Did you know there is a horse and cart buried in the Loch nan Uamh Viaduct?
Things to do on the Isle of Skye
Things to do on the Isle of Skye
The second largest of the Scottish islands, the Isle of Skye was bestowed with the Old Norse name sky-a – ‘cloud island’ – by the Vikings, an allusion to the mysterious mists that invariably envelop the Cuillin Hills. Stretching for 50 miles to the west of the Scottish mainland, Skye is renowned for its dramatic landscapes, featuring shimmering lochs, narrow peninsulas, spectacular mountains, and untamed moorland.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the scenery that draws visitors to Skye in their hordes – there’s something quite magical in an ethereal sense that connects the island with its Scandinavian neighbours as much as with the traditions and history of the mainland. It’s impossible not to be overawed but, the landscape aside, there’s more to Skye than hiking through the mountainous interior or strolling around the fringe of a loch as you unwind from the stresses of modern life.
The hidden gems are plentiful – stay for less than a week and you’ll barely have time to catch your breath – so arrive on the island with a patient, open mind and let a journey of discovery show you what many visitors fail to experience.
Skye’s history is rich in variety, with a booming island economy emerging in recent centuries that focused on crofting, fishing, and weaving. The award-winning Skye Museum of Island Life takes visitors on a tour through time, to walk through seven traditional thatched cottages, which are so accurately reconstructed that it’s impossible not feel that you’ve stepped into a 19th century Hebridean settlement, an important glimpse into the history that shaped the island’s way of life.
Only a mile southwest of the town of Harlosh, the headland of Harlosh Point sits at the end of a peninsula, separated by a narrow channel from Harlosh Island. A walk to the headland sees the Cuillin rising dominantly to the south, MacLeod’s Tables and the Maidens to the north, and the Isle of Rhum to the west. Seals gather on Harlosh Island when the tide is out, while the area is also rich with caves, ruins, and plenty of sheep.
On the southern fringe of the island, Sleat Point is the culmination of a rewarding hike, offering the opportunity to witness marine life, such as dolphins, gannets, and shags, to explore impressive rock formations, or to take in the extensive views of Rum and Eigg from the modern lighthouse. The secluded sandy beach at Camas Daraich, renowned as one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots on the island, is well-worth a diversion en-route.
For centuries, crofting was a way of life on Skye and, at the Colbost Croft Museum, you can experience 19th century living in a traditional croft house. With only a handful of rooms, dry stone walls, and a bare earth floor, it’s fascinating to realise how basic living was, particularly in the harsh Skye winters, though the peat-smoked air fuelled by the open hearth would have been forgiven for providing an entire family with the warmth needed for survival. Outside, the illicit still is evidence of Scotland’s long whisky tradition that goes back many years before the founding of the distilleries.
Run by a local family, The Oyster Shed harvests fresh oysters each day on their farm in Loch Harport, which are shucked, cooked, and sold from the farm shop that overlooks the Cuillins. Other high- quality local produce from the Hebrides is also available, including lobster, mussels, crab, venison, and cheese, making The Oyster Shed the ideal way to savour nature’s finest harvest while staying in Skye.
Set in a restored Highland croft – a rarity in itself, as few similar examples survive – the museum is dedicated to Angus MacAskill, reputedly the tallest ‘true giant’ who reached a staggering 7’9”. While he may not have come from Skye at all, the sense of enormity is perplexing, from Angus’ life-size statue to the huge chair, socks, and jumper. Even a replica of his oversized coffin awaits you, guaranteeing that you’ll leave feeling very small indeed.
Skyeskins is the country’s only sheepskin tannery, and a highly rated visitor attraction! Visitors are warmly welcomed with a free guided tour to find out more about the craft of leather making, with live exhibitions demonstrating an art that has its roots in centuries of Skye history. An extensive collection of products makes for an enjoyable browsing experience, including sheepskins, throws, and mosaics for home furnishing, and a wonderful array of knitwear, hats, gloves, and scarves for the wardrobe.
The stronghold of the Macneacail clan for over eight centuries, Scorrybreac is a mesmerising spit of land between Skye and Raasay from where rewarding hikes up Ben Chracraig reveal panoramic views over Portree Bay. Shorter walks, including the 3km Scorrybreac circuit which offers an impressive sight of the Isle of Raasay, are also plentiful, perhaps best completed on a late summer evening after dinner.
Skye is a fantastic destination for wildlife lovers but, at the Skye Bird of Prey Experience in Dunvegan, you can get up close to two Harris Hawks for a fantastic one-hour educational experience. Set amid spectacular countryside with fine views, visitors can learn to handle the free-flying hawks and practise calling them to land, offering a valuable insight into the behaviour of these magnificent birds.
Not for the faint-hearted, the Cuillin represents the ultimate climbing challenge. Infamous as the UK’s most challenging mountain range, the ridge of the Cuillin spans 11km, soaring to 3,000 feet in places, and features eleven munros and sixteen other summits. Various routes are accessible, each offering stunning views that are near impossible to capture elsewhere. However, only experienced hill walkers and climbers who are fully equipped should embark upon the challenge.
