Beyond Edinburgh by Car: Dunfermline Abbey, Castles, the Roman Frontier and a Neolithic Mound

By Charleen - October 15, 2019

By choosing sites that were closer to Edinburgh, we were able to see lots of history, ranging from an odd neolithic mound near the Roman frontier to large and small castles, a palace by an abbey and an unexpected connection to Pittsburgh -- all amidst a whirlwind of green fields, narrow lanes and too many traffic circles!

Dunfermline Abbey, Refectory and Palace
There are many "day trips" out of Edinburgh run by tour operators, including small van trips to see sights such as Loch Ness to the north, or all the way down to Hadrian's Wall in England. But these 10-14 hour trips typically involve only 70-90 minutes at each of the two main attractions and perhaps one or two short stops to stretch and take pictures. Moreover, the cost paid often does not include entry fees, so you are observing buildings from the outside.
Queen's Inner Hall at Stirling Castle
After reading about the Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass and browsing the huge variety of sites that could be visited, we quickly decided to rent a car and plan our own two day itinerary. We rented from Arnold Clark via the Celtic Legend website, recommended by several people on TripAdvisor (see tips below). As our hotel did not have parking, we found a Park & Ride lot on the outskirts of Edinburgh that allowed free, overnight parking and took the bus back in the evening.
From top of Cairnpapple Hill


Day 3. To the North and West to see as much as we could

Our general strategy for our first day of driving was to head north across the Firth on Forth and then swing west, hitting as many of the sights with entrance fees and hours as we could, before wrapping up the day visiting outdoor attractions. Most sites closed at 5:30 pm in the summer, but the sun was not scheduled to set until after 9 pm. 

Lochleven Castle was the only place on our "possible" list that required advance reservations to catch the boat out to the island. We decided to skip it as it was difficult to predict when we would get there and how long the back and forth boat ride would take out of our day.

Dunfermline Abbey & Palace (and the original Carnegie Library)

After picking up the car ~9:30 am, we arrived in Dunfermline an hour later. We were not expecting how much of the ruins were accessible, from spiral staircases that went to nowhere to segments of balconies looking down into the old Palace kitchens and other rooms.
The refectory with two layers of undercroft
Queen Anna's palace, formerly a 13th-14th century monastic guest house
The 11th century Romanesque architecture had been remodeled many times over the centuries. Many queens chose to give birth in Dunfermline for the protection of Saint Margaret (1045-1093). This is the same Margaret honored in St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in the Edinburgh Castle complex because Robert the Bruce spared it from destruction in 1314.
The Anunciation Stone
Within the working parish church next to the ruins is the final resting places of King Robert I, the Bruce. Multiple medieval Scottish monarchs and members of the royal family were buried in Dunfermline Abbey, although the tombs were destroyed during the Reformation. In 1818, his remains and fragments of the tomb were discovered during construction of the New Abbey Church.
Grave of Robert the Bruce, beneath a brass marker gifted by the Earl of Elgin.
Overall, we spent 1.5 hours here, well over the 30 minutes I had envisioned, as the abbey and palace had many interesting areas to explore. We devoted the last 15-20 min of that time pursuing an unexpected Pittsburgh connection. Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, and opened the original Carnegie Library there in 1883, just around the corner from Dunfermline Abbey.
The first Carnegie Public Library
We drove past the Andrew Carnegie birthplace around noon, eating the lunches we had purchased early in the morning from Social Bite on our way out of town.

Castle Campbell & Gardens

By skipping Lochleven, we were able to take smaller diagonal roads toward Dollar Glen and Castle Gloom. After about 40 minutes, we arrived to find that the setting was far from gloomy, with the grey 4-story castle tower tucked in an idyllic glen with small waterfalls and a babbling brook lined by yellow flowers. 
By now the sky had taken on a threatening tone, with dark clouds drifting in. The ranger informed us that they had closed Lochleven, and that some of the other sites on the water might be closing soon.
The castle, renamed Castle Campbell after it passed by marriage from the Stewarts to the Highlander chief Colin Campbell of Argyll in 1465, backs onto verdant gardens, with fantastic views from the roof deck. It probably began as a simple wooden keep on a motte that was replaced by a stone tower house, eventually evolving to a courtyard castle upon addition of a two story loggia that reflected an Italian Renaissance influence.
We spent about 45 minutes at this site, climbing to the top of the tower and exploring the ruined great hall and gardens. Just before heading back out at 1:25 pm, we took a brief detour to find Kemp's Score, a slash in the ground rumored to have been made by a giant living in Castle Campbell.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle was an amazing complex to rival Castle Edinburgh; we also spent 2.5 hours there. We arrived shortly after 2 pm, but did not find parking until we had driven back down into town. After walking up to the castle, we realized that we had missed the entrance to a large parking lot near the Portcullis hotel. There was no obvious signage and we had assumed it was a driveway for the hotel.
Stirling was a mixture of somber grey fortressed wall, the light tangerine-shades of the Great Hall, verdant green gardens, and the Royal Palace, which is decorated in the Renaissance style of the years of Mary Queen of Scots.
Royal Palace, Great Hall & the central Gatehouse
Inside the Great Hall
The Queen's Inner Hall contains several huge replicas of the Hunt of the Unicorn series of tapestries (originals in the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of New York). I took some photos of recipe books displayed in the Great Kitchens, and may try them out some day.
The Stirling Heads Gallery contains 16th century oak medallions carved with images of real, Biblical and mythological figures. Replicas decorate the ceiling of the King's quarters, while the originals can be viewed in an upstair museum.
Replicas of the Stirling Heads in the King's Presence Chamber
At 4:45 pm, we left Stirling after walking the ramparts of the Nether Bailey beyond the North Gate. As it would be too late to visit Linlithgow Castle, we headed straight for the Antonine Wall.

