Where to See the Best of Scotland’s History and Culture
You’re spoiled for choice if you’re a history or culture buff in Scotland. No matter whether you’re interested in the Shetland Islands or the Scottish borders, in this post, you will discover a rich history of struggles and lives lived among breathtaking landscapes over thousands of years.
Whilst the scenery is spectacular and the cities intriguing, it can be hard to know what you simply must-see if your time in Scotland is short. The solution is to be sure to put some time in your schedule for the favorite cultural and historical sites of well-known travel bloggers and writers. From neolithic villages and standing stones to stately palaces and ruined castles, read on to find these culturally and historically important sites in Scotland – some will be a surprise! Whether you are travelling alone, in a group or on holiday with a baby, there is something to do and discover.
PIN IT FOR LATER
Skara Brae is located in the far north of Scotland in the Orkney Islands. It is an often overlooked place but is older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids at Giza. The site is what remains of a Neolithic village, inhabited in 3100BC and abandoned at some point although the reasons are unclear. Along with nearby Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe, and the Standing Stones of Stenness, it is designated as the Hearth of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1850 a winter storm exposed the village and excavations over the years have revealed a number of houses with the bed boxes, dressers, and hearths still in places as they would have been 4000 years ago.
This beautiful location is the perfect place to spend an afternoon, exploring the remains of the village and learning about all the finds that have been made during the excavations. It makes you realize that despite modern technology our home comforts really haven’t changed over the centuries.
It is an adventure to get to Orkney with a ferry from the north coast of Scotland or a flight from a Scottish city and this brings home the exposed past of our ancestors.
by Suzanne from meanderingwild.com
This post contains affiliate links. That means I may earn a small commission when you use the links on this site. You will pay nothing extra for this, but you will be helping me to continue posting helpful articles for your travel planning needs.
Few places are so steeped in Scottish history as Kilmartin Glen in the Heart of Argyll. This beautiful valley on the Scottish west coast is home to over 300 historic sites. Many of them are ancient, prehistoric monuments, like standing stones, stone circle, and chambered cairns, but there are also ruins of forts and castles – and much more to discover.
Start in the village of Kilmartin to visit the local museum. Here you can learn about the wide range of historic sites in the area, where to find them and how to travel through time with them.
An absolute must-see in Kilmartin Glen is a group of five standing stones at Temple Wood, which were erected over 3,000 years ago and align perfectly with the moon.
Another place you must not miss is Dunadd Fort, only a few minutes’ drive from Temple Wood. After a short uphill climb, you can see the remains of this ancient fort. It was once the seat of the Gaelic Kings of Dalriada who ruled this part of Scotland from 500-800 AD. The views are also not bad from up there, making Kilmartin Glen not only a great destination for history buffs, but also for nature lovers.
by Kathi from watchmesee.com
One of Scotland’s most iconic landmarks, Edinburgh Castle has loomed above the city since the 12th century. Built by David I as a private chapel for the royal family and dedicated to his mother, Saint Margaret of Scotland, the castle remained a military base for centuries. It was later also used to keep military prisoners from England’s wars.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the castle was restored to its former glory. This national monument now serves as the Scottish National War Memorial and is a great place to get a better understanding of the country’s history and culture.
Edinburgh Castle is well worth the visit. Visitors will get to see the Crown Jewels, the Honours of Scotland, and the Stone of Destiny. During August each year, the castle also plays host to the Military Tattoo Festival. Allow at least 2 hours to see all of the castle highlights which are a must-visit on a trip to Edinburgh.
by Rai from araioflight.com
Dunfermline Palace and Abbey
Dunfermline is a very quiet little town these days. So quiet that it’s hard to believe it used to be the capital of Scotland. But while it may not have much nightlife, history buffs and cultural tourists will love the place. The primary point of interest is Dunfermline Palace and the attached Abbey. Of the two, the abbey is older and was constructed back in the 11th century. It stills serves as the final resting place of a number of Scottish rulers, the most famous of which is Robert the Bruce.
The palace came later, sometime in the 16th century, but its glory days didn’t last long as it was soon sacked during the Scottish Reformation. Both the palace and abbey lie in ruins today, but this just adds to the mystery and wonder of the place. The one fully functioning building here is the modern church built on top of the abbey’s transept and chancel, which holds regular services.
While you’re in the area, consider exploring the nearby countryside and surrounding villages as well. Crossford, which is about a 45-minute walk away, is home to the first vegan B&B in Scotland, so you could even base yourself there for further exploration.
by Wendy from thenomadicvegan.com
Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan (or the Island of Donan) is a 13th Century Castle that is nestled between the sea lochs of Loch Duich, Loch Alsh, and Loch Long in the Highlands of Scotland. Originally used as a defensive fortification to protect the surrounding lands from Viking invasions it was decimated in 1719 at the Battle of Eilean Donan Castle.
After laying in ruins for over 200 years and rebuilt in1932, Eilean Donan is now one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. This incredible castle is steeped in a unique history and provides visitors an awesome setting for learning about Scottish Highland culture.
Visitors can tour the castle and visitor center which takes about 2 hours for a full visit. Don’t forget to take some photos from the numerous vantage points around the castle. Eilean Donan doesn’t have a bad angle.
