Top historic sites in Scotland

St Giles' Cathedral

A parish church was established in Edinburgh as early as 854. This first church, a modest affair, was probably in use for several centuries before a new one was founded in the 1120s. The 12th-century church was part of an effort of the Scottish royal family, especially David I (1124-1153), to spread Catholic worship throughout the Scottish lowlands. This church was probably quite small, Norman (Romanesque) in style, like ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is a historic fortress which dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh from its position on the Castle Rock. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age (2nd century AD), although the nature of the early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal castle on the rock since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a r ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Edinburgh Old Town

Edinburgh Old Town has preserved much of its medieval street plan and many Reformation-era buildings. The 'Royal Mile' is a name coined in the early 20th-century for the main artery of the Old Town which runs on a downwards slope from Edinburgh Castle to both Holyrood Palace and the ruined Holyrood Abbey. Narrow closes (alleyways), often no more than a few feet wide, lead steeply downhill to both north and south ...
Founded: | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Calton Hill

Calton Hill in central Edinburgh is included in the city's UNESCO World Heritage Site. Views of, and from, the hill are often used in photographs and paintings of the city. Calton Hill is the headquarters of the Scottish Government, which is based at St Andrew's House, on the steep southern slope of the hill; with the Scottish Parliament Building, and other notable buildings, for example Holyrood Palace, lying near the f ...
Founded: | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most important castles, both historically and architecturally, in Scotland. The castle is a great symbol of Scottish Independence and a source of enduring national pride. Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it an important fortification from the earliest times. Stirling Castle is a Scheduled Anci ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Stirling, United Kingdom

Holyrood Palace

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, commonly referred to as Holyrood Palace, is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Located at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, at the opposite end to Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace has served as the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots since the 16th century, and is a setting for state occasions and official entertaining. Queen Elizabeth spends ...
Founded: 1671-1678 | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Holyrood Abbey Ruins

Holyrood Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I. The original abbey church of Holyrood was largely reconstructed between 1195 and 1230. The completed building consisted of a six-bay aisled choir, three-bay transepts with a central tower above, and an eight-bay aisled nave with twin towers at its west front. During the 15th century, the abbey guesthouse was developed into a royal residence, and after the Scottish Reform ...
Founded: 1128 | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Edinburgh New Town

Inspired by the lofty ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment, the neat and ordered grid of the Edinburgh New Town provides an elegant contrast to the labyrinthine design of the Old Town. Its broad streets boast spectacular neoclassical and Georgian architecture, with a wealth of beautiful buildings perfectly preserved since their construction in the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors are treated to a glimpse of how the city ...
Founded: 18th century | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle dominates a rocky promontory jutting into Loch Ness. That promontory has hosted some famous names in its long history. Around AD 580 St Columba was making the long journey from his monastery on the island of Iona to the court of Bridei, king of the Picts, at Inverness. As he was passing up Loch Ness, he was called to the residence of an elderly Pictish nobleman at Airdchartdan (Urquhart). Emchath was close ...
Founded: 13th century | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most recognised castles in Scotland. It is, without doubt, a Scottish icon and certainly one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Highlands. When you first set eyes on it, it is easy to understand why so many people flock to its stout doors year after year. Strategically located on its own little island, overlooking the Isle of Skye, at the point where three great sea-lochs meet ...
Founded: c. 1250 | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle sits on a cliff overlooking the River Ness. The red sandstone structure evident today was built in 1836 by architect William Burn. It is built on the site of an 11th-century (c. 1057) defensive structure. Today, it houses Inverness Sheriff Court. The castle is said to have been built by Máel Coluim III of Scotland, after he had razed to the ground the castle in which Macbeth of Scotland according ...
Founded: 1836 | Location: Inverness, United Kingdom

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a rocky headland on the north-east coast of Scotland. The surviving buildings are largely of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the site is believed to have been fortified in the Early Middle Ages. Dunnottar has played a prominent role in the history of Scotland through to the 18th-century Jacobite risings because of its strategic location and defensive st ...
Founded: 15th century | Location: Stonehaven, United Kingdom

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel was founded on a small hill above Roslin Glen in the mid-15th century. The chapel was founded by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness of the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family. After the Scottish Reformation (1560), Roman Catholic worship in the chapel was brought to an end, although the Sinclair family continued to be Roman Catholics until the early 18th century. From that time the chapel was closed to ...
Founded: 15th century | Location: Roslin, United Kingdom

Callanish Stones

The Callanish Stones are an arrangement of standing stones placed in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle. They were erected in the late Neolithic era, and were a focus for ritual activity during the Bronze Age. Archaeological excavation in the 1980s proved that the main circle was erected 4,500-5,000 years ago, and the chambered tomb a few generations later. The setting has a unique arrangement, with lines of ...
Founded: 3000-2500 BC | Location: Outer Hebrides, United Kingdom

