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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Must-See Castles in Scotland

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

With a storied history and a few resident ghosts, Edinburgh Castle has the dubious honor of being the most besieged castle in Britain.
With a storied history and a few resident ghosts, Edinburgh Castle has the dubious honor of being the most besieged castle in Britain.

Do you dream of castles? The great thing about castles is that there are different kinds to suit various passions. Some people love romantic fairytale castles. Others enjoy exploring fortified castles with moats and murder holes. For others, it’s the history of the place that matters, or the fine architecture, art, and furnishings residing within the residence. Perhaps a combination of those things appeals to you. In any case, Scotland is a castle lover’s dream. Today’s post looks at seven Scottish castles that provide a real-life version of the fantasy. Each castle on the list is there because of its historic and /or symbolic significance. I’ve also added a few honorable mentions. Whether you have the good fortune to visit them in person or make a virtual visit via the internet, I encourage you to explore these must-see Scottish castles.

I’ve listed them in alphabetical order rather than by order of preference or quality. Reviewers on Trip Advisor give all of these castles, except one, 4.5 stars. The exception, Dunottar, received a perfect 5 stars.

Must-See Castles

Cawdor Castle

A true medieval fortress complete with a moat and drawbridge, Cawdor Castle dates from the 14th century and is the ancestral residence of the Thanes of Cawdor. Fans of Shakespeare’s Macbeth may remember that the play’s ambitious protagonist is the Thane of Cawdor before murdering his cousin, Duncan, in order to become the King of Scotland. Macbeth was a real person, and he became King, but not by murdering his cousin. And—sorry to say—he never lived at Cawdor Castle. He lived, ruled, and died three centuries before the castle was built. So, what’s special about Cawdor?

Holly, a royal tree in ancient Celtic culture, plays a pivotal role in the legend of the founding of Cawdor Castle.
Holly, a royal tree in ancient Celtic culture, plays a pivotal role in the legend of the founding of Cawdor Castle.

While exploring the castle’s interior, guests can view fine art, furniture, and rare tapestries. There is a collection of ceramics and sculptures, some of which are thousands of years old. The castle grounds include three magnificent gardens, considered to be among the best in Scotland. There is a maze as well. Unfortunately, it is off-limits to guests to protect the health of the holly trees from which it is constructed. However, the maze can be viewed from the Walled Garden.

With my passion for folklore, I must mention that the 14th century Thane of Cawdor, according to legend, chose the spot for the castle from instructions he received in a dream. He put gold on the back of a donkey and let it roam about the village. The dream indicated that he should build on the spot where the donkey laid down to rest. The animal rested next to a holly tree so that was the spot where the thane built the central tower. Holly trees, in ancient Celtic culture, were royal trees and symbols of vigor, strength, and rebirth. But this legend is more than folklore. Scientific research has determined that the wood at the base of Cawdor Castle is a holly, and it’s been carbon-dated to the 14th century. Hmm…

The castle is located in the Highlands in Cawdor Parish, County of Nairn. It is about twenty minutes northeast of Inverness.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh is Scotland’s capital so it’s only right that it is watched over by an impressive castle on a hill. The most famous of all of Scotland’s castles, Edinburgh Castle dates from the 12th century. It houses the Crown Jewels (known as the Honours) and the Stone of Destiny on which Scottish kings were inaugurated (See Scone Palace below). The castle has been a royal residence, a garrison, and a prison. The castle has stood guard over Edinburgh for centuries, it has an intriguing and storied history, and has the dubious honor of being the most besieged place in Britain. It also is said to be haunted.

Stand by Ukraine and against tyranny.
Stand by Ukraine and against tyranny.

There are several possible tours of the castle available and serious consideration is given to people with disabilities, for example, a courtesy vehicle is available to take disabled visitors to the top of the castle. Ramps and elevators also help visitors explore the castle’s interior. For those with impaired vision, there is a hands-on model of the Crown Jewels complete with texts in Braille.

Eilean Donan Castle

One of the most visited places in the Highlands, Eilean Donan simply is beautiful. On an island (Eilean Donan means “Island of Donan”), the castle is surrounded by stunning scenery and rests at a point where three lochs meet. It is photographed frequently and has appeared in numerous films. The original castle was built in the 13th century and was used as a fortification for the Lords of the Isles against Viking raids.

Another castle with a storied history of battles, Eilean Donan was largely destroyed during the Jacobite Wars. It lay abandoned and in ruins for about 200 years. Then Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap undertook the castle’s reconstruction beginning in 1919. The work was finished in 1932. The current building is more in the style of a romantic fairytale castle rather than an example of a medieval fortress. Inside, visitors can view collections ranging from cannonballs actually fired at the castle to Chippendale furniture, tea sets from Liverpool, and local artifacts. Outside, is the exquisite scenery of the island itself, which has been named part of the Kintail National Scenic Area.

