Our top 20 history and heritage sites to visit in Scotland
Scotland’s epic history and heritage is all around us. It’s in the stones of its towering, crumbling castles; it’s within the deep, dark waters of its lochs and their myths and monsters; and it’s on the banks of its canals first carved from the rugged rock centuries ago.
2017 is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and the perfect time to explore incredible places millennia in the making. We’ve picked out some of the best to help you plan a self-drive adventure you’ll never forget. Get in gear.
Take a trip to beautiful Banavie near Fort William to see the majestic Caledonian Canal’s iconic staircase lock flight – Neptune’s Staircase. This amazing feat of engineering, overlooked by Ben Nevis, raises the canal by 19m (62ft) over a quarter of a mile of continuous masonry and takes around 90 minutes for a boat to travel up or down the locks. Built by famed engineer Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822, it’s the longest staircase lock in Britain and the perfect location to enjoy a spot of ‘gongoozling!’
Eilean Donan Castle
Pay a visit to Eilean Donan Castle – one of the most recognised structures in Scotland and a recurring feature on shortbread tins and calendars the world over. It’s easy to see why – towering against the landscape on its own island overlooking the Isle of Skye at the point where three great sea-lochs meet and surrounded by the leafy mountains of Kintail, Eilean Donan’s setting is unforgettable.
Explore the rugged beauty and history of the Highlands in iconic Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness. Home to over 1,000 years of history, the castle is where St Columba is said to have worked miracles in the 6th century, where acts of chivalry and defiance provided inspiration during the Wars of Independence, and where the clan MacDonald, Lords of the Isles, struggled with the Crown for power. Step inside its ruined but still formidable walls and explore some of the most turbulent periods of Scotland’s history and enjoy unrivalled views of its most iconic loch.
Possibly the most majestic, magnificent ruin you’ll ever see, Melrose Abbey was built almost 1000 years ago and features some of the finest (and most unusual – look out for the sculpture of a bagpipe-playing pig!) medieval architecture to be found anywhere in Britain. Don’t miss the chance to see the burial place of Robert the Bruce's heart, marked with a commemorative carved stone plaque within the grounds.
Calanais Standing Stones
One of Scotland’s best-preserved Neolithic monuments and deservedly famous the world over, the Calanais Standing Stones predate Stonehenge and have entranced visitors and baffled historians for centuries. While we still don’t know what their purpose was, one thing’s for sure – you’ll never forget seeing the sunset dance over the ancient stone and the rugged hills beyond.
The Crinan Canal
It’s easy to see why people fall in love with the Crinan Canal. Meandering through the ancient coastal kingdom known as ‘Dalriada’ in the heart of Argyll & Bute, the 200-year-old waterway might be just nine miles long but it features some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere in Scotland. Home to some of our most iconic wildlife, the chance to undertake adventures on and off the water, and with an array of pretty villages – featuring some fantastic pubs and restaurants – on its banks, a single visit to the Crinan is all it’ll take for you to see why it’s known as ‘Britain’s most beautiful shortcut.’
Built on the craggy summit of an extinct volcano, Scotland’s most famous castle is known the world over and played a pivotal role in the history of the nation – it’s no surprise there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Explore the stories of the kings enthroned upon the Stone of Destiny; hear your footsteps echo in the city’s oldest building, St Margaret’s Chapel; or cover your ears as the iconic one o’clock gun blasts over the city.
The Falkirk Wheel
Elegant, audacious, and utterly enchanting – The Falkirk Wheel is a soaring symbol of the regeneration of Scotland’s historic canal network and a marvel of modern engineering. Linking the Forth & Clyde Canal to the Union some 35 metres above, the world’s only rotating boat lift replaced the 11 locks that once carried countless vessels between the two waterways and has to be seen to be believed. Nowhere else on the planet can you sail through the sky, held up in the heavens by a combination of graceful engineering and the same power as it would take to boil eight kettles!
The National Wallace Monument
Long before Mel Gibson cried freedom in Braveheart, the tale of William Wallace fascinated the world. The Wallace Monument near Stirling is a soaring, imposing stone symbol of the impact of the titular knight’s tale. Built in 1869 (more than 500 years after Wallace had met a particularly gruesome end), the 220-feet-tall monument stands defiantly overlooking Stirling Bridge - the site of his most famous victory. Be sure to climb its 246 steps for incredible views stretching from the Forth bridges to Loch Lomond.
