Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Scotland
Amid the rolling glens of Scotland’s premier whisky region, Speyside in the Cairngorms National Park, The Glenlivet Distillery opened in 1824 and is considered as the granddaddy of all single malts. Distilled in unique lantern-shaped copper stills and matured in the obligatory oak casks for at least 12 years, The Glenlivet has a fruity, smooth flavor thanks to using Scottish barley and spring water from the local Josie's Well. Now owned by French company Pernod Ricard, it is one of the largest distilleries on Speyside and the biggest selling whisky in the USA, producing nearly six million liters of single malt each year while still maintaining many traditional production methods, all be it on an industrial scale. Unlike most of the smaller Speyside distilleries, bottling does not take place onsite but it has an award-winning visitor center with an exhibition showcasing the development of the brand as well as a café selling whisky-drenched cakes.
One of the major highlights of the self-driven Malt Whisky Trail through Speyside, The Glenlivet Distillery is open for guided tours and tutored tastings of various drams; visitors can also bottle their own single malt to take home.
The Isle of Arran sits off the western coast of Scotland. Since the line the divides the Scottish Highlands from the Lowlands runs through the island, its landscape reflects this, and the island is often referred to as Scotland in miniature. The northern part of the island is more rugged and mountainous and sparsely populated. The southern part of the island has more rolling hills, and the majority of the island's population reside here.
The island boasts many attractions for visitors. Castles, such as Brodick Castle and Lochranza Castle, are located on the Isle of Arran. There is also a heritage museum where you can learn some of the island's history. Some people come to climb Arran's highest peak, Goatfell, which stands at 2,866 feet, while others choose to hike the more leisurely Coastal Way. Nature lovers will enjoy the beautiful scenery on the island, including waterfalls, rocky coastlines, and wildlife. It's also a popular place for water activities such as sea kayaking.
Named for Scotland's greatest Romantic novelist of the late 18th century, Sir Walter Scott, Scott's View affords travelers an epic panorama that spans southern Scotland's green landscape. The writer lived nearby while completing his greatest works, includingRob Roy andIvanhoe, and his favorite spot in nature (of many) was at the top of Bemersyde Hill above a meander in the river.
From here, travelers can see the three peaks of the Eildon Hills, the sparkling water of the River Tweed and the heather-clad hills, as well as the rolling Tweed Valley laid out below. In spring, the foreground is covered in jasmine-colored gorse, while in fall the view glows russet and brown. Sir Walter Scott so loved this view that his hearse pulled up here one final time on the way to his funeral.
These days a simple stone plinth and plaque marks the spot, which is included on a range of cycling and walking routes, plus many day trips from Edinburgh into the Borders area. Scott's View is a favorite local spot for newly married couples to be photographed.
On the banks of the River Tay, Discovery Point is home to the RRS Discovery, a former Antarctic research vessel. Learn the Discovery’s story, from the ship’s construction to its many voyages, including the Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, when Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton first journeyed to the Antarctic.
Stretching over 1,500 square miles, Cairngorms National Park is a popular destination for mountain bikers, nature lovers, sea kayakers, and hikers. The park has been named one of the world’s Last Great Places by National Geographic and is the perfect place to enjoy Scotland’s renowned wild landscapes of granite mountains and deep lochs.
Dotted with small Scottish towns and with no shortage of scenery, the aptly named “Road to the Isles” is one of Scotland’s most beautiful drives and provides the base for exploring the Small Isles and Skye. Stretching from the base of the UK’s tallest mountain to a port town on the sea, both coastal and mountainous scenery abound. The unspoiled landscapes through the Highlands of Scotland have been the site of many film and television scenes — perhaps most famously in the Harry Potter films.
There are many stops to enjoy along the way, progressing from mountain towns, lochs (or lakes) and glens to isles, inlets, and white sand beaches. Of particular note is Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight lochs with views of the mountain Ben Nevis, and Glenfinnan, home to the historic monument where Bonnie Prince Charlie once raised his Highland army.
As huge as Loch Ness is, its vast size is not the reason for its global fame, nor is it the magnificent surrounding scenery. The real reason visitors flock to this Scottish body of water is to spot the elusive Loch Ness Monster. Rumors about Nessie have flown since an Irish monk first caught sight of something unusual swimming around the lake’s inky waters back in the seventh century. Today. travelers still cruise around the loch in hopes of catching sight of the mysterious aquatic monster.
Edinburgh Castle has loomed over Scotland’s capital city for more than 1,000 years. Steeped in history, the former royal residence is now a museum, featuring detailed exhibits and period artifacts that illuminate the castle’s storied past.
