7-day history guide to Scotland
If you’re coming to Scotland on holiday, chances are at least one trip on your itinerary is history-related.
We’re a nation of fierce patriots, and our heritage is a huge part of that. But it’s not just about Braveheart-style bloodshed. Scotland has some of the most fascinating ruins, castles and museums dedicated to our past – from cotton milling, to distilling, to the story of our place in the history of shipbuilding. There’s truly something for everyone.
Our 7-day history guide will take you to places you never knew existed and help you discover the secrets of Scotland’s previous life. All you need to do is drive.
Day 1 – Glasgow
Glasgow more than holds its own in the history stakes. Begin your day at St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art in the east end, a place that has previously been described as the only one of its kind in the world. A permanent exhibition, it hosts archives and relics of religious paraphernalia and was once home to Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross painting until the Kelvingrove Museum (also worth checking out) in the west end acquired it in 2006.
Close to St. Mungo’s is the Glasgow Necropolis – a beautifully preserved Victorian cemetery perched high on a hill with some of the most stunning views of the city. Here it is possible to view some of the most ornate tombs and gravestones in Scotland, including examples designed by Alexander Thomson, one of the country’s pre-eminent architects. Take sandwiches, sit at the John Knox statue at the peak of the hill and observe Glasgow as the Victorians would have. That night, head to Craigendmuir Park caravan site in the east of the city.
Day 2 – Edinburgh
On a history-packed day in Edinburgh, arrive late. No trip to Edinburgh would be complete without a super-spooky ghost tour and there are plenty on offer. City of the Dead Tours have frequently been tipped as the scariest, so it’s best to book in advance to avoid disappointment, as other thrill-seekers will be sure to book their places early. The tour itself will allow you to explore Scotland’s capital from underground level, culminating in a glimpse at the Underground City which served as additional slum housing for Edinburgh’s poor hundreds of years ago. Firmly spooked, take yourself off for a fitful night’s sleep at the Edinburgh Caravan Club Site, which has wonderful views of the Firth of Forth.
The next morning, wake bright and early to hit the road. Your destination is Rosslyn Chapel – a 15th century, medieval place of worship that appeared in the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Marvel at the pillars and carvings inside. The chapel’s stained glass windows and organ in particular are things of beauty.
Day 3 – Borders
The Scottish Borders are where it’s at when it comes to castle. The region is home to no fewer than 31 castles and towers, some privately occupied, and some open to the public. One of the finest is Floors Castle – the largest inhabited castle in Scotland, around an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. It was originally built in 1711, and has, like many historic buildings, been modified and extended over the years. It now houses a fine collection of art, porcelain, and tapestries, and boasts some of the most commanding views over the Borders’ scenic countryside the area has to offer. Alternatively, try Thirlestane Castle, in Lauder. One of the seven ‘Great Houses of Scotland’, it started life as a large stone keep before being transformed into a building of architectural and historical merit. It also played host to Bonnie Prince Charlie who visited in 1745, and it’s still possible to view the room in which he stayed.
It’s worth checking visiting times for all castles in Scotland before visiting, as most operate on reduced hours or are even shut over the winter months. There are a few caravan parks near Lauder for bedding down in – try Thirlestane Castle Caravan Park or Lauder Camping and Caravanning site.
Day 4 – Ayrshire
Make to coastal Ayrshire for an exploration into Scotland’s shipbuilding history. The Scottish Maritime Musuem has sites in Irvine, North Ayrshire, and also Dumbarton, further north. In the Irvine museum there’s the chance to visit the Linthouse engine shop – known as Scotland’s Cathedral of Engineering – and learn about our country’s contribution to the world’s shipbuilding trade. Replica models and historic objects also offer an insight into a bygone era.
Of course, no trip to Ayrshire would be complete without checking out Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, the heart of Burns’ country. Here, you can nose around Burns’ Cottage, where our national Bard was born, as well as take a turn around the gardens and monument created in his honour. There’s even the option to get hitched at the venue for the true Burns’ obsessives.
