Scotland’s largest city and the UK’s third largest (once known as ‘the second city of the empire’), Glasgow has many fine art galleries and museums but one of the most popular is undoubtedly Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum which houses one of Europe’s great art collections. It is also one of the top three free-to-enter visitor attractions in Scotland and one of the most visited museums in the United Kingdom outside of London. It could be considered to be the Scottish Smithsonian.
First opened in 1901 and reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in July 2006 after a three-year closure for major renovations, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was an immediate success with the public with 2.23 million visitors to this impressive red sandstone building in the following year.
With everything from art to animals, in over 8000 exhibits in 22 state of the art galleries, its natural history displays, its cultural and historically important artefacts (Kelvingrove has one of the top three collections of arms and armour in the world) and its collections of art representing many different schools, Kelvingrove contains an impressive range of internationally significant displays.
The museum houses Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross and there are separate galleries devoted to Dutch artists including work by Rembrandt; French artistes with Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and one of the few female impressionists Mary Cassatt. The Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists have their own galleries and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Glasgow Style gallery includes many important works. There are also a number of temporary displays and exhibits which change over time so you never really know what you’re going to see on your next visit.
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum also has its own beehive. Always a popular exhibit, the Kelvingrove beehive allows you to look deep inside the hive and see its structure in detail and watch the bees being, well, busy little bees!
There are persistent rumours that the museum is home to Scotland’s only fossilised Haggis. That may simply be a folk myth but it’s worth keeping your eyes open just in case it’s lurking somewhere amongst the other exhibits. And don’t just wander around a bit and look at the exhibits, take some time to examine the building itself. It’s a magnificent edifice in its own right and well worth the reported £28m it cost for the renovations.
The proud possessor of a Gold Award from Visit Scotland’s Green Tourism scheme Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is located on Argyle Street, in Kelvingrove Park in the West End of the city near the main campus of the University of Glasgow. The park site also includes Kelvingrove Skatepark.
The museum is easy to get to and is fully accessible to the disabled – even to the extent of providing wheelchairs for visitors to use (subject to availability). There is a Glasgow museums gift shop, a restaurant and a cafe (feel free to bring your own sandwiches) and guide dogs are welcome. Admission is free (donations are appreciated).
PS: Don’t forget to say ‘hello’ to Sir Roger as you pass through the West Court!
Amongst the many sights and experiences Edinburgh has to offer its visitors Edinburgh Castle is surely the crowning glory. This magnificent edifice perches nearly 300 feet above the city on the ancient volcanic plug of Castle Rock, an extinct volcano which dominates Scotland’s capital and makes the castle visible for many miles away.
Because of its strategic position Castle Rock has been occupied since 900bc and, when the Romans first came this way in about AD80, they found that the local Votadini people had the well-established fort of ‘Din Eidyn’ looking balefully down at them – and the Romans wisely left it alone!
Since then the castle has been rebuilt, expanded, fortified and altered. It has been bombarded, besieged, captured and recaptured (it is the most besieged castle in Britain). It has been a fortress, a barracks, a prison, a hospital, a royal residence, a museum and a treasury.
The Crown Jewels of Scotland, known as ‘The Honours of Scotland’ (the oldest crown jewels in the UK) are housed in the castle and are made from gold that was mined in Scotland. The Stone of Destiny, sitting upon which monarchs of both Scotland and England have been crowned for centuries is also there.
Within its walls is the oldest building in Edinburgh – St Margaret’s Chapel – which still hosts weddings and christenings to this day. Every day at one o’clock precisely (excepting Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day) a cannon is fired from the Mills Mount Battery – originally a time signal for ships in the River Forth but nowadays just one of the many traditions associated with the castle.
Still a military garrison, Edinburgh Castle is now a world-famous visitor attraction and an iconic part of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site. It houses Scotland’s National War Museum and, of course, it is host to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, that magnificent spectacle of military skill which takes place every August on the castle Esplanade. The first tattoo took place in 1949 and attracted about 100,000 spectators in total. The last time the tattoo was held was 2019 (the 2020 event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic) when 220,000 people watched the various live events and many, many more watched it on television. The 2021 event is expected to happen as normal.
