SCOTLAND has outshone Italy, South Africa and New Zealand to be crowned the world’s most beautiful country by readers of a respected travel guide for the first time.

Emphasising its “wild beaches, deep lochs and craggy castles”, the poll for Rough Guides also highlighted its “wonderful and beautiful sights”.

Scotland polled ahead of Canada and New Zealand were placed second and third respectively.

Edinburgh’s Old Town, Stirling Castle, Glen Coe and the beaches of South Harris are among the places recommended to visitors in The Rough Guides’ book.

Herald View: Scotland is beautiful but let’s try to keep it that way

The shock result was welcomed by tourism organisation Visit Scotland which said it would provide a further pull to visitors who have been flocking to the country.

Spokeswoman Barbara Clark said: “Scotland has won a few accolades over years, usually for its natural landscapes or its people and it’s really good to see the country topping a poll for its beauty and wide open spaces.

“We have seen a growth in international visitors this year, particularly from America. Part of that is that the exchange rate is good for visitors, that has made a huge difference.”

Travel writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish said Scotland deserved the accolade but warned that developments in some remote areas could spoil some landscapes.

“I think it’s the wonderful diversity of landscape that we have in Scotland that makes it so special,” he said. “Take for example the different characteristics of the Cairngorms and the Skye Cuillin, yet they are only half a day’s car travel apart.

“Much the same could be said of Torridon and the Trossachs or the wonderful landscapes of the far North-West compared with the massive, empty acres of the Caithness Flow Country.”

But he warned: “Sadly our wild land areas are being despoiled continually by windfarm development, hydro development, hundreds of new bulldozed tracks crossing the summits and the mono-culture of the grouse shooting industry.

“If Scotland is thought to be the most beautiful country in the world then we have to protect that beauty, not tarnish it in the name of economic development.”

Herald View: Scotland is beautiful but let’s try to keep it that way

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its policies ensure developments are sited at appropriate locations.

But while there is a need to pursue Scotland’s “vast potential” as renewable energy producer, she added, it must be done in a way that protects the country’s “magnificent natural environment”.