Forget the Highlands—THIS is Where to Stay in Scotland Now
An undiscovered corner of Scotland hides romantic castles, mysterious islands, big-name distilleries, and more than its fair share of pastoral beauty. JS editor Lindsey Olander hit the ground in search of the region’s secret charms.
People who love Scotland love to talk about its crowd-pleasers—the historic alleyways and university vibes of Edinburgh, the energy and impressive museums of Glasgow, the dramatic and otherworldly landscapes of the Highlands. Needless to say, southern Scotland has never really gotten its due. Slowly, however, visitors are beginning to discover the charms of this underrated region, thanks in part to the South West Coast 300 circular route which, when it debuted in 2017, became one of the most scenic drives in Europe. The looping road follows the coast through Dumfries, Galloway, and Ayrshire—a pastoral expanse of rolling green hills and grazing sheep, charming villages lost to time, and rocky coastlines that frame the sea.
The most awe-inducing stretch passes between the villages of Girvan and Ballantrae. To the west, you can spot the unmistakable arch of Ailsa Craig, a volcanic plug emerging from the Irish Sea like a whale’s arched back just before it dives. This is where you might find yourself—as I did—revising the version of Scotland you have in your head.
From here, it’s just a few minutes more before the imposing iron gates that mark the entry road to Glenapp Castle. Following the narrow lane that winds through thick forest, you’ll feel worlds away from civilization as pheasants dart across the path and the shadow of a stag might catch your eye. Talk about a first impression: the baronial estate, all turrets and sandstone battlements, suddenly emerges from the woodlands like the opening scene from Downton Abbey. Another set of ornate iron gates open to a circular drive, where a host of waistcoat-clad butlers armed with umbrellas wait to escort you inside. It’s raining—it tends to do that in Scotland—and there’s no time to waste.
At Glenapp, everything feels regal and intimate all at once. The living room is lined with sofas and original art hand-picked by the current proprietors. Just 17 guest rooms rooms, spread throughout the house, are elegant and cozy, with high ceilings, tartan throws, cushy armchairs, and giant beds facing picture windows overlooking the grounds (most even have fireplaces). A portrait of Winston Churchill (a famous past guest) oversees the library, where I found myself returning to again and again. The room—lined with old tomes, velvet chesterfield sofas, tartan carpeting, and a table set for chess—was made for quiet reflection.
Outside, you’ll discover, when the rain stops—and even if it doesn’t—that the grounds are enchanting: a verdant hill dips down to a lily pad-covered pond, and there’s a croquet lawn as well as tree-lined pathways leading to a formal garden. Days are luxuriously leisurely but deceptively well-planned: an impromptu walk through the glen (wellies and raincoats provided) followed by archery on the lawn might conclude with an afternoon tea spread already waiting in the lounge, with a spectacular view of distant Ailsa Craig.
Everything here is like a microcosm of southern Scotland as a whole: rolling pastures, historic architecture, breezy views of the sea… Multi-course dinners in the candlelit dining room (lamb loin, rabbit terrine, scallops) are choreographed dances, your wine glasses refilled like clockwork. On more than one occasion, the arresting drone of bagpipes fills the halls.
Stargazing in the garden, falconry, deer stalking, salmon and trout fishing, and golf can all be arranged, but the most exclusive experience—one worth splurging on—is a boat ride to Ailsa Craig, the storied island in the Firth of Clyde. Off-limits to all but paying visitors, the 240-acre landmass is most famously known for its wealth of blue hone granite, which was long quarried to make curling stones. The only surviving buildings include a lighthouse and a crumbling castle, while the only surviving residents include huge numbers of gannets and, to a lesser extent, puffins, which you can admire during a picnic lunch on the lawn.
From here, it’s an easy water-bound commute to the Isle of Arran, further north up the firth, where the island’s signature whisky distillery has operated for over 150 years. A second location is in the works for 2019.
The country’s expertise in scotch is world-renowned, but did you know that Scotland is responsible for 70% of all gin production in the U.K.? That number is rising, as small craft distilleries continue to open and bigger brand names continue to innovate. Hendrick’s, in particular, has become one of the world’s best and most recognizable brands. The main distillery is located in Girvan. Unfortunately, the recent steampunk-esque expansion (complete with a glassed-roof greenhouse and a Gothic Victorian bar lounge built to impress even the most jaded tippler) is not yet open to the public, but that $17 million check surely means that can’t last for long.
Not yet ready to return to your royal digs? Not to fret—there are other mansions to ogle. The 2,000-acre country estate and 18th-century Palladian villa known as Dumfries House lie less than an hour northeast of Girvan, where you can take public tours of rooms kitted out in commissioned Chippendale cabinets and other British Rococo furniture. A little closer is Culzean Castle, a clifftop Georgian manor home to an impressive armory, garden, and collection of suites once gifted to General Eisenhower (who stayed here often). He and Churchill actually walked the halls together at Glenapp to plot the D-Day landings—just a paragraph of the long history that surrounds this storied region.
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