Take all those tourists you hear about, miserably crammed cheek-by-jowl wearing down the walkways of Venice and the Coliseum. Then stuff them onto the rainswept inclines of Scotland’s famous Isle of Skye. What’s not to love?
Forget those visions of kilted, bare-chested warriors called Mungo whose sporrans canna lie flat. They’re less the product of the Highlands and Hebrides than Harlequin (one of Canada’s most successful exports) and, 150ish years earlier, Sir Walter Scott’s historical fiction.
Better than overpaying for the last seat on some stuffed bus selling tours of the Highlands & Islands (hey, that rhymes!) is Scotland’s breathable Borders region and the easily accessible Isle of Arran. Much better. Here are four good reasons why, starting with the obvious.
You Can Get a Selfie Without Elbowing Some Other Traveler in the Eye
Are you the sort of travel buff who won’t visit a historic and scenic treasure like Crete (because it’s, ick, affordable and full of peasants) but haven’t yet purchased your own Scottish castle? Do you simply dislike paying to be in a crowd that would embarrass a Tokyo subway driver? Don’t drive north of Edinburgh and Glasgow: veer south.
Not that the Highlands and Islands aren’t as rugged and beautiful as you’re imagining. It’s just the millions of other co-imaginers all squeezed into a space not even two thirds the size of Canada’s second-smallest province, Nova Scotia — which incidentally means New Scotland.
Fear not: The Borders region is not only relatively undiscovered by comparison, it’s ruggedly beautiful too. Don’t be fooled by the word lowlands.
Discover That the Lowlands Are Far From Flat
People jump to the conclusion that everywhere Caledonian but the Highlands is Saskatchewan with cooler accents. They’d be wrong.
Ask any gap-yearing backpacker who’s waddled from show to show during the Edinburgh Festival. Every step in that town is either rising sharply up or dropping ankle-shatteringly down. Maybe these lowland hills don’t reach the Grampians’ heights but they’re every bit as impressive and dramatic as anything you’ll climb in, say, Montreal, Collingwood or St John’s.
Take the locale of Peebles. Rather than trading on tartans that were never part of its heritage, it’s lately developed itself into a world-destination for mountain bikers with heart-stopping trails. (You aren’t getting cyclists excited without you got some serious pitch!) Peebles is also a pretty place for lunch with its green Highlandesque views.
And plenty of bloody history. Just stop to consider the name Borders: A millennium ago, this hard-to-hike region formed a natural defensive wall against Scotland’s southern rivals. Instead of flat vs spiky, think of the difference between southern Scotland’s topography and the dramatic north’s as you’d compare the views from suburban Victoria to Vancouver’s: it’s a matter of degree but both are gobsmacking and selfie-worthy.
They’re Just Easier To Get To
After my first ever trip to the Highlands, a Scottish auntie once asked me, a flat Torontonian, if I liked hiking in my own country’s Rockies.
“I’ve been a couple of times. But the Rockies are 2,000 miles west.”
“Oh, aye!” she smiled and nodded with obvious disbelief, probably thinking this daft laddie’s fuil o’ shite. She had trouble picturing how big Canada was. Likewise, we Canadians have trouble understanding how compact Scotland is. Getting into the Highlands from Edinburgh or Glasgow takes not even two hours on a busy day.
But from there, things get congested fast and hard. Proximity does not equal accessibility.
Narrow roads narrow further and the number of multi-lane highways drops to almost nil. Meaning? Don’t be surprised if your best options for driving on busy July days only offer an occasional passing lane on single-file carriageways.
Yes, it’s called a carriageway, not highway: Such a pleasant word for such a terrifying first-time experience.
Just south of the aforementioned Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor, the Borders offer some of Scotland’s most dramatic and empty hillscapes (versus the congested hellscapes that Skye and Glencoe transmogrify into from June 1 to Labour Day). And some of its best dual carriageways: many Edinburgh workers commute from places near Peebles, like Melrose whose ancient abbey astounds. But we started today with Skye so let’s complete it now.
Rather than the harrowing 5-hour drive to the Skye bridge — which some argue made it too accessible — the Isle of Arran offers a simple commute from Glasgow by suburban train and quick ferry ride. Yet, perhaps because no one ever sang sad songs about it being cleared for sheep, it’s less crammed with the see-Scotland-before-you-die types congesting Skye.
Arran markets itself as Scotland in miniature. It’s got it all the Scottishness you go north for, nearby. For example, hoping for a medieval selfie to post on the ‘gram? Brodick Castle’s just over a four-kilometre walk from the ferry docks. Get it done before even checking in to your hotel.
Fancy a braw Highland hike? Goat Fell isn’t quite a Munro you can bag but, stretching 847 metres from the sea you hike up it from, it provides a challenging Corbett.
Searching for a unique single-malt experience or just want to show off how much money you you make? The Lochranza distillery refuses to sell more than one bottle of its impoverishing Arran 25-year old to any single customer. If you have more brains than money, you can choose instead to buy a lovely smoky whisky from its enchantingly named sister distillery, Lagg, in volume.
But the best recommendation for Arran? You’ll meet loads of actual Scots visiting it for a local getaway. (God knows you won’t during the Edinburgh Festival.) Weird fact: Last time I was on Arran in 2022, Scottish-born Alan Frew, of those ‘80s Cancon darlings Glass Tiger, was back in the mitherland [sic] and gigging at our hotel. Why bother with fake news when this stuff happens all the time?
Like Your Bloodthirsty Scottish History? There’s Plenty Down South
While technically just over the border in England, the Battle of Flodden not only rhymes with Culloden but is just as nationally significant to Scotland. It lost (war is hell, kids) and its King James IV went down — way down — in history as the last British monarch to die in battle. (At least as of this story’s publishing. Harry’s get surlier all the time.)
And despite these hilariously improbable names, the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh during the War of Rough Wooing bloodthirstily resulted in thousands of casualties, mostly on Scotland’s side. (See above re war equalling hell.) Mind, this conflict happened near the town of Musselburgh, practically a suburb of Edinburgh these days. Drive a half hour south and you’re in the heart of the Borders.
Visit Selkirk, a lovely sleepy and hilly town with an impressively bloody past. For instance, William Wallace, that blue-faced Scot with the distinctly Australian lilt, was declared Guardian of Scotland here over 800 years ago. And during the War of the Three Kingdoms, the Covenanters (stubbornly Presbyterian Scots) fought the Royalists (their name says it all) and won. It caused significant casualties but is the war still hell when it’s being fought over religion?
Lastly, speaking of Selkirk and history, remember Sir Walter Scott, the very guy who pretty much kicked off the whole touristy romance of the Highlands schtick? He was born in Edinburgh but in adulthood moved and wrote some of his greatest successes from here! Don’t his magnificent pile, Abbotsford.
So, let’s summarize. These southern alternatives are easier to get to than the Highlands, less crowded, and just as rich in history. What’s not to love? Except maybe that the Southerners wore pants.