The Best Castles in Scotland Curated by a Local
This is a guide to the best Castles in Scotland.
Scotland is the land of castles. With arguably the greatest concentration of them in Europe there is something to appeal to everyone. 2013 saw a record number of visitors flock to these living pieces of history; with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Visitor numbers to Castles in Scotland continue to rise every year.
Best of all, Scotland’s castles are accessible. We are accustomed to driving four hours through countries such as Canada or the USA to see a single sight. You won’t have this problem in Scotland due to its intimate smallness of Scotland. Many castles are within a short strike of major cities and towns. Those that aren’t are a very reasonable car, bus or cycle journey away through unforgettable scenery.
Having been to over 60 of these Castles myself, I’ve assembled my very own ‘Castle Trail’. Following this awe-inspiring, historically rich and downright exciting ‘Castle Trail’, you will see the best castles in Scotland. As a ‘Battle Master’ (yes, that’s the actual job title) at the new Bannockburn Heritage Centre in Stirling, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in Scottish history. The facts of which consistently prove stranger and more thrilling than fiction. The whole circuit could be completed by a dedicated and nimble traveller within a week. Many are only an afternoon or day trip away from tourist centres such as Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Stirling. All offer a great way for individuals, couples or families to get a little medieval and experience Scotland’s world-famous heritage hands-on.
If you plan on visiting more than three or four of these castles, particularly the larger and more expensive ones such as Edinburgh and Urquhart, it is worthwhile to pick up an Explorer Pass from Historic Scotland (HS). This allows you instant access to unlimited HS properties over three or seven days. National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has a similar offer with their Discover Pass at three, seven and fourteen-day intervals. This will give you access to a great many castles, gardens, estates and famous battlefields such as Culloden and Bannockburn. Membership to either organization gives free access to all of their properties and is excellent value for anyone with a consistent interest in Scottish history and heritage.
Best Castles in Scotland | A Castle for Every Taste
Many flights to Scotland arrive in the capital of Edinburgh, putting Edinburgh Castle, voted the UK’s best tourist attraction in 2013, on your immediate doorstep (HS, Open All Year). The ceremonial firing of the 1 o’clock gun is a visitor favourite, but for the best experience you should show up first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the teeming crowds. The castle offers unparalleled views over the city and is a boon for military buffs with its selection of regimental museums.
Best Castles in Scotland | Craigmillar Castle
If you’re after a more intimate castle experience in the Edinburgh area, Craigmillar Castle sits in undeserved obscurity only one and a half miles south of the city centre (HS, Open All Year). Its curtain wall is among the finest in Scotland, and with endless nooks and crannies that twice played host to Mary, Queen of Scots it is one of the most enjoyable castles to explore south of the Highland line. Delightfully you often have it to yourself, so feel free to play king of the castle out loud.
Best Castles in Scotland | Tantallon Castle
A short jaunt east of Edinburgh near the coastal retreat of North Berwick sits Tantallon Castle. Its towering walls rise to over 100 feet. They provide picture-perfect views out to Bass Rock and the Firth of Forth. The castle’s dovecot, which held pigeons for winter feasts, is of especially fine quality. It has hundreds of tiny chambers creating an optical feast reminiscent of a labyrinth or ziggurat.
Best Castles in Scotland | Bothwell Castle
If, however, you arrive in Glasgow, Bothwell Castle is a must-see. A stronghold of the mighty Moray and Douglas families, Bothwell was the site of one of the most terrific sieges in Scottish history. King Edward I of England invaded Scotland in 1301. He had to build a special siege tower specifically to tackle Bothwell’s massive keep. It stands a ruin today, but look out for special features such as an engraved Douglas heart emblem and graffiti carved into the keep’s bottom floor stonework carved by a young David Livingstone.
Best Castles in Scotland | Caerlaverock Castle
Swooping south to Dumfries, Caerlaverock Castle is the UK’s only triangular fortress. It is the kind of castle that medieval romantics dream about. Surrounded by a moat, Caerlaverock had its own 300 moments when 68 Scots held out against over 6,000 English soldiers also under the command of Edward I in 1300. There is even a replica of a mangonel, a siege engine used by Edward. This is located on the site along with an excellent interpretation centre that walks you through what a medieval siege looked and felt like.
Best Castles in Scotland | Doune Castle
Veer now back north to Perthshire and join the wonderfully silly pilgrimage to Doune Castle, filming location for much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. An audio guide is narrated by Python alumnus Terry Jones, and reception will provide you with coconuts to clack through the corridors upon request (HS, Open All Year). Aside from that, it has a brilliantly restored great hall and one of the most imposing tower houses anywhere in Scotland, standing at an intimidating 95 feet in height. Doune also featured as Winterfell in the premiere episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones and takes centre stage in the upcoming Starz series Outlander.
