Bonny Scotland has, much to its dismay, but to historians’ delight, had a rather tumultuous past. From the Vikings, to the Jacobites, and then the British, the wee country has had to defend itself ceaselessly from invaders for hundreds of years. No wonder it is peppered with some of the world’s most astonishing castles.
Like many castles around the world, Scotland’s famous Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and Balmoral were built for and occupied by royalty. However, many of Scotland’s castles exist for an entirely unique reason: they were built as the stately homes for the country’s most important clan chiefs.
Although most of Scotland’s clans date back to the 13th century, many of the castles, including Floors and Glamis castles, are still occupied by their ancestors to this day. But whether they are owned by royalty, clans or the National Trust, castles across the country from the Highlands to the Lowlands, and everywhere in between, are waiting for you to visit. Here’s our top 10 picks!
Balmoral is a Baronial style castle in Cairngorms National Park which was commissioned in 1852 by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and it has been in the hands of the British Royal Family ever since. Today’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, loves to spend her summers in Balmoral where she would ride horses and hunt deer in her hay day. Although the castle is a private royal residence, its expansive grounds are still open to the public at certain times of year. You can take a guided or audio tour to various parts of the grounds, including the summer pavilion and hunting lodges, and get a feel for life as a royal.
Culzean Castle & Country Park
Culzean Castle is a large and impressive 18th century 260ha estate overlooking Scotland’s rugged Ayrshire Coast. The castle was originally owned by the chief of Clan Kennedy, an overtly wealthy man with an opulent taste, but now it is in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland who have preserved it perfectly. The elegant interior, complete with a grand oval staircase and the largest collection of British flintlock pistols in the world, will wow you from the moment you enter. However, it’s the surrounding park that will have you wishing you never had to leave with blooming gardens, a swan pond, and miles of beach below the cliff.
Dating back to the 4th century, Dunnottar Castle has had one of the most colourful histories of all Scottish castles, and so it’s not surprising that it now sits in ruins. After all, it has been besieged by Oliver Cromwell and used as a prison for Covenanters. Yet, it’s crumbling walls only make this castle more distinctly beautiful, especially as it stands on a tall rocky peninsula overlooking Scotland’s astounding east coast. To reach the castle, you have to hike up and down the scenic hills that peak and trough towards the peninsula, but the views you’re rewarded with once you get there are more than worthwhile.
Looking at Dunrobin Castle, with its pale and elegant turreted French chateau-like exterior and vivid walled gardens, you wouldn’t believe it’s located in Sutherland, the most rugged area of the Scottish Highlands. Yet, this castle is one of the most northerly great houses in all of Scotland, surrounded by sparse rolling moors overlooking the mighty North Sea. From the 13th century until 1963, the castle was owned by the Earldom of Sutherland, one of the seven most ancient clans in Scotland and most powerful families in Britain. Having been redesigned by the Palace of Westminster architect in the 19th century, the castle is truly a sight to behold, inside and out.
Edinburgh Castle is the most renowned castle in all of Scotland, and for a good reason. It has seen the rise and fall of many monarchs from many kingdoms throughout the centuries, yet it still stands today on Castle Rock proudly overlooking Scotland’s capital city with a brutish glare. While it may not be the whimsical castle of fairytales, it has been the inspiration for many writers and artists throughout the years. Today, the castle is no longer occupied, but it does house some important treasures, including the Honours of Scotland, the Stone of Destiny and the legendary Mons Meg cannon.
You may not have heard of Eilean Donan before, but the chances are that you will recognise pictures of it, since it’s one of the most iconic scenes in all of Scotland. The castle is built on a small island connected to land by a stone arch bridge where three sea lochs meet. Although it’s tall and impressive, the castle’s height and grandeur is shrunken next to the vast lochs and imposing mountains that surround it. Having been subject to battles with Vikings and Jacobites, the castle has been rebuilt four times since the 13th century, but even its newest parts are over 100 years old.
Floors Castle & Gardens
Set in the splendid Scottish Borders, Floors may be an impressive historical castle to some, but for the 11th Duke of Roxburghe it is simply a family home, making it the largest inhabited castle in Scotland today. The Roxburghes invite you into their grand stately home so you can see what castle life is like for yourself. The exterior will impress you with its grand symmetrical layout and square turreted corners, while the interior will impress you with an interesting collection of fine art, porcelain, tapestries and antique furniture. The castle is also surrounded by a number of neatly kept gardens and beautiful woodlands.
This pink-tinted fairytale-like castle in the middle of Aberdeenshire’s hearty countryside may look quaint and pretty, but there are some not-so-pretty stories to be told about its resident ghosts. Fear not though, Fyvie Castle is now safe in the National Trust’s hands who have restored and preserved the 800-year-old fortress to tip-top shape. Despite having a few unwelcome guests, there have also been many welcomed guests in the castle over the years, including Scottish royalty like William the Lion, Robert the Bruce and Charles I. The castle’s interiors are, therefore, fit for a king with wood-panelled walls embellished by an exceptional collection of portraits by some of the world’s most famous portrait artists.
At over 1000 years old, Glamis Castle is steeped in history, yet it is most widely known for being the setting of Shakespear’s Macbeth, the story of a Scottish general who was determined to become king despite the consequences of his actions. However, since the 14th century, the castle has belonged to the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and in 1900, its most famous resident to date was born: HM The Queen Mother of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The castle opened to the public in 1950 and much of it remains as it was during The Queen Mother’s time at the castle, except for the exciting addition of the Exhibition of Coronation Robes.
Strategically positioned on a steep cliff between Scotland’s two most major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Stirling Castle has played an integral part in the country’s bloody history. Over the centuries, many kings and queens have resided in this fortressed palace, making it a popular target for war. It was besieged eight times in total, a few of which were during the Scottish War of Independence, which didn’t work out too well for the Scottish. Yet, much of the legendary 15th and 16th century Renaissance style castle is still intact and today you can visit the Great Hall, Royal Palace, Chapel Royale and even walk the castle ramparts.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.