SCOTLAND: hike Skye, castles, Callanish, Edinburgh, Stirling, Falkirk, history

12 days driving the length of Scotland enriched us with compelling history, striking art, and green landscapes such as Glen Coe. Favorites included hiking the Isle of Skye; admiring the 4600-year-old Standing Stones of Callanish in the Outer Hebrides; and seeing the dramatic Kelpies sculptures, triangular Caerlaverock Castle and iconic Eilean Donan Castle. Our 20th wedding anniversary in a romantic Scottish castle disappointed on comfort, but enchanted us with 1400s-1800s atmosphere, in restored Comlongon Castle. While Edinburgh’s festival crowds overwhelmed the many worthwhile sights, the impressive 1400s-1500s Stirling Castle furnished more elbow room to contemplate medieval history. Our self-guided tour of Scotland capped 34 days in the United Kingdom (2017 July 20-August 22), which started with hiking England Coast to Coast (click here). See trip map at bottom.

SCOTLAND gallery of favorite images, by Tom Dempsey


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More extensive galleries of Scotland:

Click here to see all my Scotland images in day-to-day order, in a single gallery in my Portfolio (where you can Add to Cart). Or conveniently below, see them grouped in galleries by area, with helpful travel tips and history:

Callanish Standing Stones, Outer Hebrides (Western Isles)


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Erected 4600 years ago, the wondrous Callanish Standing Stones are one of the most spectacular megalithic monuments in Scotland. The main site known as “Callanish I” forms a cross with a central stone circle erected circa 2900-2600 BC. More lines of stones were added by 2000 BC (the close of the Neolithic era), and it become a focus for rituals during the Bronze Age. From 1500-1000 BC, farmers emptied the burials and ploughed the area. After from 800 BC, peat accumulated 1.5 meters deep and buried the stones until removed in 1857. Visit this spectacular ancient site near the village of Callanish (Gaelic: Calanais), on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides (Western Isles) in Scotland.

The Highlands: Isle of Skye


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Skye is the largest and northernmost of the major islands in the Inner Hebrides.

Isle of Skye photo and travel tips:

Lodging is very limited on Skye, so make summer reservations weeks or months ahead. The 1995 Skye Bridge has been toll-free now since 2004, and in 2017 it overflowed the island’s services with international tourists. Arriving early is required each morning to squeeze into popular parking areas. 7 miles west of Skye Bridge, pick up several days worth of food supplies at Broadford Co-Operative Food grocery. Stop by Sligachan Old Bridge, backed by the Black Cuillin mountains. For several hours, enjoy walking to viewpoints at the 1909 Neist Point Lighthouse, which pokes dramatically into The Minch strait. Many of the best sights are on Trotternish peninsula:

  • As our strategic base for 5 nights on Skye, we loved this quiet, comfortable loft atop a croft in Digg village near Staffin: Quiraing View Self Catering Apartment through AirBnb.com.
  • In Skye’s largest town, see colorful houses reflected in Portree Harbor, and shop at the Co-op on Woodpark Road for groceries.
  • Ascend to the striking pinnacles of the Old Man of Storr (4 miles, 1400 feet gain round trip). Arrive early for limited parking. A massive ancient landside created this distinctive landscape of eroded towers. For the best outlook, continue up the trail over the fence stile past where most people stop, surmounting the next higher ledge, to see the needles silhouetted against Loch Leathan, the Sound of Raasay, Raasay Island, and the Cuillin range.
  • At scenic Kilt Rock viewpoint, carpeted with purple heather flowers, Mealt Falls plunges 60 meters into the Sound of Raasay. Between 61 and 55 million years ago, volcanic activity on the west coast of Scotland covered the northern half of Skye in layers of molten rock over 1200 meters thick. The pleats of Kilt Rock formed as molten rock squeezed between layers of Jurassic sandstone rocks then cooled slowly and shrank into striking polygonal columns. Location: A855 road, 15 km north of Portree, 2 km south of Staffin.
  • Starting from Lealt Falls Car Park, ponder the coastal ruins of Lealt diatomite works (a furnace, grinding machine and storage). The diatomite was mined inland at Loch Cuithir from 1899-1960, gratefully providing local jobs. Diatomaceous earth, or diatomite, is fossilized remains of diatoms (chrysophytes, or golden algae, a type of hard-shelled protist) creating a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white powder. Its uses are many: filtration aid, insecticide, absorbent for liquids, mild abrasive in metal polishes & toothpaste, activator in blood clotting studies, a stabilizing component of dynamite, a thermal insulator, and even cat litter!
  • Amble up Bioda Buidhe mountain along Trotternish Ridge, with views south to eroded landslips and north to the Quiraing, an active landslip. Walk 2.2 miles round trip with 700 feet gain, starting southwards from the summit of the minor road between Staffin and Uig. Arrive early for limited parking. From the same trailhead, we also hiked the Quiraing:
  • For more adventure, try the popular, muddy loop (4.5 miles with 1200 feet gain) around the Quiraing landslip (Cuith-Raing in Gaelic, from Norse words meaning “round fold”), best avoided in rain or fog. The Trotternish Ridge escarpment is a spectacular series of landslips, still sliding in the Quiraing, requiring yearly repairs in the road below (near Flodigarry).
  • Near Uig: The Skye Museum of Island Life preserves a township of thatched cottages as they would have been in the late 1800s on the Isle of Skye, in Kilmuir village.
  • Near Uig: Walk the pastoral Fairy Glen (Faerie Glen) to Castle Ewen hill, looping 1.2 miles via grassy, cone-shaped mounds.
  • From Uig, catch the ferry to Tarbert, the main town of Harris in the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles), to drive to the Standing Stones of Callanish and blackhouse museums on the attached Isle of Lewis. Be sure to reserve a spot for your car weeks ahead at Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac).

