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There are lots of things you should do in Scotland.
Hiking, tackling road trips and enjoying some of the world’s best islands. Wild camping, multi-day treks and visiting some of the coolest cities on the planet.
You could even eat a deep-fried chocolate bar, play some bagpipes or cuddle a Highland cow.
But Scotland isn’t all must-dos. Beyond all the excitement and adventure, there are also some things you shouldn’t do. Some are cultural errors, some are accidental oversights, some are common tourist mistakes and some are just stupid.
Want to know what not to do in Scotland? Read on for 21 of them…
1. Don’t Claim to Be Scottish
Lots of tourists – especially tourists from the USA – like to imagine that having a very distant Scottish relative makes them Scottish.
Unless you’re actually Scottish, don’t go around telling people that you’re Scottish. Local people won’t find it endearing, they’ll just find it obnoxious.
Be honest with yourself, you’re not really Scottish, so don’t pretend that you are.
2. Don’t Do a Stupid Scottish Accent
You can’t, you don’t know how, and you won’t be able to learn. So don’t bother. People will be at best ambivalent, and at worst offended.
No-one in Scotland wants to hear your subpar Scottish accent, because they’ve heard it all before.
3. Don’t Ask Endless Questions About Money
Scottish money looks different to English money (even though it’s exactly the same currency).
And that’s weird. But people in Scotland already know it’s weird, so they don’t need you to tell them.
Instead, learn about the Scottish currency and familiarize yourself with it.
4. Don’t Prioritize Loch Ness
Loch Ness is famous. And Loch Ness is huge.
But compared to many (and I mean many!) of Scotland’s way better lochs (which translates as ‘lakes’), Loch Ness is hugely underwhelming. It’s not particularly attractive or exciting, and it’s hugely disappointing once you’ve visited Scotland’s much more beautiful lochs.
In a nation of more than 30,000 lochs, don’t bother wasting too much time on its most famous – but most underwhelming – loch.
People won’t like this, but in my opinion, you should skip Loch Ness entirely. Tourists across the world always make the mistake of visiting the famous stuff instead of the good stuff. Don’t be one of those tourists.
Looking for better lochs? Four of my favorites are Loch Torridon, Loch Duich, Loch Carron, and Loch Maree. But there are plenty more!
5. Don’t Tell People That the Loch Ness Monster Doesn’t Exist
Let’s be honest, we all know it doesn’t.
But The Loch Ness Monster (or ‘Nessie’, as it’s affectionately known) is a Scottish legend. It’s the nation’s most famous fictional export, so some Scottish people love it. Some of the more jingoistic Scottish residents somehow unironically believe that there’s a weird half-dinosaur thing living in the depths of the nation’s biggest loch.
Once, when I was hitchhiking through Scotland for a couple of weeks, I was picked up by an lovely old Scottish guy. We were close to Loch Ness, so I made some stupid joke about how some Scottish people think that Nessie is real. Sadly for me, he was one of them – and he spent the remaining hour of the journey telling me why Nessie does indeed exist.
He didn’t convince me, but he did give me a ride.
6. Don’t Expect Good Weather
Scottish weather can be great.
If you’re lucky, the weather while you’re in Scotland might be sunny, clear and rain-free. But that’s unlikely.
Even if you visit Scotland in summer, don’t expect you’ll have endless days of glorious sunshine. Because you probably won’t.
Instead, pack waterproofs and warm clothes. If you’re lucky, you won’t need them – but it’s always good to have them for when the poor weather arrives.
7. Don’t Just Visit Edinburgh
Edinburgh is fantastic. With its huge theater festival, countless cultural attractions and one of the world’s best castles, Scotland’s capital is fantastic.
But regardless of what some tourists seem to believe, it’s not all that Scotland has to offer. If you only visit Edinburgh, you’ll miss all of the other excellent (and often better!) parts of the nation.
If you’re looking for other cities, Glasgow and Inverness are great. If you’re seeking outdoor adventures, skip Edinburgh altogether and explore The North Coast 500, some of Scotland’s islands, or one of the nation’s two sprawling national parks.
