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When you think of Scotland, what comes to mind? Bagpipes? Kilts? Castles?
If you said castles, you aren’t alone. More than 1,500 magnificent castles dot the Scottish landscape. Their various styles reflect the country’s long history. Some of these castles lie in ruins. Others are still owned and lived in by families who have held the castles for generations. And others are open to the public, for tours or even stays.
These ten must see castles in Scotland offer unique glimpses into this gorgeous country’s history and culture.
Possibly the most well known castle in Scotland, this mighty fortress sits atop an extinct volcano in the heart of Old Town. Perched high above Edinburgh, the castle is the most popular paid attraction in Scotland. More than 1.5 million visitors pass through the castle gates each year, during non pandemic times. Additionally, the castle hosts the annual Military Tattoo, which takes place in the esplanade every August.
The castle is open to the public daily. Explore the grounds on your own or join a guide for an in depth tour. View historical rooms and artifacts, including the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, take a peek into the dungeons or enjoy a treat in the tea room.
“Dun” is Scottish for fortress or castle. This fairytale castle is located in the Northern Highlands and it’s one of the biggest, with more than 189 rooms. The earliest parts of this historic home of the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland date back to 1275.
Resembling a French chateau, Dunrobin Castle housed a naval hospital during WWI and operated as a boys’ boarding school from 1965 until 1972. The castle and beautiful gardens are open to the public from April until the end of October. Visit their WEBSITE for tour info.
Another jewel in the Northern Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle is a great stop before crossing the bridge to Isle of Skye. The beautiful small castle sits on a tidal island, situated at the point where three sea lochs converge. Hundreds of thousands of visitors walk across the arched stone bridge that connects the structure to the mainland.
This highly photographed castle features in movies such as Bonnie Prince Charles, Highlander, Elizabeth and Made of Honour. It’s a popular spot for weddings and special events. The castle is open daily for tours. Check out hours HERE.
And speaking of Isle of Skye, this island has its own castle. Dunvegan is the oldest, continuously occupied castle in the Highlands. Clan MacLeod has lived here for more than 800 years.
The castle’s architecture is unique in that it contains the work of at least ten building periods, ranging from the 1200s to the 1850s. In the 1840s and 50s, the 25th Chief completed a restoration to unify the various structures. Under the updates however remains five separate buildings, each with its own character and historical stories. Visitors can enjoy a tour of the castle along with a stroll in the gardens and woods. Check out hours HERE. And learn about what to do while visiting Isle of Skye.
Located on the shores of Loch Ness, near Strone Point, this castle dates back to the 13th century. Alan Durward, son-in-law of King Alexander II built it. During its history, the English invaded it on several occasions and for a time it served as a stronghold for Robert the Bruce after he became king in 1306.
Upon his death, the castle passed back and forth between the Crown and the MacDonald Clan. In 1509 the castle passed to the Grant Clan who repaired it and brought it back into use. They added the five story tower.
In 1692 English forces blew it up to thwart the Jacobites. The ruins are cared for today by Historic Scotland and open to the public. What a great spot to watch for the famous Loch Ness Monster!
Beautiful Glamis Castle, located beside the village of Glamis in Angus, Scotland, is home to the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne. It’s witnessed thousands of years of history.
Glamis served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s MacBeth and as the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret was born here. And Mary Queen of Scots spent time in Glamis. With its long and sometimes dark history, it is no wonder that Glamis Castle is considered one of the most haunted in Scotland.
Visitors may tour the castle or stay in Glamis House, on the property. More details HERE.
Located in Stirling, this castle is one of the largest and most important in the country, both historically and architecturally. It also sits atop a volcanic outcropping of rocks and guarded the River Forth crossing for centuries. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here, at age nine months. William Wallace (Braveheart), Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charles played historical roles in Stirling Castle. And it was once the favored residence for the Stewart Kings and Queens, who held grand celebrations within the walls.
Today costumed characters make Stirling Castle an interesting place to explore while learning history. Stirling is especially wonderful for younger visitors with fun activities, a Unicorn Café and gift shops. Check their WEBSITE for tours and hours.
This medieval stronghold near the village of Doune, in the Stirling district, was originally built in the 13th century. Damaged during the Scottish Wars for Independence, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, rebuilt the castle in the late 14th century.
What draws so many visitors to this dual tower castle are the movies and television shows featuring Doune. It was used in the 1952 film Ivanhoe, and the 1996 adaptation as well as for Elizabeth the Golden Age. It’s the set for Winterfell from the first season of Game of Thrones and most recently Doune depicts the fictional Castle Leoch in the Outlander series. Monty Python and the Holy Grail filmed here along with the 2018 historical drama, Outlaw King.
The castle is temporarily closed to visitors at this time, while a high level masonry inspection takes place. Check the WEBSITE for an expected reopening date.
This red sandstone Victorian style structure sits on a cliff overlooking the River Ness, in the city of Inverness. Defensive castles occupied this site for centuries. Many sieges took place over the years at Inverness Castle, with one of those involving Mary Queen of Scots. Reconstructions happened sporadically. The current castle was built in 1836 on the site of the original structure. Gas, light and water systems were installed for the first time.
Until recently, only a tower and the grounds allowed visitors. A new restoration project intends to transform the castle into a first class visitor attraction with more of the building open to the public and accommodations available. Stay informed through the castle’s WEBSITE.
I conclude with my favorite castle in Scotland. Located in the Scottish Borders, near the village of Lauder, Thirlestane Castle is home to my Scottish kin, Clan Maitland.
Maitlands originally occupied a tower, built in the 1400s, near the present location of the castle. In 1586 John Maitland, Lord Thirlestane, bought land just outside the village of Lauder. The large house built in 1590, with its corner towers and turrets, now forms the core of the present castle.
The Duke of Lauderdale remodeled and expanded Thirlestane in the 1670s, adding on wings and creating a new front entrance. The ninth earl added more wings, to the south and north, and installed modern living accommodations. However, by the 1840s the grand old castle showed signs of age and decay.
In 1972 the castle passed to the grandson of the 15th Earl, Capt. Gerald Maitland-Carew. He assumed the huge task of restoring the castle and preventing further deterioration. He also opened the castle to the public and created the on site café and tea room. Eventually the castle and its contents became a part of a charitable trust that brought in much needed funds to help with the upkeep of the gorgeous structure. The Maitland-Carew family occupy one wing of the castle as their personal residence.
Gerald’s son Edward Maitland-Carew and his wife Sarah now continue the care of Thirlestane Castle, which is open for tours. They host events such as weddings, car shows and outdoor plays, and created five apartments for guests to lease for short term stays. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Thirlestane Castle three times…so far. And I’ve met the current caretakers, Edward and Sarah. Someday, I’ll return for a stay at Thirlestane. I highly recommend a visit to this beautiful castle in the Borders.
Your Favorite Scottish Castle
Have you visited this magnificent country? If so, have you seen any of these castles?
Or perhaps you have another to add to the list. What is your favorite Scottish Castle?
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