Last updated on February 12th, 2020
Address: Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG
Contact details: Telephone 0131 225 9846
My complete guide: A Guide to Edinburgh Castle
Put your hand up if you’ve never heard of Edinburgh Castle…. Nobody? Nope, thought so.
This gob-smackingly impressive – and massively hyped – castle in Scotland’s capital city rightly deserves its place as the country’s number-one tourist attraction as it has to be one of the finest fortifications in Europe, if not the world.
More than two million people flock to the city each year to visit Edinburgh Castle and although the ticket prices are on the steep side there’s enough going on that you could quite easily spend the majority of your day there.
Highlights include the Argyll battery where you’ll get the best views across Edinburgh of anywhere in the city (it’s also where the One o’Clock Gun fires), and the Palace Yard where you can say hello to Mons Meg, the enormous 15th-century cannon, and St. Margarets Chapel, believed to be the oldest building in Edinburgh.
Other areas worth exploring are the Royal Palace where Mary Queen of Scots took residence and the Crown Room which houses the Honours of Scotland – the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Jewels.
There are a couple of military museums in the castle as well the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Great Hall opposite the memorial is full of original examples of weaponry from Scotland’s proud military heritage.
For me, the best thing about Edinburgh Castle has to be the military tattoo held annually in the Castle Esplanade throughout August. This event is one of the highlights of Scotland’s cultural calendar and is a real spectacle that I guarantee you’ll never forget. Check out the Edinburgh Military Tattoo website for further details.
All that, coupled with the attraction’s excellent cafe’s, restaurant and shops, make a visit to Edinburgh Castle an absolute necessity if you’re visiting the city.
Eilean Donan Castle
Address: Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX
Contact details: Telephone 01599 555202
My complete guide: A Guide to Eilean Donan Castle
Just like Edinburgh Castle, Eilean Donan is a fortress that most people will have likely seen whether they’ve visited Scotland or not, purely because photos of the building seem to be plastered across virtually every Google search you make.
To be honest you can’t really blame people for reusing the iconic image over and over again because the castle is located in one of the most spectacular settings in the Highlands, with the Kintail National Scenic Area surrounding it on all sides and the tranquil waters of lochs Duich, Long and Alsh framing it in the foreground.
As I already mentioned in the Duart Castle section, Eilean Donan is a rebuilt clan home that was constructed from the ruins of a previous castle, though unlike Duart it was completely destroyed by British forces after Jacobite commanders used it as a refuge during the 1745 uprising.
It was to be another two hundred years before a descendant of the MacRae clan managed to resurrect the fortress, at which time a couple of additions were made, most notably the bridge which was added to improve access and the central keep that was built to serve as the clan family home.
These days it’s a privately run tourist attraction that offers overnight accommodation (they’ve got self-catering apartments nearby) along with facilities to host weddings and events, but it’s also set-up for day-trippers who just want to have a wander around it.
Each room in the castle is filled to the brim with MacRae clan memorabilia and there are lots of objects that have been collected to showcase the history of Scotland – and the Highlands in particular – with artworks and weaponry covering every available surface.
There’s also a really good visitor centre that houses an excellent cafe (top tip, try the scones), a decent gift shop, and an information desk if you want to find out more about this part of the Scottish Highlands.
Address: Inveraray Castle, Inveraray, Argyll, PA32 8XE
Contact details: Telephone 01499 302203
My complete guide: A Guide to Inveraray Castle
The shore of Loch Fyne – the longest sea loch in Scotland – is the traditional home of the Duke of Argyll, and it’s in this remote corner of Strathclyde where you’ll find Inverary Castle, the 18th-century fort that’s more of a baroque stately home than a cannon-studded fort.
This castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Argyll and visitors come from far and wide to enjoy its beautiful architecture, immaculately furnished rooms, and impeccably maintained gardens.
In my opinion the gardens are just as enjoyable to walk around as the castle is, mainly because they’re absolutely enormous and cover an impressive 16 acres of woodland, lawns and flower beds.
There’s even a 248-metre hill on the estate that provides the best views in the area where you can look down on the pretty village of Inveraray bordering Loch Fyne, famous for its delicious oysters.
A tour of the castle will take you on quite a memorable journey as it’s one of the best examples of an inhabited castle in Scotland (the Duke of Argyll and his family still have their own wing), and I reckon some of the rooms easily rival those in Edinburgh’s magnificent Holyrood Palace.
Take the Armoury Hall for example. This grand room houses one of the finest private weaponry collections in Scotland and also has the highest ceiling of any building in the country at an incredible 21 metres (69 feet). It was obviously built to impress, and that’s something it still manages to achieve more than two hundred years later.
Other points of interest are the remains of long-abandoned limestone kilns hidden away deep inside the woodland, and the tea room housed in a secluded corner of the castle.
Address: Spynie Palace, near Elgin, Moray, IV30 5QG
Contact details: Telephone 01499 302203
My complete guide: A Guide to Spynie Palace
Yes I know this sounds like it’s going to be a fancy residence for royalty but in fact, it’s a fortified tower house that was used as the home of the bishops of Moray for over 500 years.
