At beginning of 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic becoming a thing, we decided to visit Scotland. We started visiting Edinburgh, then we went to Glasgow, and from there we dove in a 4-day road trip that brought us through Scotland and the Scottish Highlands.
That was our first time in Scotland and we fell in love with that stunning land steep in history and national pride.
But let us buckle up and start this new road trip adventure through the wonderful land of the brave.
Disclaimer: I will tell the story of this “Scotland and Scottish Highlands: a 4-day road trip itinerary” in two parts for sake of exhaustiveness. The first part will cover the first two days of the itinerary, while the second the last two. Click here to go straight to the second part of this article.
1. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle is a historically significant site in Scotland, and it was once the preferred residence of the Stewart kings and queens, who held grand celebrations there. It sits on a high volcanic rock in an extremely strategic location, visible for miles in every direction and with a clear view of the River Forth’s lowest crossing point, a strategic interest to anyone wanting to control central Scotland.
There is no proof that the Romans, Votadini, or Picts who fought over this ground in the first millennium A.D. fortified the rock; however, it appears highly probable that they did. Sadly, the legend of Camelot being based on a castle here during King Arthur’s conquest of parts of Scotland in the 500s is just an appealing hypothesis.
Stirling Castle has been invaded or besieged at least 16 times in its long and bloody history. Three battles were fought in its immediate vicinity, two of which were pivotal in Scottish history, and a fourth battle was fought only a few miles to the north.
In or near Stirling Castle, many Scottish Kings and Queens have been baptized, crowned, or died. At least one King was assassinated nearby, and another was murdered within its walls.
Except for the Outer Defences, the majority of Stirling Castle dates from 1496 to 1583 and was built by three Kings, James IV, V, and VI, as well as one of their Queens, Mary de Guise. However, from the time of Alexander I (in the 1100s, and possibly earlier) until the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns under James VI, the Castle served as a residence for Scottish Kings and Queens.
During the 17th century, it was used as a military centre and then as a jail for high-ranking officials. Since 1800, the War Office has owned and used the Castle as a barracks. The Great Hall was transformed into an accommodation block, the Chapel Royal into a lecture theatre and dining hall, the King’s Old Building into an infirmary, and the Royal Palace into the Officer’s Mess. In 1810, some new buildings were added to the Nether Bailey, including the prison and powder magazine.
Today, you will encounter costumed characters who will welcome you into 16th-century life as bodyguards, court officials, maids of honour, and servants.
The Great Hall, Chapel Royal, Castle Exhibition, Regimental Museum, Great Kitchens, Tapestry Studio, and nearby Argyll’s Lodging, a 17th-century townhouse, are among the highlights.
Admission fee: 16£/ 18.4€ / 22$.
2. National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument, which opened to the public in 1869, is an emblem of a nation’s resolve to honour the patriot and martyr Sir William Wallace. It stands on the site of Scotland’s victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and has become almost as much a symbol of freedom and liberty as Wallace himself.
William Wallace was a Scottish knight who later became one of the main leaders during the First War of Scottish Independence. His burning desire for peace and independence brought the country’s clans together, won the people’s loyalty, terrorized his foes, and defied the brutal hand of an invading king, King Edward I of England.
In 1297, Wallace raised the Scots to meet the army of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, at Sterling Bridge, Scotland’s main entry point. The English were routed and forced to flee.
Wallace was arrested, taken to London, tried, found guilty, and cruelly executed in 1305 after the English defeated the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk. However, his death did not put an end to Scotland’s independence wars, and Robert the Bruce continued the fight, winning the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Inside this monument, you will be transported back to the 13th century as you learn about the hero who led the Scottish army to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
His battle sword, which struck fear into the hearts of Wallace’s enemies and is now a strong emblem of his bravery and courage, can be seen in the Hall of Arms. Besides, from the Monument’s Crown, you can take in the magnificent views across the heart of Scotland.
Admission fee: 10.75£/ 12.3€ / 15$.
After visiting Sterling’s highlights, we decided to head northwest and see the mythical Scottish Highlands, starting with the charming town of Inverness.
3.1 The Victorian Market
Inverness Town Council decided to build this covered market in the 1870s, but it was later destroyed by fire. The original sandstone entrance in Academy Street, with three round arches, is still standing from the original building. You can see a bull’s head is at the top of the central arch, and rams’ heads at the tops of the two smaller arches on each side.
