65 Best Sights in The Borders and the Southwest, Scotland

Abbotsford House

Fodor's choice

In this great house overlooking the Tweed, Sir Walter Scott lived, worked, and received the great and the good in luxurious salons. In 1811 the writer bought a farm on this site named Cartleyhole, which was a euphemism for the real name, Clartyhole (clarty is Scots for "muddy" or "dirty"). The romantic Scott renamed the property after a ford in the nearby Tweed used by the abbot of Melrose. Scott eventually had the house entirely rebuilt in the Scottish baronial style. It was an expensive project, and Scott wrote feverishly to keep his creditors at bay. John Ruskin, the art critic, disapproved, calling it an "incongruous pile," but most contemporary visitors find it fascinating, particularly because of its expansive views and delightful gardens.

A free audio tour guides you around the salon, the circular study, and the library with its 9,000 leather-bound volumes. Perhaps more than anyone else, Scott redefined Scotland as a place of mystery and romance, and awoke the English, who read him avidly, to its natural beauty and its past—or at least a heavily dramatized version of it. The visitor center houses displays about Scott's life, a gift shop, and a restaurant serving lunch. To get here, take the A6091 from Melrose and follow the signs for Abbotsford. Entry is by timed ticket and advance reservations are essential.

Broughton House

Fodor's choice

The 18th-century Broughton House was the home of the artist E. A. Hornel from 1901 until his death in 1933 and remains largely as it was in his time. Hornel was a member of the school of painters called the "Glasgow Boys," who were influenced by the Vienna Secession and art nouveau. You can see many of his paintings in the gallery Hornel built onto the house to impress the guests and buyers who came to see his work. His use and love of color is obvious in the beautiful garden, which combines lawns, ponds, and formal and wildflower beds. The knowledgeable guides will gladly provide information about the life and work of the painter. Tickets for entry are timed so be sure to reserve in advance online.

Caerlaverock Castle

Fodor's choice

The stunningly beautiful moated Caerlaverock Castle stands in splendid isolation amid the surrounding wetlands. Built in a unique triangular design, this 13th-century fortress has solid-sandstone masonry and an imposing double-tower gatehouse. King Edward I of England (1239–1307) besieged the castle in 1300, when his forces occupied much of Scotland at the start of the Wars of Independence. A splendid residence was built inside in the 1600s. Now largely in ruins, the interior is still atmospheric, and the siege engines on the grounds give some sense of what medieval warfare was like. The castle has a pleasant café for coffee, cakes, or lunch.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre

Fodor's choice

This wild and beautiful wetland provides a stunning backdrop to Caerlaverock Castle. Here you can observe wintering wildfowl, including migrating geese, spy ducks, swans, and raptors. In summer, ospreys patrol the waters of this northernmost outpost of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. The triops, the tadpole shrimp that is one of the oldest known species, lives in the aquarium here. There are bats and badgers, sparrows, and natterjack toads as well. Free guided walks are available in the afternoons throughout the year.

Castle Kennedy Gardens

Fodor's choice

The lovely Castle Kennedy Gardens surround the shell of the original Castle Kennedy, which burned down in 1716. Parks scattered around the property were built by the second Earl of Stair in 1733. The earl was a field marshal and used his soldiers to help with the heavy work of constructing banks, ponds, and other major landscape features. When the rhododendrons are in bloom (April through July, depending on the variety), the effect is kaleidoscopic. There's also a pleasant tearoom.

Crawick Multiverse

Fodor's choice

The extraordinary 2015 land artwork by Charles Jencks, 45 minutes north of Dumfries near the village of Sanquhar, must surely become a focus for visitors to the region for years to come. Jencks has transformed a 55-acre site, once an open-pit mine, into a beautiful and inspiring created landscape, at the heart of which are two grass spiral mounds that represent the Milky Way and the Andromeda Constellation. But they are simply the heart of a site where woodland, moor, mountain, and desert meet. Local rocks have been lifted to form avenues and labyrinths across the site. As you look across from its highest point, it is as if you were looking in a mirror in which the skies were reflected on the earth. Set aside two or three hours at least for the experience.

