15 of the most inspiring things to see in Scotland

Days out, Activity, Destinations

Posted by Ed on 29th July 2022

Inspiring Scotland

Are you thinking of visiting Scotland on your next holiday? We love this exciting country full to the borders with inspiring landscapes, views, beauty spots and sheer natural spectacle - it’s so difficult to do justice to Scotland in words and photographs.  

To know Scotland is to fall in love with the place; it's inspired painters, writers, filmmakers and poets for decades, if not hundreds of years. We’ve put together a unique list of inspirational things to see in Scotland, found the length and breadth of this sharp mountain, glen-gilded, loch-laden, country specifically to persuade you to go and enjoy a real undiluted experience for yourself.  

Stay in one of our holiday cottages in Scotland and let this extraordinary country inspire you.

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Inspiring historic places in Scotland

Holyrood Abbey

Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh

In the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, you can see the enchanting ruins of the 11th-century Holyrood Abbey. It is home to one of the largest intact surviving Gothic facades in the country. In the late 17th century, the abbey fell into rack and ruin under the rule of James VII, but today is managed by the Royal Collection Trust. 

Wander along the atmospheric nave, view the royal vault, and admire the east processional doorway, the only surviving part of David I’s original ‘monastery of the Holy Rood’. Then, relax in the tranquil grounds before seeing what treasures the Palace has to offer.

More info

Postcode: EH8 8DX

Top tip: Holyrood Abbey is a great location for those that like to sketch or paint, or perhaps read a book in the sunshine close by.

Edinburgh cottages

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeen

If you're wondering what to see in Scotland, historic castles must be high on your list. Close to Aberdeen is this imposing ruin of a 15th and 16th-century Scottish castle, and one of the very best in Scotland. The medieval fortress remains sit atop an outcrop of land, high up above the mainland. This haunting clifftop ruin is a photographer’s paradise and holds many fascinating secrets of Scotland’s turbulent past. It should most definitely be on your list of must-see attractions in Scotland.

Most famously, Dunnottar Castle is known as the place where the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) were hidden from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century. The sea and the cliffs are bound to inspire daydreams of when the fort, in previous incarnations, was sacked by Vikings or visited by Charles II, William Wallace, and Mary Queen of Scots.

If Dunnottar has whetted your appetite for Scottish castles, why not see how many more you can bag on your next trip?

More info

Postcode: AB39 2TL

Top tip: A small fee is levied if you want to explore the castle and its outbuildings, but it is worth it for the panorama and the unforgettable location. 

Aberdeen cottages

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle, the Highlands

Presiding imposingly over the spot where three lochs meet, Eilean Donan is one of the most famous – and most iconic – castles in the country, and is one of the must-see places in Scotland. You may recognise it as MI6’s Scottish HQ, as it was a key filming location in the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough.

This inspiring Scottish location in Dornie is made all the more magical by its setting on its own island; crossing the bridge to visit the castle gives a fairy-tale feel to the visit. Once there, take the guided tour to learn about the castle’s history, taking in Jacobite uprisings, hidden peepholes and the story of the family that are still Constables of the castle to this day.

More info

Postcode: IV40 8DX

Top tip: Check the opening times on the website before visiting, as they vary according to the season.

Dornie cottages

Skara Brae

Skara Brae, the Orkneys

Deemed the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, Skara Brae is a World Heritage Site on the breathtaking Orkney coast, which offers a glimpse into how the islanders lived some 5,000 years ago.

The site lay undiscovered until it was revealed by a storm in the mid-19th century; now, there are nine Neolithic houses to explore within the prehistoric village, as well as artefacts and furniture to marvel at. Plus, the setting on the wildlife-rich western Orkney coast, overlooking the power-white sands of Skaill Beach, is worth a visit in itself.

More info

Postcode: KW16 3LR

Top tip: Visit in the summer to take a unique evening tour of the site, after the crowds have left and as the sun sets over the water beyond.

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Real Mary King's CloseReal Mary King's Close credit: Instagram @marykingsclose

Real Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh

Below the streets of Edinburgh is Real Mary King's Close, a once-forgotten street, sectioned off and frozen in time. The Royal Exchange was built on top of the remains of several streets that led to some notoriously bad tenement blocks where many people perished from the Black Plague in the 17th century. 

Rediscovered in the 1990s, visitors can now embark on a tour of these winding subterranean streets and learn the gloomy stories of those who may have lived there, and of the hauntings. Historical reenactors bring the past to life, revealing intriguing secrets of the previous residents, from gravediggers to a murderous mother-in-law.

