Scotland is famous for its many castles, ranging from the palatial and stately – some still inhabited by their owners – to remote, romantic ruins by the sea. Blue Badge Guide David Tucker selects ten Scottish castles open to visitors. Each carries its own unique story and they all offer the drama of ancient buildings created many centuries ago as defensive fortresses.
“Defence was often needed against military attack – often by the English, of course! – but also against predatory neighbouring tribes or, uniquely to Scotland, other clans. The powerful, extended families known as ‘clans‘ were not only local, armed forces; their chiefs also inherited the aristocratic titles granted by monarchs and governments across Britain. Many castles still bear the prefix ‘dun-‘, meaning
Peace between Scotland and England, the ‘auld enemy’, arrived in stages after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the Union of Parliaments in 1707, and the final suppression (at the Battle of Culloden in 1746) of the Jacobites, whose rebellion aimed at restoring the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.
After 1746, noble families were able to transform their bleak, defensive fortresses into stately homes or palaces offering comfort and luxurious living. Most of these were opened to the public during the 20th century and now form a cornerstone of Scottish tourism.
This list of ten castles is, of course, a subjective one, but it has been chosen to reflect geographical and historic diversity, with the emphasis on unique features. To avoid ranking them, the castles are presented in alphabetical order. The owner of each is shown in brackets (see Visiting Notes, below).
Blair Castle (private trust)
- Scotland’s only castle painted in white, Blair is conveniently situated for visitors close to the A9 trunk road and served by Blair Atholl railway station.
- Once home to the Dukes of Atholl (Murray clan), the castle and surrounding estate are now run by a trust. The 12th Duke lives in South Africa but technically retains the only private army in Europe: the ceremonial Atholl Highlanders.
- Visitors to Blair are welcomed by a uniformed piper who plays outside the Castle three times daily.
Crathes Castle (National Trust for Scotland (NTS))
- Just one of no fewer than 260 spectacular castles on Aberdeenshire’s Castle Trail, Crathes is easily accessed from Aberdeen, Scotland’s third city.
- Featuring the classic architecture of a Scottish tower house, Crathes is also famed for its extensive, carefully designed gardens and woodlands.
The Burnetts of Leys were granted land here in 1323 by King Robert the Bruce, who gifted them a jewelled ivory horn on display in the Castle.
Culzean Castle (NTS)
- Overlooking the sea from the Ayrshire cliffs in south-west Scotland, Culzean (pronounced ‘cull-ane’) is a popular day-trip attraction from Glasgow or Edinburgh, offering regular family activity days in the outdoors as well as tours of the beautiful interiors.
- The Earl of Cassilis employed the famous Scots-born architect, Robert Adam, to transform the 16th-century tower house into a stately home in the late 1700s. Adam was famous for designing both whole buildings and interior decor.
- The top floor apartment was gifted to President Eisenhower after World War II; the apartment is available as a holiday let.
Dunnottar Castle (Historic Environment Scotland (HES))
- The ruins of Dunnottar are perched on a rocky outcrop into the North Sea, near the pretty seaside town of Stonehaven and accessible from Aberdeen and Dundee.
- A visit to Dunnottar is not for the faint-hearted! It involves climbing a long, steep path and stone staircases but the views over the sea (50 metres below the cliffs) are rewarding. The ruins include structures dating to the 14th century but the most ancient of tribes in north-east Scotland would have inhabited the site.
- The Scottish ‘crown jewels’ (the Honours) were hidden here, away from the invading force of Oliver Cromwell’s army, in 1651.
Dunrobin Castle (private)
- Like Culzean and other Scottish castles, Dunrobin began life as a rough, defensive fortress and was later transformed (from the mid-1800s) into a palatial home for the Dukes of Sutherland by Sir Charles Barry, designer of London’s Houses of Parliament.
- The impressive, French-style formal gardens, overlooking the North Sea, include a museum full of stuffed animals and falconry displays are held every day in summer.
