Consider Scotland, if just for a moment, and it’s more than likely you’ll conjure up images of the Loch Ness Monster, tartan kilted Highlanders, blaring bagpipes, magnificent scenery, shaggy Highland cattle, ghostly castles, and of course, the birthplace of golf.
All together, these things are part and parcel of the fabric that makes Scotland so unique. The country lends itself to travel and explore in many different ways.
You can walk around the castles and the fabled battlefields where the ferocious clans fought against the English. You can follow in the footsteps of illustrious kings and queens. Or you can track the literary trails which were trodden by the likes of Sir Walter Scot and Robbie Burns.
A further great attraction of Scotland is its solitude, together with its remote stretches of purple, heather-laden moors, secluded expanses of beaches, and wildly romantic mountains with their lochs and deeply-set glens, all waiting to be explored. Here are the best things to do in Scotland!
1. Castle Rock, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle
The most famous fortress in Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has played a dominant role in the city’s skyline since the reign of King David I during the 12th Century. For good reason, it is the most popular national monument in the country.
Perched atop the plug of an extinct volcano, the spectacular castle offers terrific views over city landmarks, including Princes Street, the Royal Mile, and Holyroodhouse Palace, which lies at the far end of the Royal Mile.
Also see: Best things to do in Edinburgh.
To gain entrance to the castle, a drawbridge spans over an old moat which has its entryway from the broad Esplanade, the location for the much-famed Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which is held as an annual event in August. As you walk along the Esplanade, you’ll witness bronze statues of two Scottish heroes – Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, both of whom fought and defeated the English during the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
2. Inverness: Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
If you think of Loch Ness, near the small city of Inverness, you’ll likely picture the mythical monster, which, according to legend, has made a home of the loch for countless centuries. For a thoroughly detailed portrayal of the monster, there’s no place that does a better task of fueling the legend than that of Drumnadrochit Hotel’s Loch Ness Exhibition.
To add further allure to the loch, the much-photographed Urquhart Castle stands over the water as it sits on a strip of land which juts out into the loch. Irrespective the castle is now a ruin, it, together with the loch, remains among the most popular of tourist attractions within the country.
3. St. Andrews: The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews
The Scots are responsible for many inventions, including the postage stamp, tarmacadam, the steam engine, the bicycle, and not least, the telephone. Arguably one of their most abiding inventions is the game of golf. Among the country’s biggest visitor draws is that of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Recognized as golf’s ruling body and founded in 1750, St. Andrews frequently plays host to the famed British Open. Worth a look is the British Golf Museum which relays the history of the “home of golf”, beginning in the Middle Ages and progressing to the present day.
4. Trossachs National Park: Loch Lomond
Situated about 14 miles (23 km) north of Glasgow, and part of the Trossachs National Park, lies Britain’s largest lake – Loch Lomond. With its plentiful supplies of salmon, trout, and whitefish, it serves as an extremely popular locale for anglers the world over. And surrounded by spectacular mountain slopes and streams, it’s also celebrated by hikers, day-trippers, and water sports enthusiasts.
For those with boundless amounts of energy, a stiff hike up Ben Lomond, the tallest peak in the area, which stands at 3,192 ft. (973 m), is well and truly worth it merely to take in the spectacular surrounding views. At the southern end of the loch, Cameron House makes for an excellent place to experience the wonders of a Scottish castle, take in the fresh loch air, and savor the expansive range of outdoor activities.
5. Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye, known as “Cloud Island” on account of the heavy mists that often blanket the isle, and also by the Viking name “Sküyo”, is the largest of the country’s inner isles. It’s an extremely popular destination among nature lovers, and the wild, amorous mountain scenery together with the lush green glens and caves, beautiful waterfalls, and sandy beaches, which are all packed into an island that is merely 50 miles (80.5 km) in length and 15 miles (24 km) in width (at the center), serve to add to the overall appeal.
Add to this the quaint little villages and the deep inlets, the island still offers some remnants of primeval oak forests, in addition to a variety of wildlife species, including seals, otters, and over 200 species of birds. Visiting the island can be achieved either by passenger ferry or by taking a short drive across the bridge that connects to the mainland.
