Scotland’s Most Inspiring Places: A Personal View
Having seen dozens of top ten places to visit in Scotland, mostly compiled by tourist guides who’s writers have barely scratched the surface we felt it was time to weigh in with our personal view. At ScotClans we spend a lot of time travelling to parts of Scotland collecting stories and legends and capturing the scenery. This list contains ten places that are not only beautiful but are also inspiring in many ways.
1. Skye: The Trotternish Peninsula.
The Island of Skye is nearly always on peoples ‘bucket list’ and with good reason. The island is very large with so many different things to see its hard to know where to start. Dominated by the brooding ‘Black Cuillins’ a ragged mountain range that sits in its centre the island fans out to a number of peninsulas. All of them have spectacular views and hidden gems to explore but our favourite is the Trotternish peninsula.
Travelling north beyond Portree; the island’s main town a strange jagged ridge comes into view, this ridge features the Old Man of Storr, a giant rock tower that sits at an impossible angle near the rugged Storr cliffs. Further up the Quiraing extends the ridge line, the remnants of an ancient landslide of epic proportions. Walking through this area is like entering another world, the complexity of the landscape and broad vistas as you reach the ridge tops is quite simply astonishing.
What else is like this: In many ways it reminds me of Hadrian’s Wall (yes I know thats in England). Also the sea stacks of Orkney.
2. Glencoe and Rannoch Moor.
It would be impossible and indeed unforgivable to not include Glencoe in this list but I would extend it a little south to cover Rannoch Moor, an extraordinary landscape of bogland and small lochans that signal your approach to the glen as you venture north. The main road seems to float over the landscape and its hard not to find yourself trying to imagine what it must have felt like in the days before Thomas Telford build the first metalled road here as people picked their way through the moor. It must hold many dark secrets.
Then there is Glencoe. The majestic Buchaille Etive Mor stands guard at the entrance to the glen with her sister peaks lined up beside her, on the other side the Aonach Eagach ridge, the narrowest and most exposed ridge in Britain is a place not for the feint hearted. Handy parking places are scattered along the length of the glen, nearly always packed with tour busses and the odd bagpiper raking in the cash. The real rewards though, come when you take a step or two away from these busy lay byes and out into the glen itself. Despite its fearsome reputation in winter Glencoe has meny less challenging low level walks that get you away from the crowds and give you the space to contemplate life before the ‘quieting of the highlands’ and the tragic events that have been so linked to this place forever more. Caution and a sensible attitude (and footwear) of course goes without staying, this is a wild place that can claim lives in any season.
What else is like this: Scotland has many deep glens like Glencoe though few are so well known. Glenshiel with it towering 5 sisters comes to mind or for a more scaled down version Mennock and Enterkin passes in Dumfriesshire feels like a lowland rural equivalent.
3. The Border Abbeys
The cluster of small border towns that nestle in the south east part of the Scottish borders feature a ring of magnificent ruined abbeys. In their heyday Monks from the Tironesian, Augustinian, Premonstratensian and Cistercian orders occupied these impressive buildings which became centres of learning and sat at the centre of many small communities. Inevitably though, sitting as they do in the heart of the sometimes lawless border region and with neighbouring England a few hours ride away the abbeys were partly destroyed, much of the damage being done during the ‘Rough wooing’ of King Henry VIII of England.
The violence of that time has long gone now and what is left of the abbeys are preserved as they were left all those centuries ago. Each has its own character and are peaceful places where you can sneak away from a busy market day and try to imagine the sounds of morning prayers being offered up in an echoing chapel.
For people of a fitter disposition it is possible to follow a 5 day walking route that takes in these wonderful buildings. The walk is not too challenging and gives you even more opportunity to explore this often missed part of Scotland.
What else is like this: Our own Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh of course, Iona (featuring shortly) and Linlithgow Palace certainly have a similar feel in many ways.
As you take the route north to venture into the North West Highlands you hit the town of Fort William, spreading near the foot of Ben Nevis this busy town is an inevitable stop off for a quick snack and a stretch of the legs. Most travellers continue to the north towards Skye and Loch ness but just taking a left turn will lead you on a journey that rewards you with fantastic beaches, scenes from Harry Potter and romantic tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This road which was once a twisting and perilous single track is much improved, it takes in the Jacobite monument at Glenfinnan and an added bonus of a view from there of the Glenfinnan Viaduct a victorian marvel of railway engineering that will now forever be known as ‘the Harry Potter Bridge’. If you are very lucky you might catch the steam train that regularly travels this way on tourist trips puffing over the viaduct.
This was where the ‘Young Pretender’ (not the young wizard) first landed on the Scottish mainland in 1745, raised his standard and forever changed the covers of shortbread tins and tea towels, just a few minutes drive away loch Nan Uamh is where he set sail back to Europe a year later, his followers scattered in the highlands or buried in the mass graves at Culloden.
At the small village of Arisaig is what could only be described as a camper’s paradise, a collection of campsites sit along this stretch of coast set into grassy areas beside beaches with impossibly white sand. Its hard to compete with the feeling of settling down to a mug of tea or something stronger watching the waves on the shore as the sun sets over the islands of Rhum and Eigg. A sunset in Arisaig is not just a sunset, its gods own theatre, and he knows how to put on a good show!
