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The very best of Scottish

The VisitScotland Expo was alive with culture, food and drink, and news of new attractions. We took it in region-by-region to find out what tour planners can get out of this exciting country

Scotland’s largest city Glasgow was the fitting home of the annual VisitScotland Expo this year.

The show took place at Glasgow’s SEC, and was promoted by the Kilted Yogis

Fitting because as an up-and-coming event destination, with new infrastructure, anniversaries to celebrate and a good deal of excellent tourism attractions, the city is in an exciting place to be right now. But it’s by no means the only such city in the thriving tourism jewel that is Scotland.

The 38th Expo was held at the impressive SEC on the bank of the Clyde in April, and it was a true region-by-region showcase of everything Scottish, with a great deal of international trade visitors mingling with the coach and group travel sector of the UK.

Our survey said…

Scotland’s great USPs are undoubtedly its stunning landscapes, its history and culture, and the feeling of getting away from it all – and in a survey conducted by VisitScotland, the results of which were announced at the show, those were the top reasons people visit.

In VisitScotland’s most extensive ever visitor survey, 50% of the 12,000 people polled said Scotland’s scenery was their main reason to visit; 33% said the history and culture; and 23% said “to get away from it all”.

And one in 10 said they were prompted to book a trip to Scotland by a film or television show.

The ‘Kilted Yogis’ launched the survey at the Expo, highlighting that “getting away from it all” aspect of Scottish holidays. They are Finlay Wilson and Tristan Cameron-Harper, whose video of them practising yoga in traditional Scottish attire has been viewed more than 50 million times.

The show saw 276 exhibitors showcasing their wares, and was split largely into regional zones.

Glasgow

Glasgow’s zone concentrated largely on the city’s sporting theme. Most of the events of the brand-new European Championships will be held in Glasgow in 2018, following on from the hugely successful Commonwealth Games in the city in 2014. Glasgow is also host city of the UEFA Euro 2020. Sport-loving groups can get their fix at the Scottish Football Museum and Hamden Park stadium tour, which celebrates the beautiful game with a distinctly Scottish perspective. Visit scottishfootballmuseum.org.uk

Portsoy Harbour – the town was a filming location for the new film Whisky Galore

As well as exciting coming sporting events, Glasgow will have a big 2018 thanks to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, internationally-famous architect and designer. Few who saw it will forget the sad sight of his landmark School of Art building ablaze in 2014, but the building is being carefully restored to its original plans and will reopen in 2019.

In the meantime, several venues around Glasgow associated with Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, a designer in her own right, will be celebrating the anniversary year. These include Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Mackintosh House, Queen’s Cross church, the Willow Tearooms, and House for an Art Lover. There are also Mackintosh trails and walking tours available. Visit crmsociety.com.

Dundee

Dundee is another city suitable for artistic groups. It’s famous for ‘jute, jam and journalism’, but has strong art, design and science heritage too. 2018 will see the eagerly-awaited V&A Museum of Design Dundee open, and in the meantime, the McManus art gallery and museum is group-friendly and offers a host of exciting exhibitions.

Art and design, art and science and heritage packages are available for groups, taking in combinations of the Science Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts centre, Verdant Works and the Museum of Transport.

The Borders

The Expo saw the launch of Big Houses in the Scottish Borders, a free map with information on the many stately homes and castles along the River Tweed, allowing visitors to clearly see which can be visited together. They include Mellerstain, Floors Castle, Bowhill, Monteviot and Thirlestane Castle, among others. The map links the houses to the new Borders railway, with the Tweedbank station close to Abbotsford.

The show provided an excellent network opportunity, with plenty of drams to be had

The Borders railway was also exhibiting at the show, the new railway operated by Scotrail, an easy link from Edinburgh. Built two years ago, the railway has already seen an increase in visitors to the area – 22% in January-June 2016 compared to the previous year, with overnight stays up by nearly a quarter, and more growth expected with the next figures. The Borders railway is promoting the day trips market from Edinburgh.

Inverness

Attractions in Inverness-shire were pushing the message that all the best things about Scotland can be found here – the scenery, the heritage, the whisky and the golf, and it’s all easily accessible and connected.

In particular, the area was promoting the popular North Coast 500, the 500-mile-long Highland route, which starts and finishes in the city of Inverness.

New for 2017 is a new 360˚ viewing platform on Inverness Castle’s North Tower. The castle has not previously been open to the public, but this is the first phase in a project to turn the castle into a major tourist attraction.

Inverness was also promoting the many TV and filming locations around the area, plus Loch Ness and its famous monster.

An alternative to looking for said monster is to take a group on a Dolphin Spirit cruise and spot dolphins and other wildlife on the Moray Firth. The business has recently bought a new fast 12-seater RIB for thrill-seekers called Dolphin Mischief, though groups may prefer the traditional 60-capacity wildlife cruise. Visit dolphinspirit.co.uk

Royal Deeside attractions got together to promote the queen’s favourite holiday destination

Edinburgh

Attractions exhibiting from Edinburgh included Holyrood House, the Scotch Whisky Experience, The Real Mary King’s Close and Historic Scotland (including Edinburgh Castle) – all based on the famous Royal Mile.

Or, in the case of Real Mary King’s Close, under the Royal Mile. The attraction is a time capsule of streets, where groups are guided by a character tour guide to learn about the past between the 16th and 19th centuries. At the show, VisitScotland Chairman Lord Thurso launched several new events packages at the attraction – including staff excursions, corporate events, educational visits and more. The team can create a bespoke package. Visit realmarykingsclose.com

The Scotch Whisky Experience, next to Edinburgh Castle, is a five-star attraction offering whisky tastings and tours, a specialist whisky shop, and private and VIP facilities. Tours are available in 18 languages, and it’s also home the Amber restaurant and whisky bar.

