From hilltop citadels to turreted palaces, Scotland is renowned for its iconic castles. Whether you’re interested in romantic ruins, imposing fortresses or tiny, hidden gems, each and every castle– and there are some 3,000 of them — has an intriguing tale to tell.
Here are six castles where you can step back in time to learn more about the spirit of Scotland and its people. Each can be visited separately, or see them all on a road trip from Edinburgh to Skye.
Edinburgh Castle, the national symbol of Scotland, stands sentinel over the city from a high volcanic crag. Tied to 3,000 years of history, it was Scotland’s chief royal castle during the Middle Ages, and today, houses museums, a chapel, towers, and even a cemetery for officers’ pet dogs. There’s a lot to see here, and you’ll need the better part of a day to do it.
The castle’s Crown Jewels, called the “Honors of Scotland”, are the oldest royal regalia in the United Kingdom. They include a Crown, Scepter and Sword of State, first used together in the coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543. Locked in a chest after the 1707 union of the Scots and English crowns, they were all but forgotten, until writer Sir Walter Scott asked the Prince Regent to search for them 111 years later.
During World War II, the Crown of Scotland was hidden in David’s Tower — in a royal toilet closet. Not a bad hiding place, as the tower had thick stone walls which could withstand a mortar bomb. The walls couldn’t keep out disease, however. After the Siege of 1689, skeletons of 15 able-bodied men were found here as well as that of a cow, the only one wounded by a musket ball.
Scots love tradition, and the firing of Mons Meg, the One O’Clock Gun, is a popular one. No matter how prepared you are, you’ll jump when the cannon blasts. Unless you’re a local, that is. Scots set their time by it. First fired in 1861 to provide an audible time signal for ships in the Port of Leith, sailors used it to solve the problem of longitude and latitude, helping to build the greatest empire in history.
Edinburgh Castle also serves as the spiritual home of Scotland’s proud military tradition. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, one of the world’s greatest spectacles, is a program of bagpipe bands, battle re-enactments, national dancing and fireworks held every August.
Ironically, although built as a mighty fortress to keep people out, today the castle welcomes more than a million visitors a year.
Take a tour of Edinburgh Castle
When Scotland’s royals needed a break from the political intrigue of busy Edinburgh, they retreated to Linlithgow Palace, a regal getaway just 15 miles west of the city along the road linking Edinburgh with Stirling.
This 1424 palace overlooks a small inland loch and Linlithgow Peel, a park brimming with wildfowl, including slender-necked great crested grebes, the tufted duck, and the mute swan.
Scottish poet Robert Burns called Linlithgow Palace “a fine but melancholy ruin”, as a fire left it roofless and ruined in 1745. Still, some of the grandeur of the 15th and 16th centuries remains, a time when it was one of the principal residences of the monarchs of Scotland.
You’ll feel a sense of awe as you enter the courtyard, with its three-tiered ‘wedding-cake’ fountain adorned by carvings of musicians and mermaids. After all, somewhere among these ancient ruins exists a room that served as the royal nursery for Mary Queen of Scots, among other royals. That was back in 1542, and while it’s not known exactly which room it was, there are several possibilities.
One, at the top of the northwest tower, is called Queen Margaret’s Bower. You can reach it by climbing the Queen’s Turnpike stair. Perhaps a nursemaid once held baby Mary here, a baby who’d be crowned queen at less than a year old. We may never know, but Mary became one of the most romantic and tragic figures in British history.
Enjoy the tower’s panoramic views, then descend to admire the rest of the palace, including the stone-carved figures of angel musicians in the Royal Chapel and the Oriels, elegant projecting windows off the king’s and queen’s bedchambers.
Book a tour of Linlithgow Palace
Mary was crowned Queen of Scots at Stirling Castle, 22 miles away. It’s now a symbol of Scottish independence and a source of national pride.
Legend says that castle rock, upon which Stirling Castle stands, was the seat of King Arthur. From its imposing position, that’s not hard to imagine. The castle towers over some of the most famous battle scenes in Scottish history, including the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace, known as ‘Braveheart’, defeated the English in 1297.
Inside the castle, costumed guides greet you in the magnificent Great Hall, the largest medieval banqueting hall ever built in Scotland. Graced by five enormous fireplaces and a hammerbeam roof, this hall was created for huge celebrations and occasions of state, which, in the 1500s, could be highly extravagant.
