It turns out, my parents have lied to me all my life. I had to go all the way to Edinburgh to find out that we are not of English descent, as originally thought. There happens to be a Henderson clan tartan, and my family is as Scottish as heather and single-malt whisky. (What, was there some deeply repressed bagpipes incident?) Clearly I needed to make up for lost time. Luckily, I had a week to explore the land of my forefathers and take a crash course on being a Scot. Then I could go home and explain to Woman I Love why we'll be going back there, again and again and again—because Scotland rocks! So here are my top-ten things to do (even if you're not Scottish).
1. Wear a Kilt
At Edinburgh's Kinloch Anderson, kiltmaker to the Royals, I discovered two things: First, kilts are really comfortable, and air circulates in places men are not used to having air circulate. Yippee. (They said "going commando" was optional; what I did is between me and the tartan.) Second—and maybe I should keep this to myself, too—I really liked the way the kilt swirled when I walked.
2. Taunt Edinburgh's Ghosts
Scotland's capital city is all huge yellow-stone buildings and a looming grey-stoned castle that's surely been attacked by dragons more than once. To get in the historic spirit, I took the evening ghost walk through the city's narrow medieval streets—witches burned here, spirits popped up there, and ghosts still reportedly act up in the infamous Highgate Cemetery. Continuing the theme, I had a dinner of free-range pork at The Witchery by the Castle restaurant, served in a candelit 16th-century anteroom, before heading to my hotel. Prestonfield is a baroque manor house on 20 rolling acres just five minutes from town; out front, Scottish highland cattle—picture cows with dreadlocks—graze. I felt surprisingly at home in a room replete with red flocked-velvet wallpaper. Edinburgh Castle loomed again from five or six different angles as I drove out of town in the morning, and discovered Scotland's lone glitch: a complete lack of useful road signs. It was okay, though. Over the next week, I found that every time I got lost, I ended up somewhere beautiful I wouldn't have otherwise seen, and after a while, driving in circles proved hypnotically peaceful, even on the wrong side of the road.
3. Play Golf
To torture a golfer, tell him you've played St. Andrews, a course jammed between the wild ocean and a town that looks as if it's straight out of one of Dickens' happier stories. Golf was invented here. (My guess, for what it's worth, is that it evolved from whacking weasels with walking sticks.) Most modern rounds go like this: Husband hits the links, wife hits the spa. The folks at Golfgirl St. Andrews are changing that, teaching women how to get a lower handicap than their significant other's, and as a bonus, injecting fanatical competition into relationships. But they also teach men, and they do it well. After some careful instruction, I sank a 30-foot putt. Okay, so I may have missed a few dozen at first. I may be Scottish, but golf just isn't my destiny.
4. Go Royal-spotting
Northeast of St. Andrews is Balmoral, where Queen Elizabeth II owns a little place—maybe a hundred rooms, hardly enough to bother dusting—set on 50,000 acres of forest. It's good to be Queen. I bought a jar of honey made by Her Majesty's bees and walked her estate, land so untouched that one of Scotland's endangered red squirrels darted in the trees, swearing at me in squirrel Gaelic. The Queen wasn't in residence at the time, but newlyweds Charles and Camilla stayed here on their honeymoon. Driving through the nearby town of Ballater, I fantasized about living here with Woman I Love. We'd buy a house with turrets, walk on autumn heather that looks like the aftermath of a paintball match between Fauvists. We'd have simple pub lunches (and gourmet dinners in the better hotels), and then a midnight snack of Hob Nobs, an addictive chocolate cookie I found at the village grocer. One must always try to sample the local delicacies, right? Which brings us to….
5. Eat Haggis
Scotland's national dish, haggis, is everywhere, but different in each place. Oh, the base is the same—sheep bits you'd rather not know about, oatmeal, and assorted spices—but the variations are endless, and it has a texture all its own, both soft and hard, smooth and flaky. I tried it and was pleasantly surprised. Really, it's so much tastier than that other Scottish delicacy, the fried Mars bar. North of Balmoral, the rivers glint like mercury and the landscape flows, changing so quickly that all I could do was gawk at vertiginous mountains with slides of heather and scatters of trees that looked like a giant threw them there. Why does Ireland get all the credit for being green? Scotland is the green of hummingbird plumage, gorse leaves, and the highlights in the eyes of Woman I Love.
6. Drink Whisky
Here's something the guidebooks fail to mention: To get to Loch Ness from Balmoral, you have to drive the Whisky Trail, the world's only heritage route dedicated to booze. Truly fine whisky, I discovered, has about 11 different levels of aftertaste, which move about your body like a slightly malfunctioning massage chair. At each distillery the routine was similar: Take the tour and end up in the tasting room, or skip the tour and go straight to the tasting room. At The Glenlivet in Speyside, a lead-crystal tumbler in hand, I felt slightly fuzzy and very Scottish. And, I figured, investing in a few bottles for later would greatly up my chances of monster-spotting.
