In the corner table of Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow’s Merchant City this Thursday afternoon, Peter Irvine is sitting with a glass of water, a menu and a sense of trepidation.

He should be celebrating. The latest edition of Scotland the Best, Irvine’s guide to all that is good and great in Scotland - from cafes, restaurants and pubs to waterfalls and wild swimming spots - is out today.

But that’s also the reason for the trepidation. Irvine fingers the pages of the new book - the 14th edition - hoping that everything within is still correct.

“I can’t stand it being out of date, to be honest,” he tells me right at the beginning of our conversation. “It takes a while to edit and print. I need to reassure myself that it’s current.

“I’ve been researching it in Edinburgh and Glasgow where there is a lot of new businesses, especially in Edinburgh I have to reassure myself that they’re going to be still open; not just in three months but in two or three years.


Peter Irvine's Scotland's best roadside, seaside and countryside inns

“You can see with all these new places, the Gen Z places, the artisan bakers, the coffee shops, the world food places on the South Side and down Edinburgh’s Leith Walk. Are they going to stay? Because it’s tough. And if you’re opening a new coffee shop there’s another six opened up down the street since you decided to do it. So, it’s tricky. I have to make that judgement.

“But I’ve always thought, ‘This is about the best. And if it’s among the best, the chances are it will remain. And so we’re in Cafe Gandolfi. It was the best and so it has remained. It’s very much like it was,” Irvine concludes, looking around him. “It has retained that middle European coffee shop vibe. It is timeless. The same with Valvona & Crolla and many others.”

Some things are worth celebrating then. Some 2117, in fact. From Loch Lomond on page one of Scotland the Best to Shetland’s Bonhoga Gallery and Weisdale Mill on page 376 of the book.

If you want to find out what Irvine believes are Edinburgh’s best fish and chips (The Fishmarket Newhaven and Pierinos on Bernard Street), Glasgow’s best vegan restaurants (Suissi Vegan Kitchen on Dumbarton Road and Glasvegan in St Enoch’s Square) or the most interesting coastal villages in Scotland (Plockton, Stromness, Cromarty and the Moray Coast fishing villages), it’s all here.

But it’s maybe not just Irvine’s desire to be accurate that is casting shadows today. Since the last edition of Scotland the Best arrived in 2019, we’ve lived through a pandemic and a cost of living crisis.

As a result, the hospitality sector in Scotland is finding things tough in 2024. Post-Brexit, staff are hard to find, energy bills have gone through the roof and people don’t have the disposable income to go out as much as they did.

Given that he has travelled the length and breadth of the country researching the book, Irvine is in a good position to tell us the state of the nation. What can we be proud of? What should we be worried about? Which is why I’ve come to Cafe Gandolfi. To map out where we are.

Irvine is the perfect guide. Now in his seventies (he’s coy about his age), he has spent the last few decades as director of many of Scotland’s major events and festivals, including Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. He was also the co-founder of Regular Music.

And when he is not working he has spent the last 30 years and counting travelling around Scotland finding out what it has to offer. He is, by his own admission, fussy. Opinionated too. Traits which seem to me useful when it comes to decide what deserves to be lauded. Scotland the Best is the result.

The book is all about granular detail, of course. What I’m interested in today, however, is the big picture. We start in Edinburgh where he lives.

The Herald: Edinburgh is home to top class restaurantsEdinburgh is home to top class restaurants (Image: free)


If there’s one place in Scotland that is very much on the up it is the capital, Irvine believes.

“Edinburgh has turned into a great international city. The range of food is fantastic now, and it’s from fine dining and deluxe hotels to artisan bakers. And that’s a very good mix. It has responded to market forces and the market at the top end is definitely there.

“It’s phenomenal how many new hotels there are and a lot of them are deluxe hotels and are incredibly expensive.

“It just buzzes everything up. It’s really great. And the number of places that have roof terraces … I can remember when there were no roof terraces. Nobody even got the idea of roof terraces. Now it’s de rigueur.

