Top Ten Places to Visit in Scotland

by Sam

Everybody knows about Edinburgh castle, but there is more to Scotland than Edinburgh. Here my top ten insider tips of the best places to visit in Scotland.

Since my first visit to Alba (Scotland) in 2006 I am utterly in love with this beautiful country, its heritage, culture, art and traditions, not to forget the wee drams and the haggis! Here my personal Top Ten List of ‘must visit places when going to Scotland’. I am aware that a list like this is highly subjective, nevertheless, I hope it will give you some inspiration for your next Scotland holidays / vacations.

10. Falkirk

Ok, that one is more of a favorite of my hubby, who is a huge canal boat fan, but still, the Falkirk wheel that lifts boats from one level of the canal to the other is impressive. It is the first rotating boat lift in the world and can lift up to eight boats simultaneously, or even more if the boats are smaller. Trips of around 60min are available at the visitor center and allow everybody to make this remarkable journey that reconnects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, and the landscape is gorgeous too.

Falkirk, or Fawkirk in Scots, is a nice little town that is worth a stay of a day or two also. And if you want to learn more about the history and inner workings of the Falkirk Wheel, I recommend visiting this web site made by a true enthusiast: http://www.falkirk-wheel.com/ And if that is not enough boats and canals, there is also the ‘Kelpie Project’ to look forward to, statues of these mythical, Scottish water horses that are planned to be added to the Falkirk basin soon.

9. Ullapool

Ullapool, and especially its seagulls, will forever hold a special place in my heart! If Hitchcock’s masterpiece ‘The Birds’ makes you shiver, don’t feed the seagulls in Ullapool. But if you are an animal enthusiast, grab a loaf of bread, or two, go to the harbor and be amazed by the antics and acrobatics of these gracious birds. Note, no responsibility can be taken for injuries, in the end, these are wild beings.

Ullapool from the water.
Ullapool from the water.
Hermes (cc)

And yes, they do dive bombing also.  Apart of the seagulls, Ullapool is also known for its dedication to the arts and for being the main cultural center in this part of Scotland. Add a drop gorgeous landscape and excellent hiking possibilities and you see why so many people visit Ullapool regularly.

8. Gretna Green

Now o.k., this one is a bit of a tourist trap, but a cute one. Gretna Green became famous in the 18th century for allowing couples to marry that couldn’t get married in England because of age restrictions and / or missing parental consent. Whilst England required that groom or bride had to be at least 21 years old, or had to have parental consent, in Scotland the ‘marriage age’ at that time was 14 for boys and 12 years for girls – mind boggling, but reality in 18th century Scotland, and no, the young couple didn’t need to have parental consent neither.

Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop.
Gretna Green Blacksmith Shop.
Niki Odolphie (CC)

Additionally nearly everybody in Scotland, at that time, was allowed to marry a couple and in Gretna Green it was the blacksmith that performed the ceremony over his anvil, hence the nick name ‘anvil marriage’ for these irregular marriages.

Gretna Green become a ‘marriage hotspot’, because it was the first Scottish village elopers (runaways) would encounter when coming over the border, as it was on the main London to Edinburgh travel route.

Today the minimum age for marriage in Scotland is 16 for both genders, but still without parental concern necessary, and the ceremony can only be performed by authorized persons. Estimates say that as many as 5000 weddings take place in Gretna Green every year.

7. Ben Nevis

Climbing Ben Nevis.
Climbing Ben Nevis.
ingo.ronner (cc)
View from Ben Nevis.
View from Ben Nevis.
David Enker (cc)

Ben Nevis or, as it’s called in Scottish Gaelic ‘Beinn Nibheis’, is not only the highest mountain in Scotland, but also the highest mountain in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Standing at 4409 feet, or 1344m, it is not a high mountain by continental standards, but be careful, like all mountains it can be treacherous and sudden weather changes combined with ill-prepared hikers have caused deaths in the past. This mountain, close to the west coast of Scotland, is a hikers and climbers paradise. And each year at the first Saturday in September, the Ben Nevis fell race is taking place For safety reasons it is restricted to experienced hill or fell runners and limited to 500 participants only. But for the ‘normal’ Scotland visitor a hike up the old, but well marked, pony trail is what most prefer.

It is important to stress that before starting such a hike, local information about weather conditions and forecast has to be sought. A good place to get this is the official Fort Williams website here: Ben Nevis Info. Please follow the advice given carefully and don’t take any risks! Plus take enough water with you to get you up and back, there is no source of drink water on the mountain and be prepared with shoes and clothing for sudden weather changes. As a reward for your efforts you can see from the summit one of the most stunning views available in Scotland.

6. Loch Lomond

... sing along ;-)

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Where me and my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.

