The very best locations to dive into Scottish historical past (and meet the ancestors)

There’s extra to Scotland’s lengthy and storied historical past than Braveheart. Certainly, Scotland’s favourite film epic was 5% actual occasions and 95% nationwide pleasure. However discovering the actual historical past of Scotland is simple on this land of lochs and legends.

It’s value making a distinction between locations that had been real-life places for historical past, and locations the place historical past nonetheless feels alive. Whereas tens of millions of tourists make a beeline for Edinburgh Citadel, a extra vivid evocation of Scotland’s previous may be discovered at dozens of much less busy historic websites throughout the nation. 

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From Orkney and Shetland to the rain-lashed glens of the central Highlands, right here’s our decide of the perfect locations to commune with Scottish historical past – and really feel just a little of that historical past seep again into the modern-day. You would possibly even stroll within the footsteps of your personal Scottish ancestors. 

Jarlshof in Shetland is sort of a cutaway view of greater than 4 millennia of Scottish historical past © Getty Photos / imageBROKER RF

See a snapshot of 4000 years of historical past at Jarlshof 

Historic villages pop up all around the Scottish Islands, however Jarlshof in Shetland is one thing particular. Neolithic individuals lived right here. Bronze Age individuals lived right here. Iron Age individuals lived right here. Pictish individuals lived right here. Hell, even Vikings lived right here. This sprawl of turf-topped Iron-Age wheelhouses, longhouse ruins and medieval partitions close to Sumburgh airport is sort of a cutaway view of greater than 4 millennia of Scottish historical past. 

The lonely setting, tucked onto a grassy spit past Shetland’s fundamental airstrip, solely provides to the magic of a web site that features historic dwellings, a ruined broch (drystone tower), the partitions of Viking longhouses and the fortified Sixteenth-century house of Robert Stewart, the primary Earl of Orkney. Flights into Sumburgh are rare, so there’s little aside from birdsong and sea spray to disturb the sense of swirling historical past. 

A scenic view of Cairngorms National Park (Scottish Gaelic Pàirc Nàiseanta a' Mhonaidh Ruaidh) is a national park in north east Scotland.
To know the robust lives crofters had been plucked from through the Highland Clearances, keep in a single a crofter’s school in Cairngorms Nationwide Park © Ivan / Getty Photos

Get nearer to the Clearances in Bettyhill and the Japanese Highlands 

Individuals of Scottish descent from Arizona to New Zealand can hint the second their households had been wrenched from the bosom of Scotland to the Highland Clearances, which noticed greater than 70,000 highlanders and islanders forcibly relocated from their properties between 1750 and 1860. After greater than a century of cultural cleaning by such villains of historical past as Patrick Sellar and James Loch, the Crofters’ Holdings Act of 1886 lastly put an finish to this shameful marketing campaign of depopulation, however the scars of this time forged an extended shadow. 

Getting nearer to the battle of these affected by the Clearances means listening to the tales of these affected, and people tales are powerfully instructed on the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill. Housed in a lonely, grave-circled chapel, the museum makes use of historic relics and footage created by native schoolchildren to ship private experiences of the Clearances. 

To know the robust lives that crofters had been plucked from, you’ll want to remain in a crofter’s cottage – ideally, an unrestored one. Allt Scheicheachan in Cairngorms Nationwide Park matches the invoice completely; there’s an open hearth and area for a sleeping bag however not a lot else, and also you’ll should hike in your personal firewood throughout the glens. Or, for the courageous, there’s distant Ben Alder Cottage, set in desolate nation on the shores of Loch Ericht and apparently haunted by the ghosts of its former occupants. 

Really feel the shifting sands of time at Skara Brae 

Of all the traditional villages uncovered in Scotland, Skara Brae in all probability has essentially the most evocative discovery story. This Neolithic village was buried by sand after its inhabitants left all of a sudden in round 2500 BCE, forsaking a few of their most treasured belongings. The village lay hidden beneath the sands till 1850, when an Atlantic storm peeled again its lid of machair to disclose an immaculate assortment of stone-walled properties, full with indoor latrines, beds, cooking hearths and family possessions. 

Within reach of the looming mass of Skaill Home, Skara Brae spills out of the grass onto a windswept seashore on Mainland, the most important island within the Orkney group. The voices of its vanished inhabitants appear to echo within the swish of the ocean and the mournful name of gulls. You possibly can ponder the life of those urbane early Scots on the clifftop stroll to the close by Broch of Borwick, a time-tumbled Iron Age tower perched like a lookout above the Atlantic breakers. 

Prime your self for the journey by studying Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe, a hypothetical story of the abandonment of Skara Brae.  