To get there, you can get the Citylink bus to Dornie or rent a car and drive from Inverness (1.5 hrs), Glasgow (4 hrs) or Edinburgh (4-5 hrs). If you do visit, I highly recommend that you incorporate a multi-day trip so you can visit the nearby Isle of Skye which provides ample outdoor hiking in a picturesque setting.
by Ashley from impactwinder.com
Callanish Standing Stones
The Callanish Standing Stones are located on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles (or the Outer Hebrides) of Scotland. These 5000-year-old standing stones are in the shape of a cross and were erected even before Stonehenge! While they are more out of the way than most historic sites to visit in Scotland, they are well worth the trip. The surrounding landscape is starkly different from much of the UK and there are lots of historic things to see on the Isle of Lewis and Harris too.
Like most Standing Stones, their initial purpose is unknown, other than that they were used for ritual purposes throughout the Bronze Age. There is a central stone that’s 4.8 meters high, surrounded by a circle of thirteen stones, there are then 5 rows of stones stretching out from the circle, two of which are parallel and form a sort of avenue to walk up to the circle.
Visiting the Callanish Standing Stones is a magical experience, especially at sunrise or sunset. It’s amazing to walk amongst the towering stones and imagine what life may have been like for all of the people who lived here over the centuries.
by Sonja from migratingmiss.com
Doune Castle is a 14th-century fortress located on the outskirts of Stirling in central Scotland that was built for Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany. The courtyard-style castle is well known for its 100ft-high gatehouse which protected the Lord’s Tower as well as being famed for having one of the best-preserved Great Halls in Scotland. When visiting the castle kitchens and the Great Hall, you can just imagine the grand banquets that were thrown here for the Duke and his family in centuries gone by!
Not only is the castle structure itself picture-perfect, but the landscape surrounding the fortress – the woodland location where the Ardoch Burn flows into the River Teith – is breath-taking too.
As the castle is so photogenic, it has been used in many TV shows and films, perhaps most famously Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, and the popular TV series Outlander.
by Chrysoula from historiceuropeancastles.com
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The official residence in Scotland of the British Monarch is that of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, or otherwise known as Holyrood Palace. It is located at the end of the famous Royal Mile in Edinburgh and is a must-visit if you are in the city. You can walk to the palace, at the opposite end of Edinburgh Castle or take one of the sightseeing buses.
Each year, the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II, spends one week every summer at the palace conducting royal duties and holding official ceremonies. However, when the queen and other members of the royal family are not in residence, the State Apartments and Historic Apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, are open to the public for viewing.
You can take a guided or self-guided tour of the palace and I highly recommend the self-guided tour as you can work your way through the stunning apartments at your own pace. This is done by way of a complimentary multimedia tour with a speaker. Learn about the history of both the Scottish and English Kings and Queens who have resided there, learn about the palace and the furnishings, and marvel at the beautiful staterooms.
You can also visit the ruins of an Augustinian abbey to the rear of the palace before returning your self-guided speakers at the front of the palace. Just be warned, you cannot take pictures within the palace, but pictures of the gardens and abbey are permitted. If you are visiting Edinburgh and would like to know some more about its history and that of the British monarchy in Scotland, a visit to the Palace of Holyroodhouse is a must.
by Cath from travelaroundireland.com
As far as tourist attractions in Scotland go, this is a definite must-see experience! This stupendous castle has played an enormous role in Scottish history and is an important aspect of Scottish national culture. The first records of the castle are of the chapel endowed in 1107 by Alexander I.
It is perfectly positioned as a massive defensive fortress, atop Castle Hill which is itself atop a large geological formation known as the Sterling Sill. Steep stone walls rise up to meet the castle on three sides. It makes for a most imposing sight!
The Castle was both a fortress that has withstood eight recorded sieges and an important palace. Births, deaths, and coronations of Scottish kings and queens have taken place here, including the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1542.
This Scheduled Ancient Monument has perhaps the most developed tourist infrastructure in Scotland with its own App, a web page dedicated to different itineraries of the castle and its gardens, and a full annual calendar of events. It is an easy drive north to Stirling from Edinburgh or Glasgow and this visually impressive and historically significant castle is the equal of the better-known Edinburgh Castle.
The rugged Scottish highlands are famous as much for the gloomy beauty of its lochs (such as Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, and Loch Linnhe) as it is for the imposing Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is one of the best known 20th century United Kingdom attractions due to a large number of mountaineers and hikers who scale the mountain each year.
Ben Nevis rises above the town of Fort William on the shores of Loch Linnhe and this old town is a must for anyone who wants to explore Scotland from a historical perspective. In 1654 a Cromwellian fort was built here to restrain the power of the Clan Cameron after the British Civil Wars. In the mid-1700s, the Jacobites unsuccessfully laid siege to the Fort.
Situated at the head of one of Scotland’s longest seaways, and at the mouth of the Nevis and Lochy Rivers, this Fort town has been an important part of the fight for control of the Scottish highlands and been a prominent military site. It is also the starting place of the Road to the Isles and is close to the rail bridge made famous in the Harry Potter films. In such an important strategic location and surrounded by some much natural beauty, it is unsurprising that this Fort is, in the twenty-first century, now besieged not by Cromwellians or Jacobites but by history and adventure enthusiasts!
Links and Further Information
- For the best 12 sites to discover England’s history and culture, see the 12 Best Cultural and Historical Places in England to Visit.
- There are so many things to do in Scotland. See all of the best things to do in Scotland, from Get Your Guide here
- If you’re like me and you love the history, culture, and beauty of Europe, plan your next trip to Greece and Italy with tripanthropologist.com
If you’ve enjoyed this travel guide to the best historical and cultural sites in Scotland to visit, share the post now. I’d love to hear about your Scottish adventures, so leave me a comment below!