Holyrood House is celebrating Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology by focusing on Bonnie Prince Charlie. The ‘Young Pretender’ held court at Holyrood House for six months in 1745-46, and treated it as something of a party palace, throwing lavish balls in the Great Gallery. Special private tours are available for groups.

This Christmas there will also be private evening tours of the decked-out palace, complete with a glass of champagne. Visit goo.gl/RfQoQy

Cairngorms

Attractions in the Cairngorms were promoting its status as “the last great wilderness of Europe”. With arctic conditions, stunning wildlife and five of the UK’s highest mountains, the Cairngorms National Park offers solitude and tranquillity even for groups.

Still Standing, by Angus Ritchie and Daniel Tyler, one of the art installations for the new Snow Road

A £315,000 project is now underway to develop the A9 as a scenic touring route called the Snow Road, between Blairgowrie in Perthshire and Grantown-On-Spey in the Highlands. The route, eminently suitable for coaches, goes from the lowlands of Perthshire into the Cairngorm Mountains and over the highest public road in Britain. It takes the visitor through the Devils Elbow, the Mountains around the Glenshee Ski Centre, and up into Royal Deeside, before heading over the mountain roads to Corgarff, up to the Lecht Ski Centre, and on to Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey.

Royal Deeside was at the show, promoting Balmoral, Royal Lochnager distillery and Braemar Castle together. The area – including Braemar, a typical Highland village – is actively trying to attract more coach groups. Visit royal-deeside.org.uk

Fife

A number of attractions in Fife, the home of golf, were at the show, not least the British Golf Museum at the historic St Andrews Old Course.

Also in St Andrews is Blown Away Experiences for thrill-seeking groups. The attraction, based on St Andrews beach, offers landyachting, kayaking, paddleboarding and zapcatting activities. The business turns 10 this year, and is suitable for all ages.

Moray Speyside

Moray’s Four Towns came together at the show to promote their many selling points in a joined-up way, as one destination.

Buckie, Forres, Keith and Lossiemouth were out in force, promoting their own attractions and the regional spirit of the area – through food and drink, festivals, retail and themes. Local produce was served on the stands throughout the day, including whisky, gin, ale, coffee, sausages and smoked salmon on oatcakes; and upcoming events, including whisky, arts and music festivals, were promoted.

Aberdeen

Aberdeen looks to be another exciting big-hitter in the coming years, and its vibrant yellow-and-black branding at the show was certainly futuristic.

The vibrant Visit Aberdeenshire stand highlighted how far into the future the city is

The city is seeing a lot of refurbishments and new attractions: The Music Hall is getting a £7m refurb; the airport is getting a £20m refurb; the Art Gallery, Cowdray Hall and Memorial Court are getting a £30m refurb.

The city is also getting a brand new exhibition and conference centre, and a new mixed-use retail and office complex in the city centre, Marischal Square.

Aberdeen also has an impressive, wide-ranging festival programme for 2017. Youth Festival is on 28 July-5 August; TechFest from 26 August-25 September; TrueNorth on 7-9 September; and DanceLive on 12-18 October. Visit aberdeenfestivals.com for the full programme.

VisitAberdeenshire offers support to tour organisers in planning and booking tours to the region. Go to visitabdn.com

Falkirk

Falkirk had one of the most impressive stands at the show, with two large models of its famous Kelpies taking centre stage.

As well as the Kelpies, Falkirk Towns was promoting the town centre of Falkirk itself, which has gained a reputation as one of Scotland’s best shopping destinations.

The Museum of Scottish Railways nearby in Bo’ness is also worth a visit. It’s Scotland’s largest railway museum, and is adjacent to the Bo’ness & Kinneil heritage railway. Group packages are available, including cream teas onboard.

Perthshire

Perthshire was promoting several attractions around Perth, ‘Scotland’s newest city’, including Scone Palace; Blair Castle; the Black Watch Castle and Museum; and the Enchanted Forest near Pitlochry, plus the 11-day Perth Festival of Arts held every May.

The team from the Sir Walter Scott steamship, which sails Loch Katrine

There are a number of distilleries in the area, including the Famous Grouse Experience and Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery; art galleries, including Perth Art Gallery and the Fergusson; and gardens, including Branklyn Gardens and Cluny Gardens.

Something different for groups is the Library of Innerpeffray, Scotland’s oldest free library. It’s not a big building, but it’s close to Drummond Castle Gardens and is worth an hour and a half. At the show, the library allowed visitors to try their hand at writing with a real old-fashioned quill.

Trossachs National Park

FabuLuss, the marketing name for the Luss Estates on the banks of Loch Lomond, which launched at the Expo in 2016, was promoting its high-end group attractions at the show.

The village of Luss offers the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, the Luss Seafood Bar, Luss General Store, the Clan Shop, FabuLuss Activity Hub and Luss Smokehouse. Visit lussestates.co.uk

Also on Loch Lomond, groups can visit Duncryne Equestrian & Trekking Centre, Portnellan Organic Farm for speedboat tours, Antartex Shopping Village, Jetski Safari and Loch Lomond Bird of Prey Centre.

The Trossachs’ other major loch, Loch Katrine, is home to the steamship Sir Walter Scott. “We want to grow our groups market,” says Operations Manager Stuart Brain. The Sir Walter Scott and its sister vessel, the smaller Lady of the Loch, carry out one-hour and two-hour tours of the Loch, with the cycling and walking options as well. The Sir Walter Steamship will arrange catering for groups, and there is a fully-licensed bar on board.

There are events on Loch Katrine, including steam weekends, music festivals and a Fireworks Cruise around Bonfire Night. Visit lochkatrine.com