6. The Northern Highlands
Stretching from the city of Inverness up to Thurso at the northern peak of the Scottish mainland are the magnificent Northern Highlands. The ancient fault line gave rise to the creation of the Caledonian Canal, which extends from Inverness on the east coast over to the Corpach near Fort William on the west coast.
Though much of the mountainous region is entirely uninhabited, making it an ideal location for biking and hiking adventures, the area is dotted with many beautiful small towns and villages. Perhaps the most charming is the little coastal town of Dornoch, which is noted for its castle and cathedral ruins.
7. Ayrshire: The Burns Heritage Trail
A super way to experience a little insight into the life and times of Robbie Burns’ – Scotland’s favorite poet – is to take the Burns Heritage Trail. Starting in Alloway on the outskirts of Ayr, at the Robert Burns Museum, you’ll witness a wonderfully preserved thatched cottage where the poet was born and where he remained for most of his childhood years.
Upon visiting other related landmarks, the tour heads to the town of Dumfries in the south and to Robert Burns House, where he remained for the final four years of his life until he died at a young age of 36, in 1796. His final resting place is a short walk away at St. Michael’s Churchyard.
8. Aberdeenshire: The Castle Trail
The Castle Trail mainly focuses on castles located in Aberdeenshire, where 17 of Scotland’s most dramatic and best preserved castles remain. The itinerary, which utilizes the city of Aberdeen as a base, is anything from a single day up to four days in duration. You’ll be treated to such marvels as the 13th century Drum Castle, the fairy-tale looking 16th century Crathes Castle, as well as the 15th century Craigievar Castle, together with its round oriental windows, delightful towers and gables, and its quaint conical roof tops.
The tour is also a magnificent way to enjoy the dramatic coastlines and majestic mountains within the Grampian Region.
9. Stirling: The Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle
Perfectly situated between Glasgow in the west and Edinburgh to the east, Stirling is famed for a number of bloody historic battles, including the Battle of Bannockburn which witnessed Robert the Bruce’s defeat of the English in 1314, and the Battle of Stirling Bridge, whereby the legendary William Wallace helped to secure Scottish independence from the English King Edward I.
Just outside Stirling at Abbey Craig stands the courtly Wallace Monument, a splendid 246-step tower, which offers sumptuous views over the entire area, in addition to being the home to a number of artifacts which are claimed to have belonged to Wallace. Then, there’s the 12th century Stirling Castle, which is reminiscent of Edinburgh Castle, sitting atop a volcanic crag close to the center of the city.
10. Isle of Mull: Reside in Glengorm Castle
Occupying a wonderful position and surrounded by the cobalt blue ocean and ruined stone circles, together with white sandy beaches with a dramatic backdrop of the dark rocks on Mull’s northern coastline, stands Glengorm Castle.
The castle was built in 1860 and offers the perfect location for patrons to the island whereby they can book a room and enjoy their stay under the auspices of the castle’s owner Mr. Tom Nelson. The castle sits within the heart of its 5,000 acre estate, making it the ideal location to marvel at the surrounding views during an energetic hike, or sit back and relax while enjoying a dram of the local whisky.
11. Orkney: Skara Brae
Skara Brae, a semi-subterranean village which is situated on the island of Orkney, is among the very best preserved villages from the Stone Age within Europe, and is estimated to have been built over 5,000 years ago. For centuries, it was completely covered by a sand dune, until, in 1850, a great storm revealed the site.
Almost immediately upon the site being abandoned, the dwellings were suffused by sand, thereby preserving the stone walls and ensuring their currently relatively unmarred appearance. Older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, Skara Brae has been given the title of the “Scottish Pompeii” due to the outstanding preservation.