This northeastern region of Scotland is criminally underrated in my opinion as it has the potential to be a real tourist haven, yet it seems to draw few visitors from outside the region.
The reason Spynie Palace was built in this remote area is that it’s close to Elgin – Moray’s administrative centre and also a Royal Burgh – where the awe-inspiring Elgin Cathedral can be found in the town centre.
This cathedral was one of the most important religious sites in Scotland back in the 13th-century so the bishops who served there had a great deal of wealth and power, and it’s for that reason a nearby defensive residence was needed to house them.
You can find out more about the cathedral with my Complete Guide to Elgin Cathedral.
The ‘palace’ is dominated by David’s Tower – the largest tower house by volume in Scotland – and it’s certainly an impressive sight, especially if you climb the stairway to the top and look across the Moray countryside from the viewing platform.
The surrounding fields and woodland are practically begging to be walked through but if you’d like a stroll at the seaside instead you’ll find the east beach at Lossiemouth comes highly recommended.
Address: Stirling Castle, Castle Esplanade, Stirling, FK8 1EJ
Contact details: Telephone 01786 450 000
My complete guide: A Guide to Stirling Castle
Did you know that at one point in history Stirling Castle was the royal seat of power in Scotland and had more importance than even Edinburgh Castle? Or that Mary Queen of Scots spent most of her childhood there?
Those facts are just a tiny part of Stirling Castle’s story and you’ll find there’s a huge amount of history to unearth when you visit it for yourself, and once you do you’ll start to appreciate why this historic site is billed as one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions.
The castle sits on top of an enormous pinnacle looking out over the Stirling countryside and it must have seemed utterly impenetrable back in the day, which I guess is the reason it served as a royal palace for so many years.
There’s a lot to do at Stirling Castle and you’ll no doubt spend the first half-hour of a visit admiring the views from the battlements, but head indoors and you’ll soon find there’s a lot more to enjoy there than picturesque views.
Inside the main courtyard you’ll see the Royal Palace and the Great hall, both of which have been restored back to their original condition so you’ll get to see the castle just as it would have looked 500+ years ago.
The palace, in particular, is a really interesting place, full of original artworks and furniture and it does a first-class job of transporting you back in time to the reign of James V – partly helped by the tour guides dressed in character costume who’ll be only too glad to tell the tales of some of the castle’s most famous inhabitants.
There’s also a museum on the site that explains the history of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and there are the Queen Anne gardens where you’ll get an overview of both the castle and the Stirling countryside, while a cafe with a rooftop patio allows you to soak up the atmosphere of the place with a coffee and a bite to eat.
Address: Drumnadrochit, Inverness, IV63 6XJ
Contact details: Telephone 01456 450 551
My complete guide: A Guide to Urquhart Castle
Just like Eilean Donan, I bet you’ve already seen Urquhart Castle even if you’ve never actually been there. That’s not because it’s particularly big or impressive (it’s really just a collection of ruined walls) but because it’s situated in a spectacular setting on the shores of every tourist’s must-do Scottish attraction – Loch Ness.
To be honest with you, there are plenty of other lochs in Scotland that are more scenic – Morlich/Lomond/Shiel/Awe for example – but because Ness has the legend of the monster associated with it it seems to draw in the most visitors.
That’s ok though because while it’s not the best loch (in my opinion) it’s still worth a visit, and the castle located mid-way on its western shore goes some way towards explaining why the area remains such a popular tourist attraction.
Urquhart Castle is easy to reach from either Inverness to the north or Fort Augustus to the south and it’s worth visiting to experience both the views looking across the great body of water and the thousand years of history to be explored in the castle ruins.
The story of the castle begins in the late 700s when it was used by the Picts (descendants of Scotland’s Iron Age tribes) who are believed to have established a fort on the site, but that was torn down and replaced with the castle we see today sometime in the 13th-century.
At one time Urquhart Castle was integral to the defence of the Highlands, but after being destroyed by the English military in the 17th-century it was abandoned and left to fall into ruin. Thankfully, it was handed over to state care in 1911 and an extensive plan of restoration has brought it back to the condition we see it in today.
While it was a popular attraction for many years it only transitioned into one of the country’s top tourist destinations when Historic Scotland developed the multi-million-pound visitor centre with its exhibitions, cinema, restaurant, and shop, and today it’s the third most-visited historic site in Scotland after the castles at Edinburgh and Stirling.
Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland. With passes starting at just £35 (as of 2019) it’s an absolute bargain!
I hope this list of Scotland’s castles has given you a few ideas for places to visit, or at least inspired you to explore parts of the country that you might not have otherwise considered travelling to.
There are literally hundreds of other castles I could add to this list and I might include a few more over time, but to be honest, if I added all of them into one article it would make it look more like a history book and there’s a distinct possibility you’d soon get overwhelmed.
So instead, may I suggest you bookmark the Out About Scotland website and check back often as I’ll be updating it regularly with new guides, videos, and virtual tours so you can see exactly what Scotland’s best attractions are like before you even leave home. That way you can plan your visit with a much better understanding of what’s available to you.
Till then, if there are any castles you’d like to see added please drop me a message via the contact form and I’ll see what I can do.
Thanks for reading, and happy travels.