“It’s one of the reasons why, I think, Princes Street is reinventing itself. It was always shops on one side and an open vista on the other. But there was always a feeling it was empty upstairs. Now it’s changing quite dramatically before our eyes and all of those upstairs rooms are turning into bars and restaurants, with roof terraces with great views. So something is happening there, but I think it reflects the fact that, post-Covid, people are not only travelling again but there’s more and more of them travelling.”

Leith is also thriving, he points out.

“ Whatever anybody said about the tram, and there were plenty of naysayers - ‘a waste of f****** money, we’ll never go on it, look it’s going past and there’s nobody in it.’ - the tram really works.

“I happen to live 150 metres from a hub stop that goes to the airport one way and Leith the next, so I use it quite a lot. So do lots of people. Tourists use it and the trillions of students use it. And it opens up a whole new area, not just in Leith itself where of course there are three Michelin restaurants, but it’s opened up in Leith Walk which can now justly call itself a boulevard.

“And now there’s a whole rash of new places, particularly coffee shops and bakeries and cafes.”

Being an international city has consequences, however. Eating out in Edinburgh can be very expensive, Irvine points out.

“The number of restaurants that have become fine dining tasting menu places is extraordinary. I understand, of course, that perhaps it’s easier to organise in the kitchen. And because it’s a ‘tasting menu’ the place can charge a lot for it, up to £150 a head. In Edinburgh there’s about two new tasting menu restaurants opening every week. I find it hard to see how that’s going to continue.

“Personally, I’m not mad about tasting menus because I’m picky enough and you get no choice. They might do a vegetarian version. Vegan? Very unlikely. You’ve got to take what you are given and it might take you hours to eat it. I rarely have hours to eat it.”

“There’s a clientele for it. The mystery to me is how full they are just about all the time. If you’re going out in Edinburgh to eat,and I do that a lot, you have to book a few days ahead, maybe more, and actually many nights lots of restaurants are sold out.”

The Herald: Peter Irvine hailed the hip south side as one of Glasgow's great hopesPeter Irvine hailed the hip south side as one of Glasgow's great hopes (Image: free)


Would that we could say the same about Glasgow. The city has had its share of success stories in recent years, perhaps most notably the rise and rise of Finnieston, but the hospitality sector has been hit hard by the cost of living crisis and there is, Irvine believes, still not enough good hotels.

“I don’t want to put Glasgow down. I love Glasgow. It is a really important city. It has loads of things that Edinburgh doesn’t have, including, most importantly, the people. I just think this period has been really hard.

“I don’t live in Glasgow but I think I’m right in saying Glasgow restaurants are full at the weekend. Definitely Saturday. But midweek? Not so much.”

When I speak to Cafe Gandolfi’s owner Seumas MacInnes later in the afternoon he confirms as much.

“It’s very tough, yes. I think the city centre especially so.”

MacInnes fears that the introduction of the low emission zone has had an impact and he worries about the prospect of parking charges until 10pm in the evening in the city centre.

Even so, he remains optimistic. “Glaswegians are very proud of their city. And it will bounce back. There will be somebody who has a vision. If you think of places like Liverpool it’s going through a renaissance, so we just need that.”

The signs are there, Irvine believes. Just maybe not in the city centre.

“The new places are opening where rent rates are cheap and that’s what happens. Gen Zs are not going to open in the city centre. You wouldn’t expect them to, and actually we don’t want them to. So in Glasgow they open in the South Side.”

The Herald: The Borders retains its appealThe Borders retains its appeal (Image: free)


What about beyond the cities? Irvine was born in Jedburgh and the Borders remain close to his heart. But for a long time it has been a region where tourists drove through. He’s hoping that is beginning to change.

“It was always off the beaten path for most tourists and its appeal is subtle. Everywhere you go it’s beautiful, rolling, undulating scenery. It’s not big mountains, but it’s very beautiful. That is always there for the Borders. And it’s hidden under a bushel.”

What’s required are just a few people to do something well and the whole area can feel the benefit, Irvine suggests.

He cites Scott Hunter who runs the butcher shop Scott’s of Kelso and “a lovely, very authentic French bistro and deli,” in the same town.