- An hour’s drive north from Inverness, Dunrobin is situated in a region known for the brutal ‘clearances’ of peasants from the estates in the 19th century.
Dunvegan Castle (private)
- Home for many centuries to the chiefs of Clan MacLeod, Dunvegan is the most popular visit on the Isle of Skye. Although an ancient site, the present castle dates from the 1840s; MacLeods and MacDonalds were the main rival clans in Skye history.
- Dunvegan displays the ancient Fairy Flag which magically protected the clan in battle. The clan’s official pipers over many generations were the MacCrimmons who founded a famous piping school.
- There are well-tended gardens and walks. The castle also runs wildlife- spotting boat trips from the grounds of Dunvegan.
- Unmissable for any first-time visitor to Scotland’s capital, the Castle stands high and proud above the city, offering superlative 360-degree views; it is reached on foot from the famous Royal Mile, one of Europe’s busiest historic streets.
- The Honours of Scotland (or her ‘crown jewels’) are held in the Castle next to a unique symbol of Scottish monarchy: the Stone of Destiny (or of Scone) on which early kings were crowned.
- Events at the Castle include the One O’Clock gun, fired Monday through Saturday, and the Tattoo, a military extravaganza held in front of the Castle every night in August, the month of the Edinburgh Festival.
- An ever-popular visit as the childhood home of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (and birthplace of Princess Margaret), Glamis is also the seat and residence of the noble Bowes-Lyons (Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne).
- Legends and ghost stories relating to Glamis date back to the 11th century but the building today is an 18th century cross between late Renaissance and ‘Scots Baronial’ with beautiful gardens to explore.
- Glamis is easily accessible from Perth, Dundee and St Andrews and less than two hours from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Inveraray Castle (private: Duke of Argyll)
- Home of the Duke of Argyll (chief of Clan Campbell), whose family shares the castle with frequent visitors, Inveraray is reached by a pleasant drive alongside Loch Lomond and across the Arrochar Alps, less than two hours from Glasgow.
- A Scots Baronial creation of the 18th century, in unusual green sandstone, Inveraray is surrounded by splendid gardens famous for their Bluebell Festival in May.
- Visitors to this castle usually spend some time in the pleasant, lochside village close to the castle, also called Inveraray.
Stirling Castle (HES)
- Only Edinburgh Castle attracts more visitors to Scotland than Stirling, where Scottish independence was forged at the battles of Stirling Bridge (of ‘Braveheart’ fame, 1297) and Bannockburn (1314) before occupation by the Stuart royal family for two centuries.
- After the Stuarts left, Stirling was used by the military for centuries but in the last 30 years the Great Hall, Royal Chapel and Palace have been fully restored for visitors, the latter including unique 16th century costumed ‘interpreters’.
- Like Edinburgh’s, Stirling’s elevated Castle offers splendid views: north to the Highlands, south to the Lowlands, and across to the National Wallace Monument perched on another volcanic outcrop.
Urquhart Castle (HES)
- Visitors to Urquhart are drawn by its breath-taking situation overlooking Loch Ness, with the hope of sighting the famous monster adding to its appeal!
- Although a restored ruin, the Castle site has an excellent HES visitor centre (including an introductory film) and tour boats call in regularly across the Loch.
- Urquhart was a clan stronghold rather than a royal castle, occupied alternately over the centuries by the warring MacDonalds and Grants until government forces destroyed much of it during the Jacobite rebellion.
- Many Scottish castles welcome visitors only seasonally or with restricted winter opening hours
- Most offer restaurant and shopping facilities, gardens to visit, and sometimes accommodation within the castle or on campsites
- Ownership varies from private families to public organisations: Historic Environment Scotland (a government body) and National Trust for Scotland (NTS), both offering discounts through multi-site passes or membership schemes
- Castle interiors usually contain fine furnishings, artworks, historic armouries and old kitchens, and there is usually a resident ghost or two!”
David Tucker is a Blue Badge Guide based in Stirling, Scotland. His personal interests include: castles, cities, scenery, golf, royalty, whisky, shopping and Outlander.