12 things to see and do in Scotland in 2018

Robert Kidd

Visit a gin distillery

Move over whisky, gin is fast becoming a major draw. At Torrisdale Estate on the east coast of Kintyre, with spectacular views to the isle of Arran, a former piggery has been turned into the Beinn an Turc micro-distillery. The first batches of Kintyre Gin – with a picture of a boar on the bottle – were released in 2017 and have met with critical acclaim, carrying off the Classic Gin of the Year prize at the London Craft Distilling Expo. The visitor centre is due to open in the first half of 2018. I’ll be there near the head of the queue.

Island-hop by plane

Clambering aboard a Twin Otter plane and taking off for a Scottish island is a million miles away from your normal airline experience. This is flying in miniature – duck your head as you enter the cabin, enjoy the safety briefing from the flight crew and perhaps even debate your choice of route with them. Then have camera ready as you weave in and out of the clouds, spotting shapely mountains and sparkling lochs way below. It’s my favourite way to arrive in the Outer Hebrides, especially landing on Barra’s cockle beach – the only place in the world where the scheduled timetable is “subject to tides”.

Wait for the bus on Unst

Buses tend to be few and far between on Unst, Scotland’s most northerly populated outpost and Shetland’s self-proclaimed island above all others. But you are very welcome to stay awhile – in fact, Bobby’s bus shelter at Baltasound positively encourages this, with a comfortable chair, books and a television. The decor changes every year or two – usually following a theme which could be anything from puffins to football. Who knows what 2018 will bring? Do sign the visitors’ book if you make it all this way.

Eat lobster al fresco

We have a fabulous natural larder in Scotland, especially from surrounding waters. On a sunny day it is a luxurious treat to sit outside and tuck in to the freshest lobster. One of my favourite places to do this is at the Boathouse on the low-lying isle of Gigha in Argyll – the local topology and Gulf Stream mean clear, warm days are reasonably frequent – no promises, mind. Advance booking is highly recommended but don’t necessarily believe all you read on the blackboard: it probably shows only a handful of lobsters left…which I think is a clever ploy to spur you on.

Tour in a Tesla electric car

I’d say it’s odds-on that most New Year predictions will proclaim 2018 as the “Year of the Electric Car”. Thanks to a unique partnership, McKinlay Kidd has just launched a couple of touring holidays in a hired Tesla. I tried the car out myself on a trip to Strathspey recently – it delivers a fabulous driving experience, with superb acceleration and a raft of helpful gadgets. EV driving does require a different approach to route planning and a shift in mindset to focus on the range. Fortunately, the charging network is expanding all the time.

Drink hot chocolate on the North Coast

Explore Scotland’s answer to Route 66, the North Coast 500, a circular route from Inverness taking in Dornoch, John O’Groats, Tongue, Kylesku, Ullapool and Torridon. The best part of a week gives plenty of opportunity to meander off the 513-mile track and seek out the best local experiences, including a twisty detour over the Bealach na Ba, or Pass of the Cattle, to Applecross. Head up in spring or autumn to avoid the busy season. If it’s a bit chilly, pop into Cocoa Mountain in Durness for an overflowing mug of the sweetest hot chocolate – the human way to recharge your batteries.

Immerse yourself in Mackintosh

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The occasion will be marked by a special exhibition of the Glasgow designer, architect and artist’s life and work at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, running from March 31 to August 14. Complement this with visits to some of his legacy buildings in and around the city centre – perhaps on a guided walk with a student from the Glasgow School of Art? In addition, take a trip a little further afield to the Hill House in Helensburgh, a fine example of his leading-edge creative work in a grand domestic setting.

Get close to nature

We’re lucky to have so much amazing wildlife on our doorstep – red squirrels, white-tailed eagles, dolphins, otters, stags, seals. What’s more, minke whales and basking sharks frequent the waters off the west coast. If you know where to look, it’s easy to stumble across comical puffins during the nesting season between April and late July. To find them in abundance, head for the Treshnish Isles, off Mull. A week on and around Mull will give you a good chance of seeing just about all of the magnificent specimens mentioned above.

Connect with the past

Genealogical tourism is increasingly popular, not limited to travellers in kilts and tammies laying claim to a ruined clan castle. Make it personal – perhaps start with online research at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk then head off to your ancestral lands and visit the dwelling and burial sites of your forebears. Think of the challenges they faced compared to how we live our lives today. Maybe it’s also an opportunity to look up those far-flung current relatives, following up on that quick sentence in the Christmas greeting, promising you really will try and visit in the New Year?

Travel by train

This year should see results from recent investment in our railways. The launch of new electric trains on the Glasgow-Edinburgh routes will have a knock-on effect, with the present rolling stock replacing the rather worn-out carriages on several rural routes, including the West Highland Line. Comfortable seats and cleaner windows will make a leisure trip a more enjoyable experience: ditch the car so everyone can relax and watch the scenery fly by. For an extra treat, add in a journey on the Jacobite Express steam train – perfect for celebrating a landmark occasion.

Stay somewhere special

Entering my 15th year as an entrepreneur in Scottish tourism, I’m delighted to say that hospitality standards have improved significantly in that time: it’s now the exception rather than the rule to be turned away at 1.55pm with “the kitchen’s closed” ringing in your ears. Monachyle Mhor, a farmhouse converted into a warm and welcoming place to stay, six miles along a winding single-track road in the heart of the Trossachs typifies the new approach to tourism. It's an individual, distinctive place, far from the world of chain hotels, and proudly boasts that soup, sandwiches and freshly baked scones are served all day, every day.

Journey to St Kilda

In August, it will be 88 years since the evacuation of the remote St Kilda archipelago. This destination remains high on my personal wishlist, though a colleague has made the trip. Even in today’s fast ribs, it still takes around three hours from Harris, with boat passage very much dependent on weather conditions. Every year I promise myself I’ll go but then struggle to find the time. I gaze at the magnificent pictures of the barren yet alluring landscape, a jagged ridge in the wilds of the Atlantic. Maybe I need to heed my own advice and make 2018 the year to do it?

Robert Kidd is founder and director of McKinlay Kidd, www.mckinlaykidd.com, telephone 0141 308 8009, a specialist tour operator offering tailor-made holidays and short breaks throughout Scotland, Ireland and England. Founded in 2003, the company caters for visitors from near and far who appreciate the team’s personal service and local knowledge in designing self-drive, fly-drive and train touring trips. McKinlay Kidd won AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) Tour Operator of the Year 2016, based on consistently excellent customer reviews.