This part of Scotland is bounded by the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh in the west and the North Sea in the east. The region is rich in castle ruins including Edinburgh Castle, Tantallon, Dirleton, Blackness, Hailes, and Craigmillar. Edinburgh itself is something of a tourist Mecca in the summer but relatively calm during the winter.
Further to the south, in the Borders region, are the great abbeys at Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso, and Jedburgh as well as numerous castles and ruins from the 14th century to the present.
The Western Isles are as much an attitude as a region. Beginning west of Glasgow somewhere near
Loch Lomond and stretching to Oban and beyond to Skye in the northwest, the Western Isles were the historical home of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riata, the first monasteries of St. Columba and the birthplace of Scottish Christianity, and eventually the Clans Campbell and Maclean, a vast collection of Lords and Kings who rivaled in power the crowned kings of Scotland and whose intrigues were worthy of a place on 14th century version of TMZ!
But even before the clans of the 13th and 14th centuries and the 6th century Kingdom of Dal Riata , Kilmartin Glen seems to have been a center of civilization as far back as 4000BC. The glen is a repository for one of the most concentrated collections of neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age ruins in the U.K. The icy climb up the hillfort at Dunaad places you at the seat and literally in the footstep of the first kings of Dal Riata who were thought to have been crowned at the summit by placing a foot on the Stone of Destiny and a staff in the hole next to it.
Ultimately though, it is the pilgrimage to Iona, off the southwest coast of the Isle of Mull, that illustrates most dramatically the desolation of the Western Isles. St. Columba, an Irish priest of noble birth, founded a monastery there in 563 and began the conversion first of the Scots of Dal Riata and then of the Picts farther north up the Great Glen. The story goes that Columba gained the conversion of one particularly stubborn lord by slaying a great monster in Loch Ness at the point where Urquhart Castle stands today. Although relatively modern, the monastery at Iona is a pilgrimage place for Protestants all over the world, and the nunnery next to the monastery is of earlier origin.
South of Oban and north of Lochgilphead on a peninsula barely attached to the western mainland is Kilmartin Glen, an area in Argyll that has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. In a ten mile area, one finds almost 400
monuments, with 150 of them being prehistoric. Standing stones, a henge, numerous cists, and a cemetery comprising five burial cairns makeup one of the richest collections of neolithic, Bronze, and Iron age remains anywhere in Britain. Throughout the glen, one finds “cup and ring” carvings, the purpose of which is unknown.The remains of Dunaad, the main seat and fortress of the Kingdom of Dal Riata, is located to the south of the glen, and the tower house at Carnasserie is located to the north.
To the north and east of the Western Isles lies the Great Glen, a valley running 75 miles from Fort William in the south to Inverness in the north. Home to the highest mountain (Ben Nevis) and the largest loch (Loch Ness) in Britain, this is the region one first experiences as the “highlands.”
Inhabited by the Picts in the Dark Ages, intermarriage and religious conversion transformed the Pictish clans into the famous Scottish clans that fought both for and against and for English rule – sometimes at the same time.
Today, the mountains of the region are a destination for skiing and ice climbing, and Ben Nevis, in spite of its relatively modest altitude at just over 4400 feet, is considered a challenging climb that claims the lives of several climbers each year, most often due to poor weather preparation. Farther northeast from “The Ben” is Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. The largest loch in Britain by volume, Loch Ness attracts hoards of tourists in the spring and summer, but the endless queues at the spectacularly located but rather over-developed Urquhart Castle are non-existent in the winter.
Edinburgh may be the cosmopolitan side of Scotland, but Inverness is the fastest growing city in the U.K. During the summer, Inverness is the starting point for tourist trips south to Loch Ness, but winter visitors often have the city to themselves.
To the west lies some of the most forbidding landscape anywhere in Britain, and the northwest corner of Scotland – the region known as Caithness – is often inaccessible during the winter. The few roads west from Inverness all lead to the town of Ullapool from which ferries – when they are able to cross – provide the only connection to the Outer Hebrides, especially the islands of Lewis and Harris. A recent development is the “North Coast 500,” a trek from Inverness west to Ullapool and then hugging the coastline for five days of driving.
North from Inverness, one passes the Black Isle, so named because while snow remains on the hills surrounding the peninsula, the “island” (actually a peninsula with a river on the fourth side) remains black. The Black Isle has a rather tragic past as it was one of the first regions to experience “the clearances” after the battle of Culloden. Many of the defeated clansmen fled to the west and north from Inverness, and the British solution was a systematic purging of Scottish traditions and culture (and people).
The road north from Inverness – when open – continues along the coast to the towns of Wick and Thurso, the latter being the ferry port for trips to the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Evidence that prehistoric peoples were not limited to the Orkneys can be found in sites like the Grey Cairns of Camster and the Hill o’ Many Stanes. This is also the region of the “broch,” a rudimentary round stone tower that predated the castle by 1000 years.
