West vs East - Where should you go on your tour of Scotland?

14th July 2020

Having grown up in Glasgow in the west and moved east to Edinburgh to study, I have always been aware there is a touch of rivalry between the two cities. As I got older, I realised this extended further north. Those from the east of Scotland champion their stunning golf courses, perfect beaches and quiet fishing villages. Those from the west boast about glorious Loch Lomond; the remote and beautiful north west coast and majestic Glencoe.

I have friends I regularly travel and hike with in Scotland, half of us hail from the west, the other half from the east. We have had a few discussions about which side is best. I am very proud of my Glaswegian roots, but I fell in love with Edinburgh at the beginning of my adult life meaning I normally sit on the fence… so to help those of you planning your vacation to Scotland, let’s settle this once and for all shall we?

Glasgow University
Glasgow University - Johnny Briggs on Unsplash

The cities

Edinburgh is nothing short of enchanting. A French friend came to study on my course and, on arriving in  the city centre, said “I feel like I’m in Harry Potter land!”. She was blown away by the striking architecture and cobbled streets rambling uphill towards the Royal Mile. And of course, Edinburgh Castle sits right in the middle of the city, towering over Princes Street Gardens. The gardens are a great spot for a picnic in the summer and the location of Edinburgh’s famous New Year’s Eve street party, or Hogmanay as we call it here. Edinburgh is full of medieval and gothic architecture and most of the buildings in the centre are “listed”, meaning they cannot be demolished or changed significantly. This has allowed the city to keep its magical, ancient charm even to this day.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle - Jorg Angeli on Unsplash

Although other cities in the east are less often included in a tour of Scotland, Best Scottish Tours visit both Stirling, the home of another great and ancient castle, and Inverness, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands sitting at the head of the famous Loch Ness.

Glasgow has a completely different vibe to Edinburgh. In many ways more modern, it does, however, have some fantastic history and great architecture. The University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 (more than 100 years before the University of Edinburgh!) making it the fourth oldest in the English-speaking world. The original buildings are long gone but the buildings at the heart of the university, built in the 19th century, are in splendid gothic revival style. Growing up I always loved to wander round the cloisters and quadrangles. Glasgow may not rival Edinburgh in aesthetic terms but it is a cultural city; famous for its music venues, theatres and nightlife. It is also known for being a friendly and welcoming place, expect a smile from every stranger who catches your eye!

Glasgow University Cloisters
The Cloisters, Glasgow University - Phil Reid on Unsplash

The coastline

You will find beautiful beaches all along the east coast, with a chance of spotting dolphins swimming in the Moray Firth. Some of our tours visit the East Neuk of Fife – ("Neuk" is the Scots word for nook or corner). Here you will find the world-famous town of St Andrews. It is home to the Royal and Ancient Golf Clubs and Scotland’s oldest University, where Prince William first wooed Kate; his wife to be and future Queen. When you see how picturesque St Andrews is I am sure you will be swept away by the romance of it all too!

One of my favourite beaches is St Andrews West Sands Beach, as seen in the classic film Chariots of Fire. If you visit why not bring your gym kit and recreate the famous running scene? Don’t worry… you don’t have to run along the whole 2 miles of beach! Our tours also take you to the quaint fishing villages of Crail and Anstruther. Anstruther is famed for having the best fish and chip restaurant in Scotland, and I think that alone gives a point to the East (we are serious about our fish and chips over here!). So if you get a chance, tuck into a “fish supper” from Anstruther Fish Bar, followed by an ice cream while you sit at the harbour watching the waves lap around the pier.

St Andrews beach
St Andrews beach - Kirsten Drew on Unsplash

The beaches and fishing villages continue north to Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Banff. On a trip there last year I stayed next to the golden sands of Cruden Bay. I visited the remote and spooky Slains Castle. Set right on the edge of cliff above a choppy sea with little else around for miles, it is not hard to see why it inspired Bram Stoker to write the tales of Count Dracula.

On the west coast the seaside town of Oban is the gateway to the islands with a busy harbour and excellent fish restaurants. However, my favourite little town has to be Inveraray resting on the banks of the glistening and calm Loch Fyne. Today Loch Fyne is famous for its oysters, but it is also steeped in clan history. The town was a stronghold of Clan Campbell in the 18th century, watched over by the Duke of Argyll. The current Duke of Argyll, a direct descendent, still resides in the fairytale Inveraray Castle with his wife and three children. You can take a look at the Campbell family tree on the Inveraray Castle website.

