What are the best Castles in Scotland?
A royal residence, a vital stronghold and an iconic structure, Edinburgh Castle is probably the most famous castle in Scotland. It initially became a royal castle in the Middle Ages and has since been the site of many significant events in royal and military history. Today, visitors can explore the history of this iconic fortress through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Amongst its many attractions are the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, the Mons Meg and the Great Hall. Royal exhibitions include The Honours of Scotland jewels which, along with Scotland’s coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, can be found in the castle’s Crown Room. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the oldest building in the city, the 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel.
Balmoral Castle has been the official Highlands home of the British royal family since the reign of Queen Victoria.
Having fallen in love with the Highlands after their first visit in 1842, it was in fact Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who built Balmoral Castle between 1853 and 1856.
Today, parts of Balmoral Castle and its grounds are open to the public, with audio guides available (included in the admission price) detailing the workings of the estate and its history. There are also a series of exhibitions at Balmoral Castle related to the royal family.
This site features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in the UK.
Stirling Castle is an iconic royal palace and stronghold, seen to represent Scottish independence and a focal point for many of the most important events in Scotland’s history.
Famous Events at Stirling Castle
It was the site of royal deaths such as that of King Alexander I in 1124 and William I in 1214, the subject of a tug of war between the English and the Scottish during the Wars of Scottish Independence and even the scene of an assassination. This latter event, the murder of William the eighth Earl of Douglas, occurred when he was invited to dinner there in 1452. A skeleton found at the castle in the eighteenth century is believed to have been his.
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Stirling Castle was fought over by some of the most famous figures in Scottish and English history, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
Royal events at Stirling Castle included the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots (1543) and the baptism of her son, James VI (1566), both at the Chapel Royal.
At least part of the reason for the prominence of Stirling Castle over the centuries must be attributed to its location. Situated atop the flat top of an ancient volcano, it forms an imposing sight and a formidable stronghold. Furthermore, it is located at a vital strategic point at the centre of various routes across Scotland.
The first mention of Stirling Castle dates to 1110, when Alexander I endowed a chapel there, but many believe the site has been fortified since prehistoric times (although this is disputed).
The current grand incarnation of Stirling Castle mostly dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards. Some of the highlights include the King’s Old Building, constructed in 1496 for James IV, the Great Hall, which was medieval Scotland’s largest banqueting hall built by James IV in the early sixteenth century and the Royal Palace, built by James V in around 1540.
One of the most well-known parts of Stirling Castle is its Forework Gate, a turreted stone fortification built by James IV in the early sixteenth century.
Visiting the castle
Today, Stirling Castle offers tours around its buildings and grounds. Visitors can tour with an audio guide or with a tour guide and there are a range of exhibitions to see. Not least of these is the Regimental Museum, a military museum dedicated to the Argyll
Rothesay Castle was originally built by Walter, 3rd High Steward and ancestor of the royal Stewart line, in the thirteenth century.
It was intended as a stronghold against the ongoing threat of Norwegian invasion and was taken by attackers from Norway in both 1230 and 1263.
In 1371, Rothesay Castle attained royal status as Robert II became the first king from the House of Stewart. It was renovated in the fifteenth century but then fell into disuse, eventually being restored in the nineteenth century.
One thing which makes Rothesay Castle so different is its distinctive - probably thirteenth century - circular curtain wall, the remains of which can be seen there today. There are also exhibits about the history of Rothesay Castle and of its successive owners.
Craigmillar Castle was built from the fourteenth century and is now a pretty and well-preserved medieval ruin. The most famed aspect of Craigmillar Castle was that it played host to Mary Queen of Scots when she was recovering from an illness. It is also the namesake of a pact between several noblemen to murder her husband, Lord Darnley.
Today, several aspects of the fourteenth century structure of Craigmillar Castle remain, including an impressive tower. There is also a maze of medieval tunnels.
