12 historic sites to visit in Moray
When I stayed in Forres at the beginning of the year, I quickly realised just how many fascinating historical sites there are in the Moray area. Pictish stones, castles galore, Jacobite connections, quirky museums, Macbeth country, heritage whisky distilleries and a ruined yet still very impressive cathedral are just some of the diverse historical gems that drew me back a few months later. There are just so many historical attractions to visit in Moray that one visit just isn't enough, and as I have now found out, two visits aren't enough either as I still haven't made it to lots of historical places in the area, including Cawdor Castle which doesn't reopen until May and is still top of my list for next time.
However, I did manage to cover a lot of ground during both my stays and wanted to share with you 12 of the historical sites that I discovered in Moray which I think are worth a visit.
1. Elgin Catherdral
Scotland has more than its fair share of ruins, some hardly worth a mention and others, like Elgin Cathedral, which are well worth exploring. As ruins go, this medieval cathedral has lots to offer. What remains of the structure is impressive enough but for me the highlight is the large display of carved stones. I haven't come across a collection as magnificent as this anywhere else in Scotland and I was particularly spellbound with the lifelike detail of the faces.
Another unique display in Elgin Cathedral which I love is the effigy of Bishop Archibald, brought back to its former colourful glory with clever lighting effects.
As with all good Historic Scotland ruins there is a tower to climb which offers a rooftop perspective of the cathedral and open views across Elgin and beyond.
If you didn't know the history of Burghead before you arrived, you could mistakenly assume it is nothing more than a sleepy coastal village but you couldn't be more wrong. This is a village bursting with significant history and most of it is well hidden unless you know where to look. This unassuming place once held a strategic position of power, being surrounded by the sea on three sides made it an ideal location for what is reputed to have once been the largest Iron Age fort in Britain. Subsequently it was a site of significant power for the Northern Picts and later it was captured by Sigurd the Powerful, the Norse Earl of Orkney.
Burghead Fort is the only Pictish fort where bullstones have been found and you can view two of them in the tiny the heritage centre along with a model of what the fort might have looked like. You can also pick up the key for the mysterious Burghead Well from here (or the Bothy Bistro if the centre is shut). The main purpose of this man-made sunken pool is unknown although objects found within, including carved stones and a metal jug, have led to various theories including it being used as a shrine, a Christian baptistery and even a place for ritual executions. I recommend taking a torch if you want to look inside.
I suggest doing some local history research before visiting Burghead to fully appreciate just how important this area once was and you might even end up becoming as captivated by Burghead as I am!
3. Brodie Castle
Brodie Castle has been the ancestral home of the Clan Brodie for over 400 years, although it has been their family seat since the 12th Century. It is now cared for by the National Trust of Scotland but has very much retained the feel of a family home.
I was a little disappointed when I first found out that you can only visit the interior of Brodie Castle on a guided tour as I usually prefer to explore at my own pace. However, I can honestly say my initial disappointment was quickly overcome as our guide was excellent and really brought the history and rooms of the castle to life. The tour reveals the story of the Brodie Clan through the ages when they were once one of Scotland's most prominent families. The rooms are filled with interesting objects and the highlight for me was viewing a letter sent by Robert the Bruce.
One thing I didn't expect to find at Brodie Castle was a beautiful Pictish stone by the side of the road as you drive in. Known as the Rodney Stone, it was discovered in an old churchyard in the nearby village of Dyke in 1781 and moved to the castle grounds in the 1830s. It was named the Rodney Stone in celebration of the naval victory of Admiral Rodney.
Although there is an entry charge to visit inside the castle, you can walk around the grounds for free.
4. Sueno's Stone
When I first visited Sueno's Stone in January, its protective glass housing had sadly just been damaged by vandals meaning it was partially boarded up awaiting a costly repair. I was keen to go back on my most recent visit to Moray to get a proper look at the 7m tall Pictish slab which is the tallest and most complex piece of medieval sculpture in Scotland.
It currently stands on what is thought to be its original location which seems pretty odd as it is positioned on a small area of grass between a busy road and houses. Of course the landscape when it was first erected would have looked quite different so you do need a bit of imagination!
One side of the stone features a large Christian cross and the other side depicts an elaborate battle scene. Although there are disagreements about the interpretation of the story, seeing the scale and detail of the stone does make you think that it must once have had some important significance. It is hard not to be wowed by the work and skill that must have went into creating such a beautiful piece.
5. Duffus Castle
It never ceases to amaze me that so many ruined castles in Scotland can still emit a gloomy and intimidating aura despite being not much more than crumbling walls and a pile of stones. One such ruin is Duffus Castle, once the medieval stronghold of the Moray family and one of the finest examples of a motte and bailey castle in Scotland.
As I approached the eerie remains, I could feel the hairs begin to rise on the back of my neck and goose bumps popping up along my arms. I have visited countless atmospheric ruined castles in Scotland but only a few have had this inexplicable effect on me.
Maybe it was the imposing position up on its mound, maybe it was the resident lady ghost that has been seen waving from the window or maybe it was just my overactive imagination; whatever the reason, Duffus Castle had me chilled at first site.
Aside from its design, another thing that makes a visit to Duffus Castle uniquely memorable is walking inside the section of the north tower which has slipped down the side of the motte. Resting at a wonky angle, the slanting walls create a feeling of disorientation making you wonder if you might have sampled a bit too much of the local water of life!
