Scottish castles - historical highlights for your trip
Scottish castles, from scanty ruins to stately homes, tell the story of Scotland’s warlike past. OK. Promise no more brochure-speak.
Scottish castles range from mighty fortresses on rocky crags to lonely towers on the hillsides - drawing visitors with their promise of drama, dark deeds and romance.
OK, I wrote that for some now defunct magazine a few years back but you get the picture. Scotland is a land of castles. Taking in some of the castles of Scotland is certainly a popular activity for visitors. And an essential part of the experience of Scotland. Ruinous, romantic, rugged - and that's only the Historic Environment Scotland staff who look after them...
Scotland's earliest fortresses
In various parts of Scotland, there are grass-covered mounds, sometimes called ‘mottes’ - all that remain of the foundations of the first Scottish castles. These defensive places were built of wood that rotted away long ago . By the 12th century, Anglo-Norman families settling in Scotland were busy organizing the man-power to heap-up these mounds on top of which the carpenters would then get busy. (You can see one of them under construction on the Bayeux Tapestry, as this was a Norman technique.)
The trouble is that from a visitor point of view, a big heap of earth covered in grass isn't exactly the most amazing sight that Scotland offers - but hang on in there, it gets more interesting, partly because not everyone followed this fashion.
On the island of Wyre, Orkney, there is a small rectangular tower enclosed by a ditch. A Norseman called Kolbein Hruga built it around 1145. Cubbie Roo’s Castle, as it is known today, is probably the earliest stone castle in Scotland. Castle Sween, south-west of Lochgilphead in Argyll, is the oldest mainland stone castle. It’s slightly easier to reach than Cubbie Roo’s mini-fortress, though the last time I was there it had a big caravan and camping site next to it and you had to compose your photograph quite carefully.
(Pictured here) Not much of a castle, eh? It's just some stonework on the headland, left side of pic. This is all that’s left of Duntulm Castle on Skye, abandoned by the Macdonalds in the 18th century. Just a reminder that castles in Scotland go all the way from grand piles, which the toffs or the very rich still inhabit, to tumbled-down fragments of ancient walls.
Scottish castles – two sorts – those with roofs today – and those without…..
Scotland’s warring past means its earliest castles have been battered by siege-engines and cannon, then altered, rebuilt and, in some cases, even vanished entirely. A good example of how old fortresses evolved over the centuries can be seen at Urquhart Castle in the Great Glen, where ruined walls overlook Loch Ness. Today, this is one of the most popular castles of Scotland. For a start it's on the classic 'milk run' tour of Scotland - Edinburgh/A9/Inverness/Great Glen/Fort William etc.
Here, Historic Environment Scotland, the national agency for the preservation of historic buildings, has a fascinating visitor centre. Urquhart Castle is one of Scotland’s largest and saw many battles and sieges in its long history. It also gives a good view of Loch Ness, so keep that camera battery topped up.
The stronghold here was important throughout the Wars of Independence with England. Soon after these wars began in 1296, the English army captured Urquhart. Within two years, the castle was back in Scottish hands.
Later, in 1509, the Chief of Clan Grant was granted the castle and its story continued with frequent raids by the Macdonald Lords of Isles in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was last used by Government troops following the Jacobite Rising of 1689. Lots more castles below...keep reading...
Castles of Scotland – must sees
Ancient mottes and ruinous castle sites are just part of the sheer variety of castle visiting options. Some of these very old sites have been continuously occupied for centuries.
Amongst Scottish castles, Edinburgh Castle stands as an icon of the nation. It was at the castle in 1566 that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, who became King James VI of Scotland and I of England following the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The Scottish Regalia, the ‘crown jewels’ of Scotland are displayed in the Castle today.
(Above) Stirling Castle was one of the most important castles of Scotland, from a strategic point of view, controlling the main routes between Highland and Lowland.
Not surprising, consequently, it looks down upon some of the most famous battlefields in Scotland’s history, including where the freedom-fighter Sir William Wallace’s army defeated the occupying English forces at Stirling Bridge in 1297, and where Bruce defeated the same foe at Bannockburn in the summer of 1314. I just wish that Robert the Bruce’s public relations team had suggested somewhere more slightly picturesque.
As a fortress and royal palace, the buildings that make up the fortified site of Stirling Castle buildings were rebuilt or refashioned as the times dictated. Yet much survives, including the impressive 15th century Great Hall, the marvellous Renaissance Palace and the Chapel Royal of King James.
