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July 03, 2022 8 min read
Having been a big fan of Hidden Scotland’s Instagram page for years, I was super excited to catch up with the founder of Hidden Scotland, Jack Cairney. Now spanning to far more than their Instagram page, Hidden Scotland has a website full of the best places to discover in Scotland, no matter where you are. They also produce a stunning bi-annual magazine, which, in my opinion, is deserving of a place on every coffee table in Scotland. I had the pleasure of chatting to Jack about what inspired him to create Hidden Scotland, where his favourite places in Scotland are, where’s next on his bucket list here, plus lots more. If you’re trusting anyone’s recommendations in Scotland, it’s got to be this guy.
Jack, tell me a little bit about who you are, and what you do.
Thanks for having me! I’m Jack and I’m the founder of Hidden Scotland. We’re a travel media company that produces a bi-annual magazine – also called Hidden Scotland – as well as offering travel inspiration and planning tools through our website and Instagram account.
Jack Cairney, Founder of Hidden Scotland
You founded Hidden Scotland back in 2016, what sparked the idea?
My partner Karla and I travelled through South East Asia in 2015, visiting some jaw-dropping places. At one point it dawned on me that I was experiencing these unbelievable sites thousands of miles from home when I hadn't even touched the surface of Scotland, my home country. There’s something so alluring about the faraway, but the trip also set me along the path of spending quality time discovering my native land.
I’ve come to realise that if you approach travelling at home in that humble sense, with the knowledge that there’s always more to discover, you can easily pack an entire year with brand new adventures. I also found that my new discoveries were leading me back to old favourites, and the places I loved as a child that I’d never found time to revisit.
It all sparked an idea to create a space that celebrated Scotland in all its forms, a space for people to share their experiences and to discover new and exciting places they may not have heard of. Instagram was the initial space for this, then shortly afterwards we created the website, and it grew arms and legs from there.
For you, what is it that makes Scotland so special?
I honestly believe the world holds few countries as diverse as Scotland. It’s a nation of just 5.45 million people, but when you consider the natural beauty, the art and culture, and the centuries of history, you start to realise how extraordinary it all is. An hour's drive from the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, for example, can take you to some of the great natural wonders of the world, from the rugged drama of the North Sea coastline to the rolling green infinity of the Highlands.
The people are famously friendly – Scottish hospitality, particularly in the Highlands, is known across the globe – and visitors of all kinds can find something that speaks to them, whether it’s joining the millions for an international arts festival or escaping to the small communities of tiny windswept islands. In short, there’s nowhere quite like Scotland. And that’s what makes it so special.
Hidden Scotland has gained an amazing following on Instagram, currently standing at over 900k. Has that been a gradual thing or was there anything that caused the page to blow up?
In 2019, we made a pledge to only post content that we believed in. Content that was interesting, useful, and unique in a way that we believed other accounts weren't. Our Instagram has become an essential driver in developing our identity and creating a real sense of community for both seasoned travellers and first-time visitors. This approach has allowed us to grow our community organically, using social media to drive engagement. Since that pledge three years ago, we've really seen rapid, consistent growth.
It also gave us a great opportunity to design collections of posts on a broader spectrum of ideas and inspiration surrounding a place. Rather than trying to tell our stories around a single image, we started using Instagram’s ten-slide carousel feature to curate our posts and include as much useful content as possible. It lets us focus on geography, or food, or sightseeing, or even local businesses that we feel deserve highlighting. We can tell stories and inspire others, all while remaining true to the Hidden Scotland brand.
It helps us to fully embrace our philosophy of 'slow travel', encouraging visitors to Scotland to spend their time here consciously and really learn about the places they're visiting.
You share some stunning images on your personal Instagram. How did you first get into photography?
What really ignited my interest in photography was a love of travel and a need to document my experiences. Photography was never really an interest of mine until our trip to South East Asia. Karla and I found ourselves in some of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen and felt the need to capture them, so we visited a camera shop in Kuala Lumpur and stretched our budget to buy a Nikon J4. We spent the rest of our trip experimenting with it. At that point Instagram was just taking off, so it was the natural place to document the amazing places we were visiting.
Hidden Scotland is all about showing Scotland’s best sights and things to do. Where are your personal favourite places to explore here?
This is the question I get asked the most. It’s also the hardest to answer! I have so many favourite spots, for a variety of different reasons, so I’ll run through some of them.
