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With Guest Contributor Alex Tiffany
Southern Scotland may be the most overlooked region in the United Kingdom.
With vast national parks, multiple distillery regions, and sites like Ben Nevis and Loch Ness, it’s easy to see why so much attention is drawn to the north.
But that only makes the discoveries we’re about to share with you all the better. With less attention, the south of Scotland has all of the natural beauty with far fewer crowds.
That’s why we have teamed up with Alex Tiffany to highlight just 11 of the best things to do in southern Scotland.
The list could have been longer, but we think this is just enough to get you started on your own road trip or hiking trip in the breathtaking lowlands of Scotland.
Table of Contents
Best Things To Do In Southern Scotland
For starters, we are going to show off some of the things you could do when visiting the Southern region of Scotland.
Our first 5 are divided into regions you may want to explore.
We’ll start with Glasgow
When flying into Southern Scotland, you will probably fly into either Glasgow or Edinburgh.
You will be spoiled with choices of things to do around the most populous city in Scotland.
Museums like the Riverside Museum and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum built in stunning architecture are a good place to brush up on your Scottish culture.
Besides all of the conveniences of the big city, there are unique attractions just outside of Glasgow.
The Falkirk Wheel is an amazing feat of engineering you just need to see to believe! A giant wheel lifts boats from one canal to another to connect a cross-country waterway.
Ayrshire lies only a short drive outside of Glasgow. Most tourists will come to this area for the numerous golf courses. Choose one of these links to relish the playing in the very nursery of the sport.
Next, hop on a ferry to the Isle of Arran. Spend a day exploring the coast. And take a look at the Machrie Moor Standing Stones, an archeological trove dating back over 4,500 years.
2. Dumfries and Galloway
Dumfries and Galloway will be our second stop. Located in the Southwest corner of the Southern Uplands.
For history buffs, you can visit Caerlaverock Castle. Originally completed in the 1270’s, it has been besieged, abandoned, and rebuilt numerous times by a who’s-who of Scottish families.
For the more romantic history lovers, swing by the Gretna Green Blacksmith shop. An interesting piece of Scottish history where the blacksmiths performed marriage ceremonies for eloping couples.
For the more adventurous among us that are more interested in making history, 5 of the 7 famous 7stanes mountain biking trails are found in the Dumfries and Galloway area.
The capital of Scotland boasts a high density of things to do for anyone visiting the country.
Along with the Royal Botanic Garden and the National Museum of Scotland, you can brush up on the rich cultural and botanical heritage of the area.
Edinburgh Castle may be the most iconic attraction in Edinburgh, a true must-see when visiting the city.
And although not technically in Southern Scotland, you could be excused for a foray to nearby St. Andrews. Arguably one of the most famous golf courses in the world, just about an hour north of Edinburgh.
4. The Borders
As the name implies, the Borders mark the area between England and Scotland. Needless to say, there is a long history of warfare as the many ruined castles in the area can attest.
But there are other ways to explore the history of the area. The Border Abbey’s Way, a tour of some of the famous abbeys in the South of Scotland. Among them is Melrose Abbey, renowned as the burial place of Robert the Bruce’s heart (it’s a long story), it stands as a remnant of a long and bloody history.
But kings and soldiers weren’t the only ones who left a mark on history.
Sir Walter Scott was a prolific writer from the area. Visit nearby Scott’s View, allegedly a favorite hangout of the famous author. Or tour his home in Abbotsford, a sort of museum of oddities.
Or for a bit of sand and surf, visit the Berwickshire coast in East Lothian.
Take a stroll along the beach or brave the surf of the North Sea in Coldingham Bay.
5. Tour a Lowland Distillery
Known to be on the lighter and more delicate end of the palate, Lowland Scotch displays the intricacies of Scottish Whisky.
With 18 distilleries to choose from, you can tour the rolling hills of the Lowlands while tasting the history.
Bladnoch, near the southern coast of Dumfries and Galloway, started making Scotch as far back as 1817.
Meanwhile, Glenkinchie has managed to make some of the most popular examples of the style. Its proximity to Edinburgh notwithstanding, their whisky can hold its own against the best Lowland Scotch.
