The Central Belt of Scotland is the broad lowland strip between the Firth of Forth in the east and the Firth of Clyde in the west. It includes Edinburgh and Glasgow the two principal cities, and a string of other large towns: most of the Scottish population live here. It's bounded to the north by the Highlands and to the south by the Southern Uplands. Geographically it includes Fife north of the Firth of Forth, but on these pages that's described as part of North East Scotland.
The area around Glasgow, mostly industrial.
The area around Edinburgh, industrial to the west but with attractive countryside and coast to the east.
|Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire
The more rural counties to the north, becoming mountainous.
Cities and towns
- 1 Edinburgh is a must-see for its castle and Royal Mile, and wealth of museums and galleries.
- 2 Glasgow is confidently Victorian and needs several days to explore.
- 3 Paisley, birthplace of the Paisley Pattern, has a fine cathedral.
- 4 Stirling guards the road to the Highlands, with a stout castle and monuments to historic battles.
- 5 Motherwell is industrial but has Strathclyde park, and nearby Hamilton has a palace that fell down a coal mine.
- 6 Falkirk has an ingenious wheel to hoist boats between two canals.
- 7 Linlithgow has the ruined palace where Mary Queen of Scots was born.
- 1 Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park starts at the edge of this region. Access the Trossachs via Callander and Loch Lomond via Balmaha.
- 2 Bass Rock is an islet with bird and marine life visited by summer boat trips.
Scotland and England were on separate continents until 400 million years ago, and you can still see the join, roughly along the line of the present border. Their collision produced a parallel fault line further north, and this strip of land sank as a rift valley. Down with it went Carboniferous deposits that over millennia turned into coal and oil. So what that created, once humans appeared, was fertile lowlands, a natural transport corridor, and easily-worked deposits of fuel. Edinburgh was important from the Middle Ages, while Glasgow was small until the 18th century then burgeoned into Scotland's largest city. A string of industrial towns grew between and around them, then slumped in the 20th century.
Travel to this Central Belt was for workaday practical purposes until the 19th century: cattle drovers bringing their herds down muddy trails to the market at Falkirk, troop movements first to keep the Highlanders in check and then to recruit them to patrol Britain's empire, and smallholders leaving their farms to seek a better life in the mills and foundries. As well as railways, that century invented "romantic scenery" to stoke a tourist industry, and this area has plenty. Edinburgh launched its Festival in 1947, to grow at a rate rivalled only by the Big Bang. Glasgow was slower to get off the mark but re-invented itself from the 1980s as a buzzing destination.
The two principal cities therefore both rank as must-see, but the other towns are also worth your time. To be sure there are plenty of drab tracts of brownfield and commuter-land, and the "New Towns" of Livingston, Cumbernauld and East Kilbride will only delight students of Brutalist 1960s architecture done on the cheap. But there are many expanses of open countryside, fine coastline, and hidden treasures.
Prestwick near Ayr only has flights to Med holiday destinations, and Dundee has very few flights.
Trains from London Kings Cross, the West Country and Midlands run up the northeast coast via York and Newcastle to Edinburgh. Some continue to Aberdeen, Inverness or Glasgow.
Trains from London Euston, the Midlands and Manchester run northwest via Preston and Carlisle to Edinburgh, Motherwell and Glasgow.
A slow line from Carlisle loops through Dumfries and Kilmarnock to Glasgow.
The Caledonian Sleepers run overnight from London Euston via the northwest: the Lowland Sleeper to Edinburgh and Glasgow, the Highland Sleeper divides for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
The West Highland Line connects Glasgow with Oban (for ferries to Mull, Coll, Tiree and Colonsay), Fort William and Mallaig (for ferries to Skye and South Uist). The other Hebrides ferry ports are linked by bus.
The major highways are:
- Scenic shortcuts through the Borders are A68 from Scotch Corner, or A696 from Newcastle, or A697 from Morpeth.
- M74 / A74(M) is the continuation of M6 from northwest England past Carlisle and Lockerbie to Glasgow, with a turnoff on A702 for Edinburgh. This is the surest route in wintry conditions: it crosses Beattock Fell but is kept open in all but the worst weather.
- A7 is a scenic alternative from Carlisle via Hawick, Selkirk and Galashiels to Edinburgh.
- A77 runs from Stranraer (for Northern Ireland ferries) via Ayr and Kilmarnock to Glasgow.
- A9 runs from the far north and Inverness to Perth, where you take M90 for Edinburgh or M9 for Stirling and Glasgow.
- A90 from Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth, dividing as from A9.
National Express coaches and Megabus run daily from London Victoria to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
See Scotland#Get around. Frequent trains link Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow, Motherwell, Hamilton and Stirling, and are much the quickest transport between these cities.
