Does Scotland Deserve To Be Called 'The Most Beautiful Country In The World'?
I have an eclectic and complex range of emotions about Scotland and, there is no point in denying it, I have been quite rude about it at times. So when I heard that the small British nation had just been voted as the 'Most Beautiful Country on Earth' by Rough Guides readers, I thought I'd revisit my opinions on the place and the times I have been up there to see if I truly believe it deserves the accolade bestowed upon it by the general public and if I could ever come to agree with that.
First things first, I'm British, or to be more specific, I'm English. It is a curious thing about British people that they quite often insist that they are not British but rather they identify only as from their specific region (English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish) despite all having the same passport and all being governed by the same people (yes, there's devolution but it's the hotshots in London that have the ultimate say). I've always gone against this general practice as I'm rather of the notion that we should all try to be more 'citizens of the world' and identify with people rather than places. For example, I feel I probably have more in common with a lower-middle class Scot who has to graft a little bit to get by more so than I do with many of the ultra wealthy residents of my own home county of Hertfordshire, as such it would seem churlish to ultimately identify as English when (to repurpose a phrase from one of our leading political parties) "we're all in this together." So, why then have I been a touch derisory when mentioning the country to the North of mine from time to time?
It is undeniable that I have been influenced by some of the ingrained rivalry between British nations that presents itself as friendly jest until someone wants independence and then it all gets a little too serious. It is probably part of the British culture we should do more to address. It is also partly down to the fact that my father's wife is Scottish and I am a wind-up merchant thus my sense of humor can be quite grating I imagine. Finally, my views on Scotland are also largely shaped by the fact that I see it as a place that people go when they move away from me. One of my best mates moved up there for work some years back when we were both unemployed and left me jobless and alone down South. His girlfriend and, at the time my regular gym buddy, followed him up shortly afterward. A few years later and another pair of friends (whom I was introduced to via the one now living in Scotland) are also due to relocate North of the border and I'm starting to think it is something to do with me and if one more goes I will take it personally.
I have to preface this article with all of this information because, I will admit, I was surprised to hear that Scotland had been voted 'the most beautiful country on Earth' and I genuinely questioned how this came to be. I mean, sure, it's pretty but 'the most beautiful' seemed a stretch and so I set about trying to understand this opinion and if this really is the case and in order to do so, I have to address my own prejudices. Trying to put those aside, I want to delve into the possibility that Scotland could well be the pinnacle of national beauty and if so, how and why?
The cynic in me immediately noted an issue with this poll, and that being that three of the British nations all scored incredibly well and came very highly in this ranking (I recently wrote about the top 20 for an article which you can read by clicking here). Wales came 10th, England 7th and Scotland topped it all off so how can a nation (by which I mean the collective of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland) so small, have three of its four nation states in the top 20 when there is so much beauty in the world and so many larger nations to compete against? Well, Rough Guides are a company that produces guide books for most of the countries around the world but were founded in the United Kingdom and have their headquarters in London. As such, I bet most of their readers are British and I reckon there is probably a heck of a lot of bias going on in their voting process.
Scotland's victory may owe a lot to fierce patriotism as, if I told any Scot I know or have known that their nation had been voted the 'most beautiful country on Earth' they'd probably shrug and, with a smug grin plastered on their face, proclaim 'of course'. In fact, when returning home from traveling around New Zealand for a few months, a country noted for encompassing almost all of the possible landscapes on the planet within its own borders and yet still only ranking third on this list, I remember being asked by a Scot about its natural attractiveness before they added "I heard it's a lot like Scotland." Just to be clear, the two have similarities but to say they are a lot alike would be a massive misnomer and I would have thought New Zealand would have won this poll outright. That's not necessarily a reflection of my personal views but the sheer amount of different vistas that the country has, and their relative sense of being left untouched, means that it has a greater array of variety in its splendiferous offerings. That aside, Scotland still won, a nation with a population of 5.3 million. To put that into perspective, that's about half the population of London alone and there's no way that national pride could have pushed it to the top alone.
The first time I went to Scotland, I arrived in the back of a tightly packed car and I almost laughed out loud that, as I crossed the border, practically the instant after I saw the sign proclaiming 'Welcome To Scotland', a thunderstorm began and the heavens opened up to a deluge of cascading water. The stereotype of Scotland's perpetual rain was almost cartoonish in its execution and the rolling hills that passed by set a moody backdrop for my welcome to the country as the gray skies made for dull, sodden landscape.