Sligachan, nestled at the foot of the Black Cuillin, boasts some of the most recognisable picture postcard scenes on the island, particularly of the enchanting stone bridge that spans the River Sligachan, with the Sgurr-nan-Gillean rising over. There are unending hiking routes here, each offering impressive views; many avid climbers choose Sligachan as the starting point for their ascent of the Cuillins, but for less ambitious walkers, the lower reaches of the river, with its mythical beautifying properties, is just as rewarding.
St Kilda, an isolated archipelago situated approximately 40 miles from the Outer Hebrides in the North Atlantic Ocean, is the UK’s only designated UNESCO Dual World Heritage Site and National Nature Reserve. Home to the largest seabird colony in north-west Europe, St Kilda’s residents include Atlantic puffin, gannets, and northern fulmar. Go To St Kilda a variety of excursions from Waternish, from one day returns to five-day photography trips, enabling visitors to witness sea birds naturally in one of most inspiring island locations in the world.
The Fairy Pools, situated at the foot of the Black Cuillins, are crystal clear pools on the River Brittle that are famous across the world, not only for their mesmerising beauty, but for wild swimming for those courageous enough to brave the icy temperatures! A walk across the windswept moors leads to the river and a series of pools, the deepest of which boasts an impressive submerged arch.
A short ferry journey from Skye is all that separates the island from the Isle of Raasay, one of the most diverse locations in Europe. Deserted beaches, dense forests, and undulating hills dominate the landscape, with exceptional mountain views of the Cuillins, while the manmade single-track road known as Calum’s Road proposes an unlikely attraction.
Located in the island’s capital, Portree, Edinbane Pottery is a wonderful browsing opportunity among the exquisite handmade ceramics that are created and fired on-site. Richly influenced by the heritage and culture of the Hebrides, the salt-glazed ceramics mirror the natural colours of the ocean, the untamed landscapes, and the native wildlife. With every piece unique, you’ll be spoilt for choice when hunting for that memento to take home!
It’s almost hard to believe that 165 million years ago a family of Ornithopods – upright-walking herbivorous dinosaurs – crossed the beach at Staffin, leaving a set of dinoprints in their wake. The evidence, set in a sandstone bed, are revealed at low tide, offering a remarkable chance to see and touch a part of history that is so far removed from the modern day that it stretches the mind that they still exist. Close by, the Staffin Dinosaur Museum is the only attraction of its kind on the island.
The most famous walk on Skye – don’t expect to be alone in high season – this rewarding walk through Trottenish in the north of the island takes you close up to the ‘Old Man’, the immense pinnacle of rock that can be seen from many miles around. Formed by a huge landslide in the depths of time, the ‘Old Man’ is only one part of a fascinating series of rock formations, while the views over the Sound of Raasay are exceptional.
An unforgettable underwater adventure is assured when you board the glass bottomed Seaprobe Atlantis which sails from Kyleakin Harbour daily between Easter and October. Not only can you observe Syke’s diverse wildlife – from seals and otters to seabirds and whales – but also witness first-hand the mysteries of the seabed including fascinating marine life, kelp forest, and, on longer trips, the wreckage of HMS Port Napier, a largely intact World War 2 shipwreck that is regarded as one of the UK’s finest diving sites.
The capital of the island, the village of Portree is a charming fishing village that is sheltered by a bay on the water’s edge, yet besieged by the dominant hills of Ben Tianavaig, Fingal’s Seat, and Ben Chrachaig, which rise to as high as 400 metres. The insanely coloured houses that line the harbour are as surprising as they are charming, while the hospitality of the locals is renowned.
On the dramatic shores of Loch Scavaig, the tiny hamlet of Elgol is reached via a sensational journey along a road through the Red Cuillins, past the lonely ruins of Cill Chriosd Church and its atmospheric graveyard. Elgol is a fantastic starting point for many hikes into the Cuillins or along the coastline, while you can also enjoy a boat ride across Loch Scavaig to the entrance of Loch Coruisk, known also as the cauldron of water.
Tarskavaig – in Gaelic, the bay of cod fish – is the largest of a collection of crofting settlements along the Sleat Peninsula, the views from where are among the most impressive in Scotland. The village is, like other settlements of its kind, dispersed across a valley that extends to Tarskavaig Bay, and the welcome to visitors, especially in the community run café, is guaranteed to be warm. At sunset, the sun disappears behind the Cuillins, silhouetting the jagged peaks against the amber sky, creating an ethereal atmosphere that is hard to rival.
On the north shore of Loch Eishort, accessible only on foot or by boat, the village of Boreraig is one of the finest examples of a cleared village on the island. Strolling around Boreraig is a necessarily haunting experience, as the forced removal of residents in the mid-1850s led to their expulsion to Australia or New Zealand, ruining many lives. Today, many of the houses and farm buildings are in remarkable condition despite the passage of time.
Whisky distilling is a centuries-old industry on Skye and, as distilleries go, you don’t get any older than Talisker. The oldest working distillery on the island, with stunning views of the Cuillins from the shore of Loch Harport, Talisker Distillery offers educational tours of the site with tutored tasting, or a chance to savour the flavours of the rarest malt whiskies drawn from casks in the warehouse.
Traditions die hard on Skye, not least at the single malt whisky distillery at Torabhaig, where the 19th century steading has been carefully restored to hold pristine copper stills and traditional wooden washbacks. A guided tour of the site offers a fascinating insight into whisky production, from grain to spirit, as well as presenting an educational insight into the working life of the distillery. Whisky tasting, of course, is unmissable.