Two of the most dramatic castle settings are along the coast between Inverness and Wick. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is actually two castles built directly next to each other, while the Castle of Old Wick barely hangs onto an outcropping 100 feet above the North Sea. (no guardrails!)
Known as Moray (pronounced “Murray”), this area was home for the nobles and landowners who first fled from the Viking Earls of Orkney in the 7th and 8th centuries. It was only with the reign of Alexander I and his son David I 12th century that Moray began to enjoy stability. Duffus Castle is one of the older castle ruins in Scotland and is found just north of the town of Elgin.
Just to the east of Inverness on the westernmost side of Moray lies a number of significant sites from more recent Scottish history. The battlefield at Culloden was the scene of the final showdown between Bonnie Prince Charlie and the royalist forces of England in 1746. The prince, more formally known as Charles Edward Stuart, was the grandson of the deposed James II & VII – he was the 2nd King James of England and the 7th of Scotland – and like his father James before him in 1709, Charlie (“Tsarlach”) returned to Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the throne for the Stuarts after having been born and raised at the court of Pope Clement XI from his birth in 1720. On behalf of his father, Charlie arrived with very few men but a bit of money and raised an army from the highland clans who had supported his father three decades before.
Prince Charlie marched south into England in November 1745 where he was proclaimed king in Manchester. It seems though, that the English King George II was to have something to say about that. In the face of a superior force determined to defend an increasingly worried London, the partially crowned Charlie and his Jacobites, instead of pushing onto an increasingly worried London, withdrew to Inverness. On April 16th, 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie, with the support of a number of the highland clans, was routed at the battlefield at Culloden. Charlie fled first to the highlands and then to the Western Isles where he was taken to live out his years in France. This defeat began many decades of cruel suppression by the English and effectively ended the Scottish dream of independence until the 21st century.
The great fort at Fort George to the north of Culloden, a testament to 18th century English military power, was developed in response to the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745.
The University of Aberdeen and the cosmopolitan feel of King Street lies in contrast to the roots of Aberdeen as a working city. Along the far eastern coast of Scotland, Aberdeen is the third largest city in Scotland and a critical energy hub for North Sea oil production.
To the south of Aberdeen is the region of Angus. The spectacularly situated (and equally overpriced!) Dunnottar Castle is just south of Aberdeen, and at the south end of Angus is Arbroath from where, in 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was sent to the Pope in guarded support of King Robert I (“the Bruce”). While the nobles acknowledged the Bruce as their leader they went further and for the first time declared a national Scottish sensibility that was built upon the consent of the governed rather than the divine right of kings. It was from this document that the Declaration of Independence directly came:
“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself. “
The main attraction in Fife is the town of St. Andrews, the home of golf and one of the finest universities in the U.K. The town itself is small enough to walk across, but the combination of its highly educated residents, relative closeness to Edinburgh, and the notoriety of its golf make it surprising up-to-date with many good restaurants and interesting shops. There are regions of Scotland that are more dramatic, but St. Andrews is a place to live.
Part of the central belt extending north and west from Edinburgh, Stirling is located only 40 miles from Edinburgh and roughly the same distance from Glasgow to the southwest, but the difference between those areas and Stirling is striking. Stirling was once the capital of Scotland and occupies a strategic location as the “gateway to the highlands.” The smallest “city” in Scotland with only 32,000 inhabitants, it has always been critically important as a center for the crowning of Scottish kings and a seat of power throughout the country. Although close to Glasgow and Edinburgh, the central belt is surprisingly rugged and includes some of the southern Munros (Scottish mountains).
Castles in the region illustrate the great power of the lords in the area, none moreso than Castle Campbell, formerly known as “Castle Glume.” Located 1 km up the Burn of Care — do not turnoff into the Burn of Sorrow! – it is one of the most impressively located castles in all of Scotland and is often used for weddings and receptions.
For those with cinematic interests, Doune Castle is located only 30 minutes to the north and
will be recognizable as the film location of both Monty Python and the Holy Grail and as “Castle Laoch” from Outlander. Doune Castle has become one of the most visited sites in Scotland, and the giftshop even has coconuts to loan for a romp around the walls.
Of course, Stirling itself is home to Stirling Castle, a royal fortress and palace during the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, James V, and James I and VI. But its history goes back even farther. Stirling Bridge, somewhere near Stirling (no one is quite sure where) was the site of William Wallace’s greatest victory over the English in 1297 and the green at Bannockburn was where Robert the Bruce again defeated the English and all but guaranteed his ascension to the Scottish throne. From the ramparts of Stirling Castle, one can look toward the north and see the Wallace Monument.