I'd been recruited as the best man for my father's wedding and we were heading for the Southern end of Loch Lomond, a freshwater loch that is the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain by surface area. On its Northern shore, it is towered over by the snow capped mountain of Ben Lomond and is fringed by elms and dotted with islands. It is a grand yet wistful place, deathly quiet and painfully lonesome if left to your own devices. It is the silence that makes it so; the placid water seems unnaturally calm for such a large body of it and this adds to its serenity. I was perhaps not entirely appreciative of this at the time, being occupied by best man duties and also dealing with the emotional trauma of my own recent break-up, but here I can say it is stunning, truly and wondrously so. Its dark waters seemingly holding untold mysteries beneath the surface but one loch does not make a nation of beauty. However, Scotland is not just one loch but many, the place is positively filled with them and you come to points where you wonder how the land holds together as it seems perilously stitched by fractious mountains and moors.
Take, for example, the Argyll coast, somewhere that the aforementioned friend has lived now for around 5 years. On the west coast of Scotland, jutting out into an estuary of the river Clyde, just a 'wee' bit north of Glasgow you can peer out, through the mist, and into the rolling hills which open out into a cavernous and striking valley filled with pine and picture perfect coastal towns. Glasgow itself isn't without its charms, although they are less forthcoming than Edinburgh's it is perhaps the work you have to put in to appreciate it that makes it all the more pleasant. Stand on Partick Bridge, looking back towards the gothic spire of the university as it rises above Kelvingrove park and you can see the old charm of the city but it is the sense of modernity that really pushes it forward. Former docks are now chic, sleek areas of museums and high-end apartments yet places like the incredibly designed Riverside Museum cling onto that past whilst using modern architectural techniques to take on the shape of the water itself.
The differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh are instantly recognizable should you head to the capital. Much more like London, Edinburgh's historical architecture is more prescient. That's not to say Glasgow doesn't have glaringly obvious and magnificent architecture from various ages threaded through it but Edinburgh sells itself more as a historic city where as its counterpart tries to push the image of a modern and progressive metropolis. This is typified by Edinburgh Castle which is settled on a rocky outcrop high above everything else and it seems apt that one of the oldest things there is visible from almost every other corner of its boundaries.
Of course, I say 'much more like London' in terms of its architecture and layout but nothing will ever trump my love for the English epicenter of culture and politics. Perhaps it is this obsession I have for a super-city of nearly 11 million now that affects my view of Scotland. I enjoy hustle and bustle and positively thrive on having to weave through crowds at pace but Scotland is that much quieter and more remote that I find it almost disconcerting. This is strange in a sense because I also enjoy hiking and walking and so perhaps hurtling off into the Scottish wilds would appeal to me, and it does as I enjoy the relative isolation; just being alone with nature and your own thoughts.
The last time I was in Scotland, I traveled a lot more up and down the country as I started out on the Argyll coast with its dark, rocky bays having a bewitching presence that seems all the odder when you round the headland to be greeted by soft golden sands and the crumbling ruins of a castle.
Surging up into the highlands, the passage through Rannoch Moor is an awesome display of glorious wilderness as you pass by bog and rock with Glen Coe giving a solemn eeriness and dread to the whole scene as magnificent red deer skitter by, or in my case, hop out in front of your car and scare the living daylights out of you! It is a brooding sort of place that has an almost extraterrestrial feel to it and come the winter, it becomes encased in a layer of snow that lends itself to winter sports and an influx of skiers.
More obvious tourist attractions like that of the fabled Loch Ness, where a monster is supposed to lurk within its depths, actually have far less of a grizzled tone about them. When sun dappled, it shimmers quite magnificently and the Old Lachlan castle on its shore adds a sense of the past to it but the question remains, does this all add up to the most beautiful place on Earth? I don't know for certain, I can only compare to the places I've been and that sure as heck isn't 'everywhere in the world' but I am working on it and do like to think of myself as relatively well traveled. I'm not sure it can quite match up to the awe of seeing the geysers of Iceland when they erupt or swimming in azure lakes at the base of Julian Alps in Slovenia, trekking the rainforests of Peru or lounging on the immaculate golden sands of Australia but, upon reflection, I can say with some confidence that I have certainly been harsh on Scotland with my previous thinking and perhaps it does to be deserved to be ranked amongst the very best. Number one though? Well, you'll have to go there and decide that for yourself.