Wallace Monument

The National Wallace Monument is which commemorates Sir William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish hero. The tower was constructed following a fundraising campaign, which accompanied a resurgence of Scottish national identity in the 19th century. Completed in 1869 to the designs of architect John Thomas Rochead at a cost of £18,000, the monument is a 67-metre sandstone tower, built in the Victorian Gothic style. The ...
Founded: 1869 | Location: Stirling, United Kingdom

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar is one of Scotland’s most perfectly preserved castles. It began as a simple tower-house residence. Gradually, over time, it developed into a complex of structures and spaces, as subsequent owners attempted to improve its comfort and amenity. As a result, there are many nooks and crannies to explore. The surrounding gardens and parkland were also important. The present-day Craigmillar Castle Park has fascina ...
Founded: c. 1375-1425 | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement which consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. Europe"s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. As older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the 'Scottish Pompeii' because of its excellent preservation. In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland, c ...
Founded: | Location: Orkney, United Kingdom

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey is one of the oldest and most important religious centres in Western Europe. The abbey was a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and marks the foundation of a monastic community by St. Columba, when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. In 563, Columba came to Iona from Ireland with twelve companions, and founded a monastery. It developed as an influential centre for the ...
Founded: 563 AD | Location: Isle of Iona, United Kingdom

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands with 189 rooms. It is also one of Britain's oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s. Dunrobin Castle has been called home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The castle stands possibly on the site of an ...
Founded: 13th/19th century | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle has been the Scottish home of the Royal Family since it was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852, having been first leased in 1848. The castle is an example of Scots Baronial architecture. King Robert II of Scotland (1316–1390) had a hunting lodge in the area. Historical records also indicate that a house at Balmoral was built by Sir William Drummond in 1390. A tower house was buil ...
Founded: 1852 | Location: Ballater, United Kingdom

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château built between 1658-1661 for Nicolas Fouquet. It was made for Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV, the château was an influential work of architecture in mid-17th century Europe. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of the 'Louis XIV style' combining architecture, interior design and landscape design. The garden's pronounced visual axis is an example of this style.

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as 16 million livres. The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

The Marshal Villars became the new owner without first seeing the chateau. In 1764, the Marshal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when duke Charles de Choiseul-Praslin, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, assisted by the landscape architect Elie Lainé. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to preserve the château, which remains privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. It is now administered by their three sons Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. Recognized by the state as a monument historique, it is open to the public regularly.

Architecture

The chateau is situated near the northern end of a 1.5-km long north-south axis with the entrance front facing north. Its elevations are perfectly symmetrical to either side of this axis. Somewhat surprisingly the interior plan is also nearly completely symmetrical with few differences between the eastern and western halves. The two rooms in the center, the entrance vestibule to the north and the oval salon to the south, were originally an open-air loggia, dividing the chateau into two distinct sections. The interior decoration of these two rooms was therefore more typical of an outdoor setting. Three sets of three arches, those on the entrance front, three more between the vestibule and the salon, and the three leading from the salon to the garden are all aligned and permitted the arriving visitor to see through to the central axis of the garden even before entering the chateau. The exterior arches could be closed with iron gates, and only later were they filled in with glass doors and the interior arches with mirrored doors. Since the loggia divided the building into two halves, there are two symmetrical staircases on either side of it, rather than a single staircase. The rooms in the eastern half of the house were intended for the use of the king, those in the western were for Fouquet. The provision of a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king travelled frequently.

Another surprising feature of the plan is the thickness of the main body of the building (corps de logis), which consists of two rows of rooms running east and west. Traditionally the middle of the corps de logis of French chateaux consisted of a single row of rooms. Double-thick corps de logis had already been used in hôtels particuliers in Paris, including Le Vau's Hôtel Tambonneau, but Vaux was the first chateau to incorporate this change. Even more unusual, the main rooms are all on the ground floor rather than the first floor (the traditional piano nobile). This accounts for the lack of a grand staircase or a gallery, standard elements of most contemporary chateaux. Also noteworthy are corridors in the basement and on the first floor which run the length of house providing privacy to the rooms they access. Up to the middle of the 17th century, corridors were essentially unknown. Another feature of the plan, the four pavilions, one at each corner of the building, is more conventional.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was originally planned to be constructed in brick and stone, but after the mid-century, as the middle classes began to imitate this style, aristocratic circles began using stone exclusively. Rather late in the design process, Fouquet and Le Vau switched to stone, a decision that may have been influenced by the use of stone at François Mansart's Château de Maisons. The service buildings flanking the large avant-cour to the north of the house remained in brick and stone, and other structures preceding them were in rubble-stone and plaster, a social ranking of building materials that would be common in France for a considerable length of time thereafter.

The main chateau is constructed entirely on a moated platform, reached via two bridges, both aligned with the central axis and placed on the north and south sides. The moat is a picturesque holdover from medieval fortified residences, and is again a feature that Le Vau may have borrowed from Maisons. The moat at Vaux may also have been inspired by the previous chateau on the site, which Le Vau's work replaced.

Gardens

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km), with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view. Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks.