Best of Scotland: Five Destinations for Small-Town Charm

by Keith Savage · 11 comments

Five great small towns in Scotland

I enjoy cities when I travel, but I’m most happy when exploring the countryside, combing over the hills and glens for secret places and small towns. The cultural texture is just more immediate where globalization’s far-reaching fingers have farther to stretch, and it is among these places where the character of older times remains strong. Experiencing those “older times” is a large part of the joy I get out of traveling. To feel different, to feel out of place — not in an uncomfortable way — is a magical feeling.

I most often find that feeling in Scotland’s small towns, and once you get beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow that’s pretty much all there is. That also means finding the most evocative small towns is a difficult endeavor. As with any country, there are plenty of ho-hum places that are perfectly pleasant but, frankly, uninspiring. Time is precious, so my aim with this post is to take the guesswork out of your trip planning and continue my Best of Scotland series with five towns brimming with small-town Scottish charm.

Melrose, Scottish Borders

The town of Melrose sits snugly in the heart of the Scottish Borders, just an hour south of Edinburgh. As I’ve mentioned time and again on Traveling Savage, the Borders are tragically under-visited. Along with nearby Jedburgh and Kelso, Melrose leads this triumvirate of classy lowland towns oozing Scottish charm.

Melrose lies wedged between the River Tweed and the Eildon Hills and is home to the greatest of the ruined Border abbeys, Melrose Abbey. The town is full of shops, pubs, and restaurants and near to the highest density of interesting sites the Scottish Borders has to offer. From the abbeys to Abbotsford and Smailholm Tower to Scott’s View, Melrose is the perfect base for your time in the region, especially since a new train line serving the Borders recently opened — it hasn’t been this convenient to visit in well over a hundred years!

Dunkeld, Perthshire

Tiny Dunkeld hides among the Perthshire hills just a 90-minute drive north of Edinburgh. Its handsome buildings and Telford Bridge huddle next to the River Tay, while a beautiful ruined cathedral sprawls its stones near the riverbank. Dunkeld is a quiet place ideal for relaxing in gorgeous environs, though at night you might find a rollicking session at the excellent Taybank Hotel.

Perhaps Dunkeld owes some of its pleasant quietude to its more well-known neighbor, Pitlochry, for both are on the train line north and easy to access. Dunkeld is a great place to get away and go hiking in the nearby Hermitage Forest where some of the last stands of ancient Caledonian forest can be found. Hiking trails continue up into the hills and make an excellent day out (and reason to settle in at the Taybank Hotel in the evening).

Dunkeld is a fantastic base from which to explore Perthshire’s sights, places like Pitlochry, the Queen’s View, the Pass of Killiecrankie, Blair Castle, and Schiehallion.

Aberlour, Moray

The Speyside area bordering the northern Cairngorms National Park would be a destination even if it wasn’t populated with dozens of distilleries. This is a beautiful section of the eastern highlands with lush hills and the famous River Spey wending its way up to the Moray Firth. The town of Aberlour couldn’t be more appealing. Its straight main street is lined with fine shops, there’s the fantastic Aberlour distillery, delicious Mash Tun restaurant and rooms, and the Speyside Way walking path hugging the River Spey on the doorstep.

Near Aberlour lie some of the most famous distilleries on the planet, from Balvenie and Glenfiddich to Macallan and Glenfarclas. The scenery is gorgeous amid this cluster of towns that includes Craigellachie, with its incredible Quaich Bar and famous Highlander Inn, and Dufftown, the home of single malt Scotch whisky. Like all of the towns on this list, Aberlour is a peaceful place where the spirit of the Scottish countryside comes through clear and strong.

Portree, Isle of Skye

Portree is no secret. As the Isle of Skye‘s largest town (population ~2,500) it’s still tiny and a quintessentially perfect Scottish coastal village. Few scenes still the heart the way Portree’s harbor does, with the fishing fleet bobbing in the water and the stepped streets and the multi-colored houses peering through veils of shredded cloud. This is a special place with wonderful seafood, good pubs, and amazing scenery.

Portree also happens to be the ideal place to base yourself on a visit to Skye. North of town stands the Old Man of Storr, and farther afield you’ll find the Kilt Rock and the Quirang. Out west lie Dunvegan Castle, Talisker distillery, and a host of beautiful beaches, cliffs, and mountains.

Portree takes some effort to reach, but it is well worth it. Book well in advance!

Moniaive, Dumfries & Galloway

Moniaive might be the one town on this list that leaves you saying, “huh?” Nestled between three glens in the southern uplands of Dumfries & Galloway, northwest of Dumfries town, Moniaive is a windswept enclave of peace and quiet. While not truly that far from Edinburgh and Glasgow, it feels quite far away indeed from the press of city life.

