Castles, ceilidhs and clans: How to plan an authentic Scottish holiday

Urquhart Castle commands great views of Loch Ness and can be found beside the village of Drumnadrochit
Urquhart Castle commands great views of Loch Ness and can be found beside the village of Drumnadrochit | Courtesy of VisitScotland

Freelance Travel and Music Writer

From medieval castles and UNESCO-listed landmarks to friendly ceilidhs and bagpipe playing, here’s how to plan your next authentic Scottish trip.

Scotland’s glorious cluster of wild landscapes, brooding castles and haunting history make for an intriguing trip indeed, but where to begin? To tap into the country at its authentic best, perhaps get digging into your own ancestral history, attend a lively ceilidh or embark on the official self-guided Highlands castle tour… but all of that is just the beginning.

There’s a certain monster to search for at Loch Ness, clans to learn about dotted across the map, and you can even try your hand at playing those famous bagpipes. Buckle up for the ride, because this one’s a wee belter, as Scots would say.

Search for ancestral history…

While millions of people the world over celebrate their Scots ancestry, there truly is no substitute for visiting Scotland to experience that sense of connection with your Scottish roots – whether that be by visiting places associated with your personal family story, or those linked to your family names.

Those wishing to take one step further and discover the roots of their family tree could hire an accredited tour guide to do all the legwork. Scottish-based tour operators like Solway Tours will research your surname or clan, create a bespoke ancestral tour itinerary based on your interests and guide you around the very same spots your forebears will have set foot in – including historic castles, of course.

Follow in the footsteps of your forefathers with Solway Tours

Then take a self-guided castle tour

Now that you’re all clued up on clans and had a taste of your ancestral high life, how about some more castle spotting? You’ll need around four days for this self-guided Highlands castles tour, which begins at Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness and ends at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye; keep an eye out for Eilean Donan Castle, too: it’s Scotland’s most photographed.

Or, how about a tour of Scotland’s self-proclaimed Castle Country? Believe it or not, Aberdeenshire is home to more than 260 castles, and 19 of its most lauded have been bundled up into this six-day driving tour of the region. As an added bonus, make a bee-line for Slains Castle, on the coast of Cruden Bay: it’s said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And for those with Scottish ancestry, the likes of Inveraray Castle in Argyll, Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries & Galloway and Culzean Castle in Ayrshire are some of Scotland’s most popular.

Immerse yourself in Scotland’s unique culture

From ceilidhs to caber tossing, Scotland’s cultural offerings are truly unique. For ceilidhs you can take heed, or take part, in every major town and city across the country. ‘Ceilidh’ – pronounced “kay-lee” – is a Gaelic word translating to ‘visit’. At a ceilidh you’ll find a lively celebration of Scots folk music and dancing, where participation is wholly encouraged; you can also attend one at venues in small towns, like The View in Oban.

For a different kind of traditional music, you’ll also want to visit the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. Here you can learn the history of Scotland’s famed bagpipes and maybe even give them a go yourself. Furthermore, a breadth of traditional Scottish live music is also regularly found at pubs and venues up and down the country.

On the other hand, the caber toss is part of the world-renowned Highland Games, which take place on various one-day events over the summer months. Here you’ll find a mixture of outdoor sports, including Highland dancing, heavy athletics and track and field events, alongside music, food and drink in a celebration of local community heritage. The Braemar Gathering, attended by the Royal Family each September, and the Cowal Highland Gathering in Argyll, which attracts up to 25,000 spectators each August, are arguably the two most popular Highland Games events, though you’ll also find plenty in other small towns and magical remote islands.

With around 150 active whisky distilleries across Scotland’s five producing regions, we couldn’t discuss Scottish culture without mentioning whisky. Where a whisky is produced has a huge bearing on its flavour, from peaty and smoky in taste on islands like Islay and Skye, to full-bodied Scotch in the Highlands. Speyside in particular boasts more than 50 distilleries, making it the world’s greatest concentration of whisky producers. Many doors are open for behind the scenes visits: try Glenlivet or The Balvenie for a tour to remember.

Will you visit Glenlivet Distillery, where some of the world’s most iconic whisky is produced?

Explore Scotland’s pioneering UNESCO Trail

In a world-first, Scotland’s UNESCO Trail was set up to encourage visitors to slow down, travel responsibly and spend more time in this bonnie country. What a great idea, indeed. It spans Shetland UNESCO Global Geopark and the neolithic sites of Orkney to the north and as far south as the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere.

Other highlights on the trail include Glasgow – a UNESCO City of Music, and Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – allowing visitors to zigzag across the country using sustainable travel methods, such as train, bus or bicycle, and even recommended sustainable local businesses for guided tours and accommodation.

The 18th-century mill village of New Lanark is a highlight along Scotland’s UNESCO Trail

Get to the bottom of Scots’ myths and legends

Every country has its own tales of myths and legends, but does Scotland have the world’s most iconic? Find out for yourself at the recently revamped Loch Ness Centre, on the site of the former Drumnadrochit Hotel. It was from this very building that the first modern ‘sighting’ of the Loch Ness Monster – known as Nessie in these parts – was recorded by hotel manager Aldie Mackay, who spotted “the beast” moving in the water. Today an immersive walkthrough experience delves into the history, stories and myths behind Nessie, empowering visitors to decide whether something really is lurking beneath the loch’s surface.

Delve deep into Scotland’s most famous legend at the Loch Ness Centre

Then there’s The Kelpies, a pair of 100 ft-tall steel horse head sculptures overhanging the River Carron and the M9 motorway in The Helix Park near Falkirk. A kelpie is a shape-changing aquatic spirit, with its name thought to derive from the Scottish Gaelic words ‘cailpeach’ or ‘colpach’, meaning ‘heifer’ or ‘colt’. “Real” kelpies are believed to haunt rivers and streams, but these ones are the world’s largest equine sculptures. A free on-site visitor centre digs deeper, and offers guided tours which take you inside the sculptures.

For more authentic experiences and to plan your own trip, head over to VisitScotland.

Sojern Image Pixel

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article