A GUIDE TO THE CASTLES OF LOCH NESS
If you’re charmed by the legends of Loch Ness, and the monster that locals have affectionately named “Nessie”, you will find many places to stay during your Scottish vacation that are conveniently located for loch exploration.
The length of the Loch Ness is 36.3km and this long slither of water has the city of Inverness in the north and the quaint village of Fort Augustus in the south. The famous town of Fort William is less than an hour away by car, and you can also reach the loch easily from the western fringe of Cairngorms National Park.
But it’s not just monster hunts and setting sail on the mythical waters that will beguile you during your visit. The district is also home to some of Scotland’s most beautiful castles. Here is a guide to the fortresses and fortifications of Loch Ness and surrounding areas.
First and foremost, one of our favorite places to be when in Scotland, is the spectacular Aldourie Castle. This fine historic landmark is located less than 20 minutes from Inverness city center, making it one of the easiest castles to access in the Scottish Highlands. The estate, which covers 500 acres of private land, is set along the water’s edge with wonderful views of Loch Ness, before it tapers and merges into Loch Dochfour. With its own private marina, guests can enjoy boat tours and other activities on the water.
This 19th Century castle has been meticulously restored to its former glory, featuring classic towers and turrets that you would expect of a fairy tale fortress. And a stay here promises cozy rooms with traditional roaring fires, delicious organic cuisine from a Michelin trained chef, and access to a wide selection of fine wines.
Aldourie Castle is a 5* exclusive property available for hire in Scotland, and is the only habitable castle on Loch Ness. It is suitable for sole let to one private group, and also features a number of cottages to rent close by. So if you’re looking for a magical castle experience for your group, or you’re looking for a celebratory venue, this is the place to be for your next vacation. You can find out more here.
Things to do: the estate makes a great base for golfing breaks, with Castle Stuart Golf Links and Nairn Golf Club close by. Other activities that can be arranged include archery, segway rides, falconry displays, clay pigeon shooting, or deer stalking.
Another beautiful castle situated on the banks of Loch Ness is Urquhart Castle, a stronghold which remains magnificent despite its ruinous condition. It holds over a thousand years of history within its grounds and crumbling walls, and offers some of the most atmospheric vistas over the water. Photographers love to come here to capture the unique memories, whilst families like to come here for a fun day out. Urquhart Castle has something for everyone and kids will love exploring what was once one of Scotland’s greatest fortifications – and this is the perfect place to let their imaginations go wild.
This is one of the country’s largest castles, but having undergone centuries of conflict (particularly from the 13th to 17th centuries), this medieval fort has seen considerable deterioration. The castle’s remains include Grant Tower (with views over Loch Ness and Great Glen), an old prison cell, and remains of the Great Hall where banquets were once held. You can also get a nice view of all the ruins from the castle café.
Price for entry into the castle is very reasonable, starting at £9.00 per adult and £5.40 for children under the age of 16. Under 5s can go in for free, and there’s also a discount for concessions.
Things to do: spend the day exploring the castle grounds and enjoy panoramic views from the rocky promontory of the famous Loch. Close by is also the Loch Ness Centre, and you can enjoy some good old fashioned ‘pub grub’ from one of the pubs in the nearby village of Lewiston. Or you can take the stunning A82 drive northbound up to the city of Inverness (less than 20 minutes away).
You simply cannot vacation in the Loch Ness area without a trip to Inverness Castle. It’s one of the northern coastal city’s most well-known tourist attractions, and it’s a must-visit for anyone staying in or around Inverness. The castle’s biggest draw is the tower and brand new Viewing Platform, which was first opened to the public in 2016. In its first year, it received more than 29,000 visitors and it is now the castle’s main attraction. At the top, you can enjoy 360-degree views of the Highland capital and its many landmark buildings, as well as the lush green surrounding scenery.
Set atop a cliff overlooking the River Ness, this structure is truly impressive to look at. Built in 1836 by architect William Burn, this 19th Century red sandstone property dominates the skyline of the river that it has guarded for centuries. Whilst the castle was built in the early 1800s though, previous fortifications have existed on the historic site since at least the 11th Century according to records.
The castle itself is today used as a court house and is not open to visitors, but the castle’s tower and viewpoint can be accessed throughout April and May from 11am to 6pm, June through to August from 10am to 7pm, and in September and October from 11am to 6pm.
Admission is £5 per adult and £3 per child (aged 12 and under), and tickets are purchased directly from the ticket office on arrival. Once you enter, you can explore the narrated drone footage that provides birds-eye views of the city and talks about its landmarks on your way up. During your visit, you will also get to learn about the legend of Brahan Seer, the 17th-century Highland predictor of the future who told many accurate prophecies.
