Scotland is a wonderful country to experience breathtaking scenery, vibrant culture and enticing history. Are you having trouble choosing the stops for your road trip through Scotland? I hear you – there is just so much to see!
To make your planing a bit easier, I’ve come up with two routes that take you on a trail through Scottish history and culture – and show you how those two things are interconnected. You can chose one route depending on what you are most interested in, or even combine them into one if you’ve got more time.
Are you a history fan? Do you like Outlander or Braveheart? Take the first route into Scotland’s west and explore historical sights!
Do you like buzzing events? Are you a culture vulture? Do you like bagpipe music? Then chose the second route that gives you an insight into Scottish culture today!
Hop aboard, and off we go into the wild green country of Scots!
Scotland Road Trip – Routes
Historic Route: Scotland’s West
Time: 10 days
Stops: Edinburgh, Stirling, Fort William, Oban
When I visited Scotland for the first time, I went to the west of the country. I was on a mission to write a research paper there for uni. My topic was: “The Impact of Historical Events on Scottish Mentality.” So naturally, I sought the places that would tell me most about Scottish history.
These were my stops:
1. Edinburgh (2 days)
Edinburgh is full of historical sights. One of more recent history is the Scottish Parliament Building in the area Hollyrood. In many ways, the building represents modern Scotland – with its vast windows and futuristic design.
Although the Hollyrood building was only opened in 2004, it represents the politics anchored in the 1997 Devolution Referendum. With the poll, the Scottish people voted for a decentralised government. Scotland was entitled to its own parliament going forward, which was the first step towards more independence from the United Kingdom. We all know that the complete independence of Scotland has never manifested itself up until now – even after the Independence Referendum in 2014.
Edinburgh displays its treasures – not so much Scotland’s freedom fighters (more on William Wallace later), but its intellectual achievements. This becomes clear especially in the National Museum of Scotland. The country’s fight for independence makes up for a minor part of the collection. What is more present are Scottish artists, poets and inventors. Definitely put the National Museum on your list for Edinburgh! Its eye-opening building alone is worth a visit. And there are free tours with exceptional guides!
2. Stirling (2 days)
The little student-town Stirling is embedded into beautiful landscape and offers a lot for Braveheart fans. The National Wallace Monument is set upon a hill (you can get there by bus) and offers stunning 360-views of the surrounding rolling hills. It’s also an excellent museum that tells the real story of William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter of the 13th century and hero of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart movie. You can even look at his sword, which is quite impressing! Entry fee for the monument is £10.50.
A second historical sight in Stirling is the castle. It’s seated on the hill across the Wallace Monument. I found the entry fee for Stirling Castle slightly overpriced (£16) for what it was. The exhibition is not nearly as good as the one in the Wallace Monument, but the views do make up for that.
A little history lesson on Stirling: in 1297, William Wallace fought the Battle of Stirling Bridge against the English (the bridge is still there today). Against the odds, he and his Scottish rebells defeated their opponents. In the following year Wallace demonstrated his fierce will for freedom by raiding settlements in Northern England. His series of victories came to an end at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.
3. Fort William (4 days)
This place is pure Scottish highlands. Take your time driving up there – its a beautiful road winding its way through the lush green landscape. Surrounded by “lochs” (lakes) and mountains (Ben Nevis, the highest peak on the British Islands, is just around the corner), Fort William is Scotland how everyone pictures it. Contributing to that are the cosy pubs in the centre of town and friendly people, who are well up for a dance and a “wee dram” of whiskey.
I really liked staying in Fort William. The accommodations are reasonable, there are not as many tourists (mostly just hikers who want to climb Ben Nevis one day and leave the next), and it’s an excellent base to explore the surrounding area. I went to Glencoe and Glenfinnan, but you could also go to Ben Nevis, Loch Ness or one of the other lakes in the area for a day trip.
Glencoe, a valley about 15 minutes from Fort William, has a bloody history. It was the scene of the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. There are many different versions of what happened and how it happened. I’ll try to explain as best as I can.
After the First Jacobite Rising of 1689 (a rebellion that was meant to reseat the Catholic Stuart bloodline, namely James VII of Scotland, on the throne of Britain) failing, all Scottish clans had to pledge their allegiance to the King of England and Scotland. William III and Queen Mary II wanted to make sure some naughty highland clans wouldn’t try to go for their throne again. One of the Jacobite clans were the MacDonalds. They were summoned to Fort William to sign their allegiance by the 1 January 1692. However, the MacDonalds could not make it there in time (there are various speculations about why that was) and were therefore massacred by the Campbell Clan, who was on the English King’s side.
You can read the full story in the Glencoe visitor centre. There are some great walks through the breathtaking valley and up the surrounding mountains. I couldn’t help but notice the slightly gloomy feeling in Glencoe – especially when the mist creeps up around you.
Also, be careful what you say about the event when you talk to locals. There are still some MacDonalds in the area that hold a serious grudge against the Lowland Campbells.
Glenfinnan is another location that has a connection to the rebellious past of Scotland. The Second Jacobite rising (1745) started here when the Scots tried once more to reinstall a Scottish king to the throne of Britain (England, Scotland and Ireland at the time). This wanna-be king Charles Edward Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charly”, raised his standard in Glenfinnan, at the shores of Loch Shiel. At this very place, a monument was built years later that is still there today.
