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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
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On the hunt for history
Many of Scotland's historical sites are worth a visit, but what if you had to pick a select few? David Gordon tries to do just that
Aguide to historical buildings would not be complete without mentioning a certain national symbol situated on a hill in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle is the most visited attraction in Scotland. The oldest building within the castle walls is St Margarets Chapel, which dates back to the 1100s.
The castle was once a prison for sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries. A new exhibition, housed in the vaults, tells the story of the prison which held, among others, many crewmen who once sailed with John Paul Jones, founder of the American Navy. Graffiti painted on the walls of the vault by the prisoners is now on display and can be viewed as part of the vaults tour. Guns are also an attraction at the castle.
Many Edinburgh residents set their watches by the daily firing of the One O’clock Gun on the ramparts and many ensure they catch sight of the giant mediaeval cannon, Mons Meg.
(Historic Scotland. Open all year/ seven days a week. Adult admission £9.50)
Whilst on the topic of castles, one of Scotland’s grandest is the imposing and famous example at Stirling.
Stirling Castle towers over some of the country’s important battlefields, including Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. Once renowned for the assassinations, kidnappings and imprisonment that occurred within its walls, it is said that some of those who suffered all those years ago still like to make their presence felt to today’s visitors.
Perhaps the spirits of the past are not that enamoured by the extensive refurbishment currently underway in the renaissance Royal Palace because a few have turned up there.
However, when it is finished, visitors will be able to view the Royal Apartments presented in detailed Medieval style. The experience is completed by a number of tapestries, a medieval kitchen and a regimental museum.
(Historic Scotland. Open all year/ seven days a week. Adult admission £8)
There are at least two obvious reasons why people visit Loch Ness. One involves a monstrous history, and the other involves an historical monster.
Although it is now a ruin, Urquhart Castle was one of the largest castles in Scotland. It was prominent in the battle for Scots independence and was once under the control of Robert the Bruce.
However, it is most famous for its particularly bloody history of its time as a fortress. The story is told in an informative audio-visual exhibition which also tells of the Dorward, Macdonald and Grant families who are linked to the castle.
(Historic Scotland. Open all year/ seven days a week. Adult admission £6)
Not too far away from Loch Ness is the mightiest artillery fortification in Britain. Fort George was created in the 1700s as a defence against the Jacobites following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Now, nearly 300 years on, Fort George is still a working army barracks, but visitors are welcome to visit many of its attractions. The fort was built to hold an artillery detachment, a 1600 strong infantry garrison and storage for over 2500 barrels of gunpowder.
The fort is unique because it acts as a time capsule of the domestic life of a Scottish soldier. It has remained, virtually unaltered, since it was built.
(Historic Scotland. Open all year/ seven days a week. Adult Admission £6)
Orkney is not yet on the usual ‘tourist trail’, but those who do make a special effort are in for a treat.
Visiting Orkney should include a trip to Skara Brae, the best-preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe. The village, quite literally, appeared during a wild storm in 1850.
The settlement dates back more than 5000 years and many dwellings have been excavated. A replica house has been created near to the site and many original artefacts are on display.
The excavations uncovered stone beds, seats and shelving as well as hearths where fires once burned.
(Historic Scotland. Open all year/ seven days a week. Adult Admission £5)
The religious history of Iona Abbey attracts many visitors as the island is still very much a focus for Christian pilgrimage. The abbey was founded by St Columba in 563AD and still retains its spiritual atmosphere.
Other attractions of significance are St Columba’s shrine, the site of his writing cell and a collection of over 180 medieval carved stones and crosses. The nearby graveyard is the final resting place for many early Scottish, Irish, Norwegian and French kings and chiefs. Iona is reached by ferry from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull. An interpretative centre, which focuses on the life and work of St Columba, can be found near to the ferry port.
(Historic Scotland. Abbey open all year. Admission £3.30. Interpretative Centre open summer only. Admission Free.)
Of the many battlefields in Scotland, one that is unmissable is Culloden. Situated near Inverness, the site is one of the most visited attractions in the country.
The field contains numerous flags, pointing out the positions of the troops.
This not only instils knowledge of what happened on the battlefield, but also the scale at which it took place.
Along-term project to restore the field to the way it looked at the time of the battle in 1746 is currently under way. The story is made real by the informative exhibition in the visitor centre. (National Trust for Scotland. Site open all year. Admission £5)
The imposing structure of Culzean Castle overlooks the Firth of Clyde from its prominent position on the Ayrshire coast.
Set within a sprawling country park, the Culzean experience is enjoyed by many visitors each year. The castle, designed by Robert Adam, contains a collection of period furniture and a display of weapons.
The Coach-house and stables have been converted into a craft shop and exhibition.
The 563-acre country park contains miles of woodland walks. The deer park and swan pond are a highlight for families and nearby adventure playground makes this a perfect family day out.
(National Trust for Scotland. Open all year. Admission £10).