More info

Postcode: EH1 1PG

Top tip: One of the rooms is said to be haunted by a young girl called Annie, a plague victim who was abandoned by her parents and wanted a doll to stop her feeling lonely – guests from around the world have donated toys for her, what will you bring? 

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Inspiring natural places in Scotland

Fingal's Cave

Fingal’s Cave, Inner Hebrides

One of Scotland’s most recognised caverns, Fingal’s Cave lies on the Isle of Staffa which is a part of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a distinctive fluke of nature with its straight edges and hexagon-shaped jointed rock formations - one of the best examples of volcanic basalt columns in the world.

Looming 69 metres tall over the raging sea, the cave has an otherworldly appearance, like something out of a dream or perhaps a piece of modern art. At first sight, the neat pillars that make up the cave’s interior resemble something man-made, but they are, in fact, a wonderful gift from nature. The cave has even inspired musicians and composers such as Pink Floyd, and the ‘Hebrides Overture – Fingal’s Cave’, by Felix Mendelssohn.

More info

Postcode: PA76 6SP (Staffa Trips, Isle of Iona)

Top tip: You can book a tour of Fingal’s Cave from the Isle of Iona. It is possible to walk inside the cave along a naturally formed ridge at the high-tide mark. Please check local websites for any accessibility issues.

Outer Hebrides cottages

Scott's View

Scott’s View, Melrose

Sir Walter Scott is one of Scotland’s most famous authors of all time, having written Ivanhoe, and Rob Roy, and this next inspiring location in Melrose would well be the vista to kick start a few ideas for authors, poets, and biographers. Known as Scott’s View, the hilltop is a former volcano and there’s a bench at the summit to take in the famous three peaks of the Eildon Hills that characterise the local landscape around Melrose and Kelso.

This special lookout was known to be one of Sir Walter Scott's favourite places to come and reflect, and it’s well worth the bracing climb if you fancy soaking up this fine vista for yourself, and to stir your own creative juices. It is said that the novelist paused to admire the view so often during his travels that his horses soon learned to stop at the viewpoint without command. They even did so during his funeral procession, allowing their master one last look at the view he loved so dearly.

More info

Postcode: TD6 9DW

Top tip: Scott's View can be accessed by car from the B6404 on the road from St Boswells to Kelso and then turning off towards Dryburgh Abbey.

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Old Man of Hoy

Old Man of Hoy, the Orkneys

As the name would suggest, The Old Man of Hoy is situated just off the Orkney island of Hoy in northern Scotland. Perhaps the most distinctive landmark in the Orkneys, and one of the best things to see in Scotland, this 450-foot red sandstone sea stack perched on a plinth of igneous basalt is a remarkable sight and one of the tallest sea stacks in the UK (40 metres taller than Big Ben!).

If you love trekking, there is around a three-hour circular path that can be picked up in Rackwick. It can also be seen from the water if you happen to be taking the ferry between Scrabster and Stromness. In recent years, the stack has become popular with climbers and there is a small visitors’ book in a Tupperware container buried in a cairn on the summit. Be aware, this is a tough ascent and should only be attempted by experienced climbers.

More info

Postcode: KW16 3NJ (Rackwick car park)

Top tip: Constantly attacked by strong winds and surrounded by powerful crashing waves, the Old Man is rapidly being eroded by the coast and may soon collapse, so we advise putting this iconic Scottish beauty spot near the top of your bucket list, just in case!

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Northern lights

Northern lights

Inspiration can be found simply by looking up into the heavens. Scotland is a wonderful place to see the Aurora Borealis because of the country’s northerly aspect – it actually lies at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska!

The natural, colourful phenomenon is one of the most amazing things to see in Scotland, and can be seen across the entire country, away from built-up areas where light pollution is prevalent. The most popular places to see these epic sky displays are Noss Head, Nairn, Portknockie, Cairn o’ Mount, The Cairngorms, St Andrews, the Shetlands, and the Orkneys. And these are just a few!

Find out more about where to see the northern lights in Scotland with our guide.

More info

Postcode: KW1 4QT (Noss Head)

Top tip: We recommend Noss Head near Wick to catch a sight of this natural theatrical performance. Visit in the autumn and winter when the sky is at its darkest for the most vibrant displays.

Northern Scotland cottages

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye

The entire Isle of Skye could feature on our list of inspiring places in Scotland, however, the Fairy Pools take the top spot. Found in Glen Brittle on the south-west of the island, the Fairy Pools draw visitors from all over for their crystal-clear, bright blue waters that cascade from the rocks above into a placid pool.

