History and heritage sweep across Scotland from Highlands to Lowlands, from Orkney to the Hebrides. Centuries-old castles and ancient ruins dot the land, evidence of a past that encompassed internal conflicts as much as struggles against invaders, including Norse kings as much as the English.
Glens and bens are the order of the day for the Scottish outdoors are simply stunning: the highest mountain of the British Isles is to be found here, Ben Nevis, as well as some of the most dramatic coastlines you’re likely to encounter. Add that to rolling hills, calm lochs and a wealth of islands to explore (over 790), and there’s even more reason to visit Scotland. But where should you go? Here’s a look at the prettiest small towns in Scotland you can base yourself in.
A trip to this picturesque fishing village would not be complete without visiting the Anstruther Fish Bar – and yes, that’s a fish and chip shop. It’s won bags of awards for its fare (the mushy peas are of particular notoriety) and has served the likes of Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, and Prince William. Another award-winning place in town is the Scottish Fisheries Museum, where you can learn about the Scottish fishing industry from prehistory to present day and soak in the museum’s historic buildings, including the 16th century Abbot’s House.
The Royal connection in this town is strong. First of all, Balmoral Castle, sometime-residence of the Royal Family, is just a few miles down the road, and is partially open to the public when it’s not being lived in. Secondly, Braemar is the site of the Braemar Gathering, an annual Highland Games traditionally attended by the Royal Family, since Queen Victoria. History abounds: there’s the 17th century antique-filled Braemar Castle, and the ruins of 14th century Kindrochit Castle, for instance. It’s also on the doorstep of easy hiking in Morrone Birkwood Nature Reserve, as well as a steep ascent up the nearby hill of Creag Choinnich.
Just a stone’s throw from the English border and full of historical and architectural interest, Kelso came to life when the construction of its monastery was given permission in 1138. Almost a millennium later, the ruins of Kelso Abbey are still imposing and well preserved. More recent is the grand Floors Castle, which dates from 1721; outside, the size and scale of this palace are impressive, but interior is majestically hung with tapestries. Situated on the confluence of the Tweed and Teviot rivers, this historic town is packed with things to do, eat, and drink.
The ancient town of Linlithgow, with its historic High Street, boasts a very famous landmark: Linlithgow Palace. Although the present building was begun in 1424, it lies on the site of an even older original building. Possibly Scotland’s finest example of late medieval architecture, it’s the birthplace of James V and Mary, Queen of Scots and is surrounded by an idyllic stretch of parkland known locally as “the Peel”, which includes the idyllic Linlithgow Loch. To the south of town is a portion of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Union Canal.
Although St Andrews is most well known for being the location of the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world – and the place of higher education for the British Royal Family – the town is an attraction in itself, with historic sites dotted throughout its streets. On the coast there’s the spectacular clifftop ruins of 13th century St Andrews Castle, complete with dungeons and secret passageways, and further inland there’s the 18 acres of sculpted nature at the Botanical Gardens. Elsewhere there’s the now-ruined 12th century cathedral – the largest church ever to built in Scotland.
Fort Augustus lies at the southwest end of the most famous of all lochs: Loch Ness. This second-largest of Scotland’s lochs draws tourists from far and wide – a few in the hopes of actually spotting the cryptozoological Nessie. Aside from taking a cruise on Loch Ness itself, learning about Highlands culture at the Clansman Centre, or checking out the 19th century abbey, it’s the natural setting in an attractive area of the Scottish Highlands that Fort Augustus enjoys which make this an albeit well-trodden charmer of a town.
Pastel-coloured buildings, shops, pubs, and the atmospheric ruins of 13th century Tarbert Castle make this little town a slice of aesthetic joy on the isthmus that links the Kintyre peninsula to Knapdale. Mentioned as far back as 731 AD, Tarbert was previously known as the place where ships and boats could be carried across the relatively narrow strip of land to avoid going all the way round the Mull of Kintyre. For walkers, hikers and runners alike, this is the starting point of the 100-mile Kintyre Way, which encompasses the landscape of this incredible peninsula.
