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What do you think of when you picture Scotland? Majestic mountains? Scenic lochs? Windswept islands? Those are certainly some of the highlights of a holiday in this amazing country, but another attraction that consistently draws visitors back year after year are the castles.
That’s not really surprising when you consider that Scotland has one of the greatest collections of fortified buildings in the world, and if you come to visit us you’ll soon discover that more than two thousand were built in the nine hundred years between the medieval and renaissance ages.
Although these castles took on many different forms they were all built with the same theme of keeping their inhabitants safe, which means they were – and still are – some of the biggest and most impressive man-made structures in the country.
There’s a wealth of historic fortified buildings to see when you come to Scotland, from the iron-age broch (a hollow-walled cylindrical structure) to the medieval dun (a type of hillfort), but most take on one of two styles.
So, what I’ll concentrate on in this article are the curtain-walled forts from the middle ages and the 14th to 17th-century towers houses, as these are the types of buildings that are best known from a thousand different photos of Scotland on the internet, usually involving Edinburgh Castle and Eilean Donan (more on those later on in this article).
These fortifications are waiting to transport you back in time across a thousand years of Scotland’s history, and all are unique and equally fascinating whether you’ve got the faintest interest in history or not.
But visiting our castles isn’t just about wandering around a load of dusty old ruins, because to my mind travelling around the country to see them has to be the best way of discovering all the beautiful landscapes that Scotland has to offer.
I hope the following guide inspires you to visit us soon, and who knows, maybe it’ll help you visit parts of Scotland that you’d otherwise miss.
Map of the best castles to visit in Scotland
Address: Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, PH18 5TL
Contact details: Telephone 01796 481207
My complete guide: A Guide to Blair Castle
You’ll find Blair Castle nestled in the Highland landscape near the village of Blair Atholl in Perthshire, and if you’re ever in that neck of the woods I recommend you go check it out because it’s one of the best historic visitor attractions in Scotland.
This castle has an enormous amount of history behind it (…ok, I know all castles have a lot of history, but this one has more than most…) and it’s been home to an impressive nineteen generations of the Atholl family.
There are over 30 rooms on display and they’re all chock-full of sculptures, paintings and memorabilia, which makes a nice change from some of the castles on this list that are nothing more than ruins, and even if you’re not that interested in history I guarantee you’ll enjoy your visit.
This is a castle that’s right up there with Dunrobin in my opinion and it sums up exactly what you’d imagine a real-life fairytale castle to look like – tall turrets, formidable battlements and breathtaking views in every direction.
You’re free to walk around Blair Atholl at your leisure and there are several tour guides on hand to point you in the right direction if you get lost or have questions, but to my mind the gardens outside are just as interesting as the castle, if not more so.
These gardens are big – one of the biggest of any castle I’ve visited – and include a walled garden, a conifer woodland, a secluded grove and a sculpture trail, so if you’re looking for a historic site to visit in the summer then Blair Castle really should be at the top of your list.
Address: Caerlaverock Castle, Glencaple, Dumfries, DG1 4RU
Contact details: Telephone 01387 770 244
My complete guide: A Guide to Caerlaverock Castle
Caerlaverock Castle is one of the most interesting-looking castles in this list, not because it’s particularly big or anything, but because it’s got a really unusual triangular shape that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Scotland.
That, coupled with the fact that it’s set in one of the few remaining moats left in the country means that it’s worth visiting whether you’ve got an interest in Scotland’s history or not.
While it won’t take much more than an hour to fully explore these ruined walls there’s quite a lot you can do in the immediate area thanks to the path that runs down to the Caerlaverock Nature Reserve, and on the way you’ll pass the foundations of the original castle which is an interesting addition to the attraction.
The nature reserve has paths leading through grassland that offer really good walks into the Solway Firth and you’ll no doubt see loads of wildlife on the way, so even if you’re not bothered about looking at Caerlaverock Castle it’s still worth visiting the site just to go for a walk to see what’s arguably one of the nicest parts of the Dumfries coastline.
Heading back to the castle after a coastal walk gives you the opportunity to let the kids off the leash in the grounds outside the Historic Environment Scotland museum where there are picnic benches and a small play park, and that’ll give you the opportunity to take a look at the museum with its reconstructions of medieval siege weapons (if that’s your thing – mums might prefer to get a coffee in the on-site cafe instead).
Address: Castle Campbell, Dollar, Clackmannanshire, FK14 7PP
Contact details: Telephone 01259 742 408
Dollar Glen in Clackmannanshire is home to a castle that’s got one of the nicest terrace views in Scotland – Castle Campbell.
This 15th-century fort was originally built as the family home of Lord Lorne but passed into the ownership of Clan Campbell when the 1st Earl of Argyle married Lord Lorne’s daughter.
The Campbells owned the fort for more than 400 years but it was eventually handed into state care in the 1940s, at which point it was designated as a scheduled ancient monument.
