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IN THE SKIRL OF THE BAGPIPES and the twirl of the kilt, Scotland embodies a unique and ancient culture. Scotland The Brave is a panoramic discovery of this distinct and dramatic kingdom of northern Britain. Here is an itinerary that can be enjoyed equally well by driving or taking the train. By train, take a Britrail Freedom of Scotland Pass (www.britrail.com) and jump on and off the train at will.
Day 1 Welcome to Aberdeen
There is no rule that says every trip has to begin in London. Jump right into the north of Scotland with a short connecting flight up to Aberdeen. Affluent with the North Sea oil industry, and commercial hub of northeast Scotland, Aberdeen makes a great place to recuperate from the journey and acclimate to Scotland. The airport is just seven miles north of the central city. It’s a 15-minute taxi ride, or a 30-minute bus ride. Stay downtown and explore the neighborhood. Of course, there’s a full range of hotel options. You can begin with the accommodation directory at www.aberdeen-grampian.com, which has complete information for the Aberdeen visitor. It will probably be an early night tonight in any event.
Day 2 Explore the Granite City
Take the day sightseeing in Aberdeen (the city of 100,000 roses—in season). There’s Old Aberdeen and St. Machar’s Cathedral, fortified during the turbulent 14th century, and Brig o’ Balgownie. Cobble-stoned Shiprow and the Victorian dockland adjacent to the River Dee. Perhaps the shops along Union Street, a visit to 16th-century Provost Skene’s House, or a walk in Union Terrace Gardens enjoying the city’s passion for flowers. Not to be missed any time of the year, however, are the Winter Gardens at Duthie Park that are the city’s crowning glory—one of the largest indoor gardens in Europe.
Day 3 Across the Grampian Line
By road or rail today, our route leads across Aberdeenshire and the Grampian Highlands. The scenery is terrific, and traveling either way, you can plan to stop and explore. By road, it is the A96, all the way to Inverness. By rail, it’s the Grampian Line, with 10 trains a day providing plenty of options. Travel light, and jump off at any of these places along the way. Just leave your gear at the station while you take an hour or two to explore. In Huntly, pause for a visit to the ruins of Huntly Castle, seat of the powerful Gordon clan. In Keith, take in the historic whisky distillery of Chivas Regal. In Elgin, visit the dramatic ruins of 13th century Elgin Cathedral, where the Gordon clan chieftains can still claim burial rights. Then, carry on to Inverness, “Capital of the Highlands,” where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth. Hotels, B&Bs and guest houses are plentiful in a town that loves visitors.
Day 4 A Day Well-Spent in Inverness
In the morning, make an excursion to the nearby battlefield of Culloden Moor. Here in 1745, the Jacobite highland clans were defeated by the Hanoverian army. It is one of the most moving battlefields in Britain—and the last battle fought on British soil. Come afternoon, take a lake cruise down the Caledonian Canal to the black, mysterious waters of Loch Ness. You may not see Nessie, but it’s easier to believe after you’ve been on the lake. Take time, as well, to poke around the shops. There’s no better place to buy Scottish woolens. This is a tourist town, and there are plenty of options for evening entertainment and local Highland culture.
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Day 5 Through the Grampian Mountains
The A9 and the rail tracks run parallel heading south through Aviemore and the Cairngorm Mountains. Pitlochry makes a nice stop off. If you pause in the “Gateway to the Highlands,” you might pay a call at kiltmakers MacNaughtons, which we featured in British Heritage, January 2012. At the southern edge of the Grampians, where the River Tay opens into the Firth of Tay sits the small, historic city of Perth. Great visits are St. John’s Church and the 1475 Fair Maid’s House. Perth Museum and Art Gallery is among the oldest museums in Scotland. The pretty town makes a good overnight stop.
From Perth, both road and rail routes lead directly across the Kingdom of Fife to Edinburgh in just an hour or so. If time permits, however, plan an easy detour to Stirling for a visit to Stirling Castle, the traditional home to Scottish monarchs for centuries and a fascinating repository of Scottish history. Just outside of town, you might visit the dramatic Wallace Monument, as well.
When it is time to carry on, Edinburgh is easily accessible within an hour. In summer, though, make sure you have lodgings planned in advance. Whet your appetite for the city’s attractions and accommodation at www.edinburgh.org.
Day 7 The Athens of the North
Scotland’s capital is a cornucopia of history and the arts. The Visitors Centre on Princes Street is one of the best. The place to begin exploring, however, is the Royal Mile, with the fortress of Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles Cathedral and a dozen great museums lining the cobbled route downhill to the Palace of Holyrood House. Then, explore the 18th-century New Town with its beautiful Georgian squares, sample the shopping along Princes Street, and perhaps climb Calton Hill for incredible views of the city and out over the Firth of Forth. It would certainly take several days to unpack Edinburgh, but not everyone has the same amount of time. When yours is up, Edinburgh Airport and Waverley Station easily connect you back to the real world, or on to further adventures in Britain.