Take the High Road: Discover Scotland’s Culture Through its Newer and Lesser-Known Attractions

Castles and lochs grab the attention, but splendid stately manors like Mellerstain House offer a fascinating glimpse into Scottish history
Castles and lochs grab the attention, but splendid stately manors like Mellerstain House offer a fascinating glimpse into Scottish history | Courtesy of VisitScotland / Ian Rutherford
Sarah Gillespie

You’ve heard of the Edinburgh Festivals and Stirling Castle – but what about Celtic Connections and Abbotsford? Scotland’s best-known landmarks have plenty to offer, but there’s culture to be found in every corner of the country – and often in unexpected places. Take the road less travelled, and you’ll find stone circles in hidden glens, art-filled stately homes and distilleries using traditional techniques. What’s more, many of these attractions are either new or have been updated with refurbished visitor centres that cast a contemporary perspective on this ancient land.

View legendary artefacts at Perth Museum

The historic county of Perthshire has long bore witness to key historical moments. Scottish monarchs were once crowned on the Stone of Destiny at Scone Palace; epic battles took place at Killiecrankie in Perthshire and Sheriffmuir in adjacent Stirlinghire during the Jacobite uprisings of the 17th-18th centuries, which aimed to restore the exiled Stuart family to the throne. Immerse yourself in Perthshire’s fascinating heritage at Perth Museum, which will open at Easter 2024 after a $33.2 million refurbishment. Central to the museum’s collection are the Stone of Destiny and the sword of Jacobite leader Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Tie it in with a visit to Scone Palace, just over two miles away.

Turn back the clock at new whisky distilleries using age-old techniques

In an age of endless innovation, some new Scottish distilleries are setting themselves apart by embracing traditional methods. One example is Dunphail Distillery in Speyside, which opened in Autumn 2023 and occupies a converted farm steading and germinates barley on a traditional malting floor. Fermentation takes place in wooden washback vessels, rather than modern steel tanks. In Dumfries and Galloway (southern Scotland) the Moffat Distillery is the first distillery in living memory to heat its stills using wood fire – on a tour, you’ll find out how this lends the spirit a distinct character. Stop for dinner (and a tour of Robert Burns’ former room) at The Globe Inn, owned by the recently revitalised Annandale Distillery.

Annandale Distillery was first built for whisky production almost two centuries ago

Feel like an aristocrat while visiting stately homes in the Scottish Borders

Scotland’s castles are among its biggest draws – but the stately homes of the Scottish Borders are just as fascinating. Stroll the Italianate terraces of Mellerstain; admire the magnificent marble hall and silver staircase of Manderston; pore over the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch’s art collection at Bowhill. And don’t miss Abbotsford: the former home of celebrated author Sir Walter Scott who penned classic novels such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Waverley. As well as touring Scott’s personal library, visitors can walk in the woodlands that inspired his writing. After your visit, head over to nearby Galashiels to visit the Great Tapestry of Scotland, a riveting embroidered account of Scotland’s history.

Uncover Scotland’s folk music roots at the Celtic Connections Festival

Edinburgh summer festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe are known worldwide. But come January, it’s time for Glasgow’s Celtic Connections. As the name suggests, this 18-day annual music festival celebrates music with Celtic influences featuring performers from across the globe – largely folk and trad, but also pop, rock and jazz. Music lessons and music-themed walking tours run concurrently with the gigs. Additionally, the Scottish National Whisky Festival takes place on a Saturday during the festival, showcasing the nation’s best drams and folk artists side-by-side.

Trace the origins of luxury tweed on the Isles of Lewis and Harris

Harris Tweed is one of Scotland’s most recognisable products, with a history going back to the 17th century. Now, travellers can trace that history on the Harris Tweed Trail, which runs the full length of the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. View designer tweed outfits at the Harris Tweed Exhibition in Drinishader, and take a tour of Carloway Mill, the oldest Harris Tweed mill in the world (book in advance). You’ll also have the chance to buy Harris Tweed accessories, such as the unique, wildlife-inspired bags at Dancing Flower Crafts.

While tracing the Harris Tweed Trail you can also detour to Calanais Standing Stones, a remarkable neolithic monument that’s older than Stonehenge

Delve into Neolithic and Bronze Age history at Kilmartin Glen

Kilmartin Glen in Argyll, on Scotland’s west coast, is one of the country’s most important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, with more than 350 monuments spanning 5,000 years of Scottish history. An internationally important landscape, Kilmartin Glen contains one of the most extensive and important collections of archaeological monuments in the UK. The newly refurbished Kilmartin Museum is a more recent addition, displaying pottery, metalwork and quartz carving tools close to the sites where they were discovered. After your museum visit, set out on a self-guided tour of the glen: among heather-covered hills, you’ll find stone circles, ancient cairns, and intricate prehistoric rock art.

Embark on the world’s first UNESCO trail

In 2021, Scotland became the first country in the world to launch a UNESCO trail, linking all 13 of its UNESCO-designated sites in a single itinerary designed to encourage slow, sustainable travel. The trail includes UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as New Lanark and the Antonine Wall, and UNESCO Creative Cities such as Glasgow (UNESCO City of Music), Dundee (UNESCO City of Design) and Edinburgh (UNESCO City of Literature). It also includes Scotland’s two UNESCO Global Geoparks (Shetland and North West Highlands) and two Biospheres (Wester Ross and Galloway and Southern Ayrshire). On the official website, you’ll find the full four-week itinerary, as well as shorter trip suggestions organised by theme (bicycle trips, family days out) or geographic location.

Natural beauty and social history meet at New Lanark, an 18th century cotton spinning mill village and one of Scotland’s 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

To find out more about Scotland’s lesser-known attractions and other hidden gems head to VisitScotland

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