But Glenfinnan is famous for another reason – namely its viaduct that stars in the Harry Potter movies. It was pure bliss for a Potterhead like me to see the old steam train, who “played” the Hogwarts Express, passing over the iconic bridge.
Also, Glenfinnan is a beautiful place that offers lovely walkways around the lake and up the surrounding mountains.
4. Oban (2 days)
Oban is the gateway to the Scottish Isles. You can catch a ferry there to Skye or the Hebrides. If you have another few days to spare – definitely plan to go to one of the islands. Unfortunately, I was never able to fit the Isles into any of my trips – but they are SO on my bucket list!
Other than that, Oban is the perfect place to visit a whiskey distillery and enjoy some walks along the rugged coast. Oban whiskey is believed to be one of the best in Scotland. And I agree! It’s my favourite. The slightly salty flavours make me think of the sea breeze in Oban every time.
The Oban distillery is one of the best I’ve been to – from a visitor’s perspective. The guided tour was excellent, and the distillery has retained its historical look. It’s one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, but that’s what makes it cosy and personal.
Cultural Route: Eastern Scotland
Time: 7 days
Stops: Aberdeen, Cairngorm National Park, Edinburgh
This route is a combination out of two of my trips. My more recent two adventures in Scotland took me into the wild east of Scotland.
It hides some of the most unique Scottish traditions and events. This way if you want to know more about the culture of Scotland!
1. Aberdeen (2 days)
The city itself has a cool vibe (we went to a pirate-themed bar, where do you get that?). But what I really liked was the coastal road up through Aberdeenshire. Take your time and stop at some of the wonderful little villages by the sea.
Another highlight for me in Aberdeenshire was Dunottar Castle, close to Stonehaven. This place is Scotland out of a picture book for me! The massive castle thrones on a cliff – rough waves crashing into the rocks. It has something majestic. William Wallace conquered it in the 13th century. Later it became a strategic base for the Jacobite rebellion.
2. Cairngorm National Park (3 days)
Both Braemar and Carrbridge lie in the Cairngorm National Park. I would recommend setting up a base somewhere in the park and exploring the surroundings on day trips. Some sights in the Cairngorms are very remote, like Loch Muick. This is definitely the place for some peace and calm.
In 2017, I won a trip to Scotland. Yes, I know – I thought all those competitions are fake, too! Thanks, Visit Scotland for this incredible experience. The main event of the trip was the Braemar Highland games.
Since I was studying British culture at university, it’s always been a dream of mine to go to the Highland games. Basically, the games are a competition – something like the Olympics of Scottish sports and music. The disciplines include caber tossing (throwing a tree trunk as far as you can), the sword dance (a Gaelic dance where dancers jump up and down above a sword – it’s not dangerous!) and bagpiping. Spectators are sitting around a field where all those disciplines are held at the same time. There is a lot going on!
It is the exact right place if you want to experience Scottish Highland culture – and if you want to catch a glimpse of the Royals! Every year some members of the royal family visit the Highlands and afterwards go on their summer holiday in the nearby Balmoral Castle. We saw the Queen herself!
The Braemar Highland Games take place at the beginning of September every year.
In October, the yearly World Porridge Making Championships are held in Carrbridge. Yes, that’s right – there is a competition to chose the best porridge maker in the world. I went there in 2018 with my lovely 3Bears Porridge colleagues.
You see porridge/oatmeal on every food blog nowadays, but the traditional porridge with oats, water and salt was created in Scotland. And the Scots are proud of that.
The competition is not only a porridge cook-off but more an event celebrating the culture of Scotland and of the countries competing. While the bagpipes are playing, the Swedes are waving their flags, the Finns are dancing, and the Germans are presenting their traditional dress. After the event, everyone comes together in the local pub for a good old ceilidh (group dance to Gaelic music). One of the most fun nights I’ve had in Scotland – and ever!
If you’re not in the Cairngorms during the World Porridge Championships, still go to Carrbridge for a look. It’s a beautiful little village with an ancient picturesque bridge.
3. Edinburgh (2 days)
Before you leave, definitely plan two days for Edinburgh. If you want to see some Scottish culture just walk through the city and look around you.
Edinburgh always feels like a fairy tale place to me – like a city from another time. There is heaps to see – the Scottish National Gallery (free art museum), the harbour and the freaky area of Leith (scene to the book and movie of Trainspotting), the Royal Mile and Grassmarket.
Scottish Culture – Things You Should Know
When you explore Scotland, always remember that Scottish history and culture are tightly knit together. Historical events seem to have a more significant impact on the mentality of Scots than in any other culture I know. The Wars of Independence with William Wallace as the heroic figure and the Jacobite Risings are still very present in peoples’ minds (maybe also because of the various movies produced about it). You will be able to feel that at the places connected to those events.
Scottish culture is bagpiping, kilts and ceilidh, which Scots like to display with joy. But it is also the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (biggest art festival in the world), it is the art of brewing whiskey, it is Irvin Welsh’s stories of squalor (Trainspotting, Filth and more), and it is affectionateness and inclusiveness.
Hi from Leah
On this blog, I regularly write about travel tips, different cultures and much more. If you liked this article, check out my post about Hidden Spots in Bali. Also, you can join me on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.
Note: I did not receive compensation for mentioning any of the places/brands in this blog post. These are my recommendations, and I’ve been to all locations myself.
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