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Scotland is a safe and welcoming nation with a famously warm level of hospitality, yet no matter where you travel there are a few things that visitors may find useful to ensure their trip runs extra smoothly. Here are 13 such pointers that might come in handy.
This is a good place to start, but also something we all hope we never have to use. If you need to call the police, the ambulance service, the fire brigade, or the coastguard, the number is 999. However, if you are visiting from Europe and dial 112, this will automatically be transferred to the emergency services, too. If you have an emergency and need to contact mountain rescue, cave rescue, or the lifeboat service, you can also use the 999 number. If you need urgent, but non-emergency medical advice, you can call 111. Likewise, if you need to contact the police service but the matter is not urgent or an emergency, call 101. This is a sensible place to mention that if you are from Europe, don’t forget your European Health Insurance Card.
This service is predominantly staffed by volunteers and is deployed under the authorisation of the police force. Some people who visit the wilder places of Scotland do not realise how tough the mountains can be or how quickly conditions can change and find themselves needing rescue. It is recommended that if you are hiking you always take a small first aid kit and, crucially, leave word with someone as to your route and the time you should be back. Often bed and breakfasts or hotels will ask walkers for this information — and it has saved lives. If you are camping or moving on to a different location, let a friend or family member know your route and tell them when you have arrived. It is also worth remembering that there may not be mobile phone signal in all the areas you visit.
Scotland has a lot of water, from deep freshwater lochs through to rivers, burns (a burn is the Scottish word for stream), and many miles of coastline — mainland Scotland alone has over 6000 miles of coast to explore. This means sensible precautions need to be observed around water. For example, water levels in fast-flowing burns or rivers can rise rapidly after rain or snow-melt, and tides can turn just as quickly, leaving you stranded on rocks or cut off on a beach surrounded by cliffs. Most of these issues can be avoided by simply being aware of your surroundings and not taking risks. Likewise, if you are swimming or surfing, always check on local conditions, such as whether there are any rip-tides present, and do not take chances near rough seas.
Most of the bigger railway stations now feature automatic ticket barriers. However, due to the rural nature of many Scottish stations there may not be anywhere to buy a ticket — if this is the case the station will have a sign saying so, and you simply buy your ticket once on the train. It is worth pointing out that some small stations are little more than platforms in the middle of the wilderness. These are often request stops — if you are the adventurous type and are planning on leaving the train at such a stop, tell the train guard when they come to check your ticket. The guard then informs the driver that the train will need to stop. If the platform is especially low, or only one door of the train is to be opened at a shortened platform, the guard will announce this with plenty of time to prepare.
Do not underestimate this! One of the beautiful things about Scotland is that we can experience all four seasons in one day. This means we get ever-changing views, stunning light and remarkable photographic opportunities — but it also means you do not want to be caught without wet weather gear, an extra warm layer or two, hat, gloves and sensible footwear. What many people also forget is to bring a sun hat, sunglasses and sun cream — when the sun shines (more often than you may have been told!), it is often intense and in the north, summer stays in the sky much longer than you may be used to. There is often a light, refreshing summer breeze — but this can mean you do not feel yourself burning until too late.
Like the rest of the UK, people in Scotland drive on the left. However, there are also single-track roads in the more rural areas, with passing places for cars to cross. Pay attention to oncoming traffic and if you are closest to a passing place, wait there. And don’t forget to wave a thank you if someone stops for you. You should also not use a mobile phone while driving and pay attention to the speed limits, which are given in miles per hour, not kilometres.
The notes you are most likely to encounter are the £5 (pound Sterling), £10 and £20. There are also £50, but these are harder to use, especially in rural areas or, for example, on trains, where people may not have enough change. Coins come in 1p (pence), 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and £1 and £2. In Scotland, you will encounter different notes to those you may see in England, with each bank issuing their own designs, often featuring iconic Scottish scenes or people. The new £5 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland features Nan Shepherd, and also a tiny Scottish midge…
No discussion of travel tips would be complete without mentioning the unmentionable Scottish midge. In summer when the wind drops below 5mph, and the sun is hidden behind clouds, these tiny biting flies may appear as if by dark magic. Fortunately they do not enter buildings, but if you are caught outside unprepared they can be a real nuisance. Various repellents are available; some work for some people, others work for others. A local traditional herb, bog myrtle, is said to help ward the midge off or, if things are particularly bad, a head net may be needed. If you are camping, the smoke from a camp-fire will also deter them.
Many people come to Scotland in order to view the wildlife, from dolphins, sharks, whales and seals to deer, red squirrels, pine marten and even the rarest of them all — the Scottish wildcat. Generally, these wildlife encounters are special and perfectly safe, but it is worth noting that deer in particular can be unpredictable at times. This is especially true when they are near roads, as they may leap across in front of you if panicked. When the glens ring out with the sound of The Roaring, the red deer mating period in October, the stags can sometimes be aggressive and it is best to keep your distance. Similarly, numbers of wild boar in Scotland have been increasing since they were accidentally reintroduced. It is best to give these creatures a wide berth if spotted — but usually they will disappear long before you see them.
In some parts of Scotland, notably the western isles of Lewis and Harris, the observance of the Sabbath is still strictly adhered to. There are no Sunday papers on the island, as distributors do not work, and nearly all shops are closed. Hotels and bars are usually open, but the bars usually operate reduced hours. If you will be on one of these islands it is wise to plan ahead for Sundays.
Scotland has very liberal and accepting access laws, allowing the public to walk just about anywhere. This right extends to the right to wild camp, but not in all areas. It is best to check locally as to whether there are any bylaws that prevent camping, or the lighting of fires. In many places it can be dangerous to light fires at certain times of year, as the heather moorland can become tinder-dry. There can be areas that become off-limits to visitors from time to time, including when trees are being felled, or when hunting is taking place. Some areas, like the far northwest corner of Cape Wrath, are also used as military training ranges. Flags will be in place to warn of any exercises, and if you find any shells or ammunition, do not touch them.
In much of Scotland, especially the rural areas, walking past someone and not acknowledging their presence is considered rude. A short hello, or ‘how are you?’ will do, or a comment on the weather. Sometimes a local will strike up a conversation and you might glean some local knowledge before, as suddenly as the conversation began, he or she might say ‘Aye,’ nod, and walk off. Scots are generally reserved and quiet at first, but once they get to know you they open up. This is especially true when the whisky is flowing and the ceilidh music playing.
If you are visiting one of the bigger cities, such as Edinburgh or Glasgow, it is wise to pay attention to your surroundings, behaving as you would in any city. Incidents involving tourists and visitors are rare, with thefts and pickpocketing being the likeliest, especially during busy times such as the Edinburgh festivals. If you keep your wits about you then you should have no problems. In many parts of Scotland, especially the rural communities, it is rare for people to even lock their door. The Scottish people pride themselves on their famous hospitality and will often go out of their way to ensure visitors are well-treated.