While you’re looking for adventures outside of Edinburgh, learn how to pronounce the city’s name properly, and you might just be the first ever tourist to get it right.
8. Don’t Avoid Haggis
Lots of tourists turn their nose up at haggis. They hear about its weird ingredients and they immediately transform into tiny little whiney babies who are seemingly afraid of putting anything unusual into their mouths.
Don’t be a little baby.
Instead of thinking about the weird stuff which goes into haggis (and it is admittedly weird), think about how tasty it is. It sounds bizarre, but it’s actually incredible.
Made from chopped up sheep’s organs and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, it doesn’t sound great. But it is.
9. Don’t Bother Talking About Soccer
First off, if you even call it ‘soccer’, you’ll probably end up in an argument.
It’s called football.
But beyond that, people in Scotland (and people from England) can be very parochial when it comes to football. They love their local team, and there’s no room for discussion.
Anything but the most superficial conversation about football will likely end in argument, so don’t bother.
In case you’re wondering, my team is Newcastle (but that’s in England).
10. And Don’t Bother Talking About Politics
Even worse than talking about soccer is talking about politics. No, Scotland is not part of England (more on this here). And no, asking Scottish people about it is not the way to learn.
The history between English and Scottish people is storied, complicated and controversial, and any conversation about Scottish politics (or how it relates to English politics) will end in much the same way that a conversation about football will.
11. Don’t Compare Cities
Don’t tell people from Glasgow that Edinburgh is better. Or tell people from Edinburgh that Glasgow is better. Or tell anyone from any city that any other city is better.
Scotland has great cities, but there’s no need to compare them
12. Don’t Visit the Harry Potter Stuff
You’re an adult. Grow up.
Harry Potter didn’t really ride on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Because he’s not real.
13. Don’t Go Around Telling Everyone How Small Everything is
Locals don’t care that your country is bigger, or your state is bigger, or your house is bigger.
Scotland is small, remote and rural, and that’s part of its charm. But no-one is going to be charmed by you telling them how cute and humble and old-fashioned their country is.
14. Don’t Skip the Islands
Scotland has over 900 islands, and some of them are incredible. From world-famous Skye to charming Arran to some frankly bizarre tiny settlements, they’re some of the most incredible and interesting islands on the planet.
Yes, you usually need to ride in a ferry to visit them – but they’re absolutely worth it. For some people, Scottish islands are the best part of Scotland. Don’t skip them!
15. Don’t Assume You Can Wild Camp everywhere
In Scotland, you can hike and wild camp in the vast majority of places. If it’s not private land, you can usually pitch up your tent and treat yourself to an appealing night of fee-free snoozing.
This is called the right to roam.
But that’s not the case everywhere. You can’t camp in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park unless you’re on a proper campsite or you have a camping permit.
You also of course can’t camp on any private land without permission. That said, if you ask a farmer or landowner if you can camp on their land, they will often allow you to – people in Scotland are ridiculously friendly, hospitable and welcoming.
16. Don’t Disrespect Bothies
Similarly, be careful if you plan on spending some time in bothies. Scottish Mountain Bothies are small rudimentary cabins designed for basic overnight stays. It’s sort of like camping but in a hut instead of in a tent.
Maintained by charities, bothies have very few – or often no – facilities, but they’re a brilliant resource for hikers and other outdoor adventurers. When using a bothy, respect the building and its surroundings. There are lots of tips on how to use bothies properly and respectfully here.
17. When Camping, Don’t Leave Stuff Behind
The old camping line goes ‘take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints’.
And that’s of course the case in Scotland. It’s a very camping-friendly nation, but it’s only that way if we keep it that way, by camping sensibly and respectfully.
Be a responsible camper, be careful when making fires, and always consider the landscape and its inhabitants (both human and otherwise).
18. Don’t Drive Too Slowly on Road Trips
On Scotland’s famous road trips (especially the North Coast 500), locals sometimes get understandably irritated at tourists driving slowly.
Because you’re on vacation, it’s easy to forget that people live here.
