20 of the Best Castles in Scotland | History Hit

20 of the Best Castles in Scotland

Simon Forder

01 Oct 2019
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Scotland is famous for its castles. With well over 2,000 spread across the country, there is a huge variety to choose from wherever you are.

These are 20 of the best castles in Scotland.

1. Bothwell Castle

Bothwell Castle, south-east of Glasgow, was founded in the late 13th century by the Murrays and changed hands several times in the Wars of Independence.

It was destroyed at least twice and rebuilt by the Douglases in the late 14th century, although they were forced to occupy only half of the partially demolished round keep.

Built of red sandstone on a cliff above the Clyde, it is picturesque and impressive, even though it was never completed.

2. Dirleton Caslte

Dirleton Castle in East Lothian was founded by John de Vaux and suffered partial demolition in the Wars of Independence like many castles in Scotland.

It was repaired by the Haliburtons in the mid 14th century and enlarged in the following two centuries.

Built on a prominent rock, its complex of medieval towers and spectacular gate entry combine with beautiful gardens to make it a must-see for visitors to the area.

3. Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle sits on the shores of Loch Ness. Originally the site of a Pictish fort, it was refortified in the 13th century by the Durward family and strengthened by the Comyns.

After occupation by the English it became a royal castle in 1307 and strengthened by the crown into the 15th century.

Eventually it was occupied by the Grants, who built the tower house and remained there until it was destroyed in 1690.

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4. Kildrummy Castle

Kildrummy Castle in upland Aberdeenshire was founded by the Earls of Mar in the mid 13th century and it was here that Robert the Bruce’s brother was captured by the English in 1306.

Built to a shield-shaped plan with a twin-towered gatehouse and massive round keep, it was the most impressive castle in the north-east.

It was the seat of Alexander Stewart, the 15th century Earl of Mar.

5. Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfriesshire is the second castle to be built here (the foundations of the older castle can also be seen).

Built by the Maxwells, it was famously besieged by the English in 1300 and partially dismantled after Bannockburn. Rebuilt in the latter 14th century, much of the castle dates to this time.

An unusual triangular castle within a wet moat, it was partially demolished several times more before being abandoned in 1640.

6. Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle on its volcanic rock is justifiably one of the most visited castles in Scotland. Built to control the crossing of the Forth by the 12th century, it was the royal fortress par excellence.

Today all the visible parts of the castle postdates the events leading up to Bannockburn, with the Great Hall of James II, the Forework of James IV and the Palace of James V sitting within defences from the 16th  to 18th centuries.

7. Doune Castle

Doune Castle, north-west of Stirling, was founded by the Earls of Menteith, but was transformed by Robert Stewart, the regent for his father, brother, and nephew, in the late 14th century.

His work includes the impressive hall/gatehouse/keep and great hall complex, and the great hall and kitchen give a superb feel for life in one of these castles.

It has been used in several films, most famously Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

8. Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle in the central Scottish Borders is in a bleak location, and was founded in the mid 13th century by the de Soulis family, although the massive structure we see today is mid 14th and the work of the Douglases.

Its grim backdrop and uncompromising appearance is probably responsible for the reputation of being haunted and eerie, although dark deeds were certainly carried out here, such as the murder of Alexander Ramsay in 1342.

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9. Castle Sinclair

Castle Sinclair is built on a narrow promontory to the north of Wick in Caithness.

What we see today was probably founded in the late 15th century by the Sinclair Earls of Caithness, possibly on a previously fortified site. It was massively extended in the 17th century and given its current name.

As the palace of the Sinclair earls, it was the subject of a dispute between the Campbells and Sinclairs in 1680 and subsequently burned down.

After centuries of neglect, it is now being stabilised by the Clan Sinclair Trust in an attempt to save it from being lost altogether.

10. Edzell Castle

Edzell Castle, to the north of Brechin in Angus, is a beautiful example of an early 16th century tower house and courtyard, with restored gardens. Replacing an earlier site occupied for perhaps 300 years, it was built by the Lindsays of Crawford.

The main L-shaped tower-keep is well-preserved, and was improved by adding a grand entrance and courtyard with round towers and a great hall in the 1550s.

Plans to extend the castle further with a north range were abandoned in 1604, and the castle fell into decline by 1715.

11. Dunottar Castle

Dunottar Castle is built on a promontory site near Stonehaven on the Aberdeenshire coast. Founded in the 14th century on church land by the Keiths, the earliest part is the massive tower-keep, and this was extended in the 16th century.