Drummond Castle (above) is a must see in Perthshire – for its gardens only (the castle is private). These unique formal gardens appear in a fight scene in the move ‘Rob Roy’. Lovely when the sun shines – could tie in with a visit to, say, Stirling Castle.
There is a whole category of castles, all over Scotland, which are worth visiting simply for the atmosphere. This would certainly include Tantallon Castle, east of North Berwick and within easy reach of Edinburgh. Built by the Douglases, they defended a narrow rocky neck of land on the Firth of Forth with a huge red sandstone curtain wall, whose sheer scale still draws the eye today.
Six-storey towers at either end of the fortification were destroyed by artillery in 1651, but the centre tower, stairways and high-level walkways can still be explored. There are superb views across the Firth to the Bass Rock to the north.
Further north, this characteristic defended promontory on a craggy coastal location is seen again at St Andrews Castle (pictured above). Steep cliffs and the sea protected St Andrews Castle from maritime attack, while rock cut ditches once defended the landward approaches. The castle was the main residence of the bishops and archbishops of St Andrews who had to be prepared to defend themselves and the property of the church. More on a tour to St Andrews on that link.
(Above) The final example in this east coast trio of castles that used natural rocky features for defence is Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. A cliff-edged plateau, all but detached from the mainland, is accessed by a single gap in nine metre high curtain walls facing the land. Beyond the walls and portcullis, past guardroom and magazine an enclosed roadway finally emerges on to the grassy platform with its varied buildings, including a 14th-century L-plan tower-house built by Sir William Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland.
(To bluff your way through the castles of Scotland, you only have to remember that from the simple square tower house, there developed more complex shapes, including the L-plan, as above, and the popular Z-plan. Do not confuse with the F-plan though, which is a diet, not a castle.)
The Scottish Regalia, (Scotland’s ‘Crown Jewels, the second oldest set of royal baubles in Europe) as seen in Edinburgh Castle today, were taken for safe keeping to Dunnottar in 1652, to prevent them falling into the hands of the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell, sent north to crush royalist sympathies in Scotland. (See? I told you the history of Scotland in the 17th century is really, really complicated.) The Regalia were eventually smuggled out, some say, by lowering them down the cliff to a waiting boat.
Dunnottar was also where 122 men and 45 women who were Covenanters – a faction whose religious beliefs directly opposed those of the monarchy – were imprisoned in terrible conditions in 1685 in the Whigs’ Vault. The building still stands today, at the seaward end of the promontory.
Finally, you might be interested to know that the earliest Pictish fort in Scotland was found on a sea-stack very close to Dunnottar. Follow that link for background.
(Left) Here’s a castle with a novel use. This is Kinnaird Head at the north-east tip of Scotland, in Fraserburgh. This 16th-century towerhouse, built by the local Fraser lairds was altered to be the base for Scotland’s first lighthouse built by the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1787. It stands near the Wine Tower, on the edge of the sea, an even older construction than the castle, and about which there are local legends. (Usual ingredients – imprisoned lovers, phantom pipers and so on. More about it on this Scottish haunted places link.)
More Scottish Castles – romantic and picturesque
Thinking about the sheer variety of castles in Scotland, there are plenty that are described as romantic.
Sometimes it means a story; sometimes it’s a visual thing to do with setting. With 14th-century Lochleven Castle, on an island in Loch Leven near Kinross, Perthshire, the story is the thing. It was the prison for Mary, Queen of Scots who gets pretty much top marks for romance.
She was held there for nearly a year before her dramatic escape in 1568. She was aided by a young man, Willy Douglas (an orphaned relative of the Douglas family holding her captive).
Clearly captivated by her presence, the wee devil, he arranged the escape and cleverly removed the keys from the castle owner, the Laird of Lochleven, as he served him a drink. He then holed all the boats on the island except the one in which he rowed off with the queen in disguise. He also locked the castle behind him and hid the keys by throwing them down the barrel of a cannon!
(Above) As for romantic settings, Eilean Donan Castle in Kintail on the north-west seaboard, is the very essence of the picturesque – practically an icon of Scotland. Yet this 14th-century tower complex on an islet in Loch Duich stood in ruins for more than two centuries.
In 1719, the supporters of Scotland’s exiled Stuart monarchs, known as Jacobites, mounted one of their periodic rebellions, ho-hum. This one involved the occupation of Eilean Donan Castle by a small force of Spanish troops. (The Catholic Jacobites had close links with the Catholic nations in Europe.)
The Government heard of the plot, and dispatched three navy frigates to destroy the castle by bombardment. It assumed its present fully restored appearance 1912-32 – even the bridge now connecting it to the mainland is actually modern, though it looks like one of the ‘real’ old castles of Scotland in every way!
