Scottish Castles: The Best of Scotland’s Castles
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 20th September 2018
From fairytale castles and fascinating stately homes to eerie ruins and haunted rooms, Scotland is fortunate to boast well over 2000 historic castles. As it would take anyone a considerable time to visit them all, we have compiled a list of our must-see castles in Scotland. Once you’ve become a lord, laird or lady, you might even fancy purchasing one!
We’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of Scotland’s best castles, from the most romantic and scenic, to the most haunted and historic. We hope you’ll enjoy these castles if you choose to visit, and now have flavour for them from our virtual journey across the country. Explore the most iconic Scottish castles – with so much choice, surely there will be castles for all interests and tastes!
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Caithness, North Coast Scotland
Overlooking the Pentland Firth, towards the Orkney Islands, is the first of our Scottish castles, the homely and modest Castle of Mey is the most northerly located castle in Scotland. It lay abandoned, with no bathrooms or electricity, until Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother happened upon it whilst visiting friends in nearby Dunnet.
The Queen Mother lovingly restored the castle, changing its name from Barrogill Castle to The Castle of Mey when she bought it in 1952. It proved her Highland retreat for nearly 50 years. The castle’s beautiful gardens, tearoom and animal centre make it an idyllic day out for all visiting the North coast.
With fairytale turrets and manicured grounds, Dunrobin Castle is arguably one of the most beautiful Scottish castles. One of Britain’s oldest, continuously inhabited homes, Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses. It remains home to the Sutherland family, who have lived there for over 700 years.
Complete with a museum in the original summer house, exquisite gardens and a renowned falconry display, Dunrobin Castle makes a beautiful summer’s day trip. Its 189 rooms are filled with fascinating artefacts and decorated in a style which complements the ‘French chateâu’ architecture.
Based in the picturesque surroundings of Moray, Brodie Castle is one of the Scottish castles that could definitely be described as a ‘hidden gem’. The castle has an instantly recognisable rose tint, which is visible for miles across the acres of the countryside surrounding the castle.
The gardens around the Castle are known as the Playful Garden, which is full of interactive attractions that explore the interesting history of the castle and the Brodie Castle in a fun way that kids will love.
Located near the Highland capital, Inverness, Cawdor Castle is famed for its connection to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The events upon which the play is based took place many years before the castle was constructed in the 15th century, though Shakespearean recitals still take place in the castle’s grounds during the summer.
Legend has it that the castle was built around a holly tree, dating from 1372, which visitors can still see in the dungeon today. Other points of interest include the impressive Drawing Room, the Tapestry Bedroom and the Dining Room, all of which showcase this Scottish castles sumptuous interiors.
Located near Inverness, Castle Stuart is a restored tower house right on the banks of the Moray Firth. It is fully operational as a hotel and had 8 rooms, all of which are steeped in the history and the romanticism of the castle. It’s luxury accommodation, so is also an ideal place to host a wedding or other large event if Scottish castles are your thing.
The history of the castle is interesting – it’s hard to imagine that it was a derelict ruin for 300 years. Apparently, it wasn’t completely empty though, as Castle Stuart is believed to have been haunted. The castle was built in the 17th century, and shortly after it was built it was attacked. Although the castle has swapped hands since it was built, it is now back with the Stuarts. One of the most impressive elements of the castle is the spiral staircase, which is definitely worth the visit alone.
Beside Loch Ness, Highlands of Scotland
Perched on the edge of the iconic Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is undoubtedly one of the best located and historically largest Scottish castles. Once a medieval fortress, the castle was destroyed by the last remaining government troops garrisoned there during the Jacobite uprising.
Now largely in ruins. a visit to Urquhart Castle means exposure to the elements. However come rain or shine, the Highland weather only adds to the atmospheric experience of this spectacular location. Spend time viewing the full-sized working trebuchet in the castle grounds, or try to catch a glimpse of the elusive Loch Ness monster. The castle is famous for being captured by Robert the Bruce, after he had defeated the Comyns.
Kyle Of Lochalsh, Inverness-shire
Located on an island where three sea lochs meet, Eilean Donan castle is surrounded by majestic Highland scenery. It is perhaps its unique position which has earned it the reputation as one of the most iconic Scottish castles, and one of the most visited attractions in the Scottish Highlands.
The land upon which Eilean Donan Castle was built was first inhabited around the 6th century. The first fortified castle on this land was built in the mid 13th century. Since then at least four different versions of the castle have been constructed, thanks to Scotland’s ever-changing feudal history.
Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
Photo by holly_trea / CC0 Creative Commons
Slains Castle is a ruined castle in Aberdeenshire, built in the 16th century. At it’s peak, the castle and the surrounding greens were very large, and consisted of 3 massive gardens. However the castle now stands as a ruin, without a roof. This Scottish castles set to be turned into a series of apartments, however there has been a hold up in this work due to backlash.
The castle is located on a cliff side, and although this allows for stunning views, it also means that the castle is in a difficult position for renovations to take place, which likely explains much of the hold up with work. The castle is well known for being slightly ‘creepy’, and you’d be hard pressed to call it an attractive castle. But because it has remained untouched for so long, it does have a certain charm to it.
Anecdotally said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle, Craigievar Castle and its elegant pink tower are truly enchanting. Set in the magical Aberdeenshire hills and spellbinding parkland, the castle boasts a glen garden. Its woodland is blanketed by bluebells in the early summer.
The Scottish castles upper floors rely solely on natural light. This means that in order to catch a glimpse of its historic artefacts, they must be illuminated by shifting sunlight – exactly as they would have been when they were made. Other curiosities include an impressive collection of old armour – fit for a fairytale prince.
Drum Castle is one of the oldest tower houses in Scotland, and although it has undergone some renovation in recent years, the building has managed to retain a certain charm due to its visible age. The chapel attached to the building was built in the 1500s, and is an incredible place to visit.
After you’ve visited the buildings you can explore the Old Wood of Drum which surrounds the castle. The wood is home to Oak trees which date back from the 1700s.
Photo by WolfBlur / CC0 Creative Commons
Set against a backdrop of rolling hills and located in a picturesque estate, Crathes Castle is a true example of a classic Scottish tower house. With exquisitely painted ceilings, grand portraits and antique furniture, Crathes Castle offers a memorable experience packed full of cultural history and resident ghost stories.
Beyond the towers and turrets, you can explore the famous grounds. Trails wind along the Coy Burn, where nature lovers might spot buzzards, herons and kingfishers. Horticulturists can also enjoy the richly planted walled garden, with sculpted topiaries, exotic blooms and herbaceous colours.
Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire
Balmoral Castle is a large estate house in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near the village of Crathie, 6.2 miles (10 km) west of Ballater and 6.8 miles (11 km) east of Braemar. Balmoral has been one of the residences for members of the British Royal Family since 1852, when the estate and its original castle were purchased privately by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. They remain as the private property of the royal family and are not the property of the Crown.
Soon after the estate was purchased by the royal family, the existing house was found to be too small and the current Balmoral Castle was commissioned. The architect was William Smith of Aberdeen, although his designs were amended by Prince Albert. This is one of the Scottish castles that is a fine example of Scottish baronial architecture, and is classified by Historic Scotland as a category A listed building.
In 2018 the grounds, gardens, exhibitions, gift shop and cafe will be open to the Public on a daily basis from Friday 30th March until Tuesday 31st July. Opening times are from 10.00 a.m. until 5.00 p.m. However please note that the last recommended admission is at 4.30 p.m.
Blair Atholl, Perthshire
Near the village of Blair Atholl, in Perthshire, you can find Blair Castle, built in 1269 and known for being the ancestral home of the Clan Murray and historically the seat of their chief, the Duke of Atholl.
The oldest part of the castle is the six-storey Cummings or Comyn’s Tower and its many rooms (over 30) feature fascinating artefacts, such as weapons, hunting trophies, paintings, and souvenirs of the Murray clan. Some of the highlights include the stunning Victorian Ballroom, decorated with over 170 pairs of antlers, and the Entrance Hall, which features weapons used at the Battle of Culloden.
On the banks of the River Teith and close to the village of Doune, you can find Doune Castle. Built in the 14th-century, the castle has striking 100ft walls and one of the best preserved great halls of all the Scottish Castles. Its glorious exterior and interiors have been featured in some of the world’s most popular TV shows, including Game of Thrones, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Outlander.
Explore Doune Castle and don’t miss the Lord’s Hall, the view from the battlements, and the courtyard. The castle is open throughout the year, and you can even take an audio tour narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
Overlooking the city of Stirling, former capital of Scotland, Stirling Castle boasts an incredible view. The castle is often regarded as being Edinburgh Castle’s better-looking brother. Certainly the castle has remained in incredible condition over the years, despite being built in the 15th/16th century. Stirling Castle was used as a palace as well as a fortress, so although it is beautiful to look at, it is also quite intimidating.