Best Things To Do In Southern Scotland: Hikes
Of course, our readers love to be outdoors. And there is no better way to explore the countryside than to hit the trails.
That’s why we have asked for a first-hand review of the many hikes in Southern Scotland from someone who has way more experience hiking the area.
These hikes were compiled by Alex Tiffany, our guest contributor for this article.
The Best Hiking Trails in Southern Scotland
When most people think of hiking in Scotland, they think of the Highlands. However, southern Scotland has some similarly gorgeous scenery, with a fraction of the number of visitors.
If you want to get outside and hike in some of the most beautiful, untouched wilderness the UK has to offer, southern Scotland should definitely be on your list.
Where are the best places to hike in southern Scotland? There are many, but the following are among the very best.
6. Galloway Forest Park
Many of the best hikes in southern Scotland are found in Galloway Forest Park, in the south-western region of Dumfries and Galloway.
Spanning over 300 square miles (770 square kilometres), the park encompasses the largest forest in the UK, as well as a large section of the Galloway Hills.
Galloway Forest Park has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park. It’s one of the best places in Europe to see the night sky, largely due to its remoteness and lack of light pollution. This also makes it a fantastic place to go hiking.
Hiking here is really special. There are many well-marked trails to choose from, taking in a range of stunning scenery: rugged uplands, ancient woodland, lakes (called “lochs” in Scotland), rivers and glens. You’ll find something for all ages and abilities here, from easy family-friendly strolls to strenuous multi-day hikes in the mountains.
The park has three visitor centres, located at Glen Trool, Clatteringshaws, and Kirroughtree. Each of these is staffed by helpful rangers who can provide you with loads of helpful information on the various hiking trails, local wildlife, weather conditions on the peaks and in the valleys, and more.
Check out this article for more information on hiking in Galloway Forest Park.
Similarly, see here for where to camp in Galloway Forest Park.
Coastal Hikes In Southern Scotland
As well as mountains, glens and ancient forests, Scotland is also known for its stunning beaches and coastal scenery.
7. The Mull of Galloway Trail
The Mull of Galloway is the southernmost point in Scotland and a real hidden gem. Here you will find dramatic cliff top scenery, panoramic views, and miles of sandy beaches.
A popular semi-long distance trail runs from the Mull of Galloway to Glenapp, via Stranraer and the Loch Ryan Coastal Path. Along the way you’ll pass by attractive coastal villages, sandy beaches, jagged cliffs and green rolling countryside. Dolphins, seals and porpoises are common visitors, and you’ll see large colonies of seabirds.
The trail is 37 miles (57 km) long, and typically takes around 2-3 days to complete. There are accommodation options in Sandhead and Stranraer, or you can camp along the route.
Alternatively, for a shorter day walk, there is a 6.5 mile (10.5 km) circular route that starts and finishes at the Mull car park (near the lighthouse).
8. The Whithorn Way
An excellent long distance hiking trail, the Whithorn Way runs 143 miles (230 km) from Glasgow cathedral all the way to the Isle of Whithorn. Much of it lies on the ancient pilgrimage route to Whithorn, trodden by pilgrims for over 1,000 years.
The route is divided into thirteen easily-walkable sections, some of which follow the coastline, others venture inland. Along the way, you’ll pass a number of important historical sites, including medieval churches and abbeys, ruined castles and ancient standing stones.
One of the most popular sections with day hikers is the final 8 miles leading up to the Isle of Whithorn itself.
9. The Southern Upland Way
If there’s one hike that best showcases the varied scenery and raw beauty of southern Scotland, this is it. One of Scotland’s iconic Great Trails, the Southern Upland Way is as challenging as it is rewarding.
This 214 mile (344 km) coast-to-coast hike runs from Portpatrick on Scotland’s south west coast to Cockburnspath on the east coast.
Most people typically aim to complete the hike in anywhere between 12-16 days. It’s a fairly strenuous hike, with some rough terrain in places, a number of peaks to cross, and sections of wild backcountry.
The trail itself is well-managed and clearly waymarked, so navigation shouldn’t be a problem. That said, it’s always a good idea to bring a quality topographical map and compass with you when hiking in the wilderness (i.e. an OS map – see below), in case of poor visibility. Certain sections cross rugged terrain and remote stretches of moorland, so it’s important to be well equipped.
