Free Things to Do in the South of Scotland

by Sara Barton, 28th September 2022
Peebles Library, Museum & Gallery | Peebles | Scottish Borders
Free Things to Do in the South of Scotland

There is nothing better than being on holiday and discovering a whole array of fantastic free activities! If you are looking for ways to explore further, here in the South of Scotland there is plenty to keep everyone happy.

We highly recommend you download our app, as it has walking, driving and audio tours to guide you around, music to keep everyone happy and quiet in the car on journeys and stories that can do double duty at bedtime if the day has been a tiring one!

Whether you have great weather and can explore the wonderful outdoors or you are looking for indoor activities, there are plenty of options. Please note that while the attractions are free to enter, most do ask for a donation and in some cases you do need to pay for the car park. We also strongly advise you check the opening of historical sites and estates as they can close at short notice for safety/weather reasons.

Local museums with free admission

The region is rich in history and that is reflected in the many museums located throughout the area. Many of these are free to visit, although most appreciate a donation. You may be surprised at what you find – examples of the first bicycles are at Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura, thanks to a local inventor living up the road at Keir Mill. You can see 16m of extraordinary plasterwork replica friezes of the Parthenon in Athens at the Peebles Library, Museum & Gallery. Get a feel for Scotland’s most famous queen at Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre in Jedburgh. Discover the connections that different parts of the South of Scotland have with the textile trade: from the cotton mill at The Mill on the Fleet at Gatehouse of Fleet to the history of the knitters at Sanquar Tolbooth Museum to the weavers at the Borders Textile Towerhouse in Hawick. Or visit Coldstream Museum for a peek into the military history of the Coldstream Guards and the border town’s role in the constant battles for sovereignty between England and Scotland.

Entry to the Mill of Fleet is free; Gatehouse of Fleet.
Learn about the cotton mill at Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries & Galloway.

Go explore a garden

There are several gardens and estates woodlands you can explore without paying for entry, although there may be small car park charges (£3). In the Scottish Borders, the Hirsel Estate gardens are popular and the walks are open year round. Across the country, Galloway House Gardens leading down to Rigg Bay in Garlieston is a firm local favourite. Follow the sheltered beach track south and you’ll climb up through the woodland to a spectacular view of Wigtown Bay and eventually get to the remains of Cruggleton Castle. And if you are near Peebles, be sure to pop into the grounds of Barony Castle Hotel to see The Great Polish Map of Scotland. At Drumlanrig Castle & Estate there are walks and trails, although some are currently closed owing to damage caused last spring by Storm Arwen.

There's a small charge for the car park but entry to the Hirsel Estate is free.
The River Tweed running through the Hirsel Estate.

Head for the Hills

There is nothing like a good climb to blow away the cobwebs (and exhaust young children) and it’s even more rewarding for the views at the top – better yet if there is a significant landmark to see on gaining higher ground.

Walk up Peniel Heugh to the Waterloo Monument, an early 19th-century sandstone tower near Jedburgh built to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s triumph over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Make your way up the summit of Down Law to see the octagonal summerhouse and observatory known as Baron’s Folly. The fifth son Sir John Rutherford of Edgerston, Robert Rutherford did well for himself, being made a Baron of the Russian Empire by Catherine the Great. He returned to Scotland in 1779 and he purchased the 1,400-acre estate of Fairnington.

You can also choose to challenge yourself at the Grey Mare’s Tail. This fantastic waterfall takes a spectacular 60m plunge into the valley below and is the fifth highest cascade in Britain. Perched high above the Moffat Water, the Tail Burn flows through the hanging valley and then tumbles abruptly over a series of cascades and plunge pools into the valley below. There is a short walk from the car park to the Waterfall Viewpoint or a steeper, hour-long route along the gorge edge to Loch Skeen.

For more hiking challenges, have a look at these Six Climbs in Southern Scotland.

There are several options for viewing the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall in Dumfries & Galloway.

Walks along the beach

Of course not everyone fancies an uphill hike and there are plenty of wonderful beach and coastal walks along the Berwickshire coast in the east and the length and breadth of Dumfries and Galloway. Definitely don’t miss Coldingham Sands which is accessible for all with its beach wheelchair.

