Notoriously underrated, but full of endless adventures, beautiful landscapes and thriving communities – that’s how I’d describe the south of Scotland. It’s time to step out of the shadow of the Highlands and show off all the amazing things to do in South Scotland. Read on for a dose of travel inspiration!
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People often wonder why they should give the south of Scotland a chance – it’s an underdog among Scottish regions. For those arriving nun Scotland by plane to Glasgow or Edinburgh, the south often lies in the opposite direction of all the places they want to see and have heard about – the Highlands, the islands, the national parks.
In this post, I’ll show you that the south is worth the detour. South Scotland packs a punch whether you’re into nature, history, heritage, food and drink, artisan shopping or picturesque small towns. There is a lot to do and see!
#AdventureStartsHere is a campaign to tell you all about the adventures waiting for you in South Scotland. I was invited to the region to experience some of these activities myself and meet the people behind them.
So, let’s dive in and see what makes the south of Scotland such a fantastic adventure destination.
Explore the highlights of southern Scotland with my South Scotland itinerary!
Why visit South Scotland?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the south of Scotland is well worth a visit.
- It’s so close and easy to access from the north of England (if you’re driving up to Scotland) or from central Scotland (if you’re flying in). You don’t need to drive for hours and hours to get away from the big cities. That makes South Scotland a perfect region to visit if you are short on time.
- It’s off the beaten path – at least for now. I have visited South Scotland several times during the height of summer and it was never as busy as regions further north. You’ll get a lot of places to yourself and it’s easier to enjoy the natural beauty and historic sites of Scotland without the crowds.
- There’s so much to do in the outdoors – but it’s also rich in history and there are many unique stories to uncover.
- There are always exciting events and festivals happening in the south, whether it’s about sports, food, literature, or culture.
- And finally, but probably most importantly: the south of Scotland is full of passionate people who truly love their region. Their enthusiasm can be felt when you visit restaurants and pubs, check-in at your accommodation, meet your guide or instructor and shop at local businesses. People are passionate about sharing their region with you, and creating opportinities for others to make it their home.
You might also like: One Week Itinerary for South Scotland
11 Adventure Things to do in South Scotland
For even more ideas for things to do in the south of Scotland, suggested itineraries and more local businesses, check out Scotland Starts Here, the main hub for all things South Scotland.
Gravel Biking on the Raider’s Loop
Gravel biking is a bit like a mix between mountain biking and road cycling. Proper gravel bikes can build up speed quickly, but they can also manage and compensate on rougher ground.
Esther and Warren of Galloway Cycling Holidays hire out gravel bikes and gravel e-bikes and organise cycling holidays for all levels of experience.
We met them at Clatteringshaws Loch for a round of gravel biking on Raider’s Road, a scenic gravel road through the Galloway Forest Park. The route follows rough-ish gavel paths, sometimes climbing among the trees, other times dropping down to allow for some speed. So much fun!
The forest drive comes by Otter Pools, an incredibly scenic spot on the River Dee. There are many rock pools and grassy banks with lots of room for a picnic.
But our guides Esther and Warren don’t just organise and guide cycling holidays, they are also the driving force behind Raiders Gravel, the first gravel biking race of its kind in Scotland. The race will take place in 2022 and anyone can sign up to participate.
Stand up paddling at St Mary’s Loch
St Mary’s Loch is a freshwater lake in the Yarrow Valley of the Scottish Borders. Many famous Scots have been drawn to this area in the past – William Wallace put together his raider’s army in the nearby Ettrick Forest, and writers James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott both fell in love with the natural landscape.
You can enjoy the beautiful scenery from on top of a stand-up paddleboard. Audrey Power rents out stand-up paddleboards and kayaks on the loch every weekend (Fri-Sun). You’ll get lochside guidance before you hit the water and you can head out for an hour or all day.
Enduro World Series in Innerleithen
You can probably already guess: cycling is BIG in South Scotland!
One of the cycling events to come out of the region is the Enduro World Series. No other cycling sport has taken the world of cycling by storm quite like Enduro.
Enduro combines long-distance biking with downhill mountain biking. Riders need both endurance and technical skills, and their bikes need to be able to deal with a multitude of terrain.
Every year, EWS organises 8 races in locations around the world. From the French Alps to the Scottish Tweed Valley, professional and amateur racers gather for a thrilling, multi-day event. Spectators can watch the races at certain stages and enjoy entertainment, food, bike demos and more.
We received a demo from some aspiring local Enduro racers and I can only imagine how much fun it would be to be there for the main race weekend!
The next Enduro World Series race in Scotland takes place in Innerleithen on 2-3 October 2021, before settling into its annual date in June 2022.
Go Ape in Peebles
Go Ape is an adventure company that likes to push you out of your comfort zone. They have four stunning sites across Scotland and 35 UK-wide sites.
Go Ape Peebles is located in the beautiful Glentress Forest. The treetop course traverses high above the ground among giant Douglas fir trees. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted – but once you learn to trust the harness and safety measures in place, it’s a hoot!
