Smaller cities of Scotland - a guide to which ones to visit
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.
Smaller Cities of Scotland
Here are some notes on the smaller cities of Scotland. You’ll find some information on Stirling, Inverness and Dundee here. For information on Perth, there is a link further down the page.
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. 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, which 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.
(Pictured here) Scotland’s first freedom fighter, William Wallace, is associated with the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Old Stirling Bridge, pictured in suitable antique tones, is a little upstream of the site of the original wooden structure.
Still, for us, Stirling remains the only Scottish town, sorry, city, where Johanna was once hit on the head by a conker (a marble-sized and very hard horse chestnut seed). As we walked back to our lodgings one evening, it was thrown with some force, not to say intent, from a tall tenement in the Old Town.
Perhaps it is a local custom. It has consequently coloured my view of Stirling, especially as we mentioned the incident to our landlord when we returned to our b & b. He commented that it could have been worse – it might have been a brick.
Amongst the smaller cities of Scotland, then, I’ve never liked the place since, to be honest……..anyway, Stirling has all the other 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 these notes on the smaller cities of Scotland, we can’t ignore Inverness. It sometimes describes itself as one of Europe’s fastest growing cities and I quite like it, and not only because no one has ever thrown anything at us there, as far as I can tell. 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 are not only the folk in from the towns, villages, farms and crofts for miles around, but also the visitors anxious that they will survive their holiday in their self-catering holiday homes, likewise for miles around.
(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.
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. There's a new-ish Inverness Castle Viewpoint (admission charged) here as well. Perhaps Flora is looking for the Loch Ness Monster, down there somewhere, or not.
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.
(Pictured here) Yes, Inverness is expanding for sure and 'greater' Inverness is approaching the edge of the Battlefield at Culloden. The oldest part of the town is off to the left, distant, in this picture. Note also the Kessock Bridge, taking the main A9 northwards. The narrowest part of the Moray Firth is right of the bridge. On the other side, to the west is the Beauly Firth. (Pronounced 'byoo-lee'.)
So, ultimately, Inverness may not fulfil your preconception of what a Highland town, sorry, city, should look like.
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.
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.)
As an aside to the state of cities in Scotland, Aberdeen fiddles around, wrings its hands over what to do with its public gardens at what passes for the city centre, and pins its tourism hopes on 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.)
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 us 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.
The main permanent exhibition space isn’t exactly huge - but the cafe certainly is! But it’s 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 as well.
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.
More on the cities of Scotland here...