In fact, the romantically peaceful settings of many castles are at odds with the turmoil of Scotland’s history. For example, Kilchurn Castle (pictured here), on Loch Awe, has an especially photogenic site by the lochside fields. Again, it shows how many Scottish castles evolved to meet different needs.
Kilchurn started as a typical tower-house, built in the 15th century by Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy (from the powerful family who, for centuries, were never far from the centre of Scotland’s politics).
Then, in the 17th century, John, 1st Earl of Breadalbane, extended the tower-house with further accommodation within defensive walls linked by corner towers. This is the scheme as seen today, though it was abandoned in the 1760s by its owners, the Campbells of Glenorchy, and fell into picturesque ruin.
There were more castles associated with the mighty Campbell Earls – Castle Campbell, in the hills above Dollar, east of Stirling, was another Once known as Castle Gloom, it stands above the treetops and rises out of a green valley with a backdrop of the rounded domes of the Ochil Hills. There is a fine southwards panorama, over the central corridor of Scotland.
(Pictured here.) A portion only of Inveraray Castle, still the seat of the Dukes of Argyll. (If you like that sort of thing.) Note the west-side-of-Scotland lighting effects. A rainbow this time. Wow.
Yet more castles of Scotland? Well, another aspect to this romantic theme is that castle visiting quite frequently also involves gardens.
At Edzell Castle, on the edge of the hills near Brechin, this former seat of the Lindsays is a reminder that castle life did not always involve defence and strife. Here, in 1604, the then owner, Sir David Lindsay, Laird of Edzell, set about creating a formal garden in the contemporary fashion of the time – a kind of 17th-century makeover – with skilled stonemasons chiselling out heraldic and symbolic sculptures on themes such as arts and virtues in the walls that sheltered the laird’s symmetrical ‘pleasance’.
The red sandstone tower is in the care of Historic Scotland and, as the bones of the garden survived, the layout was restored, with a square boxwood surround taking in four parterre patterns, making it one of the very few period garden restorations anywhere in Scotland.
Like Edzell, Dirleton Castle, near North Berwick, was once a formidable fortress. Today the ancient walls overlook the elegant gardens of its later owners who saw the ruined castle as the most elaborate garden ornament. It features one of the largest herbaceous borders in Scotland, at its very best in July and August.
Notable garden features are a part of the experience at many other castles of Scotland – for example at Cawdor Castle near Inverness, Aberdour and Kellie Castles in Fife, and Castle Fraser near Aberdeen.
Scotland’s Castle Trail
In olden times, the north-east corner of Scotland often lay beyond the main thrust of Scotland’s sometimes warlike story. Away from the path of hostile armies, many more castles of Scotland survived intact. So, there are some advantages in being a rural backwater. (I should know. I was born there.) In fact, there was a great flowering of castle building here and the area today contains some of the very finest and best preserved.
You can enjoy them by following the North-East’s Castle Trail – a mix of Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust for Scotland properties. As a general rule of thumb, most Historic Environment Scotland properties are picturesque ruins and let the rain in. National Trust for Scotland properties usually have roofs on them and may even have a café and a shop that always smell nice. I think it’s the scented drawer liners. (Now, there’s a niche product for you.)
Follow the signposts – and pick up a leaflet. Actually, the leaflet bit was probably in the olden days. I haven’t written a leaflet for ages. These days, maybe you have to rely on websites like this. That’s a terrible thought.
Anyway, you can discover, for example, the outstanding gardens at Crathes Castle west of Aberdeen, simply one of the finest gardens in Scotland. Or travel a little further north to see the five great towers of Fyvie Castle, each associated with the five families who held it through the centuries as it grew from mediaeval fortress to Edwardian mansion.
Also on the Trail are places like Drum Castle, one of the three oldest surviving tower houses in Scotland, as well as Castle Fraser, the most elaborate Z-plan layout in Scotland. (Z-plan, L-plan and the like are always good architectural terms to name-drop! You should try to work in ‘bartisan’ as well.)
Another ‘must-see’ on the Castle Trail is the famed Craigievar Castle, a fairy-tale structure sometimes described as the very finest example of Scottish baronial architecture. Built in comparatively peaceful times by a prosperous merchant in the early 17th century (before the strife of religious conflict broke out later in the century), Craigievar still stands as the original masons left.
It’s associated with a 20th-century traitor with a link to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor that brought the USA into WWII. Read more about that on the favorite castles page.