Scotland is chock full of stunning historical gems. From the might of Edinburgh Castle to the melancholy atmosphere of Culloden Battlefield - the country’s rich past continues to exert a huge pull on visitors from across the globe. But for every world-famous location there are a myriad of other historical sites. So why not head off the beaten trail during your next trip and take in some of these lesser-visited, yet still fascinating, locations.
1. Clava Cairns, near Inverness
This ancient complex of burial cairns and standing stones has proven a powerful draw for visitors across the centuries. Located near Culloden Battlefield on the outskirts of Inverness, the cairns are about 4,000 years old, and their alignment suggests the midwinter solstice had important symbolism for those who built them.
Already a popular spot to visit, in recent years the number of people keen to soak up the site’s atmosphere has jumped further due to their links to author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series - as the cairns are thought to have been an inspiration for Craigh na Dun, the stone circle which plays such a pivotal role in the narrative. With a rich past, mysterious astronomical alignments and a continuing influence on popular culture, it’s easy to see why the cairns still fire the imagination.
Address: Near Inverness, IV2 5EU
Price: Free entry (although donations are welcome). Free car park on site
Opening Hours: All year round
Website: Clava Cairns
2. Dunrobin Castle
This privately-owned stately home north of Inverness has the appearance of a classic fairy tale castle, with spectacular design and extensive ornamental gardens. Parts of the castle date back to the 13th-century, although much of what can be seen today are later additions that were built in the 18th and 19th-century. It has been the seat of the Dukes and Earls of Sutherland since the 13th-century and is thought to derive its name - which means Robin’s fort - from one of its early masters.
The castle, which is open to the public from April to mid-October, is chock full of impressive and fascinating rooms - from grand dining halls to packed libraries. A short drive north from the castle along the A9 will also bring you to the well-preserved remains of the Carn Liath broch, an iron age fortified home which is well-worth a visit.
Address: Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland, KW10 6SF
Opening Hours: 10.30am - 4.30pm daily (April, May, September and October); 10am - 5pm (June, July and August). Last entry is 30 minutes before closing
Access: North of Inverness. Dunrobin also has its own (seasonal) railway station on the Far North Line
Contact: +44 1408633177 or email [email protected]
Nearby Food: There is a café and gift shop within the castle
Website: Dunrobin Castle
Anyone traveling up the north-west coast of Scotland will almost certainly pass the remains of the 16th-century fortification of Ardvreck Castle and the neighboring ruined manor of Calda House. Set on the shores of Loch Assynt, both structures are located right next to the roadside and just ache to be explored. There is a free car park near the castle with information boards which relay some of the fascinating history of this spectacular spot. The two ruins are connected - Calda House was built by the occupants of Ardvreck in the early 1700s as a more modern home, but was lived in for barely a decade before burning down in mysterious circumstances linked to the Highlands’ infamous clan rivalries. The nearby village of Lochinver offers a number of hotels and restaurants, should you wish to break up your journey.
Inver Lodge Hotel
Address: Inver Lodge Hotel, Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland, IV27 4LU (see map)
Contact: +44 1571844496 or email [email protected]
4. Fort George
Culloden Battlefield, near Inverness, is world famous. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, whose defeat at the infamous patch of moorland in 1746 signaled the end of decades of rebellion against the British crown, still linger large in the popular consciousness of Scotland. But far fewer people are familiar with Fort George, the stunning fortification built in the late 1700s as a direct response to the rebellion and which was designed to prevent the conflict repeating.
The extensive fortifications are still a working military base to this day, but one which is also open to the public. The fort, which is also home to the Highlanders Museum, offers a fascinating glimpse into the Jacobite rebellion, British military history and even the wildlife of the area - the ramparts offering a superb vantage point for a bit of dolphin spotting. The fort is also home to the Highland Military Tattoo, which runs every September.
