Scotland is much more than its stereotypes of bagpipes, haggis, and kilts. Yes, you’ll still find all those here, but to truly discover the magic of the Highlands and Lowlands, consider spending a gap year in Scotland.
While in Scotland, you’ll experience what makes this country and its people unique. You’ll have the opportunity to hike through moors dotted with castles, rock out at one or more of the country’s epic music festivals, and turn acquaintances into friends at a traditional pub.
With English as the common language and amenities not too different from those in North America, you might expect Scotland to be very much like home, just with different scenery. While there, however, you’ll discover that the Scots have a unique and proud identity as complex and surprising as their fascinating country.
Gap Year Ideas
You'll find no shortage of opportunities and ideas for spending a fantastic gap year in Scotland. Whether you find work or find volunteer opportunities, or just spend your time hiking the moors and going to festivals, Scotland will keep you occupied in true Highland fashion.
Fun Activities to do in Scotland
Scotland’s rugged and wild landscapes have been inspiring poets and visitors alike for centuries. What better place to get your boots muddy as you explore the glens and hills of Scotland’s wilderness. While traipsing around the countryside, you can climb Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, and go spelunking in the moon-like caves of Staffa.
Of course, you’ll be able to unwind down after a long day of adventuring in one of Scotland’s many pubs. From Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to remote Highland villages, you can’t miss the country’s traditional pub scene. Some of these establishments appear little changed since the days of Robert Burns, who may just have enjoyed a pint of ale in the very same room.
Speaking of spirits, Scotland is nearly synonymous with scotch. While it may be an acquired taste, anyone interested in traditional methods of production should visit at least one of Scotland’s distilleries to see just what the big deal is.
If you’re near a university, check out what they have on offer for the public. Many regularly put on free events like art exhibitions, lectures, and performances, and the whole community is welcome to attend.
When most people think of music in Scotland, they probably imagine bagpipes. While you’ll have ample opportunities to hear this traditional instrument, Scotland is also one of the world’s premier music festival locations. In the warmer months, hardly a week goes by without the chance to attend performances by some great bands from all around the world.
Work/Intern Opportunities in Scotland During Your Gap Year
Scotland remains mostly rural, and there are a number of possibilities for working or interning in outdoor management. This might involve getting dirt under your fingernails as you work in one of the region’s horticultural initiatives, maintaining hiking trails, and monitoring wildlife.
Once the ice thaws in spring, people flock from near and far to take part in Scotland’s most famous sport -- golf. Many golf courses look for seasonal help, which may involve anything from maintaining the grounds, working in the pro shop, or waiting tables at the clubhouse.
Temp work agencies are a good way to search for work. These companies can help set you up in many different job sectors, such as media, advertising, and hospitality. One great thing about finding work this way is that the agency can be a great help in managing the complications of getting a visa as well as giving you the chance to meet other international people of a range of ages and backgrounds.
Volunteer Opportunities in Scotland During Your Gap Year
One great way to find volunteer placements in Scotland is at one of its many festivals. By volunteering your time, you’ll get free access to some of the most exciting events in the country. Festivals such as Edinburgh's yearly international arts festival, the Tartan Heart music festival, the Fringe Festival, or the Highland Games are always searching for eager volunteers to lend a hand.
There are also volunteer opportunities in wildlife and wilderness conservation efforts. While you probably won’t see Scotland’s national animal (the unicorn!) or the elusive Loch Ness Monster, you may cross paths with the seldom-seen Scottish wildcat or the comical but threatened western capercaillie. Your efforts will help ensure that these and other amazing creatures do not become absent from this mystical landscape.
Tips on Living and Traveling in Scotland During Your Gap Year
Your experience in Scotland will depend a lot on where you base yourself. Scotland’s two main cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have all the conveniences of a modern city yet are still small enough to feel quaint. Out in the countryside, you’ll have to be ready for rural living where simple errands may require a lengthy excursion.
It’s essential to remember that Scottish and English are two distinct nationalities. The Scots are famous for their pride in their national identity. Lump them in with their English neighbors to the south and expect an emphatic correction from your Scottish hosts.