Edinburgh Castle is a large and complex place and it houses so much of interest: the Lang Stairs, The Portcullis Gate, The Half Moon Battery, The Argyll Battery, The Mills Mount Battery, the huge cannon of Mons Meg, The Great Hall, The Argyll Tower, Foog’s Gate, the Castle Vaults and the two small museums of the Royal Scots Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. A full day is needed to do this place justice!
As you wander through the castle keep in mind that you are treading in the footsteps of kings and queens, princes and princesses, rebels and saints, writers and poets, and rogues (including the architect who restored the Great Hall – and then refused to hand over the keys!).
Edinburgh Castle offers guided tours by castle stewards or you may choose to follow the audio guide at your own pace. Whichever you choose you can’t fail to be impressed – witnessing or indeed being a central character in much of Scotland’s history it could be said that, in many ways, the history of the castle is the history of Scotland.
Connecting two largely disused waterways the Falkirk Wheel, the largest ‘functional sculpture’ you are likely to see anywhere, is the world’s only rotating boat lift. Opened in May 2002 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations the wheel connects the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal, both once used extensively for commercial purposes.
Situated pretty much half way between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and part of the Millennium Link project, this 35 metre (115 feet) diameter wheel lifts boats 24 metres (79 feet) from the lower canal up to a pair of locks leading on to the higher canal and re-establishes a link between Glasgow and Edinburgh which was severed in the 1930s due to disuse and industrial development.
You may wonder why was the Falkirk Wheel built? Not only was the wheel built to reconnect Scotland’s two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the much-valued leisure resource of a recreational waterway, it was also built to be a major tourist attraction and today the Falkirk Wheel is one of Scotland’s busiest attractions boasting a state-of-the-art visitor centre with a Falkirk Wheel gift shop and café.
The visitor centre is free to enter and, over a coffee, you can simply sit and admire the effortless ease with which the Falkirk Wheel boat lift rotates the combined weight of water and boat (some 500 tonnes on each side) from one level to the other using no more electricity than it would take to boil a few kettles of water – which speaks volumes about the efficient design of the boat lift.
Whilst many visitors will be happy to merely watch this remarkable structure in action the real thrills come from trying it out for yourself. Departing from right in front of the visitor centre, and lasting about an hour for the full ascent and descent experience, boat trips on the Falkirk Wheel are very popular with some 400,000 people visiting the wheel every year and about 1.3 million visitors in total have taken a boat ride since the wheel opened.
If you are spending any amount of time in central Scotland this is one tourist attraction and impressive feat of engineering you really must visit. The site is fully accessible for visitors with mobility problems. It is wheelchair friendly and wheelchairs or mobility scooters can be taken on the boat trip. Designed to last 120 years the Falkirk Wheel will be ready and waiting for you when you decide to take your ride on the world’s only rotating boat lift!
Near the head of the long, thin sea loch of Loch Fyne on Scotland’s west coast is the town of Inveraray where, amongst other interesting sights, you will find what was once the model prison of its day – Inveraray Jail. Consisting of two prisons (the Old Prison, which was completed in 1820, and the New Prison, completed in 1848) Inveraray Jail, which is now a living museum and a listed building, was in use as a prison up until August 1889. Originally the building also included the courthouse (which continued to sit until 1954) as well as the prison and was used to house convicted felons, untried prisoners, debtors and the insane.
In the early 1980s the two-story building which has three-foot thick walls was extensively renovated by the Scottish Government and in May 1989, almost a hundred years after the last prisoners departed, Inveraray Jail (now in private hands) opened to the public. The jail attracts visitors from all over the world and is one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions.
