Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine

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Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A list-based local's guide to Scotland, heavy on hotels and places to eat but with loads of other inspiration that makes a great secondary guide for a longer or recurring trip. Heavy on the places to eat and hotels, but worth it for the more weird-and-wonderful lists alone. Unique format, snappy and opinionated listings and reliable recommendations make up for less-than-perfect layout.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 428 Date: December 2009
Publisher: Collins
ISBN: 978-0007319657

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Peter Irvine's book advertises itself as 'the true Scot's insider's guide to the very best Scotland has to offer and has throughout its many years of existence became a bit of an institution. And no wonder. It is a guide like no other and although it's unlikely to completely fulfil anybody's guidebook needs, it will offer a unique perspective and some top-notch inspiration.

Scotland the Best' doesn't follow any of the usual guide formats, but consists entirely of lists of the best. The bests here including the normal travel-guide things, such as tourist attractions, hotels and other places to stay, restaurants in various price and style brackets and so on as well as more esoteric selections, let's say Great Wild Camping Up North or Luxurious Isolation. This guide doesn't bother with language info, weather warnings, food, history outlines and the like. In this sense it really is a local's or a frequent visitor's guide, or one for travellers who get background data from other sources.

Irvine claims that he won't list something just because there is nothing better, so for example if a location doesn't offer a good hotel, the guide won't list anything. You can see both the advantages and the limits of this approach, can't you?

Everything - and I mean every single thing - is numbered which makes for easy and obsessively comprehensive indexing and cross-referencing of the 2,000+ places listed.

The layout is perhaps the most controversial thing but is obviously the result of the format. After the Big Attractions and Favourite Journeys for the whole country come large sections devoted to Glasgow and Edinburgh with lists of hotels, restaurants, pubs, cafes, shops and attractions compiled according to various criteria - some of them very standard, some more creative, from Best Major Hotels to Kid Friendly Places, Best Indian Restaurants to Best Views of the City. Regional hotels and restaurants get the same treatment later and it's all very useful, but from about half way along the book things get both more interesting and more territorially muddled, with whole-country lists covering anything from Luxurious Isolation to Best Ice Cream to Scenic Routes to Great Wild Swimming Holes to Mary, Charlie and Bob.

The maps help navigating a little bit, though should be placed at the end of beginning and ideally on separate or fold-out sheets while obsessive cross-referencing makes Scotland the Best feel like it's made of hyperlinks, even though it resolutely and stubbornly refuses to exist in a website form.

If from all you've read so far you've concluded this is a very dull tome, it is not. Just the opposite: it's actually fun to read. The entries are concise informative and opinionated, giving a very good flavour of the places listed, the voice personal, engaging and irreverently enthusiastic.

I don't know what the demographics of the guide's readers are, I suspect fairly middle class considering the huge amount of space given to hotels, restaurants and other places where you spend money, so this is somewhat reflected in the selection abundant with farm shops and posh hotels. But there is no shortage of lists that consist entirely of free places and budget eating and sleeping options.

I have not used the hotel recommendations, though they do make sense from all I know. As far as other types of places go - from views to fish and chips to ways to travel, they have always been reliable. When reading Peter Irvine's comments on places I had visited before I usually felt he was spot on, and when actually using the listings to plan trips, I never came across a dud one. Sometimes the places were less great than the enthusiastic note made me expect, particularly as far as value for money and crowds go, but they were never wrong. And some ideas and suggestions were fantastic, and not things I would have thought of myself.

Living in the Highlands, I'd love to see more Highland stuff and less Lowland places, but this is more of a complaint about geography and population distribution than the book itself.

I wouldn't recommend this as the only guide for a one-time visitor new to Scotland in need of a guide, nor as a guide for a one-off trip of couple of a weeks or less. But if you come repeatedly, or if you live in Scotland and travel about a bit, or if you want to do some serious touring, get Scotland the Best. It offers a unique angle, a local's perspective and reliable recommendations.

Both Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux show much more personal view of various British destinations, including Scotland, while Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street Series in Chronological Order or Isabel Dalhousie: The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith picture Edinburgh and its environs in glowing detail and with love. We can also recommend In Search of Sundance, Nessie...and Paradise by Simon Bennett and Mistress and Commander: High Jinks, High Seas and Highlanders by Amelia Dalton.

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Buy Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine at


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