Planning a Trip to Scotland, with Over-Tourism in mind

The summer season has passed and the relative calm of September has taken hold. An extra layer has appeared and the leaves are transitioning towards our most photogenic season. It also means it’s reflection time. Time to give the industry a health check and reflect on the big issues. I’ve been closely observing with interest the bubbling tension surrounding over-tourism here in recent months. I’d go so far as to say it’s currently the most divisive issue in the industry. That bad. Time, then, to get my hands dirty.

Debates have this summer been raging across the globe as some of the world’s most precious attractions are being, at best, diminished in impact by tourist hordes and, at worst, irreparably damaged. I was even on Al Jazeera last month contributing on the Scottish perspective on what is very much a worldwide issue. We are not, in Scotland, dealing with the uncontrollable demand for a Machu Picchu or a Venice. But what we do have are delicate and isolated rural communities and natural wonders that have faced an unprecedented strain in recent years.

Scotland is a fundamentally welcoming place. We take pride in that, it’s who we are. Most of us Scots will be blissfully unaware that over-tourism is even an issue, it’s not on the radar. But there are ever-growing groups at either end of a spectrum that are having increasingly heated discussions on and offline on the subject. I have spent a lot of time listening to both sides in the hope of finding constructive solutions that result in actual progress.

 

The Furore

At its worst, here’s what we’re dealing with in the Scottish space:

In one camp you have those that are hyper-aware of over-tourism, particularly those living in the most affected areas. They are furious at the inaction of well, everyone, for the state of some of the most over-run attractions and locations. Actual workable solutions from them seem to be thin on the ground but the overall sentiment seems to be to completely stop promoting Scotland so that they can continue to have it to themselves. I do receive emails along those lines. Their anger has grown into, more or less, an opposition to tourism.

But there is an equally unconstructive group at the other end. Travellers, tourists, holidaymakers whatever you want to call them who give not a half-hearted toss about over-tourism and can’t fathom why on earth anything (literally anything) should get in the way of them having a good time. Environmental considerations, social repercussions, impact on landscapes, wildlife……I’m on my holidays why should I care?

These are just the extremes, mind. But they make things difficult, and frustrating. This is not though, I’m afraid, a topic that can keep getting ignored, just to be re-visited with renewed outrage every July. There needs to be acceptance that tourism is one of the pillars of this economy and a mass employer, just as there needs to be awareness that everything we do as human beings impacts on others, and on the destinations that we love to enjoy. Quite bluntly, the rural places in Scotland we know and love may soon become unrecognisable. Local authorities and tourism bodies must commit their support, just as individuals such as myself must make a conscious effort to push sustainable initiatives through considered marketing practices wherever we can.

 

A Sustainable Travel Itinerary for Scotland

So, on with it. Here’s my crack at actually dealing with this in a balanced and constructive way. I’ve already identified (please read) some of the key things to consider when it comes to keeping tourism sustainable….how might that look when planning a trip to Scotland though? And how can it shape exactly how an alternative Scotland adventure might look?

The digital world has become flooded with unadventurous and lazy itinerary guides for my homeland. Lots of fluff, little substance. The usual suspects make repeat appearances and, although I’ve always tried very hard to distribute the love nationwide, I’ve even been guilty of fuelling this fire myself.

I had to down half a bottle of the good stuff just to find the courage to click ‘publish’ for this 10-day itinerary. It gives me the heebie jeebies knowing it’s out there with my name on it. It’s that kinda patter that has made me very much part of the problem. I’ll just have to live with it, and provide this counter-balance. I created it because it’s the kind of content that people are searching for and I have to balance demand with creative freedom in this line of work. I can’t constantly write freely about subjects close to my heart, but nor do I intend to become a marketing mercenary, beholden to instructions from social media and Mr Google.

