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Scotland is renowned for its historic towns, but it’s not just the famous sites like Edinburgh and the historic university town of St Andrews that you should look out for when exploring Caledonia. Here’s a guide to 10 of the most charming, picturesque and historic towns that might be little less known.
The Isle of Skye is famed for its natural beauty. Portree is the largest town on the island and makes for a superb view when seen from above on the cliffs that surround it, or looking back from the waters of Loch Portree. The town looks out across the loch and towards the Sound of Raasay, and it is the main cultural centre for Skye, with the Aros Centre hosting exhibitions of Gaelic culture. The name Portree comes from the Gaelic word Port Righ, meaning ‘King’s Port’, and was named as such when James V visited with his fleet in 1540. Over the centuries the harbour has seen many Highlanders and Islanders leave Scotland for the New World, and in 1746 it was in Portree that Bonnie Prince Charlie took his leave of his protector Flora MacDonald as he fled the English.
The picturesque harbour town of Plockton lies on the west coast in the Highlands, looking out onto Loch Carron. It has a unique appearance, with the North Atlantic Drift creating a mild climate. You’ll find cabbage-palms growing on the harbour front, a tree normally found in tropical climes like the Antipodes. The town grew in the 19th century as a fishing village established by Highlanders who had been cleared off their lands. Just south of Plockton runs the Kyle of Lochalsh railway line, one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the UK. The town has been used as a location for TV shows and was where the great horror film The Wicker Man (1973) was made.
Tobermory is the main town on the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and another beautiful harbour site. The aptly named Main Street faces out onto the Sound of Mull with many of the shops and houses being painted bright colours. If you recognise the town it might be because it was the location for the filming of the BBC TV series Balamory. The name Tobermory comes from the Gaelic for the ‘well of the Virgin Mary’, and the town was founded in 1788 as a purpose-built fishing port designed by the great engineer Thomas Telford. There’s a local legend that a Spanish gold ship from the Armada lies sunk in the harbour. The literary-minded among you may notice that Saki took the name of his indiscreet, talking cat from the town.
Millport is the sole town on the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde off the west coast and close to the beautiful islands of Bute and Arran. It’s also home to the smallest cathedral in Britain, the Cathedral of the Isles, built in 1851 with money from the Earl of Glasgow and designed by William Butterfield, the great gothic revivalist famous for Rugby School and Keble College, Oxford. Millport lies on the south side of the island looking into Millport Bay, a settlement developed in the 18th century as a base for customs officers to help monitor the passage of ships into the Clyde. Much of the town dates back to the Victorian era when it became a popular tourist spot for visitors from Glasgow.
Kirkcudbright lies in Dumfries and Galloway in the Lowlands, close to Castle Douglas and Gatehouse of Fleet and overlooking the River Dee. Once the county town of Kirkcudbrightshire, it was home to the relics of St Cuthbert during the Anglo-Saxon period and became a royal burgh in the 15th century. The town today surrounds MacLellan’s Castle, built by Sir Thomas MacLellan in the 1580s. More recently the town became famous in the first half of the last century as an artists’ colony to rival the likes of St Ives in Cornwall and Walberswick in Suffolk. Many of the Scottish Colourists spent time working in Kirkcudbright, including the likes of Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell.
Kelso stands where the rivers Tweed and Teviot converge in the Border country. Sir Walter Scott called the town ‘the most beautiful’ in all of Scotland. It developed around the magnificent Kelso Abbey in the 12th century, once among the grandest monastic houses in Scotland and now a spectacular Romanesque ruin after it was destroyed during the Reformation. The town is also home to the Dukes of Roxburghe at the grand Floors Castle, built in the 18th century for the Kerr family just north of the town centre on the banks of the Tweed. Their original home, at Roxburghe, can be seen across the river in ruins, having once been one of the great royal centres for the Scottish kings in the Middle Ages.
Linlithgow in West Lothian was once home to one of the great royal courts of Europe. Lying on the road between Edinburgh and Stirling, Linlithgow was a favorite haunt of the Stewart kings of the 15th and 16th centuries and a center of political intrigue and faction until the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. What that period has left is the vast Linlithgow Palace that rises spectacularly above the shores of Linlithgow Loch. When Bonnie Prince Charlie took the town during the Jacobite rebellion on 1745, it was said that the fountains ran with wine. The handsome town hall also dates back to the 17th century.
Melrose in the Border country is the site of one of the most picturesque of all monastic ruins in Britain. Melrose Abbey is the centerpiece of the town, built by the Cistercians in the 12th century and the burial site of many Kings of Scotland including the heart of Robert the Bruce. The town is built around the ancient marketplace and cross and is surrounded by important and intriguing sites. To the south lie the rolling Eildon Hills. And to the east are the remains of the Roman settlement of Trimontium, the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey and west is Abbotsford House, the home of the great romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. Most curious is the Rhymer’s Stone, the site where the 13th-century poet Thomas the Rhymer was said to have fallen asleep and been taken by the Queen of Elf-land. When he returned he was said to have the gift of prophecy.
Crieff in Perthshire is famous for whisky, the Victorian Hydro, and its role as a key commercial centre for Highlanders. It was to Crieff that many Highlanders brought their heards of cattle to in order to sell them on to merchants and traders from the Lowlands to feed the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. This made it a place where many thieves and Highland bandits rubbed shoulders, with countless feuds developing during market-time in Crieff. The famous outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor came to the markets many times. Today there is a strong Victorian feel to Crieff, with the Hydro opening in 1868 for wealthy convalescents. Other notable sites include the Glenturret Distillery which claims to be the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1717, and the Innerpeffray Library, the oldest lending library in Scotland, opened around 1680 and still free to visit.
The small fishing town of Pittenweem is among the most unspoilt sites in Scotland. Located on the east coast in the East Neuk of Fife, the name Pittenweem comes from the ancient Pictish language and means ‘The Place of the Caves’. James V granted the town the status of royal burgh in 1541. Over the centuries there was considerable trade with merchants from the Low Countries sailing up the eastern coast of the UK. This is reflected in red and white architecture and crow-stepped gables common in the town and in Holland and Belgium too.