AD: This trip was sponsored by Dig It! to promote their Hidden Gems campaign, giving some love to some of Scotland’s lesser-known historic jewels.
One of my favourite phrases — which I fire at friends and visitors alike — is, ‘there’s history everywhere you go in Scotland.’ But in some parts of our dear green country, it’s harder to believe. The central belt especially was a hotbed of manufacturing and mines in days gone by; history and beautiful buildings at times were razed to make way for modern industries and new towns.
You won’t find these areas of Scotland on the tourist trail.
This is commuter country, a landscape of suburbs interspersed with clumps of greenery and mobbed motorways. Yet — if you look deeper than the exterior — you’ll find that Scotland’s central belt is a hotbed of history. From remnants of the Roman’s Antonine Wall to sprawling Georgian mansions, there’s lots of hidden gems to discover in the quiet corners of the central belt. Thanks to Neil (aka @travelswithakilt) for being my tour buddy for the day!
Mote Hill and Hamilton Mausoleum, Hamilton
In an unassuming country park in the heart of Hamilton — a Glasgow commuter town — stands two staunch yet dissimilar hidden gems within spitting distance of each other. The first you’ll notice is the hulk of Hamilton Mausoleum with its upright base and bulbous dome (somewhat reminiscent of the Dunmore Pineapple). Built in the mid-nineteenth century as a crypt for the Duke of Hamilton and his family, it’s now famous for hosting one of the longest echoes in the world. If you fancy peeking inside the bronze doors, you can book tours in advance here.
Further across the lawn is Mote Hill, which we thought we’d found… but it turns out this medieval mound and sculpted stone is actually concealed within undergrowth (so what WAS I taking photos of then?!) A true hidden gem, clearly. Let me know if any of you go hunting for it… here’s a guide.
Dalzell Estate, Motherwell
Not far from the main motorway south to England is a green oasis enjoyed by commuters, families and fitness addicts alike. For tourists, it makes an ideal stop-off if you’re getting bored of all that tarmac. Dalzell Estate may seem like so many other country parks, but within its grounds there lies a good dose of history. The main house (now converted into stylish homes) dates back to the fifteenth century and with the influential input of the Hamilton family, spawned turrets, ornamental gardens and orchards.
It’s a lovely and leafy escape from the sometimes samey scenery of Scotland’s central belt. Some of my favourite corners of this 150-acre estate include the Japanese Gardens, the impressive house itself and further afield is Baron’s Haugh, the RSPB nature reserve. Find out more here.
Kennetpans Distillery, Clackmannanshire
Across the narrow Clackmannanshire bridge, through field-lined roads and down dirt tracks, is the now-ruined Kennetpans Distillery. Sitting right on the grey-sand banks of the River Forth, this was the world’s first ever commercial distillery in its 1700s heydays. When we arrived, we weren’t sure how much of the site we’d actually be able to see as scaffolding lined all its walls. However, following the grass-lined lane right to the shore, you’re able to get a view back towards the distillery and its outbuildings. This modest area helped birth both Jamesons and Haigs whiskies, and was a bustling component of Scotland’s export industry until its owners’ bankruptcy (they owed debts of £150 billion in today’s money!) More on the fascinating history of Kennetpans can be found right here on Neil’s ‘kilted’ travel blog!
Kinneil House, Bo’ness
Another seat of the Hamilton clan, Kinneil’s foundations are built on a pretty incredible piece of land (and that’s before we even make eyes at the house itself!) Running through the estate are the fossils of the Antonine Wall, built in the 140s AD to mark the frontier of Roman Britain… and there’s actual remains of a fortlet too.
As for the seventeenth-century house that we see today, its grandeur and symmetry are reminiscent of Newhailes near Musselburgh — both sprawling homes for important families. Also at Kenneil is James Watt’s cottage, where the inventor honed his steam engine creation.
Cairnpapple Hill, Bathgate
In the midst of winding country lanes and farmland sandwiched between far-off motorways, you’ll find one of the most important prehistoric sites in Scotland. Cairnpapple Hill commands views across Scotland (especially to the Forth, where you’ll spot the three bridges) and — for this reason among many — it was used as a Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual site for thousands of years.
Up a short flight of stairs and across a cow-filled field (ignore the unfortunate phone mast) you’ll discover this tangible site from Scotland’s ancient history. Incredibly, it was only excavated in the late 1940s and is preserved to this day by Historic Environment Scotland… A fascinating place that surely deserves a bigger shout-out.