7. Find Nessie
The Loch Ness Monster was first noticed around the 6th century; nobody much saw it again until about 1920, when it started popping up like it was being shot out of a toaster. Now Nessie has become an industry, chased by boats and tourists armed with huge telephoto lenses. The day I motored out on the loch, Nessie refused to appear, so I strolled the grounds of Castle Urquhart. Once the largest castle in the Highlands, now it's a romantic pile of loose bricks and broken walls on the shores of Loch Ness, looking more like a storybook illustration than something real. There were other people around, but it took only a second to find a quiet spot, looking over the water. It was worth being here just for the lake, the hills slanting away into the sunset beyond. I suddenly had this vision of Woman I Love as a medieval Scottish lady—all tartan and endless charisma. The monster would surely come at her call. Loch Ness is just one of a string of glacier-carved lakes cutting across the country, ensuring that you're never far away from another grand walking spot, the perfect place to hold hands and drink in the beauty of the land.
8. Hike the Highlands
Inland from Loch Oich is Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom. At 4,490 feet, it still tops out lower than Denver, but it's a serious, craggy peak, with its own weather—it seems to be quite fond of wind and fog. People do climb it, but I settled for a walk on its lower slopes, checking out vast stands of pink flowers that looked like the Rolling Stones' lips logo. The air smelled as it must have when the world was all shiny and new. By evening, I was soaking up the warmth of The Creggans Inn, set on the shores of Loch Lomond, watching sunset duel with an incoming storm. The winner wasn't decided for hours.
9. Learn Gaelic
I was nearing the end of my visit and feeling very smug about all I'd done, until I tried my hand at learning two Scots Gaelic phrases essential for a happy relationship. Asking whomever I bumped into, I got "I love you" rather easily—Tha gaol agam ort in the country's old language. But no one would translate "Sorry, you can't have my Internet password."
10. Get to Know Glasgow
My last stop was Glasgow, a city that spent decades getting bad press until it reinvented itself as Scotland's art capital, and the only place in Europe that gives Reykjavik, Iceland, a run for its money in the nightlife department. I went to check in at Malmaison, a sleek hotel housed in a converted Greek Orthodox church, but there was a problem: '70s Scottish bubble-gum rockers the Bay City Rollers were in my room and wouldn't leave. (It wasn't even S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night.) Once I finally checked in, I discovered that my suite had a loft and a tub big enough to float Woman I Love. There was even massage lotion. Outside, Glasgow was a mosaic of cobblestoned streets and beautiful people out for a stroll. A string quartet played on one corner, and a man in a kilt played bagpipes on another. I stopped and listened, looking forward to a final bite of haggis. Maybe my parents had lied to me about where our people came from, but I found them out, and now I've found my place on the planet. Woman I Love had better start packing, because I'm home.
(For more info, call 800-462-2748 or go to visitscotland.com.)
What To Do
Balmoral Castle & Gardens
The grounds are open daily for free strolls from early April to late July. Cottages are for rent year-round when the royals are away. (Cottages from $785 per week. Tel: 44-01-339-742-534; balmoralcastle.com)
This Drumnadrochit-based company offers one-hour Loch Ness cruises. (Tours from $18.50. Tel: 44-01-456-450-573; loch-ness-scotland.com)
The Glenlivet Distillery
Free tours and not-to-be-missed tastings. (Tel: 44-01-340-821-720; theglenlivet.com)
Golfgirl St. Andrews
Custom lessons on Scotland's most famous course, for all levels of play. (One-hour lessons from $70. Tel: 44-01-334-473-262; golfgirl-standrews.com)
Located in Edinburgh, it's the finest kiltmaker in Scotland. A full kilt—look online for samples of clan tartans—runs around $2,000, and takes six weeks to make. (Tel: 44-01-315-551-390; kinlochanderson.com)
Located at Great Glen Water Park in South Laggan, it specializes in water sports, from windsurfing lessons to whitewater rafting. (Activities from $7.50 per person. Tel: 44-01-809-501-340; monsteractivities.com)
The Witchery by the Castle
Enjoy Scottish fare like Angus beef, smoked salmon, and rock lobster in a 16th-century setting on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. (Dinner for two from $120. Tel: 44-01-312-255-613; thewitchery.com)
The Witchery Ghost Tour
Actors bring the past to life in this spooky evening walk through Old Town Edinburgh. (Tours from $13. Tel: 44-01-312-256-745; witcherytours.com)
Where To Stay
The Creggans Inn
This simple, comfortable hotel, set on Loch Lomond in Strachur, offers a warm welcome. (Doubles from $150. Tel: 44-01-369-860-279; creggans-inn.co.uk)
This Glasgow boutique hotel is pure eye candy, with easy access to the best this hip city has on tap. (Doubles from $235. Tel: 44-01-415-721-000; malmaison.com)
This beautifully converted manor house in Edinburgh is filled with velvet and brocade and set in a 20-acre park just a five-minute drive from downtown. (Doubles from $238. 44-01-312-257-800; prestonfield.com)