Eilean Donan is located just off the west coast of the Highlands and is connected to the mainland by a footbridge near the village of Dornie.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

British Royal watchers will know that the late Queen Elizabeth II loved to spend time at Balmoral Castle when she was in Scotland. However, the official Scottish residence of the monarch of the UK is the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

James IV turned Holyroodhouse into a palace for himself and his new bride, Margaret Tudor.
James IV turned Holyroodhouse into a palace for himself and his new bride, Margaret Tudor.

Holyroodhouse started life as an Augustinian monastery. But it turns out that British royals prefer the relative comfort of Holyroodhouse to the draughty Edinburgh Castle. They also enjoy the beauty of its parkland. So, in 1501, James IV closed the abbey and transformed it into a palace for himself and his new bride, Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor. Mary, Queen of Scots spent a considerable amount of her time at Holyroodhouse as well. She married both of her two husbands there. Her second husband, Lord Darnley, murdered her private secretary, David Rizzio there as well.

A succession of royals continued enjoying spending time at Holyroodhouse so, in the early part of the 20th century, King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, made it even more comfortable. They added indoor bathrooms, electricity, and elevators. They also began holding annual garden parties, a tradition that continues to this day.

Inveraray Castle

For centuries, the Dukes of Argyll, Chiefs of the powerful Clan Campbell, have called Inveraray Castle home. Located in the Scottish Highlands by Loch Fyne, Inveraray Castle is about 60 miles northwest of Glasgow in a setting of rugged beauty. Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize it as Duneagle, home of the Flintshires. In reality, its residents are Torquil Campbell and his wife, Eleanor, the current Duke and Duchess of Argyll. They have worked hard to improve and maintain the estate. The original castle was demolished in the 18th century by the third Duke of Argyll and replaced with a manor house.

Visitors can tour the house and view French tapestries, china and silver, fine furnishings, and a 1300-piece weapons collection. Afterwards, they can visit the estate’s tearoom and gift shop. The Duke and Duchess have been known to show up to assist customers!

Scone Palace

Robert the Bruce is just one of over 40 Scottish kings crowned at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland
Robert the Bruce is just one of over 40 Scottish kings crowned at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland

Similar to Holyroodhouse, Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, began life as an Augustinian Monastery. In the post-Reformation 17th century, Scone Monastery became a secular Lordship and home to the Earls of Mansfield of the Clan Murray. It has remained in the hands of the Murrays for over four centuries now. But the thing of most importance about Scone Palace is that, starting as far back as the 9th century, Scone was the crowning place of Scottish Kings and home to the Stone of Destiny (also known as the Stone of Scone). Robert the Bruce, Macbeth (the real one), and more than forty other kings were crowned and inaugurated as the King of the Scots by placing their foot on the Stone of Destiny on Moot Hill. A replica of the stone now stands on Moot Hill.

The Stone of Scone has done some traveling back and forth between England and Scotland over the centuries. See my post,The Intriguing History of the Stone of Scone for details. In 1996, the British Parliament returned the stone from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh Castle. The Scottish government recently announced that the stone will be moved again. This time to Perth City Hall.

The palace also has a maze constructed of a mixture of beech trees and copper. Its design is shaped into a star to resemble the five-pointed star on the Earl of Mansfield’s heraldic emblem.

Stirling Castle

Situated on a rocky cliff near Loch Forth, Stirling is considered one of the most historically significant castles in Scotland. A favorite residence of Scottish royals, the castle has been the site of many births, coronations, and deaths, including a murder. In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to take the castle through a siege but failed. Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned here (she got around, didn't she?)

Visitors have much to see here. Among the places to visit are the Great Hall, the Royal Palace, which is considered one of the best-preserved Renaissance buildings in the UK, and Queen Anne’s Gardens which boasts a 200-year-old beech tree. And there is much more to see, all watched over by costumed staff members.

Honorable Mentions

The ruins of Dunnottar Castle overlook the North Sea.
The ruins of Dunnottar Castle overlook the North Sea.

Dunnottar: A crumbling castle on a high cliff overlooking the North Sea, tons of history, and a 5-star rating on Trip Advisor. It’s worth considering. Yes?

Doune: A setting for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Winterfell in Game of Thrones, and Castle Leach in Outlander.

Fyvie: This medieval fortress is haunted by the Green Lady and has mysterious "weeping stones." See my post Spooky Tales from Scotland for details.

Urquhart Castle: Over a thousand years old and once one of the largest castles in Scotland, the ruins of this castle overlook Loch Ness. Just think. You may see Nessie as a bonus!

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Slan go foil!

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