Castles in Scotland have a certain romance about them. When you think of a Scottish Castle, you think of windswept highlands, battlefields and ramparts built to stand the test of time.
Castles in Scotland certainly are a breed apart from similar structures in other parts of the UK. The Scottish landscape can certainly be more dramatic than other areas of Britain and when you plop a castle amongst these dramatic landscapes, well, all the more better I say.
As with my previous post about the Top English Castles, the selection of the castles on this list is completely to my taste. If you have a favorite castle that I’ve left off, feel free to tell us about it in the comments.
So, here’s Anglotopia’s rundown of the Best Castles in Scotland. Second in our series of posts exploring castles in Britain.
Top Castles in Scotland
The original castle was built in the early 13th century as a defence against the Vikings. By the late 13th century it had become a stronghold of the Mackenzies of Kintail (later the Earls of Seaforth). In 1511, the Macraes, as protectors of the Mackenzies, became the hereditary Constables of the Castle.
In 1539 Iain Dubh Matheson, chief of the Clan Matheson died whilst defending the Castle on Eilean Donan island against the Clan MacDonald of Sleat on behalf of the Clan Macrae and Clan Mackenzie.
In April 1719 the castle was occupied by Spanish troops attempting to start another Jacobite Rising. The castle was recaptured, and then demolished, by three Royal Navy frigates on 10-13 May 1719. The Spanish troops were defeated a month later at the Battle of Glen Shiel.
The castle was restored in the years between 1919 and 1932 by Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap. The restoration included the construction of an arched bridge to give easier access to the castle. In 1983 The Conchra Charitable Trust was formed by the Macrae family to care for the Castle. A curious distinction is that it has one of only two left-handed spiral staircases in a castle in Great Britain, as the reigning king at the time of building held a sword with his left hand. One strange feature of the castle today is the grey field gun from the Great War, positioned outside the building by a war memorial and fountain dedicated to the men of the Macrae clan who died in the war.
Eilean Donan is the home of the Clan Macrae. In 2001, the island had a population of just one person. This castle is most famous for appearing in many hollywood movies, including Highlander
Castle Location: Scottish Highlands
Castle Website: Eilean Donan Castle official website
The red sandstone tower is approximately 15m by 13m, and 18m high to the corbelled parapet. It was built on a stone ‘plinth’, in order to support the structure on what was a marshy site. The entrance to the tower still retains the original yett, a portcullis-like metal grid in front of the door. This leads into a vaulted cellar with a well, and two spiral stairs leading up. The main stair at the north-east corner leads up to a caphouse at parapet level, while the second serves the high-table end of the first floor hall.
The hall is dominated by a large fireplace, with the Royal Arms of Scotland carved above it. Heraldic emblems are carved onto several projecting corbels, and an elaborately decorated recess or aumbry, with a carved cinquefoil surround, attests to the relative wealth of the Murrays. A separate fireplace at the opposite end of the hall would have served the narrow kitchen, and would have been separated from the hall by a timber screen where a wall now stands.
The most remarkable feature of Comlongon is the walls, over 4m thick in places, and riddled with numerous interconnecting chambers to an extent not seen in any contemporary Scottish castle. The narrow kitchen is one such mural chamber. Also within the walls off the hall is a guardroom, with a cell beyond, and a trapdoor which gives access to a grim unlit dungeon below.
Two further storeys lie above the hall, with parapet walks at roof level. The western parapet was roofed over before 1624, when a surviving inventory was taken, creating a gallery with crow-stepped gables. A similar structure was built over the south-east corner, giving the south facade a symmetrical appearance. The upper storeys were also subdivided before this time.
A walled courtyard and ditch, possibly a moat, once surrounded the tower, although this was removed in the early 18th century, when a manor house was added to the east side of the tower. Between 1890 and 1902 this manor was replaced by the present Scottish baronial mansion, by architects James Barbour & JM Bowie of Dumfries. The castle was bought by the present owners, from the Earl of Mansfield’s estate, in 1984, and renovated to its current condition. It has been operated as a hotel since then.
Castle Location: Dumfries
Castle Website: Comlongon Castle homepage
Drum Castle is a castle near Drumoak in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. For centuries it was the seat of the chief of Clan Irvine. The place-name Drum is derived from Gaelic druim, ‘ridge’.
