What could be more mystical and magical than a castle? Scotland has more than 2,000 of them, in various states from remains which are visible to ruins and from fully intact tourist attractions to residential castles, including our very own Carlowrie Castle.
Some historians estimate that there have been as many as 4,000 constructed throughout the land, with battles, fires and the passage of time consigning around half of them to nothing but history of anecdotes.
It is easy to think of castles as being home to the great monarchs of legend, to Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots, however it wasn’t just Kings and Queens to inhabited castles. According to self-style Castle Hunter David Weinczok, a castle was originally defined by being a residence to “at least a minor laird” and by having a defensive structure. It’s primary purpose was to defend it’s inhabitants by making it exceptionally difficult for an enemy to breach.
They were not always grand, some of them no more than Forts or moated dwellings, built specifically to deny entry to unwanted visitors. From the 1600s onward, however, the defensive structure was purely for show as the style of a castle moved more toward a country home or a chateaux.
A fundamental reason for this was that the King, or Queen, served more centrally, with powers centralised a la a capital city, rather than the traditional landscape which featured lots of local centres of power. This, in addition to changes in taste, signalled something of an end to the age of true castles – residences built for a fight.
Of the 2,000 of so castles across the land, Historic Environment Scotland believe that around 500 could be described as a ‘masonry medieval fortified dwelling’, 135 are mottes – early earth and timber castles – ad 12 are moated sites which have historic protections.
Scotland is blessed with some of the most beautiful, historic and iconic castles in the world and wherever you venture in the country you will not be far from one. Each of them uniquely characterised by its history, many of them have incredible stories to tell and all of them would be worthy of a visit. But which castles are must see?
10 Most Famous Castles
Set atop a craggy extinct volcano high above Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh Castle is unquestionably Scotland’s most famous and important castle. This sprawling complex houses the Crown Jewels, the Stone of Destiny and Mons Meg. Get there in time for the firing of the One O’ Clock Gun.
Nestled amongst the majesty of the Cairngorms National Park, the 17th century fortress of Braemar Castle ticks all the boxes: castellated turrets, winding spiral staircases and a bottle-necked dungeon. Explore the grounds and find out more about Clan Farquharson.
Queen Victoria lovingly described Balmoral as her ‘dear paradise in the Highlands’ and it remains a private home of the Royal Family. When not in residence, visitors can enjoy exhibitions in the Castle Ballroom, the largest room in the castle, and wander through the charming gardens and grounds.
The white-washed Blair Castle stands proudly against a backdrop of wooded hills rising above the River Garry. The ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, it is also the home of Europe’s last remaining private army, the Atholl Highlanders. Explore its opulent rooms and its sprawling estate.
The austere façade of Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Argyll, stands in direct contrast to its sumptuous interior which embodies the pinnacle of 18th century neoclassical elegance. Admire the priceless Beauvais tapestries in the Drawing Room and outstanding views of Loch Fyne.
The fictional home of the Thane of Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Cawdor Castle ranks among Scotland’s most enchanting castles. Celebrated for its fairy-tale edifice, its dramatic history and romantic gardens, parts of which are over 300 years old, a visit here is like stepping into bygone age.
Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan has to be one of the most photographed castles in the world. Boasting a perfect picture-postcard setting on an island at the entrance of Loch Duich, Eilean Donan is steeped in Jacobite lore. Among the rare artefacts on display is a sword said to have been wielded at Culloden.
Dramatic doesn’t even begin to express the effect of this formidable cliff-top stronghold. Perched atop an immense rocky outcrop overlooking the north east coast, Dunnottar has witnessed many pivotal moments in Scotland’s history. The sight of it silhouetted against the setting sun is spellbinding.
The red sandstone walls of Glamis have been home to many colourful characters throughout the centuries, not least of them the late Queen Mother. It also famously features in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Crowned with battlements and pointed turrets, Glamis is the epitome of baronial grandeur.
