Scotland certainly has a lot of wonderful landmarks, attractions and historical sights to explore. This is a country of history, stories, traditions and secrets, and it’s no wonder that there are also a lot of interesting sites beyond the famous Edinburgh Castle that may not immediately spring to mind. Explore the quirky ones, the out of the ordinary ones, the unusual ones, and even the ones with an unexpected story to tell.
Here are just a few suggestions on heritage attractions with a unique twist to charm, intrigue and entertain you. They’ll have you exploring all the nooks and crannies of Scotland that you didn’t even know existed. Make sure you add these to your travel list; go forth and start exploring!
STAR-SHAPED WALL AT CORGARFF CASTLE
Standing in the wild at the head of Strathdon on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, this very striking, lonely tower house looks quite ordinary from a distance, but a closer look reveals its unusual character – the rare star-shaped encircling wall.
Corgarff Castle is thought to have been built in about 1550’s and was once a noble residence of the high-status Forbes family. The surrounding wall would have been much simpler and probably rectangular in plan, but the structure you see today owes much to the events following the 1745 uprising and the unsuccessful Battle of Culloden in 1746. In an effort to pacify the Highlands, the government converted this stronghold to become a Redcoat garrison fortress and stationed its troops here for tracking down Jacobite sympathisers. The most obvious feature of that conversion is the distinctive star-shaped perimeter wall that surrounds the castle, giving it its unique appearance. Equipped with musket loops, the peculiar shape was meant to provide lines of fires so that there could be no place an enemy could approach. It’s believed that the wall would never have withstood an artillery attack – it simply isn’t strong enough, but it would have deterred a band of armed Highlanders from raiding the castle.
The castle’s last military use was to control the smuggling of illicit whisky between 1827 and 1831. Interestingly, Corgarff itself briefly housed a (legal) distillery in the 1820s. A small whisky still from the period is displayed in one of the two pavilions added to the castle by the army.
THE FRUIT-TOPPED PINEAPPLE HOUSE
Fantastically fruity and eccentric to the core, it should come as no surprise that The Pineapple was crowned as Scotland’s most bizarre building.
Standing a mile north of the village of Airth in Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire, this elaborate summerhouse of two storeys was built for the 4th Earl of Dunmore in 1761 as an epic birthday gift for his wife. It probably began as a pavilion of one storey, and grew its fruity dome after 1777, when Lord Dunmore returned from serving as Governor of Virginia. A symbol of hospitality, wealth and power back in the day, the pineapple took on a life of its own, appearing in art and architectural motifs. In the Caribbean, sailors would put pineapples on the gatehouse to announce their return home. Lord Dunmore, who was fond of a joke, announced his homecoming more prominently. At this time, pineapples were among Scotland’s most exotic foods.
Carved to perfection, the masonry work is as impressive as the pineapple itself. It presides over an immense walled garden where you can take a walk through the orchard of crab-apple trees or enjoy a peaceful stroll around the pond and through the surrounding woodland. The grounds are also an oasis for wildlife, where you may catch a glimpse of the rare great crested newt as well as palmate newts and common frogs.
The most impressive architectural rendering of this fruit, the Dunmore Pineapple is available to rent as a holiday home.
COLOURFUL URBAN ART AT KELBURN CASTLE
The current structure, dating from the 13th century and still lived in by the present earl of Glasgow and his family, received a lick of paintwork like no other back around 2007 — a head to toe graffiti extravaganza! This masterpiece was created at the request of Lord Glasgow, who brought together four of the world’s leading graffiti artists from Brazil to work alongside Scottish talent to create a unique burst of colour and transform the rendered exterior walls and turrets of the south side of the castle into a gigantic work of art. The hypnotic mural depicting interwoven cartoons blends Scottish architecture with vibrant urban art, creating an eccentric and delightful visual landscape. Quite unusual, isn’t it? It’s been named as one of the best examples of urban art in the world.
The graffiti is just one of the castle’s unique draws. The inside of Kelburn Castle is in stark contrast to its exterior – lush and sophisticated – and in its grounds you’ll find a secret forest with a Chinese garden, waterfalls and a gingerbread house – perfect for an amazing day out. The Kelburn Glen with its waterfalls and deep gorges is regarded as one of Scotland’s most beautiful woodlands and leads to spectacular views of the islands of the Firth of Clyde.
UNDERWATER SECRETS OF SCAPA FLOW
If abandoned places already have an eerie vibe to them, then underwater abandoned places are especially mysterious. The wrecks of Scapa Flow are phenomenal, their size awesome and history quite incredible. Many people who will never even get their feet wet are fascinated with what lies beneath the surface.
Nestled in the heart of the captivating Orkney Islands, Scapa Flow is a body of water about 120 square miles in area with an average depth of 30 to 40 metres. The area is teeming with a history that spans centuries and encompasses both grievous losses and magnificent victories.
In the early 1800s, it was used as a deep-water anchorage for trading ships waiting to cross the North Sea to Baltic ports during the Napoleonic wars, and later in the 20th century to defend against Germany during World Wars I and II. Today, Scapa Flow is one of the world’s best kept secrets when it comes to wreck diving sites, and together with the mainland and surrounding islands of Burray and Hoy, it makes this one of the largest sheltered anchorages in the world and a graveyard of sunken ships.
You’ll find an astonishing diversity of wrecks buried beneath the waters of Scapa Flow, along with fascinating stories behind them – from vast battleships, to smaller blockships dotted along the rugged coastline, to seven warships of the German High Seas Fleet. The murky waters are also home to the protected war graves of HMS Royal Oak, which sank in World War II after being torpedoed by U-47, and HMS Vanguard, which perished after suffering an explosion onboard.