The original 13th century tower of Drum Castle has been suggested as the work of medieval architect Richard Cementarius, who built the Bridge of Don in Old Aberdeen. It is believed to be one of the three oldest tower houses in Scotland (and notably unaltered). A large wing was added in 1619 by the 9th laird, further alterations were made during the Victorian era.
The castle and its grounds were granted to William de Irwyn in 1325 by Robert the Bruce, and remained in the possession of Clan Irvine until 1975. William de Irwyn (of the Irvings of Bonshaw clan) was armour bearer/secretary (and neighbor) to King Robert the Bruce. Drum played a role in the Covenanting Rebellion (as did nearby Muchalls Castle) leading to its being attacked and sacked three times.
The castle is surrounded by late 18th century gardens, including a rose garden and arboretum containing trees from all regions of the 18th century British Empire.
Today, the castle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is open during the summer months. The chapel, dining hall and estate may be hired for weddings and corporate functions. A variety of local events such as classic car rallies and musical fetes also occur here. There is also a small shop and tearoom within the castle.
Castle Location: Aberdeenshire
Castle Website: Visit Banchory Website
Craigievar Castle is a pinkish harled castle six miles (10 km) south of Alford, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It was the seat of Clan Sempill. The setting is among scenic rolling foothills of the Grampian Mountains. The contrast of its massive lower story structure to the finely sculpted multiple turrets, gargoyles and high corbelling work create a classic fairytale appearance.
An excellent example of the original Scottish Baronial architecture, the great seven-storey castle was completed in 1626 by the Aberdonian merchant William Forbes, ancestor to the “Forbes-Sempill family” and brother of the Bishop of Aberdeen. Forbes purchased the partially completed structure from the impoverished Mortimer family in the year 1610. Forbes’ nickname was Danzig Willy, a reference to his shrewd international trading success. The Forbes family resided here for 350 years until 1963, when the property was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland.
Designed in the L plan, as was Muchalls Castle, which is located in the same region, Craigievar is noted for its exceptionally crafted plasterwork ceilings. Craigevar, Muchalls Castle and Glamis Castle are generally considered to have the three finest ceilings in Scotland. The Clan Forbes family were close friends of the Clan Burnett of Leys, who built both Crathes Castle and Muchalls Castle.
The castle originally had more defensive elements including a walled courtyard with four round towers; only one of the round towers remains today. In the arched door to that round tower are preserved the carved initials of Sir Thomas Forbes, William Forbes’ son. There was also a massive iron yett or gate covering the entrance door.
The castle interior boasts a Great Hall that has the Stuart Arms over the fireplace; a musicians gallery; secret staircase connecting the high tower to the Great Hall; Queen’s Bedroom; servants’ quarters and of course several splendid plasterwork ceilings. There is a collection of Forbes family portraits inside as well as a considerable quantity of Forbes furnishings dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
During the First World War, it was used as a hospital for wounded Belgian soldiers.
As of 2006, the castle, its estate, and over 200 acres (0.81 km2) of adjoining farmlands and woodlands are owned by the National Trust for Scotland. They are open to tourists during the summer months. The castle is closed to tour buses and large groups, but may be accessed by guided tour. Also, the castle will be closed from the end of August 2007, due to restoration work being carried out on its exterior.
Castle Location: Aberdeenshire
Castle Website: Craigievar Castle at the National Trust for Scotland
Edinburgh Castle is an ancient fortress which dominates the sky-line of the city of Edinburgh from its position atop the volcanic Castle Rock. Human habitation of the site is dated back as far as the 9th century BC, although the nature of early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal Castle here since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
As one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has been involved in many historical conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully, on several occasions. From the later 17th century, the Castle became a military base, with a large garrison. Its importance as a historic monument was recognised from the 19th century, and various restoration programmes have been carried out since.
Few of the present buildings pre-date the Lang Siege of the 16th century, when the fortifications were largely destroyed by artillery bombardment. The notable exception is St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, which dates from the early 12th century. Among other significant buildings of the Castle are the Royal Palace, and the 15th-century Great Hall. The Castle also houses the Scottish National War Memorial, and National War Museum of Scotland.
The Castle is now in the care of Historic Scotland, and is Scotland’s second-most-visited tourist attraction. Although the garrison left in the 1920s, there is still a military presence at the Castle, largely ceremonial and administrative, and including a number of regimental museums. It is also the backdrop to the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and has become a recognisable symbol of Edinburgh and of Scotland.
