7 Historical Places to Visit On Your Way to the Isle of Skye

From museums to castles and quaint Scottish towns teeming with history dating back over 1,000 years, don’t miss these historical places on your way to the Isle of Skye.

Mar 10, 2024By Katie Parr, LL.B. Law

historical places isle of skye


Scotland draws tourists year-round to discover its stunning nature, fantastic views, and rich history. The Isle of Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides islands and is famous for its breathtaking views. If you’re traveling there from Glasgow or Edinburgh, make the most of your six-hour car ride by stopping at these seven historical places. Packed with stories from the past, each place is worth at least a short break.


1. Dumbarton Castle: Ascend the Rock of the Clyde at Dumbarton and Take In Dùn Breatainn

Dumbarton Castle, via PaulT (Gunther Tschuch), 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons


First on the list is Dumbarton, a town that is situated just north of the River Clyde. Dumbarton’s history reaches as far back as the Iron Age (and possibly even further to Roman times). Dumbarton is home to the Rock of the Clyde, or Dumbarton Rock, which was an active volcano some 350 million years ago. The volcanic plug of hardened magma was chosen as the foundation for Dumbarton Castle, which is the Scottish stronghold with the longest recorded history. Records span the Mediaeval era, the Scottish Wars of Independence, and the Marian Civil War. The castle was garrisoned until World War II.


Built in the 5th century, Dumbarton Castle was the “Cair Brithon” (the Fort of the Britons). It has several names: “Dùn Breatainn” in Scottish Gaelic, and “Alt Clut” in Welsh. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Brythonic Strathclyde between the 5th and 9th centuries. The castle suffered repeated attacks throughout its history from as early as 756. It was besieged by the Vikings in 871. James the Fat tried and failed to capture it in 1425, burning the town of Dumbarton to the ground in the process. In 1571, during the Marian Civil War, Regent Lennox’s forces scaled the rock with ladders and successfully took control of the castle (much to the garrison’s surprise).


Dùn Breatainn has had many special visitors, including Merlin the wizard (supposedly), Sir William Wallace (following his capture in 1305), and Mary, Queen of Scots in 1563. In 1581, the castle became a prison for Regent Morton as he awaited his execution.

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Today, much of the remaining structures are from the 14th, 16th, and 18th centuries. In summer it’s possible to visit daily, whereas visiting times are more restrictive in winter. Take the steps to the Tower Crag for breathtaking views or skip the castle and stop instead at the Denny Tank Museum in Dumbarton’s town centre to learn about Victorian shipyards and the work of shipbuilder William Denny.


2. Kilchurn Castle: The Oldest Surviving Barracks on the British Mainland

Kilchurn Castle reflecting on Loch Awe, by Andrewmckie, 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons


From Dumbarton, drive north for an hour or so, passing Loch Lomond on your right before heading west. Kilchurn Castle sits at the northeastern point of Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute. This magnificent 15th-century castle was built by Sir Colin Campbell, 1st of Glenorchy, as a base for the Campbells of Glenorchy. It was the first of several castles built by the Campbells, who were one of the largest and most powerful clans in the Scottish Highlands for over two centuries.


Kilchurn Castle was established around 1450 as a five-story tower house with a small courtyard surrounded by an outer wall. A charter dated March 1449 notes its first existence as “Castrum de Glenurquhay” (the Castle of Glenurquhay). The castle was built on a very small island accessible by a low-lying or underwater causeway. Over the next few hundred years, a “laich hall” (a dining hall), some chambers, and a chapel were added, and the castle range was enlarged.


The last 100 years of the castle’s life saw quite some drama. Sir John Campbell became the 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland in 1681 and, while serving the reigning William III, also participated in negotiations with Jacobite rebels. The castle underwent further work to become a barracks for 200 men in 1689, the blocks of which are the oldest surviving barracks on the British mainland.


Kilchurn Castle at sunrise, by MHoser, 2018, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1714, Sir John Campbell (now going by the name “Breadalbane”) held a conference of Jacobites at Kilchurn and joined their uprising the following year. The uprising folded, and in 1716 Breadalbane surrendered and was put under house arrest. Castle Kilchurn’s last notable use was as a government garrison in the Jacobite rising of 1745. In 1760, lightning damaged the castle and it was abandoned. In 1817, the loch waters were lowered, meaning that the castle now sits at the end of a long peninsula.