One of the most famous lighthouses in the country, Neist Point is located close to Glendale on the most westerly headland on the island. Landscape photographers flock here at sunset to capture the striking views, although the towering cliffs, impressive lighthouse, and chance to witness minke whales in summer make Neist Point a worthy attraction, whatever the time of day.
The marine life in the waters surrounding Skye is amongst the most varied and interesting in the UK, with basking sharks, porpoises, dolphins, and whales amongst the residents you may be keen to catch a glimpse of. Various tour operators offer dolphin and whale watching expeditions from the island, so make sure you take a camera and binoculars with you for an unforgettable look at some of nature’s finest, but most elusive, creatures.
There’s something delightfully Disneyesque about the Fairy Glen, an unearthly and captivating landscape of grassy, cone-shaped hills that are dotted sporadically with lochans – ponds – and a basalt structure that has erroneously been named a castle. Situated in western Trottenish, close to Balnacnoc, Fairy Glen offers mostly easy walking on winding grass paths, although the kids will delight in running wild and exploring the hidden crevices at will.
If you fancy seeing Skye’s stunning landscapes without strenuously exerting yourself on lengthy hikes, Misty Isle boat trips operate from Elgol to Loch Coruisk, and from Elgol to the Inner Hebrides. As well as absorbing the views while relaxing on-board, there’s the chance of spotting the abundant sealife, from basking sharks and minke whales, to bottlenose dolphins and (if you’re fortunate) Orca.
Skye’s landscapes are legendary and instantly recognisable, so for professional and budding photographers alike, the circular walk known as The Quirang is unmissable, crossing some of the island’s most stunning countryside. On a clear day, traversing the Trotternish Ridge, which was formed by an immense landslip that created rock pinnacles, spiralling cliffs, and shallow, secretive plateaus, present unlimited photo opportunities, or just the chance to sit and be consumed by the beauty of your surroundings.
Who said that wild landscapes are only for looking at? For those seeking an adrenalin rush, Skye’s rivers, waterfalls, caves, gorges, and cliff-faces pose a series of energetic challenges, from kayaking and abseiling, to river tubing and canyoning. Experience the untamed nature of Skye’s outdoors, supervised by expert instructors, for a heart-thumping adventure the island was almost designed for.
Skye’s dramatic landscape is the perfect backdrop for eagles as they soar from their rocky habitats on the island. In sunny weather, you may spot golden eagles or white-tailed eagles, particularly if you join an organised sea excursion from Portree which operates under a strict code of practice to ensure these magnificent birds aren’t disturbed. Fish are scattered during the trip to encourage the birds to scavenge, offering an unforgettable viewing experience.
Only 1.5km from the road south of Staffin, the walk to Rubha nam Brathairean is of moderate difficulty, with plenty to explore as you go. Said to be a site where monks lived and worshipped over a millennium ago, Brothers’ Point is a dramatic headland with outstanding views. If you reach the tidal area at the right time, you may be lucky enough to discover 165 million-year-old dinosaur footprints.
Recognisably one of the most photographed landscapes on the island of Skye, Loch Fada’s tranquility contrasts sharply with the foreboding mass of rock above it, upon which sits the Old Man of Storr. Early morning sunrises make for a particularly impressive scene, with the sunlight infused waters of the loch perfectly reflecting the dramatic landscape above.
At the heart of the Cuillin lies the most impressive of all the freshwater lochs in Scotland. At 38 metres deep, the loch has featured in folklore and legend for centuries and, with ink-blue water and surrounded by jagged mountains, it’s not difficult to understand why. Loch Coruisk can be reached on foot from Sligachan (11km) or Kilmarie (9km), which includes a tricky walk over the ‘Bad Step’, but a boat from Elgol offers a less demanding, yet thoroughly rewarding, alternative to see one of the most impressive natural locations on Skye.
Perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea at the north end of the Trotternish Peninsula, Duntulm Castle is reminiscent of Cornwall’s Tintagel, although rather less complete. In fact, that it lies in ruins adds to the atmosphere – it’s impossible not to appreciate the magnificent defensive position that the castle once occupied – and the views are truly stunning. As the sun sets and the castle fades into shadows, you’ll quickly appreciate why several ghosts are said to roam Duntulm.
The seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod that has dominated northern Skye for 800 years, Dunvegan is an award-winning castle set amid an extensive estate that is teeming with history. As well as touring the public rooms, filled with oil paintings and family heirlooms, you can explore the formal gardens, witness the seal colony on Loch Dunvegan, or hire a traditional clinker for a spot of fishing.
The ruins of Dunscaith Castle, constructed by the MacLeod clan during their rule of Lewis, teeters on the tip of a large rock that overlooks Loch Eishort on the western edge of the Sleat peninsula. Much of the castle has disappeared into the sea, but the little that remains poses a fascinating insight into the violent and turbulent history of the island. With sheer drops on all sides, Dunscaith was strongly defended, so care should be exercised when exploring the site.
A ruined country house, inhabited once by the MacDonalds, Armadale Castle was a showhome of the early 19th century, which fell into ruin only 100 years later. Surrounded by 40 acres of inspiring woodland gardens, and enjoying a view over the Sound of Sleat, the abandoned state of Armadale Castle only adds to its romantic atmosphere, making it a perfect place for a stress-free wander through carpets of wild flowers in spring, or the ancient woodland in autumn.