Castle Location: Edinburgh
Castle Website: www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk Edinburgh Castle website
Cawdor Castle is a tower house set amid magnificent gardens in the parish of Cawdor, approximately 10 miles (16 km) east of Inverness and 5 miles (8 km) southwest of Nairn in Scotland, United Kingdom. It belonged to the Clan Calder. It still serves as home to the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Robert Vaughan Campbell, 7th (and present) Earl Cawdor and 25th Thane of Cawdor. The castle is perhaps best known for its literary connection to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the title character of which was made Thane of Cawdor. However, the story is highly fictionalised, and the castle itself was built many years after the events of the play.
The earliest documented date for the castle is 1454, the date a building license was granted to William, Thane of Cawdor (or Calder, as the name was sometimes spelled). However, some portions of the castle may precede that date. Architectural historians have dated the style of stonework in the oldest portion of the castle to approximately 1380.
One curious feature of the castle is that it was built around a small, living holly tree, the remains of which may still be seen in the lowest level of the tower. Modern scientific testing has shown that the tree died in approximately 1372 (lending credence to the earlier date of the castle’s first construction).
Originally consisting only of the large tower (or keep), the castle was expanded numerous times in the succeeding centuries, with significant additions made in the 17th century and 19th century. The iron yett here was brought from nearby Lochindorb Castle around 1455 when the Scottish Privy Council instructed the Thane of Cawdor to dismantle Lochindorb after it had been forfeited by the Earl of Moray.
Castle Location: Cawdor
Castle Website: Cawdor Castle (official website of Cawdor Castle)
Glamis Castle is situated beside the village of Glamis (pronounced /ËˆÉ¡lÉ‘Ëmz/) in Angus, Scotland. It is the home of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and is open to the public. Glamis Castle was the childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, best known as the Queen Mother. Her second daughter, Princess Margaret, was born there. Since 1987 an illustration of the castle has featured on the reverse side of ten pound notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The plasterwork ceilings of Glamis are noteworthy for their detail and preservation. Along with those of Muchalls Castle and Craigievar Castle, they are considered the finest in Scotland.
The castle features extensively in fiction and legend, and according to local legend has more dark secrets than any other castle in Scotland.
Castle Location: Angus
Castle Website: Glamis Castle
Stirling Castle, located in Stirling, is one of the largest and most important castles, both historically and architecturally, in Scotland. The castle sits atop Castle Hill, a volcanic crag, which forms part of the Stirling Sill geological formation. It is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, giving it a strong defensive position. Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1930s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it an important fortification from the earliest times. Most of the principal buildings of the castle date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A few structures of the fourteenth century remain, while the outer defences fronting the town date from the early eighteenth century. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543. There have been at least eight sieges of Stirling Castle, including several during the Wars of Scottish Independence, with the last being in 1746, when Bonnie Prince Charlie unsuccessfully tried to take the castle. Stirling Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and is now a tourist attraction managed by Historic Scotland.
Castle Location: Stirling
Castle Website: Stirling Castle Website
Culzean Castle (pronounced cull-ANE: see yogh) is a castle near Maybole, Carrick, on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland. It is the former home of the Marquess of Ailsa but is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. The clifftop castle lies within the Culzean Castle Country Park and is opened to the public. Since 1987, an illustration of the castle has featured on the reverse side of five pound notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Culzean castle was the constructed as an L-plan castle by order of David Kennedy, 10th Earl of Cassilis. He instructed the architect Robert Adam to rebuild a previous, but more basic, stately house into a fine castle to be the seat of his earldom. The castle was built in stages between 1777 and 1792. It incorporates a large drum tower with a circular saloon inside (which overlooks the sea), a grand oval staircase and a suite of well-appointed apartments.
In 1945, the Kennedy family gave the castle and its grounds to the National Trust for Scotland (thus avoiding inheritance tax). In doing so, they stipulated that the apartment at the top of the castle be given to General Dwight Eisenhower in recognition of his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. The General first visited Culzean Castle in 1946 and stayed there four times, including once while President of the United States. An Eisenhower exhibition occupies one of the rooms, with mementoes of his lifetime.
The Ayrshire (Earl of Carrick’s Own) Yeomanry, a British Yeomanry Cavalry Regiment, was formed by The Earl of Cassillis at Culzean Castle in about 1794. On 24 June 1961, the regiment returned to the castle to be presented with its first guidon by General Sir Horatius Murray KBE CB DSO.