The 3 Glens drew me to this unassuming corner of Scotland. What a serendipitous moment! Sheep litter hillsides that see the tread of few visitors. There’s a cozy pub and coffee shop in town that make good stops before heading out to the Galloway Forest Park or Drumlanrig Castle, but otherwise Moniaive is a fairly sedate place, and that’s probably why it has failed to appear on the radars of most travelers. The more I travel in Scotland, the more interesting I find the “normal” places for they truly do harbor a spirit of older times.

Lorraine, Sydney, AustraliaNo Gravatar April 2, 2017 at 3:13 AM

Hi Keith. Such a pleasure to stumble across your website; like many of life’s most memorable travel experiences for me – chance meetings, finds and unforgettable memories – just stumbled upon. Your recommendations are just the ticket for our upcoming visit to Scotland; renting a car, trying to minimise ‘big city’ stays and instead get a feel for the ‘quaint villages’ and more out of the way places you’ve written about – a big expectation in just a few weeks’ visit, while trying not to completely ignore the beaten path, beaten worldwide usually for pretty good reasons. So thanks, for a lovely website, for sharing your insights, and for the mental images of a glorious part of the world, with smaller towns, villages, sheep, cosy pubs, so much more, and the folks who go with it. You’ve so eloquently confirmed we’re on the right track. If we weren’t so bad at being organised in our travels, you’d be our consultant in a heartbeat!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 2, 2017 at 10:13 AM

Thanks for the kind words, Lorraine, and I’m glad you’re finding my site helpful. Cheers!

ErlindaNo Gravatar May 20, 2016 at 12:09 AM

Hello! Thank you for sharing your itinerary ideas, planning steps, etc. My husband and I are flying to Scotland, landing in Glasgow on Sept. 6. We are regular hikers in the Canadian Rockies in our senior years. We have six weeks to enjoy the UK. I plan to spend three days each in Glasgow and Edinburgh, then make our way up to Stirling, Loch Lomond, Glencoe and finally to Fort William for two nights, and another two nights in Inverness. We plan to pick up a rented car in Edinburgh before heading north. From Inverness, we’ll return south to the Borders area. You have not mentioned the Hadrian Wall and wondered if the Dumfries and Galloway would be a better alternative. We had planned to spend 3 nights in Wylam to walk parts of the Hadrian Wall. The rest of our holidays will be for the Lake District and York, the Cotswolds, then London. We’ll leave London by Oct. 7 and depending on the weather, might fly to some warm areas like France, Portugal and Spain. The main object of our UK trip is to explore and do some easy/moderate hikes in the UK.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 20, 2016 at 8:35 AM

Hi Erlinda,

I haven’t mentioned Hadrian’s Wall for two main reasons: First, I haven’t been there, and second, it’s in England! I would like to visit it one day and walk along its length. Dumfries & Galloway has lots to see and do. Have a look at my itinerary ideas for that area.

LisaNo Gravatar July 10, 2016 at 4:31 PM

I wish I had seen this a few minutes ago. I also asked about Hadrian’s wall; I obviously don’t have a good enough map to show the England/Scotland borders.

PoojaNo Gravatar May 15, 2016 at 4:48 AM

Hi Keith.. firsthand may i say what an impressive site you have here! there’s so much information beautifully captured, i wish i could visit all of it. unfortunately i am going to be in london towards the end of June and have just 3 days (saturday-monday). what do you propose is the one place I have to see that will blow my mind? (outdoorsy than castles and museums) it’s my first time to the UK so any ideas are welcome.. thanks.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 15, 2016 at 6:29 PM

Hi Pooja,

That’s a very difficult question because everyone has a different mind. However, the Orkney Islands leave no minds unblown. 🙂

PoojaNo Gravatar May 21, 2016 at 12:36 AM

Hi Keith, thank you for your reply. I looked up Orkney and that’s exactly the kind of place I was hoping to see! I’m thinking of either Kirkwall or stromness as the base and then touring around. Now the pickle is what’s the easiest way to get to either of these. From London they’re like 12-14 hour train rides. We wouldn’t be driving around so that’s a bummer. Any ideas? Thank for your tips! Life saver ! 😊

RoohiNo Gravatar March 31, 2016 at 1:49 PM

Hi. Thanks for sharing all the info on Scotland. i plan to travel to Scotland for 4 days in June. Planning of staying in Edinburgh for one day. And then I want to explore lockness , Inverness and Skye if Isle. After a day and a night in Edinburg , how should I plan my trip. Should I make Inverness a a base and take day trip to Portree or stay in Portree ? Also I want to hire a car to drive to highlands. Is it a good idea

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 31, 2016 at 1:56 PM

Hi Roohi,

Hiring a car is the best way to see Scotland’s highlands. It’s tough to fit in the Isle of Skye on such a short trip because I recommend against doing it as a daytrip from Inverness — you will spend a good 5 hours in the car if you choose that route. I suggest staying in Portree if you can.

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