Inverary Castle, Vacation in Scotland
Inverary Castle - Hex Patrick

I could not write a blog about west vs east of Scotland, without mentioning Loch Lomond. It is so special to Scottish people, that we sing "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond” at the end of almost every wedding, ceilidh or party. It always brings tears to the eyes of at least a few of the guests (although our fine Scottish whisky might have something to do with that). Loch Lomond & the Trossachs was Scotland’s first National Park, full of lochs, mountains, glens and rivers. You could easily spend a week discovering all the beautiful sights dotted along the banks of our most treasured Loch (don’t tell Nessie I said that!).

Loch Lomond at sunset
Loch Lomond at sunset - Katie Mullen

Right in the north west corner of Scotland you will find yourself in the remote counties of Sutherland and Wester Ross. It is thought  that Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin may have been inspired to name the continent “Westeros” following a visit to the north west of Scotland. In contrast to dolphin spotting on the east coast, in this part of Scotland you might be lucky enough to spot a killer whale or basking shark.

From Sutherland you can see across to a protected nature reserve, the tiny Handa Island; Here you will find a collection of cliffs and stacks, a beautiful beach and a number of rare birds including puffins. If you vacation with Best Scottish Tours in this area, your itinerary will include visits to the ancient Pictish Farr Stone and to Strathnaver Museum, where you will learn about another old Scottish family, Clan Mackay and be told of the of the tragic story of the Highland Clearances.

Language and Dialect

There is one thing I can almost guarantee will happen when you visit Scotland. At some point you will not have a clue what  is being said you! Yes, we all speak English… but our accents can be pretty hard to decipher. We do have our own language called Gaelic. This is spoken mostly by people living in the Western Highlands and Islands. For a while the language was dying out, but the Scottish Government has ensured that Gaelic culture, music and language are resourced. Even in the cities, Gaelic schools are hugely popular.

In the north east you are more likely to hear quirky English dialects. Some argue these are languages in their own right and I certainly struggle to understand them! In Aberdeenshire, you may come across people speaking Doric. In the Shetland Islands and Orkney you may hear people speaking Insular, a dialect with Nordic influences due to the closeness to Scandinavia.

The Mountains

In the West we have the mountains of Glencoe, Torridon and Ullapool. In the east lie the Cairngorms and the Perthshire mountains. Having climbed mountains all over Scotland, I really struggle to choose my favourites. If you are a really keen hiker then, bagging a munro (mountains over 3,000 feet) is a brilliant addition to your holiday in Scotland. The mountains in Scotland are not particularly high but should not be underestimated. The Cairngorms are characterised by wide snow-covered plateaus, with deep gullies where experienced (or slightly mad!) skiers and rock climbers can put their skills to the test. These mountains are generally not too steep, but you often have to walk for a long way to reach your destination. Some munros around Loch Lomond can be summited in a couple of hours, whereas I once spent hours walking through the lush and captivating Glen Tilt in Perthshire, only to reach the bottom of Carn a’ Chlamain, still a few thousand feet below the summit. My feet were in ruins at the end of that day, but I have never felt more far away from the rest of the world. A wonderful escape from the everyday.

Glen Tilt, Perthshire
Glen Tilt Valley with Carn a’ Chlamain in the distance - Katie Mullen

In contrast, the mountains of Glencoe rise sharply up from the side of the road. There are jagged narrow ridges and waterfalls tumbling from the side of the cliffs and pounding into the pools below. Go further north to Torridon and Ullapool, you will find more of these steep mountains. But you do not have to climb the mountains to appreciate them. A drive along the road through Glencoe is a great way to see the famous peaks. There are plenty of places to pull in at side of the road to spend some time in awe of the mountains… and of course get that special photograph to make your friends at home jealous!

Stac Pollaidh, Torridon, Scottish Highlands
Stac Pollaidh, Torridon - K B on Unsplash

So… west or east?

We have covered so much, and I have not even mentioned our western and eastern islands. I guess that will have to wait for another blog! However, I am afraid I have failed in my task. I still cannot decide which side of bonnie Scotland I love the most. Both have beautiful coastlines, castles full of Scottish history, great food and towering mountains. But they each have a different charm; the west is rugged and dramatic, often with the moody skies to match. The east is quieter and prettier with more chance of seeing the sun shine. So I guess my advice is... see both! A number of our all inclusive vacation packages take you to visit both sides of Scotland, meaning you get a real taste of west and east.

Scotland misses you; we can't wait to welcome you back.

Calton Hill, Edinburgh
Calton Hill, Edinburgh - Julia Solonina Unsplash

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