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There’s a café in Ed­in­burgh called The Ele­phant House that proudly claims to be where JK Rowl­ing wrote her first Harry Pot­ter book. It’s just above the haunted tombs, up the road from the statue of a dog and min­utes from the cas­tle where kings were be­sieged and heirs cut off, some­times by the head.

No won­der Rowl­ing wrote about wiz­ards: there is some­thing mag­i­cal about Scotland. From the up­side-down ar­chi­tec­ture of Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh to the pitch-black wa­ters of Loch Ness; to the bac­cha­na­lia of Ed­in­burgh’s Hog­manay and Fes­ti­val Fringe, Scotland is a sur­pris­ing, and sur­pris­ingly gay, des­ti­na­tion.

The jour­ney be­gins in oth­er­worldly Ed­in­burgh, where the Cas­tle juts out from its promon­tory like a monarch on horse­back… with a stiffy. Across the val­ley, Cal­ton Hill over­looks the New Town like a mod­ern-day Ar­ca­dia of ro­tun­das and colon­nades, of­fer­ing a view of the hill­top host­ing (for­mer King) Arthur’s Seat.

The place is pure barry (trans­la­tion: fab­u­lous). The Royal Mile is one of Europe’s grand av­enues, a boule­vard that runs from Holy­rood Palace to Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle at a gen­tle slope, bor­dered by a hot ar­chi­tec­tural mess of Tu­dor tav­erns and me­di­ae­val al­ley­ways. Ghost tours come rec­om­mended – this is the town that pi­o­neered grave rob­bery for med­i­cal ca­dav­ers, reach­ing its peak with the camp, mur­der­ous op­por­tunism of Burke and Hare.

Where bet­ter to stay than in a for­mer asy­lum? It sounds grim, but the Ho­tel du Vin in the heart of the old town is as warm as a whisky, with the best wine list in town and a late bar for cheeky night­caps.

Gays of Thrones will flock to the Cas­tle but dog-lov­ing queens should pay their re­spect at the statue and gravesite of Greyfri­ars Bobby. When his owner died in 1858, this loyal Skye Ter­rier re­fused to leave his master’s grave­side… for 14 years. There’s a statue com­mem­o­rat­ing this to­tally real dog and com­pletely true le­gend. And re­mem­ber bitches, ev­ery time some­body doesn’t be­lieve this story, a puppy dies.

While we’re speaking of the ghosts of Scot­tish past, tar­tan shops along the Mile let you buy your very own kilt, so that you can re­mem­ber the heady, mys­ti­cal past of 1993 when gays de­cided that kilts were dance-party ap­pro­pri­ate at­tire. Or if you’re se­ri­ously ob­sessed, a visit to The Scotland Peo­ple’s Cen­tre is awe­some. For this 21st Cen­tury Benzie, it meant dis­cov­er­ing that 19th Cen­tury Ben­zies were known for stone­cut­ting, be­ing sluts and dy­ing young. Here’s tae us!

For present day sluts, the gay scene is mostly cute and un­pre­ten­tious. The jewel in the crown is CC Blooms (so gay they named it af­ter Bette Mi­dler’s char­ac­ter in Beaches), which has two neigh­bour­ing gay pubs: Café Ha­bana and Planet Out. All three have the hallmarks of the pro­vin­cial gay bar: 10-year-old hair­styles, bitchy twinks and a com­plete dis­re­gard for fresh meat. But there’s also fab­u­lously cheesy mu­sic and cheap drinks, so or­der a dou­ble, get over your­self and go boo­gie to Girls Aloud.

Bears shouldn’t miss The New­town (which has a ‘Men’s Club’ in the ‘Base­ment Bar’ dur­ing ‘Eu­phemism Hour’) but my per­sonal favourite is The Re­gent, a hid­den dia­mante near the base of the Royal Mile. It’s de­light­ful, very mixed and full of Chatty Cathys.

That’s Ed­in­burgh, and it’s adorable, but it’s not when the town is at its peak. That’s dur­ing the Ed­in­burgh Fringe and that’s why this lit­tle queer duck is here, for his fifth fes­ti­val. For hard­core Mus­cle Mary club­bers, there are the cir­cuit par­ties. For hip­ster mu­sos there’s Glas­ton­bury. But for gays with a the­atri­cal bent, the Fringe is nirvana.

The Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Fringe is one of life’s great joys. In 2013, there were 45,464 per­for­mances of 2,871 shows per­formed in 273 venues, in just over three weeks. The event is a booze-lay­ered tri­fle of com­edy, mu­sic and un­clas­si­fi­able per­for­mance that some­how runs like clock­work, if the time­keep­ers were naked con­tor­tion­ists or dragons that do magic.

