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      Scottish History

      Scotland's History & Heritage

      Scotland is a country with a fascinating past. Contrary to popular belief, Scottish history is not just a series of disputes over land and rule. It’s seen ancient Palaeolithic and Neolithic civilisations. Feudal societies. Highland clans. However, there have been plenty of invasions; first by the Romans, then the Vikings, and finally by English forces. There have been wars of independence and a turbulent monarchy. In addition, there was reformation, civil war, and rebellion. Then there was enlightenment, a time of industrialisation and invention. During all of this, Scotland sprung its fair share of innovators and game-changers that have impacted the world as it is today.

      Anyone with an interest in history will be delighted with a visit to Scotland. Walk in the footprints of dinosaurs on the Isle of Skye. Imagine life as a Viking at the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland. Stand at the most northerly edge of the Roman Empire at the Antonine Wall. Survey the moody moor where the course of Scottish history was decided with the Battle of Culloden. Visit the University of Edinburgh and see the place that inspired history’s most notable thought leaders like Charles Darwin, James Hutton, and Alexander Graham Bell.

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      Trips with Historical Elements

      orkney history

      The Orkney Isles

      Activity: Wilderness Walking

      Duration: 7 days

      Comfort: Classic

      Historical Sites: Skara Brae, Italian Chapel, Nissan Huts, Mid Howe Broch, and Ring of Brodgar.

      Difficulty:

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      grand tour history

      The Grand Tour

      Activity: Road Cycling

      Duration: 7 days

      Comfort: Classic

      Historical Sites: Culloden Battlefield, Balmoral Castle, Glamis Castle, Cairn O’Mount, the V&A, and St Andrews.

      Difficulty:

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      hebridean history

      The Hebridean Trail

      Activity: Mountain Biking

      Duration: 7 days

      Comfort: Classic

      Historical Sites: Scalpay Lighthouse, Callanish Standing Stones, Dun Carloway Broch, Blackhouse Village, and the Whalebone Arch.

      Difficulty:

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      northumberland history

      Northumberland & the Lakes

      Activity: Wilderness Walking

      Duration: 7 days

      Comfort: Classic

      Historical Sites: Hadrian’s Wall, Bamburgh Castle, Holy Island, Humbleton’s Hill Fort and Alnwick Castle.

      Difficulty:

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      casks and castles history

      Casks and Castles

      Activity: Road Cycling

      Duration: 7 days

      Comfort: Deluxe

      Historical Sites: Culloden Battlefield, Cawdor Castle, Highland Folk Museum, Strathspey Heritage Railway, and Loch Ness.

      Difficulty:

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      st kilda history

      Outer Hebrides & St Kilda

      Activity: Scottish Wildlife

      Duration: 8 days

      Comfort: Classic

      Historical Sites: Callanish Standing Stones, double World Heritage Site of St Kilda, Butt of Lewis Lighthouse, and Lews Castle.

      Difficulty:

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      Famous Figures of Scottish History

      Popularised in literature, film, and television, there are some notable characters in Scottish history that will get name-dropped when visiting Scotland. The landscape is inundated with sites of historical significance. For example, these range from ruined castles and notable places of birth, to hideaway caves and battle sites. Visitors to our relatively small nation are always surprised to discover how many conflicts we’ve faced and overcome. Most notably, they’re surprised to learn how much the Scottish have contributed to science, art, literature, music, and exploration.

      For more information on famous Scots, check out VisitScotland’s Famous Scots eBook.

      William Wallace (1270-1305)

      The most famed Scot? Quite possibly. Popularised in modern times by the 1995 film Braveheart, William Wallace is to this day a household name in and outside of Scotland. William Wallace is famous for his resistance against English occupation and a handful of battles. Over time he has become a symbol for Scottish independence.

      Robert the Bruce (1274-1329)

      One can not mention William Wallace and Scottish independence, without mentioning Robert the Bruce, recently popularised by the Outlaw King. Robert the Bruce was famed for his role in the Scottish Wars of Independence, his defeat of the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and his reign as King of Scotland.

      Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

      With her recent portrayal both on the big screen in Mary Queen of Scots and in the controversially-acclaimed series Reign, Mary’s image has become increasingly popular. She was only six days old when her father died, and she succeeded him as Queen Mary of Scotland. Her reign in Scotland is known for its religious controversy and her feud with Elizabeth the 1st. Learn more: Scotland’s Mary Queen of Scots.

      Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734)

      Rob Roy is now famous worldwide having been the character in a number of Hollywood films. He stood up to authority in a time of social unrest. He was a businessman, a warrior, an outlaw, and a hero. Read more about this controversial figure here: Scotland’s Robin Hood: Rob Roy MacGregor.

      Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788)

      A much-contested figure in Scottish history, Bonnie Prince Charlie was often referred to as the Young Pretender. He played a major part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Read What Actually Happened at the Battle of Culloden for more information on Prince Charles Edward Stuart and how he impacted Scottish history.

      Adam Smith (1723-1790)

      This is not a name everyone will recognise, but Adam Smith was instrumental to modern-day economics. Often called the Father of Economics, Adam Smith wrote extensively on the subject, of which much is still relevant today. He devised what is known today as gross domestic commerce (GDP).

      James Watt (1736-1819)

      James Watt was an engineer known for his work on steam engine technology. He vastly improved the existing technology and developed the concept of horsepower. The energy unit, watt, was named after him.

      Robert Burns (1759-1796)

      Robert Burns is Scotland’s most loved poet and bard, famous for various works and for writing the words to Auld Lang Syne.

      Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

      An author much favoured by Queen Victoria, Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Lady of the Lake. He popularised historical novels as a concept.

      Mary Sommerville (1780-1872)

      Mary Sommerville was a science writer, geographer, astronomer, mathematician and polymath. Although not known for one thing, she was known for her extensive writing and knowledge on various topics. Her book Physical Geography was used at schools and universities for over 50 years. She was invited to be the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

      Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873)

      Known for the often-quoted phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” – David Livingstone was a Scottish explorer, physician, and missionary. On his exploration of southern and central Africa with his various expeditions of the Zambezi river, he was the first European to see and map Victoria Falls.

      James Clerk-Maxwell (1831 – 1879)

      Life today would not be what it is without the research of James Clerk-Maxwell. His research in electromagnetic theory was essential to the development of radio, TV, and mobile phones.

      John Muir (1838-1914)

      John Muir was an avid conservationist and naturalist.  America owes John Muir the set up of the first National Parks like Yosemite, Mt. Rainier and the Grand Canyon.

      Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

      Mr. Bell is best known for his invention of the telephone. He initially set out to invent a device that could help the deaf hear but ended up developing and patenting the first modern telephone.

      J.M Barrie (1860-1937)

      Kirriemuir born Barrie was the author of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, otherwise known as the extremely popular Peter Pan.

      Sir Alexander Flemming (1881-1944)

      Sir Alexander Flemming greatly impact humanity with his discovery of penicillin whilst working on typhoid vaccinations.

      The Edinburgh Seven (1869)

      The Edinburgh Seven were the first women ever to attend a British University. Although they faced much opposition and were never permitted to graduate, they laid the foundations for change for female enrolment at University. The seven women: Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson, and Emily Bovell, received honorary degrees posthumously in 2019.

       John Logie Baird (1888-1946)

      Baird was responsible for the creation of the first public television, and the first colour television.

      Nan Shepherd (1893-1981)

      Nan was an author, poet, and adventurer. She is most well known for her book The Living Mountain, which inspired many. Watch Episode 3 of our Women in the Wild series, a short film about Elise Wortley, a woman inspired to retrace the footsteps of history’s few female explorers, including Nan’s.

      Scotland's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

      UNESCO World Heritage Sites are landmarks awarded special status due to their cultural, natural, scientific and historical value to the world. Scotland is home to not one, not two, but SIX World Heritage Sites. Learn more below.

      Neolithic Orkney

      neolithic orkney

      The Orkney Isles are home to various Neolithic sites, scattered across the islands. Collectively: Skara Brae, Maeshow, Ring of Brodgar, and the Stones of Stenness form the heart of Neolithic Orkney and provide a rich picture of what life would have been like thousands of years ago.

      St Kilda

      st kilda unesco

      This small cluster of islands at the edge of the Atlantic was once populated but has been abandoned since the 1930s. Subsequently, the islands are now home to over a million seabirds. The archipelago is one of the few sites, and the only in the UK, to hold dual World Heritage status for their rich cultural past and current natural value.

      Old and New Town

      edinburgh old and new town unesco

      Part of Edinburgh’s charm comes from the mix and contrast of old and new architecture sprawled across an ancient volcanic landscape. The medieval Old Town is distinguished by its cobbled streets and narrow closes, whilst the Georgian New Town serves as one of the best-preserved examples of 18th-century town planning.

      New Lanark

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      This 18th-century wool mill was once one of the largest factory sites in the world. At present, New Lanark is of interest for the social reform that took place there. Under the management of Robert Owen, many improvements were made for the quality of life, education, working conditions and accommodation of factory workers.

      Forth Rail Bridge

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Dominating the skyline above the Firth of Forth, the red Forth Rail Bridge was opened in 1890 and a feat of human engineering and ingenuity. At the time it was the longest single-span cantilever bridge in the world at 2.5 kilometres long. It’s still the second-longest, and a sight to behold.