Antonine Wall: Rough Castle Area

The Antonine Wall once stretched 39 miles across the narrowest part of Scotland, linking the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth. It marked the true northern frontier of the Roman Empire. In contrast to the castles and abbeys, the different areas of the Antonine Wall that can be visited often did not have definite street addresses. The Historic Scotland app came in handy, working seamlessly with the downloaded Google maps to assist us in navigation. 

We opted to visit the Rough Castle area, arriving around 5:30 pm at a small parking area at the end of a long road. Although the Antonine wall had been 10-13 feet high and 16 feet wide, it looked like a long grassy, elevated embankment as the wood structures had all rotted away. The Military Way was a road that ran along the south side of the wall, while a wide ditch characterized the north side.  I was the only one in my family to cross beyond the northern extent of the former Roman Empire, into the land of the Caledonii or Picts.
We did not complete the quarter mile walk to the Rough Castle fort or the lilia pits, hidden traps fitted with sharpened stakes, as the stormy clouds really threatened to break loose. So we turned back as we wanted to make sure we were able to see the henge at Cairnpapple Hill.

Back on the main highway, we drove past the Kelpies around 6 pm. These 100 foot tall sculptures honor legendary shape-shifting water spirits that had the strength and endurance of 10 horses. 

Cairnpapple Hill: A late Stone Age Henge

It was rainy, windy and cold when we arrived at the gate to the path leading up to Cairnpapple Hill. This odd monument is in the middle of a livestock farm. Constructed about 3000 BC, the mound is surrounded by large granite blocks and curious round pits. Three Bronze Age burial cairns were added later, and one of these graves can be entered if an attendant is present. 

With the wind whipping our umbrellas inside out, we only spent 15 minutes here pondering the mysteries of why this place may have been built and enjoying the distant views.
We grabbed a quick take away fish and chips dinner at the Golden Chip in Linlithgow at 7 pm. This busy counter did not have restroom facilities, so I had to walk down the street to a Subway, picking up my lunch for the next day. At ~7:30, we pulled up to the outside of Linlithgow Palace and decided that we definitely wanted to come back and visit this beautiful palace on a loch.
Our rental car outside Linlithgow Palace
It was only a 30 minute drive to the Hermiston Park & Ride, and we were able to catch the #34 (or #25) bus back to city center. (Be sure to bring the exact bus fare in cash for each person). If we had decided we would be spending Day 2 entirely to the east of Edinburgh as originally planned, we would have parked at the Sheriffhall Park & Ride. Despite all the driving, we managed to walk 7.56 miles, ascending the equivalent of 61 flights of stairs. 

We were very pleased with our first day driving around the countryside. Each site that we visited was enthralling for different reasons, and the flexibility of being able to stay a bit longer at some sites and push others off to the next day was very appealing.

Continue the driving tour with Day 4: Swinging West and then East of EdinburghLinlithgow Palace and Loch, Rosslyn Chapel, St. Martin's Kirk, Angels with Bagpipes restaurant
Locations of places visited on our first day of driving are marked in purple. Dark grey markers show locations of Arnold Clark and the two possible Park & Ride lots. 
Links to read about our first 2 days in Edinburgh on foot: 

Celtic Legend Ltd Car Rental
Request an online quote, and the Rental Team will contact you.  They are very responsive to questions, and the entire process was very smooth.
Arnold Clark Car Rental at the Arnold Clark Motor Store 
16-18 Bankhead Drive, Sighthill, Edinburgh, EH11 4DJ. 
Phone: 0131 458 1501
Earliest pick up: 8:00 am; Latest drop off: 5:30 pm (17:30)

Tips: 
🐾 For US renters, your regular driver's license, passport and credit card are all that is needed to pick up the car. If your driver's license is not in English, then you will need an International Driver's license. Buying the insurance for £14/day was well worth it for peace of mind, as otherwise the deductible was £1000.

🐾 Check the City of Edinburgh website for a list of Park and Ride lots. I found two with free overnight parking that were convenient to where we wanted to drive: the Sheriffhall and Hermiston locations. There are carparks in the city, but these may require prebooking and cost over £30 for overnight parking.

🐾The Historic Scotland Explorer Pass is highly recommended if you will have a rental car and plan to visit both Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. Download the Explorer pass leaflet  or download the free app to plan out your itinerary. Order directly from the Historic Environment Scotland website to avoid mark ups by tour companies selling the same pass. For student discount (concession price), they accept a current student ID or admission letter to college. Using only one full day and two half days on the 5 day pass, we saved 
£20.50 per adult and £16.80 per student on entry fees. 

🐾 With Google Maps, you can mark sites of interest, and then download maps for offline use on the iPhone. We kept our phones in airplane mode for the entire trip, but were able to get driving directions/navigation with no problems. The Historic Scotland app worked seamlessly with the downloaded maps to assist us in navigating to sights that did not have a street address. Note that without data service, you can't get re-routes based on live traffic conditions, and navigation is only for driving (not walking or transit). 


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