There are hundreds, if not thousands of castles around Scotland and each has its own unique style and history. These castles (and the order that they are in) will take you on a tour of some of Scotlands most iconic sights. Starting in Edinburgh and working your way around the coast counter-clockwise, going as far north as Inverness and then out to Isle of Skye and back through Glencoe towards Stirling.
For a more detailed route and itinerary check out my post: https://makemeajetsetter.com/2020/02/02/the-ultimate-scotland-road-trip/
No Scotland trip would be complete without a stop at Edinburgh Castle, a formidable fortress positioned atop Castle Rock in the capital city of Edinburgh. While the area has been occupied since the Iron Age, a royal castle has been in place since the reign of David I in the 12th century. In it’s 1100-year-old history the castle has gone under siege 26 different times making it the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world. This makes for an interesting and bloody history that’s
Also know as the Palace of Holyroodhouse, this is one of the official residences of HRH Queen Elizabeth II and often hosts the Lord High Commissioner of Scotland when she’s not staying at the residence. Located at the other end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, this Palace, as it appears today, was built in the 1670s but the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey ruins located on the property was founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland. The grounds feature gardens and parks that can be strolled through. It’s located near King Arthur’s Seat, a nice little hike within Edinburgh city. The castle is frequently occupied which means no visitors inside but you can still take photos through the gate and stroll around the beautiful park behind the grounds.
St. Andrews Castle
A small castle located on the coastal shores in the area of Fife. There has been a castle in this location since the times of Bishop Roger between 1189 and 1202. Be sure to check out the siege tunnels and countermine that are located beneath the castle, cut into the bedrock and peer down into one of medieval Britain’s most infamous bottle dungeons. On a clear day, it’s a truly stunning castle and not very big so it shouldn’t take you more than an hour or so to tour the complex.
St. Andrews Cathedral
Not a castle, but also not to be missed on your Scotland journey. St. Andrews Cathedral was once Scotland’s largest and most significant medieval church. The site has been used for worship since at least the 700s and it remains a prominent landmarks that dominates the St. Andrews university area. Stroll around the ground examining the grave stones, and climb to the top of St. Rule’s Tower (33m) for incredible views of St. Andrews and Fife.
With over 1,000 years of activity, Glamis Castle has some stories to tell and has played host to many notable figures thought history. Some of those figures include Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charley, and it was the childhood home of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the birthplace of HRH Princess Margaret. The Castle features impeccable hunting grounds, hiking and riding trails, and two walled gardens. This castle was also the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s an impressive castle on simply beautiful grounds. This castle is shown by private tour only and will take you through many of the main rooms of the castle but it is still occupied today so, unfortunately, the right wing that you see in the photo below is usually off limits to visitors.
One of my favorite castles in Scotland. Dunnottar is a ruined medieval fortress built upon a rocky headland about two miles out of Stonehaven. Best known as the place where the Honours of Scotland held out against Oliver Cromwell’s invading army in the 17th century in order to protect the Scottish Crown Jewels. The castle also has a history tied to William Wallace in that he successfully infiltrated the castle in 1297 with a small force and they successfully trapped 4,000 men within the castle compound and burn them alive. While interesting, there’s no solid proof of this. It’s landscape is absolutely stunning and one of the more intact ruined castles that you can visit during your trip. If you’re lucky enough to rise an hour and a half to two hours before close, you’ll likely be the only one there exploring the many areas and levels of this castle. You can really feel the energy of many years past in a place like this.
If you’re an outlander fan, I’m sorry to inform you that this is not the home of Jamie Fraser. That’s actually a castle called Midhope Castle. This is however the family where she drew a lot of her names from as well as inspiration for a few of the characters within her novel series. Castle Fraser is one of the grandest of the Scottish baronial tower houses that stands in a shallow glen south of the River Don and was completed around 1636 but the original structure is thought to date to 1454. The castle is in the “z-plan” or “three-step” design. Inside the castle you’ll see the typical features of a large Scottish castle including some fun hidden secrets, including a Laird’s Lug (meaning king’s ear) and several secret passageways throughout the castle that allowed staff to move about without being seen by the Laird & Lady. The gardens at Castle Fraser are large and pristine and not to be missed and include a walled garden, cherry yards, a serpentine lake decorated with swans and a rowing boat.
Perhaps one of Scotlands most photographed castles, Craigievar castle is another wonderful example of the Scottish Baronial style and features 7-stories, multiple turrets, gargoyles, and high correlating work. Thanks to it’s pink, fairytale appearance, Craigievar is said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Seat of Clan Sempill and Forbes the castle was originally completed in 1626 by William Forbes. Designed in the “L-Plan”, Craigievar is noted for it’s exceptionally crafted plasterwork ceilings, sprawling grounds, and walled garden. The castle originally had more defensive elements including a walled courtyard with four round towers but only one of the round towers survives today.
