Basic Guide to Scotland

Scotland Map

[translations of a version of this page have been created for German (Thesis Owl)]

Purple Dot Scotland Map
Purple Dot Basic Facts
Purple Dot Measures
Purple Dot Weather
Purple Dot Education
Purple Dot Dialect Guide
Purple Dot Language
Purple Dot Finance
Purple Dot Food and Drink
Purple Dot Electricity
Purple Dot Tourism
Purple Dot Driving
Purple Dot Art
Purple Dot Do's and Don'ts
Purple Dot Scottish Web Links
Warning This is an informal introduction to Scotland for the benefit of occasional visitors. It makes no claims to be authoritative or accurate, and expresses the personal opinions of the author (who is a native and long-time resident of Scotland). Serious enquirers should consult an organisation like the National Records of Scotland, Scottish Government or Visit Scotland.

Basic Facts

Scotland is the northern part of Great Britain, spanning roughly 8° to 2° West and 61° to 55° North. It includes the westernmost and northernmost points of Great Britain, and the highest peak (Ben Nevis, 1344 metres). The land area is about 77,000 square kilometres. The main geographical regions are the Borders, the Central Lowlands, the Highlands, the North-West and the Islands (Outer and Inner Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland). See the map of Scotland for an overview.

The estimated Scottish population in 2022 was 5.4 million (Glasgow and Edinburgh being the largest cities). The Scottish people have ethnic roots that include Ireland and Scandinavia. Separate monarchs ruled in Scotland until 1603, when the crowns of Scotland and England were united. A common parliament was created in 1707 (though Scotland now has its own parliament again). The predominant religion is Christianity in various forms. Scottish law is often different from English law, one of its basic differences being the 'not proven' verdict.


Like the rest of the UK, measures are officially metric in Scotland. A few items might still be offered in imperial measures (e.g. a pint of beer or milk). The notable exception is that road distances are still given in miles and speed limits in miles per hour.


Forecasts for Scotland (and elsewhere) can be found from, say, the Met Office or BBC. It is said that Scotland (like Great Britain) has weather rather than a climate. The only thing one can be sure about tomorrow's weather is that it will change! Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the weather in Scotland is milder than its northerly latitude would suggest. The annual temperature range is typically -10°C to 30°C, though of course there are variations outside this. The annual rainfall is about 70 to 170 centimetres, depending on the area of the country (with more rain in the west). A visitor is recommended to carry an umbrella in most seasons! Warm clothing is advisable from October to March.


Scotland has its own traditional educational system that differs from England. School pupils study from age 5, up to about 18 if they wish. The traditional Scottish school qualification is the 'Higher'. University degrees usually take four years (a Bachelor's) though that may change to three years in future. There are 15 Universities in Scotland, and numerous other Colleges.


The traditional Scottish languages are the Scots tongue and Gaelic (properly 'Gàidhlig'). Gaelic is a Celtic language with affinities to Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Gaelic pronunciation is difficult to learn properly, so a native speaker or language tape is desirable. Gaelic is most commonly spoken in the Highlands and Islands, though English is always spoken as well. Gaelic is kept alive by TV, radio, literature and the annual 'Mod' artistic festival.

Scottish dialects and pronunciation are distinct from standard English. See the separate dialect guide for some brief details.


The unit of currency is the pound Sterling. For historical reasons, three Scottish banks (Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland) are permitted to print their own bank notes. For most purposes in the UK these may be used instead of Bank of England notes. However, it is wise to change Scottish bank notes to English ones before leaving the UK since it can be difficult to persuade foreign banks to accept them.

Tipping is generally at the discretion of the customer, though a tip of around 10% is expected for services such as taxis, hair-dressers and restaurants. Some restaurants include service in their prices, some add a service charge to the bill, and some leave it up to customers. Check in case you forget to tip or end up tipping twice!

VAT (Value Added Tax) at 20% is imposed on most goods and services. Some shops (such as those who sell mainly to business customers) may not include VAT in their prices, but normally you should expect to see a VAT-inclusive price. Non-UK residents may be able to reclaim VAT when they leave the country.

Food and Drink

As a northern country, Scottish cuisine tends towards being filling rather than elegant. Salmon, beef, venison and game poultry are well regarded. Oatmeal appears in a number of recipes such as porridge (taken for breakfast with salt or sugar) and brose. Biscuits include shortbread (sweet) and oatcakes (eaten with cheese). Haggis is made from offal and cereal, and sold in stuffed form. Working-class fare includes black pudding (don't ask the contents), white pudding and fruit pudding.

Scotland is famous for its whisky (the name being derived from 'uisge-beatha' - Gaelic for 'water of life'). A variety of ales and beers is brewed, from light to dark, mild to strong. 'Irn Bru' ™ is a traditional fizzy drink that rivals better known commercial products. Plain tap water is generally safe to drink throughout the country; the water is soft.


The mains electricity is nominally 230 ± 10 volts AC, 50 Hz. The UK uses three-pin plugs with one vertical earth pin at the top and two horizontal live/neutral pins on each side:

UK Plug


Visit Scotland and local tourist organisations have an active presence on the web. Scotland's cities and towns have major museums, theatres and concert halls. Major cities have regular events, such as the Edinburgh Festival. Castles are worth visiting. The countryside offers scenic beauty and attractions such as golf (which originated in Scotland), hill-walking, climbing, pony-trekking and fishing. The coastline offers pretty fishing villages and sailing. Throughout the summer, many towns (particularly in the Highlands) put on their annual Highland Games.

Scotland naturally offers a wide choice of accommodation for the tourist. Bed-and-Breakfast establishments offer good value, and are often picturesquely located.

Public holidays in Scotland are broadly similar to those of the UK. However, English bank holidays are often not general holidays in Scotland. The first fortnight of July is the traditional summer holiday period in Glasgow, while in Edinburgh it is the second fortnight in July.


Like the rest of the UK, driving is on the left. Roundabouts are therefore followed clockwise. North American drivers should note that it is not allowed to turn if a red light is showing - there may be a filter signal for this. The default speed limits are 30 mph in built-up areas (often now 20mph in urban areas), 60 mph on rural roads, and 70 mph on dual carriageways and motorways. Reduced speed limits will be signposted (and are common in towns). Fixed and mobile speed cameras are fairly widely used.


There are several historic art museums in Scotland, notably in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scotland is noted for many historic figures, for example in literature (e.g. Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott), science (e.g. James Clerk Maxwell) and engineering (e.g. John Logie Baird, James Watt).

The Scottish flag (saltire) has a white X on a blue background (the St. Andrews cross). The thistle and the bluebell are floral emblems of Scotland. A lion rampant also appears on Scottish flags. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, celebrated on 30th November. Another famous date in Scotland is 25th January - the birthday of Robert Burns.

Scottish country dancing is practised world-wide, and supported by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. The traditional music played for this is listened to in its own right. Other forms of Scottish music include 'mouth music' (sung unaccompanied) and music for the bagpipes.

Do's and Don'ts

Scottish Web Links

Here are a few web links for visitors to Scotland, as a small sampling of what is available. Many Scottish regions also have their own web sites.

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Last Update: 12th January 2024