You can visit the castle during the summer either by boat or by foot (a 10-minute walk). Watch out for highland cattle who may be roaming the local fields. If you don’t wish to visit the castle but would like to see it, take the A819 to Kilchurn Castle Viewpoint and Layby for breathtaking views across the loch.


3. Oban: A Unique (and Tiny!) Cathedral 

St John’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Oban, by Ian S, 2016, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Hop in the car for another 40 minutes and drive to Oban, a historical little town packed with character and charm. Its name means “the little bay” and its history dates back to Mesolithic times. The bay is shaped like a horseshoe, looking out to the Isle of Kerrera and, beyond that, the Isle of Mull. It is the seafood capital of Scotland and home to the Oban War and Peace Museum and the Dunollie Museum Castle and Grounds.


Arguably one of the most beautiful and interesting places to visit in your whistle-stop tour through Oban is St John’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral. The cathedral itself is small, just 19 meters in length, which includes the nave and chancel. Despite being so tiny, it’s a mesmerizing house of prayer, still in use today, with a rich history of individuals who all tried to advance the building in some way or another before their efforts were scuppered.


It was first erected between 1846 and 1864, with subsequent additions in 1882 and 1910. Unfortunately, funds ran out before construction could be completed. In 1920, the name the “Church of St John’s, Oban” was retired, and it became known as “The Cathedral of the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles.” The cathedral was designated as “unique,” in light of both its visible phases of construction and its steel girders that are now a permanent support for the incomplete sections of the building.


Unlike many other historical offerings in Scotland, this cathedral is neither grandiose nor spellbinding from the outside. But once inside, the beauty of the painted windows brings its history to life. Park up outside the cathedral or along the bay for a short walk through Oban town.


4. Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel Ruins: Scotland’s Oldest Stone Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle, by Dbrooke1829, 2022, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Not 10 minutes from Oban is the Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel, situated on the south-west entrance to Loch Etive. This is Scotland’s oldest stone castle, having been built in the 13th century, yet it still has a hereditary Captain of Dunstaffnage (although they do not live in the castle). “Dun” means “fort” in Gaelic, and “staffnage” is from the Norse “stafr-nis,” meaning “headland of the staff.”


Prior to the castle’s construction, Dunstaffnage’s history can be traced as far back to the 7th century when it was thought to have been a stronghold called “Dun Monaidh” for the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riata. In 1612 the Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny or Jacob’s Pillow Stone was kept at the castle. The oblong block of red sandstone was famously used in coronation ceremonies for Scottish monarchs.


The castle was built by Clan MacDougall who lost it following the Battle of the Pass Brander in 1308, which took place during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Robert the Bruce seized the castle and unlike other castles that he sadly destroyed, provisioned and prepared it to guard the seaways and countryside. Thereafter, the castle belonged to the crown. It was seized in 1431 by James I after the Battle of Inverlochy and later in 1470, James III granted Dunstaffnage to Clan Campbell.


The nearby chapel is also in ruins but still offers some exquisite stonework built in the second half of the 13th century. There is also a castle ghost called the “Ell-maid of Dunstaffnage,” who is a type of brownie or “gruagach,” a hobgoblin-type house spirit that emerges at night to do the house chores.


Interior of Dunstaffnage Castle, by Supergolden, 2007, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1463, Dunstaffnage was the location of a murderous marriage ceremony. Sir John Stewart, the Lord of Lorn had an illegitimate son in 1446. In his bid to legitimize his son, he planned on marrying his son’s mother who was a MacLaren. On his way to the church, he was stabbed and just about made it through the ceremony before passing away. His son was legitimized and became the First Chief of Appin.


The castle is open to the public year-round, with limited opening times over winter. It offers beautiful views and an easy wander about the interesting quadrangular structure and grounds. The 16th-century gatehouse remains private, belonging to the Captain of Dunstaffnage.


