The 11 best castles to visit in Scotland
In this blog we explore the best castles to visit in Scotland along with some recommendations of where to stay nearby. I will include castles of different architectural styles including medieval castles and baronial architecture. Some of them are still very much ancestral homes and others are now just castle ruins with lots of Scottish history attached to their sites. There are so many beautiful castles in Scotland it is difficult to choose which are the best castles in Scotland but these are my favorite to explore when visiting Scotland.
Scotland is famous for its castles with guests from all over the world coming to visit these historic buildings. The early structures were built for defending the owner; whilst later castles from the age of the enlightenment onwards were built more for show. This period of castle building continued late into the reign of Queen Victoria who spent a long period after the death of Prince Albert at Balmoral Castle, her home in Royal Deeside. These later castles were often more castellated houses than real castles, but some were still built with the traditional style of turrets and narrow windows. Whatever their reason for being built, Scotland has some of the most impressive castles in Europe and many remain in full working order. Some are still used as homes, museums or in a few cases, military garrisons like Fort George or Edinburgh Castle. Scotland has suffered a lot of wars throughout much of its history so the importance of these great castles was huge and many were built in commanding positions over looking large tracts of land beneath them.
1. EDINBURGH CASTLE, EDINBURGH
Surely Scotland’s most famous and greatest castle and certainly one of the best castles to visit in Scotland. With amazing views overlooking the city and still a garrison stronghold with soldiers stationed in its barracks. Standing on Castle Rock and built on the plug of a volcano believed to be 350 million years old, there has been a royal castle in this location since the 12th Century. Edinburgh Castle was involved in many conflicts from the wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th Century to the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Indeed there have been 26 sieges in its 1,100 year history! St Margaret’s Chapel within the castle grounds is the oldest building in Edinburgh. The castle also houses the Scottish Regalia (crown jewels), the National War Memorial and the War Museum. Every August for 3 weeks the castle hosts the Edinburgh Military Tattoo during the annual Edinburgh Festival. Since 1861, seven 18 pounder bronze cannons have been fired every day at 1 pm as well as marking special occasions like the death of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Edinburgh Castle in a UNESCO World Heritage site and holds a place of huge symbolic importance to the people of Scotland. Anyone visiting the city should visit this wonderful castle and learn a little about the history of Scotland throughout the ages. Why not stay at Gilmerton House or Archerfield House in East Lothian when visiting Edinburgh.
2. STIRLING CASTLE, STIRLING
Probably the second most famous castle in Scotland! Again, like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle occupies an amazing position overlooking the River Forth at a meeting point between the lowlands and the highlands and is also one of the best castles to visit in Scotland. It is surrounded by steep cliffs and enjoys a strong defensive position. Most of the buildings date back to the 14th and 15th Centuries with a few that are even older with some of the outlying defensive layers added in the 18th Century. The castle has an amazing history and is one of the most important Scottish castles! A number of Kings and Queens were crowned there, including Mary Queen of Scots in 1542 as well as there being eight sieges of the castle, with the final one being led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. The castle has been used as a prison, as a garrison for government troops, an infirmary and as a royal palace. There is a range of wonderful buildings to explore including the Chapel Royal and the Guard House, two beautiful gardens built on the site of a medieval jousting area, a great hall with a hammer beam roof and famous tapestries that have been recently restored. In recent years, the castle esplanade has been used for open air concerts and there are many wonderful exhibitions held within the castle. It has huge spaces and is a wonderful place to visit, where again guests learn a huge amount about Scotland’s history. Stirling Castle is also said to be haunted by a ghostly highlander!
3. CULZEAN CASTLE, AYRSHIRE
Culzean Castle is a personal favorite of mine. Again, one of the best castles to visit in Scotland, it is located in a magical spot hugging the rock face, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from the Ayrshire cliffs on the west coast of Scotland. This very romantic castle was built by our most famous architect, Robert Adam, for the Earl of Cassillis as his country home, in the late 18th Century. Later, as home to the Marquess of Ailsa, Chief of Clan Kennedy, the castle gained further grandeur. It boasts a large drum tower with a circular saloon which overlooks the sea, a grand oval staircase and a suite of apartments. In 1945, the Kennedy family gave the castle and its grounds to the National Trust for Scotland on condition that the top floor apartment was given to General Dwight D Eisenhower in recognition of his service to the nation as commander of all allied forces in Europe during WWII. The general visited Culzean Castle in 1946 and stayed four times, including once when he was president. The castle is fascinating and has at least 7 ghosts, including a piper and a servant girl. The pistol collection in the armory is amazing with 716 flintlocks and hundreds of swords which have been used in many different wars. Other exciting artefacts to look at include the model of the Hortense Ship made from old bones, the bloodhound silver clock, the greenhouse specifically for camellias, the ornate dining room ceiling, the grand circular staircase, the barrel organ and Alexander Nasmyth’s two views of the castle. If you would like to visit the castle and gardens of Culzean Castle a wonderful place to stay would be Glenapp Castle.
