Scotland or Ireland? Celtic nations and the same experience?

Should you include Scotland or Ireland in your travel plans? Do these two Celtic nations on the edge of Europe offer the same kind of travel experience? We’ve known Scotland all our days, but love Ireland. Our notes will help you decide.

OK, we are Scotland experts. (And we live there.) Slightly guilty admission: we have just had another great time on a trip to Ireland. (Wait though, we’ve nothing to feel guilty about!)

Further disclosure: we weren’t invited by any Irish tourism body and we never spoke with anyone in the industry.

Nope, we flew across the Irish Sea to meet up with a close relation who now works in Galway – so, instead of being guides, we were guided. In short, we were just plain old tourists.

Inevitably, instead of the down-to-earth “seen that, done that lots of times” tone which we sometimes accidentally adopt while writing/advising on Scotland, we were reduced to rookies, gee-whizz bloggers and first impressionists for the part of Ireland we were discovering.

And that was around Galway, in the west. New ground, though we’d been to Dublin a few times, and Johanna has visited the west coast of Ireland places on a cruise-ship or two. (Don’t be impressed – she was working).

Meanwhile, I (Gilbert) had memories of a short trip to Westport, many years ago, though Matt Molloy’s pub in Bridge Street was certainly there! (And what a night that was…)

View from Alcock and Brown Memorial
Scotland or Ireland? Moor, mountain, distant blue water…could be either? Actually, it’s the view roughly north-eastward from the Alcock & Brown Memorial near Clifden. I promise that all the pictures on this are of Ireland.

So what did we like about the trip to Ireland?

The friendliness, the locals, the Guinness, the many young people, the pubs and music, the authenticity, the beaches, the mountains, the seafood, the shops and much more (including The Burren).

Also, the way the Irish don’t take themselves over-seriously – and especially the way that traffic in Galway City will (often) stop for you to let you cross the road, whether or not you’re actually on a pedestrian crossing. (Actually, don’t depend on this though!)

Mind you, come to think of it, the chances are that in Galway City the traffic will probably be grid-locked anyway. (That’s the only downside!)

Joyces craftshop near Recess
Mountains, lochs, sheep…Scottish ingredients and Irish ones too. But note the small print on the left – outside this craft shop is a statue of the Connemara Giant, a ‘late 20th-century antiquity’. The Irish don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a very nice shop too.

Reasons to love Galway

We could just do a run-through of the main attractions of the area, like you get in plenty of other sites by articulate, first-impression, flying visit, world-travelling bloggers.

But, with all these years of writing about Scotland, how can I get away from this ‘compare and contrast’ thing. How many times did we catch ourselves thinking that we wished Scotland was like this…? Quite a few, actually.

Scotland or Ireland – some differences

Scotland is a friendly place. Ireland is friendlier. There’s an openness in Ireland that makes the heart glad. You don’t find that Scottish shyness or reserve that sometimes takes a wee while to melt.

For example, we found that the (mostly local) waiting staff in restaurants were ready for jokes and banter and exhibited a real desire to make us welcome. (Already we are in the area of dangerous generalisations, I know.)

Sure, you can find plenty of friendly, helpful folk in the visitor industry in Scotland too, it’s just that sometimes…

As for the ambience of a quite big community like Galway City; first impressions are that there are 80,000 folk being busy and cheerful and just getting on with things.

Quality Irish souvenirs?

Where we travelled, even in the ‘tourist streets’ the tatty end of the souvenir market seemed moderately discreet.

(Compare and contrast, say, the upper part of Edinburgh Royal Mile here in Scotland…)

While Scotland sells ‘See-you-Jimmy’ hats complete with plastic red hair, Ireland offers a range of ‘The Quiet Man’ themed quality tweed hats and scarves. Classy.

Mr Joyce's craft shop
Books and tweeds and marble and stuff you’d like to have. Upmarket Irish ‘craft shop’.

Lucky Ireland, to be able to concentrate on quality without feeling obliged to stock sporran-shaped tea cosies.

Yeah, sure, of course you can find leprechauns and some daft Irish tat but somehow, it doesn’t hit you between the eyes like the cuddly Loch Ness Monster toys and beach-towels pretending to be kilts that are a feature of tourist areas of our own dear Auld Scotia.

….and that Irish traditional music

Let’s stroll around, say, the main streets of Galway City, or Westport, or plenty of other places…Look, there’s a sign in a pub for traditional folk music. And there’s another one next door…and that’s another thing:

Scotland promises that you can hear real/traditional folk music and then, in many places, fails to deliver.

