The Out About Scotland Guide to the 7 Best Attractions in Scotland that Avoid the Tourist Crowds
I love visiting Scottish tourist attractions. You’ve probably already figured that out by the fact that I’ve created an entire website about Scotland’s attractions, but believe me, you’ve no idea how much I actually love getting out and about in Scotland. No, when I say I love visiting Scotland’s attractions I mean I really love it. Like, properly love it. Almost in a wrong kind of way.
Every day I wake up and all I want to do is get my boots on and go hiking in some muddy field to look at a derelict pile of stones that nobody else except me seems to care about. Or get on my bike and go blasting through some mud-filled track in the back of beyond that no-one else in their right mind would want to venture to. And then I want to get in the car and drive to another muddy field with another derelict pile of stones and go hiking until my feet are killing me and the rain has soaked me and it’s getting dark and I’ve no choice but to pack it in for the day and go back home so that I can do it all again tomorrow. It’s that kind of obsession. One that requires you to have a very understanding partner (luckily for me I have one), or stay single. Probably the kind of single person that mutters to themselves and owns ten cats. You know the type.
And I know that you love Scotland’s tourist attractions as well. Maybe not in a weirdy-beardy type of way, but you love them just the same. Of course you do. That’s why you’re on this website. Fellow adventurers like you come from all over the world to visit Scotland and breathe in our clean air, climb our majestic mountains, explore our amazing cities and wander around our fascinating castle’s each and every year. And why wouldn’t they? This country has one of the most interesting histories of any nation on earth, with more fascinating old buildings than any country has a right to have, and a landscape that simply begs to be romped through with its jaw-dropping sights around every corner.
But there’s a downside to a country having all these amazing tourist attractions. The tourists. Now I’m not including you in any negative sentiments I have when it comes to tourists in Scotland, but let’s be honest with each other here. Tourists are annoying as hell. They irritate me in ways that I know I shouldn’t allow them to, but I just can’t help it. They’re just there. All the time. Everywhere you go. Getting in the way and poking me with their selfie sticks while pushing to the front of queues, or talking too loudly and stopping suddenly in front of me to take photos, and generally behaving in a way that’s just not-how-we-do-things-around-here. Basically, they’re exactly like me when I’m on holiday abroad.
The number of visitors coming to Scotland’s shores has exploded in the last few years and shows absolutely no sign of letting up, which is actually great for the country because the amount of money they bring with them is nothing short of staggering. Last years (2017) tourist numbers were absolutely gob-smacking, and maybe a little bit scary as well, and 2018 already looks like it’s going to blow those figures out of the water. In 2017 alone, tourism figures (from the official Visit Scotland website) in Scotland were:
- Amount spent in GBP by international visitors – £2.3 Billion
- Total days spent visiting Scotland – 6 Billion
- Total domestic and international visitor spend – £11.2 Billion
- Total number of yearly visitors to Scotland – 14.1 Million
It’s that last figure that really blows my mind. Scotland is a nation of around 5.3 Million people and there were 14.1 Million visitors to Scotland in 2017, which means the population of the country more than doubles every year thanks to the tourism industry. That’s 2-and-a-half tourists for every local! And it’s this sheer volume of people that constantly annoys me when I have to fight through them just to get to my local Edinburgh pizzeria on a Saturday night.
I’ll admit we probably get the worst of it in Edinburgh because it’s one of the most-visited places in the country, and truth be told I think most Edinburgh locals are proud that so many international tourists are choosing to visit their little city. But what about if you want to see Scotland’s attractions and you don’t want to fight through huge crowds of moaning pensioners and screaming children? What options have you got?
Well you’re probably going to want to avoid the major cities for starters, so that’s Edinburgh and Glasgow off the list. And you’re going to have to be choosy about visiting the islands too, so scrub Skye out as well. Highlands? Well, maybe. But forget about famous sites like Glencoe. And if you’re after dramatic views you’re going to have to give Glenfinnan a miss.
