Scotland offers a variety of sights and experiences, from hiking in the Highlands to viewing the historical landmarks in Scotland’s biggest cities. Scotland’s long history promises travellers with diverse sights from prehistoric standing stones to modern architectural wonders.
The capital of Scotland since the 15th century, Edinburgh is the seat of Scottish government and the location of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. It has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and was used as a strategic location by the Romans, who built the Antonine Wall as its northernmost defence, and the Celtic tribe Votadini, who occupied the Castle Rock site. Castle Rock was referred to as the stronghold Din Eidyn (“Eidyn’s Hill Fort”), which provides the roots of the city’s modern name: Eidyn and burh, which means “fortress”.
Castle Rock is now the site of Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh Castle is home to the Scottish Crown Jewels and the National War Museum of Scotland, and is often included in our tours that stop in Edinburgh due to its historical importance and medieval splendour.
The One o’Clock gun is fired from the castle (except on Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas) in a time-keeping tradition that dates back to 1861. Every Saturday, the Castle Terrace in the shadow of the fortress hosts the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market. Here you will find more than 50 specialist producers selling Scottish venison, organic mushrooms from the Highlands, handmade pies and other Scottish specialities.
The castle is at one end of the Royal Mile, which runs downhill and ends at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Royal Mile in itself is an attraction, with its cobbled streets and wynds (minor streets) branching out of the main road, as well as countless historic buildings including the Parliament and St Giles Cathedral.
Part of the Palace of Holyroodhouse is Holyrood Park, which in the 12th century was a royal park and a hunting estate. Now a public park, this hilly, natural sanctuary is just a few minutes’ walk from the Royal Mile. The park is a perfect place to stretch your legs and relax, with its well-maintained paths to Edinburgh’s highest point, Arthur’s Seat. This peak provides an unforgettable panoramic view of the city.
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest and most populous city, situated along both banks of the River Clyde which discharges to the Atlantic. The River Clyde was an important body of water that gave life to various communities in Glasgow throughout the centuries, including Celtic tribes and the Romans. The city’s name in Gaelic (Glaschu) means “Green Glen”, a succinct description of its rich landscape. In the 6th century, the Christian missionary St Mungo established a religious community in the area and contributed to the city’s development. The 12th century Glasgow Cathedral is dedicated to him. The city’s location–between the Highlands and the Lowlands, between the capital Edinburgh and the west–made it a prosperous centre for trade, and the Acts of Union that united England and Scotland opened the city to the markets of the British Empire.
The Kelvingrove Art Museum itself is a sight to behold, a striking Gothic building made of red sandstone, but there are more treasures within: 22 themed galleries, including the famous Salvador Dali masterpiece “Christ of St John of the Cross” and a Spitfire plane hanging from the ceiling.
Near the museum is the University of Glasgow, established in the 15th century and also built in Gothic style. Walk the cloisters of one of Scotland’s notable educational institutions, and visit the Hunterian, Scotland’s oldest museum. The Hunterian was founded in 1807 by Dr William Hunter (1718 – 1783), University of Glasgow alumnus, pioneering obstetrician, and avid collector. The museum is home to one of the largest collections outside the National Museums of Scotland, including material from the Roman Antonine Wall and original 18th century anatomical and pathological specimens.
Stroll down Byres Road, the main artery of Glasgow’s eclectic West End. Restaurants, boutiques, and book shops dot either side of this busy thoroughfare.
Explore the Gothic magnificence of Glasgow Cathedral, which marks the birth of Glasgow and which survived the 16th century Scottish Reformation, during which Scotland broke away from the Catholic Church and Protestant mobs destroyed altars and icons. The Cathedral survived nearly intact and now has the finest collections of stained-glass windows in Britain.
Despite its small size, the Shetland Islands’ capital, Lerwick (from the Norn Leirvik meaning “muddy bay”), enjoys a variety of leisure and entertainment facilities that can be found on the Scottish mainland and in larger cities. It has an intriguing history: it was founded as an unofficial (or, shall we say, illegal) marketplace for 17th century Dutch herring fleets, and was, in short order, demolished by order of the Scalloway court (Scalloway was capital of Shetland before Lerwick), burnt by the Dutch, and incinerated by the French.
Against all odds, Lerwick rose from the ashes and became a bustling, modern city. Its largest open public space, located around the Clickimin Loch, is the Clickimin Centre with sports facilities, a leisure pool, and a well-equipped camping and caravan site. Birdwatchers will have a grand time at the loch, as they are sure to spot mallard and teal, as well as goldeneye and whooper Swans which uses the loch as a migration stopover. South of the loch is Clickimin Broch, one of Shetland’s major archaeological sites. A broch is a prehistoric circular stone tower unique to Scotland.
Another infamous landmark is Scalloway Castle, built in 1600 using forced labour by the order of Patrick Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Orkney, who was made Lord of Shetland in 1590. In 1609, following complaints regarding his misrule of the islands, Stewart was imprisoned in Edinburgh and was executed in 1615.
The remains of his castle is in the care of Historic Scotland and can be viewed by the public.
Read more about the Shetland Islands here.
Lewis and Harris, located on the most populous island in the Outer Hebrides, is a good place to start your visit. A well-known highlight is the 5,000-year-old Calanais Standing Stones located on the west coast of Lewis. This Neolithic stone structure predates England’s Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza.
Lews Castle is a Victorian-era castle is located west of Stornoway on Lewis, and set within attractive grounds. It was built in 1844-51 for Sir James Matheson, a Scottish trader who earned a fortune in the Chinese Opium trade and purchased the whole island. English industrialist and philanthropist Lord Leverhulme bought the castle from the Lewis family in 1918, and in 1923, he gave the castle to the people of Stornoway parish. Since then, it has served different purposes until it was awarded 4.6 million pounds by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011 and converted to a museum and cultural centre. In 2016, the ground floor was opened to the public, including a café and restored ballroom. In 2017, luxury apartments became available to holidaying guests.
Museum Nan Eilean is located within Lews Castle: the product of a generous redevelopment in 2011. Exhibitions here celebrate local culture and at present, commemorate the loss of the ill-fated HMY Iolaire.
Lovers of nature and wildlife will be richly rewarded here in the Outer Hebrides, where seal colonies – both grey and cute dog-like common varieties – are established, and bird populations such as puffins and razor bills flourish. You are never far from the scenic woodlands, sandy beaches, or the misty and undulating peats of Lewis and Harris, and are everywhere reminded of the relationship forged between locals and nature.