Few things define the mysterious and romantic atmosphere of Scotland the way that castles do. These hilltop fortresses with their distinctive crenelations, Cyclopean curtain walls, and sky-flung towers have always captured my imagination. Today my Best of Scotland series rolls on with a hat tip to all the castle hunters out there.
But where to begin the hunt?
You can find castles all across Scotland, from the ruins of moldering tower houses to Victorian mansions locked in amber to grand estate homes still lived in to this day. The options appear limitless, as, indeed, do the architectural styles that span many hundreds of years. In the course of any trip to Scotland one might stumble across ancient tower houses, Rennaissance palaces, Scots Baronial mansions, and sprawling Gothic revival castles.
By my reckoning, I’ve visited just shy of 40 castles, and while this is a fraction of the total number of castles in Scotland, I’ve focused on those that seemed particularly worthy of visiting.
Not only can you not miss this castle, you literally cannot miss it – it seems to hang in the sky above Edinburgh, visible from just about everywhere you explore. For my money, Edinburgh Castle is the best castle to visit in all of Scotland. The majestic siting of the fortress on the top of a plug of volcanic rock is amplified by its presence in the heart of arguably Europe’s prettiest city. The Royal Mile leads up to the castle, and once you clamber upon its massive battlements all of Edinburgh spreads out beneath you. On a clear day you can see well across the Firth of Forth, the Kingdom of Fife, and all the way to the Cairngorm Mountains.
Humans have occupied the site of Edinburgh Castle since the Iron Age, and there has been a royal castle here since the 12th century. Inside the castle’s curtain walls stand many buildings arranged around winding cobbled streets. Though few of the buildings date to before the Lang Siege of the 16th century when the castle was mercilessly shelled, St. Margaret’s Chapel, dating from the early 12th century, is a notable exception. While in the upper ward, be sure to inspect Mons Meg, a 15th-century bombard that could fire a 330-pound stone at targets two miles away! This is not a quick visit – give yourself at least three hours to fully explore this most magnificent of Scottish castles.
Located on headland just south of Stonehaven on Scotland’s northeast coast, Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress whose somber beauty defies description. Known as Dùn Fhoithear in Gaelic, the fort on the shelving slope, Dunnottar is believed to have been established in the early Middle Ages, though most of the surviving buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Accessible only by a narrow causeway, Dunnottar proved to be a highly defensible castle and subsequently played a major role in the history of Scotland, most notably as the hiding place of the Scottish crown jewels during Oliver Cromwell’s ill-advised invasion during the 17th century.
These days, Dunnottar’s ruins cover the flat sward atop a headland with steep cliffs that drop into the North Sea on every side. The castle is truly majestic to behold, and one can easily imagine the difficulty of assaulting such a fortress. Truth be told, I’m more of a ruined castle kind of guy, and Dunnottar is far and away my favorite.
The castle country around the area of Scotland known as Royal Deeside is loaded with incredible castles, but I decided to choose my favorite and open up the rest of this list to castles in other parts of the country. Drum Castle possesses all the qualities that imbue a castle with magic: Gripping history, gorgeous grounds, a moody interior, and, of course, stunning architecture from across the ages.
The heart of Drum Castle is a beautifully preserved 13th-century tower house, though later additions through the Victorian period have yielded a structure that combines many different styles. Robert the Bruce gifted this land and castle to Clan Irvine, who held it for 650 years!
Two additional things make Drum Castle really special: The ability to climb to the tower house’s battlements and survey the ancient lands of Clan Irvine and the gorgeous little chapel in the nearby woods. Miss these wonders at your own peril.
I had visited only a handful of castles when I arrived to Caerlaverock Castle in 2006, but even then I knew it was special. Situated just south of Dumfries in the south of Scotland, the 13th-century Caerlaverock Castle is one of the few moated, triangular castles built in Scotland. As the stronghold of the Maxwell family, Caerlaverock was besieged during the Scottish wars of independence and saw much fighting before it was abandoned in the 17th century.
I have yet to see another triangular castle in Scotland, and there’s something about Caerlaverock that feels like it jumped from the minds of early fantasy writers. Or, perhaps, Caerlaverock inspired some of their tales. Caerlaverock is a beautiful castle – certainly one of my favorite ruins – and there’s even a replica trebuchet on the grounds to give visitors a sense of what a siege may have felt like.
Off in the hinterlands of northwest Skye stands the seat of Clan MacLeod, who have inhabited the castle for 800 years. This incredible number makes Dunvegan Castle the oldest inhabited castle in all of Scotland.
The history of Dunvegan Castle and the MacLeods is second to none, beginning with Leod Olafson, who was born in 1200 to Olaf the Black, one of the Norse kings in the western isles. The MacLeods established their lordship over Skye and Lewis, and over time were Gaelicized and wrapped into the Lordship of the Isles.
The MacLeods are renown for the various relics they have on display within the castle, most notably the ancient and mysterious Fairy Flag which is said to have been a gift from the faeries to the local chieftain. Over the centuries the flag has been associated with many magical properties like the ability to cure the plague, bring herring into the loch, increase fertility, and save the lives of clanfolk.
Dunvegan Castle also has ties to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 as well as the Highlander TV series (not historical but cool nonetheless).
As usual, arriving at this list was very difficult. There are plenty of castles that deserve an honorable mention, including Balmoral, Cawdor, Craigievar, Crathes, and Stirling Castle, which is a lot like Edinburgh Castle’s younger brother. Get out there and explore!
Photo of Caerlaverock Castle by Steven J Lewis via Flickr/Creative Commons