Historical Walking Routes in Scotland25 Oct 2018
A curated selection of walks that may be of interest to those who enjoy rediscovering the past. Because of the enormous scope of the subject, this article could never be exhaustive, but instead, offers a small selection of ideas from which to plan your own route. If you just want a leisurely afternoon stroll or a gruelling long distance walk over many days, these walks range from the far north, in the Orkney Isles, to the borders region, and from the stone age to World War II, and from cityscapes to the wildest open countryside anywhere in Britain, there is something to suit every taste.
With such a wealth of fascinating history woven into the stunning and varied landscape, Scotland is the ideal destination for any walker who is also interested in the past. It is as well to prepare for any weather, even in summer. It can change without warning, I have been snowed on in June, and got heatstroke in April. Mobile phone signals are not always reliable, so it still doesn’t hurt to leave word of your intended route with a hotel or friends. It’s worth packing a good quality, ‘deet’ based, insect repellant to keep the infernal midges at bay, but otherwise, walking in Scotland is an absolute delight, augmented by the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people. Here are a few ideas, not necessarily fixed routes, but something to help plan your own.
- Orkney – From The Stone Age to WWII
One of the oldest, and most important Scottish historical locations, also among the farthest north, is the collection of sites described by UNESCO as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. A leisurely eight-mile walk takes in the four sites; Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe, all dating back to around five thousand years ago, when the climate was much warmer. These sites were abandoned after about half a century, but elsewhere in Orkney there are remains of Atlantic roundhouses, which date from the iron-age.
Orkney was Christianised around the end of the tenth century, under Viking rule, and eight miles south of Maeshowe is Earl’s Bu, and Orphir church, which feature in the Norse Orkneyinga saga. Nine miles, to the east, with Scapa Flow – a major WWII naval base – on your right, brings you to the main town of Kirkwall, which is home to the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, and nearby Earl’s, and Bishop’s palaces (both ruins). You may also wish to make a short detour to one of the distillery visitor centres since whisky is as much a part of historical Scotland as castles and claymores.
Eight miles, south of Kirkwall, is the Italian Chapel, built during World War II by Italian POWs, from limited materials; the font was made from parts of a car exhaust, covered in concrete. There are also numerous derelict WWII defences dotted about the island.
Deerness, to the east, is home to the curiously named ‘The Gloup’, a collapsed sea cave, and the Covenanters’ memorial erected in 1888. Returning west, Tankerness hosts the iron age site of Mine Howe. Finally, eighteen miles via the coast to the north-west, is the Broch of Gurness, a well-preserved ruin of an iron-age Atlantic Roundhouse.
- Antonnie Wall, Edinburgh and Glasgow
Although the finest scenery is found among the highland peaks, rolling heather, and coastal paths, most history takes place in population centres. So, when it comes to walking historical routes in Scotland, the Antonine Wall is a great way to combine the best of both worlds. Built in the 2nd century, by Emperor Antoninus Pius, the wall itself stretches some forty miles from the Firth of Clyde, near Glasgow, to the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh. Both cities have such a wealth of historical treasures, that I can only suggest a few highlights. In Glasgow, the 15th Century ‘Provand’s Lordship’ is the oldest house in the city, the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens, and Glasgow Cathedral, spring to mind.
Edinburgh boasts a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle, and Palace of Holyroodhouse at either end of the Royal Mile, and the medieval old town. For those interested in the grubbier, or perhaps spookier, side of history, a visit to Mary King’s Close, and the vaults beneath South Street Bridge, should not be missed.
The Antonine wall itself was built of a layer of stone, with earthworks on top which were dug from a ditch behind it. Although you cannot access the exact route along its entire length, and very little remains visible on the ground, there are still places where you can see evidence of the original wall and forts, as well as modern installations. There are at least a dozen museums along the route, and they don’t just cover Roman history either.
- Famous Battlefield Walking Routes
History often feels like a list of battles and Kings, although it is much more than that. However, when considering historical Scotland, there are numerous famous battles. You could plan a walking route to take in all thirty-nine officially protected sites if you have a few months to spare, but let’s look at some shorter sections.
- Culloden and Cairgorms – 140 Miles
Starting at Culloden (16th April 1746 fought between Jacobite rebels and Hanoverian government forces) head south to the Cairngorms National Park. Points of interest include; Kincardine church in Boats of Garten, Castle Roy, an 11th C. fortress ruin, the battle sites Cromdale (1690) and Glen-Livet (1594), Scalan Seminary, Lecht mine, Corgaff, Balmoral, Braemar, and Blair castles, and the site of Killiekrankie (27th July 1689) with a visitor centre.
- Battle of Stirling Bridge (11th Sep 1297)
Here the forces of Andrew Moray and William Wallace delivered a crushing victory against the English. The National Wallace Monument lies in a wooded area to the north of the river, and a leisurely stroll from here, past the actual battle site and over the bridge (not the original of course) brings you to Stirling Castle, and a statue of Robert Bruce. Five miles to the south is the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, where Bruce defeated the English again (24th June 1314) Although the exact place of the battle is uncertain, there is a visitor centre with lots of information.
One option from Stirling is to head north-west, to Doune Castle, and on to Rob Roy’s grave, which takes you well into the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (30 miles 50 Km)
- Falkirk (22nd July 1298) – Falkirk Muir (17th Jan 1746)
Alternatively, continue south to Falkirk, a shorter although less scenic walking route (14 miles). It was at Falkirk in 1298 that Wallace met his match in Edward I, and in 1746 Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites defeated the British government forces. Falkirk also boasts the tallest sculpture in the UK, The Kelpies (30m) and the Falkirk wheel, as well as the previously mentioned Antonine wall, and Callendar House, an extensive mansion built around a 14th-century tower house, now a museum and heritage centre.
A Selection of Official Walking Routes
As is clear, with such a wealth of amazing scenery, and rich historical tapestry, Scotland offers unlimited possibilities for historical walking routes. As well as my suggestions, there are many ‘official routes’ with specific historical connections. These usually have the advantage of being well signposted with guidebooks available, which makes planning easier.
- Rob Roy Way
Beginnning at Drymen and ends up in Pitlochry, mostly through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National park, and skirting Loch Tay.
- The Cateran Trail
A circuit starting in Blairgowrie, and taking in several points of interest including parts of the Cairngorm National park.
- Borders Abbeys Way
A circuit route taking in the border towns of Kelso, Jedburgh, Hawick, Selkirk, and Melrose. Four derelict 12th century abbeys, castles, monuments, and other sites of historical interest litter the route.
- St Cuthbert’s Way
Sneaking in on merit, despite crossing between Scotland and England, the route links up Melrose with Lindisfarne, passing through a wealth of border history, and close enough to the site of Flodden (9th September 1513) to make a short detour, although there is just a monument marking the site.