If Scotland became independent, a new country would emerge in Northern Europe, one that would be very similar to Scandinavian countries in area, population and natural environment. Scotland’s area of 78,772 km2 makes it larger than Denmark or Iceland, while its population of 5,194,000 (2009) is almost equal to that of Finland and Denmark and slightly larger than Norway’s. 

There are 13–14 million people of Scottish origin living in the US and Canada; up to one-fifth of the inhabitants of New Zealand claim to have Scottish roots. There are certainly Scots also everywhere else in the world, as a sense of adventure and courage are characteristic of this northern nation and there is no place on earth that they have not reached. Caledonians – as they were called starting in Roman times - have influenced Western history and culture and in fact the whole world for at least 2,000 years. In the 2nd century CE, the natives, the Picts, stopped the advance of the Roman legions so resoundingly that the empire was forced to establish superstructures – Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall – to defend itself against the belligerent highlanders. These walls, reaching from sea to sea, are still visible. The border of the present-day Scotland runs between the two historical walls. 

We spent the first one and half days of our 10-day trip looking around in Edinburgh, Scotland’s second-largest city and seat of the Parliament and Government. Although the official population of 476,600 (2011) is not much more than that of Tallinn, Edinburgh with its highly varied neighbourhoods, long and splendid history and outstanding cultural traditions seems metropolitan. The Old Town and the imposing Edinburgh Castle on the high Castle Rock reminded us of our own capital city. 

After staying the night on the new campus of the University of Edinburgh, which offers accommodation for tourists during the summer season, we went out quickly in the morning to the centre and the Old Town, where preparations were under way for a great tattoo – a parade of military orchestras. Enormous tribunes had been erected right in front of the Edinburgh Castle. The Castle is connected to the Parliament by the Royal Mile, which was crowded on the occasion of the festivities. We saw highly professional theatrical and musical performances on this endless art fair between the line of churches and pubs.

We got the first true impression of the Scottish parade only as we got downtown, to Grassmarket, where we started to hear powerful drum beats reverberating across the city as we were acquainting ourselves with the selection of local foods and handicrafts. We didn’t see anything yet; the locals kept their calm while the tourists started to gather on one side of the market square, curious about the goings-on. The pounding of the drums moved down from High Street along the winding Victoria Street. The first to appear were police cars and policemen, followed by the first Masonic banners and streamers. And then they just kept coming! The old masters with their symbols in front, followed by a fit man with a huge drum who was beating it with clubs from both sides with all of his strength, surrounded by men in uniforms with smaller drums, and followed by a 20–40 member fife band. There must have been 50 such colourful groups, walking in a line and playing their thundering, jaunty Scotch marches. Some of them had an accordion as the main instrument instead of fifes, but all the groups were banging on drums till they broke; girls who walked along near the players of the large drums were carrying spare drum skins.

On our short journey we ran into Scottish ceremonies many times. On the next day as we left the city centre in a rental car, we had to wait a quarter of an hour to let through a parade of kilt-clad marching Scots with bagpipes. The spirited bagpipe music was performed by orchestras dressed in the national costumes of three clans. Marching behind them were important officials and people of the city.

Pipers in quilts and the soulful music of their pipes are an essential part of Edinburgh and other Scottish cities.  Photo: private collection

On the next day we started our tour of the Scottish Highlands in the north. Our first stop, the country’s largest city Glasgow (598,830 inhabitants in 2011)) is the gateway to the western Scottish counties and not far from the Highlands. The distance between the two largest cities is only 80 km, which is reduced to 50 km when you count the suburbs. Witness to the good state of Scotland’s economy and life is the network of outstandingly good roads surrounding both cities; the M8 connecting the two actually passes through the heart of Glasgow. Before staying the night in a cosy family hotel in Glasgow, we only had time for to walk downtown and have a look at the many department stores and explore the enormous railway station.

On the fourth day we drove through the rain. The journey to Oban on the west coast by the Firth of Lorn (a strait between Ireland and Great Britain) was exciting not only because of the winding mountain roads, which are in good condition and safe even in rain, but because of the small town of Inveraray, which is located at the far end of the long, long bay. There is a large and famous castle hidden near this charming coastal town. This historic property belongs to the Campbells, Dukes of Argyll. In the dramatic civil war in the 18th century, this famous Scottish family took the side of the British and Lowland Scots at the time of the Jacobite rising. Although Scotland was officially annexed to the UK in 1703, the northern Highland Scots remained relatively independent. They were only subordinated in the middle of the century when several wealthier Highland clans joined the Lowland Scots, who supported central power. As a result of the bloody civil war, a large part of the Highland Scots emigrated to the New World, while those who remained were prohibited from following their traditions; even kilts and bagpipes were in disgrace for decades. The Campbells became a rich and influential family in the more unified Britain. Inveraray Castle, which replaced the 15th century fortress in 1743, is the most important of the many castles owned by the Campbells, as it is the home of the chief of the clan. The castle owners have displayed their wealth of artwork, historical interior and even household objects for visitors. It’s only a pity that the Duke himself was not on display!

