It’s that time of year when the kids can feel a bit bored and you may want to encourage them to get out of the house. Well, this is the perfect time to make use of your Historic Scotland membership! There are lots of superb historical sites open and they are well worth spending time exploring.
We spend a lot of time making the most of our Historic Scotland family membership each year. But where are the best places to visit? We’ve put together a guide to our most loved places and spoiler alert – it isn’t Edinburgh Castle!
Just a train ride from Edinburgh away
Spectacular Jousting at Linlithgow Palace
Linlithgow Palace recently reopened after it had access restrictions in place for a few years. We’re so glad to see it re-opened as it’s always been a favourite of ours to visit.
This is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots and her father James V. So it really was used as a royal palace! Linlithgow Palace has several beautiful features, including the 3-tier fountain with a variety of carvings. Try and spot how many mythical creatures you see!
Then there is Queen Margaret’s bower, where the queen is said to have stood looking for King James IV of Scotland’s return from battle. Unfortunately, he never returned as he was slain in the battle of Flodden. The bower is a great place to enjoy the view over Linlithgow loch.
It’s an excellent place for children as there are so many stairs, passageways and rooms to explore in the complex. We also visit every year for the Spectacular Jousting held out on the Peel. A fantastic day out for the family and all included in your Historic Scotland membership.
Can you hear the sound of coconuts?
Exploring Doune Castle
Most people know Doune Castle for its role in various films and television programmes. My favourite will always be Monty Python’s Holy Grail! However, it was used more recently in Outlander and Game of Thrones. Coconuts to act out THE scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail are still on display in the shop and you can ask to use them. Plus there’s the free audio guide that feature both the history of the castle and a separate Outlander audio trail.
The castle was owned by the Duke of Albany (younger brother to Robert III) who was the Governor of Scotland (whilst the future king James I was held captive in England). So he has the title of ‘Scotland’s uncrowned king’.
Doune also has an amazing location on the River Teith, where there are plenty of walks alongside the river. We like to spend a couple of hours exploring the castle and then walk along the Teith for a picnic and paddle (also good to swim in during the summer!).
Setting sail on the Firth of Forth
A sunny day out at Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle has a very strange shape, almost ship like. You will see it, if you climb to the top of the walls of the castle. It also has a huge variety of places to explore. From the keep, which used to hold noble prisoners, the pit prison for lower class people, the incredibly thick walls that kept out invaders, and the sea. Plus the residence of the Crichtons, the wealthy family who originally built and looked after the castle.
There are so many places to explore throughout the castle. Our favourite places to visit are definitely the top of the keep (spot all the Forth bridges!), the pier where ammunition was brought ashore when the castle was a garrison and the great hall.
Holding the key to Scotland
All guns ahead at Stirling Castle
Almost everyone who visits Scotland has Edinburgh Castle on their list. However, we think the main castle everyone should visit is Stirling Castle.
In Stirling you will really get the sense of the age and defensive nature of the castle. The roads outside are cobbled and when you walk or drive up to the car park you will be impressed by the vast building in front of you.
Inside the castle are a huge number of places to explore. Our favourites are the Queen Anne Garden and the Douglas Garden to play with friends and have a picnic. The palace rooms themselves are another highlight, especially as there are always amazing actors who will tell you interesting facts about the palace from their time. We’ve even been shown how to sword fight! We’ve also not found a question yet that they can’t answer, everyone we’ve chatted to has been incredibly knowledgable.
Then there is the wall walk from the Douglas Garden to the cannons of the Grand Battery and the wall walk down to the lower part of the castle. Both feature incredible views! There are also the vaults below the palace that have fun, child-friendly activities. From dressing up to learning how colours were made in the past. It’s definitely a good stop to keep the kids happy for a while.
And there is so much more to see than I’ve listed here, it certainly takes a whole day to explore it properly. I also recommend using your Historic Scotland membership discount at the Unicorn Café, they have excellent cake!
A picturesque abbey with stunning beaches
MacLean’s Cross and Iona Abbey
Standing prominently on the Isle of Iona is Iona Abbey. Founded by St Columba it is still a place of religious significance today. Although we have no religion ourselves, it was still an incredibly interesting place to visit. You can still see the carvings and ancient crosses today, as well as various important areas that would have been there in St Columba’s time.
Don’t visit the island just for the day, there is a lot more to see. Including St Columba’s Bay where he has said to have first come ashore to the island, a nearby marble quarry (you’ll find plenty washed up on St Columba’s bay) and plenty of beautiful beaches to enjoy. I suggest at least 1-2 nights to explore the island thoroughly.
Rock Art to take you back in time
Rock Art at Kilmartin Glen
This one is a little different, it’s not a big castle, palace or even an abbey. Instead you can find rocks carved during prehistoric times at Kilmartin Glen. The art is known as cup and ring markings, as they are mostly concentric rings and dips in the rocks for cups. People have spent a long time examining the art and it’s guessed that quartz was used to create it. It’s amazing that this art still survives today, although we don’t understand the significance of it. Most of what has been proposed is theory.
There are various sites with rock art in Kilmartin, so use the Historic Environment Scotland website to work out which ones are best to visit. And don’t miss Dunadd fort either, the ancient seat of the kingdom of Dalriada.
Crossing castle towers at midnight
Huntingtower Castle with the leap between the towers at the centre
Just outside Perth is the castle of Huntingtower. It’s only a small castle and doesn’t take too long to visit. But it’s a favourite of ours because of the story of the leaping lady. The story goes that the young woman who lived here was visiting her fiancé during the night in one tower. The woman’s mother came to check on her daughter as she suspected she might be acting inappropriately. So the young woman had to leap over the gap between the two towers to get safely back to her room without her mother noticing. We’ve all looked at the gap she had to leap, and although it is definitely possible to do, it could have ended quite badly!
There is also a lovely grassy picnic area outside which is perfect for kids to run about whilst you have lunch.
Stones as old as time
A winter trip to Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
On the Isle of Lewis you will find the impressive Calanais Standing Stones. This is one of Scotland’s best preserved Neolithic monuments, with the stone monoliths forming a cross like shape. Calanais is older than Stonehenge, although it’s still unknown what it’s exact ceremonial purpose is.
When we visited the children were quite young and despite their age they were still intrigued by the massive standing stones. It’s amazing what people were capable of the past! The exhibition was also very insightful, showing what was found in the small chambered tomb within the standing stones.
We hope you enjoyed our top tips for Historic Scotland days out this summer. Our Membership takes us across the country with many exciting stories to discover at abbeys, castles and standing stones. You can find out more about Membership at members.historic-scotland.gov.uk/
About the Author
Jenny Eaves runs the family travel blog Monkey and Mouse. They share inspiration for great days out in both the UK and abroad.