Whether you are beguiled by the romance of the failed Jacobite rebellions, the epic battlefields of the Braveheart days or the glory of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment, Scotland is a country awash with history. And the good news is that there are a flurry of hostels that give you easy access right to the core of the nation’s history. I wrote the National Geographic guide to Scotland and also blog for Historic Scotland, so I’ve covered hundreds of historic sites across the land. Here are five of my favourites you can easily reach from a youth hostel…
1. A Tale of Two Castles
I’m slightly cheating to kick off here, as I’ve picked not one, but two deeply historic sites in the Scottish capital for you. First up is the nation’s most visited historic attraction, Edinburgh Castle. If you’ve not been you must and even if you’ve been before I wager you will find a return trip there swallows up a whole day. It’s all here, from the Scottish Crown Jewels and the sacred Stone of Destiny, through to great halls laden with period furniture and Mons Meg, the mighty cannon that used to once guard this strategic castle. The castle’s ramparts swirl in royal ghosts and the views are epic, opening up all of Edinburgh. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit too to ‘Edinburgh’s Other Castle’ as my wee daughters call it. Craigmillar Castle is much less heralded, which means it’s hardly ever busy. It’s a glorious ruin, where you have to bring your own imagination to bear amongst the gnarl of stone corridors, spiral staircases and history-drenched halls. The views from the ramparts are breathtaking too. If you stay at the hostel for a weekend you can easily visit both castles for an intriguing contrast.
Nearest youth hostel: Edinburgh Central
2. Glasgow Cathedral – This cathedral is one of those buildings that many people gawp at as they drive past, but never get around to actually visiting. You really should and not just because it is the last resting place of the city’s patron saint, St Kentigern, more commonly referred to as St Mungo. Walk here if you can to appreciate its sheer scale as it grows in stature as you approach from the west. Delving inside for the first time I was impressed how much of it had survived the brutal Reformation relatively intact. I was instantly hit by a wave of history too. Sir Walter Scott sought inspiration at the cathedral and James IV ratified the ‘Treaty of Perpetual Peace’ with England here back in 1502. It’s an impressively grand space too, all stained glass windows and polished marble. The highlight is, of course, St. Mungo’s Tomb. He is said to have been first buried at this site way back in the 7th century, with today’s dramatic building dating from the 13th century.
Nearest youth hostel: Glasgow
3. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle was always going to be a pivotal place. After all it stands on perhaps the most strategic spot in the country, on the land that separates the swathe of the Central Lowlands and the more rugged ground of the Highland foothills. In the days when the great estuaries of the Forth and Clyde has not been bridged in earnest if you wanted control of Scotland you pretty much had to have control of Stirling. The castle is every bit as striking as Edinburgh and easily swallows up a day. It is brilliantly set up for kids with loads of hands on exhibits and the chance to dress up in period costume. The Great Hall is the real showstopper and it often has actors dressed up as royals, a nice touch that really helps bring this grandest of buildings to life. My family are huge fans of the café there too with its sublime cakes, handy on a pit stop between delving through layers of history. The views are remarkable too out across those historic battlefields that still echo with the ghosts and claymores of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
Nearest youth hostel: Stirling
Wildly beautiful Glencoe is a baleful place that stands alongside Culloden in its lingering sense of deep, historic tragedy. Come here on a dreich day, when mists and chill winds snake between every sinew of rugged rock and mountain, and you may think of James Bond here in Skyfall with his Aston Martin. Anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish history, though, will be drifting back to 1692 and the notorious Massacre of Glencoe. On that fateful night the British government soldiers (led by the Campbells) broke the ultimate trust of the clan code of honour. They had accepted the hospitality of the Macdonalds of Glencoe, but in the depth of night they returned that hospitality and trust with bullets and bayonets as they butchered every man, woman and child they could lay their bloody hands on. Dozens were murdered and many more didn’t survive long as they fled blindly through the wintry mountains. A National Trust for Scotland visitor centre tells the stories of this most dramatic of glens, while the Clachaig Inn bears a sign at its entrance warning that Campbells are still not welcome.
Nearest youth hostel: Glencoe
Another sneaky cheat here as my last pick is a whole island! A wee one, though, with loads of history so stick with me. This magical island, often eulogised as ‘Scotland in Miniature’ due to its scenic diversity, boasts no fewer than eight Historic Scotland sites and one of Scotland’s most famous castles, Brodick Castle, which is under the control of the National Trust for Scotland. My favourite sites are the waterfront ruin of Lochranza Castle (best viewed in the colder months when deer often come down at sunset) and the mystical standing stones and stone circles of Machrie Moor. These ancient stones sit all alone on an abandoned windswept moor. To the west the Kilbrannan Sound glowers across towards Kintyre and to the north the Arran Hills rise up like leviathans. I have to confess there is one Historic Scotland site I have not yet visited on Arran. That is Carn Ban, a fine example of one of the Clyde Cairns. It hides over three miles from the nearest road and I’ve not had the chance to get out there yet. That is the beauty of historical sites in Scotland. There are always more and more layers of history just waiting to be discovered and hostelling is a great way to get out there!
Nearest youth hostel: Lochranza
(open winter weekends until 25 Mar 2016. Or available as Exclusively yours…RentaHostel).
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.