Scotland’s castles are dreams and legends. Some are fantasy palaces, all turrets and battlements, that Disney designers could (and probably have done); some forbid ruined tower houses, which still guard the strongholds of the clans on the northern coast. Wherever you travel around Scotland, there are castles to spark your imagination. These 10 are among the best.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle towers over the famous Royal Mile – the perch on an extinct volcano, perhaps symbolic of the turbulent history it has experienced. Started as an Iron Age settlement at Castle Rock, it has been occupied by Romans, Celtic warriors, Northumbrians and Scots. Highlights include St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh; the crown jewels of Scotland known as The Honors that had been hidden and lost for centuries; Mons Meg, a huge 15th century cannon; several military museums; the Royal Palace of the Scottish Kings and views stretching across the city beyond the Firth of Forth.
2. Glamis Castle
Glamis Castle (pronounced glahms) about 70 miles northeast of Edinburgh was the Queen Mother’s childhood home and the birthplace of Princess Margaret. Built around 1400, the site’s colorful history dates back much further. The assassination of King Malcom II and his replacement by Macbeth in 1040 was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play. A later occupant of the house, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was burned for witchcraft in 1537; her mind would haunt the chapel and the bell tower. You can learn all about it on a tour of the house. Still the family home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and the extensive gardens are open to the public. Read more about the fantastic Glamis Castle.
3. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle was the center of the Scottish Wars of Independence, between 1296 and 1356. It was such a powerful fortress that after defeating King Edward II at nearby Bannockburn in 1314, Robert the Bruce’s walls were torn down to prevent it would fall English hands again. They recaptured it and rebuilt it in 1336, but by 1342 it was back in Scottish hands. It was also the scene of William Wallace’s victory over the English at Stirling Bridge, where you can see a monumental statue of Wallace. Because of all this, the castle remains a collector’s symbol when Scottish independence is in the air. The castle, the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots, stands on a volcanic rock on the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands. What you see today is largely from the 15th century. Both guided tours and self-guided audio tours are available and are recommended to understand this sprawling, historic site.
A true medieval stronghold, this sandstone castle on the Scottish / English border is unusual for its triangular shape, surrounded by a wide, deep moat. The castle dates back to the mid-13th century when it was built by the Maxwell clan. It was besieged in the Scottish Wars of Independence by King Edward I himself and left in ruins after a new siege in 1640, when the Maxwells supported the doomed King Charles I. A 17th century residence was built for the family within the castle walls and can still be admired for the elaborate Renaissance details.
5. Urquhart Castle
St. Columba is said to have performed its wonders in this castle, overlooking Loch Ness in the 6th century. Due to its strategic location above the lake, it was, as it were, always on the firing line, and as the MacDonald Lords of the Isles competed with the British Crown, the castle took the brunt of the fighting. Today, a large visitor center with a shop, restaurant and introductory film make this a great place for a comfortable family visit with beautiful lake views and a bit of history for a good dose.