5 Argyll and the Isles sites that tell the story of Scotland's past

Argyll and the Isles is an area where the past is never too far from the present. As you travel through the region, you’ll discover a rich and colourful history – one which was integral to the creation of modern-day Scotland. From prehistoric rock art and chambered cairns to hill forts and castles, the landscape of Argyll is dotted with fascinating sites that tell us much about Scotland’s past. Here are five historical attractions in Argyll that should be on every history buff’s list. As you explore these places, let the history reveal itself and you’ll get closer to understanding the story of Scotland.

Kilmartin Glen

The rock art at Achnabreck in Kilmartin Glen provides a tantalising glimpse of Argyll’s prehistoric past. The carvings are among the largest and most complex motifs in Scotland. Some of the circular hollows, or cup marks, are surrounded by up to 12 rings, each more than a metre wide. Other decorations include multiple rings, ringed stars, parallel grooves and spirals. The spirals are of particular interest, as they are similar to examples found in Ireland and suggest wide-reaching contacts.

Kilmartin Glen Cairnbaan Rock Art, Credit: Kilmartin Glen 

Dunadd Fort

Nearby Dunadd Fort, meanwhile, sheds light on the birth of a nation. It was the royal power centre of the Gaelic kings of Scotland from about AD 500 to AD 800. It lay at the centre of Dalriada, the kingdom that included parts of western Scotland and northeastern Ireland. Dunadd rises dramatically from Moine Mhor – the ‘great moss’ – in Kilmartin Glen. Walk to the top and you’ll find footprints carved in stone. It’s thought that these were used during coronation ceremonies for new kings.

Dunadd Fort in Kilmartin Glen, Credit: Wild about Argyll

Iona Abbey 

Iona Abbey is one of Scotland’s most sacred sites and plays an important role in Scotland’s history. The abbey was founded by St Columba and his Irish followers in AD 563. It’s described as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, from where missionaries were sent to northern Britain to convert people to the religion. The founding of Iona within Dalriada ensured that the kingdom would play a key role in the spread of Christianity in northern Britain, not only to Pictland but also to Northumbria and beyond.

Iona Abbey & Nunnery, Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Rothesay Castle

If you want to learn about the Viking influence on Scotland, then Rothesay Castle on Bute is the place to go. It was built by the Stewart family in the 13th century to defend against invading Norwegian fleets. In 1098, Edgar of Scotland had given much of Scotland’s western seaboard, including Bute, to Norway. But the king’s descendants had retaken Bute by 1200. The Norwegians wanted it back. In 1230 Rothesay endured a three-day siege by King Haakon IV of Norway. It was again besieged in 1263. It became a royal residence soon after and was later occupied by Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Scottish Independence and served as a base for Cromwell’s troops in the late 17th century.

Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute, Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Auchindrain Township

To find out what life was like for ordinary rural Scots, head to Auchindrain Township near Inveraray in Argyll. So-called townships like these were the norm and a way of life in the predominantly rural northwest of Scotland for centuries until they were swept away by the Highland Clearances and emptied by economic hardship. Auchindrain, uniquely, survived, with the last resident leaving in 1967. You can imagine life in the old Highlands as you walk through the settlement and see how ordinary people lived and worked all those years ago. Step into their houses and see their everyday objects, uncover the stories of generations of people who lived here and explore the byres, stables and fields. And when you’re done, there’s a great tearoom serving up delicious home-baking where you can contemplate the living history you’ll have just seen.

Old cottages in Auchindrain Township, Credit: Wild about Argyll

Castles and More...

If these five sites have whetted your appetite, then why not delve deeper and discover more of Argyll and the Isles castles and heritage? Visit ruined castles in impossibly romantic locations, marvel at historic houses and gaze in wonder at Bronze Age standing stones. Or why not grab a map and discover the chambered cairns and cup-and-ring marked rocks for yourself.