There's a good speedy bus service between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the other routes are slow.
The highways between major cities are motorway or equivalent standard, but are often snarled. Never bring a car into Edinburgh or Glasgow without planning ahead where to park. For a day-trip the best option is Park & Ride: Edinburgh has a few around A720 Ring Road, transferring to bus, while Glasgow has railway station parking on its extensive suburban network.
- Edinburgh Old Town is the highlight of any trip to Scotland, with the Royal Mile stretching down from the castle to the palace, and medieval alleys descending steeply either side of High Street.
- New Town is the graceful street grid north of Old Town, with the principal art galleries, and the vantage point of Calton Hill with its ersatz Acropolis.
- The East Lothian coast is attractive, with sand hills, gnarly old castles and cliffs through Gullane, North Berwick and Dunbar.
- South Queensferry is where three bridges vault across the Forth: the iconic railway bridge, the 1960s road bridge with a walkway for viewing, and the modern motorway bridge.
- Glasgow has a medieval cathedral, the flamboyant Kelvingrove gallery and museum, architecture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh including the retro-built "House for an Art Lover", and the Burrell Collection.
- Stirling has a smaller version of Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile. Monuments at Bridge of Allan and Bannockburn commemorate victories over the English, rather a long time ago.
- Edinburgh Festival is the loose term for three overlapping events in August, any one of which would fill the city to busting: official Festival, the Fringe, and the Edinburgh Tattoo. You'll struggle to find accommodation anywhere with 50 miles while these are on.
- Rugby: Murrayfield in Edinburgh is where Scotland play internationals, and the premier event is the Six Nations in Feb/March. Edinburgh and Glasgow host the only two professional clubs in Scotland, playing in the United Rugby Championship, plus several semi-pro or amateur teams in lower tiers. Rugby League (13-a-side) is not played in Scotland.
- Football: Scotland play soccer internationals at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Teams in the Premier League, the top tier, are Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, Hearts and Hibs in Edinburgh, St Mirren in Paisley, and Motherwell and Livingston. There are pro teams in lower tiers in Falkirk, Hamilton, Stirling, Edinburgh and the industrial belt around Glasgow.
- The West Highland Way is a long distance hiking trail from Milngavie near Glasgow up the east bank of Loch Lomond to Crianlarich and on into the Highlands.
- The Union Canal snakes west along the contours from Edinburgh to Falkirk, where the Wheel hoists boats into the Forth and Clyde Canal between Grangemouth, Glasgow and Dumbarton. Both canals are navigable throughout and have firm towpaths for walking or cycling.
- Go down a coal mine. Coal smoke gave Edinburgh its nickname of "Auld Reekie", and the seams stretched across the central belt from Fife to Lanark. At the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange you can descend into the old workings.
- Golf courses are everywhere. The best are along the East Lothian coast through Gullane, and Dalmahoy west of Edinburgh.
- Royal Highland Show at Ingliston near Edinburgh Airport is primarily an agriculture fair. There's more tartanry on display at the Highland Games in Stirling and the piping and pipe band competitions in Glasgow.
- Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have top-class restaurants serving outstanding cuisine.
- Cosmopolitan fare is also found in those cities: the cuisine of many nations, and menus for vegans and gluten-free. Yes, even vegan haggis.
- Pub grub and the golf hotels might be your best bet in the small industrial towns.
- All this region has high-quality tap water fresh from the hills, requiring minimum treatment. You don't need bottled water, however much the waiter insists.
- Most of Scotland's brewing, and a large share of whisky-distilling, is in the central belt. Classic distilling country is further north but there are whisky distilleries you can visit near Edinburgh and Glasgow. Lowland malt whiskies are unpeated and mild, a good introduction for beginners.
- Many small-town pubs remain drouthy, but plenty are family-friendly and serve decent food and yes, even wine.
- Edinburgh and Glasgow have lots of accommodation in all price brackets, but it sells out in summer, book early. Since these are all-year destinations, places stay open in winter.
- Not much in the smaller towns, as visitors are fewer and usually day-trip. Look for chain hotels such as Premier Inn at their motorway junctions.
- Very few campsites, and this busy area is mostly unsuitable for wild-camping. Yurts dot the Highlands (another symptom of climate change?) but have yet to populate these lowlands.
- The Scottish Highlands start just north of Glasgow.
- North East Scotland includes Fife (industrial in the west, scenic in the east), douce Perthshire and sonsie Aberdeen.
- The South West standouts are Ayr and Dumfries (both haunts of Robert Burns), New Lanark Mills, and the island of Arran.
- The Scottish Borders south of Edinburgh have former textile towns with grand ruined medieval abbeys.