Dumbarton Castle was a medieval stronghold which served as a wartime prison, a royal shelter and a defence against both foreign and national threats. Even the site upon which Dumbarton Castle sits -Dumbarton Rock - has an illustrious past. Little survives of the medieval castle - most of it is from the eighteenth century - but this is still a fascinating site to visit.
Mentions of Dumbarton Rock date back to the fifth century AD, when it was called the Rock of the Clyde or "Alt Clut". From this time until the early eleventh century, Dumbarton Rock was the centre of the capital of Strathclyde. There is thought to have been a castle there at the time, which would have defended this British kingdom from ongoing Viking attacks, although there are no visible remains of this.
The building of the medieval Dumbarton Castle began in the 1220, amidst the danger of attacks from Norway. It was constructed under Alexander II of Scotland and was intended to protect the border.
Once the Norwegian threat subsided, Dumbarton would go on to become a royal castle and to play a role in the Wars of Independence. In particular, it is believed that William Wallace was imprisoned here for a short time in 1305 before being taken to his execution in England.
With its slightly more remote location, one other important function of Dumbarton Castle was as a royal escape route. In the fourteenth century, David II sailed from Dumbarton and, in 1548, this was where a young Mary Queen of Scots sought refuge before travelling to France.
Unfortunately, most of what can be seen at Dumbarton today dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - when it was renovated as a garrisoned fort - rather than from the medieval or dark ages.
Bothwell Castle is a stunning ruined medieval stronghold near Glasgow and one of the most celebrated of its kind. Begun by the Morays, an important aristocratic family, in around 1242, Bothwell Castle was intended to be a large and imposing fort. The tower or "donjon" which remains there today offers a glimpse into the Morays’ vision.
Construction of Bothwell Castle had to be ceased, thought to be due to the fact that the Wars of Independence broke out in 1296. It was never completed. Yet, despite its unfinished state, Bothwell Castle did play a role in the Wars of Independence.
It was subjected to several sieges and being taken by each of the opposing sides several times. The most famous of these attacks occurred in 1301. At this time, Edward I laid siege to Bothwell and, with a force of almost seven thousand, the English eventually succeeded in taking the castle.
In 1362, Bothwell Castle passed to the aristocratic Black Douglas family by marriage and they rebuilt it. Whilst not adhering to the structure of the Morays, the new Bothwell Castle was still formidable and parts of it - notably its chapel - can still be seen.
Dunstaffnage Castle is a medieval stronghold built by the MacDougall clan at a time when Scotland was under constant threat from Norwegian attack. Begun in the 1220s, Dunstaffnage Castle was made of stone and its curtain wall remains a highly impressive and imposing sight.
In the Scottish Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce laid siege to Dunstaffnage Castle, eventually taking it in 1309. As a result, it would remain in royal hands until the mid-fifteenth century, when it fell under the ownership of the aristocratic Campbell family.
One of the most famous aspects of Dunstaffnage Castle is the fact that it acted as a prison for Flora MacDonald in the eighteenth century. MacDonald was incarcerated there having tried to help the Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from the Red Coats by dressing him as a woman, although she would later be released. Visitors can see the place thought to have been where she was held.
Also visible at Dunstaffnage Castle are the remains of its 13th century chapel.
Hailes Castle was a medieval stronghold, the pretty ruins of which date back mostly to the fourteenth century. However, some of the stonework at Hailes Castle is thought to have been constructed as far back as the thirteenth century, making it some of the oldest of its kind in Scotland.
It is also said that Mary Queen of Scots stayed here a few times.
Free to enter at all reasonable times, it can be quite fun to explore Hailes Castle and, in particular, look out for its two vaulted pit-prisons.
10. Crichton Castle
Crichton Castle is a distinctive medieval castle built as the residence of the aristocratic Crichton family in the fourteenth century. It would later pass to the Earls of Bothwell.
For visitors to Crichton Castle, there is its impressive tower house, unusual facade and fifteenth century great hall.