On one such occasion, for the baptism of his son Henry in 1594, James VI held a lavish banquet in which the fish course was served from a huge model ship decked with firing cannons.
In James V’s Palace, you’ll see how the royals lived. They may have enjoyed some games here, too — the world’s oldest surviving football, made around 1540 from a pig’s bladder and a leather skin, was found in the Palace rafters.
In the Great Kitchens you’ll see how the lavish banquets were prepared. Then, for magnificent views, head outside to walk the castle walls, which were an important feature of the castle’s defenses.
It was from these walls that Scotland’s first recorded attempt at flight took place in 1507. John Damian, an Italian alchemist at the court of James IV, made a daring attempt to fly using feathered wings. He failed miserably, making an undignified landing in a dunghill.
Just 70 miles from Stirling, along a route that takes you up Loch Lomond’s western shore through the peaceful Trossachs National Park, you’ll find Inveraray Castle, built in the 1700s. It’s considered one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland, and is featured as the fictitious Duneagle Castle in the Downton Abbey Christmas special.
This castle tells the story of the Campbells, once the most powerful clan in the Highlands. You’ll see items unique to Scotland, such as a dirk and sporran collection belonging to Rob Roy MacGregor, the “Scottish Robin Hood”.
In the Armory Hall, impressive patterns of 16th to 18th century arms adorn the walls. One enamored visitor said, “When my six-year-old son saw the eye-widening display of old weapons up as far as the eye could see, he thought all his Christmases had come at once.”
Also treasured at Inveraray are its spectacular gardens, sixteen acres of lawn, flowerbeds, park and woodlands. One garden is known for its ‘Flag-Borders’, in which paths have been laid out in the shape of Scotland’s National flag.
Eilean Donan Castle
On the main tourist route to the Isle of Skye, about 134 miles from Inveraray, you’ll find Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most iconic images.
Located near the picturesque village of Dornie, the castle is strategically positioned where three sea lochs meet, amid the outstanding scenery of the Scottish Highlands. Thought to be the most photographed castle in the world, it might also be the most recognized. You may have seen it in films such as Highlander, Loch Ness, Entrapment, Made of Honor, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and the James bond film, The World is not Enough.
Eilean Donan is not exactly what it seems, however. Even though the island has been a fortified site for at least 800 years, the present building only dates back to the early 20th century.
Legends abound about the island, including a Gaelic tale that says it was named after Cu-Donn, King of the Otters, distinguished by his coat of gleaming silver and white. Supposedly he lived and died here, buried on the spot where the castle now stands.
Whatever the origin, the present castle, restored by the Clan MacRae, was designed using plans that stretch back to medieval times. The Banqueting Hall features massive medieval walls and a huge fireplace, along with romantic Victorian leaded Gothic windows. Tartan fabrics blanket the bedroom floors.
The castle itself may not be ancient, but its atmosphere evokes images of times past.
Visit Eilean Donan Castle on a tour from Edinburgh
Eilean Donan may have been named after the King of the Otters, but Dunvegan Castle, on the Hebridean Isle of Skye, has its own stories to tell. About 57 miles from Dornie, the castle has an exterior that to some, may seem drab. The interior, however, is captivating.
As the stronghold for the Clan MacLeod for nearly 800 years, Dunvegan houses the tattered remains of Scotland’s fabled Fairy Flag, thought to be the war banner of Viking Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, or perhaps, some believe, the silken robe of an early Christian Saint.
Hanging in the Drawing Room, which still retains the narrow slit windows of days gone by, the Fairy Flag is a time-worn relic that may pre-date the keep by 1,000 years. Today, the flag is protected by glass from those who might want to capture some of its magic with a pair of scissors.
Barely six-feet from the Drawing Room, you can peek into “the Pit”, a thirteen foot deep hole where prisoners were lowered or thrown in and left to die. Starving, they had to endure the smell of food drifting down from the nearby stairs which connected the Kitchen to the Drawing Room.
Outside, Dunvegan’s acres of mature sycamore woodland and seaside gardens, lush with native plants, are alone worth the drive to this northwest corner of Skye.
Dunvegan is the only castle of such antiquity to have kept its family and its roof for so long. Perhaps that’s why the Clan MacLeod’s motto is “Hold Fast”. A motto, I think, that invokes the true spirit of Scotland and its people.
– Melody Moser