The first thing that impressed my wife, Fyllis, and me about the areas of Scotland we were visiting was their natural beauty.
Both the Highlands and Central Scotland are home to craggy mountains, rolling farmlands dotted by grazing sheep and the still waters of lochs (lakes). We agreed with a poll conducted by Rough Travel Guides that included Scotland among the “Most beautiful countries in the world.”
Contrasting with that tranquility is a history that is replete with battles against a parade of invaders and tyrants. And during pauses among those clashes, high-spirited Scottish warriors at times took to fighting among themselves.
Castles in Scotland Were Built Before Columbus Sailed
Chapters of that history come alive at the countless castles that dot the landscape, some of which were built well before Columbus set sail for the New World. In addition, there are charming towns, each with its own unique stories to relate.
Stirling Castle is located in a city of the same name that’s known as the “Gateway to the Highlands.” Its oldest structures date back to the 14th century. The Royal Palace looks much as it did when completed in the 16th century. One ceiling is adorned with original wood-carved medallions that depict images of kings, queens and other notables.
Doune (pronounced Dune) Castle dates back to the 13th century. Its quintessential fortress-like façade appeared in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Plus, more recently, in the Outlander TV series.
Small Scottish Towns with Big Appeal
The past also lives in cities and towns, including even the tiniest hamlets that make up in allure what they lack in size.
Inverness sits astride the Ness River, whose source is the loch where the famous fabled monster resides. This is a welcoming, walking town with numerous cozy restaurants and small shops.
A personal favorite was the Victorian Market, which retains much of its original ornate splendor from 1891. Historic photographs line the walls, and independent purveyors—a butcher, fishmonger, watchmaker and some 30 others—add to the ambience.
Dunblane stands on the banks of the Allan Water (River Allan), which in the past powered factories and mills. Exhibits at the compact but outstanding Dunblane Museum trace the area’s history. I found especially fascinating the collection of beggars’ badges. In the 15th century, these badges identified indigent people who had permission to plead for money.
The pleasant Darn Walk trail alongside the river links Dunblane with the Bridge of Allan, a 19th-century spa town that traces its history back to a hillside fortress built during the Iron Age.
The Heart of Scotland’s Capital in Edinburgh
Contrasting with towns that are small in size but large in appeal is Edinburgh [pronounced Edin-borough], a magnificent city that, in many ways, is much more than just a pretty face. The Old Town area earns its accolade as “the heart of Scotland’s capital.”
Stretching a mile through the city center, its stunning architecture serves as a backdrop to an active street life. Entertainers attract crowds of passersby, and street musicians add a background of music to the setting.
Edinburgh Castle overlooks the Royal Mile, as it’s known, from a hilltop that has served as a defensive fortress since ancient Roman times. At the opposite end of the road is the Palace of Holyrood. This is the official residence of the English monarch in Scotland. King Charles III spends one week in residence each summer but was not there when we were, so we couldn’t drop by for tea.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s Collection of Colorful “Closes”
Another favorite site for us was Real Mary King’s Close, a narrow underground thoroughfare that provides a realistic immersion in the past. In the mid-17th century, Edinburg was confined primarily within its security walls and housing was built in small thoroughfares called Closes, a Scottish word for alley.
These were often named for an occupant or the business or trade of residents, which accounts for signs identifying the Advocates, Bake House and Old Fish Market Closes.
Real Mary King’s Close is named for a merchant who lived there for a decade (1635-1645) along with about 600 other people. The tour delved into Mary’s life, those of people from all social classes and horror tales about Edinburgh’s most deadly plaque.
Another, very different site that I suggest should be visited is the Trossachs, an area of heavily wooded hills, yawning valleys and rocky peaks. This landscape, in many ways, represents a microcosm of Highland scenery.
Our visit was limited to a self-driving tour and hike. However, other activities includ animal and bird watching, fishing and enjoying a boat ride on a loch. History lovers may check out prehistoric sites, including rock markings, burnt mounds and artificial islands once occupied by lake dwellings.
Reliving periods of history is just one of the many attractions that invite visitors to Scotland. In an area about equal to that of South Carolina, its treasures include ancient history and architecture, plus some of Mother Nature’s most splendid handiworks. There are also friendly people eager to share their proud heritage with guests from abroad.
Travel With Untours
My wife and I visited Scotland with Untours, whose “Live like the locals” motto describes its unique approach. Untours offers the advantages of independent travel along with planning, on-site support similar to a tour, and other assistance.
Accommodations are never in hotels. We spent one week in a comfortable flat (apartment) in Inverness, in a building that had been a church dating to 1837. Another week was spent in a former woolen mill overlooking the small river that had powered it.
Also provided was a wealth of helpful pre-trip information, use of a rental car and a first-day briefing and mini-tour at each location from the on-site Untours representative. The Untours representative was available to provide help and information throughout our stay, along with other perks.
We could save money by cooking meals in the kitchen of our flat, which we enjoyed. Alternately, we could go to nearby restaurants.