Scotland: Reframed

With vast, undiscovered nature reserves, forgotten castles, and hidden manor houses, even for experienced visitors, Scotland has a wealth of surprises waiting to be found.

WORDS BY JAMIE LAFFERTY

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Nature in the high north

Tucked high in the lesser-explored north east of the wild Highlands, the RSPB Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve is located in the Flow Country, a vast area of delicate peat bog stretching across Caithness and Sutherland. This unspoiled, carbon-capturing land is a haven for birdlife—birdwatchers use observation towers such as the one pictured to spot hen harriers and greenshanks among many other species. Visiting the permanently sodden ground is possible via wooden walkway, which stretches through the reserve, allowing for protection of the land as well as exploration.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Remembering solemn history

Lying out on the raw, windswept Outer Hebrides, communities like those in Bhaltos, Isle of Lewis, weren’t quite remote enough to avoid suffering during the infamous Highland Clearances in the 19th century. This monument, An Sùileachan, commemorates those who lost out during the period of forced evictions in an area still rich with Gaelic language and culture. Artists Marian Leven and Will Maclean designed the haunting piece for the local community in order to help remember this period of their history, as well as marking the foundation of the Bhaltos Community Trust.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Discover ancient forests

The mighty Cairngorms National Park may be best known for its soaring mountains and shimmering lochs, but in Abernethy it has one of the nation’s great forests, too. What stands today as part of the Abernethy National Nature Reserve may only be a portion of the once vast Caledonian Forest, yet it remains a vital environment for several distinctly Scottish species of flora and fauna. Sharp-eyed visitors may spot shy creatures such as red squirrels, or comparatively boisterous inhabitants like the capercaillie, while walking under the branches of ancient Scots pine trees.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Far-flung islands

Even for experienced seafarers like Henry Anderton—whose family owned the island of Vaila for around 100 years until 1993—navigating tumultuous waters around Shetland’s exposed west coast requires a huge amount of concentration and skill. The dramatic land has been spectacularly carved by the elements in the North Atlantic, creating particularly dramatic sea stacks and caves. Owing to the purity of the environment and its rich biodiversity, Vaila is one of over 100 islands comprising the Shetland UNESCO Global Geopark, which was designated in 2015.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Sites of bygone worship

With a history dating back to 563 AD, Iona’s ancient abbey is a tough old survivor on Scotland’s west coast. Despite its long and occasionally dramatic history, it’s a place of worship that has survived Viking raids, the Reformation, and its host island changing hands several times. It’s not always been a smooth ride, of course, but since 1938 it has been managed by dedicated members of the Iona Community group and is today an ecumenical church. As well as its singular history and bold design, visitors to this far-flung abbey won’t fail to notice its abundant birdlife, including flamboyant puffins and migratory corncrakes best seen on nearby islands of Lunga or Staffa.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIKA SKOGG/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A bypassed Eden

Often overlooked as people drive north from Dundee to Aberdeen, the St. Cyrus National Nature Reserve receives a fraction of the visitors it deserves. Despite getting its designation in the early 1960s, the Reserve may still seem obscure to some—at least outside of birding communities. Those in the know will be able to quickly list many of the 70 different avian species found here, including peregrine falcons and buzzards. While there are also deer, stoats, and even lizards found here too, the marsh orchids and gorse bushes provide sensational colours against its golden sand beaches.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF VISITSCOTLAND

An island of artisans

All alone at the point where the North Atlantic meets the North Sea, the Fair Isle may technically be part of Shetland, but it often feels like its own place altogether. This extraordinary island, which has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland since the 1950s, is home to fewer than 70 souls and has long captured the imagination. It’s perhaps only natural that on an island where sheep far outnumber people, knitwear has become something of a specialty. Yet, while there are similar demographics on other Scottish islands, nowhere has quite the reputation of Fair Isle, where extraordinary knitting patterns have won fans around the world.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ACACIA JOHNSON

Secrets of the Southwest

Dumfries & Galloway is often bypassed by those traveling north, a little too eager to reach Scotland’s Central Belt and beyond. Here in the heart of the Lowlands, there may not be dramatic peaks synonymous with other parts of the country, but it’s not a flat region, either. Sparsely populated and quietly beautiful, rich with pastoral land and rolling glens, the region forms part of the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, as well as playing host to the Galloway Forest Park, the UK’s first International Dark Sky Park.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION

The curios of Culross

That it took being featured in time-warping romantic drama Outlander for Culross Palace to become more popular speaks volumes about its relative obscurity. At over 400 years old, and with a history that features visits from historic figures such as James VI, this seems something of an injustice. Even away from its history, the palace’s striking yellow walls make it a remarkable building, while the diligent care of National Trust for Scotland has helped keep it in outstanding condition. Elsewhere in the village, the Culross Town House and Culross Abbey make up a remarkable portfolio.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF VISITSCOTLAND

Peeking through Pollok Park

Scotland’s largest city preserves a remarkable amount of its land as green space, but even by those highly leafy standards, Pollok Country Park is a rare beauty. Despite hosting its soon-to-be reopened art museum, The Burrell Collection, and the grand 18th-century Pollok House, the park never seems to quite get the attention of others in Glasgow. Particularly photogenic on crisp days in autumn and winter, consider combining a visit with a city walking tour hosted by the social enterprise group Invisible Cities, which employs trained guides who have experienced homelessness to shine their unique light around lesser-visited parts of the city.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF GLASGOW LIFE

New dawns at old castles

Just as Pollok House once belonged to Clan Maxwell, so did the lesser-known Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland’s extreme south, although the structure and its setting are no less spectacular. A moated castle built in a triangular shape, its proximity to the border unsurprisingly meant it was a site of conflict during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Today, sitting on the edge of the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve, things are a good deal more peaceful—so much so that each winter, tens of thousands of beautiful barnacle geese migrate here.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF VISITSCOTLAND

Heritage Old and New

There’s something magnetic about Calton Hill, which overlooks Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old and New Towns. It both surveys the Scottish capital and demands to be seen at the same time. Strewn with historical monuments, here the National Monument of Scotland and Nelson Monument are most prominent, but from the top of the latter, much of Edinburgh’s lengthy UNESCO designation can be spotted. These and many more are now outlined by Scotland’s UNESCO Trail, which brings together the country’s range of World Heritage Sites, Global Geoparks, Biospheres and Creative Cities.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHUTTERSTOCK

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