The Best Historical Attractions in Scotland

Given its long history—including time before records or even writing—Scotland has a wealth of fascinating sites to visit. Spread across the country, from the Borders in the south to the Shetland Islands (which are closer to Norway than to most of Britain), these must-see attractions range from standing stones and prehistoric settlements to ancient abbeys, medieval battlegrounds, and Jacobite monuments.

Sandwick, Stromness KW16 3LR, UK
On the principal Orkney island, some 30 miles from the north coast of mainland Scotland, sits the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. From 3000 to 2400 B.C.E.—long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids—Skara Brae was a thriving village, full of farmers, hunters, and fishermen. It was rediscovered in 1850 after a particularly strong storm and now serves as a fascinating tourist attraction, complete with nine surviving Neolithic houses. Outfitted with stone furniture made 5,000 years ago, the dwellings are linked by low corridors, roofed with what are believed to be original slabs of boulder. When you’re done exploring the village, head to the visitor center to view additional artifacts like gaming dice, tools, and jewelry.
Sumburgh, Shetland ZE3 9JN, UK
The Shetland Islands are closer to Norway than mainland Scotland, but they’re worth visiting to see this ancient settlement that holds 4,000 years of human history. First home to Neolithic people around 2700 B.C.E., the site remained in use until the 1600s and includes oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, Norse longhouses, a medieval farmstead, and even a laird’s house dating from the 1500s. After exploring the site, which enjoys a dramatic location on a headland overlooking the West Voe of Sumburgh, head to the visitor center to view a rich collection of artifacts spanning several eras.
Culross Palace, Culross, Dunfermline KY12 8JH, UK
Culross is Scotland’s most complete example of a 17th-century burgh, featuring white-harled houses, cobbled streets, a hilltop abbey, and an ocher-colored palace. Visitors can wander along the charming streets, once filled with the hustle and bustle of a thriving port on the River Forth, then explore Culross Palace, with its tiny rooms, connecting passageways, and painted ceilings. You can even buy freshly grown herbs, fruits, and vegetables from the organic palace garden while visiting with the rare Scots Dumpy hens. One of the most picturesque villages in Scotland, Culross has served as a regular shooting location for the TV series Outlander.
Upper Colquhoun St, Helensburgh G84 9AJ, UK
In 1902, publisher Walter Blackie commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to create this timeless mansion, now considered the architect’s domestic masterpiece. Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Mary Macdonald, designed almost everything here, from the building itself to the furniture and textiles, using a visually arresting mix of Arts and Crafts, art nouveau, Scottish Baronial, and Japonisme styles. Today, visitors can tour the house, then head outside to explore the beautifully restored gardens, which feature the same plants used in the early 20th century. (Note: The Hill House is currently closed for restoration but is expected to reopen in May 2019.)
477B Lawnmarket, Edinburgh EH1 2NT, UK
One of the oldest buildings on the Royal Mile, Gladstone’s Land stands as a tribute to tenement life in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It was once owned by merchant Thomas Gladstone, who extended and remodeled it to include opulently decorated apartments, attracting wealthy tenants like Lord Crichton and the minister of St Giles’ Cathedral. By the mid-1800s, however, only the city’s poorest residents remained in the Old Town, and the building fell into disrepair. It was rescued from demolition in 1934 by the National Trust for Scotland and today serves as a tourist attraction where visitors can learn about the fascinating—and sometimes scandalous—lives of the people who lived on property. Guests can also view rare, hand-painted Renaissance interiors dating from the 1620s; seek shelter under Edinburgh’s only surviving 17th-century arched store frontage (designed to protect shoppers from the weather); and admire the gilded bird of prey that hangs outside the house.
Abbey St, Arbroath DD11 1EG, UK
If Scotland has an equivalent of the Magna Carta or the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it’s the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath—a letter sent by nobles to the pope swearing their independence from England. The document was signed here in this magnificent abbey, founded by William the Lion in 1178 in memory of the martyr Thomas Becket. Complete with a stunning, twin-towered church facade, the abbey remained one of Scotland’s grandest monasteries for nearly 400 years. Today, travelers can visit to soak up the atmosphere of a site long associated with Scotland’s sense of independence. Step inside one of the most complete abbot’s residences in Britain, then gaze up at local landmark the “Round O,” a circular window that was lit nightly to guide mariners home. Also keep an eye out for the impressive marble effigy, thought to depict William the Lion.
Abbotsford House, Melrose TD6 9BQ, UK
The former home of Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford contains a treasure trove of objects that the great 19th-century author collected during his eventful life. Having popularized tartan, saved the Scottish banknote, and rediscovered his country’s crown jewels, Scott ended up with a variety of unique mementos—from Mary Queen of Scot’s crucifix to Rob Roy’s hunting knife—that inspired his greatest poems and novels. Tour the house where he spent some of his most productive writing years, and take note of the arched entrance copied from Linlithgow Palace and the door from Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth building incorporated into a side wall. Then walk through the Regency-style gardens, where you’ll find a greenhouse based on a medieval jousting tent. Also on-site is a visitor center that hosts rotating exhibitions as well as a permanent display on Sir Walter Scott, a gift shop, and a café serving tea, cakes, and snacks.
Abbey St, Melrose TD6 9LG, UK
The heart of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, is buried somewhere here, amid the magnificent ruins of Scotland’s first Cistercian monastery. Scholars believe Melrose Abbey dates back to the 7th century, though most of what remains today is about 500 to 600 years old. Being close to the border, it suffered at English hands during the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt in the 1380s, however, and used as an abbey until the Protestant Reformation of 1590. Today, visitors can admire the graceful architecture, take in the charming sculptures (look out for the famous bagpipe-playing Melrose pig); step inside the chapter house, where Robert the Bruce’s heart is supposedly buried; and tour the Commendator’s House Museum in the abbey cloister, which houses a rich collection of medieval objects.
Glenfinnan, Lochaber PH37 4LT, UK
Today, the fern-filled hillsides surrounding the Glenfinnan Monument regularly fill with camera-toting tourists, all eager to see the historic Jacobite Steam Train—which serves as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies—breeze across the elevated stone viaduct. More significant than the train, however, is the monument itself, which serves as a striking tribute to those who fought in the Jacobite Risings.

