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!
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).
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.