On your tour of the jail you will find an exhibition of instruments of ‘torture and punishment’ some of which you can try out for yourself such as the thumbscrews (don’t tighten them too far!) and the whipping table (used on boys as an alternative to sending them to prison) but do try to avoid the branding irons or having your ears nailed to a post! You will see the cramped cells within which prisoners both lived and worked and were only allowed out for one hour a day for exercise or to use the wc.
As well as touring the jail and seeing what life was like for both guards and inmates, Inveraray Jail also hosts a series of exhibitions which illustrate how crime was dealt with and punishment meted out in Scotland 200 years ago. Live actors take the part of guards and prisoners introducing you to life behind bars. In the courthouse you will find a very convincing scene of a trial in full flow with participants represented by mannequins in appropriate dress – judge, lawyers, prisoners, witnesses, guards and members of the jury with the proceedings being broadcast over an audio system. Visitors can take a seat beside the jury and follow the trial to its conclusion. Just make sure that the person sitting next to you is not a mannequin before striking up a conversation!
You can even try your hand at being a prisoner – speak nicely (or perhaps rudely!) to one of the guards and they will be only too happy to lock you in a cell for a while so that you can live the authentic experience of being an inmate of what was, in its day, a state-of-the-art prison. Hopefully they won’t flog you as well but while you are serving your sentence you could try out the hard wooden bed or, if you are lucky, the hammock but don’t worry, you probably won’t be jailed for too long and at least you won’t be told to make your own clothes as real prisoners had to do or work at picking oakum or making fishing nets or turning the crank wheel.
Some of the prisoners incarcerated in Inveraray Jail were locked up for trivial offences like theft of a turnip and not all the inmates were adults – children were also held in prison. Given the anguish and injustice of prison life in those days it’s hardly surprising that Inveraray Jail has the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in Scotland. Paranormal investigators have combed through the jail and have come across some rather disturbing incidents as have members of staff and many visitors to the jail – feelings of a spooky presence, of feeling unwell, ghostly images caught on camera, indistinct voices and eerie footsteps both heard and recorded and even physical contact from an unseen entity. Not every visitor to Inveraray Jail has an otherworldly experience but, if you are scared of ghosts, then you might want to avoid Cell 10!
In a dramatic location on the north coast of Scotland, near the small town of Durness you will find Smoo Cave. Lying just off the North Coast 500, that picturesque touring route which is becoming ever-more popular with visitors to Scotland, Smoo Cave is one of the many spectacular sights Scotland has to offer. An unusual combination of sea cave and freshwater cave – partially carved by the sea and partially carved by the Allt (river) Smoo, the name is thought to come from an old Norse word which meant a hiding place.
Largest Sea Cave Entrance
It is the largest sea cave entrance in Britain and the sea approach to the cave is quite breathtaking. The cave entrance and main chamber have been considerably enlarged by sea action to nearly 130 feet wide and 50 feet high and the entrance is located at the end of a nearly 700 yards long tidal gorge (Geodha Smoo) which, before that section of the roof collapsed, was once part of the cave. If the weather is clear (not always guaranteed in Scotland!) then following the path above the gorge is well worth the effort for the view it gives down its length.
The cave consists of three chambers and you are free to explore the first two by yourself by means of a wooden walkway but the third chamber is generally inaccessible. Don’t worry about the tides. Over time the cave has undergone a certain amount of uplift and today it is only at the highest of spring tides that the sea encroaches into the entrance. Unfortunately, access to the cave can be problematic. There is a steep path from the car park on the A838 which leads down to a bridge over the Allt Smoo and thence to the cave entrance.
Occupation Back To Mesolithic Age
So what will you see inside Smoo Cave? The first chamber is impressive – 200 feet long, 130 feet wide and about 50 feet high at the entrance. This chamber was formed by the sea. Archaeological investigations have unearthed Neolithic, Norse and Iron Age artifacts here. It is believed that human occupation of the cave extends back to the Mesolithic age and, given its size, it’s easy to imagine that a fair-sized community could have made its home here.