For those who want to venture further though this route has one last gift to give, the Malliag ferry to Skye. An altogether gentler and more dignified way to reach our first destination on the list. As the ferry pulls out of Malliag harbour its inevitable that you catch yourself humming the Skye Boat Song to yourself.
What else is like this: The west coast and in particular the islands have incredible beaches, Tiree for example or Durness in the far north, The small island of Eriskay has the connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie too as of course does Culloden.
5. South Uist
The island of South Uist forms part of the Outer Hebrides (more of them to feature later). The island stretches from north to south linked by causeways to Benbecula and Eriskay. A modest range of low mountain peaks run like a spine down its east side and to the west is the legendary Machair. The Machair is a low lying coastal plain, formed by millennia of wind blown, calcium rich sand that forms a valuable fertile layer. The habitat is the fragile home to many species of birds and small crofting communities are scattered along the island’s east side.
There is something about the light here that feels like nowhere else on earth. There always seems to be some drama in the sky as another raincloud skids in over the Atlantic to the sound of oystercatchers and gulls.
This is an ancient place too – Settlers have been here since neolithic times and this is the only location in Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. Looking at the ramshackle collection of little crofts you are reminded that now just as then the people who live here have a relationship with the land and pace of life that many of us would envy (in the summer at least).
What else is like this: Orkney and Shetland certainly have that feel of a link with the prehistoric past though the Machair is peculiar to the Outer Hebrides. also Barra and Vatersay just to the south and further on, the islands of Islay and Jura.
6. St Kilda
On 29 August 1930, 36 men women and children boarded a boat to the mainland from the island of St Kilda. Breaking a continuous period of settlement that had stretched back over two thousand years. These people were not evicted by harsh landlords, they had asked to be taken away to start a new life elsewhere. For them life in the most remote part of the British Isles had simply become too difficult.
Remote is too simple a word for St Kilda, just getting here is an adventure, and something of a hit and miss affair as the journey over rough seas is not always possible at all. Arriving at the small bay on Hirta, the main island in this small group is like arriving at the edge of the world, the deafening sounds of Gannets, Fulmars and Skuas fills the air and the island itself seems to rise out of the sea to meet you, one second there, one second disappearing as the boat lurches between the waves. As you step onto the shore you step back in time to the moment those last settlers left the island behind. The village street still stands as if trapped in amber, the remains of centuries of island life lie scattered up the hill side.
If you want to come to Scotland and get the feeling of being totally alone try spending a few days here with just the mice for company (and the army personnel who man a nearby base but thankfully never leave their quarters). There is a peculiar feeling to standing on the shore watching the tiny boat head back out into the open sea wondering if it really will be ‘back on Wednesday’ as promised.
Where else is like this: The Monach Islands off the coast of Uist were also until lately inhabited and North Rona is another remote destination. There are also a number of clearance villages such as Bororaig in skye and near Tongue in Sutherland.
7. The Isle of Lewis.
A few years ago I was on a flight back from Iceland on a clear summer evening. The flight path took us over the Butt of Lewis and as first sights of ‘home’ go, its about as good as it gets (also see entry number 10). Lewis has become a popular destination recently thanks to Peter May’s ‘Black House’ trilogy of books, May’s infectious description of the landscape has also inspired an excellent coffee table photography book. A trip to Lewis inevitably begins with the long ferry journey from Ullapool to Stornoway, passing by the Summer Isles, the setting for the classic British horror movie ‘The Wicker Man. Stornoway is a bustling small town that has a bit of a frontier feel about it, its a bit rough round the edges and can be a bit wild of a Saturday night before the ‘sabbath’ calls a halt to all activity. But before you disappear off to explore the island, stop off at MacLeod’s Butchers and stock up on as much Black Pudding as you can sensibly carry.
The stand out feature of Lewis is the standing stones at Callanish. For nearly 5,000 years these remarkable stones have stood here. Academics still argue over their true purpose, partly as a burial site possibly as a calendar no one can really say for certain. Folk tales say that they were a family of giants who refused to convert to Christianity and Saint Kieran turned them to stone as punishment.
Like many parts of the west coast, Lewis has its fair share of incredible coastal landscapes with wide open beaches and stark cliffs. As you travel south from Stornoway towards the mountains of Harris you pass seemingly endless expanses of peat bog, stacks of freshly cut peat stacked up and drying ready for collection. The smell of peat smoke is the air is a reminder once again that this is a place where people work and live not just a toilet stop and cafe.
What else is like this: Again, Orkney springs to mind for its unrivalled collection of ancient artefacts (the only reason Orkney is not on our list is because we have yet to visit there and this is our personal list). Wick and Thurso in Caithness have a similar frontier feel about them that Stornaway does and the wetlands of Caithness and Sutherland are very much like the Interior of Lewis in some ways.
