From the grand Edinburgh Castle and the historic Balmoral Castle, to the striking Stirling Castle and fairytale Dunrobin Castle, Scotland’s fortifications are wonderful sites to explore. While first-time visitors may just want to hit the highlights, for those who wish to delve deeper, other unique sites to explore such as such as Rothesay Castle, Craigmillar Castle, and Dumbarton Castle shouldn’t be missed. With so many fascinating places to explore, it’s not necessarily easy to select the very best castles of Scotland; however, we’ve painstakingly contemplated, deliberated, and meditated over this list and come up with our top recommendations as well as a few others worth exploring if you have the time.
One of Scotland’s oldest continuously inhabited houses, Dunrobin Castle is the largest in the Northern Highlands as well as one of the most picturesque. The oldest sections of the castle still standing were probably built in the late 1300s and Pictish stones can also still be found on the site. The castle was remodelled at the beginning of the 18th century giving it the structure that we see today.
Resembling a French chateau, Dunrobin is the closest Scotland comes to ‘fairytale architecture’. The castle is open to the public between April and October and many of the 189 rooms are accessible, as are the exquisite 1,379-acre gardens, designed in the French formal style and modelled on the Palace of Versailles.
Set in the heart of the picturesque Scottish countryside, Caerlaverock is an impressive a medieval fortress which stands out for its unique triangular design and picturesque location, ensuring it ranks among Scotland’s most remarkable castles. With its triangular shape and imposing moat, it conjures up images of battles yonder. And there were many; due to its strategic position near the English border, Caerlaverock was the site of on-going warfare between the two crowns.
Visitors can gain a lesson in siege warfare as well as viewing fascinating reconstructions of medieval siege engines. For the kids there even a castle-themed adventure park to provide extra entertainment!
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.
A stunning medieval fortification set in the beautiful Scottish countryside, Glamis has a fascinating history as well as a strong connection to the British royal family. The castle traces its roots back to the 14th century and was extensively renovated in the 17th and 18th centuries taking on the trappings of a French chateau and leaving much of what can be seen by visitors today.
Glamis is steeped in history, with a number of fascinating stories, myths and legends associated with it mostly notably that it’s said to have provided inspiration for the setting in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The connection with the current royal family is more recent, with Glamis being the childhood home of Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Indeed it was here that Princess Margaret was born in 1930. As well as the castle itself, visitors can wander the scenic ornamental gardens and there’s a nature trail within the grounds, providing an opportunity to see the true beauty of the Scottish countryside.
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. It was the site of royal deaths, the subject of a tug of war during the Wars of Scottish Independence, and even the scene of an assassination.
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, the castle was fought over by some of the most famous figures in Scottish and English history, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The current incarnation mostly dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of the highlights include the King’s Old Building, the Great Hall, and the Royal Palace. Visitors can tour with an audio guide or with a tour guide and there are a range of exhibitions to see.
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 detailing the workings of the estate and its history. There are also a series of exhibitions at Balmoral Castle related to the royal family.
The dramatic cliff-top ruins of Tantallon Castle are quite a sight and this once-powerful fortress is a popular draw with those who delight in picturesque history.
Originally the castle was an imposing medieval stronghold of the influential Douglas Earls for around three centuries. Indeed, Tantallon would survive numerous sieges and bore the scars of battle well, but ultimately met its fate when it was utterly devastated by the army of Oliver Cromwell in 1651.
Craigmillar Castle was built from the fourteenth century and is now a pretty and well-preserved medieval ruin. Visitors to Craigmillar can explore several aspects of the fourteenth century structure, including an impressive tower. There is also a maze of medieval tunnels which are fascinating to discover.
One of the most famed historical aspects of the castle is 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.
Bothwell Castle is a stunning ruined medieval stronghold near Glasgow and one of the most celebrated of its kind. It was subjected to several sieges through the centuries and was captured on several occasions. The most famous of these attacks occurred in 1301 when Edward I laid siege to Bothwell with a force of almost seven thousand men.
In 1362, Bothwell passed to the aristocratic Black Douglas family by marriage and they rebuilt it. Whilst not adhering to the structure of the Morays, the new castle was still formidable and parts of it – notably its chapel – can still be seen.
The pretty ruins of Hailes Castle date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, making it one of the oldest of its kind in Scotland.
Free to enter at all reasonable times, it can be fun to explore the castle ruins and in particular view its two vaulted pit-prisons. It is also said that Mary Queen of Scots stayed here on several occasions.
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.
Lochleven Castle was a medieval island stronghold, the dramatic ruins of which can be reached by boat. Whilst being most well known for being the prison of Mary Queen of Scots, Lochleven Castle’s role within Scottish royal history extends far further. Many royals were guests – as opposed to prisoners – at Lochleven Castle, including King Robert Bruce and even Mary herself. What’s more, other royals were imprisoned at Lochleven Castle other than Mary Queen of Scots, particularly the (then future) Robert II. Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven Castle by Sir William Douglas from 1567 and forced to abdicate her throne in favour of James VI, her own infant son. She would escape within a year.
Today, visitors go to see the fourteenth to fifteenth century tower where Mary was held. Inside, you can still see where the kitchen and other spaces would have been.
Dirleton Castle was an imposing medieval fortress and noble residence, which is now a picturesque ruin not far from Edinburgh. First built in the thirteenth century by royal steward John de Vaux, Dirleton Castle became the home of the de Vauxes, under whose ownership it was severely damaged and captured on several occasions in the Wars of Independence. Dirleton Castle would go on to become home to two further noble families, the Haliburtons (circa 1365) and the Ruthvens (circa 1510), each of whom made changes and additions. The Haliburtons left behind some fascinating ruins, including a chapel and an ominous dungeon.
The life of Dirleton Castle as a defensive structure ended in 1650, when it was devastated by the siege of Oliver Cromwell and it was abandoned altogether not long thereafter upon the demise of the Ruthven family. Now on land owned by the Nisbet family, Dirleton Castle offers a great deal to see. Amongst its highlights are its several towers, some of which were built in the 1240s, making them amongst Scotland’s oldest castle remains. Dirleton Castle is also home to one of the country’s best preserved pigeon houses.
Close the Scotland’s geographical centre in the village of Doune in Perthshire, Doune Castle is a medieval castle with one of the best-preserved great halls in Scotland. It was originally built in the 13th century, most likely damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence (1296 – 1357) and rebuilt in its present form in the late 14th century.
Ruined by 1800, restoration works were undertaken in the late 19th century and the castle was passed into state care a century later. The striking 29-m high gatehouse includes the Lord’s Hall with domestic quarters, an intricately carved oak screen, musician’s gallery and double fireplace. It’s labyrinthine in nature with rooms connected by spiral staircases and low, narrow doorways. The castle was used extensively in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as well as in Game of Thrones as Winterfell.
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.
Built from the 1220s, Dunstaffnage Castle is a medieval stronghold built by the MacDougall clan at a time when Scotland was under constant threat from Norwegian attack. During 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.
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.
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.