A Look at the Best of Southern Scotland
Southern Scotland does not feature prominently enough in visitors’ Scotland travel itineraries. Aside from being under-marketed, its large geography and the sheer multitude of appeal in the Highlands mean it has long been overlooked. Even I, a big fan and advocate, couldn’t find space for it on my recommended 3 week itinerary for Scotland. It needs a significant time investment and is difficult to adequately experience without a solid commitment. This Southern Scotland itinerary advises reserving 7-10 days to take the region on on its own. Its primary strength definitely lies in in the historic department – with ruins in abundance – but the gentle rolling valleys and dramatic stretches of coastline will appeal to wildlife lovers and photographers alike.
Day 1-2 East Lothian and the Scottish Borders
Day 3-4 The Border Ruins
Day 5-8 Dumfries and Galloway
Day 9-10 D&G and Ayrshire
Who is this Southern Scotland itinerary for?
This is ideally suited to those that have a sense of familiarity with Scotland. Those looking for some peace and quiet and to avoid the tourist crowds in summer. Travellers looking for a different side to Scotland than just the usual suspects. You’ll be a history fan for sure but will also value a mighty landscape. Although created with drivers in mind, large chunks of Southern Scotland are perfect for cyclists and long distance walkers, including the popular Southern Upland Way.
Days 1 and 2
East Coastline – East Lothian and the Scottish Borders
Our northern stretches of coast get plenty of hype but road-tripping down the south east is simply astonishing. Starting in East Lothian and the pretty coastal town of North Berwick, this is a brilliant and near-immediate transition from Edinburgh to a more relaxed pace. Tantallon and Dirleton Castles are two of my favourite Scottish ruins. Fancy a walk? Berwick Law is a straightforward climb onto a slightly bizarre mound just outside of town with brilliant views over the North Sea. Nature lovers should head to the Scottish Seabird Centre for ‘spycams’ on the bird colonies residing on outlying Bass Rock. Boat tours are also available, more about that next spring.
Continue south down the coastline when it really comes to life on a sunny day. Big highlights include the walk out to the barely-there remains of clifftop Fast Castle and the glorious St Abbs. Start at the Visitor Centre then head to the cliffs for a rewarding wander of pure drama.
Days 3 and 4
The Historic Border Ruins
You can read about my history highlights of the region – which knows no equal in this department – but the Borders Abbey Trail is a must. Take in Kelso, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and finish in Melrose. Then it’s on to Abbotsford – one of the best museums in Scotland and a wonderful tribute to Sir Walter Scott. As for castles, one of our absolute best can be found almost on our border with England and should come between your stops at Jedburgh and Dryburgh. Hermitage Castle is grim and desolate, screams atmosphere and dread, and is angular enough to embody a whole new level of sinister. Return north for a nosey at fabulous Rosslyn Chapel. Deservedly beamed into the spotlight largely thanks to the Da Vinci Code, this pristine place is a feast for the eyes and the attention to every intricate architectural detail is unparalleled.
Days 5 and 6
Dumfries & Galloway
Day 5 starts not far south of Edinburgh, head south and west. A stop at fascinating 17th Century Traquair House is a must before crossing out of the Scottish Borders with a walk at stunning Grey Mare’s Tail (allow at least 2 hours). Keep headed south into Dumfries and Galloway to arguably Scotland’s best all-round castle, Caerlaverock. Victim of many a brutal siege and visually glorious it’s right up there with my favourites. Finish today in or around Dumfries, ideally with a sunset stop at evocative Sweetheart Abbey.
Along with Alloway in Ayrshire, Dumfries is the best place to immerse yourself in Robert Burns mania. Stick your head in at Burns House where he worked and lived, or to picturesque Ellisland Farm on the town outskirts. The latter was the source of much of his inspiration and tends to be a favourite for his 21st Century fans. Follow up by heading south west to fabulously remote, islanded Threave Castle. Continue to history-hunt with stops at Dundrennan Abbey, MacLellan’s Castle and Cardoness Castle. Told you this is the hands-down winner in the ruins department.
Days 7 and 8
Dumfries & Galloway
Newton Stewart makes a useful base for the next couple of days. You can spend Day 7 hitting up the south west coast – drop by the pretty town of Portpatrick (Dunskey Castle is worth the clifftop walk!) and continue into the peninsula to the eventual Mull of Galloway. See what you can spot from the RSPB hub at the end-of-the-road lighthouse and call by Logan Botanic Garden if weather permits. This is Scotland at its mildest down here and enjoy the odd moment of bemusement at the relatively exotic plant life along the way.
For Day 8 embrace the fabulous Galloway Forest Park. You can climb to the highest point of Merrick or go on one of the many suggested walks. This one from Glentrool is my favourite. Like pretty much the entirety of Southern Scotland, it’s a great place to escape the crowds and you’ll have much of your time here to yourself.
Days 9 and 10
North Dumfries & Galloway and Ayrshire
As you head north, the castles of Morton and Drumlanrig are next up on the Southern Scotland itinerary. Two more diametrically opposed castles you couldn’t find. Morton is a ruined shell, gloriously presented in a partially moated setting in the near middle of nowhere. Castle aficionados (and drone pilots) will love it! Majestic Drumlanrig has a massive and opulent estate all to itself. Beautiful gardens and numerous walking routes surround a grand mansion that deserves at least a couple of hours of your time.
Ayrshire is another region that is a bit of a non-entry in Scottish tourism discussions. While there’s some heavily urbanised areas that I can’t say I’m a fan of, the region continues with the theme of castles, Burns and beautiful coastal scenery. Culzean Castle is at the centre of another stunning estate that has enough to keep multiple generations entertained for a whole day. Be sure to enquire ahead to see if there’s a chance to get a guided tour of the spooky caves beneath. If you can’t get enough of coastal castles, head a little further north to moody Dunure.
If you are a Burns fan of any kind, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was made for you. Spend the last morning on your itinerary wandering along the Burns Trail that covers the highlights around Alloway – where he spent his early years. Finish up this southern marathon with a stop at the fabulous World Heritage site of New Lanark. An immaculately preserved mill town, the Visitor Centre and multitude of outlying buildings make for a fascinating insight into this industrial heartland. If the weather is on your side, the Falls of Clyde circular path makes for a relaxing conclusion.
Fancy more? Extend your 10 day Southern Scotland itinerary by hopping over to the fabulous Isle of Arran for a few days, return to city life in the Central Belt or start looking at the infinite possibilities northwards. While I’d stake my career on Scotland exceeding expectations across the board, I very much doubt anywhere will surprise quite as pleasantly as our un-heralded south.