So where does that leave you? Well in a pretty good place to be honest. One of the great things about Scotland’s tourists is that they have a herd mentality, and they’ll generally follow each other to the same attractions before getting back into the coach and following each other to the next site. And that’s where you, the informed visitor, has a distinct advantage.
All you need to do is find those Scottish attractions that aren’t on the usual tourist routes. The ones that are a little bit off the beaten path but are still completely awesome. The ones that only a Scotland resident could tell you about. Like the ones I’m going to show you in this guide.
Below are seven of the best non-touristy destinations in Scotland that are so off the usual tourist trails that you might find that you’re the only visitor there. This list features places where you’ll probably find a few friendly locals wandering around, but there’s zero chance that a busload of shouty-types will suddenly descend upon you like a swarm of particularly annoying locusts. I’m about to show you the undiscovered gems that haven’t been discovered by the masses yet, where peace and quiet reigns supreme. It’ll be our little secret. Enjoy.
1. The Isle of Arran
The Isle of Arran lies just to the west of Glasgow in the Firth of Clyde, which makes it one of the easiest west coast islands to get to and yet it’s large enough that you can travel out to its extremities and really feel like you’re completely isolated from the rest of civilisation.
Arran is one of the larger Scottish islands at 167 square miles and is often referred to as ‘Scotland in miniature’, thanks to the hills, mountains, lochs, forests and beaches that comprise the stunning landscape. It’s easy to lose yourself in the sheltered beaches, lush forests and dramatic mountain peaks of Arran, and there’s enough going on in the towns and villages dotted about that you won’t get bored even if you decide to have your entire holiday there.
As a site for outdoor activities, I think you’ll struggle to find a better place in all of Scotland. If you really want to get the adrenaline pumping you can try gorge walking, rock climbing, and kayaking, or just get your boots on for a spot of hiking up the wild mountains that can be found throughout the island.
The largest of the peaks is Goatfell, an 874-metre mountain that’s managed by the National Trust for Scotland and offers superb walks for any nature-lover that fancies a challenge. The most commonly used route (and the one I recommend) to the top of Goatfell starts near Brodich Castle and runs for 3 miles through forest and moorland to a viewpoint that offers absolutely beautiful panoramic views across the island.
Another really good walk is the one to the Historic Environment Scotland-managed Machrie Moor, where you’ll find six large and mysterious stone circles that date from prehistoric times. Some of these circles are made from granite boulders while others are made from sandstone pillars, and while we might never understand the original purpose for the stones we can at least enjoy walking around them on the one-hour walk across the desolate moorland where they sit.
The scenic countryside of Arran is perfect for horse riding and luckily there are a couple of riding centres on the island, but if you prefer your saddle to be sat on top of two wheels you can hire a bike instead. There are several really good trails around the island which allow you to see the sights up close but I’d say the coast road from Machrie to Lochranza is one of best, mainly because it’s relatively flat and there’s very little traffic on it, but really the whole island offers a fantastic adventure if you’re prepared to put in a little effort on the hilly parts (of which there are many).
You can learn more about this island in my complete guide to Arran.
2. The Isle of Eigg
With a total area of only 12 square miles, the Isle of Eigg is one of the smaller Hebridean islands situated on Scotland’s west coast, but it has one of the most interesting histories. This remote location is one of the least visited western isles, which is surprising seeing as it’s so close to the ever-popular Isle of Skye, but its small tourism industry only adds to its charm in my opinion.
People have been living on Eigg (pronounced ‘egg’) since the Bronze Age, and traces of ancient weapons including knives, axes and arrowheads have been dated from around the Neolithic era, so in many ways there are a lot of similarities to the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland in the far north. But where those islands are really quite desolate, Eigg has plenty of woodland to complement its wild and remote areas.
