Smaller cities of Scotland – are any of them worth a look?

The smaller cities of Scotland covered here include Stirling, Inverness and Dundee (though it’s bigger!). Find out if any of them are worth a look. Certainly, Stirling Castle is a fascinating historical experience, while Culloden Battlefield near Inverness is reason enough to visit. And Dundee is a forward-looking upbeat kind of place these days. 

Here are some notes on the smaller cities of Scotland. You’ll find mostly information on Stirling, Inverness and Dundee here (and a wee grumbly aside about Aberdeen!).

For information on Perth specifically, follow that link to a completely separate page. (Lucky Perth, eh?)

Smaller cities of Scotland: Stirling

Amongst the smaller cities of Scotland, Stirling is the smallest if you use the definition given in the main cities in Scotland page.

In fact, defining a city is slightly controversial, as sometimes you can read that a city in Scotland is a place with a cathedral, hence the use of the names of soccer / football teams such as ‘Brechin City’ or ‘Elgin City’.

Both of these are not particularly large towns. Elgin, for instance, at c. 21,000 population is even smaller than Stirling, at c. 34,000.

From a visitor point of view, Stirling Castle is the main reason to visit the city of Stirling.

It’s an interesting visit to this fortress at the centre of Scotland’s history when it was the royal court of the Stewart monarchs, before King James VI of Scotland got a better offer from England.

Mar's Wark and Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling, one of the smaller cities of Scotland.
Blocking the winds at the top of the Old Town is the strange ruined facade of Mar’s Wark, left (between speed signs). Behind is the historic Church of the Holy Rude.
Stirling Old Bridge
Stirling Old Bridge

Stirling Old Town The Old Town of Stirling grew up in the shadow of this early fortress, just as Edinburgh developed below its castle. (In fact, Stirling was once the capital of Scotland.)

Today’s Old Town still has a scattering of atmospheric historic buildings. These include the slightly weird Mar’s Wark, once the townhouse of the Earls of Mar.

While its Renaissance facade is interesting, that’s all you get, as the building sits as a kind of ruined folly at the top of the High Street.

Lower down, the Tolbooth and the Mercat Cross as symbols of an old Scots burgh, add further atmosphere.

Two other attractions around the town are the Wallace Monument and the Bannockburn Visitor Centre.

The latter was wholly rebuilt and totally jazzed up in time for the 700th anniversary of the most famous battle in Scotland’s story back in 2014. (But has it survived the pandemic of 2020?)

Stirling has all the regular shopping attractions of a medium size Scottish town. You might like it. Interesting ambience in the older part of the city, by the castle.

Down-town Stirling has a large shopping centre, the Thistle Centre, with the usual share of High Street brands. Stirling makes a good base for exploring The Trossachs as well.

In a nutshell: Stirling is OK, but without its castle, it’s kinda ‘everyday’.

What about Inverness?

In these notes on the smaller cities of Scotland, you can’t ignore Inverness. It sometimes describes itself as one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. In high summer it fairly bustles as it services a large hinterland.

Eyeing up the ready-meals in the UK’s most northerly Marks & Spencer the folk are in from the towns, villages, farms and crofts for miles around.

They compete for the special offers with all the the visitors irrationally anxious that they will somehow starve in their holiday in their self-catering holiday homes, likewise for miles around. (PS. There are shops beyond Inverness.)

Inverness – old watercolour – by the banks of the River Ness.
Inverness – old watercolour – by the banks of the River Ness.

(Pictured here) Amongst the smaller cities of Scotland, this is how Inverness likes to see itself, as envisioned by this Edwardian watercolour.

Note the castle, on the right, and the ambience of river and dappled sun. Inverness, the Highland Capital and the River Ness?

Surely there’s a hint of Paris and the Seine here? (Eh?) In fact, there are references in print to Inverness as ‘the Paris of the North’.

There are some good restaurants close to the River Ness that flows swiftly through the town. (What’s that you say? Well, Rocpool, for a start, since you ask….or Cafe One.)

And though the architecture is just, well, like any other Scottish town, by and large, it certainly has the ambience of a place that means business.
Inverness streets near the centre. It's one of the smaller cities of Scotland but very important for the Highlands.
Inverness streets near the centre. Look, we can’t do picturesque all the time…
Inverness Victorian Market
A quiet off-season afternoon in Inverness’s Victorian Market.
Inverness, River Ness footbridge
Pedestrian bridge over the River Ness in Inverness. Eden Court Theatre in background.

And every so often there are glimpses of the Highland hills beyond the town, especially if you walk up to the not-very-old Inverness Castle where a statue of Flora MacDonald stands, gazing wistfully down the Great Glen.