When she was a fixer for media/journalists trips to Scotland, I can’t begin to tell you the hours Johanna used to spend looking for a venue where the clients could hear Scottish music.

A sign in Galway
This sign was painted on a pub wall in Galway, but it could be any town in Ireland.

Sure, Scotland has great music, but you have to know where to find it. In Ireland, it seems to be everywhere – but not in the way that, say, Edinburgh city centre is filled with the buskers’ braying bagpipes.

And the Food in Ireland?

In another spectacularly risky generalisation, everyday vacation dining, ie pub food and middle-range restaurants, seems every bit as good as Scotland’s, possibly better.

Maybe that’s because part of the deal is that you get to speak to a genuine local while ordering your meal and the whole experience is cheery.

The same strengths as Scotland’s cuisine: fresh seafood, quality meat and so on, seem equally available on menus. Nope, for food, it’s a tie.

NB, this generalisation does not apply to very top end dining. I mean, when could we afford that in Scotland or Ireland?

But with the emphasis in both countries on fresh local produce, at very least the raw ingredients are of high quality in both countries.

And, as Ireland is in the EU, food safety standards are likely to remain high…whereas, in Scotland…let’s update this one soon, eh?

Perfect pub food in Clifden, Connemara
Perfect pub food in Clifden, Connemara

I’ll have a pint of the usual

…drinking in Ireland

Fancy something to drink while you listen to the music? Is it just me or does Guinness taste better in Ireland than in Scotland?

Certainly they know how to pour it in Galway. The range of beers in general matches anything that Scotland can brew.

Whisky? They spell it with an ‘e’ in Ireland, but it’s still a quality spirit (if a little expensive), so I can’t really put Scotland ahead here either, though I need more practice at comparing.

However, nothing matches a smoky, salty, malt whisky from the island of Islay, Scotland. At least, not so far…but then I’m still a beginner when it comes to Irish whiskey.

The landscapes of Scotland and Ireland

I suppose what the casual road-bound visitor can see could be called the touring terrain – the immediate impressions of the prevailing landscape. 

Considering sheer rugged spectacle, there are 282 Munros, ie mountains over 3000ft (914m) in Scotland. In Ireland, there are 13. (Oddly enough, Munros outside Scotland are sometimes referred to as Furths, from the Scots word furth meaning beyond.)

Carrantoohil, the tallest mountain in Ireland at  3408ft (1039m), is exceeded by more than 90 summits in Scotland. For the avid ‘Munro bagger’ Scotland is the place to be.

But height isn’t everything. Ireland’s terrain is all about perspective and scale. It might be an optical illusion but Ireland’s bens seem bigger than they actually are!

Besides, aside from rugged tops, to the eye, there’s something that seems comfortable about much of the Irish landscape: I’m thinking here, for example, the pattern of field and hedgerow that you can see as you sink gently towards Ireland West Airport (Knock).

On our journeys from Knock, via Westport, to GalwayGalway to the BurrenGalway to Connemara and also, on other occasions, visits to the magnet attraction of the Cliffs of Moher and  also to Cong for its ‘Quiet Man’ connections; on all these excursions there was certainly the reminder  en route of that ‘Emerald Isle’ cliche.

In The Burren
In The Burren

This lush greenery, that famous emerald shade, makes the fields in rural Ireland seem mostly smaller than the equivalent landscape in Scotland.

In another generalisation, mostly there is more hedge and tree cover and, though it may make for less efficient farming, it all looks more diverse and, somehow, comfortable.

But maybe I say this as my home is amongst the intensively farmed large cereal fields of the east of Scotland with their thin hedgerows or stout fencing wire.

Certainly, Scotland also has forestry in plenty – but rural Ireland has grown its trees more casually perhaps, often sprinkled into tiny copses and along field margins. Or maybe we were just lucky and caught the hawthorn in full bloom everywhere.

Yes, but what about the Scottish Highlands?

Oh sure, there’s a ton more big mountains in the Highlands of Scotland and endless vistas of lochs and glens in harmony. But Ireland does rugged as well…a trip to Connemara and the ‘Twelve Bens’ convinced us – and we never even got as far as the Furths lying, umh, further to the south-west.

(Eh? Oh, a ‘Furth’ is a Munro that lies outside Scotland…Mentioned above, but I knew you’d forget.)

To conclude this train: sure, Scotland is beautiful and in places spiky and rugged. Ireland is beautiful in a different way – almost as rugged sometimes, otherwise greener, more lush, with softer rain than that which falls in Scotland.