SinkHole And Waterfall
From the first chamber a walkway leads to the second chamber where you find the 60-foot waterfall of the Allt Smoo dropping into the cave through its sinkhole with a gushing roar – really spectacular after rain! This is as far as most visitors can go but, during the summer months when the water level is low enough, it is possible to take a boat tour to the third chamber which includes a short walk and an interesting talk on the geology of the cave. Both the second and third chambers were carved by the action of the Allt Smoo.
Near the car park a wooden bridge has been built across the Allt Smoo at the point where it drops into the sinkhole giving a safe view of this most impressive feature. There are many stories of the cave being a smugglers’ hideaway or the location of an illicit still or even the dumping ground for murder victims some of whom were (allegedly) dropped down the sinkhole of the river to be washed out to sea. There are also tales of the supernatural – ghosts, ghouls and devils have been, at various times, said to inhabit the cave. It has even been claimed that the cave is an entrance to hell and, on dark and stormy evenings when the river is roaring at its loudest and the waterfall is foaming and surging at its most violent, one could well believe it!
No tour of northern Scotland can be said to be complete without a visit to Smoo Cave. In fact, for anyone travelling the North Coast 500 it’s practically mandatory!
Lying at the head of Loch Awe, Scotland’s longest freshwater loch, you will find a most curious thing – a ‘hollow mountain’. Ben Cruachan, one of Scotland’s Munros (mountains over 3000 feet) is home to the only underground, pumped, storage hydroelectric power station in Scotland.
Taking six years to build, Ben Cruachan Power Station was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1965. Housed in a huge cavern, big enough to accommodate the Tower of London, situated deep beneath the mountain this invisible power station is truly an awesome construction – and you can visit it!
Not only is Ben Cruachan power station a working industrial complex it is also a major tourist attraction with 50,000 people braving the underground journey each year. There is a well-equipped and laid out visitor centre with interactive displays showing how the power station works including a working model of a turbine generator.
Once you have taken all this in, you can then board the minibus (small charge) which will take you along the one kilometre access tunnel to a point close to the turbine hall (which was featured in the James Bond film ‘The World is Not Enough’). From there you must walk the last few yards to a viewing area.
A guide accompanies you and points out various interesting things like the tropical plants growing in the warm, humid atmosphere and the drips of water from the roof of the tunnel: water which has taken two years to percolate down from the reservoir lying in the corrie many metres above your head. It can be a little claustrophobic down here but don’t worry you’re perfectly safe!
Ben Cruachan Power Station can be found at the head of Loch Awe on the main A85 Oban to Crianlarich road. There is a cafe and picnic area where you can enjoy a light lunch in a scenic spot overlooking the loch as well as a gift shop and a large, free car park.
Note: For the energetic the mountain Ben Cruachan can be climbed from the visitor centre on a route which takes you past the spectacular dam and reservoir and gives great views down the length of Loch Awe but it’s a long, hard climb and full hillwalking gear and a good level of fitness is required – you have been warned!
Thinking of visiting Scotland but don’t really know where to start? Or maybe you’ve already done the castle trail, the whisky trail, and the city experience and now you want to see more of the real, wild Scotland. So what’s the best way to see Scotland’s amazing scenery without confining yourself to one or two relatively small areas?
How about the North Coast 500? A 500-mile road route around the coast of Scotland the North Coast 500 has been called ‘’Scotland’s Route 66’’ after the iconic highway in the USA which no longer exists as a complete route.
Beginning in Inverness this circular route can be done in either direction depending on which order you want to see the magnificent scenery it reveals to you. From narrow, single-track roads with passing places to long stretches of lonely road where, at times, you will hardly meet another vehicle, the North Coast 500 winds its scenic way around long, narrow, sea lochs where well-positioned parking places offer stunning views of cliffs, sandy almost inaccessible bays and misty views of distant islands.
From numerous vantage points around the route you will have the chance to see dolphins and whales of many different species, ever-present seals and many species of seabird as well as the recently reintroduced white-tailed sea eagle (the largest bird of prey in the UK and the fourth largest in the world).