4. GLAMIS CASTLE, ANGUS
One of Scotland’s most beloved castles and one of the best castles to visit in Scotland is Glamis Castle, located in glorious Angus farmland. The castle was the setting for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the childhood home of the late HM The Queen Mother and the birthplace of her daughter Princess Margaret. As you drive down the long front drive, the castle comes into view and it creates quite an impression. The castle is fun to visit with a magnificent dining room, various smaller sitting rooms and bedrooms where members of the Strathmore family have lived since 1372; there is also a small chapel which seats 46 people. Glamis Castle has a real family feel to it, largely thanks to decades of care and effort put into its restoration by the amazing Mary, Dowager Countess of Strathmore & Kinghorne, who is approaching her 90th year and who is a much loved figure in Scotland. The Italian gardens are wonderful, as well as the walled garden and there is an extensive area of parkland and nature trails around the castle. Visitors of all ages love Glamis Castle, which is a proper and very impressive castle that plays a strong part in Scotland’s history, with dungeons and lots of wonderful stone spiral staircases. The castle has an excellent gift shop and cafe for guests to enjoy when visiting. A perfect place to stay with your family and friends when visiting Glamis Castle is Birkhill Castle in Fife, just 45 minutes drive away.
5. BLAIR CASTLE, PERTHSHIRE
When travelling north towards the Highlands on the A9, take a short detour and visit this famous castle six miles from Pitlochry. Starting in 1269, the castle and estate passed through the Earl of Atholl during the Crusades, Robert the Bruce and then the Murray family. Seized by Cromwell, the estate was restored by King Charles II and given to the first Marquess of Atholl whose son became the Duke of Atholl in 1703. Heavily involved in the Jacobite uprising, things had calmed down by 1844 when Queen Victoria and Albert, her Prince Consort, gave permission for the Duke to establish the Atholl Highlanders, the only legitimate private army in Europe. Blair Castle has magnificent 18th Century interiors, ornate ceilings, four poster beds, a huge collection of armory, ancestral portraits, rare china, silver and a ballroom filled with stags heads. The thirty room castle has been home to politicians, soldiers, agriculturists, entrepreneurs and aristocrats. The estate comprises 145,000 acres of hills, woodland and open countryside to explore along with fishing, stag stalking, luxury highland pony picnics and beaver tours. Auchterarder House, one hours drive away from Blair Castle, is an exceptionally comfortable Scottish baronial house to stay in from which to explore Scotland and enjoy visits to Blair Castle and the other many historical sites of interest in the area.
6. CRAIGIEVAR CASTLE, ABERDEENSHIRE
This pink castle is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle. The castle has an impressive collection of armor, weapons, furniture and paintings including portraits by Henry Raeburn, an important Scottish artist. Built in 1576, this Scottish baronial tower house is fantastically well preserved and one of the most admired in Scotland. Its exterior is the same as the one built by William Forbes in 1626 and the remained a family home until the Forbes family gave it to the National Trust for Scotland in 1963. Located in the Grampian Mountains, the castle has finely sculpted turrets, plenty of gargoyles and high corbelling work which all add to its fairytale appearance. Designed in the L-shape, Craigievar Castle also has beautifully crafted plasterwork ceilings featuring figures of the nine worthies and other family emblems. Similar small castles which are also well worth a visit include Crathes Castle, Castle Fraser, Birse Castle, Corgarff Castle, Fyvie Castle and Leslie Castle. Many are located in the area of Royal Deeside and were owned by grand families keen to be near to Queen Victoria who resided close by at Balmoral Castle.
7. DUNROBIN CASTLE, SUTHERLAND
Dunrobin Castle is one of the most northerly of Scotland’s castles, with the longest connection to the same family, The Dukes of Sutherland. The castle, which has the look of a French chateau, came under the influence of both Sir Charles Barry, who designed London’s houses of parliament, and the Scottish architect, Sir Robert Lorimer. The castle was used as a naval hospital in WWI and as a school for a while but since 1972 it has once again been a family home. Dunrobin Castle has a magnificent setting perched high above the North Sea, with walled gardens below. High above both the castle and Golspie is the Sutherland monument on top of Ben Bhraggie, where the 1st Duke of Sutherland looks down over his former home and the heather hills. Sutherland is an incredibly beautiful area in the far north of Scotland with amazing mountains, moors and beaches. It has been a family stronghold since 1401; the Sutherlands were one of the most powerful families in Britain, with vast estates and wealth. Originally a fort, built in 1235, Dunrobin Castle had later additions added onto it from the 16th Century onwards. Barry changed it from a fort to a house in the Baronial style in 1845. Dunrobin Castle also has an important collection of Pictish symbol stones and cross slabs and remains the spiritual and actual home of Clan Sutherland. The castle and grounds of Dunrobin are a wonderful place to visit an hour north of Inverness on your way up to the top of Scotland.