12. Loch Duich, Western Highlands of Scotland: Eilean Donan Castle
Connected to the mainland by way of a simple footbridge which was created during the castle’s restoration during the early part of the 20th century, Eilean Donan, which is situated in the western Highlands of Scotland, is a small tidal island perched where three lochs meet – Loch Duich, Loch Alsh, and Loch Long. The castle, which takes the same name as the island, was originally established in the early 13th century, and served as a defensive port against marauding Vikings.
Today, the castle is a popular venue for both film and weddings, and is one of the most photographed structures in Scotland. It has appeared in films such as James Bond (The World is Not Enough), Bonnie Prince Charlie, The New Avengers, and Highlander.
13. Princes Street Gardens/ Edinburgh Castle: Festival Finale Fireworks
Edinburgh’s Festival fireworks display takes place at the culmination of the Festival, on the 31st of August each year. It represents the world’s largest annual pyrotechnic display which is accompanied by live music, and is watched by around 250,000 revelers, which represents almost half the entire population of Edinburgh.
Among the best vantage points are Princes Street Gardens, Carlton Hill, Arthur’s Seat, and Inverleith Park, unless you have a room with a view up to Edinburgh Castle, in which case you’re in luck. The sight of 100,000 fireworks being set off by four metric tons of explosives is one not to be missed.
14. Loch Garten near Aviemore: Watch Ospreys in Close Proximity
At Loch Garten, about 10 miles (16 km) north west of Aviemore, you’ll have the opportunity to watch nesting ospreys in their natural habitat. Other than the fact that these are very beautiful birds, it’s estimated that there are less than 150 breeding pairs within the UK. Watching from a hide offers the very best opportunity of witnessing these white-bellied fish-eaters.
Besides the ospreys, the forest at Loch Garten is inundated with red squirrels, crested tits, and red deer, so it really is a nature lover’s paradise. Do note that the hide is open from April to August.
15. North West Highlands: Bag Seven Munros in a Single Day
Arguably, there are some 284 ‘Munros’ peaks that rise above 3,000 ft. or 915 m in Scotland. No less than seven of those are located on a single long ridge in Kintail, North West Highlands, above Glen Shiel. As such, for those with a passion for bagging Munros, this is indeed the Munro-baggers cricket score! The first Munro, Creag a’ Mhaim, which is the easternmost of the Munros located on Cluanie Ridge, is 3,107 ft. (947 m), makes for a stiff climb, even for an experienced hiker. Once the first has been victoriously ascended, the final six await!
All seven Munros can easily be completed in a day, albeit a long day, and the Cluanie Inn makes for a good starting point, as well as the ideal finishing point to rest those weary legs and enjoy some fine Scot’s ale.
16. Isle of Arran
Only 166 square miles (267 sq. km) in size, and being a mirror image of the mainland’s rugged landscapes, it’s for obvious reason why the little Isle of Arran is recognized as “Scotland in Miniature”. Just like the mainland, Arran boasts sandy beaches, majestic mountains, castles, moorland, a diverse array of wildlife, beautiful little fishing harbors, and extremely friendly people.
Even though the isle’s highlights, among them being Goat Fell Mountain and Brodick Castle, can be visited within a single day, it’s best to allow for a few days in order to explore this wonderful wee Scottish island.
17. Gairloch, Wester Ross: Live in a Lighthouse
If you’ve ever fancied staying in a lighthouse, now’s your chance. Rua Reidh lighthouse, not far from Gairloch in Wester Ross, is located at the very end of a single-track road which stretches 11.8 miles (19 km) and is merely used as an ambling pathway for sheep and deer. The lighthouse is perched atop the black rocks overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean and over to the Outer Hebrides.
Like all lighthouses in the UK, Rua Reidh is now fully automated and thus the keepers’ quarters have been transformed into en-suite bedrooms, bunkrooms, and a cosy living room together with a wood-burning stove. For more information, contact the lighthouse owner at www. ruareidh.co.uk
18. Outer Hebrides: Sea Kayaking Around an Archipelago
Paddling to an island that is entirely deserted and then having a BBQ on the beach might seem like something you can only achieve in a dream, but it’s perfectly possible to achieve in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where almost all of the 200 plus islands are uninhabited. And the best way to experience the archipelago is to do so by boat. The surrounding waters are crystal-clear and the destination is prime territory for sea kayaking.
