(Unusual attractions: uncover a series of offbeat tourist destinations in Scotland)
The UK™s northernmost country is nothing if not beautiful. It was among these great, grassy glens, deep, mysterious lochs, and wild highlands that some of Britain™s greatest poetry and stories were dreamed up. The capital Edinburgh is a cultural powerhouse, while its biggest city Glasgow is a gritty place of history and revelry. There is a reason Scotland is one of the most-visited countries on Earth and, trust us, it isn™t the weather.
But not all tourists are interested in the same things, and not all tourist sites are created equal. Rather than run you down the well-trodden path, we™ve collected a list of some alternative, offbeat Scottish tourist destinations that we thought would appeal to our readers; from the obscurely great to the greatly obscure.
The Italian Chapel (Orkney)
From hoax history to the real deal, the Italian Church in Orkney is a relic of one of the 20th century™s most-significant conflicts. In World War Two, a group of Italian POWs found themselves shipped to distant Orkney to work on an Allied construction project. When Italy surrendered in 1943, the POWs were given new freedoms. Was there anything they wanted? They were asked. A Catholic church, they said. To everyone™s surprise, the commander of their prison camp agreed.
Created from two Nissen huts joined together, the bare-bones church wound up becoming a hymn to Italian craftmanship. The Italian prisoners of war worked day and night to fashion an attractive front for their church, to build an altar; a font, pillars. By the time the war ended, Orkney had become home to a Catholic church as small as it was beautiful. As for the POWs themselves, they had literally only a handful of weeks to worship in their finished building, before being shipped out to return home, leaving only their memories behind, wrought in stone.
The Fairy Glen (Uig)
(Image: Google Street View)
Every now and then, nature conspires to create a small slice of the world that seems “ for whatever reason “ unworldly. You can see this with the Wave in Arizona, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Or, you can see it with the Fairy Glen above Uig on the Isle of Skye. A gently windswept, soft, grassy land of rolling hillocks, tiny pools and indefinable magic, the Fairy Glen looks like something from A Midsummer Night™s Dream.
Interestingly, there are no known local tales of fairies that might have given this place its name. It seems someone simply looked at it one day, and said something like, œOh! That looks like someplace fairies might live. Let™s call it the Fairy Glen!” Amusing as this is to imagine, there™s no denying that the landscape is enchanting. Sat among its sleepy hills at sunrise, you™d be forgiven for thinking you were looking down on the court of Titania herself.
Paisley Witches Memorial (Renfrewshire)
(Image: Google Street View)
If you happened to glance at your feet as you walked through a specific intersection in Paisley, you might just find yourself face to face with one of Scotland™s least-known monuments. A tiny metal horseshoe in a bronze plaque surrounded by cobblestones, the memorial seems almost like an afterthought. But it marks a grim period in Scottish, and Christian, history. It was here, in 1696, that the last mass-execution for witchcraft took place in Western Europe.
The story is equally as depressing as that of the Salem witch trials. After an 11-year-old girl claimed she had been bewitched, 35 local people were put on trial using her testimony. Although only seven were convicted, they were all sentenced to death. Catherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Lang, Margaret Fulton, James Lindsay, and John Lindsay (this last boy aged only 11) were all garroted on this spot, while another man, John Reid, committed suicide before the execution date. Since then, the spot has been marked with a horseshoe (or several horseshoes, as the originals kept going missing); a reminder of the terrible tragedies that accompanied the last of Europe™s senseless witch panics.
The House of Automata (Findhorn)
We mean it in the nicest way possible when we say there™s something creepy about the House of Automata. Located in the village of Findhorn, it™s about as aesthetically far away from the quaint surroundings as its possible to get. Inside, blank, unseeing eyes gaze out at you from row upon row of glass cases; model dogs and grinning cats and bug-eyed children, frozen in time. Like walking slowly through a dark room filled with mannequins, passing them is highly disconcerting. And then the creatures start to move…
We™re joking about that last part, naturally. But in this tiny, appointment-only museum, it seems a terrifying possibility. A world-beating collection of classic automata (moving, mechanical toys rendered to look like humans that were hugely popular in the 19th century) decorates the walls, drawn together from all round the world. You can even drop in and buy a piece.
Ascog Hall Fernery and Gardens (Argyll & Bute)
(Image: Michael Zehrer)
On the very edge of the dramatic, storied Firth of Clyde lives one of Scotland™s oldest, strangest life forms. Discovered in the wreckage of the ruined Victorian fernery at Ascog Hall, this giant King Fern is thought to be over one thousand years old, and reaches three meters into the air.
