ambiance as the train weaves into the remote Highlands, passing through charming rural towns and small villages as it approaches its coastal destination, Mallaig.

While the lush mountain scenery and gleaming lochs give you a lasting impression of the Scottish landscape, it is the distinctive, 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct that is the highlight of the journey. This railway bridge is the longest in Scotland and has been even more recognizable by the big screens. That scene when the Hogwarts Express crosses the Viaduct with its whistles blowing and smoke billowing is iconic. You, too, will follow this course, and if time allows, the train pauses atop the Glenfinnan so you can look out over the magnificent scenery below, including Loch Shiel. No wonder this is one of Scotland's top tourist attractions.

2. Experience the Scottish Highlands by Rail

The Jacobite Steam Train is just one of the fantastic rail lines that set out into the pretty Highland scenery, giving you options regardless of where you stay.

  • The West Highland Line is perhaps the best-known option in the country and has been transporting travelers for over 100 years. Astounding vistas of forested mountains and colorful glens frame the course from Glasgow in the interior to Mallaig on the coast. This line is often called the most scenic railway in Scotland, and you have a front-row seat to its untouched grandeur year-round. The rainbow hues of summer fade into frosty blankets in the fall and winter, then spring back to life as the seasons change once more. Soak in all the views at a slow and steady pace during the 5-hour journey.
  • Crossing the nation on the Kyle Line provides another way to fall in love with the Scottish landscape. This train begins its journey in Inverness on the east coast and ventures past some of the Highlands' most impressive mountains, the Torridon Peaks. Passengers will also spot peat bogs, deep forests, and idyllic glens as the train pursues Kyle of Lochalsh at the cusp of Loch Alsh and the Inner Hebrides during its two-and-a-half-hour journey.

3. Visit the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides

Outdoor lovers, photographers, and lovers of rich clan history agree that visiting the Isle of Skye is one of the best things to do in Scotland. The island is the largest of the Inner Hebrides, and every mile of it is rife with beauty. There is no better place to explore sandy beaches or hike along rugged cliffs. Few places boast waterfalls and craggy basalt outcrops yet also house charming, colorful villages.

The Isle of Skye is easily accessible via the Kyle Line, and you can visit many of the others by ferrying or boating from the mainland. Favorites amongst travelers include the Isle of Mull, Eilean Donan, and Islay. You can venture to these locales in your free time while in Scotland, or book a rail vacation, such as Edinburgh, the Highlands & the Islands, for in-depth opportunities to learn about their offerings.

4. Tour Scottish Castles

Reminders of the past lurk around every corner in Scotland, and clan history is woven into the very fabric of this small nation, whose footprint is about the size of South Carolina. The places they once called home - their ancient strongholds - are now some of the top tourist attractions in Scotland. You may be surprised to learn that over 1,000 castles remain throughout the nation; however, this is a fraction of what once stood on these magnificent lands. At one time, there were upwards of 3,000!

Today, your visit could include time at Eilean Donan Castle, situated on its own island in the Inner Hebrides, or Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull. Edinburgh Castle in the heart of the capital city, Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, and breathtaking Stirling Castle are other visitor favorites. Should these ancient structures, or what remains of them, not satisfy your appetite for castle spotting, there are other magnificent examples of centuries-old fortresses throughout Scotland. Don't miss the opportunity to see these and others, including St. Andrew's Castle, on the Edinburgh, the Highlands & St. Andrews tour.

5. Look for Nessie While Cruising Loch Ness

Mention you are vacationing in Scotland to a group, and we bet at least someone mentions Loch Ness. And why wouldn't they? Loch Ness contains the most freshwater of any lake in Great Britain, though it is neither the largest nor the deepest. It boasts breathtaking shores where rolling foothills transform into heather-hewn mountains and plenty of small villages and picturesque towns that complement the scenery.

Cruising its inky-dark waters is the best way to immerse yourself in the timeless surroundings and connect with Scotland in a way that travelers have for centuries. Soak in the views and enjoy the opportunity to explore those attractions that lie along its banks, such as the ruins of Urquhart Castle. As you cruise, keep your camera ready for the beauty enveloping Loch Ness - and in case its most famous resident, the Loch Ness monster, rears her illusive head.