Meet Sir Walter Scott in Melrose 

It needs to be acknowledged that many figures from Scottish historical past turned much more heroic because of the artistic gildings of Sir Walter Scott, novelist, poet, playwright and historian. The good narrator of Scotland’s nationwide story penned lots of his masterworks at Abbotsford, a castle-like nation property on the banks of the River Tweed exterior Melrose. 

In actual fact, the writer was virtually ruined by his elaborate and lavish house. When his publishers went bust in 1825, Scott was compelled to place up Abbotsford as collateral for his collectors, spending his twilight years writing his means out of debt. Close by are the sandstone ruins of Melrose Abbey, apparently the ultimate resting place of the center of Robert the Bruce.  

For extra Scott nostalgia, head to Smailholm Tower, a lonely tower-house on the property the place Scott was despatched to convalesce from polio as a baby, staying along with his storytelling grandmother. You will get even nearer to Scott at his mausoleum in romantically ruined Dryburgh Abbey, near the attractive lookout generally known as Scott’s View, the place the author who cast the Scottish narrative got here to gaze out over the Tweed.

Stroll with Neolithic ghosts within the tombs of Orkney 

You possibly can hardly stroll 100 yards in Orkney with out stumbling throughout one other historic tomb. However some tombs include extra mysteries than others. You’ll enter the Tomb of the Eagles at Isbister on South Ronaldsay in your again, mendacity inclined on a wheeled trolley like an auto-mechanic tomb raider. The bones of some 340 individuals had been discovered buried on this Neolithic-era chambered tomb, alongside the stays of 14 white-tailed eagles.  

Again on Mainland, spectacular Maeshowe is noteworthy not just for its place in Stone Age historical past, however for the tomb raiders who got here after. Assembled from sandstone blocks almost 5000 years in the past, this historic burial web site was raided by treasure-seeking Vikings within the twelfth century in a scene worthy of Conan the Barbarian. 

These interlopers left their mark within the type of rune graffiti – together with a timeless boast about an X-rated liaison between Thorni and Helgi – alongside engravings of dragons and knotted serpents. Across the winter solstice, the setting solar shafts into the primary chamber in spooky alignment, including an additional sparkle of magic.

Paint an image of the Picts in Angus 

The woad-wearing Picts are the Scots everybody likes to think about – fearless and bravehearted and steeped in Celtic mythology. These had been the individuals who drove again the Romans and cast Scotland’s indomitable fame. The county of Angus on the coast close to Dundee is without doubt one of the greatest locations to dip into Pictish historical past, with a string of historic symbol-carved stones recalling the Picts’ conversion from paganism to Christianity. 

Important stops on the Pictish Trail embody St Vigeans Museum close to Arbroath, with a set of intricately carved Celtic crosses and image stones, and the village of Forfar, with one other nice carved stone assortment on the Meffan Museum. When you’re right here, stroll throughout the fields to view St Orland’s Stone, a Pictish cross-slab nonetheless standing in its unique location, surrounded by empty countryside. 

Commune with Iron Age individuals at Mousa Broch 

Of all the traditional kinds of constructing present in Scotland, the broch is maybe essentially the most spectacular. These towering, pot-shaped towers had been stacked up from dry stones by the Iron Age inhabitants of the highlands and islands. Some stand virtually intact right this moment, after greater than two millennia of battering from the Scottish climate – a testomony to the ingenuity of the individuals who constructed them.  

The 2000-year-old broch at Mousa in Shetland is just some stones away from being show-home good. Teams of Iron Age households as soon as lived side-by-side within the chimney-like inside, and contained in the hole partitions are winding passageways granting entry to the higher ranges. It’s a splendidly atmospheric web site that was talked about in two Norse sagas. The setting – on an uninhabited island that doubles as a reserve for storm petrels and different seabirds – solely provides to the fairytale.  

Tourist in front of Rosslyn chapel, one of most popular tourist attraction in Scotland
Rosslyn Chapel encompasses a spectacular assortment of carved masonry and occult symbology © Shutterstock / Ivica Drusany

Discover medieval conspiracies theories at Rosslyn Chapel

There’s area on the record for one cease on the coach-tour circuit. Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, propelled to international fame by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, options such a spectacular assortment of carved masonry and occult symbology that you simply gained’t thoughts sharing it with a crowd. 

Erected in 1446 by Sir William St Clair, this stone chapel is embellished with every little thing from vines and angels to depictions of the pagan Inexperienced Man, symbols of Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, and carvings of American crops – created centuries earlier than the invention of America. 

Rival legends declare that the vaults beneath the chapel – sealed in 1690 and by no means reopened – include the Holy Grail, the top of John the Baptist, or the precise physique of Christ. Then again, they could simply include some skeletal Scottish monks, nevertheless it’s good to think about… From Rosslyn Chapel, you’ll be able to stroll by means of the woods to Rosslyn Citadel, the partly ruined seat of the St Clair clan.