The Antonine Wall
The Romans didn’t trust just a single wall to keep the Scots out. Constructed almost 100 miles north of the undeservedly more famous Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall stretched almost 40 miles across the central belt of Scotland, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Pay a visit to Rough Castle in Falkirk to see the best preserved example of what was once the northernmost frontier of the mighty empire. Stand on the remains of its ramparts and imagine being a legionnaire staring into the creeping dark, certain you see wild Caledonians in the treeline…
Set on the banks of the thundering Falls of Clyde, the lovingly-restored cotton mill village of New Lanark allows you to step back into life in 18th century Scotland. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sprawling, stunning village offers a perfect snapshot of Scotland at the height of the Industrial Revolution. If you’re looking to take a trip through nature rather than through time, the surrounding area offers woodland walks through breathtaking scenery and the chance to catch a glimpse of kingfishers, otters, deer and badgers or even the rare peregrine falcon.
Battle of Bannockburn
Stand shoulder to shoulder with Robert the Bruce at the battle that changed the course of Scottish history – Bannockburn. Recently given a much-needed makeover, the visitor centre at the battle site uses cutting edge technology to allow you to step back into that fateful day in 1314. Armies clash, swords and shields clang, and blood is let as you take command of the knights and soldiers who fought and died at Bannockburn, pitting your wits against fellow visitors on the virtual battlefield. Charge!
Forget Loch Ness, when it comes to conspiracy theories, myths and legends, few places in Scotland rival remarkable Rosslyn Chapel. Founded in 1446, the chapel took some 40 years to build and its ornate stonework and mysterious symbolism have inspired – and intrigued – visitors ever since. The carvings cover almost every surface of the chapel and feature designs ranging from the iconic (and rather terrifying) ‘green men’ to a much-loved carving of an angel playing bagpipes – and even an appearance from the devil himself. You’ll tie yourself in knots trying to work out what it all means but you’ll enjoy every second.
Follow in the icy footsteps of one of Scotland’s greatest explorers at Dundee’s Royal Research Ship Discovery – the iconic vessel that, in 1901, carried Captain Robert Scott on an epic voyage to explore the uncharted, frozen wastes of the Antarctic. Lovingly-restored and featuring some state-of-the-art exhibitions, a trip aboard the Discovery will let you relive Scott’s heroic (and utterly insane) endeavour – without the risk of frostbite!
Edinburgh may have the grandeur, Eilean Donan may have the looks, but when it comes to history, nothing tops Stirling. The town’s titular castle, where the Wars of Independence were fought and won, where for three centuries monarchs ruled in regal splendour, and where it’s said the ghost of Mary Queen of Scots still haunts the cavernous halls, has the epic, dark, poetic history of Scotland scored into its soaring stone. Pay a visit and experience it for yourself.
St Giles’ Cathedral
Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile boasts some incredible and historic buildings, but St Giles’ Cathedral, with its distinctive crowned steeple dominating the skyline and its intricate stained glass windows staring out onto the cobbled streets, stands above them all – quite literally. Built almost 1000 years ago, it’s one of the capital’s most beautiful buildings, inside and out. If you’re paying a visit, be sure to take the rooftop tour and see Edinburgh from the heavens!
Clad in almost 1000 shimmering steel panels, standing the same height as six and a half double decker buses, and weighing more than 600 tonnes, The Kelpies are the world’s largest equine sculptures. Designed by Scottish sculptor Andy Scott, The Kelpies form the gateway to the historic Forth & Clyde Canal in Grangemouth near Falkirk and serve as monumental tributes to the horse-powered heritage that was vital to the early industries of central Scotland. Visit at night to see the sculptures’ light show – it’ll take your breath away!
Glasgow’s Riverside Triangle
Step aboard the last Clyde-built tall ship still afloat, stand in the shadow of a Spitfire, and tread the cobbles in a recreation of a 19th century high street – all in the same day! If you’re looking for a crash course in Scotland’s history and heritage, you need look no further than the cluster of museums and galleries that dot the banks of Glasgow’s Rivers Kelvin and Clyde.
With the iconic and much-loved collections of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum; the countless skateboards, cars, prams, boats and beyond on show in the Riverside Museum; and the array of startling, hands-on exhibitions available in the Glasgow Science Centre, there’s enough culture packed into the Riverside Triangle to last a lifetime!