Not only are the pools popular with nature lovers and photographers, but they draw in wild swimmers too who brave the chilly waters for a dip, making it one of the best wild swimming spots in Scotland

More info

Postcode: IV47 8TA (to the car park)

Top tip: Park in the public car park and walk along the River Brittle for around 40 minutes until you get to the pools. Why not warm up after a dip with a stop-off at the Talisker whisky distillery on the way back?

Isle of Skye cottages

Inspiring cultural places in Scotland

Sharmanka Kinetic TheatreSharmanka Kinetic Theatre credit: Instagram @legendaryscotland

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, Glasgow

Here’s a true hidden treasure in Scotland. Found along one of the narrower streets of inner-city Glasgow, the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is a cultural wonder. It was first opened in 1996, after the success of sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudky and theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya’s initial successes in their native Russia. 

Hundreds of scrap metal miniature humans and tiny carved creatures combine to portray unusual stories in the maker’s kinemats – which are gigantic clockwork, mechanised, kinetic structures that turn, wind and move. Set to a backdrop of haunting music and atmospheric synchronised lighting effects, the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is a truly magical and enchanting experience for all the family. 

More info

Postcode: G1 5HD

Top tip: It’s recommended to arrive 20 minutes early as you can observe the artwork from a distance, which is fascinating even when not in motion. As there are only two shows a day on selected days of the week, we advise booking in advance as they often sell out - there’s one show geared towards children and the other for a more mature audience.

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The Forth Bridges

The Forth Bridges, Edinburgh

The three bridges that cross the Firth of Forth just outside Edinburgh are iconic landmarks combined, and you can walk across the Forth Road Bridge for some of the most awe-inspiring views. This cantilever railway bridge which provides transport links between Edinburgh and Fife is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2016 was voted Scotland's greatest man-made wonder.

The bridge was built between 1883 and 1890 and it is an utterly impressive feat of 19th-century engineering. A third bridge was opened in 2017, making this the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge in the world, spanning 521 metres.

More info

Postcode: EH30 9HP (Queensferry Museum)

Top tip: You can discover more about the history of the three bridges at the Queensferry Museum in South Queensferry.

Fife cottages

North Coast 500

North Coast 500

Perhaps the ‘daddy’ of all road trips in Britain, the NC500 is (as the name suggests) a 500-mile round trip around the coast of Scotland, taking in some of the windiest and most challenging highways available. If you love driving, then some of the grandest views and places of historical importance await. We advise planning at least 7 days for this epic adventure, so you can really appreciate this special area of Scotland.

Beauty spots in Scotland to tick off the list along the route include Beauly Priory, Smoo Cave, Glen Ord Distillery, Reraig Forest, Corrieshalloch Gorge, John O’Groats, Fairy Glen, Clashnessie Falls, Sandwood Bay, the Whaligoe Steps, and Bealach Na Ba (the UK’s steepest road).

More info

Postcode: N/A

Top tip: The noose-shaped NC500 originates in Inverness then bisects west and north at Muir of Ord. Why not begin or end your road trip with a stay in Inverness?  

Inverness cottages

West Highland Railway Line

West Highland Railway Line, the Highlands

If you’re looking for inspiring scenery without having to exert yourself too much, a ride on the West Highland Railway Line could be just the ticket. This route runs from Glasgow to Oban or Fort William, and Mallaig, and is often called the most scenic railway journey in the world.

If you’re thinking it looks familiar, the Glenfinnan Viaduct was made famous by the Harry Potter films, as the Hogwarts Express crossed the iconic bridge on the way to Hogwarts. Recreate the magic with a ride aboard The Jacobite, a very pretty steam train that runs from Fort William to Mallaig.

More info

Postcode: PH33 6TQ (Fort William station)

Top tip: As well as taking in the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, the journey also visits Corrour, the highest railway station in the UK at 408 metres above sea level – it was also used as a filming location in Trainspotting!

Mallaig cottages

The Kelpies

The Kelpies and The Helix, Falkirk

One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Scotland is that of the giant twin horse heads – the Kelpies – in Falkirk. Along with the Helix, the 30-metre-tall Kelpies have made a cultural hub in the city and are now iconic places to visit.

Try your hand at water sports, explore the network of walking and cycling paths or let the kids burn off some steam at the play park in Helix Park, before taking a tour inside the twin heads of the Kelpies themselves.

More info

Postcode: FK2 7ZT

Top tip: The Kelpies are especially stunning at night, so take a walk around the park and grab some dinner before seeing them for yourself as dusk falls.

Falkirk cottages

Map of Scotland's most inspiring places to visit

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Be inspired by a holiday to Scotland

If you're ready to make plans for a holiday above the border, we have a large collection of inspiring self-catering holiday cottages in Scotland to choose from. Just click the button below to browse our full collection.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.