This small village began life as a planned community based on fishing, an attempt to stem emigration from the Highlands. As such most of the houses are 19th and 20th century. But its location is very attractive: though on the west coast Plockton faces east, giving it a mild climate and allowing quaintly out-of-place cabbage tree palms to grow here. The town was popular with 20th century art collective the Edinburgh School and continues to attract artists (and tourists) today.
This town has association with art. Collectives Glasgow Boys (from the late 1800s) and early 20th century Scottish Colourists both of which visited and stayed in the area, establishing an artists’ colony in Kirkcudbright that lasted roughly 30 years. But the artists kept coming, cementing a reputation for art and artists that lives on today. Founded sometime in the 12th century, Kirkcudbright’s rows of pastel-coloured houses and medieval buildings, such as the 16th century McLellan Castle, clearly add to the town’s allure.
Situated at the western end of Loch Tay, scenic Killin is in a prime position for Highlands exploration. It’s set very near the raucous Falls of Dochart, which you can see from a stone bridge that crosses the wild white-water. The famous MacNab clan were dominant here – there’s a prehistoric stone circle in the grounds of their old seat of power, Kinnell House; and you can find their family burial ground on Inchbuie, an island in the River Dochart. To the north of town are the ruins of 17th century Finlarig Castle. But the walking and hiking on nearby mountain Beinn Ghlas alone is worth a trip to this out-of-the-way spot.
Pretty Portnahaven is a planned village built in the 19th century – its little white houses are detailed round the windows with different colours, feeling warm and cosy set amidst the rugged scenery. Its harbour is sheltered and as such attracts grey seals, who have been known to pop in for a spot of sunbathing on the rocks. This is also a haven for birdwatchers: shearwaters, petrels, gannets and auks can be in abundance in Autumn. The remote setting alone, however, with dramatic waves crashing against the shoreline, is attractive enough by itself.
The largest town on the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, Portree is very attractive with its pastel-coloured houses and harbour fringed by cliffs – with a pier designed by Thomas Telford to boot. The town is perfectly situated as a gateway to the rocky scenery of the Trotternish peninsula (one of Scotland’s 40 National Scenic Areas), nearby to the famous landmark the Old Man of Storr, as well as for exploring the rest of Skye. The Aros Centre at Portree celebrates Skye’s Gaelic culture – there are a fair few speakers of the language on the island.
Trade with Belgium and the Netherlands influenced the very pretty style of the houses in Pittenweem, with their white walls and red roofs. One of the most active fishing village in this area of Fife, it became even more busy from 1982 when the village launched its first Arts Festival, which is now one of the best-loved in Scotland; in 2013 over 25,000 turned up – almost 25 times its population. The winding alleys of this picturesque place also brim with history: an abbey dating from 1318 stands over a sacred gave associated with St Fillan.
Situated on the ‘Mainland’ – the largest of the Orkney Islands – this town is all about rugged coastal charm, with brownstone buildings huddled down by the choppy sea. First recorded in the 16th century as the site of an inn, Stromness became important in the next century as a port due to war with France encroaching on the English Channel. Its pier houses the very comprehensive Pier Arts Gallery, with a lot of 20th century art on show. Less than 20 minutes’ drive north is Skara Brae, a Neolithic site predating both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, a collection of mind-bogglingly well preserved houses and just one part of Orkney’s ancient sites.
The colourful shops and restaurants of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull are famous for being featured on children’s television programme Balamory, amongst other things. You can see why: they look incredibly picturesque against the green trees, glassy black water and (often) grey sky. There’s lots to do in town, with the Tobermory Museum, an aquarium, and the Tobermory single malt whisky distillery to visit. Otherwise it’s perfect as a base to explore this island of the Inner Hebrides.