While you’re hanging out of your car window to snap a photo as you drive 5mph, the people stuck behind you are trying to get to work. While you’ve stopped your car to point at a Highland cow, the people stuck behind you are trying to take their kids to school. While you’re gawping at mountains, the people stuck behind you are trying to get to a funeral.
You get the idea.
Drive carefully and appropriately. And take your time if you’re uncertain on some of the more precarious roads. But don’t annoy locals by carelessly holding up their daily business.
19. Don’t Park in Passing Places
While we’re on the topic of roads, learn how to use passing places.
Passing places are small lay-bys designed for allowing traffic to pass in both directions. They’re absolutely not for parking in, but that doesn’t stop lots of annoying tourists from doing it anyway. Don’t be an annoying tourist – use passing places properly instead.
If you’re looking for places to park in Scotland, you should only ever use designated parking places – and there are many of them available, no matter where you are.
If you’re in a rural area, you’ll often find parking spaces by the side of the road. These are occasionally in the form of small parking lots, but they’re more commonly small lay-bys with space for four or five cars.
If you’re in or near a town or city, you’ll find lots of parking in and around that town or city.
Car parking spaces in Scotland are marked with a blue sign with a white ‘P’ in it. These are signposted, and they’re usually marked on maps, so they’re easy to find.
20. Don’t Buy Stupid Souvenirs
Surely nobody buys these, but stores sell them, so somebody must. No-one in Scotland is going to be impressed by your imitation kilt. Or your dumb ginger toupee.
That said, there are lots of brilliant souvenirs you can grab while you’re in Scotland. If you’ve done the North Coast 500, you can get t-shirts, bumper stickers and other cool stuff.
If you want a souvenir you can munch on or gulp down, try shortbread, heather honey or whiskey. For natural cosmetics, try stuff from Arran Sense of Scotland, or one of the countless cosmetic items made from Scottish heather which Scotland seems to sell in abundance.
If you travel in more rural and remote areas, you’ll also find lots of unique and unusual handmade stuff from small local merchants and businesses. These are the best souvenirs to buy – local stuff is meaningful and unique and it contributes to the local economy. Support the little man!
21. Don’t Ask People About Clans
You’re not from a clan, they’re not from a clan, no-one in Scotland cares about clans.
It’s not the 17th century. And if any tourist store tells you that your clan has some world-famous iconic tartan than you simply need to buy, they’re probably making it up.
Movies and TV shows have hugely overplayed the clan stuff. Don’t buy into the hype.
Scottish Etiquette Tips
Scottish etiquette isn’t really something you need to consider, as Scottish people are hugely accepting, laid-back and no-nonsense. Scottish culture is very informal, and so too are Scottish people.
In lots of countries, there are cultural quirks which you need to consider, and customs and traditions which you should respect.
In Scotland, there are very few of these. Scottish people have no hollow pretences, no empty gestures and no pointless rituals. In Scotland, you get what you get – and what you get is very friendly people.
That said, here are a small number of things you might want to know:
- Shaking hands is the common form of greeting when you meet a person. Shake hands with all adults when you first meet them, and with older kids.
- The Scottish accent is hard to understand at first. If you’re struggling, politely ask people to slow down a little. And if you are polite about it, they won’t mind.
- Tipping, if you’re at a formal sit-down restaurant, is expected at around 10%. If you’re at a place where you order at the bar, or any other informal establishment, it isn’t expected. Tipping also isn’t expected if you only buy drinks.
- Don’t be offended by how forthright Scottish people can be. They’re very open, very brusque and very curt. But this isn’t meant to be offensive, it’s just the way they are. Once you’re accustomed to it, you’ll actually find this charming – and much more genuine than the insincere niceties some countries seem to prefer.
What Not and Whatnot
There you have it – what not to do in Scotland!
Follow our tips on what not to do and you’ll have an incredible time.
Paul is a handsome and hilarious travel writer and travel journalist from the UK. He’s hiked, hitchhiked and laughed his way through more than fifty countries, and he’s always looking for a new place to call home. Originally from Newcastle, he’s lived all over the UK, spent more than three years in Asia, and most recently lived in Vietnam. Here’s his website.