Last updated: 01:20 PM ET, Tue May 19 2015

5 Amazing Ways I Experienced Scottish Culture with Travel Leaders

Features & Advice | Barry Kaufman | May 18, 2015

5 Amazing Ways I Experienced Scottish Culture with Travel Leaders

PHOTO: Beautiful Edinburgh Castle. (Photo by Kathy Gerhardt. All others by Barry Kaufman unless otherwise noted)

I recently returned from the annual Travel Leaders International Summit, held this year in Edinburgh. As with every international summit, the emphasis here was on cultural immersion, and giving travel agents a chance to truly experience a destination.

“Whether Istanbul or Cape Town or any of the other places where we’ve held international summits, it’s really about allowing our folks to get to know that community in a much more intimate basis so they can share that passion, that excitement, that thrill of being there,” said Roger Block, CTC, President of Travel Leaders. “That sums up the spirit of what we’re trying to do when we have (a) summit; to get people to immerse themselves in culture of city so when they get back they can share that experience.”

That immersion came in the form of some amazing Scottish attractions which we were able to experience courtesy of Rabbie Tours. Even as someone with copious Scottish ancestry, I was able to learn a ton about my mother country.

This whirlwind tour of Scotland’s highlands and lowlands allowed me to soak in the many attractions of Scotland, including:

1. A Tour of the Royal Yacht Britannia

When you’re the Queen of England, it’s generally expected that you’re not going to be tooling around on a pontoon boat. When your home is quite literally your castle, your boat must be equally opulent.

The Royal Yacht Britannia doesn’t disappoint. Berthed in Edinburgh after its retirement from active service, Britannia is now one of the city’s biggest tourist draws. And it’s not hard to see why. Apart from the sheer magnificence of this vessel, it’s a unique experience to walk her gangways and take a peek into the life of the royals at sea.

For example, the splendid formal banquet hall pictured here has hosted world leaders from all points of the globe, and too many historical figures to count. And how many people can say the banquet hall on their private yacht includes among its decorations an Easter Island maoi and a whale’s rib bone that you found while exploring? The royals have it pretty good, is what I'm saying. Their boat has its own boat. And even their boat’s boat is bigger than your boat.

Biggest surprise: The ship's numerous sailors enjoyed a bevy of onboard pubs delineated by rank. Some young sailor, judging by the cabinets displaying décor and items left behind by the crew when the ship was decommissioned, is certainly missing his VHS copy of "Robocop" right about now.

2. An Honest-to-God Kilt Factory

Kinloch Anderson knows kilts. The family business stretches all the way back to 1868 and a small shop in downtown Edinburgh. Now they’ve moved out of the more touristy areas and into a much larger facility, where they crank out a dizzying array of stylish Scottish kilts in a kaleidoscope of different family tartans.

We were lucky enough to visit and see how this iconic piece of Scottish attire is made. You’ll notice in the photo of the factory floor, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a panda bear.

That, oddly enough, is because Kinloch Anderson is the official purveyor of a regal black-white-and-red pattern known as the Edinburgh Zoo Panda tartan.

Biggest surprise: Apart from their being a tartan just for a panda? How about the massive amount of material that goes into a single kilt. For one kilt, you’re looking at around 9 yards of plaid.

This is due to the massive number of pleats along the back of the kilt (which are meticulously folded, by the way, so that the pattern of the plaid maintains its integrity across the pleats).

3. A brief journey through time at Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle occupies an important position both in Scotland’s geography and its history. The first leads somewhat to the second, as the Firth of Forth and Loch Lomand create a bottleneck heading north into the highlands. Perched on a massive hill, Stirling Castle can almost see across the whole of the country at this bottleneck, which led to its importance in Scottish history. It was said many times in antiquity that he who controls Stirling controls Scotland. Today, that view has gone from one of strategy to one of dazzling inspiration, as the whole of Scotland opens up before you.

Inside, historical exhibits showcase the changing nature of this castle throughout the ages, from military outpost to regal castle, back to military outpost once again during the modern era, then finally to can’t-miss historical tourism attraction.

Biggest surprise: With hundreds of years of history behind every stone, it’s actually incredibly hard to pick just one. So we’ll go with the photo below, which shows a courtyard used in its heyday as a lion’s den. That’s not a metaphor; they kept a lion in the castle and this is where it lived. Because, hey; where else are you gonna keep it? Inside? They don't make litter boxes that big.

4. A Wee Dram at Glengoyne Distillery

Perched on the border of the Scottish highlands (literally — the road out front marks the border between highlands and lowlands), Glengoyne has been, as the bottle says, “unhurried since 1833.” We were able to tour the distillery, seeing the fresh springs that feed the plant and seeing every step in how this remarkable single malt is made. Before you even walk in to the front doors, you’re hit by the uplifting aroma of barley beginning its first steps on the journey toward liquid ambrosia. Even if you’re not a fan of scotch (no judgment), it’s hard not to be drawn in by the ancient techniques and subtle chemical artistry by which a pure, delicious single malt is coaxed into existence.

Biggest surprise: Clearly, this would be the point in the tour where our guide invited us to “carefully breathe” in the aromas coming off the fermenting tanks. Less an aroma and more a physical force, one sniff of the byproduct of yeast and wort snapped my head back and cleared my sinuses for weeks. A good runner up would be discovering what an immense difference it makes when barley is air dried (as Glengoyne does) as opposed to peat dried. I love me some scotch, but I could do without that harsh peaty taste. To sample this amber nectar of the Gods without that brutal kick was like drinking a warm hug.

5. A Kilted Gala at Edinburgh Castle

Photo by Kathy Gerhardt

I’m just going to get this out of the way: If you’ve never worn a kilt, you are missing out, my friend. There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with the official garment of the highlands; an unfettered quality that is both insanely comfortable and singularly masculine. In a kilt, you just feel like a man. Except when you try to sit down, when you feel like a man who forgot to tuck his kilt beneath him and is now bare-bottomed on a bus seat.

Which brings us to easily the single most-asked question during the closing gala inside Edinburgh Castle, with all the male travel agents present decked out in their Highland finest: What are you wearing under there?

I will tell you that a helpful card included among the kilt, jacket, shirt and tie informed us that undergarments should be worn as a courtesy to the next person who rents this particular kilt.

I won’t name names, but one person at the gala chose to ignore that card. Let’s just say the atmosphere post-gala at the Balmoral Bar was … festive.

But the atmosphere during the gala was equally festive, if infinitely more refined, as Travel Leaders member agents mingled at the height of the castle’s grandeur, each kitted up like Scottish royalty. If you’ve never looked out on the lights of Edinburgh from the walls of an ancient castle, the night breeze finding its way into places that are best left unspoken of, you haven’t lived.

The International Summit was designed to give agents (and one lucky travel journalist) a chance to immerse themselves in Scottish culture. Even for someone who’d been to Edinburgh many times in the past, it was an eye-opening exploration of one of the world’s most beautiful places.

I can’t wait to go back. With pants, this time.

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