The castle sits atop Castle Hill, and is surrounded by steep cliff edges. Stirling Castle is perhaps most famous for being the place where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned.
There are many great things to do if you visit the castle – stand in and admire the Grand Hall, the largest medieval banqueting hall ever built in Scotland. There is a large car parking area at the castle, however it is not the easiest to get to if you’re walking (all up quite a steep hill). Interactive and audio tours are available at the visitor centre if you want a guided tour of the castle.
Cambuskenneth Village, Stirling
Cambuskenneth Abbey is a mostly ruined Augustinian abbey in Stirling, located near the River Forth. The abbey was founded in the 12th century at the order of David I and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It regained the status of a royal abbey for the time that Stirling was the capital of Scotland. Cambuskenneth is also famous for being the resting place of King James III.
Possibly the most famous aspect of the abbey is the bell tower, which is generally considered to be one of the best examples of 12th-century architecture still standing in Scotland.
Once known as the Castle of Glooms, the medieval Castle Campbell can be found nestled high above Dollar Glen, in Clackmannanshire, and is mostly known for being the Lowland stronghold of the Clan Campbell. Other historical connections include both Mary, Queen of Scots, and John Knox, Scotland’s Reformation leader and founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Castle Campbell is one of the best-preserved tower house Scottish castles and if you choose to visit, don’t miss the beautifully kept terraced gardens and the original 15-century tower.
Famously the final resting place of King Robert Bruce and seven other Scottish kings, Dunfermline Palace and Abbey play a key role in Scotland’s history. The present nave stands over the remains of a great 11th-century Benedictine abbey founded by Queen Margaret, later re-established by her son in 1128.
Encompassed in the abbey complex are the ruins of a palace built by King James VI in the 16th century. It became home to his queen, Anna of Denmark, before their departure for London. It was also the birthplace of Charles I, the last monarch to be born in Scotland.
Pittenweem, East Neuk of Fife
Kellie Castle effortlessly combines Medieval atmosphere and Victorian style, with much of the original castle still very much untouched. The oldest parts of the castle which are still standing date as far back as the 14th century, however, the more Victorian inspired parts of the castle were mostly from the 19th century.
The surroundings of the castle are just as impressive as the interior. There is an ‘Arts and Crafts’ garden which showcases the incredible array of plant life at the castle. You’ll find everything from fruits and vegetables to roses in the castle gardens, and they are well worth an exploration.
Royal Burgh of St Andrews, Fife
Generally the weather is quite good in St Andrews, however it’s still advised to bring warm clothing and suitable footwear with you when visiting in case of rain. St Andrews isn’t the easiest place to get to, however it is a very pleasant drive if you do decide to take the trip, and there are plenty of other great stops along the way in this Scottish castles area of Fife.
Close to the village of Torwood, lies the ruinous 16th-century Torwood Castle. The L-shaped tower house dates back to 1566, according to a stone found near the castle premises in 1918. Torwood Castle is known for having been the seat of the ancient and noble Clan Forrester, however, much of Torwood Castle’s history remains a mystery.
Torwood Castle is not open to the public, yet we still recommend a nice walk around the main building and inside the ruined walls, which provide a fascinating yet eerie background.
Built in the 15th century by one of the most powerful families in Scotland, the Crichtons, Blackness Castle was used as an artillery fortress. Throughout the years, Blackness Castle has been used a royal castle, prison, and even film location for TV shows, such as Ivanhoe and Outlander.
Due to its unusual shape and its stone ship appearance, Blackness Castle has been nicknamed “the ship that never sailed”, and like a large ship that has washed up on the shores of the Firth, the castle’s north tower points out to sea like stern. If you enjoy military history, Blackness Castle is a must-see part of Scotland’s past – and open to visitors throughout the year.
Edinburgh castle is one of the most famous Scottish castles in the world. Overlooking the capital of Scotland, the castle is located on Castle Rock and is a daunting fortress which dominates the Edinburgh skyline. It is believed to have been built in the 12th century, but despite the age of the castle it is in remarkably good shape and is still regarded as one of the best attractions in the UK, frequently winning tourism awards.
Guided tours are available at the castle, and audio tours are also available in 8 languages. The castle is home to the Crown Jewels of Scotland, as well as the Stone of Destiny, the famous 15th century gun known as Mons Meg, and the one o’clock gun (which fires every day at 1 o’clock!). The castle is also home to the National War Museum of Scotland.
