As I’ll repeat again and again on this site, with a few particularly offensive exceptions, there is no wrong way to visit Scotland. But there are options that will fit your particular style and priorities better or worse. One big one, maybe the biggest one when planning a trip to Scotland or frankly any other country bigger than the Vatican is this: Do you want to live on the road, or have a home base and venture out on day trips?
I’ve done both and I would struggle to pick one that I love more. The feeling and experience is so completely different, even if you’re visiting many of the same places. Here are a few questions that might help you make this crucial decision.
In my day-to-day life at home, I am the king of all checklisters. Work, exercise, reading, writing – if there’s something I want to get done in a day, I put it on a list that I can cross or check off when I’m done. It’s such a disease that in many cases, the checking off of the thing is more satisfying to me than the accomplishment itself. But when I go on the road or step onto a plane, that instinct for some reason largely dissolves. It probably comes from my childhood, when vacation was a rare and sacred thing. To travel was a luxury and a gift, something so treasured that to quantify and checklist it was to take away some of its magic.
If you have a list of twenty things that you absolutely have to see while you’re in Scotland, and those things are in opposite corners of the country, you probably won’t be able to stay at one home base and venture out for the day. You’re probably going to want to put some serious mileage on that rental car or rail pass.
This is a tough one for many travelers to admit, but I think it affects more than a few of us. Does packing everything up every morning, never seeing the same bathroom two nights in a row, make you feel free or frantic? If traveling to a foreign country raises your stress level, you might want to not overtax that part of your brain by also staying constantly on the road. Day tripping out from a home base might be the right call. But if that constant motion is all part of the travel experience for you, then life on the road might be the right call.
When many of us plan a big trip, it’s about seeing places and things. But in Scotland, and really anywhere, you’re doing yourself a real disservice if you don’t also spend a good part of your trip getting to know the people. Scotland is filled with natural beauty, and the castles are none too shabby, but without the Scots themselves, the people and their culture, it would not be the place or the destination it is today.
So, if you really sit and think about it, where do people land on your list of travel priorities? If you’d prefer to be alone (or alone together, if you’re traveling with partners), Scotland can certainly accommodate that, with vast wild country that belies its fairly small size. If you want to be surrounded by people, the cities can do that too, but this decision isn’t just about density, the choice between crowds and emptiness. The question is, how important is it to get to know someone on your trip? I’ll give an example, because I realize I’m wandering a bit in this post.
My first time to Scotland, my priority was to visit Inverness and Nairn, my ancestral homeland. I had never been to the country before, and I was torn between the impulse to see everything (an impossible dream if ever there was one) and my goal to get to know that one particular place. But what turned out to be most special about that trip wasn’t getting to see Loch Ness or watching my favorite Scottish football team play live, or even sleeping in my clan castle. The thing that will stick with me most from that trip will be the time I spent with the family I rented from while in Nairn. I was incredibly lucky to not only pick a great B&B, but to spend time with the owner outside of his house – drinking in a local pub, watching a terrible/amazing local metal cover band, and taking in a football game. That kind of experience is guaranteed to no traveler, but I only gave myself a chance to have it on that trip because I stayed put for a while in one place.
So, as always, it comes down to priorities. Is the breadth of your trip more important, or the depth of one experience? Will you take the risk of putting all your eggs in one basket (after all, that B&B owner could have been grumpier, and changed that trip immensely), or would you rather cast a wide net in search of that unexpected travel gem? It’s a completely personal decision, and an important one in planning your Scotland trip.