Ask anyone and they’ll likely tell you that Ireland is famous for rainy weather, leprechauns and rainbows, and large quantities of both sheep and pubs (usually not far from one another). Scotland on the other hand is known for its wild mountains, Loch Ness monster, kilts, bagpipes, and whisky.
In this episode, we focus on the natural landscape, wildlife, local characters and unique experiences.
This is Part 1 of our 3 part feature of Scotland vs Ireland. Read on to learn more about how these two nations compare.
Soaring mountains and dramatic highlands teeming with wildlife, Scotland is a country full to the brim with the outdoors. Vast sweeps of wild land inhabited only by deer, eagles, hares and other Highland wildlife, much of the Scottish Highlands and islands are remote, eerie and hauntingly beautiful, while the southern half of the country is comprised of the rolling and lush Lowlands, where the vast majority of the population resides.
In comparison, Ireland is a small island to the west of Scotland and the UK. Though most of the island is rural countryside, the mountains of Ireland are smaller and the coastlines are less remote.
In Scotland, large mountains are measured as Munros (3,000+ feet or 914+ metres) and Corbetts (2,500-3,000 feet/762-914 metres). 282 Scottish mountains are Munros, with a further 221 classifying as Corbetts. In Ireland, we barely have more than a handful – we only have 13 Munros (though called Furths outside of Scotland), and 23 mountains within the Corbett range.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
Despite the smaller mountains, Ireland is not short on rugged, wild terrain. Most of the country is rural (Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Galway, Limerick and Cork are the only real cities…and even then, they are small by US standards).
Most Irish people like spending time outdoors. But unlike the manicured US wilds where clearcut trails and bright trail blazers make hiking for the casual walker relatively tame and mud-free, Ireland is a wet, rough, boggy country. There are few trails (often maintained by Coillte, Ireland’s forestry service), and most of the trails that do exist are fairly short. Or else, they are wet, narrow sheep tracks. A lot of the coolest places in Ireland don’t have a trail – visiting them will mean pulling on your trusty hiking boots and squelching through the mud.
This is actually quite similar to Scotland, where a fair bit of mud-squelching will be required. In Scotland, the Right to Roam initiative gives walkers the right to walk anywhere in Scotland. While we don’t have this official initiative in Ireland, very little terrain is off limits if you follow a few ground rules: no dogs (certainly not off lead), always close the gate behind you (no matter how you found it), don’t litter, don’t wild camp unless you ask permission, and be considerate. In fact, many monasteries, churches, Neolithic tombs, mass rocks, castle ruins, and other cultural sites require a bit of off-trail walking. Make sure you pack those trusty boots, gaiters and waterproofs (Hiking boot or shoe? Learn the difference.).
Scotland actually does have a lot of trails and public access to the land is very important. Organisations like Forestry and Land Scotland and John Muir Trust invest heavily in path building and maintenance, and likewise managed estates build specific walking and biking trails across their lands. This widens access to Scotland’s most beautiful places to anyone with a sturdy set of boots and waterproofs, but also limits damage done by recreational use to set areas.
Scotland’s Right to Roam allows walkers and any other non-motorised pursuits the freedom to go anywhere in Scotland, as long as they adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access code. It may seem contradictory but the built paths encourage people to respect the environment and play a large role in outdoor sustainability.
In Ireland and Scotland, you can spot dozens of types of birds – mostly seabirds – such as razorbills, gannets, fulmars, guillemots, and most famously, the adorable puffins, who arrive in Scotland and Ireland for the breeding season, from April to June. In Scotland, you might even be lucky enough to spot sea eagles. Marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, basking sharks and seals live on the shores of both regions.
Inland however is where Scotland and Ireland differ. While you can spot some deer and stags in Ireland – particularly in Killarney, Wicklow and Glenveagh National Parks – the best place to see these magnificent stags is in the Scottish Highlands. Mating season during autumn is the best time for spotting deer in Scotland, as the males begin to rut. Spotting birds of prey is better in Scotland too, as there are larger expanses of land – keep your eyes out for golden eagles, goshawks, peregrine falcons, osprey, owls and more.
