The custodians of Scotland’s heritage are as numerous and diverse as the historic sites themselves. National organisations care for many of the country’s castles, battlefields, kirks, and curiosities, yet some of the most innovative and passionate work I’ve seen has come from small, local groups. As a way to shine a much-deserved spotlight in their direction, DigIt! is running its ‘Scotland in Six Hidden Gems’ contest – 28 historic sites are vying for votes, with the top six getting to host an event in September to celebrate Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage, and Archaeology.
The hidden gems are often the most memorable part of a trip, and while I’ll never pass up an opportunity to see a visitor magnet like Stirling Castle or Culloden I hate to see the little (yet no less significant) guy get lost in their shadow. In that spirit, here are five of the contenders in the #ScotlandinSixHG race. Follow that hashtag across social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for tons of pictures, insights, and blogs from the rest of the Scotlanders. We each cover several of the Hidden Gems in our blogs, so once you’re done here take a look at Neil’s, Laura’s, Patricia’s, and Kay’s.
Lincluden Collegiate Church
I stumbled across Lincluden incidentally, slightly lost while on a cycle-powered castle hunt north of Dumfries. I had missed my train and had two hours to spare, so when I saw an abbey marked on my OS map I thought ‘why not’. Now it’s one of my favourite heritage sites in the entire south of Scotland! A Benedictine nunnery in the 1160s, and was later turned into a church on the orders of Archibald ‘the Grim’ Douglas, who also built some of the strongest castles in Dumfries and Galloway.
It’s a three-in-one location with the abbey ruins, a towerhouse attached to the abbey for defense, and the distinctive mound of a motte-and-bailey castle right next to it all. I’ve since worked with Sleeping Giants, an awesome Lincluden-based community group aiming to engage the area’s young people in the history around them, and they have me completely convinced of the Abbey’s potential. The site isn’t fenced off so kids play on it with abandon, and many in the area want to do more with it. If it takes one of the six winning spots, that could well become a reality.
St John’s Tower
Several of the Hidden Gem sites are in the middle of urban or suburban areas, and it’s always interesting to see how such places interact with their thoroughly modern environments. St John’s Tower is just a 10-minute walk from the train station, a slice of medieval life flanked by flats.
Its origins extend back to the 12th century, and it was host to a parliament under Robert the Bruce in 1315 to decide the matter of the succession to the Scottish throne. Cromwell’s troops used the tower as a lookout, and it stood within the grounds of a mighty artillery fort that has now all but vanished (itself a hidden gem!). There are some peculiar features inside, such as a large window split in two by the floorboards separating two levels, and the views from the top are surely the best in town. You can learn more about the tower on the Friends of St John’s Tower website here.
I was pure spoiled by the folks at the Ardrossan Castle Heritage Society. When I showed up to scout the site with less than 24 hours’ notice, I was greeted by not one but four Society members armed with info binders, local insights and a tangible sense of excitement. It’s so incredibly refreshing to see people who are genuinely excited about sharing their heritage, and the visit was full of smiles and ‘wows’ as we went around the ruins.
Ardrossan Castle has stood in some form since the 12th century, a sentinel with vast views up and down the Clyde. During the Wars of Independence it was initially seized by the English before William Wallace came to town, slaughtering the garrison and stuffing their bodies into a now barred-up storage vault known as Wallace’s Larder. Nice chap. Much of the castle’s masonry was ‘recycled’ by Cromwell’s men while building the citadel at Ayr, where St John’s Tower also stands. Although ruinous, the castle is a magnet for local interest and the Heritage Society regularly runs fairs and events on the grounds. Without being too biased, I’m hard-pressed to think of many other groups who put as much creativity into caring for and sharing their local history.
While at Ardrossan I did a live broadcast on Periscope showing you around the castle, and it’s since been viewed about 22,000 times! Click here to check it out.
Before there was a Scotland, the peoples of this land built mighty forts of vitrified rock, timber walls and great earthen barriers. Differing from castles in that they typically enclosed most of a community rather than just the aristocracy, with few exceptions many of these forts are now all but ‘invisible’ to the untrained eye. And what a sight Burghead would have been! With multiple walls 8 metres thick it was one of the strongest Pictish forts ever built.
Nowadays, you can still trace the story of the fort at Burghead, but visitors come for many reasons. Bottlenose dolphins can be spotted frolicking in the Moray Firth, with grey seals and mink whales also putting in appearances. Very recent excavations at Burghead unearthed a longhouse and coin depicting Alfred the Great, so there is clearly much more to the site than initially meets the eye. The Burghead Visitor Centre brings it all to life, and embodies the idea of the ‘historic environment’ – a place that focuses not just on the built history but on the fort’s relationship with the lands and waters around it, both in times past and in the present day.
If indy films can be hits, why not indy castles? Most major castles in Scotland are managed by either Historic Environment Scotland or the National Trust for Scotland, but some are run by local charitable trusts with small teams and big hearts. Braemar Castle, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, is one of the latter. One of the true delights of visiting it was getting to speak with guides and staff whose families have been involved with the castle for generations. I’ll take one humble guide with deep personal connections to a site over glitz and gloss any day!
Braemar saw the Earl of Mar raise the Jacobite standard in 1715, so it was no stranger to dramatic events. Its star bastion makes it a twin to Corgarff Castle, not far off, and allowed defenders to rain fire on attackers from multiple directions at once. Nowadays the action around the castle is slightly more civilised, with the annual Braemar Gathering being perhaps the world’s most famous Highland Games. By visiting (and voting for) Braemar Castle you’re not just in for a historical treat; you’re helping to preserve a slice of Scotland’s story for years to come.
Time to Vote!
Now, head over to the DigIt! Facebook page and cast your votes. Don’t worry, if you’re torn between two sites, you don’t have to choose! By liking a site you can cast votes for as many as you want. Voting is only active until end of day on July 31st, so now’s your chance to add some polish so Scotland’s Hidden Gems! And don’t forget to track all the action and info with #ScotlandinSixHG.