Like many castles in Scotland, this one has a bloody history and rich story to tell. The story of Corgarff begins with the Elphinstone family who originally built the structure around 1530 and later leased the property to the Forbes of Towie. In 1571 the castle was attacked by there enemy, Adam Gordon of Auchindoun. According to a ballad called Edom o Gordon, Margaret Campbell, aka Lady Forbes, saw riders nearing the property thinking that her was her husband, Laird Campbell. It instead turned out to be Adam Gordon who subsequently locked the residents inside and burned the structure to the ground resulting in the death of 26 people in total. Horrible story, beautiful scenery. You’ll most likely pass this castle on your way from Aberdeen to Inverness, or vice versa. If you’re taking the scenic route, that is.
My favorite of the non-ruined castles, Cawdor is NOT to be missed if you find yourself in Inverness. Originally a 15th century tower house, the building has seen many renovations over the years and what we see today is quite remarkable. The castle is located in the parish of Cawdor in Nairnshire and is still home to the Countess of Cawdor, the stepmother of the 7th Earl of Cawdor. The castles lies within a wooded area with a small river running behind the castle and a walled garden right beside the main structure in the classic chateau style. By far some of the prettiest gardens we saw, we also had the pleasure of being the only people to be on the property aside from the staff and workers tending to the grounds. It made for a truly intimate experience and some stunning pictures of the gardens and many trails surrounding the castle.
Numerous castles have stood on the site of Inverness Castle since 1057 and has seen many changes to its structures in that time. The castle that we see today is a rather modern reconstruction dating from 1836, making it one of the youngest castles in Scotland. It is also one of the few castles to still be used for governmental purposes, meaning they don’t allow full tours of the building. One of the (many) castles most notable moments in history is perhaps when in 1548, Mary Queen of Scots had visited the castle along her journey seeking refuge and had gates such against her. She later found revenge when the castle was taken by Clan Munro and Clan Fraser in support of Mary, and she hung the governor who had refused her entry. Today that castle sits on a cliff over the River Ness, keeping watch watch over a lively, bustling city that’s rich with highland culture and new, vibrant experiences.
Any trip to Scotland would not be complete without a trip to Urquhart castle. Resting on the banks of Loch Ness, this ruined castle allows for free reign of exploration as you dive into the history of the grounds and the structures that stands today. Surrounded on three sides by water and resting upon two hills, the house glass shaped fortress was virtually impregnable in its hay day. The castle most likely lies on the grounds of an earlier Pictish fort, but the stone castles was originally built by the Durward family around 1230. The castle has turned from Scottish to English hands many times over the years until it fell into the guardianship of the (Scottish) state upon the death of Caroline, Countess Dowager of Seafield, widow of the 7th Earth of Grant in 1913.
Eilean Donan Castle
Perhaps the most picturesque castle in Scotland, Eilean Donan lies where three lochs meet: Loch Duich, Loch Long, Lach Alsh. The history of the castle begins around 600 when, according to legend, Bishop Donnàn established a Christian cell on the island. Since then the castle has played host to many moments of history including sheltering Robert the Bruce after he had seized the British throne, and being used by the Spaniards during the Jacobite uprising in 1719. The castle is built upon solid bedrock which makes for an impenetrable foundation and, being built upon an island, created wonderful defenses against enemies. The well on grounds is said to house several wedding rings from the Ladies of Eilean Donan who had become fed up with their husbands and thrown their wedding rings into the well. Family tradition? Either way, the castle is stunning and the surrounding area is calm, peaceful and picture worthy to say the least.
Dunvegan Castle is one of the greatest Hebridean castles in Scotland and the only one to be continuously occupied by the same family for over 800 years. The castle has seen 10 different building periods from 1200 to the 1850s and today. It’s an intimidating castle upon sight with several turrets and rampart walls. The castle was once fully surrounded by the sea and still lies about 30ft above the water of Loch Dunvegan. The main entrance that you enter into in modern day was not always the main entrance. In fact main entrance to the castle is still standing and visible and came from the water. While there are countless historical artifacts within the castle, but perhaps the most interesting of all is known as the Fairy Flag or Am Bratach Sith. Most likely from Syria or Rhodes and woven in silk in the 4th century AD, legend has it that this sacred clan banner has miraculous powers. When unfurled in battle, the clan would invariable snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The traditional tales about its origin have two themes, fairies and crusaders. Whatever its origin, it’s a truly interesting artifact. Like many castles, the gardens and grounds are impeccable and there is the option to be taken out into the loch by boat to see otters and other native wildlife.