Castle Location: Ayrshire
Castle Website: Culzean Castle – site information
Dunvegan Castle is a castle at Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, situated off the west coast of Scotland. It is the seat of the Macleod of MacLeod, chief of the Clan MacLeod. Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the stronghold of the Chiefs of MacLeod for nearly 800 years. Originally designed to keep people out, it was first opened to visitors in 1933. Since then, Dunvegan is consistently ranked as one of Scotland’s premier visitor attractions and underpins the local economy of northwest Skye. Over the years, the castle has been visited by Sir Walter Scott, Dr Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II and the Japanese Emperor Akihito.
The castle houses a number of important clan relics; chief among them is the Fairie Flag of Dunvegan and the Dunvegan Cup. Legends, however fantastic or far-fetched they may appear to be, are rarely without some trace of historical fact. When a relic survives to tell its own story, that at least is one fact it is impossible to ignore. The precious Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, the most treasured possession of the Clan, is just such a relic. The traditional tales about its origin, some of them very old indeed, have two themes – Fairies and Crusaders. Fairy stories are difficult to relate to fact; they often occur as a substitute for forgotten truth. The connection with the Crusades can, however, be linked to the only definite information available as to the origin of the Fairy Flag – the fabric, thought once to have been dyed yellow, is silk from the Middle East (Syria or Rhodes); experts have dated it between the 4th and 7th centuries A.D., in other words, at least 400 years before the First Crusade.
Currently visitors can enjoy tours of the castle and highland estate, take boat trips on Loch Dunvegan to see the seal colonies (home to common seals, grey seals, great black-backed gulls, hooded crows, herring gulls and oystercatchers), stay in one of its estate cottages and browse in one of its four shops. Activities in the area range from walking, fishing and sightseeing to fine local cuisine, shopping and camping at the foot of the estate’s Cuillin mountain range.
Castle Location: Isle of Skye
Castle Website: Dunvegan Castle’s homepage
Inveraray Castle (Gaelic Caisteal Inbhir Aora, pronounced [kaÊƒdÌŠÊ²É™É«Ìª iÉ²ÉªÉ¾Ê²ËˆÉ¯ËÉ¾É™]) is a castle in western Scotland. It is the seat of the Chief of Clan Campbell, the Duke of Argyll.
The initial design for the castle was made in 1720 by the architect Sir John Vanbrugh, who also designed Blenheim Palace. This design was later developed by the architects Roger Morris and William Adam, who oversaw the beginning of the castle’s construction in 1746, commissioned by Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll. It was completed in 1789 for John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll and his wife, Elizabeth. Built in an eclectic mixture of architectural revival styles, it stands on the original site of the village of Inveraray – when Archibald Campbell decided to build the castle he had the village demolished and rebuilt a mile away, so that it would not impinge on the castle’s outlook.
Incorporating Baroque, Palladian and Gothic architectural features, the castle layout is square with four round, castelated towers at each corner, each of which bears a conical spire. It is surrounded by 2 acres (8,100 m2) of formal gardens and 14 acres (57,000 m2) of parkland and lies around a mile north of the village of Inveraray, near the shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll and Bute.
The castle was damaged by two major fires, in 1877 and 1975, but most of its important artefacts and features survived or have been restored. It contains outstanding furnishings and interiors from the 18th and 19th centuries. The elaborate decoration of the castle’s State Dining Room, completed in 1784, is the only surviving work of the French painters Girard and Guinard, who were also commissioned by the then Prince of Wales (later George IV) to decorate his London residence, Carlton House. The Armoury Hall, which contains a display of wall-mounted weapons dating from around 1740, has the highest ceiling in Scotland (21 metres, or nearly 69 feet).
Inveraray Castle is the home of the current duke (Torquhil Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll) and his family, but its distinctive appearance, beautiful interiors and attractive setting make it a popular tourist attraction, and it is open to visitors at certain times of the year.
Castle Location: Western Scotland
Castle Website: Website for Inveraray Castle
Inverness Castle sits on a cliff overlooking the River Ness, in Inverness, Scotland. The red sand stone structure evident today was built in 1836 by architect William Burn. It is built on the site of an 11th century defensive structure. Today, it houses Inverness Sheriff Court. There has been a castle at this site for many centuries. The castle itself is not open to the public but the grounds are.
Castle Location: Inverness
Castle Website: Inverness Castle
Books about Castles in Scotland
What’s Your Favorite Scottish Castle?