Although mainly a coastal route the North Coast 500 does loop inland in places and there is a 60-mile cross-country section from Inverness in the east to the Applecross peninsula in the west giving you the opportunity to see some of Scotland’s beautiful inland lochs and mountains (you must pause at the head of Glen Docherty to gaze in awe at the view west to distant Loch Maree) as well as the chance to spot Scotland’s iconic bird, the golden eagle, soaring its way along the flanks of a hill and disappearing into the mist.
Along the route you will pass through scattered settlements and villages often with only a handful of houses and a couple of dozen inhabitants as well as larger towns although the biggest still does not exceed 10,000 people. Although it’s only 500 miles the North Coast 500 can’t be done in a couple of days. To do so would miss out on much of what the route has to offer.
There’s the Black Isle (not an island at all), John O’Groats at the tip of Scotland, unforgettable mountain scenery including Ben Hope (Scotland’s most northerly Munro), the bizarre-looking steep-sided ridge of Suilven, the fairytale castle of Dunrobin, Ardvreck castle ruins and Achmelvich and Dornoch beaches both of which, when the sun shines, will rival any caribbean beach. These are places to savour, not whiz past in a rush.
Spreading your journey over several days will give you the chance to sample the best which Scotland has to offer in the way of cuisine and accommodation and offers opportunities to divert a little from the route to visit places of special interest to you. It’s no wonder that the North Coast 500 route is regarded by many to be one of the best coastal trips on the planet! You may also wish to take some time to explore your starting place, the city of Inverness with its wonderful bridges over the river and its informal coffee shops and cafes. Inverness is also the place where, allegedly, the clearest English in the United Kingdom is spoken!
If you would love to experience this route but don’t want to organise it yourself or are reluctant to drive yourself (those single-track roads can be awkward if you’re not used to them or to driving on the ‘’wrong’’ side of the road) then don’t despair because there are travel companies which can chauffeur you along the route – either part way or all the way – enabling you to devote all your time to marvel at the passing scenery. Travel itineraries vary and you can choose from full-on luxury hotels to basic camping, travelling by either four wheels or two – including by bicycle.
Whichever direction you decide to take out of Inverness – north up the east coast or west to Applecross – you will have an unforgettable journey and if you are sufficiently impressed by the North Coast 500 (and you won’t fail to be) then maybe you’ll come back next year and do it the other way around!
The North Coast 500 website has suggested itineraries, where to go, what to see and do and a very useful interactive map which shows accommodation and attractions all round the route. You really must take a look.
Want to see Scotland from a different perspective? How about hiring a motor cruiser for a leisurely cruise across the country? Opened in 1822 the Caledonian Canal runs from Fort William on the west coast to Inverness on the east coast stretching for some 60 miles (97 km) from one side of Scotland to the other and a cruise along its length is a magnificent way to see some of the best of Scotland’s scenery for the Highlands provide a backdrop of incredible beauty for your cruising holiday in Scotland.
Only about a third of the canal is man-made, the rest consists of four lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour. These four lochs and the entire length of the canal lie within the Great Glen, a geological fault in the Earth’s crust which pretty much cuts Scotland in half diagonally from south-west to north-east. The canal (which is actually a Scheduled Ancient Monument) was built as a way for small boats to get from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean without going all the way up and around the top of Scotland thus facilitating commerce between the two coasts.
Because it’s an inshore waterway the canal never really gets rough – certainly not as rough as the sea can get – no matter what the weather and this makes it ideal for beginners who have never contemplated cruising on a motor boat before and fancy a chance to be the skipper of their own motor cruiser.
There are several companies which offer charter boats for canal boat hire on the Caledonian Canal and they all operate in a similar way. You can choose from one of the many four-berth cruisers all the way up to 10-berth boats with dual steering positions – one on the upper deck for sunny days and one in the cabin for those not-so-sunny days.