Perched on a rocky headland that spills into Knock Bay north-east of Armadale, Knock Castle is a prominent feature in a rugged landscape, with the Sound of Sleat as its backdrop. Occupying the site of an Iron Age fort, the ruins defy belief as to how they remain intact, with sheer drops on two sides. Time and decay has overtaken this remarkable fort, which is said to be occupied only by two spirits: a Green Lady and a cowman.
The famous sea cliff in north-east Trotternish gained its name from its resemblance to a kilt, formed by vertical basalt columns that mirror pleats in the garment. The cliffs are best viewed from further along the coast – a stopping point between Staffin and Portree offers a fabulous view – while the Mealt Waterfall, which plunges from the top of the cliff, sends a 60 metre deluge into the Sound of Raasay.
A broch – an Iron Age circular stone tower found only in Scotland – is an important relic to the country’s primitive settlers, and Dun Beag Broch is one of the most complete examples remaining. Perched on the summit of a rocky knoll, it enjoys superb panoramic views and offers a fascinating window into the distant past; the larger, but ruined, Dun Mor is only half a kilometre away, and easily accessible on foot.
A stone enclosure that boasts a superb defensive position, Dun Skudiburgh teeters on a steep hill 60 feet above Loch Snizort. Being exposed to the wind and rain, Dun Skudiburgh is best visited in calm weather, when you can make the steep ascent to the summit where superb views await. Particularly impressive is the towering 17-metre-tall sea stack, as well as views over Waternish, the Ascrib Islands, and the Outer Hebrides.
Located only 10 minutes from Dunvegan Castle, Coral Beach is a magical place that is ideal for a leisurely day out, refreshing coastal walk, or spot of family time. Formed from crushed white fossilised and sun-bleached algae, the beach fringes tropical blue waters, conveying a strong sense of timelessness and purity. When the tide is low, it’s also possible to explore the tidal island of Lampay, which is only a gentle stroll across the bay.
Roads don’t normally feature in travel guides, especially when they’re less than two miles of single-track highway, but Calum’s Road is a lasting fixture of local folklore. Fittingly named after the man who single-handedly built it, Calum’s Road was the work of a 56-year-old postman who wanted to reverse the decline of Raasay, as well as providing a way for his daughter to visit at weekends. Today, a memorial stands close to the road in memory of the intrepid engineer.
Touring the Southern Coast of Scotland
Touring the Southern Coast of Scotland
The beauty of smaller nations is the sheer difference a mile can make. With so many thriving communities and cultures occupying the same landmass, you do not need to travel far for ‘there’ to be entirely different to ‘here’. Scotland’s diversity is a testament to this: geographically and socially, every mile takes explorers to an entirely fresh experience.
Spanning over 6000 miles in total, the Scottish coastline is an incredibly varied area to discover. While the rugged landscapes of the Highlands may draw the eye, the quiet beauty of the southern coast is equally worthy of exploration. Long stretches of sandy beaches cover much of the eastern shore, bringing with them a profoundly historical maritime tradition. Meanwhile, the abrupt indentations to the west create breath-taking natural formations, and from them grow communities that are almost symbiotic with the land itself.
Touring the southern coast of Scotland is an incredibly rewarding experience, but it’s crucial to have at least a skeletal route planned. From east round to west, this article highlights ten unmissable spots across the journey.
There are 207 lighthouses operating throughout Scotland, but few can compete with the grandeur of St Abbs. From atop its jagged cliff-face perch, the windswept lighthouse has guided ships traversing the North Sea since it began service in 1862. Along with the light itself, the ruggedly picaresque cliffs form the St Abbs Head National Nature Reserve, an area reached easily via the Berwickshire Coastal Path. Taking the path, walkers can breathe in the crisp sea air while admiring the thousands of birds nestled within the rocky folds. Just a stone’s throw from the crags themselves also lies rolling beds of wildflower, painting the scene a gorgeous blend of colours.
Renowned engineering brothers Thomas and David Stevenson, the former of whom would eventually father author Robert Louis Stevenson, were the original designers of St Abbs. The adventuring spirit of Stevenson’s writings echo throughout the steep slopes and staggering views, culminating in an unforgettable experience for visitors. Although entry to the lighthouse itself is not possible, it nonetheless acts as an incredible centrepiece to the nature reserve and a must-see landmark for any tour of Scotland’s coast.
A brief journey from St Abbs Lighthouse lies the historic Eyemouth Harbour, the next stop for many ships using Stevenson’s light. Records of Eyemouth’s past date back to the 12th century, however, given the convenient nature of the location many assume it has been populated for much longer. This history – from the earliest settlements to the Great Disaster of 1881 and onwards through its 20th-century evolution – is told extensively in the nearby Eyemouth Museum.
The harbour offers 24-hour access for mooring and docking, meaning Eyemouth is constantly a thriving maritime hub. Watching the entire operation go underway is fascinating, but there is more to the town than just the ships. For example, the harbour is overlooked by the intriguing Gunsgreen House. Designed by celebrated Scottish architect John Adam, the building hides a multitude of secrets inserted by the man who built it – infamous smuggler John Nisbet. Bearing countless hidden passageways and even a one-of-a-kind Tea Chute, Gunsgreen House is a treasure-trove of surprises that highlights the important part Eyemouth itself played in Scottish history.