(Yup, it can rain a lot in both places.)

Ireland and its beaches

Connemara proved that Scotland’s beaches are matched by plenty of shorelines in Ireland too. For example, the lovely tombolo of Dog’s Bay is as dazzlingly white as anything you’ll see on the Outer Hebrides.

The sands popular with surfers at Lahinch (for example) will do just as well as Nairn beach, or St Andrews or a dozen other east-coast beaches Scotland.

Beach near Galway city
Beach near Galway city

Maybe what we found was a home from home, in a way. Certainly, as folk steeped in Scotland tourism industry, we spent our days in Ireland starting sentences with ‘Doesn’t this remind you of…’ Perhaps the two Celtic nations actually share more than I’m implying here.

Like tourism in Scotland, the industry is important for Ireland too.

Let’s hope those responsible for promoting the product in Ireland never have a Skye or a North Coast 500 scenario on their hands: when a Scottish destination is simply over-promoted to the detriment of the lives of the locals and the experience of the visitors at peak times.

(Some would argue though that it is almost at that stage. I mean, the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland seem to get an awful lot of people!)

Galway golf
Golf in Ireland. Almost forgot. It’s important. Scotland may be the Home of Golf, but Ireland is where golf goes for its holidays. Sunset at the end of a round near Galway City. Photo: Callum Stephen.

But, no, Ireland probably won’t go too far down that road in very many places. It seems confident enough of the overall experience it offers as a small, prosperous, go-ahead independent nation integrated with Europe and with an international outlook.

Just think, Ireland doesn’t have to bang on all the time about Loch Ness Monsters or Bonnie Prince Charlie rowing over to Skye or a thousand wiggling kilts; neither does is tie itself up with inventing  endless different visitor trails, like tartan spaghetti all over the country.

Dungaire Castle
Dunguaire Castle and a Wild Atlantic Way signpost. The WAW – gosh, how the logo must have written itself. The blue and white sign is hard to miss. Sorry about the way this one points down. It’ll be fixed by the time you get here though.

Sure, we saw signs for the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ – but these seemed more reassuring than motivational.

In any case, the ‘WAW’ signposts 1553 miles / 2500 km of Irish coastline and isn’t the sort of thing you’ll be tempted to roar through in a couple of days – which is what seems to happen with, say, Scotland’s over-promoted Toilet Tissue Trail, originally called ‘North Coast 500’.

Yeah, we loved the trip partly because it was thought-provoking. Galway, Connemara and that part of the west of Ireland seemed everything that Scotland could be.

So, nothing happened here
This is adjacent to the Connemara Giant, which is opposite Mr Joyce’s craftshop near Recess. It’s strangely reassuring.

In spite of its history of oppression and violence, it doesn’t have that faintly desperate air of having to remind you of its past in the way that Scotland does.

From a tourism perspective, it doesn’t take itself too seriously – perhaps because its attitude is young, self-confident and forward-looking and not old, uncertain and backward-looking like Scotland. (I almost wrote ‘bitter’ there.)

In Conclusion, Scotland Or Ireland, Which Should You Choose?

If you are thinking of including Ireland (beyond Dublin) in your vacation plans then, yes, as Scotland experts, and Irish comparative newbies, we’d say definitely go to Ireland. Sure, if time permits, visit Scotland (beyond Edinburgh) too.

Then compare and contrast. Compare the welcomes, the taste of the Guinness, the attitude of folk you meet in shops, the prosperous look of the houses, the way the locals say ‘Thanks a million’ a lot of the time in Ireland, and lots of other nuances you’re sure to notice.

Does Scotland offer a better tourism experience than Ireland or the other way round? It’s the very fact that both nations have a fairly similar offering that makes this a hard question to answer.

Ireland exhibits the confidence of a small independent nation growing and prospering in Europe. Basically, the Ireland that we experienced was simply a more cheerful place than the Scotland we know so well.

This is the real conclusion: here are two nations on the edge of Europe – though only one is independent at time of writing – broadly sharing the same kind of landscape. Both have a well-developed tourism infrastructure.

A visitor can get more or less the same experience in terms of visitor attractions and impressive scenery.

What distinguishes them is the engagement – the interaction with the people who live there. And while Scotland is friendly, Ireland (at least where we travelled) wins on this criterion.

But here’s a sudden thought: I didn’t even mention my own Irish great-great grandparents – but did we get our warm welcome because we were Scottish?

Go on, discover GalwayConnemara or The Burren. We loved ‘em all. Even the inescapable Cliffs of Moher.