Address: Near Ardersier, Inverness, IV2 7TD
Opening Hours: April to September: Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm. October to March: Daily, 10am to 4pm
Website: Fort George
5. The Parallel Roads of Glen Roy
Located within the Lochaber Geopark, the ‘roads’ - three mysterious parallel lines cut into the sides of Glen Roy that perfectly follow the contours of the land - puzzled people for centuries. What were they for? Was it symbolic; some form of ritual? The reality was far stranger - and it was all linked to the last Ice Age. Science eventually revealed them for what they were - the results of ice dams that once blocked the head of the glen, causing meltwater lakes to form behind them. In the cycle between colder and warmer periods these dams had given way before reforming and collapsing all over again. And the lines? The 'fossilised’ shorelines of each of these lakes, where wave action once cut into the soft earth.
Opening Hours: All year
Contact: +44 1397705314 or email [email protected]
Website: Lochaber Geopark
6. The Highland Clearances
The Clearances are a notorious period in the history of the Scottish Highlands. Landowners evicted entire villages of subsistence farmers - known as crofters - in a bid to make more money from their estates through sheep farming. Such evictions drove the mass migrations which led to today’s large Scottish diaspora in countries around the world. Those dark days are remembered at sites across the Highlands - from the ‘Emigrants’ statue in Helmsdale to the skeletal remains of abandoned villages at the likes of Rosal, Badbea and numerous others. Information boards at several of these sites put a human face on the history.
Rosal Clearance Village
Address: Rosal is near Syre on the A871 road south of Bettyhill. It is located at map grid reference NC 690 426
Contact: Forestry Commission Scotland on + 44 3000676850 or email [email protected]
7. Dunvegan Castle
When people think of castles on or around the Isle of Skye most minds instantly run to the iconic Eilean Donan, which sits south of the Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland. But intrepid travelers who head over the famous Skye Bridge and up into the north-west corner of the island will find the impressive edifice of Dunvegan Castle, which has been occupied by the Clan Macleod for more than 800 years. The castle is home to an impressive collection of historical artifacts, including the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan - a silk clan banner that dates back to the fourth century, likely hails from Rhodes or Syria, and is rumored to have mystical healing qualities.
Dunvegan Castle and Gardens
Address: Dunvegan Castle, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, IV55 8WF
Opening Hours: Daily 10am to 5.30pm from April 1st to October 15th. Closed between October 16th and March 31st
Contact: +44 1470521206
Website: Dunvegan Castle
8. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Tucked away onto a coastal promontory north of Wick in the far north-east of Scotland, the ruin of Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is now being preserved for future generations. The front half of the castle is accessible via a wooden bridge, while the second half is currently off limits while work is gradually carried out to shore up the remaining walls. Extensive information boards detail the long and fascinating history of this castle - from its early beginnings, through subsequent extensions and its renaming, to its abandonment. It is also a popular spot for wildlife spotters, with whales, seals, dolphins and birds all frequent visitors to the area.
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Address: Map grid reference ND 378549. Head north out of Wick to Staxigoe and turn left at a T-junction near the village war memorial. Follow the road for two miles (3.2 km) to a free car park near the castle
Website: Caithness Castles
Another key moment in Scotland’s long history of Jacobite uprisings, the Battle of Killiecrankie was one of its bloodier chapters. A visitor centre details this past while the nearby Soldier’s Leap rock is the spot where a royalist soldier pulled off the herculean feat of jumping across the River Garry to escape with his life.
Killiecrankie Visitor Centre
Address: Killiecrankie, Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5LG
Opening Hours: Site is open all year. Visitor centre is open daily from 10am to 5pm between April 1st and November 5th
Contact: +44 1796473233 or [email protected]
Website: Killiecrankie Visitor Centre
10. The Airlie Monument
Anyone driving the A90 road between Dundee and Aberdeen cannot fail to have seen the striking red tower of the Airlie Monument rising from a ridge between the Angus glens of Clova and Prosen. The folly was built by a mourning laird to honor his son following his death in the Boer War at the start of the 20th-century. The tower interior is not accessible to the public but a path leads from a free car park up to the ridge on which it sits. This offers superb views of the tower and up the glens. Close to the car park also lies a simple monument to Scott of the Antarctic, who carried out winter training in the area before his ill-fated bid to reach the South Pole.
Address: Tulloch Hill, Airlie, Kirriemuir, Angus
Website: Visit Angus
What other hidden gems await?
With these and many other hidden gems waiting for you across Scotland, there are literally thousands of options to choose from. The only question you need to ask yourself is: “Where will I head next?”
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