Much of the eastern coast of Scotland comprises long brushes of sandy beaches enclosing the nation’s many inlets and firths. Spread across a full kilometre of length, Coldingham Bay is a perfect example of a less-consumerized-rural beach, even scooping the Blue Flag award in 2010. A dedicated team keeps the space clean and environmentally sustainable, as well as stationing lifeguards to patrol on busier days.
The beach faces east, giving early morning visitors a chance to watch the sun climb over the horizon. Given its temperate climate and quality surrounding grasslands, it is no surprise that Coldingham Bay also maintains a diverse ecosystem. Visitors can spot various species of crab in the rocky pools themselves, with fishing equipment available nearby. Countless wildflowers dot the nearby fields in every different shade. Elsewhere, the beach provides a fantastic view of nearby St Abbs’ nature reserve and the thousands of seabirds that commandeer the airspace.
Where the east is characterised by long stretches of regular shoreland, Scotland’s west coast twists and turns at random for nearly its entire length. Standing atop one of the most southern of these indents is the ruined Dunskey Castle, where it has watched over the Irish sea for 800 years.
Official charters and architectural residue indicate that what remains of Dunskey Castle is just a shadow of what it once was. Buried in time is an entirely separate castle, destroyed sometime in the 16th century, that accompanied the large tower-house that still stands today. It’s because of, not in spite of, this dereliction that Dunskey has been a site of such romantic ideation. Each crumbling stone implies a further layer of mystery, building an incredibly haunting atmosphere. Studios have frequently used the castle as a filming location and, although it is now closed to the public, the ruins of Dunskey still hold an undeniably cinematic aura.
The Mull of Galloway is the single most southern point of Scotland; the fingertips of the mainland stretching towards Ireland. Visitors can even view the neighbouring island from atop the 26-metre-tall lighthouse, whose restored foghorn is the only one operating in the country. Surrounding the lighthouse are the tireless individuals of the Mull of Galloway Trust, the group responsible for the area’s preservation and historical classification.
The Mull of Galloway is a true merging point of human history, natural wildlife, and geographical wonder. Despite it being one of the smallest reserves in Britain, the variety of seabirds and other wildlife present is incredible. Also perched by the cliffs is the cosy Gallie Craig coffee house. Run by locals with decades of connection to Galloway, a sheet of turf even roofs the café in order to camouflage into the land and minimise visible impact. Offering a generous selection of home-baked treats and fresh coffee, Gallie Craig is a wonderful way to enjoy the scenic views that enclose the Mull of Galloway.
The curved rows of pastel houses making up Portpatrick tint the waters ever so subtly, creating a picaresque celebration of parish life. In previous centuries, the town served as a place of transience between the Scottish mainland and Northern Ireland. Although the historical docks remain in service, the formerly bustling maritime hub has significantly slowed down over the years. Now noted primarily for its tranquillity, Portpatrick has become a stunning holiday village on the western coast. Despite the seemingly windswept location, the presence of the Gulf Stream gives the area a surprisingly warm climate all year round.
Beneath the quiet veneer, however, there is still a thriving community within the town. As well as the extraordinary hospitality that comes with being a holiday destination, Portpatrick also holds multiple annual festivals in celebration of folk music, Lifeboat week, and more. The ruggedly idyllic setting unites with a genuine spirit of community in Portpatrick, the combination of which paints the town as a genuine microcosm of Scottish society.
Although it has been fully decommissioned for several decades, the longstanding beauty of Killantringan Lighthouse is another testament to the talent of David Stevenson. Over its eighty-year functional lifetime, the light mainly acted as a waypoint for the Irish sea, often serving ships bound for the nearby Portpatrick.
The building itself is now privately owned, but visitors are more than welcome to explore the surrounding areas. Its remote location and general obscurity make Killantringan a gloriously peaceful space to walk through. Especially on hot summer days, visitors can appreciate the deceptively complex ecosystem sustained throughout the area. Wildlife like pine martens, natterjack toads, and even red deer can all be spotted wandering in the huge lighthouse’s shadow. Given the short journey time from Portpatrick to Kilantringan, taking advantage of this scenic walk should be a staple of any coastal tour.
A continuous source of confusion for visiting tourists and historians alike, Isle of Whithorn is situated several miles south of the royal burgh of Whithorn. Now a part of the same landmass, Isle of Whithorn was recorded as a ‘true’ island as recently as 1821 on the maps of John Ainslie. Scholars also point to evidence of a causeway connecting the isle to the mainland as an explanation for the nominative confusion.
Cartographical debates aside, the area’s history provides fascinating insights into the religious evolution of Scotland. Whithorn was the birthplace of the country’s first canonical saint – St. Ninian – whose work in converting the Celtic population is renowned across Christendom. A chapel on the Isle of Whithorn was erected in his memory, and its ruins are still explorable today. The chalk-white Isle of Whithorn Tower is another piece of critical local history. Having already been used as a waypoint for centuries, the building was also the site of anti-aircraft training during the Second World War.