Now that we’re in a relatively guilt-free window of travel and peak over-tourism won’t return until next summer, I provide the below. An alternative itinerary that focuses on areas that have, for whatever reason, never been permitted the same levels of hype as Skye, Loch Ness and the North Coast 500s. They have the ingredients, but have always lived in the shadows. Here is a chance to take advantage of their under-promoted status, while still ticking off some absolute powerhouses and doing your bit to spread the love nationwide. Let summer 2020 be their moment.

 

Planning Your Scotland Trip

Day 1

Glasgow

My home city should need no further hype from me. Culture, nightlife and architecture get the biggest thumbs up but it’s the people that set it apart. Find yourself a whisky bar like Oran Mor, The Pot Still or the Ubiquitous Chip and ease yourself warmly into what Scotland does best.

glasgow travel itinerary
Planning a Scotland trip – Glasgow Cathedral.

Glasgow’s international airport is a 15-20-minute drive from the city and the train stations of Queen Street and Glasgow Central are in the heart of the action. If you must (and I say this with tongue firmly in cheek) you can still easily visit the much busier Edinburgh as part of a day trip, on public transport of course. There are several trains per hour departing from Queen Street Station (avoid commuter travel times).

clyde walkway glasgow view

 

Day 2

The Cowal Peninsula

dumbarton castle rock drone
Dumbarton Rock and Castle.

Departing Glasgow on the road-well-travelled you will pass Loch Lomond (avoid Luss if you’re looking for solitude but consider somewhere like the jaw-dropping Dumbarton Rock en-route instead) and will soon enter Southern Argyll. Your objective is not, though, the Glen Coe/Fort William/Oban roads. No, you’re heading south into this adrift peninsula that is home to botanic gardens, sleepy villages, snaking lochs and deep silence. Seek out the eerie Argyll Mausoleum in Kilmun for the best atmosphere of all.

argyll cowal peninsula mausoleum
Argyll Mausoleum, Kilmun.

Catch the very short ferry from Colintraive to Rhubodach on Bute to end the day.

 

Day 3

The Isle of Bute

Our west coast islands are rightly on the itineraries of most visitors, with Skye the default option generally followed by Harris/Lewis, Mull and Arran. Hard to argue. But there are dozens of others that can deliver what these favourites are now struggling with in peak season, that sense of total remoteness. Raw solitude.

planning a trip to scotland islands

isle of bute beaches planning a trip to scotland

Which leads me to little Bute. A once-popular Victorian seaside resort it’s now very much in the tourism shadow of neighbouring Arran. Pristine sandy beaches and lonely inland wanders await and you’ll find island road rage at a minimum.

You can stay a second night on Bute but tomorrow covers big distances so best to catch an evening ferry back (Rothesay to Wemyss Bay) to the mainland.

 

Day 4

Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway

The south of Scotland is the first place folk think of when it comes to poor tourism distribution. Been that way since as long as I’ve been working in this space, and long before that. For some reason, nobody thinks south. I like to hope my projects and campaigns down below over the years have raised the odd eyebrow and triggered a nosey or two onto Google Maps, but I’m forever aware that more work is needed.

So, begin day 4 by heading south through Ayrshire and into peaceful D&G. Stop at magnificent Culzean Castle and Country Park if the weather is behaving (sinister Dunure Castle if it’s not) before heading to Galloway Forest Park. A 2-3 hour walk along the Glen Trool trail was made for nature seekers and is suited to almost all ability levels. Great spot for a picnic lunch too.

culzean castle planning a trip to scotland
Culzean Castle

Spend the rest of the afternoon working your way south then east. Cardoness Castle is an obvious stop, while a sunset stroll out to Threave Castle will continue the serenity vibe. There’s a great base at Laggan Outdoors (they have a gigantic zip line for the adventurous) with superb coastal views south.

glen trool galloway forest park
Glen Trool Walk.
cardoness castle dumfries and galloway
Cardoness Castle.
planning a trip to scotland
Threave Castle.