Today, the Victorian Market has a unique selection of shops that you will not find anywhere else in town.
From there, take Academy Street, and turn right onto Inglis Street. Finally, turn right onto High Street, and you will find Inverness Town House on your left.
3.2 Inverness Town House
Built in the Flemish-Baronial style on the corner of Castle Street and High Street in Inverness city centre, the Town House stands since the late 1800s.
The structure has two storeys with slender towers and turrets (tourelles) corbelled out at the corners and above the entry, as well as two plaques depicting the Burgh Arms, which were reclaimed from the old Ness Bridge in 1686 (demolished after it was irreparably damaged in a flood in 1849). This complex replaced the Old Town House, constructed in 1708 as Lord Lovat’s Inverness residence, became the Burgh Town House in 1716, and demolished in 1878.
The Town Hall, the Council Chamber, and a committee room are all accessible through an imposing staircase that rises from the entrance. Fine stained-glass windows and grand chandeliers adorn the wood-panelled Council Chamber.
It was the site of a landmark meeting of the British Cabinet in 1921, when Prime Minister David Lloyd George was told of Southern Ireland’s desire to secede from the United Kingdom while on vacation nearby. This meeting resulted in the Inverness Formula, which served as the cornerstone for the Irish Free State.
The Town House was the seat of Inverness Town Council until the 1960s when it was replaced by the buildings on Glenurquhart Road. Meetings, public events, concerts, and civil marriages continue to be held there.
Admission fee: 7£/ 8€ / 10$.
From there, take Castle Wynd, take the stairs, and you will find Inverness Castle on your left.
3.3 Inverness Castle
Sitting on a cliff overlooking the River Ness, Inverness Castle is a 19th-century red sandstone complex built on the site of a fortification that existed since at least the 6th century AD.
It has been occupied by the English and reconquered by the Scots many times over the centuries, and likewise demolished and rebuilt, with its use also being changed to meet the needs of the day. The current structure consists of two castellated buildings: the first was constructed in the 1830s as a courthouse, and the second was completed in the 1840s as a jail.
The north tower of the castle was opened to the public as a viewpoint in April 2017. Only the castle grounds and the north tower are open to the public. The rest of the castle is off-limits to the public.
It housed Inverness Sheriff Court until March 2020, when it was relocated to the Inverness Justice Centre.
Admission fee: 6£/ 7€ / 8.35$.
From there, go back to Castle Wynd, turn left onto Bridge Street, and cross the Ness Bridge. Then, turn left onto Alexander Place, and, finally, right onto Ardross Street. You will find the entrance to the Cathedral on your left.
3.4 Inverness Cathedral
Inverness Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Andrew, is a Scottish Episcopal Church pink-sandstone cathedral located on the banks of the River Ness. It is the northernmost Anglican cathedral in mainland Britain, and it was the first modern Protestant cathedral built in the United Kingdom since the Reformation.
Here you can find a wonderful example of Victorian architecture, as well as intricate craftsmanship and details carvings in stone and wood, as well as magnificent stained glass windows.
The nave and aisles are divided by Peterhead granite columns, and all of the fixtures and fittings, from the pews to the floor tiles, are of the highest quality.
A magnificent oak choir screen, added in 1923, separates the nave from the choir, above which hangs a wide cross. The choir is beautiful in and of itself. The choir stalls were added in 1909 and were made of Austrian oak. The throne of the bishop dates from 1869. The altar and reredos, the carved screen behind the altar, complete the east end of the church in a pleasing manner. Both were built of stone brought in from Caen.
A huge angel holding a font and a bust of Bishop Robert Eden is among the statues in Inverness Cathedral. It also has an outstanding stained-glass window set. Perhaps the most stunning is the west window, which is located in the gable directly above the west door.
Throughout the year, it also hosts several concerts, festivals, and exhibitions.
4. Beauly Priory
Beauly Priory is one of three priories established in Scotland for Valliscaulian monks about 1230. Val-des-Choux (Valley of the Cabbages) near Dijon, France, was home to the Valliscaulians, who lived by strict poverty, chastity, and obedience standards.
The monks must have thought Beauly, which comes from the French beau lieu, or “beautiful place“, was a wonderful place to devote themselves to worship.
