A little over half the size of England but with just a tenth of the population, Scotland possesses open spaces and wild natural splendor its southern neighbor cannot hope to rival. The craggy, heathered Highlands, the silver beaches of the west coast, and the luminescent mists of the Hebrides elicit any traveler’s awe, while farmlands to the south and peaceful fishing villages on the east coast harbor a gentler beauty. Scotland at its best is a world apart from the rest of the UK. Before reluctantly joining with England in 1707, the Scots defended their independence, bitterly and heroically, for hundreds of years. Since the union, they have nurtured a separate identity, retaining control of schools, churches, and the judicial system. In 1999, the Scots finally regained a separate parliament, which gave them more power over domestic tax laws and strengthened their national identity.
Bus travel from London is generally cheaper than train fares. British Airways ( (08457) 773 3377) sells a limited number of APEX round-trip tickets from £70. British Midland ( (0870) 607 0555) also offers a round-trip Saver fare from London to Glasgow (from £70). Scotland is linked by feriy to Northern Ireland. From Stranraer, Stena Line ( (08705) 707 070) sails to Belfast (£15-24).
In the Lowlands (south of Stirling and north of the Borders), train and bus connections are frequent. In the Highlands, trains snake slowly on a few restricted routes, bypassing the northwest almost entirely, and many stations are unstaffed or nonexistent buy tickets on board. A great money-saver is the Freedom of Scotland Travelpass. It allows unlimited train travel as well as transportation on most Caledonian MacBrayne ferries, with discounts on some other ferry lines.
Purchase the pass before traveling to Britain, at any BritRail distributor (148). Buses tend to be the best way to travel; Scottish Citylink ( (08705) 505 050) provides most intercity service. MacBackpackers ((0131) 558 9900; www.macback-packers.com) and HAGGiS (-s- (0131) 557 9393; www.radicaltravel.com) run hop-onhop-off tours that let you travel Scotland at your own pace.