 

Day 5

Dumfries and Galloway and The Scottish Borders

Beat the crowds (for D&G that is) by getting to Caerlaverock Castle early doors, arguably the best castle we’ve got. Visually spectacular and with a ferocious history, it’s in my top three every time.

caerlaverock castle dumfries and galloway

caerlaverock drone
Caerlaverock Castle
grey mare's tail walk scotland
Grey Mare’s Tail

Heading north, another beauty for the outdoors-folk is Grey Mare’s Tail near Moffat, just at D&G’s ‘border’ with the Scottish Borders. You can grab lunch in Moffat before the ascent, although the waterfall is magnificent from the car park area too if you’re not inclined to hike.

End the day in or around Melrose and be sure to get to the Abbey before closing. Photography fans will enjoy the Leaderfoot Viaduct while walkers can take on the straightforward Eildon Hills that overlook the town.

scottish borders planning a trip to scotland
Leaderfoot Viaduct.
melrose abbey scottish borders
Melrose Abbey.

 

Day 5

The Borders and East Lothian

Get to the fabulous Abbotsford for opening, the home of the legendary Sir Walter Scott. Truly one of the best museums in Scotland, this is a beautiful tribute to a man that shaped Scotland in more ways than any individual possibly could today.

Then it’s on to the coast and the spectacular Tantallon Castle. Poke about the ruins for half an hour then head down to Seacliff Beach beneath for, I think, the most dramatic viewpoint in the country outside the Highlands.

planning a trip to scotland beach
Seacliff Beach.
tantallon castle drone
Tantallon Castle.

Spend the rest of the afternoon in North Berwick, grabbing a lobster supper and an ice cream. Depending on your arrival time, take a boat trip with the outstanding Seabird Centre to the outlying Bass Rock (2 hours duration) or Isle of May (4 hours) to see the riot of seabirds that frequent this strip of the east coast every summer.

For more alternative ideas from the Scottish Borders click here, and for more of East Lothian it’s here.

bass rock east lothian boat trips
The gannets at Bass Rock.

 

Day 6

Dundee and Angus

Bypassing Edinburgh completely (cue horror-stricken emoji) work your way through Fife (Dunfermline Abbey is a great stop off) and arrive in the City of Discovery. Take your pick from numerous cultural attractions – the new V&A, Discovery Point and Verdant Works will not let you down.

dundee culture scotland itinerary
The V&A and Discovery.

It’s down to personal taste at this point. Culture vultures stay where you are and enjoy Dundee, ancient history connoisseurs poke around the Pictish stones at Aberlemno near Forfar or the politically significant ruins of Arbroath Abbey and, for something in between, there’s the regal Glamis Castle.

glamis castle planning a trip to scotland
Glamis Castle.

 

Day 7

Aberdeenshire

You’ll complete the full set of my personal top three Scottish castles with a visit to ludicrous Dunnottar on the Aberdeenshire coast. How it has hung on to its precarious perch all these centuries defies belief. If your jaw doesn’t hit the floor, seek help. You’re not well.

dunnottar castle drone
Dunnottar Castle.

You can keep heading north into the Fraserburgh area I recently explored, home of immaculate fishing villages and proud lighthouse legacies. Or head inland to Aberdeenshire’s plethora of castles, taking your pick from Craigievar, Fyvie, Fraser, Huntly, Drum and Crathes.

craigievar castle drone
Craigievar Castle.

End your day in the Granite City of Aberdeen by jumping on an evening ferry to Orkney. The crossing takes around 6 hours, arriving very late into Kirkwall.

 

Day 8

Orkney

Ease yourself into a first day on Mainland Orkney with a relaxed introduction to beautiful Kirkwall and historic options including Scara Brae, Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Tomb of the Eagles, Highland Park Distillery and the Italian Chapel. You’ll need a car to get about so either bring one with you from Aberdeen on the ferry (if ferrying/driving back) or hire one in Kirkwall (if flying back).

planning a trip to scotland orkney islands
St Magnus Cathedral.
highland park malting floor
Highland Park Distillery.
skare brae orkney
Planning a Scotland trip – Skara Brae.