Meticulously restored to its original Renaissance glory, Stirling Castle was the favoured residence of the Stewart kings and queens. Bring the kids along to meet costumed courtiers, bodyguards and servants and step into a rarefied world filled with decadence, plots and intrigue.
* words courtesy of VisitScotland
16 Fairytale Castles
On the northern coast near Dornoch, architecture lovers can marvel at the stunning French design of Dunrobin Castle. The most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, Dunrobin is the largest castle in the northern Highlands with 189 rooms. It dates back to the early 1300s, and is home to the Earls, later known as the Dukes, of Sutherland. Its interiors were designed by Scotland’s own Sir Robert Lorimer while its magnificent architecture and fairy-tale spires were added by Sir Charles Barry, who also designed London’s Houses of Parliament.
Situated in Kelso in the heart of the Scottish Borders and overlooking the River Tweed and Cheviot Hills, Floors Castle is the largest inhabited castle in Scotland and is home to the Duke and Duchess of Roxburgh and their family. Filled to the brim with fine works of art, including timeless tapestries and priceless antiques, Floors Castle boasts a truly splendid interior. In its imposing grounds you can see the holly tree that is said to mark the spot where King James II was killed in a siege in 1460.
Once a royal stronghold, Fyvie Castle near Turriff in Aberdeenshire began as a simple castle in the 13th century. It passed through the hands of five powerful families, each of whom added significantly to its splendour by adding a tower to this magnificent Scottish Baronial fortress. Inside, admire period furnishings and rich interiors that still look as glorious as when they were installed; the magnificent sweeping staircase is probably the most dramatic architectural feature while many treasures are also on display.
With its dramatic clifftop setting, captivating history, striking surroundings and Robert Adam architecture in his trademark neo-classical Georgian style, it’s easy to see why Culzean Castle is one of Scotland’s most popular visitor attractions. Situated near Maybole on the Ayrshire coast, and surrounded by over 600 acres of Culzean Country Park, which encompasses lush woodland, landscaped gardens and rugged coastline, this 18th century Scottish castle couldn’t be better placed for a great day out.
There’s no doubt that Drummond Castle Gardens’ boasts one of Europe’s finest gardens. The gardens have made appearances in the film Rob Roy (1995) and TV series Outlander. Located near Crieff in Perthshire, the 15th century castle is not open to the public but its formal terraced gardens can be explored, and are one of the largest in Scotland. The dominant feature of the horticultural design is a St Andrew’s Cross with the multiplex 17th century sundial at its centre, and the gardens offer marvellous views of the castle and surrounding countryside.
There are few more scenic castles in Scotland than Kilchurn near Dalmally in Argyll. Built on a small, rocky isthmus joined to the shore at the tip of Loch Awe, it’s one of numerous castles erected by the powerful Campbell clan, who exercised control of much of western Scotland in the late medieval period. Don’t miss the view from the top – stand on the tower house’s battlements and gaze out over Loch Awe, with the peak of Ben Cruachan in the backdrop. It’s easily one of the most photographed castles in Scotland!
Dating from the 16th century, Brodie Castle, set in Morayshire parkland near Forres, has unusual plaster ceilings, a major art collection and tells the fascinating story of the Brodie family. In springtime, the grounds are carpeted with many varieties of daffodils for which Brodie Castle is rightly famous.
Many of Scotland’s castles impress because of their gloomy grandeur and violent history, but the charming and romantic 12th century Dirleton Castle, which is set on a natural rocky outcrop near North Berwick in East Lothian, is best known for its splendid gardens which include a Victorian garden and the Arts and Crafts herbaceous border. Did you know that the herbaceous border has been authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest?
Next on the list is Kelburn Castle near Largs in Ayrshire. Loved by all those who see it, the castle’s exterior walls feature a mural depicting interwoven cartoons. Quite unusual, isn’t it? It’s been named as one of the best examples of urban art in the world. The inside of Kelburn Castle is in stark contrast to its exterior – lush and sophisticated – and in its grounds you’ll find a secret forest with a Chinese garden, waterfalls and a gingerbread house – perfect for an amazing day out.