Fortunately, for those with little to no experience of kayaking, there are local professionals who will take you out. And if you are seriously committed, you can turn the adventure into a week-long camping expedition. To get started and pick up your kayak, visit the isles of Harris, Lewis, Barra, or Uist.
19. Pollok Country Park, Glasgow: The Burrell Collection
The Burrell Collection in Glasgow’s Pollok Country Park hosts everything from Rodin sculptures, ancient tapestries, Chinese ceramics, to Impressionist works by Cézanne and Degas. The collection, which was donated by Glaswegian shipping magnate and art collector Sir William Burrell, is open daily and entry is free of charge. Art lovers who have already witnessed the treasures on offer claim that the museum’s milieu and variety of art is almost beyond comparison.
20. Islay and Jura: Whisky at its Finest
The islands of Islay and Jura, both situated on the west coast of Scotland, play host to some of Scotland’s very best whisky distilleries, including Ardbeg, Jura, Bowmore, Kilchoman, Laphroig, and Lagavulin.
Although the distilleries can be visited at any time of year, for the whisky aficionado, the best time to go is during the weeklong whisky festival which occurs every summer. Besides the gargantuan quantity of whisky to be had, the festival includes ceilidhs (traditional Scottish dance), cooking-with-whisky evenings, Celtic music concerts, in addition to a charity whisky barrel ‘push’ across Islay. And on the final day, festival revelers are treated to a carnival held on Port Ellen Green.
21. Melrose: Melrose Abbey
Founded back in 1136 by Cistercian monks, Melrose Abbey was built on the behest of King David I of Scotland. Although it is now a ruin, you can still witness the lavish masonic décor which is considered to maintain the embalmed heart of David I’s great-great grandson, Robert the Bruce. The abbey represents one of Scotland’s most historically significant structural remnants.
22. Grampian Mountains: Climb Britain’s Highest Peak
If you have at least some hill-walking experience, don’t be tempted to take the Tourist Path in order to reach the summit of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, which stands at 4,409 ft. (1,344 m) above sea level. Instead, follow the far more adventurous and spectacular Carn Mór Dearg Arête, which is one of the finest ridges in the country, as it sweeps in an almost perfect arc over to the North Face. Once you reach the top, you’re welcome to join the masses of tourists as they make their descent along the main route, and at the bottom, take pleasure from a pint of real ale served at the Ben Nevis Inn.
23. South Harris, Outer Hebrides: Luskentyre Beach
Located on the breathtaking west coast of South Harris overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Outer Hebrides, Luskentryre Beach offers a peaceful and timeless getaway for the intrepid visitor to the islands of Scotland. The beach is among the most beautiful coastal areas in Scotland, together with its creamy, white sands, blue-green seas, and vibrant green hillside which makes for the perfect backdrop.
24. Laggan, Kingussie: Go Mountain Biking
Scotland has the reputation as one of the world’s best destinations for those who like to partake in the sport of downhill mountain biking. And that’s a reputation that is well deserved as a plethora of dedicated downhill tracks now dot every part of the country. One that stands above the crowd is Laggan Wolftrax, located 1.25 miles (2 km) from Laggan, which is near Kingussie in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.
If you’re a teenage thrill seeker, there are a number of black runs (the most severe) available for you. For those who prefer a gentler jaunt around the woods, there are easier-going blue runs (moderate) as well as flat trails, and tea and cake await you in the caféteria at the end.
25. Aviemore, Cairngorms: Rothiemurchus Forest
The largest tract of ancient forest that remains in Britain is located about 2 miles (3.2 km) from Aviemore in the Cairngorms. The Caledonian pine forest provides a good way to escape from it all and enter a world that’s akin to a Lewis Carroll novel, as the pine trees twist and turn and spread their woody fingers over the surrounding juniper and heather.
For the best chance to witness capercaille, badgers, and pine martens, pay a visit to the hide which is heated and provides night-vision cameras.