Things to do in Elgin Scotland
If you are planning on a road trip through the Scottish Highlands, Elgin is a relaxing way to visit the true essence of what the Scottish countryside is all about. Religion was such a key factor in survival of a community, especially in times of plague or wars - that the cathedrals, abbeys and even the cemeteries here are worthwhile to visit. You also have Duffus Castle, a very off the beaten path location in the Scottish Highlands that has some fascinating history as well.
Founded in 1203 by Alexander the II of Scotland, this is the oldest surviving benedictine monastery still used for its original purpose. With a steady and repetitive schedule, the Monks that live here have well established it as a place of peace and refuge. To get here it requires a long walk from the car park down a paved path. The sun breaks through the trees, revealing mossy forest floor, while the rustling leaves provide a natural symphony of peace.
As you approach the Abbey, the bells will chime out that it is time for prayer, and are just the beginning of your journey. Rounding the corner, you will enter the Abbey through a small wooden door that puts you directly into the grand apse. Here there is the history laid out in a timeline you get lost in, doors quietly close and open into the main chapel. Following one of the monks into the chapel, you sit down as they quietly read prayers and contemplate your journey not just through Scotland, but of your life.
It is hard not to reflect on these things, as a sense of fortitude, peace, love, and devotion rings through to the soul accompanying those bells above. Once the bells end, the rumbling chorus of the men in full-length white robes begins. The monks sing quite hymns, with unwritten gentle harmony resulting from the contribution of the many different voices joined together. Of all the choirs you will hear, this will be the most uniquely reverent and soul moving - no matter what religious affiliation you are from.
Traveler Tip: If you join during one of these sessions, be sure to stand up when the monks leave the chapel as a sign of respect. I didn't know you were supposed to do this as I was sitting in the front row and felt extremely foolish afterward.
Originally a wooden fortification, the Spynie Palace was once home to the Bishops of Moray. There are very few visitors to this corner of the world, but well worth the visit for its picturesque surroundings and to witness one of the tallest surviving great towers in Scotland. A wooden shack serves as the ticket counter, with a man that looks like the grandfather that would sneak you cookies behind your grandmother's back.
With a gleam in his eye, he gives you a ticket, instructs you on a bit of the history of the Palace in a calm and measured way. Then sends you on your way to explore the historic building. Surprisingly the grounds are well kept with gently rolling slopes of grass, where a moat once was. The surrounding trees and towers provide ample shade, perfect for a picnic and to bask in the Scottish Sun in May. This would be a perfect place for a picnic, so much so that a picnic table sits just outside this 13th century stone fortification.
For the more adventurous and physically capable, ascend the stairs up the six stories of David's tower. Peer down into the floors below, where giant fireplaces take up 5 spans of a wall where I imagine Mary Queen of Scots would have warmed herself during the 18 months she was imprisoned here. The intrigue surrounding her imprisonment and rumors of Lord Bothwell fleeing here as well is a story well worth reading about.
After the quadriceps burning climb of the six flights of winding stairs, you emerge on the top of the tower with 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside.
While I wasn't personally able to visit this Castle, I would recommend it to all those who love ruins and a bit of history. This motte-and-bailey castle built in 1140, yes that's right....1140! At that time it was one of the most secure fortifications in Scotland, a place where its occupants and tenants would have sought refuge from raiding parties, Vikings and the like.
Surprisingly the castle remained occupied up until the 17th century. After the death of the 2nd Lord Duffus in 1705, the castle became unsuitable for living and was abandoned.
Touring the grounds you may see a filled in moat, the tower that partially sunk into the land itself toppling over and becoming a perfect spot for the visual trick of pretending as if you are attempting to put the castle back upright.
Despite being in ruins now, Duffus Castle has picturesque surroundings and a landscape that makes it easy to imagine the surrounding area as it would have been so long ago.
Why is Elign Cathedral a must see Cathedral?
As I was looking at the best Castles in Scotland, I came across a cathedral that reminded me of those in France. It is called Elgin Cathedral and was considered the Candle of the North in its day. Yet despite being in ruins now, it still has a very romantic feel to it - and is worth the visit if just for the view.
It wasn't the history that intrigued me per se on this one, it was the activity in a 12th-century cathedral that intrigued me. This is one of the few remaining 12th-century cathedrals, and the only one in Scotland that you can still climb to the top of the Belltower as the Monks would have.
I stopped counting how many steps once my quadriceps muscles started to claw their way out of my leg. By the time you get done with Scotland, you will be able to kick a soccer ball to the moon by how many stairs you are going to climb.
Once you get to the top, past all the hanging chains to keep out the pigeons and birds laying nests in the towers. You emerge onto an expansive steel platform, the wind whips your hair and makes your eyes water a bit - but all the effort is worth the view that greets you. It made me understand why religious places, typically the tallest buildings in the towns of the 12th-17th centuries had bell towers. If I was a monk, the bell tower with a view like this would make me feel close to God.
The History of Elgin Cathedral
Originally consecrated in 1224, burnt down in 1270, the building doubled in size and the aisles and choir nave was added.
Bishop Alexander Bur declared Elgin Cathedral the ornament of the realm, the delight of foreigners, and an object of praise in foreign lands.
In 1390, Earl Alexander Stewart the "Wolf of Badenoch," brought an army of Highlanders to burn the cathedral and town of Elgin. This was in retaliation for being excommunicated for adultery. Then in 1402, Lord Alexander Macdonald plundered the cathedral.
It lost its roof shortly after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, and in 1711 its central tower fell after hundreds of years of neglect and pillaging of booty and stones. But the cathedral’s fortunes began to change when it became a visitor attraction in the early 1900s and was adopted by the Historic Scotland Foundation.
Self-Guided Tour of Elgin Cathedral
I would suggest starting at the west end, with the 1270 AD square towers and intricate window above the entrance to the Cathedral. Turn and look at the coat of arms of Bishop Dunbar (1422-35), this is located high on the gable.
Wander through the graves and see just how old some of them are, contain your excitement for this next bit….you are literally standing among history. Walk into the octagonal chapter house where the clergy of this church used to meet.
Explore the different tombs, here you will find graves of crusader knights, and the tallest grave in Scotland, standing 5 meters high. Play ‘Where’s Waldo’ and try to spot the Pictish Falconry image, a very rare site (hint: it is in the St Giles Parish Church area).
The Guided tours run daily at 10.30am and 2.30pm (available Mon 9 Apr to Sun 30 Sept)
Is Elgin Scotland really worth visiting?
Elgin isn't as face paced as nearby Inverness or even Edinburgh to be sure, but it is perfect for those seeking refuge from the rat race of life. Visiting Elign will make you feel as if you have been transported back to the 17th-century village life, provide views of the surrounding areas that give you the real experience of the culture that is Scotland, and allow you some downtime to connect with locals, or just a leisurely stop along your road trip through Scotland.
Renting a Car in Scotland
Before you rent a car for driving around Scotland, here are a few tips on what to look for when renting a car. I personally used Auto Europe for renting my car, and they even offered me a fancy upgrade to a BMW. It is a little hard to get used to driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road the first time, so make sure you leave early when there isn’t much traffic. About an hour into driving I started to feel comfortable and on turns would just repeat over and over ‘left side of the road’ and ‘look right then left’.
The lanes here are often one traffic lane width, so be sure to give right of way to larger vehicles, and those who are going downhill. Honk briefly before going over bridges, and for the love of God do not pass on a double line when near a Loch unless you want to die.
Where to Stay
Tours In The Scottish Highlands
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My name is Janiel, a leader in the travel industry with over 20+ years of experience with international travel. I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.