Even if you don’t want to tackle the entire long-distance route, there are many beautiful day hikes along sections of the Southern Upland Way. The section between Bargrennan and Dalry, which passes through Galloway Forest Park, is particularly scenic.
10. Grey Mare’s Tail and Loch Skeen
In the heart of the Moffat Hills, the Grey Mare’s Tail is a beautiful waterfall that cascades 60 metres down from a hanging valley into the main gorge below.
There are several hiking trails in this area, but the most popular (and the one which offers the best view of the waterfall) is the trail which begins at the bottom of the valley and runs up to the tranquil and picturesque Loch Skeen.
The whole route is well maintained and signposted. As you climb up the steep sides of the gorge, keep an eye out for wild hares, mountain goats, ospreys, eagles and nesting peregrine falcons.
At a little over 5 miles (8 km) roundtrip, the Loch Skeen hike is not particularly long, but the first half is quite steep. It’s definitely worth the effort though, the views are fantastic.
11. The Tweed Valley
The Tweed Valley, in south-eastern Scotland, features gentle rolling hills and thick pine forests. The scenery here is not as dramatic as in Galloway, although there are still many excellent hiking trails and opportunities to escape into nature. It’s also only an hour’s drive south of Edinburgh, making it an easy day trip from there.
Thornielee Forest is one of the quietest and best places for hiking in the area. There’s an excellent trail which runs from the main car park up through the forest to a lookout point on top of the hill. It’s very peaceful and a perfect place for a spot of forest bathing.
Other great spots for hiking in the Tweed Valley include the area around Peebles, Innerleithen, and the Glentress Forest.
Tips For Visiting Southern Scotland
The easiest way to get to Southern Scotland is to fly into either Glasgow or Edinburgh. With daily international flights, you can find some pretty good deals.
You can stay in either city as a basecamp. But you may find that having a few places to stay would be a more leisurely way to see all of the sites on this list.
Pack a raincoat. The lush greenery and productive farmland come with a price. Rain is frequent. Plan accordingly and learn to enjoy it.
Best Time of Year To Visit Southern Scotland
Scotland is an amazing place for hiking and other outdoor activities year-round. The climate is generally fairly moderate; however, the weather can be very changeable.
Southern Scotland gets far less snow than the Highlands – although, in the wintertime, there will probably be snow on the hills and in the mountains. If you’re planning to go hiking then, prepare accordingly.
The most popular season for hiking is between May and September. These months are generally the driest (by Scottish standards… it does still rain quite a bit!).
Unfortunately, however, this is also the time of year when you are most likely to be bothered by midges. These tiny bloodsuckers thrive in mild, still, humid conditions and can be a menace, especially if you’re camping. Use decent insect repellent (Smidge is a popular brand), and try to avoid pitching your tent right next to still bodies of water, which are their absolute favourite places.
What To Pack For Southern Scotland
Have you ever heard the old saying: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”? This is particularly true in Scotland.
Pack a decent waterproof jacket year-round, as well as a pair of good waterproof hiking boots. If you plan to camp, you’ll need to bring the obvious gear, including a tent that’s properly water- and wind-proof as well as a sleeping bag suitable for the time of year.
For hiking in the mountains in winter, be sure to bring enough gear to keep you warm and safe. The weather in the mountains can change quickly and without warning. People die in the Scottish mountains every year as a result of not being prepared for the conditions. Don’t let this be you.
In the more remote regions, facilities are few and far between. Pack enough food and water, as well as bags to carry away your rubbish. It’s a good idea also to bring water purification tablets (or a device to purify drinking water), especially if you’ll be wild camping and/or embarking on a multi-day trek.
If you plan to do much hiking in the wilderness, you should definitely pick up an Ordnance Survey map (OS map) of the area. These are some of the most detailed topographical maps in the world, and show the landscape in an impossible amount of detail. Contour lines, streams, patches of woodland, buildings, footpaths, coastal trails, even fences and picnic benches. They are things of true beauty and make navigating a whole lot easier. A million times better than GPS, plus they never run out of battery!
Where To Stay In Southern Scotland
This entirely depends on your budget and your preferences. There is a wide range of accommodation options, from 5-star eco-lodges to simple family-run B&Bs.