The church, whose ruins can still be seen, was part of a larger complex that included a cloister to the south, with east and south ranges for the monks and a west range for the prior’s lodging. The church’s remaining south wall bears evidence of earlier rooflines, suggesting how the rest of the priory was connected to it.
The priory fell into disuse after the Reformation, and much of it was turned into a quarry for the stone used in the construction of other buildings in the area.
The north transept is the only portion of the priory complex that has survived in anything resembling its original state. This was reconstructed as a mausoleum in 1901.
Historic Environment Scotland now looks after Beauly Priory, which has been in the state’s care since 1913.
5. Urquart Castle
Urquhart Castle stands on a rocky promontory that overlooks Loch Ness and has been visited by many famous people, St Columba, among others, who may have paid a visit in 580.
King Edward I conquered it in 1296. In the later Middle Ages, the Lords of the Isles repeatedly captured the castle to extend their territories into the northeast. Then in the 1500s, Clan Grant was granted the castle and given the task of repairing it and getting it back into service.
Following the exile of Catholic King James VII and his succession by Protestant monarchs William II and Mary II, Urquhart Castle was garrisoned for the last time in 1689. The castle’s towering gatehouse was purposefully blown up in 1692 so that it could never be used as a military fortress again.
It quickly fell into disrepair, and during a violent storm in 1715, a portion of the Grant Tower collapsed.
In the 1800s, the general opinion of Urquhart shifted, and it became known as a noble ruin in a magnificent setting. It was given to the state in 1913 and is now one of Scotland’s most visited castles.
With its untamed natural beauty and 1,000 years of history, Urquhart Castle is a glimpse of the Highlands at its most dramatic.
Admission fee: 9.6£/ 11€ / 13.35$.
6. Elgin Cathedral
The “Lantern of the North“, Elgin Cathedral, is one of Scotland’s most majestic medieval cathedrals.
The cathedral’s construction began in the first half of the 1200s, but it was completed in three stages. Even as a ruin, the cathedral has a wealth of detail that tells the story of its construction and embellishment.
The cathedral used to be ornately carved, with stained glass and painted decorations. Documentary evidence sheds light on religious life in Elgin, while a fine set of architectural fragments hints at the building’s lost elegance.
After the Reformation, it was only used for Catholic worship on rare occasions.
The West Front and Chapter House towers are still intact and open to the public, and the climb is rewarded with spectacular views of Elgin. An open observation platform at the top of the tower has information boards showing the visible landmarks.
The chapter house’s ceiling is regarded as one of the country’s finest octagonal structures, with traces of gold paint visible to anyone with a keen eye.
Admission fee: 9£/ 10.4€ / 12.5$.
7. Easter Arquhorhies Stone Circle
Constructed about 4,000 years ago, this is one of the most beautiful recumbent stone circles in the world. While stone circles are common in the United Kingdom, recumbent stone circles are only found in northeast Scotland, where there are around 100 of them.
A distinguishing characteristic of these stone circles is a broad stone laid recumbent on its side flanked by two upright stones, usually on the circle’s south or southwest arc. The tallest stones in the circle are usually on the same arc, with the majority of the stones being graded in height.
The stones’ southwest orientation, on the other hand, may have helped prehistoric agricultural groups keep track of the seasons. The flanking stones would have framed the rising and setting moon in midsummer.
East Aquhorthies has 11 upright stones, all pinkish porphyries except the one closest to the east flanker, which is red jasper. The circle’s largest stone, the recumbent stone, is situated on the circle’s southwest side. It is squeezed between the two tallest upright ‘flanker’ stones.
The stones have a variety of geological features and seem to have been chosen for their colour.
A slight rise in the unexcavated interior of East Aquhorthies suggests the presence of a ring cairn. At similar sites, complex multi-period monuments have been found. The circles typically begin as cremation pyres before evolving into ring cairns. Enclosing stone circles are usually used to mark the end of the process.
We started our tour of Aberdeen from Old Aberdeen, in the north of Aberdeen city centre.
8.1 St Machar’s Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of St. Machar, also known as St. Machar’s Cathedral, is thought to have been built on the site of a small Celtic chapel erected by St. Machar in AD 581. While the current cathedral was founded in 1136, the earliest work in the current structure dates from the 14th century (it was completed in 1552).
