As integral to the landscape as its lochs and glens, Scotland’s castles rank among the most striking and visited in the world – icons of the land’s historic fighting spirit, retelling centuries of clan warfare and bloody sieges by invading English armies.
It is estimated there were once up to 3,000 of them dotted throughout the highlands and lowlands, and about half of them survive today – many in ruins, though their massive craggy walls and battlements are all the more dramatic etched against spectacular settings of hills and lochs.
And now, as autumn arrives, is the time to experience them. In late September and early October, the dreaded midges – and most of the crowds – have gone, the days are still long, the weather is still mild, and autumn colours begin to suffuse their ramparts in a glorious farewell to summer. The bellowing of red deer stag and the clashing of antlers fills the air as rutting season (early September until late November) gets into full swing.
Wander among the gaunt remnants and it is easy to imagine echoes of merriment from banquets in great halls, and the clash of arms of kilted warriors on the parapets. Among the most atmospheric symbols of Scotland’s turbulent past, each one is a time machine transporting us to the eras of heroes Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, to a place of legends of ghosts, monsters, dragons and wizards.
Many of Scotland’s castles have been preserved and restored as private dwellings and public attractions; a few have been converted into luxury hotels allowing guests to live like clan chiefs of old; and some even allow camping in extensive grounds and stage open-air plays and musical and arts festivals.
To make the most of them in a single trip, the best approach is to select a few and plan a route around them, taking time to enjoy wonderful vistas along the way (as well as local highland games, if you’re lucky).
For a taste of the most dramatic options on offer, we suggest including as many of the following 10 as possible – a rundown that includes clan strongholds and baronial redoubts from Edinburgh to Braemar, each one suffused with dramas all its own.
So pack your bags, choose your route, and start exploring – just beware of ghostly pipers.
Let’s start with the undisputed laird and master of all. Perched on a craggy extinct volcano high above Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh Castle (tickets from £15.50) dominates the skyline like a Disney fantasy.
A mighty symbol of Scottish freedom, it has been virtually impregnable in centuries of warfare. Besieged 23 times – making it the most besieged place in Europe – it fell only twice: to Covenanters and to Cromwell’s army.
Dating from the 15th century, its treasures include the Honours (Crown Jewels) of Scotland, consisting of the crown, sceptre and sword of state. Don’t miss the Stone of Destiny, an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy used for centuries for the inauguration of kings.
It was here that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth in 1566 to her son and future king, James VI, who became King James I of England, and visitors can see both her bedchamber and the birth room, called simply Queen Mary’s room.
A spectacular highlight is the three-week-long annual military tattoo in August, when marching bands from all over the world fill night skies with the stirring skirl of pipes and drums and an array of traditional instruments (edintattoo.co.uk).
Beyond the castle walls, meander through the atmospheric old town, which has preserved much of its medieval street plan, and stroll along the Royal Mile that runs down from the castle to Holyrood Palace.
Where to stay: The Scotsman Hotel (0131 556 5565) has doubles from £305 per night
One of the country’s most historically important sites, Stirling Castle (tickets from £10) was the favoured residence of Stewart kings and queens, who came in times of peace to hold court and enjoy hunting and grand celebrations. It was here the infant Mary, just nine months old, was crowned Queen of Scots in 1543.
Like its big brother in Edinburgh, the castle sits atop a vast volcanic rock above a charming old town. During the Wars of Independence, it changed hands eight times in half a century, and the battles of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn were fought within sight of its walls.
Dastardly deeds took place here, notably the murder of the Earl of Douglas by James IV.
Today you can meet costumed characters in the roles of bodyguard, court official, maid of honour and servant, and performers who bring history to life in beautiful gardens. Highlights include the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal where Mary was crowned, and a Regimental Museum.
While in the area visit the monument to William Wallace, a huge tower overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and take a Bannockburn Battle tour.
Where to stay: The Stirling Highland Hotel (01786 272 727) has rooms from £110 per night
The Thane of Glamis, better known as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, stalked the majestic halls of Glamis Castle (tickets from £16) in the heart of Angus – and in real life, Scottish king Malcolm II was murdered here in 1034.
The family home of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, its red sandstone walls crowned with battlements and pointed turrets dating from the 17th century, Glamis is the epitome of baronial grandeur. It has royal associations as the childhood home of the late Queen Mother, as well as the birthplace of Princess Margaret in 1930.
