SHAFQUAT ALI walks the verdant countryside, visits the historic castles and trails the lush green highlands of Scotland to discover a country that’s waiting to be explored
Dramatic castles like this dot Scotland’s picturesque countryside.

OKAY. Scot free has nothing to do with Scotland.

Even though I bet most of you think the phrase (meaning “evading a customary tax”) has something to do with Scottish people, who have a reputation for sharp dealing and penny-pinching. But nothing can be further from the truth. And just to scotch the myth: Scot is the old English word for what we now call “tax”.
Having said that, step into Scotland’s verdant countryside or lush green highlands and, ironically, the first feeling that greets you is one of being scot free! Free as free can be. One with nature. One with yourself. The dark, overcast skies. The crystal, blue lochs (Scottish for lakes). And the highlands in hundreds of shades of green… Life never looked so colourful.
Certainly, Scotland is a land that’s simply waiting to be explored. And considering that London (England) is the number one European destination for Middle East travelers, it’s surprising that most of them have not ventured a little further to discover the many wonders of Scotland.
For a first-time visitor the best thing about Scotland is that no matter where you are, one is never too far away from nature. Barely an hour’s drive from the main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, its capital, you can soak in the nature in all its glory. As dramatic castles nestle between its towering mountains and lochs play hide and seek with sandy beaches, there’s a certain romance about the Scottish countryside that grows on you. A romance that has drawn celebrities like Madonna from thousands of miles to exchange wedding vows here.
According to a spokesperson of VisitScotland, the national tourism agency, the demand for Scottish nuptials has been fuelled in large part by Madonna’s fairytale wedding with English film director Guy Ritchie four years ago at Skibo Castle in the Highlands. Ever since, brides and grooms from around the world are flocking to picturesque castles and stately homes injecting millions pounds into Scotland’s economy. “The Madonna effect shows no signs of diminishing,” she said. “We receive around 30 wedding-related inquiries from outside Scotland every day.”
The appeal of Scotland is that you can get married in a wonderful castle, on a beach or even on a mountain top. And the best part is that it not only has castles which you can admire but, in Scotland, there are castles for rent to suit every budget. Not surprising then that a lot of people now choose to get married inside a beautifully-preserved private castle with its own chapel.
But for those who have already exchanged the wedding vows and – better still – for those who haven’t, Scotland is one of the most romantic locations in the world. Ask Madonna.
But before we move beyond the romance of its picturesque countryside I must add that not only is there something in its air but also in its water. Yes, that’s right. There’s something about Scotland’s water that adds that unique element which makes Scotch Whiskies so sought after around the world!
In Scotland, history follows you everywhere. And nowhere does it come more vividly to life than in Edinburgh. Also known as the “the Athens of the north” in reference to its architecture and 19th-century intellectual life, the historic centre of the capital city is divided into two by the broad green swath of the Princes Street Gardens. To the south the view is dominated by Edinburgh Castle, which lies perched at the top of Edinburgh High Street also known as the Royal Mile, and the long sweep of Old Town trailing after it along the ridge. (I am tempted to add that I could get a stunning view of the castle from the comfort my room at the grand Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, which also boasts what is probably the best spa in Europe.) While to the north lies Princes Street, which is home to its shopping district, and the New Town.
For anyone who wishes to go back in time, a walk around the Old Town, which has preserved its medieval plan and many reformation-era buildings, is a must. Even though the roads are dug up some of the time and the traffic is a bit of a nightmare, put on your walking shoes – and here’s a quick word of advice: make sure to wear sneakers or shoes with rubber soles if you are not used to trudging on cobbled roads. And after seeing the Edinburgh Castle attempt The Royal Mile, which got its popular name for the succession of streets which form the main thoroughfare of the Old Town of Edinburgh. As the name suggests, it stretches for a mile from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Mound down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse – open to visitors, it is Scotland’s top paid tourist attraction.
In between, there are loads of tourist attractions – from The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre to the Outlook Tower to the Witchery to the St Giles’ Cathedral to a host of museums – hidden and not-so-hidden in a labyrinth of criss-crossing lanes.
One thing is for sure: life will never be the same after you complete the mile. And I am not just talking about those aching feet!
It may be Edinburgh’s biggest attraction but there’s certainly more to the city than The Royal Mile. In fact, there are far too many to list. But certainly the Royal Yacht Britannia, where you can get an insight into the history of this unique Royal Residence feature, Royal Scottish Academy and Dean Gallery are among the must-see attractions here.
Less than an hour’s drive away is Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, located on the River Clyde. Glasgow may not have the architecture of Edinburgh nor, for that matter, throw up half that many festivals but it has its own charm that makes it one of the most exciting destinations in Europe. Distinctively stylish, it is the second largest  largest retail centre in the UK with high street names, designer boutiques, giant malls and specialty shopping. It also boasts a unique blend of dazzling architecture, internationally-acclaimed museums and art galleries, fabulous shopping and vibrant nightlife. What’s more, Glasgow has one of the richest art collections in Europe with more than 20 options to choose from and – here’s the best part – most offer free admission. 
For art lovers, the stunning temporary exhibition, ‘Art Treasures of Kelvingrove’, that runs until 2005, is a hot spot. Among the ‘treasures’ on display are Italian Old Masters, including works by Botticelli, Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rembrandt and Reubens and, of course, key pieces by the Art Nouveau architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And not to forget The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow, which houses one of the world’s most important permanent collections of works by James McNeill Whistler. The UK’s original European City of Culture in 1990 (following in the footsteps of Berlin and Paris) it is also home to Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the revered Citizens’ Theatre.
Of course, no account of Scotland will be complete without a mention of its friendly people. And that the men wear skirts (kilts) doesn’t make them any less masculine. In fact, according to most women around the world who have perhaps seen Sean Connery – perhaps Scotland’s biggest export – in one, it only makes them look sexier.
For Middle East travellers, an increased number of flights – including the recent launch of Emirates new daily service from Dubai to Glasgow International – brings the wonders of Scotland a step closer. As Mike Cantlay, deputy chairman of VisitScotland, put it: “The launch of Emirates’ new service – our first direct link to the growing Middle East Market – will open up a whole new level of possibilities for Scotland in terms of both leisure and business travel.” Bon voyage!