The news that Scotland’s Perthshire has topped Booking.com’s list of the ‘most hospitable’ regions in the world may surprise anyone caught up in the perception that Scotland – and we Scots too – can be unwelcoming and unfriendly. Whisper it, even if it’s a little stern. So what is the reality for visitors beyond the bagpipes and political bluster on both sides of the border?
I’ve been working as a travel writer for over twenty years, making 30 to 40 trips a year (the majority always around Scotland), and I’m not the least bit surprised by the news. Glasgow was still voted the friendliest city in the world in 2022; Kirkwall was one of the friendliest cities in Britain last year.
Scotland has always looked beyond borders – with a global diaspora, partly thanks to the Highland Clearances, of around 20 million, we had to – and in turn has welcomed the world. Glasgow’s “Refuweegee” program is a striking example. My English wife has ‘never had a problem in this country’ in twenty years. I checked last night because I never thought to ask her before. For balance, I also asked for a Welsh and a Northern Irish size. We are all doing well there too.
So where does every unwanted perception come from? I partly blame Taggart. Not just him, but the succession of tough Scottish cops/soldiers/lovers who ruin TV and film. Scots are often portrayed in fiction – and in fact – in stereotypical terms (being ‘tight’ is another). We are the other; easier to characterize than to take seriously. An English friend who lives here controversially believes that it is a defense mechanism that allows the people who do it to avoid questions about their own identity. He also took over the firm – he’s from Lancashire.
I do hear some grumbling from visitors along the way, but usually in unclear terms. No hard examples of being thrown out of Highland hotels by hairy Highlanders, or being refused a craft gin because you’re actually happy that England won the World Cup in 1966. It is more in terms of “that Salmond” or “that Sturgeon”.
Yes, we’ve finally mentioned the tartan-clad elephant in the room: independence. I understand how the continued support for Scottish nationalism could be wrongly confused with the perception of how welcome the English are. Without taking sides on independence, I think this may be because people don’t understand that the nationalism I personally see here is not the hate mongering that some people outside Scotland seem to think.
It is indeed a desire to control Scotland’s own affairs, but one rooted in internationalism (after all, the Scots voted against leaving the EU) – and not one driven by hatred. And we’re a smart country too, so even the most passionate supporter of independence will still be happy to take your tourist pound.
Traveling around Scotland for 20 years, I continually witness positive hospitality in action, and it’s not just a cheerful smile from behind the bar. You will realize that we are remarkably positive when you have read the sermons of our other national bard, John Knox. Scotland offers a welcome and continued goodwill that makes Americans, Canadians and most nationalities rave. Without the population pressure in the south of England, people, especially outside Scotland’s eight cities, have more time for you – and visitors appreciate that.
It is of course a symbiotic relationship as Scotland needs tourism – it is one of our biggest industries. And it is a grouse that we cannot take for granted. The staycation boom has created tensions, tensions that new initiatives like the Scoto community tourism project are trying to ease. The idea is that you are welcome as a ‘temporary local’. You invest your money in community-run businesses and make time for people; in return they will do the same for you and will try to help you in any way they can. That is Scottish hospitality and personality at its best.
To give an example of how friendly and unfriendly Scotland is, let’s take a closer look at the most hospitable region in the world: Perthshire.
If anyone should be strict and grumpy it would be Perthshire as it is Scotland’s only landlocked region. That hasn’t stopped the flow of accolades over the years – Perth was Britain’s first “Cittaslow” and took home the title of Scotland’s happiest city in 2020. No wonder, as it is a region of hardly unbelievable abundance. Scenically, Perthshire bustles with the rising Munros, the country’s mightiest river (the Tay) and glittering lakes. The local beef and lamb is world class, as are the salmon, trout and soft fruit. And distilleries abound in the valleys.
I smile now as I run through a vivid mental scroll of positive experiences I’ve had in Perthshire. And not just at five-star hotels like Gleneagles, but also with the bus driver who drove further than the end of his route to let me out, and the whitewater rafting guide who realized he had to cheer up mom and dad as much as the little ones on a dreich -kayak tour. At its best, an adventure in Perthshire (and wider Scotland) is a seamless life-affirming game of tag, passing you from one positive experience to the next. One moment you’re trusting the guide to keep you safe while you bungee jump, the next you’re disappearing into a Highland cliché with a dram by a roaring fire.
A new Perth Museum will open this Easter, featuring the iconic Stone of Destiny, on which Scotland’s monarchs were crowned until Edward I seized it in 1296. Scotland has gone further. The stone was returned home from Westminster Abbey in 1996 and without rancor, Scotland borrowed the stone back for the coronation of King Charles III last year. What else would you expect from this most hospitable country?
Three ways to experience a warm Scottish welcome
A good egg
This glorious island shows the life-affirming things that can happen when the locals take back control. Clean, green, community-owned Eigg is buzzing with life thanks to residents from all over Britain and beyond. They have their own brewery, record label and a sparkling new community shop/cafe where you are welcomed like an old friend. Next door, Welshman Owain is ready to rent you an e-bike so you can explore the sweeping hills, white sandy beaches and wildlife of this true Treasure Island. See isleofeigg.org.
Forget Speyside, the Isle of Islay is a must-visit for whiskey fans. The industry is booming and there will soon be 14 distilleries on the “Queen of the Hebrides”. A warm welcome awaits everyone, with tours, restaurants and creative tastings; you are guaranteed to leave happy. See islayinfo.com.
This is the big one. Edinburgh makes all the headlines with its multi-day Hogmanay extravaganza and its huge street parties and concerts. Meanwhile, the fire festivals at Comrie and Stonehaven literally offer a warm welcome. It took my English wife years to fully understand that for many Scots, Hogmanay is bigger than Christmas. See visitscotland.com.