Chorus:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.

‘Twas there that we parted in yon shady glen
On the steep, steep sides o’ Ben Lomon’
Where in purple hue, the hielan hills we view
And the moon comin’ out in the gloamin’.

Chorus

The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring
And in sunshine the waters are sleeping
But the broken heart, it kens nae second spring again
Tho’ the waeful may cease frae their greetin’.

Chorus

Loch and Ben Lomond at Sunset (c) me
Loch and Ben Lomond at Sunset (c) me
without pretty pictures, just the beautiful song ;-)

Often called the ‘unofficial national anthem of Scotland’ the Loch Lomond song is based on a 19th century poem and sung at the end of many Scottish festivities such as weddings. The area itself is well known for all sorts of outdoor sports possibilities both on land and on / in the water. The Trossachs National Park is a favourite spot, not only for hikers and nature lovers, but also for landscape photographers. The official park website http://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org/ contains lot of information about what to do and where to stay in the area.

5. Mull of Kintyre (Cantyre)

Made famous with a song by Paul McCartney and the Wings, the Mull of Kintyre, or ‘Maol Chinn Tìre’ in Scottish Gaelic, is located in the Argyll and Bute region on the south west coast of Scotland. Its Scottish name means ‘the rounded, or bare, headland of Kintyre’, making allusion to the wide open, but barren landscape. Its main attraction, apart of the good seafood and the numerous whiskey distilleries in nearby Campeltown, is the bird and wildlife.

Seals, and even dolphins and other, smaller, whales can be seen and the richness of its bird life makes it a dream destination for hobby ornithologists. As an added attraction you can see Ireland, on clear days, from the coast, as it is only 20km / 12m away. Many historians believe that it was here where the Scotti, the first Scots, came over from Ireland to settle in Scotland and to give it its name.

In case you love water sports, be very careful and listen to local advice, as strong currents are always present here. And if you want to stay longer, the lighthouse, one of the oldest in Scotland, offers accommodation. And if you come in August, make sure not to miss the ‘Mull of Kintyre Music Festival’, more information about that one can be found here: MokFest.

4. Loch Ness

plus the Caledonian canal and Urquhart Castle

No, I don’t believe in Nessie, but what would be a visit to Scotland without visiting the famous Loch Ness. And as Loch Ness is part of the Caledonian Canal and Urquhart Castle is on Loch Ness’ shore, I have packed the three together  Lets start with the canal, shall we? Or better even lets start with the Great Glen Fault (see first image on the right). It is formed by two tectonic plates (Baltic and Laurentia) and makes a ‘cut’ through Scotland. Erosion and time allowed to form lochs in the fault, amongst them Loch Ness. Whilst, in theory, earthquakes in this area are possible, it is effectively inactive and only slight tremors have been recorded in the last 150 years. The Great Glen Fault forms also a natural travel road through the area, making it easy to build roads and canals that connect the east and west coast of Scotland. The Caledonian Canal, of 62 mi / 100 km length, was completed in 1822 and connects Inverness in the east with Fort Williams in the west. As the canal connects the four lochs (Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy), only 30% of its length are man made. The canal is navigable and today mostly used by pleasure boats which can be hired. If you are after a relaxing holiday and enjoy being on the water, this one could be right for you.

When you arrive in Drumnadrochit at the shores of Loch Ness (Urquhart Bay), don’t miss to visit at least one of the ‘Nessie Exhibitions’.

Great Glen Fault cutting through Scotland.
Great Glen Fault cutting through Scot...
Hellinterface (cc)
Neptuns Staircase, Banavie near Fort Williams, Caledonian Canal.
Neptuns Staircase, Banavie near Fort ...
gramz (cc).
Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle
gramz (cc)

Yes, there are several in this tiny village, we went to the one called ‘Exhibition 2000′ and it was well worth our time. If you are interested, more information can be found on their website, aptly named ‘LochNess.com‘ And last, but certainly not least, there is also the ruin of Urquhart Castle, looking over Loch Ness and with Glenurquhart, or Glen Urquhart, as its back drop. The first records of a castle here date back from the 13th century, but historians believe that there was a fortress at the same place as early as the 5th or 6th century. And yes, most of Nessie sightings have also taken place in this region of the Loch. What I like about the castle, apart from the view and the ruins itself, is the superb visitor center run by ‘Historic Scotland’. The exhibition explains the history of the castle, the region and Scotland in general with an excellent multimedia mix. A great day out if it is raining, happens from time to time in Scotland. For more info look at the corresponding page of the ‘Historic Scotland’ website >here<.