5. Stop to See Castle Stalker, Looking Out Over Loch Laich

Castle Stalker, by Euan Nelson, 2014, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Take a scenic 30-minute drive away from Dunstaffnage Castle over Connel Bridge and up alongside Loch Creran, through local towns and villages. When you arrive you’ll be greeted by a spectacular view of Castle Stalker, one of the best-preserved tower houses from the medieval period, dating back to 1320. This castle also has a close history with Dunstaffnage, and many scuffles, murders, and fights occurred between clans occupying the two castles.


Originally built as a small fort by Clan MacDougall, the castle stands alone on a small tidal islet, which is just about possible to reach during low tide. Sir John Stewart, the Lord of Lorn, who was attacked moments before his own wedding at Dunstaffnage, transformed the castle in the 1440s. King James IV of Scotland often visited Castle Stalker in the late 1400s, and used it as a base for hawking and hunting in the Highlands. Stalker in Gaelic is  “Stalcaire” and means “hunter” or “falconer.”


The castle later fell into the hands of Clan Campbell following a drunken bet in exchange for an eight-oared wherry (a traditional canal or river boat used for transporting passengers or cargo). Castle Stalker was abandoned in 1840 and although some conservation efforts were made in the early 1900s, it was only in 1975, following a 10-year restoration project, that it was restored to its full glory.


The castle is privately owned, however, public visits are possible during the summer months via tours which must be booked in advance. Castle Stalker is ideal for a quick pit-stop viewing, as it is quite a spectacular sight from the shoreline.


6. Clan Cameron Museum: Look Back Through 27 Generations of Clanfolk

Clan Cameron Museum, by Richard Webb, 2017, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Just over an hour north of Castle Stalker is the Clan Cameron Museum dedicated to the Cameron family whose history dates back to the 14th-century, spanning 27 generations. The museum is small yet packed with fascinating information including details on the clan’s involvement in various military events, such as the 1745 Jacobite uprising. The museum documents the historic military training of the 79th Cameron Highlanders and the Commandos from around the world who fought in WWII.


The local village of Achnacarry was of strategic importance during many wars and uprisings, and there are several walks about the local Area of Natural Beauty should you have longer to spend here. The museum itself is set in an old post office building and was first opened by Sir Fitzroy Maclean of Dunconnell in 1989. It offers a rather enchanting insight into the life of the clansfolk of the Scottish Highlands. The museum is open daily during summer, and visits can be made by appointment during winter.


7. Invergarry Castle: Stand by the Steadfast Walls 

Overlooking Invergarry Castle on Loch Oich, by Sheilac Conway, 2017, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The final stop on your journey to the Isle of Skye is the ruin of Invergarry Castle, around 40 minutes north of the Clan Cameron Museum. Built relatively recently, compared to its counterparts in this article, Invergarry Castle came to life with the help of clansmen passing stones hand-to-hand according to local clan lore.


In its heyday, Invergarry Castle stood as a striking L-plan tower house, consisting of six stories. Sadly, it was burned to the ground in 1654 by Oliver Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. Following repairs, King James VII of Scotland held the Castle from 1688 until 1692. It was briefly held by the Jacobites during their 1715 uprising and later in 1745 during their second uprising.


The castle succumbed to an attack following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and although it was sacked and blown to bits, the walls stood tall and defiant, and have remained largely intact to this day.


Interestingly, the castle’s design was somewhat outdated even at the time it was constructed. Technically, the castle isn’t a fortified building but more of a country house, which partially explains why it did not survive the ruthless sacking it endured at the end of the 1700s.


The castle’s remaining north staircase collapsed in 2000, prompting conservation works some years later. Today it stands tall on the banks of Loch Oich, within the grounds of the Glengarry Castle Hotel. The castle itself is fenced off for safety reasons, so park up and wander down to the shores to get a look at both the ruins and the sunken boat just off the shoreline.


Once you’ve finished here, head west, and in just over an hour, you’ll cross the Skye Bridge and will have arrived on the Isle of Skye.

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By Katie ParrLL.B. LawKatie holds a First Class Law Degree LL.B. from the University of Kent, Canterbury. She is a professional writer and owns a small copywriting business. When she’s not creating content for different projects, she’s planning her next travels. She has a keen interest in history and culture of both Great Britain, where she is from, and abroad. She enjoys exploring old bookshops, visiting new places, and walking her dog.