While the numbers are impressive, the tale of its discovery is even more so. At some point in the past, an ornate fernery was paid for, constructed from wrought iron and glass, filled with statues… and then left to rot. Collapsed, forgotten, its existence was a mystery to the owners of Ascog Hall. Even as it went wild, the glass ceiling shattered and the paths became ensnared in creepers. All other ferns died… except for this one. Now holding pride of place in the restored fernery, it continues to watch over this corner of Scotland, as it has watched over different parts of the world since the days of William the Conqueror.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums (Edinburgh)
(Image: Chris Gunns)
“A collection of body parts in jars?” We hear you ask. “What fun!” It™s true that the Surgeons™ Hall Museums’ exhibits can verge on the gruesome, if not the downright shocking. But, unless you™re exceptionally squeamish, this is still somewhere in Scotland that™s worth your time. Not least for the incredible history on display here.
For 500 years, the Royal College of Surgeons has operated in Edinburgh, often placing Scotland at the very forefront of medical advances. In that time, the institution has built up a formidable collection of medical curiosities unrivalled almost anywhere else on Earth. Then there™s the supporting documentation. One item on display is a letter by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, naming the College™s Dr. Joseph Bell as the inspiration for his greatest character: one Sherlock Holmes.
Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre (Glasgow)
(Image: Ose Pedro/website)
Regular readers will know we™re big fans of upcycling, repurposing, and just about anything that creatively deals with waste products the world no longer wants. The Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Glasgow might be the purest expression of this we™ve yet encountered. A whirling, clanking, twisting, hypnotic dance of carved figurines, recovered scrap and repurposed objects, all moving in demented, light-drenched mechanical harmony, the theatre is as much a visceral experience as it is an offbeat tourist destination.
Originally made in St Petersburg in the 1970s and 1980s, the collection claims its clockwork marvels are telling human stories about the relentless struggle against the cycle of life and death. That may be the case, but for most visitors, the sheer, joyous rhythm of it all is what will suck you in. It™s like stepping into an automated world directed by Nightmare Before Christmas-era Tim Burton and designed by a mad Russian hermit, with all the strangeness and surreal wonder that description implies.
John Buchan Story (Peebles)
(Image: Google Street View)
Scotland has produced many fine writers over the centuries. But for pure adventure stories, shorn of the uneasy ambiguities of Robert Louis Stevenson, there is perhaps none finer than John Buchan. The author of The 39 Steps was a writer who revelled in storytelling for storytelling™s sake. His novels feature mad dashes across the Scottish countryside, villains and heroes locked in a deadly game of wits, and escapist drama by the bucket load.
Perhaps it™s no surprise, then, that in his constituency in the Scottish Borders, a small museum now recognises his contributions to British literature. Located on the narrow high street of Peebles, the John Buchan Story brings together a whole lot of ephemera, relating both to his writing and his time as Governor General of Canada. Buchan fans will be in heaven, and seeing where such an iconic novel gestated can be a reward all by itself.
Camera Obscura & World of Illusions (Edinburgh)
(Image: Andy Hay)
Finally, we couldn™t leave off Edinburgh™s Camera Obscura and World of Illusions. A family establishment dedicated to bizarre optical illusions, Camera Obscura treads a fine line between weird displays to entertain the kids, and moments of dark surrealism “ like the spooky green holograms of sad clowns “ likely to discomfort even the hardiest adult.
For those less-interested in experiencing such things, the location of Camera Obscura is enough to justify the walk out there. Located on Castlehill in the Scottish capital™s bustling Old Town, visitors can approach from any number of routes, taking them deep into the beating heart of historic Edinburgh.
The Blantyre Carvings (South Lanarkshire)
Not so far outside Glasgow, there exists a strange collection of ancient carvings. Known as the Blantyre Carvings, they depict images of Jesus hauling his cross; of Christ crucified; of Roman soldiers and (it is speculated) explorer David Livingstone. First discovered in the 1960s, they were announced in the local press as holdovers from an ancient world, Scottish carvings that may have been thousands of years old.
The truth is both more prosaic and more interesting than that. As you may have guessed from the mention of David Livingstone, the carvings are far from ancient. They aren™t even Victorian whimsies. They were carved in the mid-20th century by an eccentric local named Tommy Hawkins, who would work only when no-one was around, and leave in silence if anyone passed by. Why he carved his religious icons on this anonymous rock wall is a mystery. Yet his images show an artistic talent at work, one only boosted by the legend of the carver™s ancient origins.
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