St Andrew's Day: 10 reasons why Scotland is the greatest country in the world

On St Andrew’s Day, local writer Mike MacEacheran reflects on why his homeland can’t be beat

Mike MacEacheran
Friday 30 November 2018 15:52 GMT
Stag in Scottish Highlands
Stag in Scottish Highlands (iStock)

I’m from Glasgow and have travelled all over Scotland, writing guidebooks and reporting on stories from Ayrshire to Yell in Shetland. I currently live in Edinburgh, but as long as I’m where soft drinks come in a psychedelic orange colour (Irn Bru) and spirits are steeped in peat, smoke and soft water, I feel at home.

On St Andrew’s Day, here are 10 reasons why my home country is hard to beat for a visit.

We’re not scared of snorkelling in ice-cold water

The northwest Highlands is a wild place to get into a wetsuit. You won’t see any board shorts, bikinis or beach shacks. There are no tropical fish and little in the way of credible coral reef. But the crystal-clear waters of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area make a snorkel trip worth braving the cold for. Get lucky and you’ll spy velvet crab, urchins and beady-eyed wrasse playing in the shallows, or even sunburst flame shells and juvenile fish skittering through seagrasses. The rewards come thick and fast. Not so daft now, right?

It’s home to the world’s best road trip… and it’s not the North Coast 500

Forget the North Coast 500: drive through the rugged Isle of Lewis instead
Forget the North Coast 500: drive through the rugged Isle of Lewis instead (iStock)

For those not familiar with their Hebridean geography, Vatersay is little more than a smudge at the heel of the Western Isles, an island so small it hardly registers as a pinprick on a map. Yet it’s the culmination for the remotest road trip in the UK, a bracing north-to-south drive from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to Castlebay on Barra, some 185 miles south. To add to the adventure, the route checks off 10 islands, six causeways and two ferry crossings. It’s so ridiculously beautiful, it’s as if the islanders have tried to throw up as many obstacles as possible to keep you away.

You can see a city through the eyes of a wizard

JK Rowling used the Scottish capital’s spellbinding backdrop of magician hat spires and cloaked hills as a blueprint for the Harry Potter saga. You can spot Edinburgh’s influence on her bestsellers in the medieval wynds funnelling down from the High Street; snoop around George Heriot’s School to see Hogwarts born to life; or scare yourself silly on a stroll around spooky Greyfriars Kirkyard. Tip: look for the headstones with names such as McGonagall and Thomas Riddell to see where the proud Edinburgh resident got her inspiration from.

It’s home to the world’s greatest marathon

The Craigellachie and Dewars Distillery in Speyside
The Craigellachie and Dewars Distillery in Speyside (iStock)

Anyone serious about whisky already knows the pine-clad glens of Strathspey. It’s the territory of the single malt distillery, where you’ll find world-beating whiskies like Glenfarclas, Balvenie and Glenfiddich. Past the deerstalker trails, you’ll also stumble on smaller pot still outfits like Tamdhu and Aberlour.

But for the ultimate whisky-tasting micro-adventure there’s The Dramathon, the world’s first single malt race, which combines detours to several of Speyside’s most stunning distilleries across a 26-mile course. It’s not just the autumnal forests or sherry cask smells that’ll seduce you, but the promise of a beautifully structured, well-paced race with a great finish. Just like a Speyside malt itself.

It’s a land full of heroes

Yes, there’s William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (who’s recently grabbed the limelight thanks to Netflix’s Outlaw King), but we’ve also got Rob Roy MacGregor to thank for songs, stories and our disproportionate sense of patriotism. The outlaw, warrior and cattleman spent his life in the Trossachs and remains one of Scotland’s most-loved folk heroes. See where he was imprisoned on Factor’s Island on Loch Katrine; follow in his footsteps on part of the Rob Roy Way overland hike; or visit his grave at Balquhidder. It’s a story that comes alive as though it was yesterday.

Hogmanay is the greatest party on Earth

Forget New Year parties the world over: Scotland takes the whole affair much more seriously with Hogmanay. Traditionally, the event harks back to the celebration of the winter solstice on the Gregorian calendar among the Norse Vikings, before it disappeared during the Protestant Reformation that swept Britain. Thankfully, the celebration re-emerged towards the end of the 17th century, leading to the wild and fiery party that Edinburgh has become renowned for today. Seriously, why have one night of partying when you can have a whole week instead?

There’s a festival of fire

The annual Up Helly Aa fire festival
The annual Up Helly Aa fire festival (iStock)

Shetland’s Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa, the annual Viking fire festival in Lerwick, marks the passing of the darkest days of midwinter. But it is so much more than that. Considered an absurd cross between Game of Thrones and The X Factor, it’s celebrated over 24 hours with alcohol, paraffin and hundreds of pairs of fake boobs. Celtic drag queens, Popes, Nazis and Donald Trumps armed with large flaming torches aren’t uncommon. You’ll see fancy dress mice staggering around the harbour the next morning. But the most glaring oddity is that it happens at all. Anywhere else, this kind of drunken revelry and pyromania would get you arrested.

Rosslyn Chapel will make you believe in angels

Because of its appearance in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Rosslyn Chapel remains a sanctuary both for the faithful and the pop culture obsessive. While the author describes the church located to the south of Edinburgh as the most mysterious and magical chapel on earth, rumours of a connection with the Knights Templar are little more than fantasy. Still, the 200-odd stone carvings are awe-inspiring – and enough to make anyone believe in a greater power.

The Borders has the UK’s craziest race

The Innerleithen woodlands have long been a playground for bikers, hikers and walkers. But this Narnia-like forest of trails and paths is hardly savoured by those who endure the Mighty Deerstalker, the UK’s toughest off-road run. God, no. The gruelling 10K takes place in midwinter, in eerie silence, and in pitch darkness. At night, barely able to see one metre in front of you, it becomes a scene from a zombie thriller with rabid, snotty competitors caked in mud and sporting apocalyptic grins. Along the way, your head torch will illuminate fiendish obstacles like thigh-deep water hazards, mud-thick trenches and genital-freezing rivers. And, this being Scotland, it finishes with an almighty knees-up in a tent. Only then, does an even wilder sport take over: crowdsurfing to local bands while loaded up on local ale.

Hunting for fairies is a sport

Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye
Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye (iStock)

The half-day hike to the Fairy Pools, a cascade of glacier-clear Jacuzzis on the Isle of Skye, is beautiful, but also annoyingly popular. It’s cosseted beneath the Black Cuillin Ridge, Scotland’s most famous mountain belt, and composed of a series of natural baths – a Xanadu for wild swimmers. It’s a great excuse to see the Highlands at their most ethereal, whether you see pixies in the air or not.

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