Things to do: enjoy the views from the top and spend the rest of the day discovering the city’s top museums and attractions. These include Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, The Highlanders’ Museum, Inverness Botanic Gardens, Scottish Flair Fine Art Gallery, and the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre.
CAWDOR CASTLE AND GARDENS
Cawdor Castle and Gardens is located 30 minutes from Inverness and just over an hour away from the far south of Loch Ness (in Fort Augustus). For vacationers staying in the northern parts of the lake, or close to the coast, this castle is ideally situated. From Cawdor, you can easily get to the seaside town of Nairn as well as the beautiful Brodie Castle near Forres.
Dating back to the 14th Century, Cawdor was built on a private fortress and its ancient tower was built around the legendary holly tree. Folklore tells us that a donkey, laden with gold, lay down to rest under the famous tree and it was then that the site was chosen to build a castle. The building itself remains in the Cawdor family to this day, and has been romantically linked to Macbeth by William Shakespeare. It has the typical appearance of a fairy tale castle with beautiful gardens that surround it, and these manicured grounds are what makes a visit here so spectacular.
There are three different gardens to explore, each boasting their own unique history and generations of owners who have designed, managed and maintained them. The gardens include The Flower Garden, The Wild Garden, and The Walled Garden; and throughout the seasons there is an array of flora and fauna to behold. Stroll through the gardens to discover flowerbeds of roses and rhododendrons, the very rare blue poppy, beautiful topiary and contemporary sculptures.
If you’re looking for the perfect family day out, something that suits all ages and interests, we highly recommend visiting Cawdor, located east of Loch Ness and Inverness and close to many other attractions.
Things to do: Cawdor Castle has a golf course and putting green, an arboretum with trees from Tibet, and numerous nature trails that take you through the woods. You can even enjoy a spot of salmon fishing along the River Findhorn from the castle grounds. There’s also a specialist wool shop on site where you can buy cashmere, wool and alpaca items – and also a Courtyard Café for a coffee break and refreshments.
OLD INVERLOCHY CASTLE
This famous Scottish castle is located in lovely little town of Fort William, located just over 40 minutes away from Fort Augustus by car. If you’re exploring Nessie’s southern parts, this is one of the places you have to add to your bucket list. There’s plenty to in the town center but stopping off to see the ruins is a must. As one of Scotland’s grandest strongholds and a place that has witnessed two major battles (the first and second battles of Inverlochy), the site has much historic importance.
The old castle dates back to the 1200s, and it was built by The Comyns (modern name ‘Cumming’) who were key figures during the Norman expansion. They had risen from the Lowlands to build a new empire displacing Celtic families in the north, and their castle was meant for a symbol of power. But their building was later abandoned for a large timber fort instead. This larger fort was built by Oliver Cromwell in 1690, and the timber was eventually replaced with stone, forming The Fort of William as we know today. The town back then was known as ‘Maryburgh’ (named after Queen Mary II), but it ended up taking the same name as the fort itself later on.
Old Inverlochy Castle is an integral part of the town’s history and with its riverside setting, it’s a splendid site to spend the day with the whole family. The crumbling remains will inspire imaginations of kids and adults alike, and photographers will find artistic opportunities around every corner.
Things to do: there’s plenty to do in Fort William, including hiking, cycling, shopping and museums. The new Inverlochy Castle (which is a chateau-style structure) is also located just 6 minutes away from the old castle, and it is currently being used as a luxury hotel and restaurant. So if you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy afternoon tea or some fine dining, you should continue your experience over at this striking 19th Century building.
Though a little further out, this striking castle by the coast is worth the journey. For those staying in Inverness or the northern tip of Loch Ness, Dunrobin Castle is just over an hour away by car. It’s one of Scotland’s oldest inhabited houses in Scotland, with many of its original construction still intact and in top condition. It’s one of the most impressive castles that can be reached from the towns and villages surrounding Nessie, and the A9 coastal drive will provide amazing views of the country’s rugged landscape.
The A9 road is part of the new NC500 coastal route, which has been dubbed as Scotland’s answer to Route 66. So if you’re planning a driving vacation, Dunrobin is a must.
The castle has been home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th Century, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland. It is believed that the name ‘Dunrobin’, meaning ‘Robin’s Hill’ may have come from the 6th Earl of Sutherland who died in 1427. Over the centuries, the property has undergone many renovations, including many extensions from the 16th Century onwards.
Today, the grounds are open to the public and the site houses a museum, an expansive garden, a falconry center, a shop and a tearoom. Entry to the castle is £11.50 for adults and £7.00 for children, with family tickets available at £34.00 (2 adults + 3 children).
Things to do: take a relaxing stroll around the gardens which were designed in 1850 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, and don’t miss the falconry displays if you’re on vacation between April and September.