The grand finale of the course is a 325-metre-long zip wire across a valley that’s 160ft high.
Mountain Biking in Glentress Forest
If heights and zipwires aren’t your jam, Glentress Forest is a great spot to try mountain biking! You can hire bikes from Alpine Bikes and explore a wide range of trails – suitable for beginners and families, or thrill-seekers and pros.
Hiking at Grey Mare’s Tail
One of my favourite beauty spots in the south of Scotland is Grey Mare’s Tail, a waterfall in the valley below the Moffat Hills. The drive from Moffat up the valley in itself, is worth the detour – the scenery is absolutely stunning!
You can see Grey Mare’s Tail on a very short 10-minute walk from the car park, but to take in everything the area has to offer, I recommend hiking up alongside the waterfall to Loch Skeen.
Use my Grey Mare’s Tail hiking guide to plan your trip.
Follow the Galloway Kite Trail
At the beginning of the 21st century, red kites were virtually extinct in the south of Scotland. Since then, RSPB Scotland has reintroduced the species to the hills of Galloway – with great success.
The Galloway Kite Trail around Loch Ken offers plenty of opportunities to spot red kits in the wild – easy to distinguish from other birds of prey by their V-shaped tail feathers.
There are various viewing stations, including a feeding station at Bellymack Hill Farm near Laurieston where sometimes over 100 kites can be seen at once.
Kayak on the Galloway Coast
The Solway Firth makes up a large section of the southern Galloway coast and its waters are perfect for sea kayaking. There are many bays, inlets and beaches to explore.
Adventure Carrick is an adventure company based in Ayrshire and Galloway, and they offer sea kayaking all over the south west of Scotland.
I joined them for a 3-day kayaking and foraging course which saw us exploring the coast around Gatehouse of Fleet, but of course they also offer shorter experiences on the water.
Listen to the story ‘In Tune’ about this kayaking trip on my podcast Wild for Scotland.
Climb the Eildon Hills
The Scottish Borders might not be as mountainous as the Scottish Highlands – but there are significant hills nevertheless! The Eildon Hills rise high above Melrose and offer stunning views of the region.
Climbing all three summits takes around 5 hours (6 miles). Follow this hiking description.
Explore the Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Biosphere
The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere covers a large part of the region and connects protected nature reserves with scenic recreation areas and local communities. Living, enjoying nature and protecting the environment go hand in hand.
I have visited the GSA Biosphere in the past and wrote an article about ways to enjoy the south of Scotland responsibly.
Hike (parts of) the Southern Upland Way
The Southern Upland Way is a long-distance trail that crosses South Scotland from coast to coast. From the coastal cliffs of Portpatrick on the southwest coast, it runs through high moorland and forests, across rolling hills and remote mountains, along rivers and lochs, until it reaches Cockburnspath on the east coast.
You can walk the entire route in two to three weeks, or tackle it in stages.
I recently hiked a stage of the Southern Upland Way from Castle Kennedy to Bargrennan, spent a night in a bothy and enjoyed being immersed in the hills and meadows of south Scotland.
Where to Stay
Tontine Hotel, Peebles
Peebles in the Tweed Valley is a fantastic town to use as a home base when exploring South Scotland.
Tontine Hotel is a family-owned hotel on the bustling high street of Peebles, which has won awards for its many independent shops and businesses in the past. At Tontine Hotel, you’re right in the middle of the action – and yet, it’s an oasis of calm.
The hotel is slightly set back from the main street and many rooms face out back, overlooking the hills of the Tweed Valley and the River Tweed.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay here, including fantastic cocktails made from local gin and a delicious evening meal – complete with freshly foraged mushrooms.
If you’re looking for accommodation over in Dumfries & Galloway, check out Nithbank Estate, a beautiful B&B in Thornhill or Creeside Escape, an off-grid shepherd’s hut near Bargrennan on the other side of the Galloway Hills.
The easiest way to explore the south of Scotland is by car. When you drive, you can get to all the remote locations, viewpoints and beauty spots.
You can also reach many locations by public transport, for example:
- The train line from Glasgow to Dumfries severs towns and villages in central south Scotland.
- The train line from Glasgow to Stranraer serves towns and villages along the southwest coast.
- The train line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank serves a few villages in the Scottish Borders.
- The east coast line from Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed (and on to London) stops in towns and villages along the east coast.
From those train stations you should be able to catch local buses to further destinations.
If you don’t fancy driving yourself, but still want the flexibility of a car, consider hiring a private driver-guide. I recently explored South Scotland with Lesley from Solway Tours. Lesley and her husband are former history teachers and offer private tours around Scotland.
As proud Doonhamers – that’s what you call people from the town Dumfries – they love showing people their home region. They offer customised day tours as well as multi-day trips to fit your need.
Lesley was a fantastic guide and knew all the little stories that make a day on the road so extra special. She also joined us for some of the activities, took pictures and was great to be around!
The adventure is waiting for you in South Scotland – are you ready for it?
One thing I know for sure: the south of Scotland will see me again soon!
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