The town has also played a vital role in the Scottish cultural arts. One of the country’s most acclaimed films, 1973’s The Wicker Man, included several scenes filmed on the Isle of Whithorn. Attentive fans can recognise many of the nearby clifftops used throughout the film, while the atmospheric depths of St Ninian’s cave featured in the movie’s dramatic climax.
Lauded with nicknames like ‘The Artists’ Town’, the last 600 years have seen Kirkcudbright develop into a thriving community of fisherfolk, artists, and much more. As with many Scottish settlements, we presume the history of Kirkcudbright to be far longer than records can indicate. However, chronicles typically track the town back as far as Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, whose body was temporarily stored there and whose cross now flies as Kirkcudbright’s flag.
Family-run stores, accommodations, and cafes fill the town with vibrant and welcoming energy. Alongside the scenic Scottish surroundings, many of the buildings are coated in pastel paint, coalescing into a dreamlike fairy-tale setting. This eccentricity reflects the creativity buzzing throughout Kirkcudbright. Over 100 artistic venues are open at a time, all of which you can visit during the annual Art and Crafts Trail – a four-day festival celebrating all things creative. Every nook and cranny of Kirkcudbright hides another fascinating secret, making it a town you cannot tire of exploring.
Scotland is in a constant state of transformation, and the southern coast is no different. To highlight every worthy location here would be impossible, especially when riding the coast further north and experiencing the hidden treasures all along it. Nevertheless, each of the places described above represents the sense of adventure brimming in every corner of the nation. The Scottish coast truly is a microcosm of the country within it – spots of natural beauty such as Isle of Whitorn are one of the many places that capture the wildness of the Caledonian outdoors, while bustling town centres such as Eyemouth are reflective of the nation’s dedication to community and hospitality.
Glen Affric is the Scottish Highlands in miniature. The glen stretches on for miles upon miles, with distinct biomes that mix and merge into one Edenic location. At its head, visitors can walk alongside the glorious River Affric as the land gradually turns from a public road into the natural walkway. This area of the glen is enclosed by looming mountains of various shapes and sizes, creating an incredible vista from the outset.
Further in lies a 30 square mile National Nature Reserve full of Caledonian pine dating back countless years. This is one of the best examples of Scottish forest still living today and is home to a thriving ecosystem of birds and other woodland creatures. When the leaves begin falling in autumn, visitors may even encounter elusive red stags during their walks. It is difficult to describe every nook of Glen Affric given its sheer variety – it truly is a microcosm of Caledonia.
Scotland’s Best Coffee Roasters
Urquhart Castle – The Guardian of the Great Glen
Urquhart Castle – The Guardian of the Great Glen
Loch Ness is one of Scotland’s best known attractions, but this is much more
than just a place for monster hunters. Poking out into the water, on a rocky
peninsula, lie the sprawling ruins of Urquhart Castle. These tumbled down walls are packed with stories of conflict going back over 1500 years.
Urquhart Castle guards the Great Glen, one of the few natural routes through the treacherous Highlands. This strategic location has been fortified since at least the 6th century when St Columba recorded visiting a powerful Pictish chief.
The foundation of the present castle wasn’t until the 13th century when King Alexander II realised that he needed somebody reliable to guard the Great Glen.
Peace didn’t suit Urquhart Castle though and before long it was caught up in the Scottish Wars of Independence.
The fortress was passed back and forward as the Scots and English struggled for control of the country’s most important strongholds. In 1297, most of the English garrison was ambushed by Andrew de Moray on their way back from Inverness. Unfortunately for the Scots, the castle constable survived and rushed to bar the castle gates. Even a daring midnight raid on Urquhart’s formidable walls couldn’t dislodge him and without siege equipment, Moray was forced to give up.
Once the Wars of Independence were over, that didn’t mean that UrquhartCastle was safe. Loch Ness was still the easiest route across Scotland andrebellious MacDonald armies attacked the castle on a regular basis. The area was given to Clan Grant on the basis that they would restore order to the countryside and defend Urquhart against the King’s enemies. Things didn’t go too well for the new defenders.
Just a few years after the royal appointment, the Grants had already lost the castle to the MacDonalds and it would take them 3 years to win it back. This constant fighting with the islanders culminated in The Great Raid where over 2000 cattle were lifted from the lands around Loch Ness. The name MacDonald became a very touchy subject with the chiefs of Clan Grant.
One man to suffer from that feud was a legendary Gaelic bard, Domhnall Donn. The unfortunate man was being held in the dark, dank prison deep behind the castle walls. Officially, Domhnall was being tried for trumped up charges of cattle theft but a local legend claims that he was held for a very different reason. This MacDonald warrior poet had fallen in love with the chief of Clan Grant’s daughter.
Domhnall knew the Grants were hunting for him but refused to abandon his love for good. He was discovered, hiding in the hills above Loch Ness and dragged to Urquhart Castle in chains. While the bard was imprisoned, he carried on composing heart wrenching songs romanticising his own life and capture. Maybe if the words reached sympathetic ears, then they would lead to his rescue.
Sadly, there was to be no romantic escape or fairytale ending for Domhnall. He may have suffered the short journey to the hangman’s noose, but his death earned him an eternal reputation as a local folk hero.