      The Antonine Wall

      antonine wall unesco

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Remainders of the stone wall that marked the most northerly reaches of the Roman Empire stand visible today at a handful of sites, spanning the width of central Scotland. The wall was once 60km long and was built around AD 142 by Roman soldiers.

      Scotland's Iconic Castles

      If you are interested in visiting castles, palaces, and impressive fortresses, then Scotland is the destination for you. Castles have become iconic to Scotland, with between 2,000 and 4,000 registered castles and of which hundreds are open to the public. Above all, Scottish castles are known for their drama. They are often formidable structures set in magnificent scenery. Castles have played an important role in Scottish history, frequently the focal point of dispute. Castles which are open to visitors usually feature detailed exhibitions and have beautiful grounds begging to be explored.

      If you are interested in staying overnight in a castle, check out 7 Luxury Castle Hotels in Scotland and Ireland.

       

       

      Scottish Castles – Top 10 Most Dramatic

       

       

      Eilean Donan

      Eilean Donan is one of Scotland’s most recognisable landmarks. The castle sits strategically where three lochs meet and is surrounded by some of the best Highland scenery. The now-iconic bridge was built during the restoration of the castle in the 20th century.

      Visit Eilean Donan on our West Coast Explorer sea kayaking holiday.

      Urquhart Castle

      Urquhart is one of Scotland’s most visited castles – and it’s not surprising why that’s the case. These magnificent ruins sit on the banks of Loch Ness, and are the site of various key battles, historic events, and a handful of sightings of the famed Loch Ness monster.

      Canoe your way to the castle on our Great Glen canoeing expedition.

      Balmoral Castle

      The estate was purchased by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and the current castle was built in the 1850s – replacing a smaller 15th-century structure. Balmoral Castle is still very popular with the Royals and is in use for several months over summer.

      We visit the Balmoral estate on our Cairngorms & Royal Deeside walking holiday.

      Castle Stalker

      Castle Stalker was built on a tidal island in Loch Laich near the coastal village of Port Appin. The castle is privately owned, although tours can be arranged. The castle is most well known for being featured in Monty Python – The Holy Grail as the “Castle of Aaargh”.

      Enjoy a private tour of the castle on our wildlife holiday to Mull, Iona, and Staffa.

      Glamis Castle

      Perhaps best known for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Glamis castle is said to be the most haunted in Britain, and was the childhood home of the late Queen Mother.

      Cycle your way to Glamis Castle on our Grand Tour road cycling holiday.

       

      Blair Castle

      This iconic whitewashed castle is the historical seat of the Duke of Atholl. The castle has welcomed many famous visitors like Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Queen Victoria.

      Spend a day exploring the grounds and castle on our holiday to the Cairngorms & Royal Deeside.

      Drumlanrig Castle

      Drumlanrig Castle is a truly remarkable building. Built out of the red sandstone typical to Dumfries and Galloway, the castle is a beautiful example of 17th century Renaissance architecture.

      Finish a 750km long road cycling adventure at Drumlanrig on our 5 Countries tour.

      Edinburgh Castle

      Edinburgh Castle is without a doubt the most famous castle in Scotland, perched on an ancient volcanic plug overlooking the city. The castle has changed hands countless times over the course of history.

      Visit Edinburgh Castle on a self-drive adventure from Edinburgh to the Highland Perthshire.

       

      Linlithgow Palace

      Photo credit: VisitScotland

      Linlithgow Palace is perhaps best known as the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. Moreover, it’s recently gained attention for being an Outlander filming location.

      Dunnottar Castle

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Perched on a jutting headland overlooking the North Sea, this imposing medieval fortress oozes impregnability, surrounded by sheer cliffs and the raging north sea.

       

      Stirling Castle

      Photo credit: VisitScotland

      With its defensive and strategic position, it was once one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland. Furthermore, it was favoured by the Stewart kings and queens.

      Dunrobin Castle

      Photo Credit: VisitScotland

      Dunrobin Castle is one of the most northerly great houses in Scotland. The French renaissance style architecture is striking and uncommon in Scotland.

      Inspiration Board: Places of Historical Interest in Scotland

      Points of Historical Interest

      Although our trips are activity focused, we do spend time visiting historical points of interest as well. See a selection below of places of significance to Scottish history that you may see in person on one of our adventure holidays.

       

      Culloden Moor

      culloden history

      This windswept moor is where the course of Scottish history and Highland culture changed forever. On the 6th of April 1746, the Battle of Culloden marked the end of the Jacobite rebellions. It was here that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was defeated by government troops. After that, the Jacobite cause was permanently crushed and many aspects of Highland culture were outlawed, lost to this day.

