Not just bagpipes and Irn Bru – why we love Scotland and wish we were Scottish

We can’t stand the drone of bagpipes and, frankly, Irn Bru tastes like sweetened spew. But we do love Scotland. After WWOOFing there for a couple of months, we fell head over heels for Britain’s most Scottish country. It turns out that the rest of the world has too, since a recent Rough Guide poll placed it at the top of a list of the world’s most beautiful countries.

We might be a bit late to the party, but we’re going to throw back a couple of glasses of Scotch and get stuck in with our very own list of why this cold, drizzly land, long ago fought over by the Picts, the Celts, the Romans, and sometimes just angry Scottish clans, has stolen our hearts.

Scotland Wants to be Explored – We grew up in England, where everyone keeps very quiet about how wonderful Scotland is. One fact that no one ever talks about is a little piece of Scottish legislation known as the right to roam. In England, if you want to explore the countryside on foot, you need to stick to the public footpaths and bridleways. Failure to do so will result in an aggressive farmer hurling abuse at you and ruining your day. To top this off, most local authorities appear to neglect the footpaths, so unless you have an OS map, a compass and mad map reading skills, it’s pretty much impossible to work out where they are.

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Nick on a typically well maintained footpath in Shropshire

In Scotland, however, since the 2003 Land Reform Act, citizens and visitors alike have had the right to roam the countryside enshrined in law. Not only does this mean that you can explore the wilds of Scotland with a clear conscience, it also obliges land owners to positively enable passage through their land. As a hiker in Scotland, you can expect to find well maintained stiles, easy to climb fences and unlocked gates. If you see a beautiful river and want a closer look, just stroll on down to it. Fancy wandering through an enchanted looking woodland? Go ahead and wander.

We’ve heard that a lot of international visitors simply don’t believe that this right to roam exists. This is understandable given that many countries have strict property laws and disproportionate measures in place to stop trespassing, such as the possibility of being shot at. But it’s true, and all the details can be found on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website.

All that roaming can be tiring, and the thought of finding nowhere to sleep out in the wilderness can be a daunting prospect. Not in Scotland though, because you’re free to pitch your tent up wherever you please so long as you leave the land as you found it. If you’re lucky you might find a bothie, a basic mountain lodge, free and open to all for shelter. We’re told that most don’t have running water and you need to find your own fuel if it gets chilly, but it’s comforting to know that the option is out there should you need it. We’ve found that Scottish folk seem far more eager to explore the wild and have a deep understanding of their land. Is it any surprise when it’s so accessible?

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Tunskeen bothy. Photo credit to Geoff Allan @bothiesonabike.com

Lochs, Glens and Bens – We spent a month WWOOFing at Tombreck, helping out on a farm in this friendly community, tucked away between Killin and Aberfeldy in Perthshire, at the foot of Ben Lawers as it sweeps down to Loch Tay. Each morning, as we ate our breakfast of pinhead oat porridge and homemade sourdough toast, we felt the great Ben looming over us, daring us to climb its craggy peak. Most often the mountain would be shrouded in mist, keeping us novice mountaineers at bay, working out in the wet fields instead. Finally a cloudless day arrived, our hosts forbade us to work and sent us up the mountain with a packed lunch and a pair of binoculars.

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The climb was tough, but thankfully National Trust for Scotland keep a well maintained ‘tourist trail’ for those of us who don’t have goat’s legs. As an aside – National Trust  for Scotland do a fine job of managing the land, and we’re always happy to see the iconic NTS road signs pointing out the local landmarks. Anyway, we scrambled up the mountain, taking a good 2 hours to reach the cairn. Standing atop the munro, The Highlands stretched out before us, we were astounded by the wild beauty. Mountains merged with more mountains, each with their own distinct character. Beneath us, roughly to the North, Glen Lyon, known as Scotland’s bonniest glen, lay like an ornate entrance hall to a giant’s palace. To the South, Loch Tay glistened in the sun, its deep waters hiding mysteries never to be solved. We were enrapt, enthralled by the majesty of the mountains. We would have stayed to look upon those views forever, but it was extraordinarily windy to the point that it was unbearable. So we headed back down, windswept and wowed by the sights we’d seen.

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Also worth a mention is Glen Coe, probably the most famous glen. It’s out to the West of Scotland, not quite as far as Fort William and Ben Nevis. The road cuts through the bottom of the valley and makes for a stunning drive. There’s also plenty of easy to reach (and free) parking spots along the route so you can stop off to admire the views and exercise your right to roam wherever you wish.