3. Eilean Donan Castle

Perhaps the most photographed castle in Scotland (my photo on the left, btw), and surely one of the most stunning ones! Try to come in low season and on a weekday, as otherwise the castle is so overrun with tourists that you hardly see anything, and even less be able to take a decent photo! Eilean Donan Castle was used as a location in many films such as Highlander and even a James Bond. If you are into photography, try to time your visit so that it coincides with a high tide, this way you avoid the seaweed on the stones that you can notice in my picture  and have nice waves instead. And if you have time, you could even consider staying at the castle cottage. Not sure how expensive they are, but the contact info is on the Eilean Donan Castle Website.

Eilan Donan Castle (c) me
Eilan Donan Castle (c) me

2. Rosslyn Chapel

If you have read Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’ then you know all about Rosslyn Chapel, or perhaps not  Without going into too much detail, enough to say that the guy first visited the place AFTER he had written the book! The main reason to visit this place are the truly stunning stone carvings and architecture in the interior, but be aware that photography is only allowed outside, but not inside the building! And if you like, you can even join the local congregation for one of their regular services as Rosslyn Chapel is not only a historic monument, but also a lively parish church.

Roslyn Chappel Apprentice Pillar Detail.
Roslyn Chappel Apprentice Pillar Detail.
Guinnog (cc)

To make sure that the chapel is not closed to visitors, because of a wedding or funeral, make sure to check the website for updates. It is also a good idea to have a read and look around this official website to get some real background information as the chapel can be a bit overwhelming to say the least …

1. The Dolphins at the Moray Firth

... Flipper in Scotland

And this one is my absolute favorite thing to do in Scotland, watching dolphins from the beach! Check out the video on the right hand site and the website of the Wildlife Center to get up to date info where the dolphins are at the moment.When we last were there, we simply drove up to one of the visitors centers and they told as exactly where, that day, we would have the best chance to watch dolphins from the beach.

Extra Tips

Haggis, Wee Drams and Irn Bru

If you go to Scotland, or any other country for that matter, you have to try out the local specialties. Haggis, filled sheep stomach, is available as a starter dish in many restaurants, in case you are reluctant to base a whole meal on it! A wee dram helps to wash it down btw.

And during the day I recommend drinking Irn Bru, the original Scottish energy drink. A bit of an acquired taste for some, but I do like it. So, I hope you like my little article about the best places to visit in Scotland! Thanks for reading ;-)

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Best Scotland Guidebook

... that is the one we use when traveling Alba!
Lonely Planet Scotland (Country Travel Guide)
$22.99  $7.27
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Updated: 06/01/2013, Sam
 
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jptanabe on 09/11/2013

I didn't know you'd written a page about Scotland! I love it. Since I used to live in Scotland it brings back many happy memories.

MikeRobbers on 06/04/2013

Excellent recommendations and a thoroughly written travel guide, Sam. Scotland is a wonderful destination to visit. I totally agree with your selection of the dolphins at the Moray Firth. Should be a great experience!

frankbeswick on 06/03/2013

Ben Nevis means the cloudy mountain. Often when you ascend it you reach the summit in cloud, but once I took my son up and it turned out to be one of the twelve cloud free days a year. The panorama was stupendous, waves after wave of mountains rolingl up to the horizon. Unforgettable. You can see far across Scotland.

Another point is that the ascent starts at sea level, so the 4414 foot mountain is a 4414 foot climb

Sam on 06/02/2013

I agree completely with your advice, frankbeswick! SY

frankbeswick on 06/01/2013

If you are ascending Ben Nevis by the tourist path, ensure that you stick to it. The mountain is dangerous, and if you wander off it you fall into the danger of entering "five fingered gulley" which is lethal. If you wander off the tourist path, the ground steepens as you approach five fingered gulley.

If you do Ben Nevis in summer you will have lots of time, as the days are long, but do not do it in winter unless you are an experienced mountaineer.

I have ascended the Ben, as some of us Brits call it, and hope that you enjoy it, but take it seriously. It is typical of the British, not large, but dangerous, even deadly.

Sam on 06/01/2013

I am glad you liked it ;-) SY

pkmcr on 06/01/2013

What a fantastic page! I spend a lot of time in Edinburgh and Glasgow on business and try to explore as much as I can. You have highlighted some of my favourite places and love the way you have worked back from 10 to 1 :-)

Sam on 05/30/2013

Sorry about that! I only mentioned the places I have been to, but Skye is definitively on my bucket list ;-)

nickupton on 05/30/2013

Scotland is a wonderful place, but no Isle of Skye? You missed my favorite.

Mira on 08/19/2012

Oh, the fog too :D :)) Thanks for your answer. I pinned this article to one of my new Pinterest Boards -- thanks for mentioning it: it took seconds to set up and minutes to figure out the basics. :D


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