Drumlanrig Castle

Fodor's choice

A spectacular estate, Drumlanrig Castle is as close as Scotland gets to the treasure houses of England—which is not surprising, since it's owned by the dukes of Buccleuch, one of the wealthiest British peerages. Resplendent with romantic turrets, this pink-sandstone palace was constructed between 1679 and 1691 by the first Duke of Queensbury, who, after nearly bankrupting himself building the place, stayed one night and never returned. The Buccleuchs inherited the palace and filled the richly decorated rooms with paintings by Holbein, Rembrandt, and Murillo, among others. Because of the theft of a Leonardo da Vinci painting in 2003, all visits are conducted by guided tour. There is also a playground, a gift shop, and a tearoom. The grounds are varied and good for walking and mountain biking; bikes can be rented at the castle.

Floors Castle

Fodor's choice

The palatial Floors Castle, the largest inhabited castle in Scotland, is an architectural extravagance bristling with pepper-mill turrets. Not so much a castle as the ancestral seat of a wealthy and powerful landowning family, the Roxburghes, it stands on the "floors," or flat terrain, on the banks of the River Tweed. The enormous home was built in 1721 by William Adam (1689–1748) and modified by William Playfair (1789–1857), who added the turrets and towers in the 1840s. Rooms are crowded with valuable furniture, paintings, porcelain, and an eerie circular room full of stuffed birds; each room has a knowledgeable guide at the ready. The surrounding 56,000-acre estate is home to more than 40 farms. Although the castle itself is closed to visitors in winter, the grounds and café are open year-round.

Galloway Forest Park

Fodor's choice

The expansive facilities in Galloway Forest Park are evidence of the growing enthusiasm for active vacations in Scotland; it offers chances for cycling, walking, kayaking on the rivers, bird-watching, and mountain-biking. You can walk or bicycle along the paths through moorland and forests, by lochs and over hills—all contained within the 300 square miles of the forest. The Forestry Commission, which manages the forest, has three visitor centers at Glen Trool, Kirroughtree, and Clatteringshaws and also offers exhibits about the region's wildlife, a reconstructed Iron Age dwelling, and 7stanes mountain-biking centers. The forest is designated as a Dark Sky Park; the low light pollution here ensures exceptional stargazing.

Jedburgh Abbey

Fodor's choice

The most impressive of the Borders abbeys towers above Jedburgh. Built by David I, king of Scots in the 12th century, the abbey was nearly destroyed by the English Earl of Hertford's forces in 1544–45, during the destructive time known as the Rough Wooing. This was English king Henry VIII's (1491–1547) armed attempt to persuade the Scots that it was a good idea to unite the kingdoms by the marriage of his young son to the infant Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–87); the Scots disagreed and sent Mary to France instead. The story is explained in vivid detail at the visitor center, which also has information about the ruins and an audio tour. The arched abbey walls, the nave, and the cloisters still give a sense of the power these buildings represented.

Melrose Abbey

Fodor's choice

Just off Melrose's town square sit the ruins of Melrose Abbey, one of the four Borders abbeys: "If thou would'st view fair Melrose aright, go visit it in the pale moonlight," wrote Scott in The Lay of the Last Minstrel. So many of his fans took the advice literally that a custodian begged him to rewrite the lines. Today the abbey is still impressive: a red-sandstone shell with slender windows, delicate tracery, and carved capitals, all carefully maintained. Among the carvings high on the roof is one of a bagpipe-playing pig. An audio tour is included in the admission price. The heart of 14th-century national hero Robert the Bruce is rumored to be buried here. You can tour the on-site museum and its historical artifacts for free in July and August, but be sure to book in advance.

Buy Tickets Now

Smailholm Tower

Fodor's choice

Standing uncompromisingly on top of a barren, rocky ridge in the hills south of Mellerstain, this 16th-century peel tower, characteristic of the Borders, was built solely for defense, and its unadorned stones contrast with the luxury of Mellerstain House. If you let your imagination wander at this windy spot, you can almost see the rising dust of an advancing raiding party. Sir Walter Scott found this spot inspiring, and he visited the tower often during his childhood. Anne Carrick's tableaux in the tower illustrate some of Scott's Borders ballads, and the ticket includes an audio tour of the building.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