A trip to Millport is another fine way to spend an afternoon in the area. The island of Cumbrae, where the town is found, is home to the UK’s smallest cathedral. Originally built to serve as a college for the Scottish Episcocal Church, the Cathedral of the Isles can be reached from a ferry that leaves from Largs.
A little further up the coast on your return to the mainland, Wemyss Bay Holiday Park is an ideal spot to take yourselves and your Rockin Van for the night.
Day 5 – Argyll & The Isles
Argyll and the Isles are home to some of the oldest monolithic relics and ruins in Scotland – and the region has the colourful history to match. Kilmartin Glen in Kilmartin, Argyll, is the site of one of the UK’s highest concentrations of Bronze Age and Neolithic remains. The glen features many standing stones thought to date back to 5000 years, as well as a henge monument, a linear cemetery comprising five burial cairns, and the remains of a fortress. Happily, the site is open year-round – ideal for those planning a Rockin Van trip in the colder months.
If a day spent on Rothesay appeals, there’s plenty to do on the island for history buffs. Kick off with a trip to the Ascog Fernery – a sunken, Victorian garden featuring what’s thought to be the UK’s oldest exotic fern at a spritely 1000 years old. Additionally, there’s a rose garden, gravel garden and wild meadow set in three acres of grounds, and the site is also home to former stables, now ruined, which continues the feeling of archaic grandeur.
There are scores of well thought-of caravan sites in Argyll, but the Argyll Caravan Park on the Duke of Argyll Estate, in Inveraray, is one of the most picturesque.
Day 6 – Highlands
It’s not just the breath-taking scenery that makes the Scottish Highlands one of the country’s most-visited areas. The region is ripe with ancient burial sites, ancient battlefields and buildings of historic interest, not least Eilean Donar Castle – possibly our country’s most distinctive and recognisable landmark. This 13th century castle is located on a tiny coastal island and has appeared in a host of films, ranging from James Bond to Highlander. Guided tours are part of the experience, and a visitor centre provides information on the island’s history through the ages.
Want to delve into the back history of how islanders lived in Scotland? Try the Skye Museum of Island Life in Trotternish. Originally devised to save a town of thatched cottages, each residence now stands as a testament to the conditions 19th century crofters weathered. There’s a weaver’s cottage, old smithy, and an array of crofting equipment and displays.
While on Skye it’s worth heading into Skyeskyns, in Waternish. This traditionally tannery opens its doors to visitors curious to know the methods of making leather, as well as the processes applied to sheepskins to get them ready to hit the shop shelves. There is also the chance to purchase hides and sheepskins.
Staffin Campsite, beneath the Trotternish Ridge, is a rugged setting for your night’s sleep on Skye.
Day 7 – Perthshire
Start early and take a leisurely drive over to Perthshire on your last day – it’s a five-hour drive but the views en route are well worth the trek. Perthshire is full of literary connections, from Dalguise House, near Dunkeld, where children’s author Beatrix Potter spent her summers, to the waterfalls that inspired Robert Burns’ poetry. There’s also a Beatrix Potter Exhibition and Gardens ideal for little ones in Dunkeld, while the Library of Innerpeffrey (the oldest lending library in Scotland) has more than 5,000 books, most published before 1800, plus rare copies.
Glenturret, in Crieff, is also home to another Scotland first – this time, a distillery. There are tours available for fans of the dram to learn how each whisky matures for three decades before being bottled and sold. Of course, a sample of the distillery’s Famous Grouse is also in order for all but the designated driver.
Finally, Stanley Mills is a group of historic cotton mills that sit on a bend in the River Tay. Founded to process cotton at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the mills now function as visitor attractions with interactive displays and games designed to allow guests to experience what working life was like.
Scone Camping and Caravan Park, just north of Perth, is a good spot to make a base from. It is also close to Scone Palace itself, home of the Stone of Destiny.