Rewilding is a recent trend in Scotland, championed by billionaire Danish investor, Anders Povlsen, who is the largest private landowner in Scotland after the Royals. He is trying to rewild Scotland by planting trees, protecting large swathes of land, and bringing back wild animals and their natural habitats. On his estates the grazing of sheep and deer is limited, to allow the native woodland flora and fauna to regenerate.
These projects should support threatened species in Scotland like the wildcat, the golden eagle, osprey, and capercaillie – however at the expense of the massive red deer populations that have long dominated the Highlands, their presence propagated by estate owners for hunting and shooting. Rewilding has also raised the topic of reintroducing wolves and lynx to Scotland, who used to roam the Scottish hills freely. These talks are, however, largely theoretical.
But what really makes Ireland so special? Scotland may have the soaring mountains, but in Ireland, we have fascinating local characters.
A large part of this is the fascinating characters who inhabit its emerald hills and sandy shores – the storytellers and farmers, the foragers and adventurers, and the writers, artisans and musicians. Ireland is also rich in tradition, stories and myths perpetuated by those who call this little island home.
In Kerry, walk along the shore or take to the waves with a passionate seaweed forager and fisherman. In Dingle, join a woodworker in his workshop to learn about woodcraft – and his unconventional childhood. On the Aran Islands, say hello to a herd of goats and their story-telling shepherd/ cheese-maker. Explore the rocky hills of Connemara with a renowned archeologist who brings 5,000-year-old communities and the stories of their people life. Head to one of Ireland’s three fjords to taste the oysters of Dubliner-turned-oyster farmer.
Head north to County Mayo to explore learn about dark skies, stars and planets under the tutelage of founder and longtime stargazer of Mayo Dark Skies. Kayak under the stars in the gentle lakes of Sligo with a cheery South African expat. Meet a Donegal man still stubbornly hand-weaving tweed on a traditional loom, and another soaring to new heights atop forgotten sea-stacks. Meander the streets of Belfast with history-loving cab drivers keen to show the Belfast of the old and the new.
On the surface, Ireland is a small, lush, rural island which does indeed get a fair bit of rain (which is what makes it so lush – they don’t call it the Emerald Isle for nothing). But the true strength of Ireland is its people – who despite all odds, continue to be some of the most cheery, hospitable and happy-go-lucky people in all of Europe – are always ready to invite you into their homes for a cup of tea and plate of scones or perhaps a hot whiskey.
Only in Scotland can have as varied experiences such swimming with huge basking sharks as well as learning how to prepare Scottish-North African fusion cuisine under the tutelage of an award-winning cook and food writer or even attend the world’s largest cultural festival. Scotland sure is a pretty special place…
In October 2019, Scotland’s tourist board launched a new campaign, ‘Only in Scotland’. It’s aimed to highlight all of the incredible experiences available here which are unique to Scotland. Though let’s face it – Scotland hardly needs a dedicated marketing campaign to showcase the distinctive and memorable activities on offer in our opinion – they speak for themselves.
Only in Scotland can you go swimming with huge basking sharks and curious seals in crystal clear waters and along white sandy beaches. Only in Scotland can you learn to prepare Scottish-North African fusion cuisine under the tutelage of award-winning cook and food writer Ghillie Basan, all the while enjoying breathtaking views to the Cairngorm massif from her remote cottage. It’s only here that you can attend the world’s largest cultural festival, and immerse yourself in music, arts, comedy, theatre and more, all in one place. On a smaller scale, it’s only in Scotland that you can go for a walk in the woods and spot local wildlife with someone whose family has lived there for generations and who knows just where to look for the most delicious berries or the best chance to see a Highland stag up close.
With our sparsely populated wild spaces, turn to the skies at night and see the stars like you’ve never before. Taste North Atlantic Salmon prepared by an acclaimed chef, fresh from the day’s catch on the Isle of Skye. Take in the landscapes that inspired countless of authors to write globally acknowledged masterpieces like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, J.M Barrie, Nan Shepherd, Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter, George Orwell, J.K Rowling, and Diana Gabaldon.
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