“It makes a difference. And suddenly people think of Kelso in a slightly different way. I look at that river running through it and the town square where there’s a really good restaurant and a nice little ice cream shop owned by the same people and Christine Wood’s Naked Sourdough with fabulous artisan bread.

“So Kelso feels like a really nice place to live.

“I believe you need the scenery, you need culture and possibly cultural events. And maybe sporting events. The Borders, of course, have made a very great deal about cycling. Innerleithen suddenly has a coffee shop that was set up for cyclists, but we can all go there. I think that’s how it works.

“So I think the Borders is doing very well.”

The Herald: 'Skye is full,' says Irvine'Skye is full,' says Irvine (Image: free)


The same can be said for the Highlands and Islands, he reckons. “Skye is full. There are now lovely cafes and restaurants.”

As for the North Coast 500?

“The North Coast 500 has always been a bit of a mystery to me. With all those people I do wonder where they are all staying.

“I wonder how long it might be before there are a couple of new, cool contemporary hotels, even though it’s in a relatively remote part. But I suppose it is to some extent seasonal so maybe that doesn’t add up too well.

“That whole route has been a huge marketing success and all the sideroads have done well out of it too.”


Tourists don’t only come for the scenery, of course. As already noted, you need cultural attractions too. And right now there is huge pressure on the funding of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe. We’ve also seen the loss of the Doonhame Festival in Dumfries and the pausing of the Connect Music Festival. Should we be worried?

Irvine doesn’t think the Edinburgh festivals are going to disappear any time soon. “I don’t think they’re going under, but they have to compete on a world stage. That's the thing. They have to fight all the time.

“It’s the much smaller events we have to worry about. It’s very hard for them. Everything’s gone up for them, not least power costs. And the fact that people can’t afford those tickets because music festivals are expensive, and there’s plenty of choice elsewhere and there’s a limited number of acts.

“The thing about festivals is it’s not just the bands, is it? It's the whole atmosphere and vibe of it all. And to do that properly you have to invest. It has to be great food and all of that. So making that add up is increasingly hard.”


The big picture then is one of highs and lows, of rightful optimism and real challenges. All of which said, however, Scotland the Best is a book full of reasons to enjoy this country, whether that be the scenery, the pubs, the grub or the shops. It is a celebration of everything Scotland has to offer, as filtered through Irvine’s taste.

The question now might be how many more editions can we expect? Scotland the Best is a huge commitment, especially for someone who is now in their seventh decade. You do wonder how long Irvine can keep making it?

“It takes a hell of a lot of focus and energy and driving and talking, so, yeah, the question is can I face doing that again?” he admits. “I’m not sure. I do know every time I finish it I think, ‘Phew, thank God that’s done. I can get my life back.’ I dedicate a huge portion of my life to this.”

Irvine pauses, smiles. “We’ll see what happens.”

In an alternative universe Irvine could easily have left Scotland as a teenager and never returned. He did head off to London after seeing the Beatles sing All You Need Is Love on TV in 1967. “I decided the world is changing.” Irvine went off to experience it, dropping acid in London folk clubs, squatting in the same house as The Pretty Things.

“I went to San Francisco,” he recalls. Then New York. “I went to Studio 54, got in twice. I went to the opening night of the Mudd Club. I don’t know how I did it. It’s another person who did all that. In another country and another time. I hung out with that Dylanologist who used to go through Dylan’s rubbish bins in the East Village and so did I.”

What brought him back to Scotland? “I was just on my travels. Scotland was always my home.”

It strikes me, I tell him, that if anything Scotland the Best is ultimately a love letter to his homeland. He doesn’t disagree.

“I feel like I was lucky to be born here and grow up here and be part of a small country where I found I could make a difference. And so I just became completely involved in it and I still feel that and I am very pleased that I am because I love the countryside and I love the cities.

I travel the world a lot and I’m lucky in that way, but it’s just great when I come back here. To belong somewhere is important and I feel I belong.”

Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine, £17.99, is published by Collins