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A photograph of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland

The Most Picturesque Places in…Scotland

So, what are the most photogenic and film-worthy historic sites in Scotland?

Image Credit: | Above: A photograph of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland

Every square inch of Scotland tells a fascinating story of its past. The nation of five and a half million that sits as the UK’s top hat is full to bursting with seriously spectacular sites spanning centuries.

While the Scottish Highlands is widely recognised as one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful natural environments in the world (as well as being one of the last remaining wilderness regions in western Europe), Scotland’s multi-faceted history is rich, often turbulent but all the time utterly fascinating.

Hundreds of incredible castles litter the landscape, fields of battles past are seemingly beyond every hill, crag and cairn and remnants of the ancient Romans remain as they stood two thousand years ago.

So, what are the most photogenic and film-worthy historic sites in Scotland?

Edinburgh Castle

A royal residence and a vital stronghold dominating the city’s skyline, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous – and photographed – fortresses in the world.

It can trace its roots back to the 2nd century and after almost 30 sieges in its 1,100-year history, it lays its claim as the most besieged location in the UK and one of the most attacked in the world.

As a royal residence, Edinburgh Castle was the birthplace of King James VI (James I of England from 1603) and Mary Queen of Scots in 1566, however, the castle’s main role was as a military fortification.

From the 13th century, it was a focal point of the endless conflicts between England and Scotland. Captured by Edward I of England in 1296, Edinburgh Castle was then the subject of a tug-of-war between the battling nations, swapping hands numerous times in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Amongst its many photogenic attractions is the Mons Meg, a giant cannon gifted to James II in 1457 and the Great Hall, built by James VI in 1511. Royal exhibitions include The Honours of Scotland jewels which, along with Scotland’s coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, can be found in the castle’s Crown Room. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the oldest building in the city, the 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel.

Skara Brae

Only discovered in 1850, Skara Brae, known as ‘Scotland’s Pompeii’, is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village predating Stonehenge and the Pyramids and was inhabited between 3200 and 2500 BC.

Characterised by sturdy stone slab structures, Skara Brae is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship. Excavations uncovered a series of organised houses, each containing what can only be described as ‘fitted furniture’ including a dresser, a central hearth, box beds and a tank which is believed to have be used to house fishing bait.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae built their community on a dichotomy of community life and family privacy, as portrayed by the combination of closely built, homogenous homes compared with the strong doors behind which they conducted their private lives. This sense of a structured community, coupled with the fact that no weapons have been found at the site, sets Skara Brae apart from other Neolithic communities and suggests that this community was both tight-knit and peaceful.

Skara Brae offers an insight into the history of one of Europe’s best representations of Neolithic life and is without question one of the country’s most photographed historical sites.

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian is a stunning 15th century chapel which has remained in private ownership since receiving its founding charter from Rome in 1446.

Over the next two centuries, Rosslyn Chapel would suffer first under the Reformation in 1592 when its altars were destroyed and again in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell’s men used it as stables whilst they sacked nearby Rosslyn Castle.

Another two centuries passed until Rosslyn was opened again for worship in 1861 and is perhaps most famous for the hundreds of individual stone carvings covering almost every surface of the chapel. Religious, masonic, rural, local, musical and downright odd, they are steeped in mystery and legend and have been the subject of speculation and conjecture including codes pointing to the location of the Holy Grail, connections to the mystical world of Freemasonry and of course. Thanks to The Da Vinci Code, a link to the Knights Templar.

No trip to Rosslyn Chapel is complete without seeing the Apprentice Pillar, supposedly carved by the apprentice of the master stonemason. The legend goes that upon seeing such a magnificent work of art, the mason refused to believe that his young charge could carve so intricately and he promptly killed the apprentice with a mallet blow to the head. As punishment, so says the legend, his head was carved into the opposite corner of the chapel so he was forced to stare at it forever.

Eilean Donan Castle

Scotland’s most photographed castle and one of five Scottish sites in a 2018 Instagram survey of the Top 15 Most Beautiful Locations in the UK, Eilean Donan Castle will be recognisable to most as the ‘go-to’ image for the advertisement of all things Scottish, including shortbread and whisky!