Probably the remotest part of this isle is the moorland plateau in its centre which rises nearly 400 metres at An Sgurr, the enormous sheer-sided pitchstone pinnacle that dominates the island and which also offers amazing views from the top. It’s actually possible to walk right up to the top of this rocky outcrop, and if you do you’ll get some fantastic views across to the Isles of Mull, Coll, Muck, Rum and Skye – at least in good weather. Try this climb on a misty day and the views will be a lot less interesting.
There are only around 100 inhabitants on Eigg which makes it perfect for the traveller looking to find some peace and quiet in the western isles, although the summer months do see an increase in the number of visitors thanks to the ferry routes from the mainland fishing port of Mallaig and the village of Arisaig in Lochaber. But travel there outside of the summer tourist season and you might find you’re the only non-local there.
One of the interesting things to know about Eigg is that it’s actually owned and managed by a trust that comprises a number of the local residents as well as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Council. Between them, they’ve managed to increase the population of the island from around 65 to just over 100 in the last 7 years. Not a huge population, but then this is an island that thrives on staying small enough to sustain itself, something that can be seen in the fact that it’s completely powered by renewable energy. That’s something that the highly populated areas of Scotland could only ever dream about. Go Eigg!
If you manage to get onto the island to explore it for yourself you’ll find a few modern amenities that cater to visitors, such as the restaurant and bar near the ferry jetty. But the best reason to go there is to just get out and explore it on foot. That’s really the only way you’re going to get to see the majority of the bird species that live on Eigg, and if you take your binoculars you’ll be in for a treat as the island has breeding populations of falcons, kestrels, owls and even golden eagles swooping over the majority of its landscape. It really is a fantastic place to visit if you’re a bird-watcher, or even if you’ve just got a love of the great outdoors.
You can learn more about this island in my complete guide to Eigg.
3. The Isles of St. Kilda
If you’re looking to get away from the tourist hordes you can’t go far wrong with a trip to the spectacular volcanic archipelago of St. Kilda. Situated off the western edge of the Outer Hebrides, St. Kilda is comprised of the four separate islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray, with the largest island of Hirta being the destination most favoured by the few tourists who actually manage to get to the islands.
Getting to this remote part of Scotland involves a fair bit of travel due to the fact that it’s located over 40 miles west of North Uist (which already lies on the edge of the Outer Hebrides), although the biggest St. Kilda tour operator departs from the slightly nearer Isle of Skye, which is still a relatively remote destination to travel to. But the journey is well worth it.
Walking on St. Kilda is an experience you’re not likely to forget thanks to some of the highest cliffs in Europe which are home to nearly one million seabirds including puffins and gannets, as well as several rare and endangered bird species. There are sheep that are unchanged from the type that was first introduced during the Iron Age, a type of wren that can be found nowhere else in the world, and a species of field mouse that’s somehow managed to grow to twice the size of its mainland cousins. In their own way these remote islands have a lot of similarities with other isolated islands like Madagascar, although they’re a heck of a lot colder and windier.
While St. Kilda is renowned for its wildlife it also has plenty to offer visitors interested in human history thanks to the remains of human occupation that can be found throughout the islands, some of which date back over 4000 years. That’s pretty amazing, but what’s even more amazing is the fact that an entire community continued to live on Hirta right up until 1930 when a combination of illness and the aftermath of the first world war caused them to evacuate to the mainland. It’s really incredible to think that people used to make a living for themselves on this remote and desolate dot of land so far from the rest of Scotland.
Today, St. Kilda has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, and although it’s uninhabited you can still experience what life must have been like for those hardy souls in days gone by. If you want history, wildlife and an all-over genuinely unique (and almost tourist-free) experience, then making the journey to this far-western edge of Scotland has to be at the top of your list.
4. The Isle of Tiree
The Isle of Tiree on the western edge of the Inner Hebrides is one of those places in Scotland that’s got plenty of reasons to visit but seems to be forgotten about by international visitors. This small island is most famous for the golden beaches that run almost all the way around its perimeter, and because it’s so flat many of these beaches have very shallow bays where you can walk far out into the sea with the waves only just lapping up to your knees.
