This article covers various sights in Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. A few of them can be reached as intraday destinations from Edinburgh, while others – especially remote islands such as Skye, Orkney, or Islay – are better explored from a more local base. All of the scotch distilleries are covered in a separate article.
Castles, on par with whisky, are the calling card of Scotland. Here are a few that I took the time to explore in depth.
A regular contender for the top billing on the “most beautiful Scottish castles” list, Eilean Donan castle ♥♥ takes a bit of determination to get to (unless you have destinations on Skye that you intend to visit, in which case it is along the way). The castle, dating from the 13th century, has been extensively rebuilt in the first half of the 20th and presents a well-maintained look into the history of Scottish highlands. A dramatic location at the conjunction of three lochs undoubtedly adds to its overall charm. The interior areas offer a number of interesting exhibitions, but the primary attraction is the views.
One of the most important centers of Scottish history, Stirling Castle ♥♥ offers many great exhibits as well as sweeping views from its ramparts. The layout could take upwards of 3 hours to explore in good weather, with sufficient historical context to keep avid students of history occupied for even longer. The wooden head medallion collection is especially impressive. The apartments look not old enough, but there are a number of eye-catching details, especially fireplaces. Dressed-up guides in the Queen’s bedroom provide ad-hoc narration.
Located on Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle ♥♥ is but an impressively picturesque ruin, with phenomenal vistas all around. The castle dates back to the 13th century and offers a significant amount of history in addition to an even greater amount of wonderful photo opportunities. You can take time to watch a 10-minute somewhat sketchy movie on the history of the castle; there are also plentiful informational stands positioned at various points on the grounds. And, of course, the famous lake – although your chances of seeing the monster are probably not great.
By far the closest of these to Edinburgh, Blackness Castle ♥ is another abandoned castle with a storied history, outlined on information boards in each of its rooms and courtyards. The spaces are nearly empty of all furnishings and decorations, but pictorial help is also provided. Vantage points with sweeping views over the Firth of Forth and the coastline are among the highlights.
The small archipelago of Orkney ♥♥ lies to the north of the Scottish mainland. This comparatively remote part of the country is a rugged picturesque landscape, and most visitors will tour at least one of the two distilleries around.
The main town of Kirkwall ♥ has a pleasant historic center. St Magnus Cathedral ♥♥ is imposing and quite beautiful, with many interesting details, including carvings in the choir and on the pulpit, some stained glass, and an unusual number of Jolly Roger depictions on funeral stones.
A major point of interest on the main island is the UNESCO World Heritage site called Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It has four components, two of which are free to explore. Stenness Stones ♥ and Ring of Brodgar ♥ are both reasonably picturesque and even awe-inducing given their age. If you decide to walk around the former, you can reach one of the newer addition to Neolithic finds on Orkney – although not part of WH property – called Barnhouse Settlement, which is no more than an outline of the structures that used to be here, but a very discernible one at that.
The biggest part of the UNESCO site, Scara Brae was closed at the time of our visit ostensibly “due to the bad weather”. There is a way to walk around the sight on the outside, to get a feel of what it contains, although not being able to see the museum was a downer.
Finally, Maeshowe ♥♥ requires a booking for a guided tour, which turned out to be very informational and entertaining. Seeing the mound from the inside, with all key details – including carved runes and pictures – pointed out by the guide, made a small space with few defining features all the more enchanting.
There are other chambered cairns beside Maeshowe all over Orkney, which are usually free to enter. Unstan Chambered Cairn is very close by, somewhat confusingly sitting behind a private house, but with dedicated parking in the back. Very challenging to get into, on account of the very low entrance tunnel. Dedicated explorers may find it quite worth the physical effort.
In the “memorable stays” category, Kirkwall Hotel on the main town’s waterfront is among the best I stayed at anywhere in the UK. Large room with high ceiling, queen-size bed, a settee, a makeup table, a modern bathroom with a rainforest shower; coffee and tea in the room. The clever historic decor throughout the hotel is very eye-pleasing. In addition, the excellent bar and lounge stocks a fantastic selection of Highland Park whiskies with a private library vibe. And at the hotel’s restaurant, not just breakfast, but also dinner was excellent, with a great selection of Scottish/British staples.
Other notable destinations
Known as “the Queen of Hebrides”, Islay ♥♥ is another comparatively remote part of Scotland, which is by itself one of the main scotch-making regions in the country. Distillery tours can easily fill two days, but there are a few other points of interest on the island, such as Kildalton Cross ♥, one of the finest early Christian artifacts dating from the 8th century, the American Monument, or the Finlaggan historic site. The landscapes are worth the visit by themselves.
The island of Skye ♥♥ is frequently mentioned by those who explored a lot of Scotland as one of the most beautiful places in an otherwise exceptionally beautiful country. The scotch-centric nature of my trips to Scotland already restricts my ability to see non-whisky sights, and on my only visit to Skye, the weather did not cooperate with exploration. I barely walked around the lovely town of Portree ♥ and was repelled in my attempts to explore highly-recommended natural wonders such as Fairy Glen and Old Man of Storr.
John O’Groats is the northernmost settlement of the island of Great Britain that is worth lingering in for a bit. Duncansby Stacks ♥♥ is a great natural sight. The famous John O’Groats signpost ♥ offers a number of picturesque perspectives.
Inverness is an attractive city, with a number of minor points of interest, that can work for those requiring a larger urban base for whisky exploration in the nearby Speyside.
Both Dufftown and Aberlour, however, are in the heart of Speyside. Dufftown is dubbed “the whisky capital of the world” because of its surroundings; it is technically not a very large village, with just one or two sights of its own, such as the Whisky & Heritage Centre. Aberlour is slightly bigger. Linn Falls trail offers a nice and short – under 40 minutes there and back – forest hike right by the Aberlour Distillery; the falls themselves are not too huge but quite picturesque. Also in town, is the popular Walkers Shortbread store and factory.
Other towns that grow around a distillery with pleasant waterfront areas (and one or two other minor points of interest) are Oban on the western coast, Wick in the northernmost reaches of the eastern coast, or Dornoch, between Inverness and Wick. Each is very picturesque in the unmistakable British way.
Glasgow only hosted me for short periods of time, with exploration limited to the area around the monumental George Square ♥ and a couple of targeted visits away from the city center.
On the Fife Coast, both St Andrews and the much less-known Pittenweem offer various visual delights and some points of interest. The former is an attractive student town headlined by the ruins of St Andrews’s castle. The latter is all about its waterfront palette of houses, the fishing gear piled on the pier, the waves breaking over the seawall, and the boats in the marina.
For those interested in 18th-19th century Utopian ideas, New Lanark – a UNESCO World Heritage site – offers a different destination. The solemn, uniform minimalist architecture is a highlight in itself, but there are also half a dozen paid exhibitions detailing life in the erstwhile purpose-built community.