The striking towers on the West Front, with their sandstone spires dating from 1518 to 1530, and the 16th-century wooden ceiling decorated with coats of arms, are especially noteworthy for tourists. Pay special attention to the stained-glass windows, the majority of which date from the 1870s.
From there take The Chanonry, and continue onto High Street and College Bounds. You will find our next stop on your right.
8.2 King’s College, University of Aberdeen
Founded in 1494 in Old Aberdeen, the University and King’s College of Aberdeen received its charter from King James IV.
The college’s massive tower (1633) and elegant stone dome, the only remaining structure of its kind in Scotland and noteworthy for the stone copy of Charlemagne’s imperial crown that sits atop it, are two of the college’s distinguishing features. The chapel’s 16th-century oak choir stalls and wooden ceiling have been preserved in their original state, and you can see also portraits of Stuart monarchs carved in wood.
The University of Aberdeen Zoology Museum is one of the city’s best free attractions, with exhibits ranging from protozoa to whales. The King’s Museum, which includes temporary displays of artefacts from various university collections, is also worth visiting. The university’s website offers self-guided walking tours of the campus.
From there, if you do not feel like taking a 30-minute stroll, take a taxi to Mercat Cross in Aberdeen city centre.
8.3 Mercat Cross
The Mercat Cross stands in Castlegate, diagonally opposite the Tolbooth Museum. The city’s guild of merchants designed this elaborate and highly decorated medieval symbol of Aberdeen’s right to hold a market in 1686. The news of newly crowned monarchs was announced to gathered crowds from the roof of the building, which had a staircase in the middle.
The decorative hexagonal base is made of sandstone and features six arches with pillars at each corner, animal gargoyles, and medallions. Ten of the twelve medallions depict Stewart monarchs, including James I to James V, Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, Charles I and II, and James VII, with the Royal arms and the burgh’s arms on the remaining two.
The white marble unicorn with a gilded horn stands above the parapet on a Corinthian capital. Replacements for the shaft and unicorn date from the mid-1990s; the originals can be seen in the Tolbooth.
From there, take Castle Street, and, then, turn right onto Broad Street. You will find our next stop on your left, just ahead of the Marischal College.
8.4 Robert the Bruce Statue
The statue of Robert the Bruce, unveiled in 2011, is proudly displayed in the Marischal College’s grand concourse, the headquarters of Aberdeen City Council.
He was King of Scots from 1306 to 1329, one of the most successful warriors of his generation, and a Scottish national hero for leading Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence against England.
The magnificent bronze sculpture is seen holding the text of the Charter that he granted to the common people of Aberdeen for lands in Aberdeen marked by stone markers, some of which can still be seen today. The statue is supported by a granite plinth, a very hard material that is well-known in Aberdeen, which is known as “The Granite City“.
From there, continue onto Broad Street, turn left onto Upperkirkgate, and continue onto Schoolhill and Rosemount Viaduct. Finally, turn left onto Union Terrace, and you will find our next stop on your right.
8.5 William Wallace Statue
The William Wallace Statue, erected in 1888, portrays Sir William Wallace across from Union Terrace Gardens and opposite His Majesty’s Theatre.
The inscription on the statue reads: “I tell you the truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live in a slavish bond”.
While his chronicler writer, Blind Harry, 150 years later tells a fanciful tale of his adventures in the North East of Scotland, William Wallace is unlikely to have visited Aberdeen.
From there, border Union Terrace Gardens through Union Terrace, and reach Union Street.
8.6 Union Street
Union Street is a major street and shopping thoroughfare named after the Acts of Union 1800 with Ireland.
It was built to relieve the strain of the small, cramped streets that caused problems for people coming into the city. It was built higher than the old town and was designed to include the five entrances from the city: Queens Road – Rubislaw from Hazelhead; George Street from Inverurie and Morayshire; King Street from the north from Bridge Of Don, Peterhead and Fraserburgh; Market Street, which leads to the fishing town of Torry; and Holburn Street to the Ruthrieston and Garthdee areas.
From there, take a taxi to Footdee, our next stop.
Footdee often referred to locally as “Fittie”, is a small community that was once a fishing village. In the early 19th century the area was redeveloped and housing development was built to house the local fishing community.
It is a charming area with an eccentric mix of orderly cottages and quirky ramshackle outbuildings that feels a bit like a village from another century and only takes a short time to walk around.
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