It’s well worth taking a tour to discover the castle’s many tales and secrets – including chilling mysteries of a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on the battlements. One nameless terror was so dreadful that the 13th Earl of Strathmore warned: “If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret, you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.” His heir, perhaps understandably, flatly refused to have it revealed to him.
Extensive gardens include a Pinetum with a trail of sculptures depicting scenes from Macbeth capturing the madness and mental turmoil of the play. Local attractions include St Fergus’s Well, a natural spring near where Fergus the Pict, patron saint of Glamis, lived in a cave, and tours and tastings of the award-winning Gin Bothy.
Where to stay: The Royal Hotel & Spa in Forfar (01307 462 979) has rooms from £111 per night
A 17th-century castle with a colourful past, Braemar Castle (tickets from £12) is an iconic landmark in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, with castellated turrets, a star-shaped curtain wall and a bottle-necked dungeon.
Built by the Earl of Mar and home to the chiefs of Clan Farquharson, it has been a hunting lodge, fortress, garrison and family residence. Those who have called it home include the second Earl of Mar, who spent his childhood as a playmate of James IV; Finlay Mhor, the standard bearer for Mary Queen of Scots at the Battle of Pinkie; and the sixth Earl, who raised the Standard for the Jacobites’ 1715 rebellion and lost everything – his title, lands and the castle.
Unusually, it is now in the hands of the small local community under a 50-year lease, an arrangement intended to allow locals to raise funds to restore and conserve the castle. The forbidding exterior conceals a dozen rooms furnished as though the Clan Chief had just stepped out. Highlights include a grand dining room, gracious drawing room, Victorian bathrooms and delightful morning room.
Where to stay: Dalmunzie Castle Hotel in Glenshee (01250 885 224) has doubles from £175 per night
Visitors to this ancient baronial pile in hills overlooking the Firth of Clyde could be forgiven for thinking they’d wandered onto a film set.
In 2007, the 10th Earl of Glasgow – whose family have owned the castle since it was built in the 13th century – decided to brighten up the old place, inviting four Brazilian graffiti artists to paint its walls and a tower, producing a multi-coloured vision straight out of a fairy tale.
Historic Scotland approved the artwork on the condition it was removed within three years, but it proved so popular with the public that it has since been allowed to remain.
The estate (entry to the grounds is free, castle tours cost £10) is also open to the public as a country park, including a well-used family adventure playground with trail through a “Secret Forest” that leads to giants’ houses and crocodile swamps. There’s also a woodland adventure course that tests balance and agility on a circuit of wooden walkways, steppingstones, tunnels and swings.
In July the estate hosts a 6,000-capacity music and arts festival. Although the castle remains a private home, it opens for tours in the summer months.
Where to stay: The estate has its own glamping site (01475 568 685) with standard yurts (sleeping four) from £85 per night
Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan (tickets from £11) is the cinematic doyenne of Scottish castles. At the head of three great sea lochs on the approach to the Isle of Skye, its dramatic profile has drawn countless photographers and filmmakers – most notably for scenes in Highlander, and the James Bond escapade The World is Not Enough, in which it doubled as the Scottish headquarters of MI6.
With 13th-century origins, the present castle dates from the early 20th century. Its previous incarnation as a medieval stronghold of Clan Mackenzie and their allies Clan MacRae paid the price for supporting the Jacobite cause when three government frigates bombarded and seized it in 1719, before blowing it up and leaving it in ruins. Two centuries later, Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap, an officer in the Black Watch, restored the ruins as a family home, which is now open to the public.
Grand rooms are filled with period furniture, fine art and Jacobean artefacts, including dirks, duelling pistols and a claymore said to have been wielded at Culloden. Hugely popular, Eilean Donan has become an icon of the Highlands that likely features on more calendars and shortbread tins than any other.
While you’re there, make time for the nearby highland hideaway of Plockton, a charming straggle of stone cottages on the shores of Loch Carron that could lay fair claim to the most romantic scenery in Britain.
Where to stay: The Plockton Hotel (01599 544 274) has doubles from £160
Devotees of Downton Abbey may recognise Inveraray Castle (tickets from £16 or £8 gardens only) as the fictional home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Flintshire. In fact, the baroque palladian and gothic-style castle – framed by rugged highland scenery on the shores of Loch Fyne – is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll and the seat of the Clan Campbell.