Movie buffs might recognize Castle Fraser from The Queen (2006), starring Helen Mirren (it appeared as a backdrop), but this baronial five-storey tower house in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, is one of the grandest, most romantic-looking castles in the country. Venture through the castle and up to the round tower and admire panoramic views of the gardens and estate beyond. Legend has it that a princess was murdered in the Green Room, that she still walks the castle at night, and unexplained ghostly piano music has been heard. Do you still dare to visit?
Imagine a castle in the shape of a triangle, with imposing sandstone walls and a tower or two at each corner. Along with its atmospheric green moat and setting within a nature reserve, these features rank the spellbinding Caerlaverock Castle near Glencaple in Dumfries & Galloway among the most powerful-looking castles in the world and give it a story-book quality. There’s simply no other castle in the world like it!
Treasures from Scotland’s oldest Highland regiment, the Black Watch, are housed in the grandiose Balhousie Castle in Perth. Uniforms, paintings, medals, photographs, weaponary and equipment bring this glorious regiment’s past vibrantly to life.
Blackness Castle near Linlithgow in West Lothian was built in the 15th century by one of Scotland’s most powerful families, the Crichtons. Its unusual nautical shape has earned it the nickname of ‘the ship that never sailed’. From the castle you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Firth of Forth and Fife.
Perched upon a hill overlooking the Sound of Mull, Duart Castle passed to a Scottish chief as part of the dowry his bride brought to the marriage back in the mid 14th century, and for the last 400 years it has been considered the ancestral home of the Maclean clan. Ruined in the late 18th century, it was restored in 1911. Walk through the dungeons and admire the castle’s strategic position at the end of a peninsula of the Isle of Mull.
St Andrews Castle
One of the most scenic castles in Scotland, let alone Fife, St Andrews Castle stands on a high clifftop site, defended by sheer coastal cliffs and by rock-cut ditches facing inland. The castle saw its fair share of important visitors, including James I, who was educated here, and James III, who was born here. Interesting features include the siege tunnels that were dug in 1546 and the ‘bottle dungeon’, one of the most infamous castle prisons in medieval Britain.
Built in a beautiful loch-side setting on the Isle of Skye, Dunvegan is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, and has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for 800 years. Admire the many fine oil paintings on display, delight in the beauty of its formal garden, or why not take a boat trip to Loch Dunvegan?
To either of these lists you could easily add from countless incredible castles, however if we were to pick three more of our own favourites, we would recommend:
Located in the heart of Speyside, with stunning gardens and a distillery on the wider estate, Ballindalloch in known as the ‘Pearl of the North’. It is home to the MacPherson-Grant family, who have resided in the castle for centuries.
It’s impossible to list Scotland’s greatest castles without including Urquhart Castle. Situated on the banks of Loch Ness, the ruins of Urquhart Castle are as dramatic as ‘Nessie’ is mythical. The ruins we see today date from between the 13th and 16th centuries, when it played a strategic role in the Wars of Independence, however a fortification has been on the site since early medieval days.
This 16th century castle can be found in the woodlands of Aberdeenshire and has ties to Robert the Bruce. It’s maze of beautiful towers and turrets and it’s ghost stories make it an intriguing visit, as does the rich variety of wildlife, including roe deer, red squirrels, woodpeckers, buzzards and herons, which can be found along the castle’s six trails.
Finally, for those of you who like to be spooked, VisitScotland named Scotland’s Most Haunted Castle:
It’s easy to see why this roofless, abandoned castle, near Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire, leaves people feeling a little spooked.
Originally built in 1597, Slains Castle went through a number of reconstructions before it was sold by the Earl of Errol in 1919. Its tale is perhaps not as eerie as people might think – the roof was removed in 1925 for tax purposes.
However, it must have always had a bit of an air of mystery, as it’s said to have inspired the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which he wrote following a visit in the 19th century.