Best Castles in Scotland | Dunnottar Castle
From Doune, turn northeast and make way to the most jaw-dropping natural location for any castle in the UK. Dunnottar Castle, just outside Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, has been a fortified site since at least the 7th century AD. Here ancient wars in the time before Scotland or England existed came to ahead. William Wallace forced the English garrison into the castle’s chapel, burning it to the ground with all the souls inside. Dunnottar placed in the Top 10 list to establish the 8th Wonder of the World in 2013.
Best Castles in Scotland | Crathes Castle
Aberdeenshire provides a wealth of castles of all kinds, not least of which is Crathes Castle. The castle boasts excellent interior displays and stunning painted ceilings. Its grounds recently revealed the world’s oldest calendar in the form of a set of ditches dated to 8,000 BC. A number of other castles owned by the Trust are a short drive away. These include Drum, Fraser and Craigievar, all exhibiting unique styles from early medieval to 17th century baronial.
Best Castles of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands
Trekking west from Aberdeenshire towards Scotland’s world-famous Western Isles takes you through some of the best Highland scenery that Scotland has to offer.
Best Castles in Scotland | Urquhart Castle
Along the way, it is well worth a stop at Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness. Nessie spotting aside, this is one of Scotland’s most atmospheric ruins.
Best Castles in Scotland | Eilean Donan Castle
From there, any list of Scottish castles would be remiss if it did not include Eilean Donan Castle near the otherworldly Isle of Skye. This is one of the most photographed castles in the world alongside international treasures such as Germany’s Neuschwanstein or Spain’s Alhambra. A Jacobite stronghold, it was devastated by English ship gunnery in the 1740s and remained so until being lovingly restored in the early 20th century.
Best Castles in Scotland | Duart Castle
After meandering down the west coast to Oban, take the ferry across to the Isle of Mul. Here you will see the unforgettable view of Duart Castle, arising on a rocky crag like a sentinel overlooking the channel. Home to Clan MacLean, Duart sat at the heart of the Lordship of the Isles, the Gallic kingdom that struggled for supremacy with Scotland’s kings until the 15th century. The isles, despite their remote reputation today, were superhighways for trade and warfare until their utter suppression following the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century. Here the staff are on a first-name basis with the castles’ laird (Scots for lord) and are a mine of information and local tales.
The circuit now completed, you find yourself at the gateway to the majestic Western Isles, and the train journey from Oban to Glasgow or Edinburgh is unforgettable for its rugged beauty. However, with between 750 and 2,500 castles (depending on how you count them) these are just the tip of the Scottish castle iceberg. Nonetheless, their architectural distinctiveness, historical richness and lingering sensation of timelessness make this castle trail a fine introduction to the real Scotland.
Logistics & Lodging
Fly into Edinburgh or Glasgow Airports, both serviced internationally and domestically. Fly direct from cities in the U.S. like New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, from Toronto, Canada and most major cities in Europe. If arriving late or departing early, The Hampton by Hilton in Edinburgh well-rated airport favorite.
You’ll need a rental car for your touring around Scotland. Check out the best options on TripAdvisor for your Scotland trip.
To visit any of the Hebrides Islands you will have to take a Caledonian MacBray’s ferry. From the ferry, you will be able to enjoy spectacular views. The company’s service is punctual, comfortable and incredibly scenic. You can find timetables and tickets prices here.
There are many places to visit the above lakes, either by day trip or overnight. Here are a few accommodation suggestions to get you started. Or click here for the latest prices in Scotland and to book.
Edinburgh Radisson Blu in the heart of the Royal Mile in historic Old Town. Or try out Queen’s Guest House, Georgian townhouse located on Queen Street in Edinburgh New Town, this property overlooks Queens Gardens.
In Inverness check out Ballifeary Bed and Breakfast, a Victorian villa in a quiet neighborhood near the River Ness and an easy walk to downtown Inverness.
In Skye, try out Three Chimneys & House Over-By. This destination restaurant with rooms is situated in a remote location on the shores of Loch Dunvegan, and not far from breathtaking Neist Point. Pricey but a well-worth-it splurge!
Portree is the largest village on Skye and the capital. It is only about 200 years old, built as a fishing village at the beginning of the 19th century by Lord MacDonald. The Boswville Hotel is right on the snug harbor.
Mull & Iona
The Tobermory Hotel is a 200-year old property on Mull’s main street and bustling little port ablaze in color. Once a row of fishermen’s cottages, offers plain but comfortable rooms, many with spectacular views of the harbor.
We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
Read more about travel in Scotland on BCD:
- The Ten Best Views in Scotland
- Scotland’s Chief of Clan Campbell at Inveraray Castle
- The Ten Most Gorgeous & Fascinating Lochs of Scotland
- Guide to Cultural Attractions of Scottish Highlands & Islands
- The Languages of Scotland: Three Tongues
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