While some wrecks offer a stimulating challenge for technical divers, others give a fantastic introduction to wreck diving. One thing is sure though: each wreck provides an emotive insight into a bygone era, compelling divers to return to Orkney time and time again.
KINNAIRD HEAD CASTLE-TURNED-LIGHTHOUSE
Have you ever heard of a full-size lighthouse built right through the middle of a 16th century castle? No? Well, Kinnaird Head Castle Lighthousein Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire is a fascinating example of one of Scotland’s most unique structures: a castle-turned-lighthouse where you can discover its story of 450 years of continual reinvention and survival.
Originally built for the Fraser family in the 1500s, falling out of fashion, the castle was sold to the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1787 to be converted into a mainland lighthouse. The lighthouse was constructed by the engineer Thomas Smith and started off life as a giant lamp positioned on the roof of the castle.
When structural problems began to appear, Robert Stevenson engineered a foundation, walls and a spiral staircase through the heart of the castle, completing construction in 1824. He even preserved the original castle structure! The original lighthouse was later superseded by an automatic light which operates beside the original structure and is now open to the public as part of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. It is still in perfect working order and is known to light the coast on very special occasions.
Come and see the lighthouse first hand to learn how lighthouse keepers lived and enjoy their beautifully preserved keeper’s quarters inside. It’s based in the bustling fishing port of Fraserburgh on the north east corner of Aberdeenshire.
ANNIE MACLEOD EXPERIENCE RIDE AT NEW LANARK
If you’re looking for that extra something, go on what is often described as the most spellbinding ghost train in Scotland – the Annie McLeod Experience ride at New Lanark. That is, of course, if you dare…
New Lanark is a remarkable place. It’s an exceptional example of a purpose-built 18th century cotton spinning mill village that has been beautifully restored as a living community. Today it is one of Scotland’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Renowned as a beauty spot, it’s set in a sublime Scottish landscape alongside the picturesque River Clyde and surrounded by native woodlands – all less than one hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The village was founded in 1785 in a convenient location where the mills could take advantage of the tremendous power of the nearby fast-flowing river. At the turn of the 19th century the mill buildings formed one of the largest industrial groups in the world. Over 2,000 people lived or worked in the village. The mills were operational for nearly 200 years, until their closure in 1986. This perhaps helps to explain why the rows of perfectly symmetrical buildings stand seemingly untouched.
Visit New Lanark and travel back in time on the Annie McLeod Experience ride which features the ghost of mill girl Annie who magically appears and reveals the amazing story of her life and teaches you what life was like in the 1820’s.
BATTLE REENACTMENT AT THE BANNOCKBURN VISITOR CENTRE
In June 1314 the history of Scotland as a nation changed forever. What if you could take your place on the very same battlefield? Come along to stand face-to-face with fearless warriors and participate in an interactive battle game to try out your own battle tactics and skills to see how the battle would end if you were in charge.
The Battle of Bannockburn is an immersive experience designed to bring Scottish history to life. Harnessing state-of-the-art 3D technology, you can experience medieval combat like never before to learn about this crucial event in Scottish history.
In case you’re not overly familiar with it, the famous Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 was one of the most decisive clashes in the First War of Scottish Independence. Robert the Bruce led Scottish forces to battle against the English at Bannockburn almost 700 years ago. Although vastly outnumbered, Bruce’s men drove King Edward II’s army homewards after two days of fierce and brutal combat in the landscape surrounding Stirling Castle. The Battle established Robert the Bruce as a tour de force as he had defeated what was regarded as the finest army in the medieval world.
Located near the historic city of Stirling, the battleground still evokes the landscape that would have been seen by medieval soldiers in 1314 when the area was a royal hunting park.
BALMORAL CAIRNS, SCOTLAND’S OWN ‘PYRAMIDS’
Chances are you’ve heard about Balmoral Castle and know that the Royal Family own it and visit it regularly for holiday. What’s perhaps not so well known is that there is an interesting woodland trail round the grounds of the estate that is home to Scotland’s very own ‘pyramid’.
Queen Victoria had a passion for building cairns (mounds of rough stone built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline) all over the Balmoral Estate in Royal Deeside. While it may seem that the cairns are just a tower of stones, they also have meaning and purpose. This walk takes you past most of the impressive cairns that she had erected in honour of her family. The cairns mainly commemorate the marriages of Victoria’s children, but one of them – the most impressive grey stone pyramid-shaped cairn – is dedicated to the memory of her beloved husband Prince Albert, who died in 1861 at the age of 42. This is the largest of the 11 mount cairns and can be seen quite clearly from miles around; it boasts outstanding views over Deeside and the castle itself. There is one further cairn that was constructed to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 – 60 stones, one for each year of Her Majesty’s reign.
Queen Victoria lovingly described Balmoral as her ‘dear paradise in the Highlands’ and it remains a private home of the Royal Family. When not in residence, you can enjoy exhibitions in the castle ballroom, the largest room in the castle, and wander through the charming gardens and grounds.
For such a tiny country, Scotland really packs a whole lot of things to see and do, from iconic attractions to hidden gems and those a little more unexpected. Have we missed your favourite unusual heritage attraction with a twist? Tell us about it in the comments below or hop over to our iKnow Scotland Community to share your tips and pick up a couple more for your next break or day out in Scotland.