Fodor's choice

This purpose-built museum at the end of Galashiels High Street houses the 160 panels of the stunning Tapestry of Scotland, which showcases major moments in Scotland´s history and culture in stitched panels created by 1000 needles. The handcrafted nature of the visual narratives gives them a kind of warmth and intimacy, as well as an element of wit. The museum itself is extremely user-friendly: the panels are set out in a series of spaces fanning out from the center, with each corresponding to a historical period, but you can follow them by topic or by region using the accessible guides found throughout. You can also grab a magnifying glass or an iPad to examine them more closely. You can even go down to the Makers Space and try stitching yourself. In each space is a central panel that includes interviews with the stitchers. There is ample seating to spend time with the tapestry and an on-site café to relax over coffee and a cake before you continue your visit.

Threave Castle

Fodor's choice

Once home to the Black Douglases, earls of Nithsdale and lords of Galloway, Threave's imposing towers reflect well the Lord of Galloway who built it in the 14th century, Archibald the Grim. Not to be confused with the mansion in Threave Gardens, the castle was dismantled in the religious wars of the mid-17th century, though enough of it remained to have housed prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars two centuries later. It's a few minutes from Castle Douglas by car and is signposted from the main road. To get here, leave your car in a farmyard and make your way down to the edge of the river. Ring the bell (loudly) and, rather romantically, a boatman will come to ferry you across to the great stone tower looming from a marshy island in the river.

Traquair House

Fodor's choice

Said to be the oldest continually occupied home in Scotland (since 1107), Traquair House has secret stairways and passages, a library with more than 3,000 books, and a bed said to be used by Mary, Queen of Scots in 1566. You can walk freely through the rooms, and each has an explanatory leaflet as well as helpful guides dressed in period costume. The top floor of the house is an interesting small museum. Outside is a reasonably scary maze, an adventure playground, and some lovely woodland walks as well as pigs, goats, and chickens. The 18th-century brew house still makes highly recommended ale, and there's a café on the grounds near the beautiful walled garden. The Traquair Fair in August is the nearest you are likely to get to a medieval fair, and well worth the visit. You may even spend the night, if you wish.

Blacksmith's Shop

Today the 18th-century house of the village blacksmith, known as the "anvil priest," contains a collection of blacksmithing tools, as well as the anvil over which many weddings may have been conducted to symbolize the forging of the link between two people. The village was on the new coaching road from London to Edinburgh when the marriage laws in England became more restrictive than Scotland's, where, for a time at least, boys and girls in their early teens could marry without parental permission. Gretna Green was the first place in Scotland runaway couples reached after crossing the border, hence its fame and the fact that over 1,000 couples a year still go there to marry. Today it also contains a shop, restaurant, and museum, as well as the Courtship Maze, which couples enter separately in the hope of finding each other.

Borders Textile Towerhouse

In the former Drumlanrig Tower, this museum includes a good exhibition about the textile industry, once the lifeblood of the Borders. Plenty of interactive elements make it interesting for children as well. One room commemorates the demonstrations by textile workers who were demanding the right to vote in the 1880s. On the upper floor are up-to-the-minute fabrics that define the 21st century. Check out the shop, too.


Home of the Duke of Buccleuch, Bowhill dates from the 19th century and houses an outstanding collection of works by Gainsborough, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Reynolds, and Raeburn, as well as porcelain and period furniture. The grounds include an excellent adventure playground and are mostly accessible from April through August. Access to the house is only by guided tours on specific days in the summer; check the website for exact dates. All tickets must be booked ahead of time online. There is a 57-mile country ride for those who prefer horseback riding. A local stable rents horses.

Burns Mausoleum

When he died in 1796, Robert Burns was buried in a modest grave in St. Michael's Churchyard. English poet William Wordsworth, visiting a few years later, was horrified by the small gravestone and raised money to build the much grander monument that stands there today.

Cardoness Castle

The castle was a typical Scottish tower house, severe and uncompromising. The 15th-century structure once was the home of the McCullochs of Galloway, then the Gordons—two of the area's important and occasionally infamous families. Though ruined, it is well preserved with fireplaces and some carvings intact.

Creetown Gem Rock Museum

In the village of Creetown seven miles outside Newton Stewart, this museum has an eclectic mineral collection, a dinosaur egg, an erupting volcano, and a crystal cave. There's also an Internet café, a tearoom, and a shop selling stones and crystals—both loose and in settings. Entry is good for two weeks.

