I’ve lived in Glasgow for over two years now, and to be completely truthful, my list of places to visit in the rest of Scotland remains untouched, and growing in bullet points.
For a small country, there’s a surprisingly large amount of things to do, and the slow realisation that I’ve spent about half of my time here either dancing my ass off in various clubs, or recovering in Pinto is a bit depressing.
To ensure that you see more Scottish wildlife than the creatures stumbling out of Bamboo, let’s start with the basics.
I’m STEPHEN BUTCHARD and here are my ten essential and unusual adventures to take in Scotland while you’re here:
Fire festival in Shetland
On the last Tuesday of January, Lerwirk, Shetland goes full on Game of Thrones, with its full day fire festival.
The Up Helly Aa festival attracts thousands of visitors every year to take part in its torch lighting and galley burning celebrations.
Pulling directly from the town’s Viking roots, expect plenty of Norse chanting and flashy costumes.
The day begins with the Jarl Squad marching through the town in traditional battle gear, and ends with an evening party in the towns halls.
In the evening, over 800 Jon Snows form ranks in the darkened streets. A rocket bursts over the Town Hall to signal the start of the ceremony as torches are lit.
Music plays through a half-mile long strip as soldiers light up the burning sight – a replica Viking longship.
The festival is largely a local affair, but tickets are available from several halls for visitors to take part.
If you should miss the Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa, don’t worry – there are another eight fire festivals in various districts of Shetland during the late winter.
Magic on the Isle of Skye
Within arguably the most picturesque corner of Scotland lies proof that magic exists.
The Fairy Pools of the Isle of Skye are like something from a Tolkien novel.
You can almost picture an elven nymph whimsically bathing within the waters. Yet in reality, the elven nymph is replaced with chubby uni students (Hi, that’s me). At least the pool is still pretty though, right?
Situated at the foot of the Black Cuillins near Glenbrittle are the Fairy Pools, with beautifully clear water filling the rocks as it runs down from the River Brittle. These famous pools entice visitors from all over the world, and make for the most stunning skinny dipping spot in the whole of Scotland (the pools will look beautiful regardless of all genitalia involved).
With stunning waterfalls and an engaging walk through the isle coming with it, the Fairy Pools are a must see for anyone taking a trip to this scenic island.
More than just Edinburgh Castle’s homely cousin, Stirling Castle is an important part of Scotland’s history and heritage, and now acts as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
It was the chosen residence of the Stewart kings and queens who held grand celebrations there.
As an important strategic point separating the Highlands and Lowlands, it was attacked numerous times throughout its early centuries, becoming a focal point in Scottish military history.
American tourists with “Celtic ancestors” now flock to the castle where knights and nobles once did.
As a bustling tourist destination, it features costumed characters in the roles of bodyguards, court officials, maids of honour and servants to guide you through 16th century life as a royal.
With knowledgeable guides to lead you through the walls (not literally), it’ll be an educational day trip as well as a scenic one.
The castle gardens provide some lovely Instagram opportunities too.
Scotland has a ridiculous amount of good looking castles.
Sutherland’s Dunrobin Castle is too good to pass up on. As a child growing up in the Highlands, I was dragged around all the castles you can think of.
Whenever family would come to stay, we would be taken to all the usual tourist points: golfing at Dornoch beach; hiking around Loch Ness; binge drinking in the living room; all of it!
But to my undeveloped brain, Dunrobin Castle was the only one worth going to.
The castle grounds are stunning inside and out. Centuries of history permeate every wall, which are filled with period costumes, original furniture, weaponry and other generally cool stuff.
Its exterior looks like a Disney castle in real life, and its vibrant gardens allow for hours of lazy wandering.
But what really stole my attention was the falconry display in the castle gardens, with a flurry of birds swooping around the grounds, as the expert falconer rallies them in. On one particular visit, an owl landed on my head. I nearly cried.
If having a large bird sit on your face sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon, then this is the place for you.
You don’t have to go on an overpriced ‘Ladz’ holiday Malaga to find white beaches and crystal water during the holidays.
In fact, just a few hours drive away on the west coast sits a string of gorgeous beaches that act as the perfect stopping point on a highland road trip.
Perhaps the best of the bunch is Achmelvich, a hidden gem tucked away behind the narrow, winding roads of the highlands.
The untouched sands are rarely busy, and its stunning water will have you believing you’ve driven into another country completely.
Fear not; there are no sticky nightclubs or STDs on legs here – unless you brought them along yourself that is. Instead, there are only peaceful country sands and highland air.
Whether you fancy windsurfing, hiking through the hills or just want to channel Harry, Ron and Hermione in Deathly Hallows Part 1, Achmelvich is a must visit for all of those wanting to experience the Highlands at its most un-Scottish.
Just ten minutes from the centre of Aviemore lies Loch Morlich, a bastion for all things wet and dangerous.
Overlooked by the Cairngorm ski resort, which is almost certainly out of any student’s budget, sits this gorgeous loch, boasting a kilometre of natural sand and ‘seaside award’ winning waters.
Lessons in kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing and even mountain biking through Glenmore Forest Park are available at the boathouse, all for budget-friendly prices.
If physical exercise isn’t your thing, there’s enough room on the beach for the timid to chill out on too.
Fresh sandwiches and home baking from the boathouse restaurant are the literal icing on the cake for an off-the-wall, adventure-filled day.
It’s a short drive from the snow-topped Aviemore, where you can grab a bite to eat at the winter shack, Skiing Doo (ORDER THE CURLY FRIES), and rest at one of the many student hostels.
Jacobite Steam Train
This charming train journey acts as a pilgrimage for some obsessed Harry Potter fans.
The three-hour single journey starts at the foot of Ben Nevis in Fort William.
It then crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous by the Potter franchise, and pass the shiny sands of Morar before arriving in the fishing port of Mallaig.
The rustic charm of a steam train with beautiful views accompanying will be enough for some travellers, but the journey also acts as an unorthodox way to travel through the country.
Don’t bother packing the binoculars; you won’t find Nessie here. What you will find though, it one of Scotland’s most idyllic lochs, steeped in history and a very large amount of water.
You can board an award winning Jacobite cruise tour, which will guide you around the scenic loch, and allow for plenty of good Instagram opportunities – we know that’s the main reason you’re going.
Nearby is one of Scotland’s biggest and most striking forts, Urquhart Castle.
It was once an essential stronghold, and despite being in ruins now, it still acts as one of the best viewpoints of the whole of Loch Ness.
With an interactive exhibition located in the visitor centre, the entire history of the area can be absorbed in just one afternoon. You can pick up an adorable highland cow plushie while you’re there too.
Fingal’s Cave is in equal parts stunning and spooky.
The sea cave is located within the uninhabited Isle of Staffa and can be reached by a small boat ride from Mull off the west coast of Scotland.
Known for its eerie echoing acoustics and striking basalt columns, similar to those in Ireland’s Giant Causeway, the cave is an intriguing natural phenomenon to be explored.
With daily cruises to the cave running from April to September every year, it makes for a unique point of interest on a highland road trip.
During spring and early summer, the grassy hills and cliffs are home to various nesting seabirds including guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
Keep an eye out for dolphins on the ferry ride over, as they are known to swim alongside the boat.
Nature is pretty cool, right?