Scotland is a land of history and great beauty. Castles, monuments, and tales of lords and kings permeate the landscape and drift in the air. This is a country where history is very visible, but it’s also a modern land that looks to the future and embraces progress.
The meeting place of past and present can be seen most clearly in the small towns that litter the land here. New golf courses roll out behind historic houses and castles, luxury retreats light up the remotest areas, and outdoor pursuits, like fishing, hiking, and shooting, are played out amid hills and lochs and alongside seafood restaurants. All of Scottish life can be seen in the country’s small towns. To experience the best in authentic Scottish life, visit one of the unique small towns in Scotland.
The small island of Cumbrae, off the Ayrshire coast, is one of the lesser visited Scottish islands, though one of the most accessible. It’s so small that its capital, Millport, is a simple small town, and not a city like most capitals. But what Millport lacks in size, it makes up for in interesting things to see and do. Millport might not be a city, but it does have a cathedral, and in true Cumbrae style this is the smallest cathedral in Britain. It was built in 1851 in a Gothic style, as was another island attraction, Garrison House. This building is now the Museum of the Cumbraes, dedicated to the history of Millport, Cumbrae, and the surrounding islands and area.
About a mile along the coast from the town center is FSC Millport, a marine research center. Although the research center itself is only open to visitors for educational purposes, there is a maritime museum, the Robertson Museum, and Aquarium. The museum and aquarium is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is completely accessible for anyone with mobility issues. As well as being educational, the aquarium is a great place to visit for a slow stroll looking at a wide variety of sea life.
Situated on the south Ayrshire coast, Troon looks out to sea, over the waves, and as far as the Isle of Arran. The long, flat sandy beach here makes the town a favorite with day-trippers from other parts of Scotland, and the lush green golf courses bring in tourists from further afield. For those visitors with limited mobility, the flat sands and the long flat promenade are popular and offer a lovely place to stroll and take in the views. There’s a really acute sense of the sea here and the pretty harbor also contains the town’s fish market, so you can actually see the produce being brought in from the ocean and sold directly from there.
Where To Eat And Stay
The Old Loans Inn is a hotel, restaurant, and bar that sits just outside of Troon in a nearby village called Loans. A former coaching inn, this is a traditional old watering hole with rooms that’s been refurbished to a high standard and with a restaurant that local people visit for Sunday lunch and dinner. The locals also choose to drink in the bar in the evenings as there’s an easy going, welcoming atmosphere.
Nestled in a curl of sand, in the Kingdom of Fife, Elie is a small town with a big history. This traditional coastal town has a pretty harbor that was built in the 16th century. Along the stunning rocky coast, not far from this harbor, Lady’s Tower gazes out to sea. This was Lady Anstruther’s summer house, though all that remains now is an atmospheric ruin. When you’ve walked the rugged coastline, visit The Bowhouse for a chance to meet and buy from the local food producers, who gather in this space for the food market that’s held here. You can also buy local produce from Balgove Larder, a large farm shop in Elie.
Where To Stay
The Ship Inn has just four rooms, but each one is idyllic. The views out over the bay from your window are something else, and you’ll feel like you really are connected to the ocean. This feeling of oceanside living continues in the restaurant, the Ship’s Cabin, which has a picture window looking out into the most beautiful sunsets while you dine.
The main town on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory is the cultural hub of the island. This is a great place for viewing sea life in its natural habitat and boat trips take off around the island’s shores at regular intervals to spot Minke whales, basking sharks, and puffins. There are many walks through stunning scenery and there’s a pretty little walk that starts in the town center and takes you along a footpath to Aros Park. The town itself was created in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, after buying the land from the Duke of Argyll, presumably to house its workers. The town is nestled in an ancient landscape that includes standing stones, a medieval chapel, and rugged scenery.
Stop off at Glengorm Café for a coffee and snack. The café uses local produce for its menu and the coffee is especially good. This traditional country café has limited seating inside, but if it’s a nice day there’s plenty of outdoor seating and it’s a lovely spot for coffee and cake.
This pretty little fishing town on the shores of the Isle of Bute has history and heritage, wilderness and clear waters, and a peace and tranquillity to calm any soul. The Isle of Bute discovery center is a 1920s winter garden that now houses a cinema and other attractions in Rothesay, bringing a taste of the mainland to the island. Going further back in history, Rothesay Castle was built in the 13th century and though much of it is now a ruin, the great hall, restored by the Marquis of Bute in 1900, is in exceptionally good condition for such an old building.
The most accessible beach on the island is just north of Rothesay town and is called Ettrick Bay. Much of the island’s coastline is rocky, but at Ettrick Bay, you’re treated to soft sands and clear waters for paddling and swimming. Car parking and toilets are to be found at the beach. Take a picnic or enjoy Ettrick Bay Tea Room and relax over lunch with uninterrupted views of the sea.
6. St Andrews
Best known for its many beautiful golf courses and its famous university, the oldest in Scotland, St Andrews is a historic town in Fife. The ruins of the cathedral and castle are dramatic and atmospheric and you can get a good sense of how imposing they must have looked to incoming ships rolling along on the sea. If you fancy a walk and have good fitness levels, the Fife Pilgrim Way is a 64-mile trek along the coast that ends in the town of St Andrews, though there are many gentler walks in the area you can enjoy at a more leisurely pace. St Andrews is certainly a golfer’s paradise, but the town has a lot more to offer than the miles of golf courses it’s famous for.
Where To Eat
The Seafood Ristorante has the most incredible views out to sea and is located behind the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews on a headland of rock looking out over the ocean. For a seafood restaurant, there couldn’t be a better location, as it perfectly ties the sea life in the waters below with the amazing dishes on your plate. You’ll have no doubt how fresh the catch is.
Not far from the city of Edinburgh, around 45 minutes drive, Peebles makes the perfect day trip if you’re already visiting the capital. This is a pretty little town in the Scottish borders, with its own arts festival and a museum and gallery that looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale. There are some stunning walks in this area and it’s a great place to try out glamping, as you can stay close to nature while enjoying a certain level of luxury. Peebles is an ancient town, realized before the reign of King David, which began in 1124, meaning there are plenty of historical monuments, artifacts, and evidence of an older way of life here.
Although Scotland is usually known for its whisky production, not far from Peebles, in Innerleithen, you can visit the Traquair House Brewery. Traquair House is an attraction in itself, and you can take a tour of this historic house, including the bed that Mary Queen of Scots reportedly once slept in. But in the wing of the house that lies directly under the chapel, you’ll discover this quirky old brewery. This microbrewery was originally built to supply the house with beer, though today it produces beer that is exported all over the world.
There are a number of beautiful and quaint small towns in Scotland to explore: