“This is the first time in my life that I’m totally okay with traffic,” my brother, Pete, said as our shoe box-sized rental car jolted out of our first Edinburgh roundabout and into a gridlocked, festival-season, rush-hour mess. I downshifted with my left hand and pulled into the left lane on the left side of the road — all very new experiences for a first timer to the U.K.. Pete was right to feel wary.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I managed, as I accidentally shifted from first to fourth, my left hand not fully adapted to the gear sequence yet.
We’d just embarked on “one of those trips” — a journey we’ll both surely talk and laugh about for years to come — based around a shared longing to retrace a Scotland sabbatical our father took decades prior. It was an adventure we never thought we’d actually get the chance to go on. Sure, we’d talked about it from time to time, but life kept getting in the way. “Life,” in this case, means “lack of money.”
That was before I got into the credit card hustle. If you’re a travel writer or photographer, it’s not long before you hear about “churning” and not long after that before you think, “I’m smart enough to try this.” I became one of those points people — using an app called Slingshot Flights (which, full disclosure, was created by a longtime buddy) to manage credit cards and build toward flights.
Eventually, by signing up for credit cards with good rewards programs, my brother and I made it to Scotland for free. It took some planing and a little forethought, but free is free is free. Soon enough, we were on the ground, grinding the gearbox of a rental car (also paid with points). With each successful shift came the rising optimism of a dream realized through creative problem solving.
In the end, the adventure carried us way beyond our father’s initial itinerary, and we both fell head over heels for Scotland. Along the way, we learned a five crucial lessons:
1. Don’t You Dare Shy Away From Haggis, Neeps and Tatties
Yes, Haggis is better if not defined but — this being the internet — the chances are you read up on the stuff long ago. The savory pudding of sorts is defined by the encyclopedia Britannica as being “composed of the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep (or other animal), minced and mixed with beef or mutton suet (raw fat) and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices. The mixture is packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.” Although the fine folks over at Visit Scotland promised us that the mixture is now packed into synthetic casing. Sounds good, right?
This mixture is often served with Neeps and Tatties (turnips and potatoes respectively). I can assure you, if you traveled all the way over to Scotland you will not regret trying this horrifying-sounding mixture. It’s at once delicate and spicy — lighter than you’d expect with enough flavor to let you know it means business. Paired with a good whisky or cider, the dish is an absolute win.
2. Go to Orkney
Warning: The northern isles are far from the major cities and if you really want to do them justice, you’ll need some time.
The Orkneys, in specific, are an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, with a population of just over 21,000 people. About a 45 minute ferry ride from the pier in John o’ Groats (great village names in Scotland, BTW) the main isle of Orkney is home to some of the oldest viking history in all of the U.K. — as well as stone age monuments and settlements that date back 5,000 years. You can swing through Kirkwall and visit the Highland Park distillery, or — if you just want to hear a good yarn — ask any Orkadian about Ba (the New Year’s Day, citywide, everything goes Rugby match).
On top of all that, the island is absolutely stunning, visually.
3. Take A Whisky Tour
Hell, take more than one! Take as many as you possibly can. I wasn’t allowed to photograph in any of the distilleries that we went through, but I promise they are worth it. I went in naive about whisky and left feeling like I had encyclopedic knowledge of the different regions, the flavor profiles, and how to drink the stuff properly.
Besides, I realized pretty early on that a Nessie sighting wasn’t in the cards, so I needed to drown my sorrows.
4. Not Surprisingly, Trump Is The Hot Topic Of The Moment
Throughout the trip, we made every effort to talk to Scots about Brexit. And yet, somehow every pub, hostel, and restaurant discussion we took part in ultimately evolved into a political analysis of our GOP presidential candidate. Our questions about Brexit, and specifically about Scotland claiming independence to re-join the EU were often met with dismissive, rehearsed statements. No one seems to feel like it’s really going to happen.
Eventually, someone would say something like, “Well, our friends across the pond will surely help us figure it out…” which left me and my brother a little uneasy, until they backed that up with “…unless Trump gets elected, then who the hell knows.”
5. Take A Hike
Scotland, has very well established freedom to roam laws, established through the Countryside and Rights Of Way Act of 2000. Meaning, camping is, not only free, but allowed almost anyplace in the highlands. On top of that you’re free to hike and wander just about everywhere. By law, cattle farmers have to install steps or a public gate at multiple points along their fences and you are well within your rights to roam. Bring the right gear and don’t miss an opportunity to tramp through the rolling hills.