The new Lumo train offering low-price competition between London and Edinburgh makes accessing Scotland a fast, affordable breeze. Instead of heading to the Highlands, aim for the Borders and other areas of Southern Scotland to learn more about the country’s history and famous residents like writer Robert Burns.
A new cycle route from Stranraer to Eyemouth planned for 2023 looks set to open up a whole swathe of little-known countryside for two-wheeled exploration. With the debate about Scottish independence showing no sign of cooling, exploring the borderlands is a great way to contemplate the future of the entire UK as well.
Kay Gillespie shows you a sublime seven-day circuit in Southern Scotland
Exploring Scotland and sharing my experiences online isn’t just my career – it’s my passion and my purpose. Born and raised in Edinburgh, I’m a city girl who frequently flees town, seeking scenic adventures and time by the sea. I love inspiring locals and visitors to experience lesser-known locations, ever-changing landscapes, coastal scenes and delicious food.
Why you should visit Southern Scotland
I’m thrilled to introduce Scotland’s greatest underdog, a place to take a breather from the Highlands, the Isle of Skye, the North Coast 500 other stops on the mass tourist trail. By heading toward the south end of Scotland, you’ll embark on an epic clockwise journey from coast to coast, through the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, as you discover charming towns and villages, storybook countryside, dramatic cliffs, lonely lighthouses, outdoor pursuits, historic treasures and starry skies. This surprisingly overlooked region lies south of the country’s main cities – the opposite direction of where most visitors gravitate. And that’s exactly why you should go.
Cliffs, seals and seafood
Set off early from the capital city of Edinburgh and head straight to the Berwickshire Coast, where picturesque St Abbs awaits. (You might recognize this fishing village from Avengers: Endgame, where it stood in for the fictional New Asgard.) Initiate yourself with a bracing blast of fresh sea air on a walk around St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, known for its abundant bird life, dramatic coastline and cliff-top lighthouse.
Enjoy lobster rolls and delicious cullen skink (a traditional smoked-fish soup) at the harborside Ebbcarrs Cafe. Afterward, take a one-hour high-speed cruise with Riptide Rib Rides St Abb, or follow the coastal path to sandy Coldingham Bay, with its rows of colorful beach huts.
Drive 10 minutes along the coast to the popular seaside town of Eyemouth – and look out for adorable gray seals in the harbor, eagerly awaiting their next snack from the nearby fish van. Check into your accommodation for the night, the Ship’s Quarters, a historic guesthouse right by the water.
For dinner, it has to be (weather permitting) alfresco fish and chips followed by ice cream at Giacopazzi’s. If the skies are overcast, The Heathers Restaurant at Eyemouth Golf Club offers seafood and (indoor) sea views. Finish the day with a stroll along the beach in Eyemouth, listening to the gentle lap of the waves in a town now quiet after the day-trippers have moved on.
Historic abbeys, cute shops and countryside
Venture inland to the richly historic Borders towns and villages, which blend beautifully into the gentle countryside. Drive for 45 minutes, then stop in Kelso for a coffee at The Cream Chimneys ($4), and to browse the independent shops at Kelso Sq, where cattle were once tethered to the Old Bull Ring at its center. (We love 20 Storey bookshop and The Mole Hole for quirky, handmade gifts.) The ruins of Kelso Abbey, one of four iconic abbeys in the region, lie just off the square.
Back in the car, continue for another 20 minutes to the charming town of Jedburgh, home to another 12th-century abbey. For a quick history fix, visit Jedburgh Castle Jail and Mary, Queen of Scots’ Visitor Centre to learn about the colorful life of Scotland’s only queen and her time in the town. Don’t leave without stopping for lunch or (and?) outstanding baked treats at Naked Sourdough.
A further 20-minute drive leads to Abbotsford House, the stunningly grand former home of legendary writer and poet Sir Walter Scott. Celebrated for his extensive travels in Scotland, and for romanticizing the Highlands and West Coast in his works, Scott filled this house with historic and often curious wonders: a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and Rob Roy MacGregor’s gun, not to mention Scott’s own extensive collection of rare books. Scott’s View, the author’s favorite viewpoint in the Borders, is just a 10-minute drive from the house.
To top off your history-filled day, rest your head for three nights in a 16th-century tower house or similar character-filled home rental, and enjoy a hearty dinner at the friendly Red Lion Pub in Earlston, which began life as a coaching inn in the 1800s.
Romans, hills and local produce
Enjoy a day of fresh air, fantastic food and limited car time in the Borders town of Melrose. Start by fueling up with coffee and brunch at the small local cafe Apples for Jam, before visiting Trimontium Museum, which tells the story of the vast Roman fort site discovered nearby. (The dazzling display of over 200 Roman coins is a highlight.) Afterward, it’s time to head for the hills.
The Eildon Hills are a trio of summits accessed via paths from the town center. Reaching a maximum height of 1723ft (525m), the ascent (via stairs and trails) is steep but highly rewarding. Climb one, two or all three hills; taking four hours maximum, you’ll have the chance to breathe in sweeping views that lead back down to the town and the rural landscapes beyond.
Back in town, visit Melrose Abbey and Priorwood Garden, then browse the town’s charming small businesses: Ticketty Boo for cards, gifts and artwork; Love Scottish for homeware and candles; and Abbey Fine Wines for a souvenir bottle of gin or whisky.
Finish the day with delicious, high-quality seasonal produce like Highland venison or Borders lamb in the cozy, traditional 18th-century Burts Hotel on Market Sq.
