Where I grew up, in Bangor in Northern Ireland we were six miles from a coastal town called Donaghadee. From Donaghadee harbour, on a good day you could see Scotland. In fact you could see Scotland on a bad day. From Portpatrick to Donaghadee is fairly close and at one point, Northern Ireland and Scotland are a mere 18 miles apart. Talk of building a bridge has been and gone though. I was mostly travelling there by ferry, and it is no surprise that on my list of country visits, I have been to Scotland 19 times.
You can see my full list of countries visited by number of visits here –
1. Northern Ireland – 99
2. England – 91
3. Republic of Ireland – 43 (would be lower in terms of time spent there as it was normally just in and out of Dublin airport)
4. Poland – 39
5. Hong Kong – 36
6. China – 20
7. Germany – 20
8. Scotland – 19
9. France – 9
10. Malaysia – 8
11. Thailand – 8
12. Italy – 8
13. Spain – 8
14. Singapore – 8
15. Turkey – 7
16. Sweden – 7
17.Wales – 6
18. Israel – 5
19. Denmark – 5
20. Slovakia – 5
21. Hungary – 5
22. South Africa – 5
23. The Netherlands – 5
However, since those early trips to Scotland by ferry, I thought I’d look at some of my highlights from backpacking in Scotland. The only issue here is that I don’t have photos for all of those trips, especially since most of those 19 trips were before 1998. Since then, I have only been to Scotland 4 times!! Yes, 4 visits in just 22 years.
1.Larne to Stranraer Ferries
My first dreams of Scotland happened thanks to Sealink British Ferries. I used to travel from Larne to Stranraer with my family, often in the summer time. Sometimes we went in Spring during Easter. At one point, my Dad also worked in Scotland. But it was magnificent ships like this one below that kickstarted that wanderlust to Scotland back in the 1980s.
We would get on the St. David, the Antrim Princess or the Galloway Princess and leave Larne harbour behind. After glorious views of Northern Ireland, we arrived in Stranraer. Stranraer is a small town where I slept a few times, with the Boys Brigade trips and also on rare family nights when we had a quick night there. On those ferries, I remember the games room, the cosy lounges. Those were the 1980s and it seems like a different world back then. Not much colour, no internet, not many photos around and quite rocky trips on the Irish Sea.
Later on, during the 1990s we also travelled on P and O, Stena Line and Seacat. At one point there was a ship nicknamed “The HSS”. I also remember hearing about the horrific Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in March 1987. That was a red ferry which capsized off the coast of the Netherlands on a cold night, killing hundreds of people. At the time, the assistant bosun was asleep and didn’t close the bow doors, leading to the tragedy. The ship keeled over on its side not long after leaving Zeebrugge harbour in the Netherlands. It was bound for Dover. This was the reason we travelled on Sealink mostly as they were safer than Townsend Thoresen, the competitors. Townsend Thoresen was later named P and O and rebranded, they painted the ships blue instead of red.
The small town of Irvine was an excellent place for a few Easter holidays in Scotland. Our hotel was next to a golf course, near a beach and the towns of Irvine, Troon and Kilmarnock. We toured that hat-trick. The hotel was distinctive for its swimming “pool” which wasn’t a traditional pool at all. It looked like a tropical paradise that belonged in Hawaii. This was The Hospitality Inn in Irvine and I have fond memories of it.
The pool had a makeshift beach, a veranda, a bar and a flume (slide). We stayed there a few times. Other vivid memories of those trips included having dinner in the Gordon Bar in Kilmarnock, buying a Sega Game Gear (yes, I owned one of those – bought it in 1992 in Irvine, Scotland) and going to the local leisure centre in Irvine. It was at that Leisure Centre one night that I watched the famous Liverpool v. Portsmouth FA Cup Semi Final. After 2 draws, the match went to penalties and Liverpool won.
The lure of the first British football team to win the European Cup (Champions League) comes from Glasgow Celtic. But the other team in the city, Glasgow Rangers have also won a European trophy. So my reasons for visiting Glasgow down the years have also been connected to football. As a teenager in the 1990s, I went three times to Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow with the Boys Brigade. I was a member of 10th Bangor Boys Brigade and we would do a full weekend there including playing a match against a Scottish team in the morning on the Saturday and then watching a live Glasgow Rangers FC match in the afternoon. Those trips also seem a lifetime ago now.
Aside from that, I have backpacked Glasgow a few times and of course, there are many different places to stay. These days, Couchsurfing is still an option, though hostels may be difficult now due to the recent Coronavirus problems. You can always find cheap hotels glasgow has to offer and take things from there. One more thing – the city is brimming with super pubs. On my last trip to Glasgow (in 2008) I was with more football friends – AFC Bournemouth fans. We did a famous “Party Plane Carlisle” by flying from Bournemouth into Glasgow Prestwich Airport and then getting the train south to Carlisle and back the same way. On both trips, we toured the sights of Glasgow and enjoyed a few jars of Scottish beer. We also revisited Rangers FC stadium and I blagged my mates into the tunnel and onto the pitch for a photo.
The capital city of Edinburgh should not be skipped. However it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally backpacked it! Since then, I have also only been back once. I just love Edinburgh. There is a beautiful castle, there is old school charm and there is a rawness here. I also visited BOTH big football stadiums there – Heart of Midlothian FC and Hibernian FC. I saw Hibs play live and got a tour of the Hearts Museum.
It aslo snowed on that trip and I stayed at the famous Baxter Hostel (I also love it). On the same trip, I toured a few museums and ended up also touring the Scottish parliament.
As well as the football stadiums – Easter Road (Hibernian FC) and Tynecastle (Heart of Midlothian FC), I also met up with the Scottish based Northern Ireland Supporters Club on that trip.
I later left Edinburgh by train, crossing the border back into England to stay in Alnwick, Newcastle and Sunderland.
5.Haggis, tatties and neeps
Of course I cannot forget one of my favourite foods is from Scotland – the staple dish of haggis, tatties and neeps! If you haven’t yet tried it, you can read about my experience eating haggis here.
I first ate haggis, tatties and neeps in the Black Rose pub in Edinburgh and loved it so much, I ate it a few times. The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is a crackerjackie of a street for touring the bars and of course, one night I pub crawled it.
As an added surprise, you can also try the famous Deep Fried Mars Bar!! As well as from a local chippy, I had a posh one in a bar! I also have to say it was delicious!
So finally then to conclude, those were my top 5 memories from my multiple visits to Scotland. Of course, I haven’t yet been to the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands or even the Scottish Highlands! There are so many more parts of Scotland to explore. I think when I finally return there, I would be interesting in nature and perhaps a whiskey tour. I would love to backpack my way to Loch Ness, see the real Loch Ness Monster, try a whiskey in a village like Oban and rest with nature. Finally, I’d also want to visit another few football stadiums. I think Dundee and Dundee United would be good as they are right beside each other and they are famous. Dundee United beat Barcelona 4 times out of 4 that they played them. Plus there’s also the city of Aberdeen, who won 2 European trophies in the 1980s…