8. CAWDOR CASTLE, NAIRNSHIRE
The title ‘Thane of Cawdor’ dates back to the 11th Century. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was Thane of Cawdor before defeating King Duncan in 1040. The Cawdor family began construction of their castle in 1375, with the central keep being completed around 1396. Further fortifications were added in the following century with additions in the 17th Century built in the classic Scottish baronial style. Cawdor also offers a glimpse into 3,000 years of history as close by are the stones and cairns of Clava which date from 1500 BC. Visitors to the castle can enjoy seeing the 12 principal rooms which are filled with rare tapestries, paintings and ceramics collected by 23 generations of the family. James Johnson, Samuel Boswell and Robert Burns have all visited the castle and admired its elegance. The castle also has both walled and formal gardens which are incredibly beautiful and have been stylishly updated by Isabella Cawdor, the current owner’s wife who along with Stella Tennant did much to revive Burberry. The estate is one of the biggest in the north and has extensive farmland, moors, forestry and fishing for guests to enjoy. A short drive from Inverness, Cawdor Castle is a lovely place to visit on a tour of the highlands and very well run.
9. INVERARAY CASTLE, ARGYLL
Recently featured on television in the four part show about the scandalous Margaret, Duchess of Argyll and also a few years ago seen on Downton Abbey. Inveraray Castle is one of the great west coast castles and the home of the Dukes of Argyll and the Campbell family who were often at war with other clans in this part of Scotland. Located by the shores of Loch Fyne since the 1400s the current castle was inspired by Vanbrugh, the famous architect who built Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Construction started in 1746 by the architects Roger Morris and William Adam and the castle took 43 years to build. Inveraray has magnificent interiors typical of a Ducal home and like others, a large collection of armory and family portraits. Inveraray Castle is surrounded by a 60,000 acre estate with the grounds and 16 acres of gardens beautifully laid out. The castle is extremely busy in the summer months and very much open to the public, so best visited slightly out of season for a more atmospheric experience. The local town of Inveraray is attractive and sits right by the loch being a popular stop off point for visitors heading to or from the west coast.
10. DRUMLANRIG CASTLE, DUMFRIES & GALLOWAY
One of the great homes of the Dukes of Buccleuch which also include Bowhill, Dalkeith Palace and Broughton. Drumlanrig’s rich history is further enhanced as it is also home to some of the jewels of the Buccleuch Collection (recognized as one of the most important collections in the country), created over 500 years ago by the Montagu, Douglas and Scott families who were all forebears of the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry. The collection has amazing span but most famous is Rembrandt’s ‘An Old Woman Reading’. There are also family portraits by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Alan Ramsay and Sir Joshua Reynolds; landscapes by Paul Sandby and the Dutch Masters and cartoons by Rowlandson. Drumlanrig Castle is also renowned for its furniture and silver. Two great cabinets by the 17th Century French Master, Andre Charles Boulle bring the spirit of Louis XIV to the grand drawing room along with tapestry, precious fabrics and porcelain all laid out within this fabulous family home, which sits in a very romantic location in the south west of Scotland surrounded by moorland. Peacocks wake those staying in the castle and the splendors of Drumlanrig are hard to overstate. The Buccleuch family are the largest landowners in Europe and this castle is also surrounded by many acres. This part of Scotland is less visited than further north but is well worth the trip, especially if you are driving up from England.
11. FLOORS CASTLE, SCOTTISH BORDERS
Located in the Scottish Borders which is in the south east corner of the country, Floors Castle is home to the Dukes of Roxburghe and certainly one of the best castles to visit in Scotland. The castle overlooks the famous River Tweed and is just outside the pretty market town of Kelso. Surrounded by parkland and sitting well back from the river, the castle was designed by William Adam and inspired by Vanbrugh, of Blenheim Palace fame, and built in 1721. Much admired by Sir Walter Scott, who lived close by at Abbotsford, the castle had later additions by the Edinburgh architect William Playfair, who gave the building its rather ‘fussy’ look popular at the time with owners seeking the fairytale appearance. In the early part of the 20th Century, the 8th Duke’s marriage to May Goelet, a beautiful young American meat packing heiress, who brought to Floors Castle her outstanding collection of fine art, furniture and porcelain. Several of the rooms were altered in the 1930s including the Drawing Room and Ballroom which were refitted to display the set of Brussels and Gobelins tapestries. Beyond the castle is an excellent garden centre, cafe and gift shop all filled with Floors Castle produce including delicious marmalade and sticky toffee pudding. For visitors exploring the south of Scotland, this is a great place to stop off and the charming market town of Kelso, with it’s cobbled streets, is well worth a visit too. Bughtrig House is a perfect place to stay with your extended family and a brilliant base for exploring the wonders of the Scottish Borders including a visit to Floors Castle.