It was completely overhauled in the 1580s as a palace, and it was here in the 17th century that the Honours of Scotland were hidden from Cromwell after the coronation of Charles II. Dunottar was largely dismantled in the 1720s.

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12. Huntly Castle

Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire allows visitors to see how castles developed through Scotland history.

Founded as the earthwork castle of Strathbogie, the motte of this survives and the castle occupies the site of the bailey.

It passed to the Gordons in the 14th century, who built a massive L-shaped tower house which was burned down by the Douglases.

In its place the Gordons (now Earls of Huntly) built the new palace block, which was renamed Huntly Castle, and later extended before being abandoned in the latter 18th century.

13. Inverlochy Castle

Inverlochy Castle on the outskirts of Fort William was the seat of the Comyn Lords of Badenoch & Lochaber.

Built in the mid 13th century, it consists of a rectangular courtyard with round towers at the corners. The largest of these served as the Comyns’ keep.

It was sacked when Robert Bruce destroyed the Comyns and may have been brought back into use by the crown in the 15th century, but was ruined again by 1505, when it was used as a garrison.

14. Aberdour Castle

Aberdour Castle on the southern shore of Fife is said to be one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland, and parts of the unusual diamond-shaped 13th century hall house can still be seen.

However it is predominantly the castle of the 15th century Douglas Earls of Morton, who extended and heightened the old hall before adding additional ranges and a stone courtyard wall.

Aberdour has extensive gardens and was in use into the 18th century.

15. Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is a restored tower house and courtyard of the 15th century built on a tidal island overlooking the junction of three lochs on the approach to Skye.

Undoubtedly one of the most famous & photographed castles in Scotland, it was rebuilt on a smaller scale on the site of a 13th century castle, and occupied by the Mackenzies then the MacRaes as agents of the Crown.

The castle was derelict by 1690 and blown up in 1719. In 1919, work started on the near complete rebuilding of the castle and bridge.

16. Drum Castle

Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire is one of the most interesting castles still to have its roof in my opinion.

The oldest part is a modest (possibly royal) tower keep of the 13th or 14th century granted to the Irvine family with the Forest of Drum by Robert Bruce in 1323.

It was extended with the addition of a new mansion house in 1619, and was sacked twice during the Covenanting period before being further extended in the 19th century.

Drum Castle was occupied as the private residence of the Irvines until 1975.

17. Threave Castle

Threave Castle in Galloway sites on an island in the middle of the River Dee.

The great tower was built by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Douglas and Lord of Galloway in the 1370s when he was the principal crown agent in south-west Scotland. A new artillery defence was added in the 1440s.

It was captured by James II and became a royal fortress before being sacked by Covenanters in 1640 and abandoned.

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18. Spynie Palace

Spynie Palace in Moray was founded by the Bishops of Moray in the 12th century and destroyed by its bishop in the Wars of Independence, although parts of this castle can still be found.

It was rebuilt in the late 14th century and a new tower house added as part of a massive redesign by Bishop Stewart in the 1460s – the largest tower by volume in all Scotland.

James Hepburn was sheltered by his brother here in 1567 after fleeing court, after which it was ordered Spynie be available to the crown. By the 1660s it was falling into ruin.

19. Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle on the River Clyde was fortified in the 8th century, and was an important royal castle.

Built between two summits of volcanic rock with sheer sides, the royal castle enjoyed superb defences.

It was repeatedly attacked during the Wars of Independence and a magnificent gate survives from this period. Dumbarton was rebuilt, and most of what remains today is 18th century.

It is believed to be the oldest continually fortified site in Britain.

20. Castle Fraser

Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire is perhaps the ultimate example of a Renaissance dwelling of the nobility of Scotland.

It was founded in 1575 by Michael Fraser on an earlier castle, and completed in 1636. It was built on a Z-plan – a central hall building with diagonally opposed towers – with a pair of service wings enclosing a courtyard.

It was remodelled in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually sold by the last Fraser in 1921.

Simon Forder is a historian and has travelled all over Great Britain, in mainland Europe and Scandinavia visiting fortified sites. His latest book, ‘The Romans in Scotland and the Battle of Mons Graupius‘, was published on 15 August 2019 by Amberley Publishing

Featured Image: Eilean Donan Castle. Diliff / Commons.

Simon Forder