St. Andrews Castle on the east coast of Scotland dates back to the 1100s and was home to the Archbishops of St. Andrews. It was once the main administrative center of the Scottish church. The castle was badly damaged during the Wars of Independence and little of the original castle remains today. The new castle was finished around 1400 and was built to be easily defended. Steep cliffs to the north and east protected the castle, and the building included thick curtain walls and ditches. Five square towers served as living space for the bishop, his large household, and guests.
Later St. Andrews Castle served as a prison. Visitors can see the bottle dungeon where John Knox and George Wishart may have been imprisoned. Cardinal Beaton's body was also kept here after his murder. The mine gives visitors a sense of what medieval siege warfare was like. The castle also offers impressive views of the sea over the rugged rocky coast.
The atmospheric Royal Mile thoroughfare cuts through the historic core of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, extending for slightly more than a mile from Edinburgh Castle all the way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Both sides of the partly pedestrianized street are bordered by historic granite buildings bearing shop display windows piled high with symbols of Scotland, from tartan to whisky to shortbread. In between the former tenements and taverns are darkened arm-width-wide alleyways, known locally as closes.
More Things to Do in Scotland
Bordered by steep, waterfall-threaded mountains, dramatic Glencoe (Glen Coe) is the stuff of Scottish postcards. Though it has historical significance—it was the site of the 1692 Glencoe Massacre of the MacDonald Clan—and its very own ski resort, Glencoe Mountain Resort, the valley’s main draw is its spectacular scenery.
One of the most photographed sites in Scotland, the Eilean Donan Castle dates back to the 13th century. Built as a defense against the Vikings and used during the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century, this loch-side castle was restored in the 20th century and is now a popular destination for weddings and tours.
A favorite filming location for movie and TV productions, medieval Doune Castle has appeared inMonty Python and the Holy Grail,Game of Thrones, andOutlander. Built for the Duke of Albany in the 14th century, the castle—now semi-ruined—has welcomed such illustrious guests as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charles.
Split into North and South Harris by Loch Tarbert, the north of Harris is all about the dramatic mountains while the south is home to some of the best beaches in the country, like Luskentyre — the famous sandy bay that looks out to the blustery isle of Taransay. Though it may come as a surprise, the Isle of Harris isn’t actually an island at all. It’s actually joined with Lewis.
Harris is world-famous for Harris tweed, and there’s a strong tradition of quality crafts shops and galleries. For a feel of how crofters’ life must have been in the not-so-distant past, visit the abandoned village of Molinginish and wander the stone croft blackhouses. Near the village of Rodel, the medieval kirk of St. Clement is also a popular visit. From Harris, it’s also possible to take a boat trip over to the craggy island of St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to over a million birds. A popular place for hill walking and kayaking, many hikers come to Harris to climb Clisham, which at 2,621 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Outer Hebrides.
The historic heart of Edinburgh, UNESCO-listed Old Town, is home to the city’s most visited sights. Its central artery is the Royal Mile, which connects Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and is lined with top attractions including St. Giles Cathedral, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and the Scottish Parliament Building.
Rising 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) above sea level, Ben Nevis is Scotland’s tallest mountain and a premiere destination for climbers. Once a massive volcano that exploded and collapsed inward, the summit is frequently shrouded in mist. In Gaelic, it is called the “mountain with its head in the clouds” and also “venomous mountain.”
Built in the mid-19th century, this Gothic-style tower commemorates William Wallace, the medieval Scottish freedom fighter whose story was fictionalized in the 1995 blockbuster, Braveheart. Exhibits chronicle key episodes from Scottish history, while the top offers views of Stirling Castle and the surrounding countryside.
The Quiraing is a hiking trail on the Isle of Skye in northern Scotland. The trail is a loop covering a distance of about 4.2 miles. It passes through spectacular Scottish landscapes and is part of the Trotternish Ridge. This ridge was formed by a massive landslip, which created cliffs, plateaus, and rock pinnacles. If you enjoy taking pictures, bring your camera to capture the scenery you'll see along the way. You'll be able to see the water as well as the many strange and beautiful land formations in the area.
The path starts through steep grassy slopes, and crosses rock gorges and streams. Parts of the trail are covered in loose gravel. Along the way, you will pass large rock formations, climb over rock walls, and walk near the edges of cliffs. It is a fairly difficult trail, and it is not recommended in bad weather due to visibility and trail conditions.
Founded in 1835, Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions is one of Edinburgh’s oldest tourist attractions. Located on the top floor, the Camera Obscura provides real-time views of the city, while the five floors below it are crammed with puzzles, optical illusions, and interactive exhibits that fool the eye and the mind.
Among the tall green grass and purple heather between Loch Harray and Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar standing stones thrust from the earth like rusting giants’ swords.
