The word ‘unique’ is vastly overused in travel writing. My own experiences as a travel writer – always on the lookout for rare experiences – tells me that few places offer more than a handful of genuinely unique attractions. Yet, since moving to Scotland this year, I’ve been staggered by the sheer quantity of sights and activities that are exclusively available here. From scuba diving among German warships to hiking between curious Highland Cows, here are six of my favourite uniquely Scottish experiences.
Scapa Flow, Orkney
Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was losing his patience. The officer, commanding a fleet of German warships that had been captured and interned at Scapa Flow in Orkney nine months previously, had been waiting to discover the fate of his fleet. But still, suspiciously, there was no news. So on 21 June 1919, to ensure his 74 warships didn’t fall into the enemy’s hands, he gave the order to scuttle them.
Today, around a century later, almost a dozen German vessels remain on the seabed of Scapa Flow – along with several British ships, mostly sunk as ‘blocking ships’ to prevent access by the enemy. And that makes it a prime spot for scuba diving. Now considered one of the most spectacular wreck dives in the world, exploring inside and out of these sunken vessels is a magical, one-of-a-kind experience.
If you’ve ever seen the Harry Potter film series, this architectural marvel will look familiar. It features in four of the franchise’s seven films, whisking Harry and friends to school on the Hogwarts Express.
Why was it featured? Because it’s inimitable. Built in the early 20th century, the viaduct-cum-railway bridge stretches 380 metres, curves over 240 metres and traverses Loch Shiel, with a backdrop of the Western Highlands. Crossing Glenfinnan, particularly on The Jacobite steam train, is a rare adventure.
If you are looking for a unique architectural marvel a little closer to the major cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, there’s also the small matter of the iconic, 125-year-old Forth Bridge. This giant, bright red, stone-and-steel cantilevered bridge is a true symbol of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Scotland is overloaded with animal attractions. From red squirrels to golden eagles, basking seals to Atlantic puffins – not to mention our old friend Nessie – there’s always new wildlife to discover. But for something truly unique to Scotland, it’s impossible to look beyond the adorable Highland Cattle.
This famous Scottish breed, known for their long tussled coats (usually brown), their sharp horns and their placid nature, are native to the Highlands of Scotland, but can be found in fields and on country roads the length and breadth of the country. Even if you don’t see one in real life, you’ll likely see one on the menu; their high quality meat, low in cholesterol, is becoming a staple of Scottish restaurants.
The Edinburgh Vaults
Most visitors to Edinburgh walk around its Old Town blissfully unaware of their lofty position. As they shop, eat and drink along the high street, they don’t realise they are doing all of it on top of a bridge. They also don’t realise that, below their feet, lies a series of vaults full of amazing secrets and stories.
The Edinburgh Vaults are a series of chambers within the 19 arches of the city’s South Bridge, which was completed in 1788. These cavernous spaces have, throughout the centuries, been used to house illegal taverns, local tradesmen, whisky distillers, homeless people… even murder victims. The vaults have fascinating stories to tell, and visitors can explore this underground world through guided tours.
If you peer out at Bass Rock from the mainland it looks relatively unremarkable. With the naked eye, it appears to be an uninhabited island; a lifeless lump of chalk in the midst of the Firth of Forth. But look closer – through a telescope at the Tantallon Castle or on a boat trip from North Berwick – and you’ll find the rock seems to be moving. The white colour? Birds. Thousands and thousands of birds.
Bass Rock is the largest gannet colony in the world. The volcanic isle, naturally brown-grey in colour, plays host to 150,000 gannets every year, making it a truly unique wildlife wonder. Factor in the bird droppings – over 152,000 kg per year – and it’s little wonder Bass Rock looks white to the naked eye.
The Malt Whisky Trail
It is Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink, so let’s finish with a unique attraction related to the country’s most famous tipple. The Malt Whisky Trail runs through Speyside, a region home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries, and incorporates a total of eight distilleries and a cooperage. From the big names like Glenfiddich, Cardhu and Glenlivet to lesser-known gems such as Benromach (a big winner at the 2014 World Whisky Awards) and Strathisla (open since 1786), it allows whisky-loving travellers to sample a plethora of world-renowned whiskies, all located within spitting distance of one another.