I can’t think of a place I’ve been in Scotland that hasn’t been friendly. People are mostly respectful and patient, and always have time for a chat, wherever you go. But there’s no doubt that people in small towns tend to have more time and an easier way about them, which makes their friendliness shine through even more. I can honestly say I’ve always felt welcome and very comfortable in Scotland, and in small towns that welcome extends its reach just that little bit further. Here are my picks for the friendliest small towns to visit in Scotland.
Just a little way up the coast from Glasgow, Helensburgh is surrounded by lochs and rivers and perpetually looks to the water. There are a lot of community-led events organized by the locals for people from the town and visitors to enjoy. Local volunteers make this a great place to visit, which shows what their town means to them and how proud they are of the welcome they extend. The Helensburgh and District Access Trust maintains local footpaths like the Three Lochs Way, and Friends of Hermitage Park have been an integral part of the regeneration of the town park. Helensburgh is famous for its cherry blossoms and the town’s trees are the only urban tree collection included in the National Tree Collections of Scotland. These are maintained by another local group, Helensburgh Tree Conservation Trust. There is a weekly book sale in the Community Hub and there are lots of fantastic local organizations, proving what a friendly bunch lives here.
There is a wonderful range of independent boutique shops, like Tweedie, Shooftie, Scandinavian Shop, Amaryllis, and Anne of Loudounville. Destination Helensburgh has a Visitor Information Center in the heart of the town, plus the Highlandman’s Road gift shop and gallery. There are great local independent food shops and artisan producers, such as Artist Patisserie, and also a market in the town square twice a month.
You’ll encounter a lot of old settlements in Scotland, but Dunblane has to be one of the oldest. This small town was founded in 602 by St. Blane, a Celtic missionary who became a saint for his good work. Although the town looks very different today, and you won’t find much remaining from 602, Dunblane does have the oldest private library, with some books dating back to 1500, and the Allan Water bridge, dating back to the same century. This is a town that very much holds its history dear. The cathedral, the woodland walks, the monuments, and museum, all make this a town ripe for exploring. The people here will make you feel at home and the slow and quiet pace will soon make you feel like you belong.
Near town, you can stay at Cromlix Hotel, owned by famous tennis player Andy Murray. This is his hometown, and he champions it as a great place to visit in various ways, but there’s perhaps no better way than by opening your own hotel. He bought it in 2014 after it faced closure because it was a special place for his family. Since then, he’s had it renovated and refurbished and it’s now a five-star property, with a private chapel, loch, 34 acres of grounds, and a wonderful kitchen garden that supplies the Chez Roux restaurant. The hotel is also dog friendly, and it is possible to book tennis lessons, fishing, archery, falconry, and spa treatments.
This quaint small town has a real village feel to it and you get the sense that the locals here are a close community of people who care very much about their town and about each other. They welcome visitors with an almost festival atmosphere to the town center, and it’s not unusual to see fairy lights and bunting strewn from building to building making it seem as if the town is perpetually celebrating. For all its village vibes, I was surprised to see the UK’s very first 100 percent vegan hotel, Saorsa 1875. On further reflection, it’s the perfect place for it. The town makes a point of welcoming anyone and everyone.
Dunfermline is one of the friendliest and most welcoming places I’ve ever been. I first went there about 15 years ago and I was amazed to find this small, quiet town has so much history and such lovely people. The volunteers in the abbey, who know absolutely everything about their abbey, will talk to you for as long as you’ll listen and they’ll show you all the details in the stained glass windows you’d miss otherwise. There are 12 Scottish kings and queens buried here, including Robert the Bruce, which makes this just about the most modest royal burial site I’ve ever visited. There’s little fanfare about it, but this is an extremely significant historical site. In nearby Abbott House, the guides give a personal tour and are happy to recommend places to eat and other things to see and do.
In Portree, on the Isle of Skye, it seems friendliness is a way of life. The people who live here are used to tourists arriving on the island, but the place, and the people, have kept the island’s small-town charm that visitors love so much. It’s normal for locals driving by to stop and offer lifts to literally anyone they see walking along the road, and they’ll happily chat with you for the entire journey. Maybe it’s the stunning landscape and the beautiful views that make people here so friendly. When I stayed in a bed and breakfast, I arrived back to my room one chilly evening to find the landlady had popped a toasty hot water bottle into my bed! It’s thoughtful little things like this that make visitors feel so welcome.
Gourock’s history as a seaside town for day-trippers from Glasgow is everywhere you look. This is a ferry port town, and the ferry majestically sails in and out with a grace that’s lovely to watch, but the waterfront here is still littered with ice cream kiosks and tourist shops that tell tales of its former self. A walk along the promenade is now a peaceful affair and while this isn’t the seaside town it once was, it still has its history at heart. Gourock has one of only three remaining outdoor public swimming pools in Scotland, and it’s still a popular attraction in the town. Situated right by the sea, you can swim in this, thankfully, heated pool while hearing the waves crash onto the beach down below.
Original Artists Gift Shop recently won an award for being Scotland’s best gift retailer. For a friendly and varied gift shop in this small town, that’s quite an achievement. Lisa Keogh, who runs the store, has been there for 25 years and, although it’s due to the amazing selection of gifts and the personal service, it is also due to the friendly and welcoming feel to this lovely little shop.
Kenmore in Perth is home to The Kenmore Hotel — Scotland’s oldest inn. The town sits on the banks of Loch Tay and is home to some of Scotland’s most stunning scenery, not to mention friendly locals. Visitors are always welcome at the hotel’s Poets Bar, where Robert Burns wrote an original poem inspired by the hospitality he received. The poem can be found above the fireplace, and the hospitality still remains just as good as Robbie remembered it. The Scottish Crannog Centre is a reconstructed thatched house made of wood, which stands on stilts over the water and shows visitors what life was like here 2,500 years ago. As an attraction, it’s pretty unique and you’ll learn that people here are still as friendly as they always were.
Dunkeld in Perthshire is another fabulous and friendly town. The cathedral is now part ruin and part parish church, which marks it out as unusual and suggests this was once a much bigger community — possibly with city status. The Wolf of Badenoch, Earl of Buchan, is buried here, and his impressive sarcophagus is in pretty good condition considering its age. Perhaps Dunkeld tamed the old wolf, known for being fierce and unforgiving in battle. The brightly colored little houses you’ll see in the town were built in the 1700s to provide homes for the locals, and it’s this spirit of community and togetherness that still makes this such a friendly place.
Mingle with locals at the Atholl Arms in its stunning beer garden perched on the edge of the River Tay, and the whole family is welcome too — the newly renovated hotel is dog friendly!
By: SAMANTHA PRIESTLEY/ www.travelawaits.com