You may find that Scots do not open up to you immediately. It may take more than one meeting before you truly form a connection with them. Stick with it, though, and you’ll see that the Scottish are friendly, hospitable, and humorous people.
Planning Your Trip
There's a lot to consider when preparing to go on your Scottish gap year. Consider the information below as you get ready to go overseas.
Cost of Living in Scotland
Scotland is a rather pricey country to spend your gap year. However, it can be less expensive than many other parts of the United Kingdom. Overall, Scotland is on par with, or perhaps slightly more expensive than many areas of the United States. Larger cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow tend to be a bit more expensive than smaller cities and towns.
There are ways to make your money go further though. Instead of driving your own car, take advantage of the region’s rather decent public transit, which consists of a combination of trains, buses, and ferries. Shop at budget grocery stores like Tesco and Lidl, cook at home more often than you eat out and take advantage of free attractions like parks and public museums.
The currency exchange might seem steep, but if you find a way to earn GBP, even if it’s only £5.50/hr, the costs become much more palatable.
Housing in Scotland
Scotland’s cities have no shortage of apartments (flats) for rent. Many landlords are willing to rent month-to-month instead of requiring a year-long lease. This is especially the case in areas near the major universities that cater mostly to students. Some landlords will require you to have a visa before they rent to you.
Expect to pay between £650 and £900 a month for a basic one-bedroom or studio in a city. Rental rates will be marginally less in smaller towns. Of course, you can cut housing costs significantly by having a roommate.
Once you have an official address and proof of residency, you can start taking advantage of local services, like getting a library card and health care through the National Health Service (NHS).
Most visitors to Scotland and other parts of the UK can stay for up to six months visa-free as a tourist. If you are staying longer, you’ll need a visa. If you can find a job or a volunteer placement, getting a temporary work visa may be the best route to go. For this, you’ll need a certificate of sponsorship from a licensed employer. Allow up to three months for your visa to process.
In Scotland, you can experience all four seasons on a single day. You may start the day in short sleeves only to wish you brought a scarf and sweater come the afternoon. So pack layers and be prepared for hot and cold, sun or rain at any time.
That is except for during the winter. That season is bloody frigid with arctic winds blowing in from the ocean and snowstorms limiting visibility to just a few meters, while the sun only creeps above the horizon for about seven hours a day. Solid winter gear, including long underwear, is well-advised during this season. Otherwise, a Scot may admonish you to "Cast not a clout till May is oot."
Of course, there’s no need to worry about packing for every occasion. While in Scotland you’ll have access to most anything you might need, especially while in the cities. A great souvenir from your gap year may be the wool sweater or rain boots (wellies) you had to run into a shop to get when the weather made an unexpected turn.
Health & Safety
It's not hard to stay healthy and safe in Scotland. However, there are important considerations to keep in mind as you prepare for your gap year.
Scotland has great healthcare facilities. Visitors who possess a visa can take advantage of free healthcare as part of the NHS. It is suggested that you stay up to date on your basic routine vaccinations, but nothing special is required for travel to Scotland.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance will be swarms of biting flies known as midges. While they don’t carry any diseases, these tiny blood-suckers can quickly ruin a picnic or stroll through the countryside. Carry bug repellent when outside around dawn or dusk and near standing water where the midges make their home.
Violent crime against foreigners is scarce in Scotland. Overall it is a very safe place to spend your gap year. In fact, non-violent crimes like petty theft are still quite unlikely as long as you take common-sense safety precautions. Scotland’s (and the entire UK’s) emergency number is 999 and can be dialed free from any phone.
Take precaution if you’ll be visiting any bars near a soccer stadium on game-day. Consider not wearing any obvious supportive attire as there are occasional situations with hooligans upset over their team’s loss.
Scotland’s vast and remote countryside is perhaps your biggest safety threat. Take a compass and map with you before heading out into the moors. Don’t count on getting any cell reception when outside of town, and always tell someone where you are going. Remember that the weather can turn in an instant, so don’t get caught in a cold rainstorm wearing shorts and a t-shirt!
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