On the more affordable end, there are many good quality hostels – like the popular CoDE POD in Edinburgh
You will be spoilt for choice with a number of excellent hotels along a tour of Southern Scotland. On the west coast, the Seamill House Hotel sits between the beach and a golf course.
As a bonus, you could try sailing with Geronimo Sailing just a short drive away.
If you want to find a vacation rental for a little extra space, Expedia has a range of choices to accommodate you.
Alternatively, why not push the boat out a little and stay in a castle? The Crossbasket Castle is open for guests in Glasgow and is highly rated.
Campgrounds in Southern Scotland
If you have camping gear, why not spend a few nights under the stars. The remoter parts of southern Scotland have some of the darkest night skies in the UK, with fantastic opportunities for stargazing. There are decent campsites in all of the areas listed in this article. Facilities can vary though, so check online and/or call ahead first.
Bothies are basic unlocked shelters – usually old abandoned buildings – which are found in the remote, mountainous areas of Scotland. They can be a welcome alternative to sleeping in a tent, especially if the weather takes a turn for the worst. Bothies are free to use, though usually have zero facilities. Take all rubbish out with you and leave the place as you would wish to find it.
Unlike in the rest of the UK, wild camping in Scotland is legal in most circumstances. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code sets out some rules which you must comply with, although most of these are common sense.
In essence, they are:
- be responsible and respectful,
- don’t camp in fields of crops or farm animals,
- keep well away from buildings and roads,
- ideally don’t light a fire (if you must, be very careful and ensure it’s fully extinguished afterwards),
- leave no trace – bury all human waste, and take everything else out with you.
Check out this guide for more information on wild camping in Scotland.
How To Get Around Southern Scotland
Much of Scotland is fairly remote – especially the areas that are best for hiking. As a result, public transport options can be limited. Most places where there are roads are connected to bus routes, although services often run infrequently.
Having (/hiring) your own car is generally the most straightforward option. This way, you can either plan circular routes to and from where you park, or park somewhere on a bus route, hike to somewhere else also on the route and take the bus back to your car. It’s generally fine to leave your car overnight in rural parking spots, though do check for signs to the contrary.
Expedia has you covered for car hire in Scotland as well.
If you choose to drive, remember you will be on the right side of the car on the left side of the road. Most cars in the UK are also manual transmission (i.e. stick shift), and car hire companies will almost certainly give you a manual car unless you specify otherwise. If you prefer to drive automatic, be sure to tell the hire company beforehand so they can arrange this for you.
Hiking is a popular pastime in Scotland, and some accommodation providers will offer to drop you off and/or collect you from various points (especially along well-defined trails like the Southern Upland Way) – sometimes for a fee, sometimes not. A few even offer transfer services to help you move luggage to your next accommodation, though it’s best to check this in advance.
Conclusion: Things To Do In Southern Scotland
As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do in Southern Scotland.
While Northern Scotland and the Islands get most of the press, you can capitalize on some of Scotland’s gems without all of the crowds.
So, whether you want to spend time in the wilderness hiking and camping, splurge on some once-in-a-lifetime experiences, or a little of both, you won’t regret your time in Southern Scotland.
Alex Tiffany is the founder of Just Go Exploring, the ultimate resource for adventure and off-the-beaten-track destinations. When he is not exploring the hidden-away corners of our beautiful planet, Alex is a keen violinist, hiker, reader, and daydreamer.
Alex’s favourite place in the world for hiking is Sikkim, north-east India. Check some of Alex’s other hiking-related pieces over on Just Go Exploring.
We want to thank Alex for such a great overview of wild hiking in Southern Scotland. This gets us excited to explore these areas as thoroughly as he did.
Be sure to check out more of his hiking and outdoor adventures on his website.
In the meantime, while we have you here, we have some great hikes all over the world. Check out our hiking page where we cover some of our own adventures and some that we will be tackling very soon.
Or if you would like to explore another European Island, we can’t recommend Iceland enough. Here is Iceland camping guide we wrote after one of our favorite camping trips.
And be sure to download your own wild camping checklist. These are the essentials anytime you want to spend some time in the great outdoors. Get away from it all without missing a thing.