From Oban we headed north along the coast, toward the famous Loch Ness. On the way we looked around in the romantic Fort William, the second-largest town of the Highland council area on the north-eastern end of the long sea loch, Loch Linnhe. The Caledonian Canal, which ends here, has made a considerable impact on the development of Northern Scotland. We had a more thorough look at this 60 miles long waterway at the locks in Fort Augustus. We saw a ship coming from Loch Ness pass through the locks to Loch Lochy and on to Fort William. The Canal, which connects the North Sea to with the North Atlantic waters north of the Irish Sea via lakes, was established in 1804–1822 and has 29 locks that are 170–180 feet long, 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep, plus four aqueducts and ten bridges. This megastructure helped to restore the economy of the Scottish Highlands after half a century of civil war. The descendants of the belligerent clans got over their bitter losses thanks to the new trade route established with the canal. The more enterprising became industrialists and engaged in international trade, building the base over the 19th century for a diverse and strong economy.

The largest Highland town, Inverness, located between the north-eastern end of Loch Ness and the North Sea by River Ness, gives a good insight into the famous history of the Highland Scots. After the Picts who fought the Romans, the Irish Celtic (Gaelic) clan of Scots arrived here, who later gave their name to the whole of Scotland. Gaelic radio shows and TV programmes are broadcast everywhere, even though only 1-2% of Scots speak Gaelic, and most of them live on the islands in the north-western part of Scotland. The language landscape is varied as several English dialects are in use, one of which is the officially recognised Scottish English. It is completely incomprehensible to an ordinary English-speaking foreigner. In addition there is the English that is especially taught to the Scottish people. The written language everywhere is English as we know it, so we did not have any linguistic misunderstandings in the tourist-ridden Scotland.

We took the journey back south across the Scottish Highlands, the grassy green surface of which is covered with countless white specks – the sheep. We never found out why the sheep are not in herds but wander around alone. The central and eastern parts of the Highlands are clear of trees and look exactly as depicted on whisky bottle labels.

On our way from Perth to Dundee we had to turn toward the Tay River, where we were directed by signs to the ‘wonderful Scottish wine garden and cider house’ Cairn O’ Mohr. It turned out that we had come to Scotland’s only industrial-scale producer of wines from wild and domesticated fruits and berries for the local market as well as export to France, Germany and Sweden. In addition to strawberry, raspberry, elder and bramble wines, wines made from spring and autumn oak leaves also tasted delicious. As we had an Estonian wine producer among us, we got the idea of getting into closer relations with this wonderful wine garden. Estonian dandelion wines could be a dignified trade for the Scottish oak leave wines! At least this is what we discussed with the salesperson. As we left the winery restaurant, we were convinced that we would have to return soon to meet the owners.

In the evening we had an especially green experience as we were driving west from Perth, then south from Crieff to the Drummond Castle gardens. When I read the tourist leaflets that said these gardens would take everyone’s breath away, I thought it was just an advertising cliché. But when we walked in through the gate of the old Drummond Castle and took a glance at the garden below the stone wall, we indeed gasped! The garden, established four hundred years ago, is a vast park in the French style, with larger and smaller hedge walls, little hedges in various shapes, mazes, antique statues, arbours, geometric topiaries and a mysterious park spirit that anyone who moves about this wondrous community of man and nature will sense. Behind the back wall of the park we found a lush vegetable garden rich is species and varieties, a perfect specimen among its kind. An hour was of course not enough to study this masterpiece, but the Castle’s regimen was strict – at 6 p.m. the gates were closed and we were not allowed to stay overnight.

The last day of our trip took us back to Edinburgh where a British Rail train was waiting for us after we slipped our rental car keys into a mailbox in the parking lot. The short tour of Scotland, or the Celtic Alba or Roman Caledonia, only whetted our appetite for learning to know this wonderful land better. In the streets and squares we saw an enthusiastic campaign advocating Scottish independence, we also saw the large YES posters on the windows of homes and it seemed that at least the Highlands, which gave the world whisky and the kilt and where bagpipes were played on every possible occasion, were ready for independence. It seemed, though, that the Lowlands did not quite go along with the idea this time, as we know now. We also don’t know which side got the votes of the influential Campbells, whose castle we visited and who were one of the decisive forces in the loss of independence 250 years ago. I recommend everyone to seek answers to these and many other questions by travelling in Scotland, speaking to the local people and enjoying everything this wonderful country has to offer.

The travelcompanions were in Scotland from 8–17 August 2014.