When I see maps of Europe, I often find myself envying those who live on the Continent. How fun it must be to have so many wondrous cities so close at hand. Imagine living in Vienna, for example. If ever you needed a bit of a break from your humdrum day-to-day, you could leave work early on a Friday and zip off to Prague, Munich, Budapest or Krakow in practically no time at all. With those options open to me, I doubt I’d ever spend a weekend at home.
I once put it to an Austrian that he was lucky to have such world-class destinations on his doorstep, but his response completely threw me. “Aren’t you forgetting something,” he said. “What about Scotland?”
And, of course, he was right. I was forgetting Scotland. In fact, I freely admit forgetting Scotland had become a bit of a habit. Specifically, I’d forgotten how to see Scotland as anything other than an extension of home; somewhere familiar and therefore not especially exciting; a place I’d always known, on which I needn’t waste my precious curiosity. Which is a shame, really, because, as anyone with any sense already knows, Scotland is an incredible proposition for the itchy-footed.
On the strength of its major cities alone, it should be considered world class. In Edinburgh and Glasgow it has as strong a pairing of urban environments as found anywhere in Europe. What an amazing twin-centre they make, only an hour apart and yet so oddly different in personality: Edinburgh, a mysterious maze of nooks and creepy stairways; Glasgow a gregarious grid of good times, immersed in art and stuffed to the gills with decent pubs and bars.
But there’s much more besides. Look beyond the cities and you’ll find some of the world’s most stunning scenery; ancient landscapes of lochs and mountains; miles of picturesque coastline; areas of wilderness; and, best of all, hundreds of disparate islands, home to some of the most distinct communities found anywhere in Britain. Throw in the traditions, the history, that monster and the occasional appearance of the Northern Lights and you’ve got yourself quite a fancy package.
All of which makes me wonder why I’ve spent so much time salivating over the rest of Europe when I could have just jumped on a train and headed north.
The trouble is, for all its traditions, its idiosyncrasies and its unique personality, Scotland remains part of this geo-political oddity we call the UK. What this means is that I, as a Brit, get plenty of opportunities to view it in the stark, unflattering light that so often illuminates one’s own backyard, rather than through the rosy spectacles I use to look at Europe’s other hotspots.
Whenever I think of the Czech Republic, Hungary or Portugal, my first instinct isn’t to ponder their economic woes or any disturbing new social trends. Instead, I think of Prague, Budapest or Lisbon.
But, as a UK citizen, Scottish problems are technically my problems; its slums are my slums; its browbeaten towns as much my business, apparently, as Kent’s or Devon’s or Lancashire’s. And it’s this glum familiarity that robs Scotland of the glamour it clearly deserves.
But, this is 2014, and these are exciting times. As you may have heard, in September the Scottish people — or rather its residents — go to the polls to decide if our current arrangement is to be kept. As the big day approaches, so the levels of media coverage will rise, and it’s safe to say that by autumn, no matter which part of the UK you call home, Scotland will loom large in your mind.
Of course, nothing qualifies me as an expert on this issue (not even my sweet little granny from Cumnock). Nor is this the correct forum for an airing of political arguments for or against. But looked at simply from a travel perspective, the prospect of Scottish independence is really rather exciting. To think, just a few million ticks in the yes box and boom — a genuine foreign destination will appear right on my doorstep.
And, my goodness, won’t it suddenly look tasty.
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)