Of course there are other fringe fes­ti­vals – but noth­ing comes close to the scale of the Ed­in­burgh Fringe. All the town’s a stage: ev­ery pub, nightclub, de­con­se­crated church and B&B base­ment sprouts gar­den fur­ni­ture, a spot­light and a tatty black cur­tain.

Bril­liantly, al­most all shows are about 45 min­utes long. No bum-numb­ing epics here! There’s time to run from a re-cre­ation of a 1940s ra­dio play at 11am to a musical about Linda Lovelace at mid­day. The length also means if you catch a dud, it’s go­ing to be over quicker than you can say Six Women Stand­ing In Front Of A White Wall (an ac­tual show from 2011).

It sounds daunt­ing but it’s easy if you get in early. Reg­is­ter at ed­fringe.com and get posted a free copy of the hefty pro­gramme months be­fore. Think out­side the Old Town – Leith might sound like a dif­fer­ent town but it’s only a 10-minute taxi from the cen­tre and home to lux­ury ho­tels like the Mal­mai­son.

A big kick of the Fes­ti­val is the nightlife. For three weeks the streets are over­flow­ing, ev­ery sin­gle night, with glo­ri­ous al fresco booz­ing and thickly-brogued laugh­ter. This is a true fes­ti­val vibe, en­hanced by a sun that doesn’t set un­til ten.

The Royal Mile also bulges with per­form­ers who are ‘fly­er­ing’, from the earnest (think drama stu­dents plug­ging their trench war­fare Macbeth) to the bit­ter (a man dressed as an enor­mous turd). Part of the fun is tak­ing a ran­dom flyer and gam­bling and this year it paid off with a glo­ri­ous one-man per­for­mance about the Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture books, where the au­di­ence de­ter­mined the nar­ra­tive. (Our lead­ing man drowned in quick­sand).

What were the high­lights from 2013? The Aussies did their na­tion proud by tak­ing the piss out of Euro­peans with the re­turn of Eas­t­End Cabaret and Die Roten Punkte. And Dusty Lim­its’ men­tal ill­ness cabaret Psycho was ra­zor sharp and hi­lar­i­ous. (He’s a Brit, but he’s from Bris­bane.)

But we didn’t come just to watch Aussies. Amer­i­can per­for­mance artist Dandy Darkly told grip­ping gay cul­ture hor­ror sto­ries: think AIDS zom­bies and flesh steal­ing bears. Glaswe­gian gay ac­tor Robert Soft­ley Gale’s If These Spasms Could Talk skill­fully bal­anced laughs and pathos with the smartest, sex­i­est strip­tease in town.

And what else do you do when you’re in the bo­som of heaven? Take a 12-hour round trip to a lake, of course! If you’ve come this far, you’re go­ing to want to see the Scot­tish High­lands, and there are plenty of bus tours of­fer­ing one, two and three day jaunts from the Royal Mile. The sin­gle day is an eco­nomic use of time – but the con­stant loop of Scot­tish folk songs may drive you in­sane. You take the high road and I’ll take the low road, but I’ll stick hot nee­dles in my ears to si­lence the bag­pipes be­fore ye.

If you can block out Mull Of Kin­tyre, the trip of­fers scenery that’ll truly smack your gob. The moun­tains are dra­matic and slightly un­com­fort­able to look at, like a Lars Von Trier film. Thank­fully, the sparse­ness is spec­tac­u­larly punc­tu­ated by lush wa­ter­falls and vi­o­let heather; it’s easy to see why it’s been the back­drop for such un­likely lads as Harry Pot­ter, James Bond and King Arthur (Monty Python’s ver­sion). For An­tipodeans with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for an Out­back that is equal parts beauty and ter­ror, the High­lands are un­miss­able.

Of course the moun­tains are just part of the quest. The aim of the trip is to wind our way to the tip of Loch Ness and to join the thou­sands of tourists who fail to catch a glimpse of a mon­ster that doesn’t ex­ist and never has. And yet once on the Lake, it’s damn near im­pos­si­ble to stop star­ing at the murky wa­ter like a mo­ron for that elu­sive, imag­i­nary bron­tosaurus.

Need­less to say, none of our co­hort saw any­thing ex­cept gor­geous for­est and shim­mer­ing wa­ter, al­though there were a few sur­prises. Most vis­i­tors imag­ine Loch Ness to be ovoid, but it tra­verses Scotland like an in­ci­sion 40 kilo­me­tres [25 miles] long and only 1.5 kilo­me­tres at its widest. The wa­ter is as black as eels, thanks to peat par­ti­cles in the for­merly glacial bed. Swim in the lake and you can’t see your own nip­ples, let alone Nessie.