Chain Rd., Creetown, Dumfries and Galloway, DG8 7HJ, Scotland
sights Details
Rate Includes: £5, Closed Dec. and Jan.

Dark Space Planetarium

At this fascinating interactive museum, both the young and the not-so young can test their scientific knowledge and travel into the solar system via the planetarium. You can even try on astronaut gloves to get an idea of how hard it is to use your hands in space. It seems especially appropriate since Dumfries and Galloway both have extensive areas of dark sky for great star-gazing within Galloway Forest.

Dryburgh Abbey

The final resting place of Sir Walter Scott and his wife, and the most peaceful and secluded of the Borders abbeys, the "gentle ruins" of Dryburgh Abbey sit on parkland in a loop of the Tweed. The abbey, founded in 1150, suffered from English raids until, like Melrose, it was abandoned in 1544. The style is transitional, a mingling of rounded Romanesque and pointed early English. The north transept, where the Haig and Scott families lie buried, is lofty and pillared, and once formed part of the abbey church.

Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura

A camera obscura is essentially a huge reflecting mirror that projects an extraordinarily clear panoramic view of the surrounding countryside onto an internal wall. The one at the Dumfries Museum, which claims to be the oldest in the world, is housed in the old Windmill Tower, built in 1836. The museum itself covers the culture and daily life of the people living in the Dumfries and Galloway region from the earliest times.

Glen Trool

With high purple-and-green hilltops shorn rock-bare by glaciers, and with a dark, winding loch and thickets of birch trees sounding with birdcalls, Glen Trool's setting almost looks more highland than the real Highlands. Note Bruce's Stone, just above the parking lot, marking the site where in 1307 Scotland's champion Robert the Bruce (King Robert I, 1274–1329) won his first victory in the Scottish Wars of Independence. A little road off the A714 leads through increasingly wild woodland scenery to a parking lot. The visitor center is open daily. Only after you have climbed for a few minutes onto a heathery knoll does the full, rugged panorama become apparent. Driving is really the only way to get to Glen Trool, which is part of Galloway Forest Park. From Glasgow take the A77 (about 2¼ hours). From Edinburgh take the A702 (about three hours).

Glenwhan Gardens

Like its neighbor Castle Kennedy, this wonderful garden, created some 40 years ago, benefits from the warm gulf stream that flows along the area's coasts, allowing tropical plants to grow. Rare trees and shrubs grow here beside ferns, wild grasses, and a variety of wildflowers. It is also an arboretum with a tree trail. Paths and walks crisscross the garden, leading out into the surrounding moorland, where you can enjoy the views across to the Mull of Galloway.

Globe Inn

Poet Robert Burns spent quite a lot of time at the Globe Inn, where he frequently fell asleep in the tack room beside the stables; today it's still an active pub where you can eat and drink. Burns later graduated to the upstairs bedroom where he slept with Anna Park, and scratched some lines of poetry on the window. The room is preserved (or at least partly re-created), and there are now organized tours of the room that leave from the pub three times a day, Tuesday through Saturday. Just beware, if you choose to sit in Burns's chair in the bar, tradition has it that you have to buy a round for the whole pub.

Gracefield Arts Centre

With galleries hosting changing exhibits of Scottish art mostly from the 1840s to today, Gracefield Arts Centre also has a well-stocked crafts shop. A café serves lunch and snacks.

Halliwell's House Museum

Tucked off the main square, Halliwell's House Museum was once an ironmonger's shop, which is now re-created downstairs. Upstairs, an exhibit tells the town's story, illustrates the working lives of its inhabitants, and provides useful background information on the Common Ridings.

Harestanes Countryside Visitor Centre

Housed in a former farmhouse 4 miles north of Jedburgh, this visitor center portrays life in the Scottish Borders through art exhibitions and natural history displays. Crafts such as woodworking and tile making are taught here, and finished projects are often on display. Outside are meandering paths, quiet roads for bike rides, and the biggest children's play area in the Borders. There's plenty for children, including a fascinating puzzle gallery full of sturdy wooden games. It is also on one of the best-known walking routes in the Borders, the St. Cuthbert's Path.