 

Day 9

Orkney

You can continue to work your way around the above Mainland attractions or jump another ferry to one of the other Orkney islands. Here’s some of those day trip options for you.

orkney coastal walking

orkney italian chapel
Orkney’s Italian Chapel
planning a trip to scotland orkney
Old Man of Hoy, Orkney.

 

Day 10

Begin return to Glasgow

If restricted to 10 days, you’ll need to fly back to Glasgow from Orkney at this point. With my environmentally friendly hat on I don’t particularly wish to condone short internal flights if I can help it. Ideally you’ll have at least an extra couple of days to play with on this trip. In the latter case, take a shorter ferry from Stromness to Scrabster and work your way by road through Caithness and south.

 

Planning your Scotland trip – Notes

The above itinerary is for those that hate crowds. Those looking to experience a place in a way that is likely to be completely unique. Those that cringe when they see tourists pile off of buses and take the exact same picture of Glen Coe or Loch Ness. And it’s for those that are particularly conscious about the effects of over-tourism.

I stress again, Scotland as a whole does not suffer from over-tourism. It’s particular regions during July and August that feel the strain. Travel here outwith those times (although parts of Skye, and Edinburgh, are busy year-round) and you’ll likely be absolutely fine. But, if you are required to come in peak season and don’t fancy endless queues, accommodation shortages, severe traffic disruptions and an overall feeling of claustrophobia, the above has been created to help with your Scotland trip planning.

This itinerary is packed, which is deliberate in order to allow plenty of options. It’s merely an outline and I’m not suggesting you do everything within, not at all. It’s diverse, also deliberate, in order to appeal to the various kinds of interests that typically bring people to Scotland. And, it will leave you wanting more.

As every adventure should.

 

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24 Comments

  1. This is what we will try to follow if the day comes that we can return to Scotland (where I left my heart on a tiny 3-day rush a few years ago). Thank you for the thoughtfulness of this suggestion!

      1. Wonderful itinerary! I headed off in my rental for parts unknown on my second trip to Scotland in Sept. 2017. North Berwick was amazing and later in the day I had Tantallon completely to myself. The following day I headed along the South coast. The drive alone is spectacular. I wasn’t able to see Caerlaverock as it was just closing. So, another time. Last year I trekked down and up to spend some time at Dunottar castle. A truly spectacular setting. Exploring out of the way places on my own time is far more enjoyable than plowing through crowds. Thanks for bringing some of my travels to light and memory. I cannot wait to return!

        1. Tantallon’s a powerful place when you have it to yourself! Glad you’re another on the hunt for crowd avoidance and Caerlaverock will be worth the wait 😉

  2. Don’t go to Cowl or Bute, I want to keep them to my self. The roads are quiet and the hill make challenging cycling with amazing views. Many of the walks don’t even have paths.

    I’ve found a great walk in Kintyre.

    So close to home, but off the beaten track.

  3. Wonderful! I enjoy your blog and used many of your great suggestions when I went from August 11 to September 2, 2019. I will continue to read your excellent suggestions to apply to my (hopefully) next trip to Scotland.

  4. Great message! I have been to Scotland 3 times now and stayed a couple of months each time so I have had the pleasure of seeing lots of Scotland and not willing to stop at this point. However I totally agree with you on the over tourism issue — even tho that’s how I’m there! My first two trips I spent Sept & Oct there both times and it was great for traveling and touring throughout the country. Earlier this year I was there in May & June— had to see the puffins! I could not believe the number of tourists this trip compared to my other two trips. The month of June was especially hectic. Guess my recommendation would be for others to also think of going off season. Next year I am going back to my Sept/Oct travel schedule Edinburgh was totally crazy with crowds!
    Thanks again for sharing your insights. They are definitely something that needs to be considered.