Perhaps Flora is looking for the Loch Ness Monster, down there somewhere, or not.

Inverness Castle is undergoing transformation into a visitor experience, but at time of writing not yet complete.

And that, in turn, is a reminder of what Inverness is really about.

It’s the Highland capital; it’s at the centre of a choice of routes that radiate out from it – so it really does make a good touring base.

Not just to Loch Ness where you can go cruising, but to Culloden Battlefield, the Black Isle, Fort George, Nairn and as much scenery as you could hope to see, all within easy reach.

Ultimately, Inverness may not fulfil your preconception of what a Highland town, sorry, city, should look like.

Walmart or Brigadoon?

Yes, on a scale that runs from Walmart to Brigadoon, it’s nearer the Walmart end – in as far it has every other supermarket and High Street brand name, just like any of the other smaller cities of Scotland.

It has its share of small shops and even a refurbished former Victorian market – plus plenty of accommodation, pubs etc.

I’m going to stop now as I’m breaking into tourist brochure-ese. (And I’m supposed to be writing this site as an antidote.)

But, hey, Inverness is a good place to choose if you want the convenience of one of the smaller cities of Scotland – it has a population of c. 59,000 – but with a good choice of things to see and do round about.

Check out our dedicated 48 hours in Inverness page.

Check out the accommodation in Inverness – it gets pretty busy!

Smaller cities of Scotland (kind of…): Dundee

Amongst the smaller cities of Scotland – given that Perth has a separate page (on that link) – that only leaves Dundee.

For the moment, I’m putting Dundee into the Scotland’s smaller cities page but at c. 146,000, it is actually the fourth-largest city in Scotland, after Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, in that order. (It probably deserves a page to itself. OK, I’m working on it.)

Just a snapshot that summarises Dundee. At least it did for me.

As an aside to the state of cities in Scotland, Aberdeen fiddled around for years before finally deciding what to do with its public gardens at what passes for the city centre.

It also still hankers after tourism success arriving via a (toxic?) Donald Trump golf course.

In spite of its oil wealth it seems to lack imagination about what its future might look like – or maybe its city fathers for the last four decades just assumed the oil would last forever.

Anyway, I think it was worth a look at through the eyes of a 1950s guide-book on Aberdeen. (See Aberdeen the silver city with the golden sands.)

By contrast, Dundee, meanwhile, looks ahead and gets on with an ambitious waterfront project, whose centrepiece is an outstation (perhaps) of London, England’s, Victoria and Albert Museum – a prestigious flagship that should have huge economic benefit to the city of Dundee. (Think Bilbao and the Guggenheim. Uhmm. Maybe on a smaller scale.)

Inside the V & A Dundee.
Inside the V & A Dundee. Gosh, these wooden slat-things are going to take a lot of dusting…

The V & A opened in September, 2018. It’s ‘Scotland’s first design museum’, free to visit, and the media, broadly speaking, reported it as stunning.

From a visitor point of view though, it reminded me of one of those large chocolate Easter eggs, in terms of the experience.

It’s all packaging – spectacular packaging, mind you – while what’s inside does not necessarily have a lot of substance.

Having said that – it’s totally worth seeing, for sure.

Like Glasgow, Dundee has gone for the post-industrial re-invention approach.

Aside from the V & A, the flagship cultural centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts, along with the hugely symbolic ship RRS Discovery, plus the family appeal of Sensation – a children’s science centre – are some of the attractive features of the city. Good art gallery and museum – the McManus Galleries – as well. (Would rather spend time there than in the V & A, to be frank!)

Naturally, Dundee has got the statutory covered shopping centres and I’m sorry that we always refer to the Wellgate and the Overgate as the Unwellgate and the Overweight, but that just shows how simple a sense of humour our family has…

And it isn’t all rosy. There’s a drug problem in the city, there is still deprivation to be noticed in the streets and the city hasn’t quite shaken off its old image as a place of smoking mills and grimness.

But it still feels more progressive than Aberdeen.

V & A Museum of Design in Dundee
A suitably arty-smarty picture of the new-ish V & A Dundee, Scotland’s first museum of design. It is the only V&A museum in the world outside London, England: an international centre for design, a place of inspiration, discovery and learning. (According to the press information.) The famous RRS Discovery, long after its Antarctic adventures, is, uhmm, parked nearby, as in the picture.

Is Dunfermline worth a look?

This is Scotland’s newest city, acquiring the status in May of ’22 as (the now late) Queen Liz decided that appointing a few new cities was a good way of marking her special anniversary. I mean, the jubilee, not the one on which she died…oh crikey, this is a terrible copy update…

And, yes, it’s well worth a look. More to come…

More information on Scotland’s cities here.