Although it can be incredibly windy due to the fact that it’s so flat, Tiree actually has some of the highest levels of sunshine recorded anywhere in the United Kingdom, and on a summer day you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’re sitting on a beach somewhere in the Mediterranean. And even better, because it’s still one of those unknown gems that international visitors don’t seem to know about you can often find yourself sunbathing on those stunning beaches completely alone, apart from the odd seagull or two.
There are a couple of times during the year when visitor numbers pick up though, most notably the Tiree Music Festival in July and the Tiree Wave Classic windsurfing event in October, but these events only last a week each and for the rest of the year the entire island is peaceful and quiet.
You could quite easily walk around the entire coastline of Tiree if you wanted to take a walking/camping holiday as it’s only around 46 miles from start to finish, and you wouldn’t get bored either because there are always plenty of things to stop and look. In fact, there are the remains of more than twenty Iron Age fortresses on Tiree, with the huge stone camp (known as a ‘broch’) at Dun Mor Bhalla probably being the best preserved on the island.
Not only does Tiree have oodles of history but there’s a whole load of wildlife to see as well thanks to the enormous colonies of birds that live on the island, with noisy gannets and fulmars filling the skies alongside the rather more subdued lapwings and skylarks. And keep a lookout towards the sea as you walk along the beaches as there are usually seals and dolphins with young pups and calves taking shelter in the shallow bays around the coastline.
Read the Out About Scotland guide to Tiree to find out more about this stunning island.
The borders town of Peebles is a real hidden treasure that’s criminally underrated in my opinion. This historic town is situated just 23 miles south of Edinburgh in the very peaceful Borders countryside and it has loads of activities for visitors to take part in, with fishing, golf, cycling and horse riding being particularly popular.
But what I like most about this lovely little town is that it offers a gateway into southern Scotland that’s rarely visited by tour operators. This is probably due to the fact that it’s so close to Edinburgh and most international visitors seem to prefer heading up north after a visit to the capital city, but that means there are fewer tourists romping around the Borders countryside than in many other areas.
Peebles is an old market town which lies at the junction of the River Tweed and Eddleston Water, and it’s been a Royal Burgh since 1152, with many of the medieval closes and alleyways pretty much unchanged since the 12th century. There are plenty of quaint little shops to stroll past in the timeless High Street and there are lots of places to stop and eat in the town centre before heading down to the peaceful walkways that run all the way along the River Tweed.
If you have the time then you won’t go far wrong with the Peebles Town Trail which offers an interesting stroll through the history of the town as well as along the impressive River Tweed. The river is pretty much the heart of this town and if you like salmon fishing then you’ll want to take the journey to Peebles just for the fishing opportunities that are available to you, but there’s so much more to enjoy in this lovely corner of Scotland.
The Borders area is a biking hotspot, and one of my favourite cycle routes in all of Scotland is the Tweed Cycleway which runs across 90 miles of unspoilt countryside between the towns of Biggar and Berwick-Upon-Tweed, with Peebles sitting roughly in the middle.
You don’t have to stick to roads though, and if you have a mountain bike you can go slightly off-track and head into the forests at Glentress, Cardrona and Elibank, with Glentress offering some truly awesome mountain bike trails. In fact, Glentress is frequently rated as one of the best mountain biking destinations in Britain and I wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic downhill tracks that run through it, all of which offer something for every experience level – whether you’re a novice or a mountain biking expert.
It’s not just cyclists who can enjoy getting away from it all either as Peebles has loads of walking routes that pass through southern Scotland’s hills and forests, including the John Buchan Way which offers an easy walk across 13 miles of Borders countryside, starting at Peebles and finishing at the town of Broughton.
There’s been a settlement at the ancient city of Perth since prehistoric times and it’s believed that tribes of hunter-gatherers lived in the area at least 8000 years ago, which is pretty amazing considering that’s 3000 years before Stonehenge was built. This is one city in Scotland that absolutely drips with history, and yet in all the times I’ve been there I’ve never seen a big group of tourists walking around it. I guess they’re all busy photographing Edinburgh Castle instead, and that’s why Perth has been included in this list of tourist-free Scottish attractions.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there are no visitors to this city, but more that they seem to be locals from the surrounding areas rather than tourists from another country. It’s not as if there’s nothing to do in Perth either. In fact, there’s loads to do.
The city is split down the middle by the River Tay which offers lovely views while walking alongside it, and the city centre itself is great for shopping with lots of restaurants and bars to keep you occupied in the evening. But what I think makes Perth the perfect city to visit for a quiet holiday is that it’s a really good base from which to explore the surrounding Perthshire countryside.
The first stop I’d recommend you make is at the Kinnoull Hill Woodland Park which lies to the east of Perth. This Site of Special Scientific Interest has five hills inside its boundary as well as the River Tay, and there’s an enormously diverse range of plants and wildlife living in the wooded cliffs of the hills. If you take a walk to the top of Kinnoull hill (which is the highest peak inside the park) you’ll be rewarded with some amazing views from the top, but be aware that there are cliff faces part way around the hill with sheer drops of around 150 metres.
The lower level of the park has several cycle tracks running through it and not only is the woodland inside lovely to stroll through, but it’s really quiet mid-week. One nearby attraction that’s definitely worth visiting is Branklyn Garden, a 2-acre National Trust garden that’s home to many plant species collected from across the globe that have been pruned and trimmed to perfection over the course of nearly one hundred years.
Heading a little further away from Perth is the Perthshire town of Dunkeld, which also lies on the banks of the River Tay. This is what’s known locally as ‘big tree country’ and there’s more woodland in this part of the country than anywhere else in Scotland. One of my favourite sites around here is The Hermitage, which is an oasis of Douglas Firs bordering the grounds of Dunkeld House, and it’s here where I first caught sight of Scottish salmon jumping up the nearby waterfalls on their way to their spawning grounds. Fantastic stuff for any nature-lover.
Heading back into Dunkeld you can walk along the banks of the river before relaxing in one of the coffee shops in the quaint little town square, and if there’s enough time left in your day you can visit Dunkeld Cathedral which is a part-ruined 14th-century cathedral that’s still in use to this day.
7. The Solway Firth
I love the Solway Firth. It’s one of my favourite parts of Scotland, and I’ve added it to this list because not only is it big enough and remote enough that you can walk for miles without seeing another soul, but it’s just an absolutely beautiful place to be in.
Situated on the southern edge of Dumfries and Galloway, the Solway Firth forms part of the border between England and Scotland, so if you’ve already driven to the busy tourist hotspots of the old Roman outposts along Hadrian’s Wall it won’t take much of an effort to pop across the border to visit the Firth.
The entire Solway Coast is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty and there are plenty of places to explore, but my personal recommendation is to head to the national nature reserve at Caerlaverock. First off you can roam around Caerlaverock Castle (check out my guide to Caerlaverock Castle before you go), and second you can see all the best bits of the Firth in one area. Caerlaverock reserve covers over 21 square miles of salt marsh, mudflats, grazing land and beach, and there are over 130,000 birds on the site at any one time. More than enough to keep your binoculars glued to your face for a few hours.
If you want peaceful walks in the countryside then the Annandale Way starts (or finishes, depending on your direction) in the Solway Firth, with the other endpoint around 56 miles away in the Moffat Hills. This walk has been officially listed as one of Scotland’s Great Trails, and I can only tell you that I can totally see why it’s been given that status because the views you’ll get along the route are completely drop-dead gorgeous. You can do the entire route on foot if you like but it’ll take you around 5 days to complete, so if you’re a bit lazy like me you might want to do a short section at a time instead.