In Dumfries and Galloway, an excellent easy walk connecting Kippford and Rockcliffe Beaches can be done in either direction – at low tide you can walk out to Rough Island too. This and other coastal walks are featured in our Spectacular Coast walks blog. Rockcliffe’s wonderful rockpooling helped it make the Sunday Times top 10 beaches in Scotland this year with nearby sandy Powillimount Beach, pebbly Southerness Beach and its lighthouse and vast Sandyhills Beach all getting mentions too.

On the west coast, Killantringan Beach is an hour’s walk along the Southern Upland Way from Portpatrick and overlooked by Killantringan Lighthouse. And the beach at Port Logan featured in the BBC Scotland’s early noughties series Two Thousand Acres of Sky.

FRee things to do in the South of Scotland include wonderful beach walks like this one at Rpckcliffe.
Rockcliffe and its neighbouring beaches featured in the Sunday Times best beaches in Scotland for 2022.

Towns good for a wander

Browsing is lots of fun but there is so much more to towns in the South of Scotland. Here are a few with great free activities you can enjoy.

Head off in search of smugglers with our Eyemouth and the Smugglers’ Trail to enjoy the sites of this scenic harbour town. In Dumfries download our app to get an audio guided town tour with a difference – Stories from the Dark Side. To experience fantastic star-gazing head for Moffat, which is the UK’s first Dark Sky Town. The town of Kirkcudbright celebrates its Artists’ Town status as home to the Glasgow Boys school of painters. In addition to seeing some of the gaily painted houses and buildings, you can see the nationally recognised Kirkcudbright Artists’ Collection at Kirkcudbright Galleries. And just along the coast you can browse the many colourful bookshops of Scotland’s National Book Town, Wigtown.

Gazing up at the stars in the UK's first Dark Sky Town costs nothing! Enjoy the views for free.
Moffat, the UK’s first Dark Sky Town.

Travel back in time

Take your imagination and journey to the past, wondering who engineered the many standing stones littering the landscape and for what purpose. For the largest stone circle on mainland Scotland seek out The 12 Apostles Stone Circle north of Dumfries. Or head to Wigtown and see the Torhouse Stone Circle, one of the best preserved stone circles and recorded in 1684 as ‘King Gauldus’s Tomb’.  At Kirkmadrine, eight stones include three of the oldest Christian memorials in Scotland, dating to 500AD. And you will have to decide if a King really does lie buried beneath the Standing Stone of Dalarran, near Balmaclellan!

Take a walk to see the Yarrow Stone, a highly unusual standing stone dating to 500AD with a Latin inscription commemorating two princes of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. Or visit the ancient Girdle Stanes, which sit in the scenic floodplain beside the White Esk, and must once have been a nearly true circle of about 38 metres in diameter. Only 26 stones remain and if you cast your eyes into the riverbed you may see boulders which could have been from the original circle. For a different ancient monument, head off for an exhilarating hike along Whiteadder Water to reach Edin’s Hall Broch – a rare example of an Iron Age broch in lowland Scotland and surrounded by the remains of a fort built around 2,500 years ago.

There's no charge to see the largest stone circle on mainland Scotland.
Twelve Apostles Stone Circle is the largest stone circle on mainland Scotland.

Literary connections

The South of Scotland oozes with literary heritage, with famous authors and its landscapes enshrined in many bestselling works. And many of these attractions offer free entry. See where the great novelist and author Sir Walter Scott dispensed justice for nearly 30 years at Sir Walter Scott’s Courtroom in Selkirk. With a background in law, Scott sat as Sheriff of Selkirkshire until his death in 1832. Or head to St Ronan’s Wells Visitor Centre in Innerleithen. It was here that the St. Ronan’s Border Games were founded by James Hogg ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’ in 1827 and held initially to give the locals an enjoyable pursuit and to entertain the many visitors thronging the village to “take the waters”. Follow Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, on the town trail around Dumfries and learn about his life in the town at the Robert Burns Centre and see his last home Robert Burns House and the Mausoleum where he is buried.  