6. Taste Authentic Scotch Whisky

No trip to Scotland is complete without a dram of the "water of life" - Scotch whisky. This county has been distilling whisky since at least the 1400s, and over 600 years later, it remains almost synonymous with Scotland. During your tour, such as the Edinburgh, the Jacobite & Isle of Skye adventure, there is no shortage of places to taste the unique flavors. Each distillery has formulated a special recipe with varying flavors of peat, barley, fruit, smoke, wood, and more. The nuances are determined by the region in which it is distilled, which means tasting your way through Scotland's whisky is one of the best things to do to experience the country.

Perhaps visit Glen Ord Distillery, the last remaining distillery on the Black Isle, founded nearly 200 years ago by a member of Clan Mackenzie. There are plenty of distillers in Ballachulish and Beauly, stunning Highland destinations filled with history, as well as distinctive facilities on the isle of Islay. But this is the tip of the iceberg; Scotland is home to upwards of 140 unique distilleries.

7. Visit St. Andrews, a Living Tourist Attraction in Scotland

Located on the eastern seaboard, approximately two hours northeast of Edinburgh, St. Andrews is a treasure of coastal Scotland. This city is the unequivocal Home of Golf, and its Old Course has been hosting golfers on its links for 600 years. For a slightly more modern course, there are six others to choose from in this historic community.

Even travelers who are not fans of the game are spoiled for choice in St. Andrews. Your time here could include visiting the ruins of St. Andrews' Cathedral or wandering around what remains of another great Scottish castle. If you are looking for things to do in Scotland that speak to medieval history, St. Andrews has gorgeous old buildings lining its old-world streets. There is also a 600-year-old university - the oldest in Scotland and one of the United Kingdom's four great universities. Museum exploring and beach combing are a few of the other activities that visitors enjoy during their time in this pretty locale.

8. Attend the Highland Games

From May to September each year, Scotland's heritage is brought to attention in colorful, loud, and fascinating ways during the Highland Game season. A singular event kicks off the season, yet at its peak in July and August, there are as many as 30 gatherings and games throughout the country. Because they take place from top to tip and from coast to coast, there is almost always a gathering within reach, regardless of where your Scottish rail vacation is stationed.

Listen to the sounds of bagpipes and drums carrying through the air, and look upon the colors of Scotland's traditional clans, including Mackenzie, MacDonald, Campbell, Fraser, MacLean, and many others. Grab a pastie or a meat pie from a vendor and a spot with a view. The men and women who compete perform a variety of games and tasks, just as Scots have been doing for over 1,000 years. Some of the most popular games include the caber toss, the hammer throw, and weight for height, though there are also events like tug of war and traditional dance and music competitions. The pinnacle of Scottish culture, the Highland Games are an exceptionally entertaining way to spend a free day or two.

9. Walk the Royal Mile in Edinburgh

If your Scotland bucket list includes following in the footsteps of royalty and Scots from centuries of old, then there is no better place to be than Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Edinburgh Castle bookends one side of this cobbled street, while Holyrood Palace sits on the other. Between the two, the street's cobbled course is awash in history. This renowned roadway is set amid Old Town, and from it, you can wind down narrow alleyways that once housed homes and shops or explore history one old building at a time.

Taking a walking tour along this "Scots Mile" is one of the best things to do in Edinburgh. You can see traditional churches and cathedrals and admire the new and old Parliament buildings. Strolling along the Royal Mile showcases medieval architecture and gives you access to stores where authentic Scottish wares continue to be sold. There are hidden courtyards and reminders of the past tucked throughout the route that further illustrate the allures of UNESCO World Heritage Edinburgh. During your explorations, you may like to follow the route to Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock to experience 1,000 years of history.

10. Learn the Stories of the Jacobites at Culloden Battlefield

Of the tourist attractions in Scotland, few appeal to war buffs and fiction enthusiasts as much as Culloden Battlefield. This iconic battlefield is located just outside Inverness and was the setting of the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Its harrowing story is told by the memorial clan stones that litter its grounds and the ancient stone buildings upon it. The onsite museum is filled with period artifacts and 18th-century weaponry and details both sides of the war. You may leave the battlefield with a different point of view after learning the positioning of the government and the Jacobites. Guided tours are available for those visitors who want more information, though you are welcome to wander the grounds independently.

Outlander fans may be particularly interested to learn there really is a Clan Fraser memorial on the field and that the story that was told is historically accurate (you know, where time travel is not involved). For an exciting and fan-fueled day, you could pair a visit to Culloden with touring the Clava Cairns, where standing stones may or may not transport you back to the time of the Rising.

All the best of beautiful Scotland is only a phone call or email away when you contact a Rail Specialist to book your next trip with Vacations By Rail.