Yet there is one more Scot­tish des­ti­na­tion not to be missed and it doesn’t have pup­petry or cas­tles or fic­tional beasts. It’s Glas­gow. Trust.

Poor Glas­gow. The city will al­ways be the less at­trac­tive sib­ling of Ed­in­burgh: the Khloe to its Kim. But that’s re­ally not fair. Glas­gow is a fas­ci­nat­ing me­trop­o­lis with a var­ied gay scene, wel­com­ing lo­cals and a thriv­ing arts com­mu­nity. It can be rough and ready or chic and so­phis­ti­cated, but it’s def­i­nitely worth a visit.

For starters, you will feel like you’ve been here be­fore, in a good way. With wide streets in a cen­tral grid on steep slopes, Glas­gow >>

The wa­ter in Loch Ness is as black as eels. Swim in the lake and you can’t see your own nip­ples, let alone Nessie.

>> seems more Amer­i­can than Euro­pean. The re­sem­blance hasn’t been lost on film pro­duc­ers, who in the last five years have shot scenes here for Cloud At­las (as 1970s San Francisco) and World War Z (as Philadel­phia’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict).

Yet among the fa­mil­iar ed­i­fices there is the pres­ence of ar­chi­tect Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh, whose Art Nou­veau tea rooms grant the town a retro sheen that’s just the right side of camp. It’s in stark con­trast to my fu­tur­is­tic ac­com­mo­da­tion – the high con­cept and rather fab Cit­i­zenM, where you can ad­just the mood light­ing in the shower, the height of the blinds and the vol­ume of the porn from one re­mote con­trol (called a ‘mood pad’).

Mack­in­tosh’s Glas­gow School Of Art is also fan­tas­ti­cally ec­cen­tric. Start in a base­ment bathed in bright nat­u­ral light (be­cause cel­lars are nor­mally gloomy), tour a top floor filled with re­dun­dant arches (to re­as­sure ver­tig­i­nous vis­i­tors of the build­ing’s strength) and clam­ber down shad­owy stair­wells (to dis­cour­age stu­dents from dawdling).

Speaking of men loi­ter­ing in dark places, the gay scene is per­haps the city’s hap­pi­est shock. It’s big­ger than Syd­ney’s and grander than Mel­bourne’s. We’re sorry, but it’s true. For club­bers, AXM have ex­panded their Manch­ester fran­chise to sat­isfy the most de­mand­ing doof-lov­ing lunk, while Del­monica’s pro­vides camp tracks, bal­loon drops and a mixed crowd. The gay scene is big, but not ghet­toised. At the Un­der­ground (a leather bar sans peo­ple wear­ing leather), a pool com­pe­ti­tion in­cludes jovial straight men along­side the bil­liard-chal­lenged gays. And the Polo Lounge is like the fan­tasy gay bar of the fey foot­man from Down­ton Abbey, with cur­tained booths, plush couches, a base­ment disco and a cabaret space.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the lo­cal news­pa­pers wage an an­nual pub­lic­ity war against the Glas­gay Fes­ti­val, which would be em­bar­rass­ing if it weren’t so vile. Venue own­ers have been at log­ger­heads in a bat­tle of the in­de­pen­dent wa­ter­ing holes ver­sus a grow­ing fran­chise.

It’s not quite a gay utopia then, but proud Glaswe­gian Alan Miller reck­ons it’s worth fight­ing for. As Press Of­fi­cer for the 20-yearold Glas­gay Fes­ti­val, he’s proud of a sea­son that fea­tures new com­mis­sions and a happy mix of gay and straight artists, many of whom are pro­duc­ing work all the year-round. With Glas­gay events like the con­tro­ver­sial 2009 hit Je­sus, Queen Of Heaven and a close-knit com­mu­nity of mu­si­cians and artists, the hilly streets of Glas­gow feel like the best of 1970s San Francisco.

Told you Scotland was magic.

more: Tim Benzie vis­ited Scotland cour­tesy of Visit Scotland, Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­vals, High­land Ex­pe­ri­ence Tours and See Glas­gow. He stayed in Glas­gow cour­tesy of Cit­i­zenM and in Ed­in­burgh cour­tesy of the Ho­tel du Vin Ed­in­burgh and the Mal­mai­son Ed­in­burgh Ho­tel.

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