Scotland’s castles are ones of dream and legend. Some are fantasy palaces, all turrets and crenelations, that could (and probably did) inspire Disney designers; some are forbidding ruined tower houses, still guarding clan strongholds on northern shores. Wherever you tour in Scotland, there are castles to feed your imagination. These 10 are among the best.
01. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle towers over the famous Royal Mile—its perch on an extinct volcano, perhaps symbolic of the turbulent history it has witnessed. Starting as an Iron Age settlement on Castle Rock, it has been occupied by Romans, Celtic warriors, Northumbrians, and Scots. Highlights include St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh; the crown jewels of Scotland known as The Honours that were hidden away and lost for centuries; Mons Meg, an enormous 15th century cannon; several military museums; the Royal Palace of the Scottish kings, and views that stretch across the city beyond the Firth of Forth.
02. Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle (pronounced glahms) about 70 miles northeast of Edinburgh was the childhood home of the Queen Mother and the birthplace of Princess Margaret. Built around 1400, the site’s colorful history goes back much further. The murder of King Malcom II, and his replacement by Macbeth, in 1040, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play. A later inhabitant of the house, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1537; her ghost is said to haunt the chapel and the clock tower. You can find out all about it on a guided tour of the house. Still the family home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, it and its extensive gardens are open to the public.
03. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle was at the center of Scotland’s wars of independence, between 1296 and 1356. It was such a powerful fortress that after he defeated King Edward II at nearby Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce had its walls torn down to prevent it from falling into English hands again. They did recapture it and rebuild it in 1336, but by 1342, it was in Scottish hands again. It was also the scene of William Wallace’s victory over the English at Stirling Bridge, where you can see a monumental statue of Wallace. Because of all this, the castle remains a rallying symbol whenever Scottish independence is in the air. The castle, the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots, stands on a volcanic rock on the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands. What you see today is largely from the 15th century. Both guided tours and self-guided audio tours are available and are recommended to make sense of this vast, historic site.
A genuine Medieval stronghold, this sandstone castle on the Scottish/English borders is unusual for its triangular shape, surrounded by a wide, deep moat. The castle dates from the mid-13th century when it was built by the clan Maxwell. It was besieged in the Scottish wars of independence by King Edward I himself and left in ruins after another siege in 1640 when the Maxwells supported the doomed King Charles I. A 17th-century residence was built for the family inside the castle walls and can still be admired for its elaborate Renaissance details.
05. Urquhart Castle
St. Columba was said to have worked his miracles at this castle, overlooking Loch Ness in the 6th century. Its strategic position over the loch meant it was always in the line of fire, so to speak, and as the MacDonald Lords of the Isles vied with the British Crown, the castle took the brunt of the fighting. Today, a large visitor center with a shop, a restaurant, and an introductory film make this a great place for a comfortable family visit with superb loch views and some history thrown in for good measure.
06. Eilean Donan
Eilean Donan sits on the Kyle of Lochalsh (meaning the strait of foaming waters), where three great sea lochs —Loch Long, Loch Duich and Loch Alsh—separate the mainland from the Isle of Skye. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dramatic setting for this 13th-century fortress that has become something of a symbol of the Western Highlands. But what you see today is mostly fantasy. The castle was first built as a fortified island, defending the mainland from Viking incursions. It was finally destroyed in a Jacobite rebellion of 1719. What you see today was built between 1911 and 1932 by Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap, according to surviving ground plans of earlier buildings. Still the castle’s re-enactors make a visit very entertaining, and the setting is just magical.
Shakespeare may have given Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor and set his castle here in Nairn, about 15 miles northeast of Inverness, but actually that’s balderdash. For one thing, the real Macbeth lived in the 11th century, and this castle was built in the 14th. Also, while Macbeth fought a battle in which the Thane of Cawdor was killed, he never took on the title.
All that said, this castle and family home is a beautiful place to visit. It’s the owned and occupied by members of the Cawdor family—sometimes spelled Calder in Scotland. Among its highlights are a small, remarkable personal collection of art—20th-century paintings, drawings, and sculpture, as well as old masters, and, in its cellars, the ancient, living thorn tree around which the castle’s original tower was built.
08. Dunrobin Castle
Don’t be surprised this enormous stately home reminds you a little of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in a Disney theme park. Some say it’s round towers and turrets inspired Disney artists. The most northerly of Scotland’s stately homes, it also lays claim to being one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in Scotland. But the interior is where you’ll find parts remaining from the 13th century. What gives the family seat of the Earls of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland its remarkable fantasy character actually dates from the 19th century. Architect Sir Charles Barry, also partly responsible for the Houses of Parliament in London, was behind this house’s French and Gothic Revival inspired appearance. The castle is surrounded by woodland and formal gardens and open to the public from April through October.
09. Floors Castle
Built in 1721, Floors Castle near Kelso was never a castle in the sense of a defensive stronghold. It is simply the incredibly flamboyant home of the Dukes of Roxburghe. It is the largest inhabited castle in Scotland, sitting in a 50,000-acre estate that is also farmed and hosts a successful stud. The castle lists itself as a “sporting” estate, which in British aristo lingo, means grouse and pheasant shooting as well as salmon fishing (all for pretty steep fees, of course). If you are keen to visit Floors, the castle and grounds are open May through September and October weekends (the gardens and cafe are open year-round). This is a family-friendly attraction, and that includes some very good facilities for the family pet, such as shaded tie-ups with water for when you go into the house itself.
10. Kilchurn Castle
There’s not much beyond a ruin to see of this castle at the head of Loch Awe in the Western Highlands. But set between snow or heather-covered mountains, framed by BenCruachan and the loch, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from this view. The castle was a military stronghold in the 17th century, and barracks built to garrison 200 men were built in the round tower. They remain the oldest surviving barracks on the British Mainland.
Getting to this castle is something of a challenge—there is no vehicle access to the castle grounds, and walking there from the nearest road involves crossing agricultural land that is often flooded. The best way to see Kilchurn is from a distance across the loch. It’s a great view and worth a little detour if you are touring in Argyll.