Entrance to Sir Walter Scott's Courtroom in Selkirk is a great free activity in the South of Scotland.
Sir Walter Scott was the Selkirkshire Sheriff for 30 years.

Home of the Bike

The inventor of the first ever treadle cycle, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, came from Keir Mill in Dumfries & Galloway, leading Scotland’s claim to the invention of the bicycle. And there is cycling galore to be had across the whole of the South of Scotland. Multiple cycling events already take place in the area and next year will see the region host three of the 13 UCI Cycling World Championships in August. The best place to start is at any one of the 7Stanes cycling centres throughout the region. For further ideas and inspiration see our blog Discover cycling in the south of Scotland.

Free things to do in the South of Scotland include great cycling.
Explore the quiet roads, gravel tracks and mountain bike trails throughout the south of Scotland. Here cyclists enjoy the Border Loop heading away from Tala Reservoir.

Historic Ruins

Follow the ruins dotted across the landscape of the South of Scotland and learn the stories of those who once lived and worked in these once glorious buildings. Arm yourself with a few facts and you can transform some tumbled masonry into a castle, a fortress, a church or an abbey – there are plenty of stories to keep everyone interested!

Head down the Machars peninsula to see the ruins of Whithorn Priory. This site has been settled from the 5th Century and by the 1500s the Kings and Queens of the House of Stuart were making pilgrimage here – today the ruined nave shows signs of former glory – a Romanesque 12th Century doorway is finely sculpted with chevron markings.  

Near Dumfries is the beautiful ruin of Lady Devorgilla’s tribute to her late husband John Balliol, Sweetheart Abbey – its cloisters are currently open. And on the other side of the River Nith the triangular shaped Caerlaverock Castle has its grounds open for you to have a wander around too.

Roxburgh Castle near Kelso may now lie in ruins but it was once the scene of much cunning. The castle had been surrendered to King Edward I of England in 1296 and occupied by English forces. In February 1314, James Douglas, was sent by Robert the Bruce to retake the castle. Disguising themselves in animal skins and black capes, the soldiers crawled to the base of the fortified castle. Using grappling hooks and rope ladders to scale the walls, they entered the castle, threw open the gates for the rest of the troops and retook Roxburgh Castle.

Cessford Castle was designed to withstand a siege, sited as it was only eight miles from the English border. Built by Andrew Ker, an ancestor of Robert Ker, 1st Earl of Roxburghe, and of the Dukes of Roxburghe. But Ker decamped to more comfortable quarters in 1607 – today the family seat is Floors Castle.

Do check with Historic Environment Scotland before you set off as some sites may be temporarily closed for surveying.

Access to the wonderful Sweetheart Abbey is free. The Abbey was built by Dervorgilla for her late husband John Balliol.
Sweetheart Abbey at New Abbey was built in tribute by Lady Devorgilla to her late husband John Balliol.

Wildlife and bird spotting

Who doesn’t enjoy seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, be it nesting birds on coastal outcrops or red squirrels dashing through the pine trees overhead? Check out our round up of Wildlife you can spot in the South of Scotland for the best tips on where to see what. Top of the list for many is the Galloway Forest Park Red Deer Range where there is a hide allowing you to observe the deer in proximity. Or drive along the Queens Way in the Galloway Forest Park for a peek at some hairy, long-horned British Primitive Goats. Animals like these were vital to our ancestors, who valued them for their milk, meat and skins.

Twitchers will love a visit to St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve for the close-up views of the feathered residents at this ‘seabird city’ from spectacular cliff-top vantage points. On the western coast, peregrine falcons are a regular sight at the RSPB Mull of Galloway Reserve along with guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins.

At Ken-Dee Reserve expect stunning views across the River Dee and Loch Ken, with both wetlands and woodland to enjoy with a trail to a goose/kite viewing platform. Along the Solway Coast the Mersehead Nature Reserve is an extensive wetland and saltmarsh area, a haven for breeding waders, wintering waterfowl and year-round bird and wildlife-watching.

 Free things to do in the South of Scotland includes wildlife watching such as at the Mersehead Nature Reserve. © RSPB 2020
Mersehead Nature Reserve at sunset. Credit: RSPB 2020.