At 340 feet (104 meters) in diameter, 27 of the original 60 stones survive, making this the third-biggest stone circle in Britain. Thought to have been built around 2000-2500 BC, this was one of the last of such monuments to be built in neolithic Orkney. Excavations of the site have revealed lots of pottery and animal bones, so it seems like cooking and eating around the still visible hearth was the order of the day here 5,000 years ago.
Famous for its perfectly circular shape, the beauty of the Ring of Brodgar is that, unlike Stonehenge, you can get right up to the stones. As you wander, look out for Viking graffiti on some of the stones: 12th-century runic carvings from the Norse invaders can be seen on quite a few. Just a few hundred meters away, you can also visit the neolithic Barnhouse settlement, discovered in 1984.
Kilt Rock is a sea cliff on the north end of Trotternish in northern Scotland. It was named Kilt Rock for its resemblance to a kilt. The vertical cliff is composed of both igneous and sedimentary rock which come together in vertical bands and look like the pleats of a kilt. The cliff is 200 feet high and one of many impressive cliffs along this coast.
Kilt Rock is close to a waterfall that tumbles into the pebbled shore of the Sound of Raasay below. This waterfall is called Mealt Waterfall, and sometimes the wind here is so strong the water doesn't even reach the bottom before being blown away. There is a popular viewing spot that overlooks the dramatic sea cliffs where visitors can see both Kilt Rock and Mealt Waterfall. It is a fenced area and allows visitors to get their postcard pictures of both of these natural beauties in one frame.
First settled as a missionary post around 730 AD, Dunkeld was where Celtic monks set about converting the Pictish tribes to Christianity. By the middle of the ninth century, the town was Scotland's capital and the base of Kenneth MacAlpin, widely recognized as the first King of the Picts.
Over the following centuries, a massive gray sandstone church was built in Norman and Gothic styles to house the bishopric of Dunkeld, one of the most powerful in Scotland. Its tower once stood 96 feet (30 meters) high, but this, along with the rest of the cathedral, was destroyed in the Protestant Reformation of 1560.
Today the photogenic ruins sit in manicured grounds above the banks of the River Tay; the choir at the eastern end of the cathedral was restored in the early 20th century and is once again used for services. A ninth-century carved Apostles' Stone depicting Christ's disciples stands in the chapter house; this was rescued from use as a gatepost following the destruction of the cathedral.
Killiecrankie is a small village near Pitlochry in Perthshire, sitting close to a wooded gorge formed by the River Gary in a region of spectacular Highland scenery. Close by is the National Trust for Scotland’s Killiecrankie Visitor Centre, nestled in the scenic Killiecrankie Pass and marking the site of an historic battle that took place on 27 July, 1689, during the first Jacobite Rebellion. As well as information on the flora and fauna of the area, the Visitor Centre has plenty of gory detail about the battle and several of the way-marked walks from there lead to Soldier’s Leap, where legend holds that a Jacobite soldier leapt across the river gorge to escape English troops. Other outdoor activities include the Highland Fling bungee jump descending 40 m (130 ft) into the gorge, kayaking, cycling, and wildlife spotting; deer and elusive red squirrels are seen in the dense woods in fall, wrens and dippers in winter, and carpets of wild flowers in spring. Summer brings flycatchers and warblers – and bats in the evening – as well as hosts of butterflies and bees. A five-km (three-mile) section of the Killiecrankie Walk leaves Pitlochry next to the fish ladder and heads via viaducts, forest walks and tunnels to the dramatic viewing point at Soldier’s Leap.
Tucked away along the rhododendron-clad banks of the River Braan, just west of historic Dunkeld, the Hermitage is an idyllic woodland walk through Craigvinean Forest, created in the 18th century and little changed today.
Passing through a gorge amid Douglas firs (including Scotland's tallest at 60 feet (18 meters), an easy 15-minute stroll reaches the Black Linn falls, which are overlooked by the Georgian folly of Ossian's Hall, so-named after a third-century hermit. A step further on is Ossian's Cave, created to represent the hermit's dwelling place. Both were built for the Duke of Atholl in 1757; the Hermitage walk has since been enjoyed by the likes of poet William Wordsworth, painter JMW Turner and Queen Victoria. However, the follies fell into disrepair in the early 20th century before being donated to the Scottish National Trust and renovated in 2008; today Ossian's Hall once more contains a magical Hall of Mirrors. A 1770 stone bridge and a totem pole carved from a magnificent Douglas fir sit nearby.
The Hermitage walk is connected to a hiking network around Dunkeld, and although lovely at any time of year, is at its most glorious in fall, when the deciduous trees turn golden and the Black Linn waterfall is at its most spectacular.
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