My hometown is Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire. It’s a harbour town famous for its Hogmanay celebrations, but it’s also overlooked by the dramatic ruins of Dunnottar Castle, one of Scotland’s most historic castles, and a short drive away is the Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve, a great spot for birdwatching and catching sight of the local puffins.
Crovie, Gardenstown and Pennan are three separate villages in north Aberdeenshire, but they’re remarkably similar in that they don’t encompass more than a street each. The few homes here were previously for fishermen and their families, overlooking the steep cliff-tops and the sea below, but there’s now a mix of permanent residents and holiday homes. We recently spent some time at 30 Crovie, a holiday cottage, and had such a great trip we’re already planning a return in the summer. Falling asleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore is something I won’t forget in a while.
Elsewhere, I’d say that Culross, in Fife, has to be one of Scotland's most picturesque locations. It’s the most complete example of a former Royal Burgh from the 17th and 18th centuries, but it’s perhaps best known for featuring heavily in the TV show 'Outlander'. The cobbled streets and red roof-tiles all lead to the towering Culross Palace. We recently stayed at the immaculately refurbished Dundonald Guesthouse, where we were made very welcome by our host Laura. It opened in May 2021 in what was originally an 1850s pub, and it’s fantastic.
Is there anything you want to tick off on your bucket list of Scottish adventures that you haven’t already?
The list for me is never-ending. I love discovering new locations and also revisiting places I’ve enjoyed before. I’d love to visit more of the islands, Scotland has over 900 across the Shetlands, Orkney, the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides. Some are particularly famous, while others aren’t inhabited at all. Here are five that I’d love to visit:
Gigha is a community-owned island and the most southerly in the Hebrides chain. It’s just seven miles long and sits to the west of the mainland, but it’s actually far sunnier than the rest of the country. It was also the location for the Channel 4 series, 'Murder Island’, where real people attempted to solve a case written by author Ian Rankin.
Fair Isle lies halfway between Orkney and Shetland’s Mainland and is owned by the National Trust of Scotland. It’s particularly famous for being the home of the Fair Isle knitting pattern, and for its local bird observatory.
Colonsay gets called ‘the jewel of the Hebrides’. It’s a particularly literary island, thanks to its local publishing house and a small bookshop selling titles of local interest. It’s also renowned for its large collection of natural flora and fauna – including a wild goat population!
Coll is found in the Inner Hebrides, overlooked by the beautiful Breacachadh Castle. It has long stretches of sandy beach to enjoy, and it was also the second location in Scotland to secure official ‘Dark Skies’ status. Visitors during the winter can witness the Northern Lights.
The Isle of Muck is the smallest of the so-called Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. It’s largely given over to grazing animals and wildlife, but they share it with a community of 27 people, who have largely settled in the charming harbour town of Port Mor.
When it comes to your photography, is there a particular location you’d love to shoot at? Doesn’t necessarily have to be in Scotland!
Way out in the ocean, around 65 kilometres west of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, is St Kilda, an uninhabited archipelago. The last of its inhabitants were evacuated in the 1930s, so these days only visitors get to see its untouched beauty. It’s owned by the National Trust for Scotland and was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1986, and it’s also home to one of the most significant bird colonies in Europe, particularly for North Atlantic native species. You can camp on the island, visit restored shops and buildings, and get to understand its history.
Be prepared, however. We’ve attempted this trip twice and both times the boat was cancelled due to the weather, so it’s always wise to plan an alternative if the conditions take a turn!
Do you have any passions or hobbies other than photography and running Hidden Scotland? And if so, do you try to mix them?
I’m in a fortunate position where I’ve turned my passion into a business, but I do find there's not a minute that goes by when I'm not either working on or thinking about my plans for Hidden Scotland. I believe it’s important to take time away – I often do my best thinking when I’m off-grid, photographing locations, visiting new places and meeting new people. It brings a different perspective on things. The places you go and the people you meet can inspire you in unexpected ways. Even now, we still try to visit a new location in Scotland at least once a month. Apart from that, I make time to exercise every day. It has a huge impact on my ability to manage properly, and to stay focused. Finding balance is an ongoing challenge that requires constant attention and dedication.
Jack Cairney, Founder of Hidden Scotland
Issue 4 of the Hidden Scotland Magazine
Thank you so much to Jack for taking the time to chat to us, all whilst working on Issue 4 of the Hidden Scotland Magazine, a beautiful magazine filled with stunning imagery, great recommendations, and lots of great written pieces from locals around Scotland. We highly recommend you check out Hidden Scotland’s website, as well as the magazine, which is now available to buy here.
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