Falkland Palace and the Mysterious Death of the Duke of Rothesay
Falkland Palace and the Mysterious Death of the Duke of Rothesay
A royal playground on the site of a former medieval castle, Falkland Palace has a plethora of stories to tell about the Stewart dynasty. The most mysterious of these tales is of the death of David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, in March 1402 – allegedly at the hands of his uncle, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany.
David Stewart was the son and heir of Robert III of Scotland (John Stewart, who changed his name to Robert upon becoming king in 1390). Born on the 24th of October 1378, David was an answered prayer for John and his wife, Annabella Drummond. John – as heir to the throne – had spent the years without a male heir being challenged by his ruthlessly ambitious younger brother, Robert, over royal succession. David’s birth secured John and Annabella’s succession over Robert’s ambitions, and with John’s ascension to the throne in 1390, David became his royal heir.
David’s birth and right as John’s heir did not halt Robert Stewart’s plans. Robert was a cold-blooded politician who, over the years, proved that he would stop at nothing to succeed in his political domination of Scotland. Throughout the 1360s, 70s and 80s, Robert was involved in many contentions over land and titles across the kingdom, acquiring vast estates through political intimidation and violence. By the time of John’s ascension to the throne in 1390, Robert was Earl of Fife and Menteith, and had served as High Chamberlain and Lieutenant of Scotland. Robert’s control of Scotland continued into his older brother’s reign as a result of John’s ill-health and subsequent weak handling of his kingdom.
However, with the 1390s came the rise of David Stewart. Prince David was encouraged into power by his royal parents, likely as a method to challenge Robert’s authority. From 1396, David became key in pacifying conflict in northern Scotland and in negotiations with John of Gaunt of England in the Anglo-Scottish Marches. The young prince was also celebrated by his parents in all manners of courtly grandeur, including in a tournament arranged by his mother the queen in 1398 where he was knighted. In that same year, David was elevated to Duke of Rothesay, the first title of its kind in Scotland. However, this was a promotion that David shared with his rival and uncle, Robert, who was made Duke of Albany on the same occasion. The joint elevation of the two men to these titles is certainly symbolic of the power struggle between nephew and uncle.
In January 1399, David was appointed as Lieutenant of Scotland for a period of three years, in light of his father’s continuing ill-health. This role meant that David could effectively act with sovereign power. As a position that had once belonged to Robert Stewart, he must have been enraged by his nephew’s growing political authority. By 1402, David’s lieutenancy had expired. Two of his key allies had died – his mother, Queen Annabella Drummond, and the Bishop of St Andrews. His father, the king, was still sickly and unable to effectively handle growing tensions with England and the MacDonalds in the north. The possibility that David would seize the throne was very realistic. Robert Stewart had run out of patience.
David was arrested in February 1402 while travelling through Robert’s domain of Fife to St Andrews. This arrest was allegedly organised by Robert and Archibald Douglas, 4th Earl of Douglas and David’s brother-in-law, who was furious with the prince for being unfaithful to his sister. David was imprisoned in St Andrews Castle before being transferred to Robert’s castle at Falkland, the site of Falkland Palace. By Easter, the twenty-four-year-old prince was dead, allegedly having starved to death at his uncle’s castle. An inquisition into David’s shocking death absolved Robert of having any part of his nephew’s demise. It is telling that medieval suspicion of Robert’s involvement has survived the centuries to continue today.
When Robert III died four years later and a young James I ascended to the throne, he was quickly whisked away for fears for his safety. In his absence, Robert Stewart became Governor of Scotland until his death in 1420 – king in all but name.
Written by Beth Reid
Beth Reid is a Scottish history graduate, currently undertaking an MRes in Historical Research specialising in medieval Scotland. Beth runs a microblog on Instagram and has written for Hidden Scotland, The History Corner, and the Historians Magazine.
Did you know there is a horse and cart buried in the Loch nan Uamh Viaduct?
Did you know there is a horse and cart buried in the Loch nan Uamh Viaduct?
The main town on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory is renowned for its distinctive harbour, with its neat row of colourful waterfront houses that served as the backdrop for the children’s television programme, Balamory. But Tobermory is more than just a prime photo opportunity. Tobermory is undoubtedly one of the most charming ports in Scotland and is steeped in legend. Here, it is said, a ship from the Spanish Armada sank beneath the waves in 1588, taking its consignment of gold bullion with it, while the very name of the village – Well of Mary translated from the Gaelic Tobar Mhoire – refers to the nearby well that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in ancient times.
Modelled on a design by the renowned architect and bridge builder Thomas Telford, the fishing port of Tobermory was built to wrap around the harbour before rising into the hillside behind. Curving gently around the waterfront, Main Street, with its fine collection of independent shops, restaurants and cafés, is a perfect place to hunt out locally made arts, crafts and delicacies, but is also notable for the eclectic frontages that helped to make the village a popular destination for Balamory pilgrims.
At the western end of Main Street, the Tobermory Distillery – the only one of its kind on the island – offers an informative insight into a whisky-making tradition that reaches back over two hundred years and is very much part of island life, maintaining the same tradition and devotion that underpinned the industry in the 1790s. The Mull Museum, a tiny but intriguing collection that charts the history, geology and culture of the island, and the Mull Aquarium, Europe’s first ‘Catch and Release’ aquarium, also offer a fascinating detour from the captivating landscapes that have earned Tobermory its reputation as one of the prettiest villages in Scotland.