Dirleton, East Lothian
Built in the 13th century, Dirleton Castle has remained remarkably intact considering it’s age. Nestled between Edinburgh and North Berwick, the castle is in a strategically important location which has made it the target of several sieges since it was built, swapping hands frequently. The castle might be a reflection of battle and conflict, but the surrounding gardens give no impression of this. They’re incredibly well kept and are fantastic to wonder around.
There is a dovecot within the castle (for holding pigeons) which is considered to be one of the best preserved Scottish castles, and is home to over 1,000 nesting holes. The castle is very convenient for visitors with disabilities, as it has wheelchair access and is located very close to the main road (which is flat and runs through the centre of Dirleton).
North Berwick, East Lothian
Photo by Karora / Public Domain
Built in the 14 century, Tantallon Castle is a castle based in East Lothian which is described as ‘semi ruined’. Despite being described so, it is still impressively intact considering the age and location of the castle. It is perched on a hill overlooking the Firth of Forth, and has endured harsh sea winds for hundreds of years. The castle is accessible throughout most of the year, however due to it’s proximity to the sea it is often forced to close access to the public in averse weather.
The castle is built with red sandstone and still has a distinctively red tinge to it. Tantallon is one of the most popular Scottish castles, proving particularly popular with filmmakers, as it’s dramatic location translates very well to the big screen. If you’re into wildlife then on a clear day the castle also makes a great vantage point for watching gannets and other seabirds on the North Sea.
Rothesay, Isle of Bute
Rothesay Castle is a ruined Castle in Bute, which is in the West of Scotland. Although dating back from the 13th century, it has withstood the test of time incredibly well and is still very intact, making it a particularly popular choice amongst Scottish castles to visit. There is also a broad moat surrounding the castle, which made it very difficult to attack. The castle was mostly known for being associated with the Stewart kings of Scotland.
It is Scotland’s only circular curtain wall, the shape of which is still very visible. A wooden bridge leads over the moat for easy access to the castle. There is also a small visitor centre with a shop which is worth a visit if you want to learn more about the history of this fascinating castle.
Dundonald, South Ayrshire
Commanding fine views over the Firth of Clyde, Dundonald Castle is a fine example of a medieval tower house. Built in 1371, it sits atop a prominent hilltop in Dundonald village and was built on the site of earlier Scottish castles belonging to the High Stewards of Scotland. As such, it is regarded as the cradle of the Stewart Dynasty.
Boasting high-vaulted ceilings and gloomy dungeons, Dundonald Castle remains a splendid Scottish stronghold. The main tower was built by King Robert II in the 1370s to mark his succession to the throne. Its grounds offer scenic walks and have provided bountiful artefacts, found during archaeological excavations.
Perched atop the Ayrshire cliffs, Culzean Castle is like no other grand Scottish home. Once the playground of David Kennedy, 10th Earl of Cassillis, this expansive estate was built as a symbol of wealth and status. It is unsurprising that it boasts fruit-filled glasshouses (apparently somewhat inspired by the glass restaurant at the cellars), flamboyant floral gardens, a swan pond and an ice house.
As if its unique decor, ample treasures and magnificent scale weren’t glamorous enough, Culzean Castle has strong connections to President Eisenhower. The top-floor apartment was presented to him for his role during World War II, and now forms an impressive suite you can book as a paying guest.
Caerlaverock Castle is one of the best Scottish castles to visit, and is also one of the most steeped in history. The castle is well known for it’s ‘fairy tale appearance’, which has made it a popular filming location over the years. The castle is fairly ruinous, but can still be explored. Plus, the surrounding grounds are very pleasant too, and there is a moat around the castle which still looks very attractive.
The castle has a unique triangular ground plan. The castle’s turbulent history owes much to its proximity to England which brought it into the brutal cross-border conflicts and you can enjoy a fascinating siege warfare exhibition complete with reconstructions of medieval siege engines.
Castle Douglas, Dumfries
Located next to the River Dee, Threave Castle is a 14th century that was originally built for the Black Douglases. At 30m high, it is quite a daunting fortress which will have withheld of countless attacks. Equally impressive is the artillery fortification on the site, which famously kept James II at bay during a heavy attack.
Threave Castle is not the most accessible of Scottish castles in the list by any means – the best way to reach the castle is by boat. There is a small gravel car park on site where the boats are, but it has no accessible bays marked out which makes it very difficult for disabled visitors. The castle would definitely be regarded as ‘ruined’ however much of the building is still intact, and the location alone makes it well worth a visit.
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