Less than a year before the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his father’s Standard on this very land, marking the start of the Jacobite campaign. An army of 1,500 rallied around him, then marched as far south as Derby before the retreat that would seal their fate. In 1815, a nearly 60-foot monument was erected, with the long, kilted Highlander at the top representing the clansmen who gave their lives to the Jacobite cause. Travelers can make the dizzying climb to the top of the tower for unrivaled views of Loch Shiel, then tour the visitor center, which tells the story of Prince Charles and the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Kilmartin, Lochgilphead PA31 8RQ, UK
Before the well-known royal families of Scotland came to power, there was the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, about which little is understood. Judging from the archaeology found on Kilmartin Glen, however, it was probably a remarkable, 6th- to 7th-century civilization of Gaelic-speaking Celtic people. Today, visitors to this impressive landscape on Scotland’s west coast can explore 6,000 years of history through stone circles, standing stones, rock art, and burial chambers, then head into the Kilmartin Museum, which displays artifacts like urns, swords, food vessels, and more.
Glasgow Road, Whins Of Milton, Stirling FK7 0LJ, UK
If you’re a fan of Outlaw King, then Bannockburn is a must-visit sight. It was here that the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce himself, achieved a remarkable victory in June 1314 over the largest English-led army ever to invade Scotland. The battlefield is mostly pastureland today, but there’s an excellent visitor center that employs 3-D technology to put guests face-to-face with medieval warriors on the battlefield. You can also tour the memorial park and see the iconic statue of Robert the Bruce, sitting proud on his loyal steed.
Callanish, Isle of Lewis HS2 9DY, UK
Jutting up from the crest of a flat-topped hill, the Callanish Standing Stones comprise one of the world’s best-preserved Neolithic monuments. Erected 5,000 years ago, they predate England’s famous Stonehenge and are believed to have been an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years. To this day, archaeologists disagree about why the stones were placed here, but the general consensus is that the cross-shaped arrangement served as a kind of astronomical observatory. Unlike at Stonehenge, visitors to Callanish can walk right up to the monoliths, which are more roughly hewn than their English counterparts. There’s also an interpretation center and café on-site; it’s closed on Sunday, but the stones are always accessible.
Lewis and Harris Island, Isle of Lewis HS2 9AZ, UK
Just a few miles from the world-famous Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis sits Dun Carloway, also known as the Carloway Broch—an ancient, circular stone tower that was once 30 feet tall. Impressively, it remains almost the same height today, despite the fact that it’s crumbling on one side. Built around 200 B.C.E., the hilltop fortress features a fascinating double-layered construction and staircases within the walls. It most likely served as a well-fortified residence for an extended family, complete with space for animals on the ground floor, as well as a symbol of power and status in the area. Though it’s not clear how long the broch remained in use, it seems to have been still largely intact in the 1500s, when some of the Morrison Clan sought refuge there after being discovered stealing local cattle.
Isle of Iona PA76 6SQ, UK
After arriving on the tiny island of Iona near Mull in 563, Irish pilgrim Saint Columba proceeded to establish a Christian church and monastery, creating a vibrant religious community that lives on to this day. The monastery survived until the 12th century despite repeated Viking raids, and around 1200, the sons of Somerled founded a Benedictine abbey on the site. Though monastic life ended on Iona with the Protestant Reformation of 1560, pilgrimages to St Columba’s Shrine continued for many years. Today, it’s believed that the Book of Kells, along with several other great works of art, was created here.

Visit this most sacred of Scottish sights to see the four iconic high crosses, then tour the abbey church, with its 13th- to 16th-century architecture. You can also stop by St Columba’s Shrine, the longest-standing structure in the abbey, dating to the 9th or 10th century; climb Tòrr an Aba, a hill above the abbey where Saint Columba is said to have had a writing hut; or walk through Reilig Odhráin, the graveyard where ancient Scottish kings were laid to rest. While you’re exploring, keep an eye out for the vallum—a boundary ditch and bank of earth that serves as the only evidence of Columba’s original monastery.
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