The COVID-19 pandemic has had seismic repercussions in the global travel industry and, like many aspects of our lives, the way we travel and explore the world will be different once the restrictions are lifted. Rather than heading to crowded international destinations, holidaymakers – accustomed to the solitude of home and attuned to a slower, more relaxed way of life – may seek out tranquil, sparsely populated areas where they can immerse themselves in the natural world and take each day as it comes. My home country of Scotland boasts many such hideaways.
As the founder of Hidden Scotland, I’ve spent a long time getting to know my country intimately, hunting for those unique, iconic and often little-known gems that help to make Scotland a rarity in the world of travel: a genuinely inspirational destination that you’ll yearn to revisit time after time.
So, when lockdown is finally over and global travel resumes, these handpicked hidden gems are where to go in Scotland for the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the wider world while avoiding those all-too-familiar overcrowded sunshine destinations.
Loch an Eilein
One of the most evocative locations in Scotland, Loch an Eilein is somewhat reminiscent of Slovenia’s Lake Bled, though the landscapes are dramatic and imposing, rather than serene as in the waterside artwork of the central European destination. Our visit to Loch an Eilein was dramatic for a less conventional reason, as we arrived at the Rothiemurchus car park in pitch black with only a head lamp and compass to guide us along the paths, but at least we had the entire site to ourselves! With the wind in the ancient pines that surround the loch – where red squirrels are abundant – you’re guaranteed an ethereal experience. This is especially true if you arrive in the small hours when the sun is rising over the mountains, casting its amber hue over the ruins of Eilein Castle on its tiny island in the middle of the loch. It’s the kind of view that will live long in your memory.
Crovie is absolutely my favorite coastal village, oozing charm and timelessness that make it the perfect hideaway from the stresses of the modern world. Originally established by tenants who were ejected from their inland residences by wealthy landlords in the 18th century, Crovie became a thriving fishing village until larger, more powerful trawlers took to the waters from the ports and Crovie’s industry declined. Our visit commenced with calm weather at 8am as we took in sweeping views from the car park at the top of Crovie — no vehicles are allowed into the village, so every trip starts here. Shortly, we ventured down the steep winding path to enjoy a leisurely stroll among the cottages that are nestled at the foot of dramatic 300 foot cliffs. Crovie really is unlike any other coastal village in the country, with no traffic, shops, or phone signal. This is where to go in Scotland for a secluded retreat far flung from the modern world. Make sure you venture beyond the village to discover some of the hidden delights on an invigorating walk to Gardenstown, Pennan or the stunning Troup Head.
Wailing Widow Falls
Known by many names, the Wailing Widow Falls are steeped in murky legends, from that of the cattle rustler called Donald of the Moss who was hanged from the rock spire for murder to the young newlywed who fell to her death after stumbling to the brink of the waterfall early one morning. Visiting the Wailing Widow Falls reinforces the sheer power of nature, particularly if you’re lucky to witness it soon after rainfall when there’s a plentiful flow of water into the plunge pool. During my visit with friends earlier this year, the sheer scale of the falls with their immense energy and volume was particularly impressive. It’s difficult not to feel rather insignificant when faced with nature’s power on such an extraordinary scale! The Wailing Widow Falls are to be discovered at the head of Loch Gainmhich on the A894 between Loch Assynt and the Kylesku Bridge, easily accessed via a rough track from a parking spot at the side of the road.
Situated on the Balmoral Estate, the Royal Family’s retreat in Scotland, Loch Muick offers something different in every season, whatever the weather. My visit was on a chilly winter’s night in February, when fresh snow lay on the ground and the entire landscape was impossibly still and silent (in fact, I didn’t see a single person during the entire time I was there!) There are various walking routes you can enjoy, each offering a different view over the loch and the imposing mountain of Lochnagar. The track around the loch takes approximately four hours, from where you can view Glas-Allt-Shiel, the 19th century lodge that was the private retreat for Queen Victoria in her grief after the death of her husband. Perching at the water’s edge at the end of the day, as the sun sinks and the moon rises over Lochnagar, is an unforgettable and otherworldly sight — make sure to bring a dram of Royal Lochnagar scotch to add to the occasion. If you stay until darkness falls, make sure you take your headlamp or flashlight to guide you back to the car, and don’t be too alarmed if the resident deer shuffle close by curiously!