Duffus Castle is free to visit and well worth the short detour to get there.
6. Dallas Dhu Distillery
Moray and the surrounding area is famous as whisky country, meaning you are never far from a distillery or ten. Despite having a fondness for the occasional dram, there was only one distillery I wanted to visit during this trip and that was Dallas Dhu. This is a distillery tour with a difference as they no longer actually produce whisky here. This means you might not get the usual intoxicating stimulation of the senses but it does offer the unique opportunity to get your hands on the machinery and equipment during a self-guided audio tour.
Visiting is like stepping back in time and the experience was very different to any other distillery I've been to but in a good way. Because it is a crime in Scotland to visit a whisky distillery, working or otherwise, without sampling the goods* you will be pleased to know you can enjoy a complimentary dram while watching a short film at the end of tour.
* I may have made this fact up but you definitely shouldn't visit a whisky distillery in Scotland without sampling the goods, unless you are driving is which case you might well be committing a crime!
7. Pluscarden Abbey
Pluscarden Abbey is home to a community of Catholic Benedicitne monks and is the only medieval British monastery still being used for its original purpose.
The building has been lovingly restored over recent years although this is still an ongoing project. I personally loved visiting the abbey as it has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen.
I have explored many ruined medieval abbeys in Scotland, pausing to imagine what life must have been like centuries ago. I didn't need to use much imagination at Pluscarden Abbey, I just needed to sit long enough to fully admire my ornate surroundings and watch the resident monks silently going about their business. I really could have been watching a scene from a bygone era.
If you do visit then be sure to pop into the shop and pick up some fresh honeycomb from their own bees or one of their soaps and balms made from beeswax.
8. Spynie Palace
Spynie Palace might be another ruin but its significance as the former seat of the Bishops of Moray for 500 years makes it a worthwhile visit for those interested in the history of the area. It is also home to the largest tower house by volume to survive in Scotland and a walk up to the top provides some lovely open views of the surrounding countryside.
I want to give a special mention to the visitor guide I spoke to who was brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm (wish I'd got his name). He shared lots of background on the palace which really enhanced our visit and made sure there was a bowl of fresh water for visiting dogs which Willow really appreciated after working up a thirst exploring the local sites with me.
9. St Peter's Kirk and Parish Cross
St Peter's Kirk is not far from Duffus Castle and it is thought to have been constructed by the same builder. There has been a church on this spot since at least 1190 although it was badly damaged in the 1300s and extensively remodelled in 1782. Today It is only really the outer walls of the church that remain but there are still some visible medieval features. You can pick up a key from the local manse to explore inside but I didn't bother as I was short of time and you can pretty much see most of the interior by looking through the old windows.
The graveyard is full of characterful headstones but one of the most interesting things to look out for in my opinion is the original medieval mercat cross dating to the 1300s. It is one of the few medieval mercat crosses surviving in Scotland, and it is thought to be standing on its original site. A real bit of hidden history!
10. Elgin Museum
Elgin Museum has been around since 1843, making it Scotland's oldest independent museum. I was a little worried that it might be a bit dated and dusty like some other older local museums I've visited but I couldn't have been more wrong. The building is well maintained and has retained its period feel making it an historical attraction in itself. The museum collections have been thoughtfully laid out with a good deal of information available about the exhibits.
Most of the 36,000 items in their collection are on display which gives you an idea just how much there is to see. From fossils to modern technology and every period in-between, there is plenty to discover and I was particularly fascinated by the diversity of local finds. If there was ever any doubt about the importance of the Moray area through history, Elgin Museum will set that right! A seriously impressive little museum.
11. Balvenie Castle
Balvenie Castle might not have given me the goosebumps that Duffus Castle did, but I still found it fun exploring all the nooks and crannies. Built in the 1200s as the seat of the powerful earls of Buchan, it is one of Scotland's oldest stone castles. The original stronghold was later transformed into a Renaissance residence although not much remains today of the former elegant lodgings (although it does make a rather grand home for the bats and barn owls that live there for part of the year),
The castle is also firmly in the heart of whisky country which makes for an ideal castle/whisky combo day out with Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries within walking distance, happy days!
12. Kinloss Abbey
There is very little left of Kinloss Abbey, however it is free to visit and worth stopping by if you have the time as you will be visiting the remains of what was once one of the finest and wealthiest abbeys in Scotland.
Founded around 1150 by King David 1, it was colonised by Cistercian monks from Melrose Abbey. The abbey was later destroyed by fire in the mid 13th Century, and rebuilt in Gothic style around 1269, the first of several episodes of destruction and rebuilding. The abbey was at the centre of a series of scandals in the 14th Century involving immoral behavior by the monks and in 1492 further scandal struck when one of the monks murdered a boy in the cloister, an act that most people wouldn't deem to be very monk like behavior!
The end of the abbey as a religious centre came during the Reformation in the 16th Century. It later changed ownership several times before the building eventually fell into ruin, with much of the stone sold off to build a citadel in Inverness. There may not be many original stones still standing today, but I bet the ones that are could tell a few stories.
These are my recommendations for historic attractions to visit in Moray which span across centuries and various civilizations. If you have any of your own suggestions don't forget to share them in the comments section below and if you have found this blog post useful, any feedback is always appreciated :-)
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