That’s great for us tourists as Castle Campbell is a fascinating place to explore, with an atmospheric tower house, a moody courtyard, and a rooftop that allows panoramic views over Dollar Glen.
This glen draws just as many visitors to the area as the castle does and I totally recommend you go there if you’re ever in Clackmannanshire and looking for something to do. It’s a lovely place to go for a walk that’s full of wildlife so if you’re looking to stretch your legs after having a picnic in the castle grounds Dollar Glen is the only place you need to head to.
I’ve included a route map for a nice circular walk in the glen that starts and finishes at the castle in my Castle Campbell guide, so if you want to see it just click the link.
Address: Castle Hill, Doune, Perthshire, FK16 6EA
Contact details: Telephone 01786 842768
My complete guide: A Guide to Doune Castle
Fan of Monty Python, Outlander or Game of Thornes? Then you have to visit Doune Castle in Central Scotland.
This Perthshire fortress served as the homes of the Duke of Albany and Earl of Moray from the 14th-century, making it one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of a fortress from that time in the country.
There are a lot of interesting features to look at during your visit, including one of the best-preserved great halls in Scotland, and it’s immediately obvious that no expense was spared in building this castle. Even in its semi-ruined state it’s still awe-inspiring to this day.
That’s likely the reason why it’s seen such an interest with film companies and if you’ve seen either of the shows or the movie mentioned above then you’ve already seen Doune Castle as it played a role in each of them.
But there’s more to this historic site than TV tie-ins, and Doune Castle can hold its head up high when compared to many of the other, grander castles in this list.
For starters, it’s got one of the finest gatehouses in Scotland that stands well over one hundred feet high and it offers fantastic views of Ben Lomond from its battlements, but the reason I’ve included it in this list is because it’s so easy to get to Scotlands third most-visited historic attraction – Stirling Castle – which lies just 9 miles away to the northeast.
The drive between both castles shouldn’t take much more than 20 minutes so exploring both sites in one day is very easy, plus you’ve got a great selection of artisan cafes and restaurants in Doune and Stirling that are perfect for rounding off a busy day of sightseeing.
Address: Duart Castle, Isle of Mull, Scotland, PA64 6AP
Contact details: Telephone 01680 812309
My complete guide: A Guide to Duart Castle
If you’re ever considering a holiday on one of Scotland’s west coast islands but can’t decide on which one to visit, do yourself a favour and head to the Isle of Mull.
This island is much quieter than Skye and it’s almost as pretty, but it also has what most people consider to be one of the most dramatic castles in Scotland – Duart Castle.
This fortification sits on a promontory overlooking the Sound of Mull, and you can understand why Clan Maclean chose it as their seat of power for more than 700 years as it’s in such a dominating position it would have been near-impossible to sneak past unnoticed.
The castle is still privately owned by the MacLeans, but what you see today isn’t exactly the same as it was when it was built in the 13th-century because it was demolished by the Duke of Argyll in 1691 and then completely rebuilt in 1911, so in some respects it has a lot of similarities to Eilean Donan Castle near Skye (more on that later).
Just like it’s famous Highland cousin, Duart Castle has a definite family feel to it and much of the memorabilia inside has been handed down to the family over generations, something that’s most obvious in the Great Hall which features an impressive collection of family portraits and silverware.
If you’ve got kids they’ll love the shingle beaches at the foot of the castle and there’s a little woodland copse to explore too, and if you’re peckish the nearby cafe offers quality food at a reasonable price.
Finally, while you’re visiting make sure you get your camera ready for the rooftop terrace as the views northwards towards Tobermory are nothing short of stunning.
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Address: Dunrobin, Golspie, Sutherland, KW10 6SF
Contact details: Telephone 01408 633177
My complete guide: A Guide to Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle in the northeast Highlands has to be one of – if not the – prettiest buildings in the UK.
In fact, to look at it you wouldn’t immediately think it’s actually in Scotland because it was built to mimic the great French chateau’s, so it’s more fairytale conical turrets than sombre fortified battlements.
Those modern (for a Scottish castle) features are a bit deceptive though, because beneath that beautiful veneer lies a rather less-impressive 13th-century simple square keep that was built for the Earls of Sutherland.
You can still see evidence of the old keep as you take a tour around the castle, but the majority of it is a beautiful example of Scottish-baronial architecture, and you’ll see sumptuous luxury fittings and elaborate decorative carvings throughout the main part of the building.
This theme of grandeur continues outside as well thanks to the impossibly manicured gardens that were designed to mimic those in the Palace of Versaille, and the enormous summerhouse that houses the castle museum which is considered to be the finest private museum collection in Scotland.
Your day will be rounded off with a meal in the tea room (which I totally recommend as the food is very, very good) and a visit to the shop which sells lots of quality gifts.
You might even see a falconry display on the lawn too. All-in-all, this has to be one of the best castles to visit in Scotland, and for me, it easily rivals the tourist-hotspot Edinburgh Castle – which is up next!