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Glasgow and Edinburgh: The UK’s Best Cities – It’s not all just wild mountains and lonely lochs in Scotland. It also boasts two of the the UK’s finest cities. Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, comes alive in August for the infamous Fringe, a month long romp of comedy, drama and general lunacy. There’s also an International Festival that takes place at the same time, but sadly for the organisers, this doesn’t seem to have caught on quite as well. We saw 6-7 shows each day for a whole week. That’s a lot of (mostly free) comedy. Out of all that, our 2017 Fringe highlights included Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, a show with no jokes but plenty of audience interaction; Betty Grumble’s in your face feminist, naked cabaret with free lady parts print and Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable, a bonkers sketch show written by two comedy geniuses, thankfully still going strong since we first saw them back in 2012. We saw some dreadful stuff too, but that’s the price you pay for free comedy.

The joy of the Fringe comes not just from the magic of live performance and the sense of community that comes from being part of a challenged, chuckling audience, but from dashing from show to show around the hilly, cobbled streets of old Edinburgh. We watched people make jokes in damp caves, in dark nightclubs at midday and sometimes just in a quiet corner of a pub. By the end of the festival, we knew those streets like the back of our hand.

There is, as most Scottish people like to say, much more to Edinburgh than the Fringe. We’ve been fortunate to see the city post-festival, and with its quiet charm, lamplit streets and laid back nightlife, we have to agree. Even so, for us it is a festival city and all the better for it.

Scotland’s largest city (population 600,000 or a whopping 2,000,000 if you include the suburbs) and the UK’s third largest, is Glasgow. Renowned in England for bad food and bad people, us Southerners have got it all wrong. What we found is a city full of some of the friendliest people in the world. And if there’s anything we’ve learned on our travels, it’s that where there’s community, there’s always good food and drink to be had. Glasgow has a cosmopolitan selection of eateries, organic grocers and watering holes selling a whole lot more than the city’s very own ubiquitous Tennents lager. However, with our budget in mind, we had a coffee in the thriving Botanic Gardens and a picnic of sandwiches and crisps under the trees in the vibrant Kelvingrove Park.

The city also hosts a fine selection of galleries and museums, most of which are free to enter. Our highlight was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, worthy of a visit for the building’s architecture alone. Beyond that, there were superbly laid out exhibitions focusing on Scottish art movements, as well as collections of art from around the world. The overall tone of the curation, particularly in the exhibition about the emotions and feelings conjured by art, was playful yet sincere, much like Glasgow itself.

Highland Games – No summer trip to Scotland would be complete without attending one of the many Highland Games. Held in towns and villages across Scotland, these festivals are a unique celebration of strength, folklore and food. We visited the Killin International Highland Games, where the action takes place in the wake of several looming mountains, accompanied by the constant hum of bagpipes, often with 4 or 5 pipers piping different tunes, just close enough to each other so that they can all be heard at once. With competitors from far flung lands like Iceland and Hungary squaring up to the Scots, this might as well have been the World’s Strongest Man competition. Hammers were thrown, shots were putted and cabers were tossed, interspersed with folk music dance offs and a ridiculously tough race up and down a hill.

Standing in the drizzle, picking at a delicious Arbroath Smokie (haddock smoked in a big barrel with hessian sacks), watching a bearded highlander tossing a caber, it occurred to us that it couldn’t get much more Scottish than this. But then drizzle turned to rain, the rain became a storm and we bumped into a friendly neighbour who offered us a lift home. Yes, that’s about as Scottish as it gets.

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Koh Phi Phi – Don’t Go There

Ugh. Where to begin with Koh Phi Phi? Maybe 20 years ago: a curious man from Finland arrives on Phi Phi Don with his friend, finding just one restaurant that doubles up as a bar. He stays in a tree house, high up in a huge tree, with ants making trails across his room and only a candle for light after sunset. During the day, he swims naked on the beach because there is absolutely no one around to be offended by the sight of his bare flesh.

Our new year’s eve arrival at this National Park site was somewhat different. We hopped off a long-tail from one of the most calm, peaceful and beautiful Thai islands (which will not be named in relation to Phi Phi for safety reasons) and joined a crowd of a thousand tourists, all desperate to consume, to flog this dead community some more, to take selfies with their buckets of SangSom and their new ill judged tattoos.

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Once you become part of this sweaty, braying mob, there is little you can do to escape it. The restaurants, bars and shops are so crammed in that finding a quiet spot is a futile quest. Even hiding out in our shabby, bed bug infested bungalow offered no relief because we could still hear the tourist torrent rushing past.

One option is to head to the beach, but this is not so easy on this tiny island. Ton Sai beach is lined with longtails and serves mostly as a ferry port, so swimming from its golden sands is pretty perilous. On the other side of the thin strip of human habitation, there’s Lo Dallam beach. Aside from the name sounding like one of those floodlit sports shops from the 90’s, this beach serves as the main party scene and is therefore awful. During the day you’ll find some peace here, but the sand is full of glass from the night before, making swimming and a stroll on the sand too dangerous. By early evening, the various bars pumping out house music, and only house music because apparently there are no other genres of music suitable for parties, make this an awful place to watch the light fade over the beautiful limestone cliffs that frame the island. By night, the party goers eschew the pay-to-pee toilets and use the sea instead, so think twice before taking a midnight amble along the shore.

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We took a lengthy walk over to long beach and found this to be a reasonably nice spot to spend the afternoon. It’s still over crowded but this is a different crowd. Think well groomed Scandinavian families on holiday instead of lads in vests from Manchester on the pull, and you get the idea. Even so, there are far too many long-tails lining the shore and not enough shady spots. By Thai standards, it is not a great beach.

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We recommend hiking up to the various viewpoints from Long Beach, rather than from Ton Sai. You’ll avoid walking up hundreds of steps, teeming with hungover tourists, taking a free gentle hike up to the island’s ridge instead. On this mostly solitary amble, you’ll pass surprisingly friendly locals living in Tsunami Village, hastily erected after the 2004 disaster that struck the island, and become immersed in the lush rainforest that covers the highland. The actual viewpoints themselves are disappointing, offering views of an island that has been utterly destroyed by tourism, from spots that are themselves packed with lager swilling, selfie snapping tourists, but the hike was a high point for us.

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From the viewpoints, it’s obvious that Phi Phi has grown far too fast for its own good. Although much of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the tsunami, the money that flooded in its wake has evidently been used to build massive new hotels and resorts, alongside row upon row of bars, restaurants and tourist tat shops, instead of proper sewage facilities and safely habitable spaces. Whilst the central garden, irrigated purely by sewage runoff, is a step in the direction of sustainability, it stinks and we saw no one, apart from ourselves, wandering through it. More must be done to solve the sanitation crisis that everyone is just turning their noses from.

The result of all of this is an artificial town that smells worse than anywhere we’ve visited, and a constant risk of death by fire or cholera. If one of the shops were to catch fire, this would quickly spread throughout the whole town. We have no idea how the hordes of visitors, most of them drunk, would find their way to safety in the panic of the crowd. You’re probably not meant to think about this and just drink more cheap rum, but the reality of the situation is fairly alarming.

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It may be that the whole point of Phi Phi is to put yourself in danger and even in pain before you leave. We’re not just talking about hitting the jaeger bombs and battling a hangover later. Nope, we’re referring to Reggae Bar, a pub that boasts a full size muay Thai ring at its centre so that drunk tourists (mostly Brits, of course) can fight each other for a free bucket of booze. Fighting without any proper training is stupid and dangerous, but doing it drunk is really stupid and really dangerous. We saw 4 fights in the bleak half hour that we were in the bar, and while the bloodthirsty audience had a great time, we left feeling depressed, especially as they didn’t even play any reggae there.

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Sadly, the constant throb of greedy tourists has drained the island’s soul, creating an atmosphere of contempt from shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant staff. The massively inflated prices of everything, from food to accommodation, also suggest that the visitors are only tolerated because of their economic benefit. We felt unwelcome everywhere we went in town, and it’s easy to understand why when really we’re not any different from any one else visiting the island.

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Spending new year’s eve on Phi Phi was not one of our better ideas, in fact it may have be our worst decision on this trip. It made us question the reasons that we chose to travel in the first place, and whether this is such an honourable thing to be doing when the environmental consequences can be so obscene. These are questions we still haven’t answered, but we’re taking a much more measured approach to our journeying from now on. If it wasn’t for our excellent diving trip with Blue View Divers to Phi Phi Lae on our third day, we’d have nothing good to say about the whole trip. But swimming through an underwater cavern teeming with fish just about made up for the horrors we’d witnessed on the shore. When we inevitably return to Thailand, just like our friend from Finland, we will certainly not be heading back to Koh Phi Phi.