All the Caledonian canal boat charter companies offer training before they let you loose on the canal and I don’t mean a quick ‘this lever does this and this lever does that’ run through. Everything on board will be explained to you, and your tutor will spend as much time as you feel is necessary for you to be comfortable with running the cruiser including lessons on berthing at a pontoon, how to refuel, how to top up your water supply, etc., and what to do in an emergency.
You will be supplied with charts of the canal, and their use will be explained to you but don’t worry, if you can read a road map you will have no problem reading a chart. Once you are confident with everything then it’s time to explore the canal! There are 29 locks on the canal all of which are manned by a lock keeper so all you have to do to safely navigate a lock is follow their instructions. You are free to roam up and down the entire length of the canal from Banavie just outside Fort William to the Muirtown Basin Marina just outside Inverness. Chartered boats are not allowed beyond either of these limits.
Sights To See Along The Caledonian Canal
Once you start to explore the canal what can you expect to see? You can expect to see sights like ancient castles, quiet towns, cosy lochside pubs and restaurants and to hear the sound of bagpipes drifting over the water and, of course, you can expect to see some magnificent scenery along the way. Since you are in complete control of where and when you cruise on the canal you will have the opportunity to take a whisky distillery tour or a tour of an historic castle. You can indulge yourself in fishing, wildlife and bird-watching all from the comfort of your cruiser and there are many other activities available along the length of the canal and, if you choose to traverse Loch Ness, you never know what you might spot! It’s entirely your choice as to what you do – you could even find a quiet spot to tie-up your cruiser and simply enjoy the peace and quiet for a few days.
Those stretches of the canal which connect the four lochs together can be quite narrow and during the height of the season it gets quite busy. You must be prepared to meet oncoming traffic which could be anything from a cruiser the same size as yours to surprisingly big cruise boats and barges carrying dozens of passengers to small sailing yachts and even canoes. The rule when passing oncoming traffic is ‘keep to the right’ ie: when passing oncoming traffic they must be on your left. These narrow stretches of canal widen into the broad, open waters of the lochs where navigation is easy.
Boat decks and pontoon surfaces can be slippery when wet so suitable footwear must be worn. Highland lochs are cold, even during the height of summer, so try very hard not to fall overboard! Your cruiser will be equipped with a lifejacket for every person on board and it’s a good idea to wear one whilst you are on deck. Be aware that lifejackets MUST be worn whilst negotiating locks – if anyone on deck isn’t wearing a lifejacket then the boat won’t be allowed into the lock. Your tutor will demonstrate how to properly wear a lifejacket.
Unfortunately, cruisers aren’t really suitable for disabled persons or those with mobility problems. Internal stairways are steep and simply getting on and off a boat can be problematic. Young children should be supervised at all times and should definitely wear lifejackets whilst on deck – including getting on and off a boat.
There is a speed limit on the narrow sections of the canal of five knots for all craft. That’s about a brisk walking pace. There is no speed limit on the open lochs but your cruiser won’t go much faster than that anyway so take your time and enjoy the scenery.
There are plenty of berthing points along the canal especially close to the locks. Not all berthing points are equipped with fueling or watering points but the larger ones are. Shore power (240v) is also available at some berthing points.
You may need to run your cruiser’s engine whilst berthed to make sure the batteries are topped up but please do not run engines after 9 pm or before 7 am and do keep noise to a minimum late in the evening – there are many residential properties close to the canal and, of course, there will be other boats berthed close to you so be a good neighbour and keep the noise to a minimum.
If you have ever wondered what it is like going through the locks on a boat, as the water goes down and the lock gates swing open, watch this speeded up video of navigating the locks.
If you’re not impressed by the thought of captaining your own cruise boat then you could try one of the several cruise companies which offer cruises on larger boats on the canal. This is a great way to see the canal and experience the sights and sounds along the way without having to lift a finger! Whichever option you choose I’m sure you will have a great time motor cruising on the Caledonian Canal.
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