Because the estuary is so flat you’ll see some absolutely vast salt and mud flats open up once the tide moves out which might tempt you to get your wellies on and go for a walk out there, but be warned that there are several patches of quicksand which have been known to catch out unwary walkers. A much better idea is to stick close to the shoreline where you can walk through the sand dunes as you’ll get to see the wildlife living both on the flats and in the dunes, which in summer are absolutely buzzing with insects and birds, and you might even be lucky enough to find one of the rare natterjack toads that live in the dunes.
Read the Out About Scotland guide to The Solway Firth to learn even more about this beautiful part of Scotland.
Bonus tips to help you avoid the tourist crowds in Scotland!
- Travel off season. The main tourist months in Scotland run between April to September, although December is also popular with visitors to Edinburgh and Glasgow for the Christmas celebrations. Heading out into the wilds between October and March might mean you’ll be taking a chance on our rainy Scottish weather, but you’re also much more likely to find attractions that are pretty much free from crowds.
- If in doubt – ask a local. We’re a friendly bunch here in Scotland and we’ll be only too happy to help enquiring visitors find the best places to visit in our area, so why not ask us where we think the quietest places are? After all, who knows more about a local area than the locals who live there?
- Book your accommodation away from major towns and cities. While you might find some of the cheapest hotel prices at the edges of city centres in the off-peak season (£15 Travelodge room anyone?), you’ll find that no matter where you go there’ll still be lots of other visitors barging about. Much better to get a room far away from the city where you’ll be guaranteed peace and quiet. Just make sure it’s near public transport. Or get a hire car.
- Go wild. It’s unavoidable to get stuck amongst groups of fellow walkers if you venture to the same places as everyone else, even in winter (I’m looking at you Isle of Skye), but setting out to areas that are less well-known means you can have the glorious Scottish landscapes all to yourself. For some great walking route ideas check out the Walk Highlands website.
- Research where the tour companies are going. Then go in the opposite direction. It’s pretty self-explanatory this, but a quick Google search of Scotland’s tour companies will show you all the places where you can expect to find coach after coach of camera-wielding tourist crowds. The fact of the matter is there are so many attractions in Scotland that you can have a great time even if you don’t visit the ‘usual’ destinations, so be creative and do your own thing instead.
- Plan your holiday as a theme. Following on from the previous tip, why not theme your holiday around a particular interest, like Scotland’s castle’s, or maybe our whisky distilleries? Research which are the most popular ones (Edinburgh Castle, Glenfiddich distillery), and choose to avoid them. You’ll find plenty of nearby smaller attractions that are equally entertaining but much quieter – and often much cheaper too.
- Get up early. I know it’s painful, especially when you’re on holiday, but you can avoid most of the crowds at the more popular attractions by getting there as soon as the attraction opens, while the rest of Scotland’s tourists are still munching on their morning porridge. The great thing about starting your adventures early in the morning is that you’ve then got the rest of the day to head to Scotland’s quieter locations.
- Get out on the open water. The UK is an island surrounded on all sides by the sea so there are ample opportunities to get away from people by leaving the land far behind. Your options here are varied, with many watersports companies offering daily hire of kayaks, canoes and powered boats. The best thing about getting out on the open water is that you can go to places that other tourists simply can’t get to, such as the myriad small islands that are dotted about inside most of Scotland’s larger lochs.
I’ve tried to highlight a few of the best destinations in Scotland that are relatively tourist-free, but you should remember that these day’s it’s pretty much impossible to visit a Scottish attraction and not see anyone else on your travels. To a degree, Scotland has become a victim of its own success, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this amazing country in peace and quiet.
In fact, these seven destinations are only just scratching the surface of where you can visit without getting caught up in the crowds, and to that end I’ll be adding new articles featuring secluded places to visit in the near future. So please check the website often to find my latest recommendations of where you can go in Scotland for that all-important relaxing holiday that you know you deserve.