      Find out more on What Actually Happened at the Battle of Culloden.

      Visit Culloden Moor on our Casks & Castles road cycling holiday.

      Neolithic Orkney

      orkney history

      Orkney is peppered with Neolithic structures and buildings older than the Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. A visit to Orkney would not be complete without spending some time at Maeshowe Burial Chamber, pictured above, or the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. There are various standing stones worth visiting. Due to the abundance of historical sites the area has been award UNESCO World Heritage Status.

      Read more about Neolithic Orkney here.

      Visit the Orkney Isles on one of our green-graded walking holidays.

      The Callanish Standing Stones

      Scotland has its own version of Stonehenge – the Callanish Standing Stones. Although their true purpose is unknown, historians and archaeologists love to speculate. The most popular theory is that they served as an ancient astronomical observatory. The stones are presumed to have been erected in their formation around 3000 BC. In addition, the stones themselves have been found to be some of the oldest exposed rock in the UK.

      Want to know more? Check out Scotland’s Stonehenge of the North.

      We visit the Callanish Standing Stones are on several trips, check them out here.

      Kilmartin Glen

      kilmartin glen

      The picturesque Kilmartin Glen is one of the richest sites in Europe for prehistoric remains. There are over 800 ancient monuments within this glen. Visitors can view Celtic crosses, ruined fortresses, medieval grave slabs, Bronze Age chambered cairns and standing stones.

      Walk through Kilmartin Glen on our Argyll and the Isles walking holiday.

      General Wade’s Military Road

      After the 1715 Jacobite Rebellions, a series of military roads were built. They consequently provided easy access for government troops into the Highlands. Although many fell into disrepair, the roads laid the foundations for easier travel within the Highlands.

      Walk along a bit of the Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus section on our Autumn Highlands holiday.

      Rosslyn Chapel

      rosslyn history

      Made famous by The Da Vinci Code, this beautiful and exquisitely carved 15th-century gothic church may hold the clues to either the location of the Holy Grail or the lost treasure of the Knights Templar.

      Visit Rosslyn Chapel on our Tour of the Scottish Borders.

      Iona Abbey

      iona history

      Iona Abbey was founded by monk Columba in 563AD. It played a crucial role in converting the Picts of Scotland to Christianity and one of the oldest places of Christian worship in western Europe. It’s still a place of pilgrimage.

      Spend the day exploring the abbey and the island on our wildlife trip to Mull, Staffa and Iona.

      Jarlshof

      jarlshof history

      The Jarlshof is a remarkably well-preserved prehistoric site on Shetland. It consists of an Old Norse longhouse, a Bronze Age village, neolithic artefacts, Iron age ruins, and a medieval farmstead.

      Visit the Jarlshof on our Shetland walking and wildlife holiday.

      Abbotsford House

      The historic home of one of Scotland’s most famed writers, Sir Walter Scott. The house was designed by Scott himself and is a tribute to his work and life. Scott is described as the inventor and most active practitioner of what is now called the historical novel.

      Enjoy a tour of the house and gardens on our road cycling trip to the Scottish Borders.

      The Highland Clearances

      Clearance village of Boreaig on the Isle of Skye.

      The Highland Clearances are one of the darkest moments in Scottish history. They started near the end of the 18th century and initially were the forced eviction of Highland tenants to make room for sheep grazing. The Clearances followed the end of the Jacobite rebellion. Action against Highland culture and clan life was already well underway prior to the clearances starting.

      The Clearances were not just one event, but a series of events that came in waves. The farming community were pushed out of their lands to make way for sheep. Consequently, they were forced to resettle along the coast and on barely cultivable areas of land. Farmers turned to crofting, fishing and other sources of income. Ultimately the changing economy meant that this was not a sustainable way of life. In short succession, cattle prices fell, there was a drop in demand for kelp, and the Highland potato famine happened. As a result, mass migration occurred. People left to go to the south of Scotland where people could find work in the factories, or they went abroad to North America and Australia.

      Now the Scottish Highlands are littered with the ruins of abandoned villages, serving as a sad reminder of this turbulent period.

      We do a dedicated visit to two clearance villages on our Isle of Skye walking holiday

       

      Our holidays reviewed
      in your own words

      Don’t tell my wife, but best holiday ever.
      A great chance to meet a superb group of people, spend valuable time with my son and live a truly outdoor life in beautiful surroundings.
      Most inspirational moment? Carrying our Kayaks from our camp site, up the river to paddle around Loch Coruisk with a beautiful sighting of a pair of Golden Eagles.

      Kevin Jones
      Sea Kayaking - West Coast Explorer
      Reviewed on 09/06/2014

      Rated 4.87 out of 5 based on 4,399 reviews

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