Sometimes the beauty of a place is magnified by the effort it takes to get there. If thats the case then Iona must be one of the most beautiful places on earth! First of all you need to get to the island of Mull, that is either reached via a ferry from Oban or by a couple of smaller ferries and a long drive down towards Ardnamurchan. This is followed by a long drive down the Ross of Mull until you literally ‘run out of island’. From there a small ferry takes mostly foot passengers (theres is not much point in taking the car as theres not really anywhere to drive to) over the short hop to Iona. The famous abbey is immediately visible as you land in the tiny village that sits beside it.
Iona abbey is one of the most famous in Scotland. its by no means the largest and would be dwarfed by the Border abbeys though it is one of the best preserved. St Martins Cross is probably the most photographed and recognisable celtic cross there is and the abbey grounds have more than a few famous interments: Kenneth MacAlpine, Donald II, Malcolm I, Duncan I and Macbeth all lie here, as does the late Labour leader John Smith.
The island is tiny and can be walked round entirely in a day. If you chose to do this there is a good chance you will hardly spot a soul the whole time as pretty much all the tourists flock to the abbey. Their loss is your gain though, the island circuit takes in more sandy beaches on the north shore the rugged west coast with crustal clear waters and small secluded bays, a spouting cave and the remains of an abandoned marble quarry before returning back to the village for a well earned drink while you wait for the ferry back.
What else is like this: Right next to Iona is the small island of Erraid. its tidal so can easily be walked to. There is an incredible campsite at Fidden farm nearby too. Holy isle (in England,,, just) is also very similar and also Inchcolm Abbey in the Forth Estuary.
The tiny village of Plockton sits at around the same line of latitude as Moscow, yet the little road around the bay is lined with palm trees! These are not made of plastic but thrive here thanks to a phenomena properly known as the Atlantic Conveyor though most of you know it as the Gulf Stream. a current of warmer water that runs North-East from the Gulf of Mexico makes landfall on Scotland’s north west coast leading to a far milder climate than we would expect. Before you pack your bermuda shorts and beach volleyball set though remember this is STILL Scotland.
The small village was a fishing community that sprung up in the 19th and 20th centuries in an attempt to slow down emigration from the highlands. The end result is possibly the most picturesque small village in Scotland. Just like Iona above, getting here is half the fun. There is the long drive skirting within touching distance of the Skye bridge and up the road to the ironically named ‘Stromferry (no ferry)’ , or you can take a more indirect route via Lochcarron, or you can treat yourself to one of the worlds greatest train journeys, travelling north to Inverness and then west via the tiny settlement of Achnasheen through some of the grandest majesty that the highlands can serve up, it might be a long journey but I really wouldn’t bother with a book unless its dark 🙂
For those who like an element of terror on their days out then its not too far from Plockton to the small town of Applecross. The last half hour of your trip will be memorable as you wind up the notorious Bealach na Ba (the pass of the cattle) a single track road that twists steeply up an impossible looking slope before sliding down the other side. On the way back you can reward yourself with an early tea at the excellent seafood cafe at Kishorn, where the seafood is so fresh it answers you back.
What else is like this: Rothsay on the Isle of Bute is also known for its palm trees though its a much larger and busier town. The East Neuk of Fife also has a string of quaint fishing villages and Tobermory on Mull is also very picturesque.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows us, after all its where we live. what can you say about Edinburgh that not already been said. Known as the Athens of the North the city has some of the most impressive architecture in the world covering the Middle ages, and Neo Classical eras in particular. Arriving in Edinburgh by train is one of the great tourist experiences of all time: As the train slips through the outskirts it could be anywhere in Britain, then the train dives into a long tunnel, for a moment you emerge to catch a glimpse of the castle rock and gardens before ducking under the art galleries on the mound and arriving in the station. If you have never been before (or even if its been a while) Then walk up the sloping roadway to emerge on Waverly Bridge. Ahead of you stands the impressive if rather rocket like structure of the Scott Monument, the Classical pillars of the National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy and behind that Castle rock with the iconic Edinburgh Castle crowning the top. It really is one of the most impressive cityscapes in Europe if not the world.
Edinburgh is bursting to the point of overflowing with history and culture, the compact city centre makes most sites easily walkable (for those who can easily walk), you can take in an art gallery, loose yourself in a museum or scare yourself witless on one of the many ghost tours that run from the high street.
And if all that bustle is too much then in 15 minutes or so on foot you can find yourself at the bottom of the Royal Mile past Holyrood palace and into Holyrood park, Here you can leave the city behind and feel like you are back in the highland wildernesses that I’ve eulogised about above (in fact parts of Arthurs Seat in Holyrood park have been used to represent the wild highlands in film shoots). After half an hour or so of puffing you might find yourself on top of Arthurs seat or nearby Salisbury Crags giving you a reward of an incredible view over the city and down the east coast on one side and up to the Forth bridges on the other.
What else is like this: Glasgow’s west end is for Victorian architecture what Edinburgh is for Georgian. Stirling has its castle too and is handy for Wallace Monument and Bannockburn, Inverness too is worth visiting if only for the beautiful Ness islands and Leakeys bookshop.
Well thats our personal top ten list for now. I’ve set a date in the Calendar to revisit this list same time next year and see what new places we have discovered by then…
Rodger and Amanda Moffet – Scotclans