The Highlands: Eilean Donan Castle, AD 1200s-1932


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Eilean Donan Castle looks spectacular when spotlit at twilight, in Kintail National Scenic Area. Since restoration in the early 1900s, a footbridge connects the island to the mainland. This picturesque island stronghold was first built in the 1200s in the western Highlands where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh) at the village of Dornie. The island is named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in 617. The castle became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies Clan Macrae. In the early 1700s, the Mackenzies’ involvement in the Jacobite rebellions led in 1719 to the castle’s destruction by government ships. Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap’s 1920-32 reconstruction of the ruins made the present buildings.

The Highlands: Glen Coe and Glen Nevis (Steall Falls hike)


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Found along road A82, Glen Coe is perhaps the most scenic and historic valley in Scotland. Glen Coe is the remains of an extinct supervolcano (erupted 420 million years ago during the Silurian period), one of the best examples of subsidence calderas. Heavy glaciation ending 10,000 years ago carved the U-shaped valley, reminding me of Norwegian scenery. The infamous 1692 Massacre of Glencoe happened near Glencoe village at the foot of the valley.

One of the best short hikes in Scotland ascends 220 meters to Steall Falls (3.5 km / 2.25 miles round trip) via scenic Nevis Gorge, an area owned by the John Muir Trust, which is attempting to restore wilderness here after centuries of burning and grazing. Steall Falls is Scotland’s second highest waterfall, with a single drop of 120 meters or 393 feet. Often hidden in the clouds above is Ben Nevis (1345 meters or 4411 ft, the highest mountain in the British Isles), here at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands.

The Highlands: Inverness and Culloden


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We enjoyed seeing the lights of Inverness reflect in River Ness at twilight, in the administrative capital of the Highlands. The prominent red sandstone Inverness Castle (housing the Inverness Sheriff Court) was built in 1836 by architect William Burn on the site of an 11th-century fort. A settlement was established here by the 500s AD with the first royal charter being granted by King David I in the 1100s. The Gaelic king Mac Bethad Mac Findláich (MacBeth), whose 11th-century killing of King Duncan was immortalised in Shakespeare’s largely fictionalized play Macbeth, held a castle within the city where he ruled as Mormaer of Moray and Ross. Surveys rank Inverness as one of the happiest places in the UK.

Jacobites and the Battle of Culloden explained

Near Inverness is Culloden Battlefield visitor center, a Scottish mecca run by the National Trust for Scotland. As the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745, the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746 was part of a religious civil war in Britain. In the last pitched battle on British soil, in less than an hour about 1500 men were slain, more than 1000 of them Jacobites. Today, strong feelings are still aroused by the battle and the brutal aftermath of weakening Gaelic culture and undermining the Scottish clan system. The site of the battle is three miles south of Culloden village on Drumossie Moor, often called Culloden Moor.

Jacobites rebelled against the British government several times between 1688 and 1746. Jacobites were a political faction in Great Britain and Ireland aimed to restore the Roman Catholic King James II (House of Stuart) of England and Ireland (as James VII in Scotland) and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. The name comes from Jacobus, the Renaissance Latin form of Iacomus, from the original Latin form of James, “Iacobus.”

Stirling, the gateway to the Highlands


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Once the capital of Scotland, Stirling is visually dominated by Stirling Castle, sitting atop Castle Hill, an intrusive crag formed some 300 million years ago. Until the 1890s, Stirling controlled a strategic position as the lowest bridging point of the River Forth before it broadens towards the Firth of Forth, making it “the gateway to the Scottish Highlands.” As a principal royal stronghold of the Kingdom of Scotland, Stirling was created a royal burgh by King David I in 1130. Most of the fort’s main buildings date from the 1400s and 1500s, when it peaked in importance. The outer defenses fronting the town date from the early 1700s. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542. Stirling Castle has suffered at least eight sieges, including several during the Wars of Scottish Independence, with the last being in 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie unsuccessfully tried to take the castle.