It is located on Eilean Donan, literally ‘Island of Donnán’ at the confluence of three sea lochs (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh) in the picturesque Western Highlands overlooking the Isle of Skye and was founded in the 13th century on the site, historians believe, of a seventh century church.

The first fortified castle on the site was built in the 13th century to protect the ‘lands of Kintail’ from the Vikings whose raids littered much of northern Scotland and the Western Isles but it was the Jacobite Risings of the 17th and 18th centuries that led to the castle’s ultimate destruction.

According to the log of English frigate HMS Worcester, the castle’s inhabitants were ‘an Irishman, a captain, a Spanish lieutenant, a serjeant, one Scotch rebel and 39 Spanish soldiers, 343 barrels of powder and 52 barrels of musquet (sic) shot’. It took the British two days and 27 barrels of gunpowder to demolish the castle.

For two centuries the castle lay abandoned until Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and dedicated the next two decades of his life to the restoration of one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles. Rebuilt according to the surviving ground plan of earlier phases, it was formally completed in 1932.

There is only one instruction when visiting Eilean Donan Castle – DO NOT forget your camera!

Stirling Castle

High above the River Forth dominating the meeting point between the Lowlands and the Highlands, Stirling Castle is an iconic royal palace and stronghold and a focal point for many of the most important events in Scotland’s history.

Over the centuries, Stirling Castle grew into a magnificent royal residence as well as a fearsome fortress and many kings and queens were crowned here including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543.

The castle was besieged eight times, not least during the Scottish Wars of Independence. When the English found it empty in 1296, they moved in and immediately understood what a vital strategic stronghold it was, only to be moved swiftly out again a year later when they were beaten by William Wallace at the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge. Over the next century or so it changed hands between the warring English and Scottish until it rested with the Stuart kings in the early 15th century.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, King James IV established Stirling Castle as a royal palace that sat comfortably with Europe’s finest but after the House of Stuart relocated to London in 1603, the castle’s use became almost exclusively military.

Historic Scotland has recreated the palace interiors as they may have looked when King James V’s grand scheme to turn the palace into a powerhouse of Renaissance creativity was complete and costumed characters mingle with visitors, bringing the royal Stuart Court to life.

Antonine Wall

Built, occupied and deserted in the space of just twenty years, the Antonine Wall is Scotland’s most impressive Roman military monument and marked the northwest frontier of their vast empire.

Named for and ordered by Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, the wall built from 142AD stretched approximately 38 miles (62 km) from modern-day Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde on the west coast to near Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth in the east. It was one of the mightiest symbols of Roman power and authority.

At the time of the wall’s construction, it was regarded as the most complex frontier ever constructed by the Roman army. There were also between 16 and 19 forts spanning its length to control north-south crossing. It was a forbidding and very visible barrier.

Despite such a spectacular and complex feat of engineering, the wall was abandoned eight years after it was finished as the Romans withdrew south to Hadrian’s Wall.

There are several visible and immensely photogenic forts along the wall’s length including Bar Hill Fort, Croy Hill and the Bearsden Bath House.

Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral is one of the nation’s finest examples of Scottish Gothic architecture. It gained cathedral status as it served as the seat of the Bishop (later, Archbishop) of Glasgow but that title is now historic and honorific since it hasn’t been a bishopric since 1690.

St Mungo was supposed to have built a church there in the 7th century but very little is known about any buildings that may or may not have been erected at that time although his tomb is in the Lower Church of the cathedral. Fast-forward to the 12th century and the first stone was consecrated in or around 1136 in the presence of King David I. It was destroyed by fire and replaced in 1197 with additions and building work carrying on for over 400 years.

Interestingly it is the only medieval cathedral on Scotland’s mainland to have survived the Reformation not unroofed (literally, the roofs were removed meaning they fell to ruin much faster).

Photographers flock from miles around to capture it’s stunning interior and the view towards the east window is one of the most impressive ecclesiastical images in all of Scotland.