Trails, trees and a giant map
Keep up your immersion in history and scenery by focusing today’s adventure around the pretty town of Peebles and the Upper Tweed Valley area, which is renowned for its glorious natural beauty, outdoorsy scene and world-class mountain-biking trails. First, travel 45 minutes to visit Traquair House, the oldest continually inhabited house in Scotland, one visited by 27 Scottish kings and queens. (It remains a family home to this day.) Join a guided tour of the house, visit the 300-year-old, still-active brewery, and discover the ancient woodland and vast maze that lie on the grounds. Drive a further 15 minutes to Peebles to explore the town center while stocking up on local goodies for a picnic lunch: award-winning pork pies from Forsyths of Peebles; bread and sweet treats from The Fat Batard Bakery; and sandwiches, salads and sausage rolls from Coltman’s Deli.
Spend the afternoon in nature by choosing your preferred activity. You can take a relaxing stroll around Dawyck Botanic Garden, or a hike through Cardrona Forest – home to red squirrels, an abundance of wildlife and an Iron Age fort. If you feel more active, hire two wheels from Tweed Valley Bike Hire and hit the 7 Stanes Mountain-Biking trails with Glentress Forest, or swing and zip-line through the trees at Go Ape. Afterward, drive to Barony Castle Hotel to visit an unusual map of Scotland. Created by a group of visiting Poles in the late ’70s, this 131ft by 164ft (40m by 50m) attraction is believed to be the largest terrain-relief map in the world, and can be photographed from a viewing platform. Return to your accommodation to freshen up before a special dinner at The Hoebridge. This family-run restaurant, recommended in the 2022 Michelin Guide, offers a creative, mouthwatering menu that changes monthly, showcasing a variety of local, seasonal ingredients.
Discover Dumfries & Galloway
Bid farewell to the Borders, as you travel into the southwest region of Dumfries and Galloway. Get off to a strong and scenic start in the Moffat Hills, with a hike to Grey Mare’s Tail, a 197ft (60m) waterfall, and hidden Loch Skeen beyond. Afterward, stop for a full Scottish breakfast at Mutchies Munchies in Moffat, before taking a detour into South Lanarkshire to visit Scotland’s highest village and the historic lead mines at Wanlockhead. If you have time, we highly recommend a ride on the Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway and a visit to the Museum of Lead Mining. Next, make the descent to Sanquhar (a 20-minute drive) to marvel at Crawick Multiverse, a weird and wonderful 55-acre land-art installation inspired by science, space and the stars.
Drive straight to Newton Stewart (90 minutes) on the outskirts of Galloway Forest Park, which became the UK’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2009. Check in for a two-night stay at a cozy wigwam lodge or luxury cabin at Wigtown Wigwams, just outside the park; pick up supplies in Newton Stewart to make dinner or have a barbecue on site. Relax under the stars in the hot tub or by the firepit. (Don’t forget to buy marshmallows.)
Books, Burns and stargazing
Begin the day in Wigtown, Scotland’s first “National Book Town.” Sheer heaven for bookworms, this village has no fewer than a dozen book-related businesses within very close proximity, including The Bookshop, the largest secondhand one in Scotland. In between browsing, it would be a crime against cakes not to visit ReadingLasses Bookshop and Café for a hot drink and a decadent delight. (The huge, ever-changing selection here might include masterpieces like ras el hanout sponge cake topped with rosewater glace icing.)
Drive toward Dumfries, and stop after 40 minutes in colorful Kirkcudbright (ask a local how to pronounce it!) on the coast for sea air and views of the 16th-century MacLellan’s Castle. After 45 more minutes on the road, you’ll arrive in Dumfries, following in the footsteps of Scotland’s most famous wordsmith and national bard, Robert Burns. Visit the Burns House (where he spent his final years), have lunch at the Globe Inn (the master’s favorite watering hole) and look out for his statue in the town square.
Back at Wigtown Wigwams, drive 30 minutes to the peaceful Isle of Whithorn (which is, surprisingly, not an island) for dinner at The Steam Packet Inn, where you’ll sample Galloway beef and lamb, slow-reared pork and fresh seafood in a cozy setting overlooking the harbor. Spend your final night in South Scotland gazing up at the wonders of the night sky. Check for courses and events at Galloway Astronomy Centre, book a tour with a Dark Sky Ranger or simply head for Galloway Forest Park and gaze upward.
The final coastal drive
An hour’s drive away is Scotland’s most southwesterly point, the jaw-droppingly dramatic Mull of Galloway. Grab a bite to eat at Gallie Craig, a clifftop coffee shop with breathtaking vistas from the viewing platform outside – then book a tour of the iconic Mull of Galloway Lighthouse and climb its 115 steps to the lantern room and balcony. The panorama that opens up extends to Northern Ireland, Cumbria and the Isle of Man.
Work your way back up the peninsula, stopping after 25 minutes at Port Logan Fish Pond, a quirky little attraction close to the sandy beach at Port Logan, built 200 years ago as a sea-fish larder for Logan House. Next, visit the nearby Logan Botanic Garden, filled with lush and exotic plants rare to find in Scotland, such as palms, eucalyptus and giant gunnera.
Follow the Ayrshire Coast north for an hour and 40 minutes as you wrap up your tour. First, you’ll see the island of Ailsa Craig, a volcanic plug that rises up from the Firth of Clyde. Then, you’ll come to Culzean Castle, whose striking architecture and opulent interiors, coastal cliff-top site and extensive grounds and gardens provide the perfect finale for your road-trip. Famous Scottish architect Robert Adam provided the castle’s L-shaped design; inside, intricate columns, cornices, mirrors and the beautiful Oval Staircase are highlights.
The city of Glasgow lies just over an hour away, the last leg as you (reluctantly) complete this South Scotland circuit.