The current clan chief, the 13th Duke of Argyll Sir Torquhil Ian Campbell, and his wife Eleanor are resolved to make the most of their 18th-century ancestral pile by sharing it with the public.
A highlight of the opulent interior is a dramatic Armoury Hall, soaring 69ft in height to the highest ceiling in Scotland. It contains 1,300 pieces of weaponry, including Brown Bess muskets, Lochaber axes and 18th-century Scottish broadswords.
The State Dining Room and Tapestry Drawing Room contain French tapestries, fine examples of Scottish, English and French furniture and countless artworks. A priceless collection of china, silver and family heirlooms spanning generations is illustrated by a genealogical display in the Clan Room.
The 16 acres of gardens are a seasonal riot of colour with rhododendrons, azaleas, roses and heathers, and the nearby nine-mile Crinan Canal provides a picturesque, navigable route between the Clyde and the Sound of Jura, which makes for a pleasant day excursion.
Where to stay: Brambles of Inveraray (01499 302 252) has doubles from £150 per night
The sprawling clifftop stronghold that is Culzean Castle (tickets from £20) rises above a huge estate of woods, beaches, secret follies and play parks, and was once the home of the Marquess of Ailsa, Chief of Clan Kennedy.
The 18th-century Robert Adams’ masterpiece is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, which allows the public to enjoy its opulent interiors and sweeping grounds with a Swan Lake and marvellous views of the Firth of Clyde.
When the Kennedy family gifted the castle in 1945, it requested that the top floor be converted into an apartment for Dwight D Eisenhower in recognition of his role as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. He stayed there four times – once during his tenure as US President, when it became his “Scottish White House”. The apartment has since been converted into a luxury six-bedroom hotel.
The castle treasures include one of the world’s largest collections of swords and flintlock pistols, and Adam’s dramatic sweeping oval staircase with soaring colonnades. In the grounds are restaurants, a second-hand bookshop, and miles of walking trails leading to idyllic picnic spots.
Where to stay: The aforementioned Eisenhower Hotel (01655 884 455) sits within the castle, and has rooms from £250 per night
The fictional home of Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor, Cawdor Castle (tickets from £8) was actually built 300 years after the real 11th-century events portrayed in Macbeth. The medieval tower house was erected near Nairn by the Thanes of Cawdor as a private fortress with a moat and drawbridge, turrets and turnpike stairs – the quintessential vision of a storybook castle. It has been home to 23 generations of the Cawdors, and presently to the Dowager Countess of Cawdor, stepmother of the 7th Earl.
To say she lives in some splendour is an understatement. The sumptuous rooms open to the public contain collections of rare Flemish tapestries, fine art and furniture, ceramics and sculpture spanning 3,500 years.
The drawing room is adorned with portraits of generations of Campbells, while the dining room is warmed by a magnificent stone fireplace, and the kitchen retains its 19th-century range and antique cooking implements.
The manicured grounds encompass three gardens, as well as the Cawdor Big Wood and a nine-hole golf course. Shakespeare comes alive every summer with open-air performances of his classic plays.
Culloden Battlefield, where the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion came to a bloody end, is a short drive from Cawdor and it is brought to life in emotive experiences in a visitor centre.
Where to stay: Carnach House in Nairn (01667 453 996) has rooms £135 per night
Among the UK’s impressive array of royal residences, Balmoral Castle (tickets £15) holds a unique position.
Purchased for Queen Victoria in 1852 by Prince Albert (who decided to demolish the site’s original 14th-century building, because it was “too small” for the royals), the new edifice was erected from local granite with an 80ft turreted clocktower.
Victoria famously described the Scottish baronial castle as her “dear paradise in the Highlands”, and it remains a favourite holiday home of the royal family: the relationship between Prince Charles and Diana is said to have flourished during a weekend at the castle, and Queen Elizabeth II spent her last days here.
From April to July, when royals are not in residence, the ballroom is open to visitors and holds an exhibition of photographs of the other rooms. The 50,000-acre estate is beautifully maintained, with woodland walks, shrubberies and gardens, and there is a collection of royal carriages and cars in the stables, as well as two-hour tours by Land Rover.
Where to stay: No 45 in Ballater (01339 755 420) has rooms from £145 per night
Have you visited any of Scotland’s grand castles? Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below