After leaving Dunvegan Castle, you can head back to A87 and head north a bit to the ruins of Duntulm Castle. Side note: if you do go this route, you’ll also pass the Kilvaxter Souterrain which is the remnants of a Iron Age underground store room. If you’re really brave, you can crawl through it but it was dark, wet, and muddy so beware & at your own risk, or whatever they say. Duntulm sits on the North coast of Trotternish on the opposite side of Skye from Portree and was the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacDonald of Sleat. The castle was built sometime between the 14th and 15th century. Not much of the castle is left today and its fenced off but still makes for some wonderful photos. Legend has it that the castle was left abandoned after the infant son of the chieftain, left in the care of a nursemaid, fell from a window and was dashed upon the rocks below. As punishment, the nursemaid was set adrift on the North Atlantic in a small boat to perish upon the waves.
Back on the mainland and heading towards Stirling, you’ll likely pass through a small town called Invergarry just South of the A87 and A82 junction. It’s another ruined castle in the Highlands overlooking Loch Oich on Creagan an Fhithich, aka The Raven’s Rock. Once a fortified six story L-plan tower house, not much remains of the structure today except for some exterior was and the remains of the round tower. If you’re nimble enough and want some great photos of the place, there is a hole in the fence at the back of the castle but you have to climb through some trees and over a fence which is a few meters above the ground on the other side. You didn’t hear that here 😉 there’s an old staircase that goes down to the waters edge behind the castle and it’s truly some beautiful views. There was also a semi-sunken ship which was both eerie and great for photos.
Just a wee bit Northeast of Stirling is the town of Doune and Doune Castle. Upon arrival to this castle you may recognize its facade from pictures such as Monty Python, Outlander, or most famously as Winterfell from Game of Thrones. This castle was incredible and has had some major restoration work completed over the years that really aid in bringing the castle back to it’s former glory. It’s like stepping back in time as it’s one of the best preserved of the ruined castles on this list. If you’re lucky enough to get there before closing but after all the tour buses have left then you’ll be left with a truly magical experience as you explore the many rooms and passages without interruption from others. Be sure to check out the wood working in the ceiling in the great hall. It’s stunning and an incredible engineering feat.
This one isn’t a castle but it’s still worth being on the list, especially if you find yourself anywhere near the Stirling area. Also perhaps the newest construction on this list, the monument was built in 1869 by architect John Thomas Rochead and is a 67-meter (220ft) tall sandstone tower built in the Victorian Gothic style. Built to honor the life of the national hero, William Wallace, your tour will take you 246 steps up a spiral staircase with several exhibit floors to view as you ascend you descend. At the top are truly the best views of Stirling around and it is not to be missed, even if you’re afraid of heights. It’s worth it at the top, trust me.
One of the most historically significant castles in Scotland, Stirling Castle is both breath taking and intimidating. Of all the castles on this list this one is perhaps the most true to how it would have been in it’s hay-day. There’s lavished king and queen quarters, rich gardens with not a single petal out of place, guards quarters and dormitories, a massive kitchen, and so much more. Be sure to allow several hours to tour this castle as there is so much to see and do and many recreations to watch which provide some great insight into the history of the castle. If you’re a die hard Harry Potter Fan like me than you’ll probably recognize the tapestry of the unicorn hanging on the walls in the queen’s quarters. Many, many kings and queens have been coronated at this castle including Mary Queen of Scots and her infant son James VI.
Rossllyn Chapel / Castle
This is actually two separate locations but you can park in the parking lot for the chapel and walk over to the castle from there. The stunning chapel was built in 1446. You may recognize the structure from the movie The Da Vinci Code and the castle is thought to have real connection with the Knight’s Templars even though it was built 150 years after their dissolution. There are some hidden Templar symbols that can be found in the masonry work. After you’ve toured the chapel you can wander down the small road a bit to Rosslyn Castle that is now open for private rentals. The castle, the ancestral home of the St. Clair Family was most likely built around 1304 and is positioned above a deep glen with a rather intimidating bridge fortifying its defenses. The castle isn’t open to the public but you’re able to walk around the grounds and snap some photos.
Again, not a castle by any means but a truly fascinating structure. This spot is definitely off the beaten path and a bit difficult to get to but if you’re up for the journey it’s not to be missed. Laying within the Rosslyn glen is what locals refer to as Wallace’s Cave (although there are many so called “Wallace’s Cave’s”), or Hawthornden Castle Cave. This one is unique compared to the rest as it has some very intricate stone carvings and several defined areas within this cave that were carved by hand. It supposedly gets it’s name after William Wallace used it to hide out in after the battle of Rosslyn on 24 February 1303. Although the actual date and original use of the cave are unknown but there are prehistoric rock carvings nearby so it’s thought to have been in use much earlier than Wallace’s time. The way the cave entrance is about 12 meters up a cliff that you have to shimmy along to get into the entrance which could mean a very dangerous fall should you slip. As before, proceed with caution.
Know of some castles or some secrets spots within these areas that I didn’t mention? I’d love to hear about them!