St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian’s Isle
St Ninian’s isle is probably Shetland’s best-known beach. Its iconic image is found in most brochures and internet searches for places to visit in Shetland, and rightly so. St Ninian’s Isle is a picture-postcard pristine white sand tombolo spanning some 500 metres from the Shetland Mainland, across to the uninhabited St Ninian’s Isle.
Surrounded by some of Shetland’s best farmland, the beach is tucked away on the west coast of the South Mainland with views across to the island of Foula, dominating the Atlantic horizon. The beach leads to St Ninian’s isle, famous for its 12th-century chapel site and the incredible discovery of one of Scotland’s most significant Pictish treasure hoards: the St Ninian’s Isle treasure.
The Chapel site is easily found as the original church’s ruins are fenced in against the burrowingrabbits, and there are interpretation panels that fully explain the site. This is the spot where, in 1958, schoolboy Douglas Coutts discovered the St Ninian’s Isle treasure hoard. He had joined ateam from the University of Aberdeen on a dig led by Professor O’Dell at the 12th-century chapel site. It was the first day of the summer holidays and his first day on the dig site. He was sent to a corner of the site, away from the important work of the ‘real archaeologists’. He was handed a trowel – the spade used by archaeologists – and set to work digging.
The tombolo, or ayre, was formed following the last Ice Age as sea levels rose and the sea deposited sands and sediments. There are impressive dune systems at either end of the sand with marram grasses and a plethora of wildflowers in the calcium-rich sandy soils.
On the island, walk to the southwest corner for some stunning views towards Fitful Head. The rugged coastline is unexpected after the sweeping sands of the tombolo. It’s important to remember that the island itself stands on the exposed Atlantic coast of Shetland, where much ofthis coastline is dramatic and sheer.
From here, there is an access path that will take you around the isle, passing the impressive Hich (High) Holm, an important breeding ground for kittiwakes, and on to Selchie Geo. Selkie is the Shetland name for a seal, and, as expected, you can often see seals bobbing around in the inlet. This is also a fantastic place to watch fulmars as they soar in the thermals.
Following the coast, the path leads around Loose Head and back along the island’s eastern fringes, where you’ll reach the Chapel site and the way back to the beach once more.
This is a fantastic three-hour circular to be enjoyed at leisure with a generous picnic.
How to get there:
From Lerwick, follow the main A970 south towards Bigton. There is a limited bus service operating to the village of Bigton, so it is recommended that you take your car to reach this walk.
From Bigton, follow the signs that point towards the beach, passing the impressive Bigton Farm on the way. Park in the car park next to the beach and cross the sand to get to the island.
Although the tombolo is not usually covered by the sea, in winter and at times of extreme high tides in spring and autumn, or during periods of bad weather, the sea can wash over the tombolo. You’re unlikely to become stranded, but you may get wet feet at these times!
Did you know?
The iconic St Ninian’s Isle treasure, now on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh, is a national importance collection. The hoard comprises twenty-eight pieces of highly decorated silverware (the main items are brooches, bowls and pieces of weapons) and a fragment of a porpoise’s jawbone. It is thought that the treasure is Pictish and dates to about AD 800. It was buried in a larch box (a type of tree that did not grow in Scotland or Shetland) and uncovered in the later 12th-century chapel under the church’s nave. It is generally believed that the treasure was buried below the floor of an earlier chapel.
Nether Largie Standing Stones – Kilmartin Glen’s greatest mystery
Nether Largie Standing Stones – Kilmartin Glen’s greatest mystery
Kilmartin Glen is renowned for its striking Bronze Age and Neolithic remains, from burial cairns to carved rock, forts and more. There are over 350 ancient monuments reaching a six-mile radius of Kilmartin village and, tucked into an unassuming sheep field just south of the main village, is a mysterious arrangement of five standing stones.
The Nether Largie Standing Stones are arranged into an ‘X’ formation, with two pairs of stones, reaching an average of 2.85 metres high, placed north and south of the field and surrounding a larger stone of nearly 3 metres. Some of these stones display cup marks, with the largest central stone showing 23 cup marks. Of these 23 circular depressions, three are surrounded by ring carvings.
Like with many historical standing stone arrangements, the Nether Largie Standing Stones invite many questions from visitors, including the most inevitable: “why?”
There are several theories surrounding the origin of this intriguing prehistoric exhibition, from the less-favourable goal-post set up (based on the positions of the southern and northern pairs of stones, suggesting a historical football pitch) to the more agreeable lunar observatory theory.
If the more serious theory of a lunar observatory reigns true, then our neolithic ancestors could have been monitoring the rising and setting cycles of the moon as well as possible solar alignment observations. Still, there is no certainty.
What adds to this Scottish mystery are the dates archaeologists have pulled together: The stones are said to have been placed in Kilmartin Glen around 3,200 years ago, yet the circular engravings date back almost 1,500 years further, suggesting that the stones were carved before they were carried to their new home.
Nowadays, the stones have cultivated various superstitions: Good fortune may be gained by camping nearby, yet touching the mystical stones could bring about bad luck.
The Nether Largie Standing Stones remains to be one of the greatest mysteries of Kilmartin Glen. What can be interpreted, however, is that these archaeological features were of great importance to the inhabitants of the Bronze Age, even if the reasons behind their placement are kept a fascinating secret.