Edinburgh, capitol city of Scotland


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Perched atop Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle is the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world, with 26 sieges in its 1100-year-old history. Few of the present buildings pre-date the Lang Siege of the 1500s except for St Margaret’s Chapel from the early 1100s, the Royal Palace, and the early-1500s Great Hall. Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, in Lothian on the Firth of Forth, in the United Kingdom.

The spectacular St Giles’ Cathedral (High Kirk of Edinburgh) is the principal place of worship of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. Its distinctive crown steeple is a prominent feature of the city skyline, at about a third of the way down the Royal Mile. The church has been one of Edinburgh’s religious focal points for approximately 900 years. The present church dates from the late 1300s, though it was extensively restored in the 1800s. Today it is sometimes regarded as the “Mother Church of Presbyterianism.”

Don’t miss seeing the abstract modernist Scottish Parliament Building, opened 2004 in the Holyrood area of Edinburgh. Scottish Parliament had previously dropped out of existence from 1707 through 1999. The original Parliament of Scotland was the national legislature of the independent Kingdom of Scotland, existing from the early 1200s until merging with the Kingdom of England under the Acts of Union 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Following a Scottish referendum in 1997, the current Parliament was convened by the Scotland Act 1998, which sets out its powers as a devolved legislature, which first met in 1999. The Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate in all areas that are not explicitly reserved to Westminster.

If time allows, wander along the Water of Leith river through Dean Village, the site of old watermills in a deep gorge.

Falkirk Wheel and The Kelpies


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The Kelpies, built of structural steel in 2013, are the world’s largest pair of equine sculptures. Towering 30 meters above the Forth & Clyde Canal, these two proud heads are a monumental tribute to the horse power heritage (pulling wagons, ploughs, barges and coalships) vital to early industrial Scotland. Scottish sculptor Andy Scott designed these twin 300-tonne feats of engineering. Visit the Kelpies artworks in the Helix parkland project, in Falkirk, central Scotland.

Five miles west of the Kelpies is the Falkirk Wheel. Built in 2002, the Falkirk Wheel is the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. It reconnects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal for the first time since the 1930s. The wheel raises boats by 24 metres (79 ft) in just 15 minutes, then a pair of locks raises them 11 metres (36 ft) higher to reach the Union Canal.

1295 Caerlaverock Castle


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The formidable red sandstone walls of Caerlaverock Castle have a triangular shape, unique in Britain. First built in 1295 to to control trade, its wide moat, twin-towered gatehouse and lofty battlements give Caerlaverock a fairtale appearance, the epitome of a medieval stronghold. In the castle courtyard, walk through Nithsdale Lodging, a remarkable residence built in 1635, “the most ambitious early classical domestic architecture in Scotland.” Caerlaverock is near Dumfries, on the edge of Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve, in southwest Scotland. This stronghold defended the Maxwell family from the 1200s-1640, then was abandoned. It was besieged by the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence, and underwent several partial demolitions and reconstructions from the 1300s-1400s.

Comlongon Castle


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Our 20th wedding anniversary attracted us to lodging in a romantic Scottish castle, but Carol’s night in the 1902 Edwardian wing at Comlongon was haunted by steam radiator sounds and saggy bed. Luckily, the next morning compensated with good breakfast, beautifully landscaped grounds, and the swords-and-armor atmosphere of restored 1400s Comlongon Castle.

Oban and Castle Stalker


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Oban is an important tourism hub and Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) ferry port, protected by the island of Kerrera and Isle of Mull, in the Firth of Lorn, Argyll county. The 200-meter-diameter McCaig’s Tower rises prominently on Battery Hill overlooking Oban, built in Roman style 1897-1902 by philanthropic banker John Stuart McCaig, but left unfinished upon his death.

1440s Castle Stalker is a 4-story tower house or keep picturesquely set on a tidal islet on Loch Laich, an inlet of Loch Linnhe, near Port Appin, Argyll. Castle Stalker is visible from the A828 road midway between Oban and Glen Coe. The fort was occupied from the 1440s-1840, lost its roof, then was fully restored 1965-1974. It appeared in the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in the final scene as “The Castle of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh.” The name Stalker comes from the Gaelic Stalcaire, meaning hunter or falconer.

SCOTLAND and Northern ENGLAND: map

The following map of Scotland and northern England shows our key sights in 2017 (click for Google interactive version):

Map of sights in northern England + Scotland, UK

Map of our sights in northern England and Scotland, in the United Kingdom, for 34 days round trip from Seattle to Manchester 2017 July 23–August 22.