Best of Scotland: Five Destinations for Castle Hunters

by Keith Savage · 14 comments

Edinburgh Castle

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.

Edinburgh Castle

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.

Dunnottar Castle

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.

Drum Castle

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.

Caerlaverock Castle

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.

Dunvegan Castle

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, CraigievarCrathes, 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

Peter RussellNo Gravatar May 27, 2015 at 5:05 AM

What no Stirling Castle, the very best of Scotlands heritage not to be missed, a full day out so great value. The site of many of Scotlands great historical moments.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 27, 2015 at 7:41 AM

Stirling Castle is a fine castle and a very enjoyable experience. In terms of castle experiences, however, it is much like Edinburgh Castle, which I find to be just a cut above.

SueNo Gravatar November 24, 2013 at 8:15 PM

My husband and I will be visiting Scotland for the first time in September. We were thinking of touring Glamis Castle on our way to Donnottar Castle. Have you been to Glammis and if so, what do think of it? Could we do both in one day? I may have more questions as I get further into my research. Thanks for your advice!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2013 at 9:10 AM

Hi Sue,

I have indeed been to Glamis Castle and it nearly made this list! Glamis has an incredibly beautiful facade and wonderful grounds with highland cattle and walking paths. The interior is that all-too-familiar trapped-in-amber Edwardian/Victorian elegance that isn’t exactly my style but worth a tour nonetheless. You could easily see both in the same day – they’re only about an hour’s drive away from each other.

Glad to help,

ClareNo Gravatar November 23, 2013 at 3:00 PM

I have been working in Scotland for the past 3 months and have become a castle afficionado. I love the ones off the beaten track that don’t attract the hordes of tourists. For example, in East Lothian (an easy day trip from Edinburgh) – one can take in the majestic Tantallon Castle, which rivals Dunnottar in terms of its backdrop of the North Sea (Tantallon overlooks the Firth of Forth and the stunning Bass Rock). There is also the beautiful Hailes Castle which NOBODY seems to visit so you can have it all to yourself – it is a mile and a half away from the cute little village of East Linton.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 23, 2013 at 3:56 PM

Both of those castles are on my to-do list for my next trip! Can’t wait to visit Tantallon – it looks to be a stunning site.

Thanks for the suggestions!

Jamie S.No Gravatar November 22, 2013 at 4:28 AM

Edinburgh castle is a must-see. I had visited it three times already on my previous trips to Scotland. The cost may strike you as a bit much and it´s not the biggest of locations either, but then again..this is pure history! Every rock and corner seems to tell a different story. In addition, it´s the place with the most brilliant views of the city.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 22, 2013 at 9:23 AM

I think that last time I visited Edinburgh Castle the cost was £15. That was a couple years ago, so by now it’s probably in the neighborhood of £18-20. It’s totally worth it even at that price.

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