Craigievar Castle, with its Disneyesque winding pink turrets and fortifications, is a surreal sight on any occasion, but it’s in the autumn that the surrounding woodland explodes in a riot of color. There are numerous trails that you can explore in the castle grounds, but the red route offers the longest and most adventurous stretch of striking woodland views, with a chance to observe deer roaming idly amongst the trees. Resemblances between Craigievar and Cinderella’s Castle are, in fact, not coincidental: Craigievar, which is virtually unchanged externally since its completion in 1626, is said to be the inspiration for the Disney icon. This is where to go in Scotland’s to experience a spellbinding castles sure to inspire visitors of all ages — you’ll view the extensive collection of art and artifacts in exactly the same way as if you’d inhabited Craigievar 400 years ago, with no artificial light! If you rent a cottage in the vicinity of the castle, you can take advantage of an early morning stroll around the ground to capture its eeriness as the rising sun casts a warm orange hue over the entire site.
It’s often said that those who grow up with a landmark on their doorstep often fail to appreciate how special it is. That’s certainly applicable to my relationship with Dunnottar Castle, located just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. But having moved away, I’ve come to appreciate why it’s widely regarded as one of Scotland’s most impressive coastal fortresses. Teetering on a rocky outcrop that’s almost detached from the mainland, the mysterious and evocative Dunnottar Castle is best enjoyed as part of a rewarding circular walk that commences at Stonehaven Harbor (you can complete the entire circuit on foot to take advantage of the stunning views, or catch the Land Train back to the start in high season). Dunnottar Castle is one destination in Scotland where I am sure to go several times a year; I may not have appreciated it growing up, but now I can’t fail to appreciate its startling beauty.
Isle of Islay
The Scottish islands are as varied as they are captivating, and they’re home to where is one of my favorite places to go in Scotland, the Isle of Islay. It’s most famous for its whisky – with nine distilleries, you’re not short on choice – but the island’s 600 square kilometers offers an impressive variety of attractions if sampling a dram of Islay’s finest isn’t on your to-do list. From spectacular, sweeping beaches (the remote Machir Bay is as close to unspoiled perfection as you’ll discover anywhere) to dolphin-spotting from the lighthouse at Carraig Fhada, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Islay as quickly as I did! One of the island’s most appealing characteristics is the warmth of its local community – this is not a place where visitors are held at arm’s length and, if like us, you’re welcomed by every passing car waving to you, don’t be led to believe your headlights have failed or you’re a famous celebrity! It’s simply the way it is on Islay, so join in and you’ll instantly feel part of the island community.
Balmoral is most widely known as the Scottish hideaway for members of the Royal Family, but the estate on which the castle sits is, in fact, a sprawling 50,000 acre working site, featuring grouse moors, farmland and forestry. I first visited Balmoral after attending a whisky tasting at the nearby Royal Lochnagar distillery, and I was pleasantly surprised by the extensive walks that can be enjoyed through the Balmoral estate. The trails offer some outstanding views over Royal Deeside and take you past eleven impressive stone cairns, the majority of which were erected on the instruction of Queen Victoria to commemorate the marriages of her children. The largest and most impressive of the cairns is the Balmoral Pyramid, which was created to mark the death of Prince Albert, while there’s also a cairn unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee. Balmoral offers spectacular walks, but make sure you visit when the Royal Family aren’t in residence to enjoy greater freedom over the entire estate.
Victoria Street, Edinburgh
It may not be off the beaten track, but Edinburgh’s Victoria Street is one spot I simply can’t help but visit regularly. Reputed to be the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, Victoria Street is one of the city’s most recognizable and picturesque locations, boasting an elegant curve that is graced by a series of colorful buildings. Constructed in the early 19th century as one of the most important improvements to Edinburgh’s Old Town, Victoria Street was designed to reflect the Old Flemish architectural style, with imposing frontages, prominent arches and cobblestone walkways. For visitors today, it offers a delightful interlude from the hubbub of modern life and the rare chance to wander aimlessly as you explore a wonderful array of independent shops, from artisan cheesemakers and joke shops to old-fashioned booksellers and traditional gift retailers. From here, head over to Grassmarket to enjoy lunch and a whisky or two at The Last Drop.
Another part of Edinburgh that I always make a point of dropping into, Dean Village is the sort of place you can saunter round at your own pace, absorbing the atmosphere without feeling that you’re just a stone’s throw from one of Europe’s greatest capital cities. A light lunch in Stockbridge followed by a refreshing walk along the Water of Leith, listening to its gentle trickle, is an incredibly calming experience – there’s an absorbing collection of buildings along the way to appreciate, reminiscent of the village’s proud industrial history (at one time, eleven mills were in operation, harnessing the power of the Water of Leith). You can even spot some of the signs of the village’s past, such as the mill stones and carved stone plaques of pies and bread. Today, Dean Village is a fashionable residential district and, for visitors, a quiet, secluded sanctuary that can free you from the crowds of Edinburgh’s city centre.
Whether Scotland already topped your travel list or you’ve just been inspired to visit for the first time, I hope you’ve found at least one or two destinations off the beaten track that will make for a unique and memorable experience — the kind of rich, slow, and calm outing we will all be in the mood for after lockdown eases.