Celebrated for its deep, fascinating history, striking mountains, stately castles, and misty lochs — not to mention its mythological monsters — Scotland is arguably the most ruggedly beautiful of all four United Kingdom nations. Like its southern neighbor, England, it has its fair share of major cities — Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow, to name a few — but there’s also a wealth of smaller gems scattered across the glens and valleys of its incredible landscape — if you know where to look.
Whether you’re seeking the finest dram of whisky (it’s been distilled here since the 15th century and always spelled without an “e” to set it apart from the American stuff) or simply want a break from the grind in some spectacularly romantic surrounds, these are the small towns in Scotland you should add to your next U.K. itinerary. (Kilt and sporran optional).
Fort Augustus, Lochaber
Perched at the southwest end of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus began as an 18th-century military garrison, but today it’s at the heart of an entirely different battle: the fight to prove the existence of Nessie. Come here to enjoy a cruise on the most famous of all the Scottish lochs, scouring the surface for telltale signs of the cryptozoological monster, before checking out the town’s 19th-century abbey and learning about Highlands culture at the Clansman Centre. Fort Augustus is also a superb jumping-off point for road trips into the bucolic, heather-strewn mountains of the deeper Highlands.
Killin, Loch Tay
An easy drive from the historic city of Stirling, Killin is a popular spot for sailing and kayaking on dazzling Loch Tay. It’s also home to the Falls of Dochart, a cascade of waterfalls at the western end of the loch, where locals sprawl on the rocks in the summer months, pint or picnic in hand. The town itself boasts a number of great places to stay and eat, as well as the fascinating Breadalbane Folklore Centre, dedicated to the myths and legends of the area. Other sightseeing opportunities include the ruins of Finlarig Castle, where you can also explore a traditional Scottish longhouse. The amazing hiking on nearby mountain Beinn Ghlas is also well worth experiencing.
Tobermory, Isle of Mull
The idyllic capital of the Isle of Mull, Tobermory is famed for its rainbow-hued houses, single malt whisky, and picturesque fishing port — one of the most beautiful in Scotland. Getting to this pretty bolthole in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides is all part of the adventure, with ferries from the mainland (Kilchoan) taking 35 minutes. Private water taxis are another option. Once you’re in Tobermory, you’ll find a great selection of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and old-fashioned inns to explore — just don’t leave without buying one of the famous ceramic water jugs from the Tobermory Distillery (and a bottle of whisky to go with it, naturally).
A pretty little village in a grand location, Braemar has strong royal connections. For starters, Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s beloved Scottish retreat, is just a few miles down the road and open to the public when it’s not being lived in. (It also offers holiday cottages for rent inside the grounds.) Secondly, Braemar is home to the legendary Braemar Gathering, a traditional Highland games contest that takes place in September and has been attended by the British royal family since the 1840s. Otherwise, there are two ancient castles to explore and the Highland Games Centre for those interested in charting the roots and rules of some of the strangest Scottish sports.
If pastoral Plockton, with its charming cottages surrounding an idyllic bay, looks like a film set, that’s because it is. This little slice of paradise was the backdrop for the 1973 classic horror movie “The Wicker Man,” and more recently the popular British drama series Hamish Macbeth.
The unique microclimate in this sunny pocket of Scotland’s western coast means that, bizarrely, tropical palms line the waterfront. From here, you can even rent sea kayaks or join wildlife-watching cruises to spot seals and otters. Meanwhile, just south of Plockton, you’ll find the Kyle of Lochalsh railway line — one of the most breathtaking train journeys in the U.K.
One of the top day trip destinations from Edinburgh (an easy seven-mile bus ride away), little Roslin is home to Scotland’s most beautiful and enigmatic church, Rosslyn Chapel. The 15th-century Gothic masterpiece, festooned with elaborate flourishes and symbolic images, is one of the most romantic spots in the country, immortalized first by William Wordsworth, and later by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” While you’re in town, check out the rugged ruins of Roslin Castle and the hiking trails of Pentland Hills, which reward with amazing views of Edinburgh’s venerable skyline.
Portree, Isle of Skye
The largest and liveliest town on the famed Isle of Skye, Portree is known for its cliff-fringed harbor, congenial pubs, and the Aros Centre, which showcases traditional Gaelic dance, music, and art. Skye is easily accessible from mainland Scotland via a modern road bridge, and Portree is the perfect base from which to explore one of the country’s most celebrated islands — a renowned hiking and wildlife-spotting paradise.
A charmer of a town just a stone’s throw from the English border, Kelso has a cheery, welcoming feel and boasts one of the finest Georgian houses in the U.K., Floors Castle (don’t miss the walled garden — a particular highlight of the extensive grounds). Built around the statuesque ruins of a 12th-century abbey and situated at the confluence of two great rivers — the Tweed and Teviot — Sir Walter Scott proclaimed Kelso to be the most beautiful of all Scottish towns.