    1. Autumn a great time for extended trips Judy and glad to hear they had such an impact! Yeah, June busying up but July and August on a different level and, while that’s great, it gets out of hand in some spots. Keep doing what you’re doing! 😉

  5. Please don’t ever stop your blogs! My wife and I have been doing two weeks every other year in mid-May and have found it just wonderful. Most things seem to be open and no crowds to speak of. On our last trip we stayed at a cottage in Linlithgow and were so taken with sites around Stirling that we never got to Edinburgh. South Queens Ferry was as close as we got. A place that we found amazing was Cairnpapple hill. Wondrous history and 360 degree views that were stunning. We have concentrated on the Highlands on past trips but will have a go at the south on our next visit. Thank you so much for your efforts and information so freely given.

    1. Thank you Cameron and you’re spot on, May is a lovely time across Scotland. I remember being struck by the solitude on Cairnpapple too, quite special. Hope you enjoy exploring the south next time!

  6. Hi Neil,
    Thanks for your post.
    Just returned from the Isle of Lewis last week (luckily, it wasn’t that busy anymore) via the ferry to Skye. I was really shocked to see the crowds at Talisker Distillery – the street was far too small for so many cars. We spent a week on Skye back in 2012 when it was much less frequented…

    Dunnottar Castle is indeed spectacular and we had it almost to ourselves on a sunny day last November. I also enjoyed visiting Dundee and I am really looking forward to visiting your home town in October. 😉

    Best wishes
    Tanja

    1. The Western Isles are a funny one with overcrowding – huge empty spaces with convergences around a handful of the obvious spots. Talisker is, I think, the most visited distillery in the land due to its location and it’s a concern for many of the locals especially with regards the housing market. You’ll love Glasgow!

  7. You might want to add that if following the above itinerary, a reader might enjoy reading the books of D. E. Stevenson, as many of the areas mentioned, come up in her books: Bass Rock, Tantallon Castle, North Berwick, She has an author’s plaque now, on the home she lived in as a girl, in Edinburgh. And her grave is in Moffat.

  8. Hi Neil
    I’m ready to come over and finish that half bottle of good stuff with you. I used your guide for an upcoming trip – the one you hated to publish. Not to make you feel bad or anything – we are renting a car and have scheduled only four true reservations for various tours we wanted to do. I hope we can take advantage of some of the things mentioned in this post. Enjoy your blog so much!

    1. Haha, I’m sure. Nobody ever says no to the good stuff! I know that some will never be able to look past Skye, Edinburgh et al and it’s about encouraging visiting at times outwith July and August. Or looking elsewhere of course. Hopefully a few of these ideas will creep onto your wavelength :-). Happy travels!

    1. Just a question though, how’s this itinerary when you’re too young to hire a car (and definitely don’t want to fly)? Is most of it public transport accessible?

      1. Unfortunately public transport is limited in some areas of Scotland and getting to some of these places will be tricky. A combination of public transport and bike is a decent bet. And there are countless tour options that cover many of the top spots.

  9. Totally with you on this. In the 15 years since we started Secret-Scotland .com we’ve witnessed an enormous change in the impact of tourism in certain areas (Skye and the NC500 route being the obvious ones).

    Heck…I’ve even been doing this long enough to remember being able to visit Rosslyn Chapel for free and to have it all to yourself.

    I know what you mean about the polarity of views on this subject, I did a video about the Fairy Pools and suggested people think twice about visiting it, The comments on that video are one extreme or the other https://youtu.be/PqAN5RqcsGY

    I share the dilemma that you have when it comes to discovering somewhere special and then being torn between sharing it with the social media world or keeping quiet to protect its fragile beauty. There are so many equally valid alternatives to the attractions of Skye, Mull of Galloway lighthouse vs Neist Point, Crawton Waterfall vs Mealt Falls, the Fairy Pools vs… sorry….I’m not going to share my alternative to that as I’m keeping that part of Secret Scotland, Although, to be fair there aren’t many alternatives to the rock formations of Trotternish.

    The problem we face is that we have to try to make a living and the customer doesn’t like being told that there are other places in Scotland as worthy of a visit as Skye.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Feel the frustration Mike, we individuals can only do so much. Tourism is vital for the Scotland we know to function, but it can’t be at any cost so the combined efforts we’re all making to highlight the issues around sustainability will hopefully pay off!

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