Scotland’s castles, over 2,000 of them, are dotted around the country. When you visit Scotland, you’ll want to explore at least one castle—they are as much a part of the country’s identity as whisky, tartan, and bagpipes. Castles arrived in Scotland in the 12th century and were often built of wood. By the late Medieval period, castles on the borders often had watchtowers. By the 15th century, royal palaces and castles were baronial estates. Queen Victoria rebuilt Balmoral Castle in the Highlands as her baronial retreat.
Following are ten Scottish castles. Put one on your must-see list!
Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh
Perched on top of an extinct volcano (known as the Castle Rock) in the middle of Scotland’s capital city, the iconic Edinburgh castle has a colorful history spanning centuries. A royal residence from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and at times a prison and an army garrison, the castle has been under siege countless times. The highlights include the 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel, the Stone of Destiny, the Scottish Crown Jewels and Mons Meg (a huge late-medieval siege cannon). The castle also hosts the highly popular Military Tattoo every August.
Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire
Visiting the haunting medieval ruins of the Dunnottar Castle atop a rocky outcrop rising out of the North Sea is an unforgettable experience. The once almost impregnable fortress has seen a lot of battles during its turbulent history, including attacks by Vikings in the 9th century. In 1297, it was captured by one of Scotland’s most famous folk heroes, William Wallace, and the Dunnottar castle is also where a small but determined garrison held back Oliver Cromwell’s army for eight months in 1651-1652, thus saving the Scottish Crown Jewels.
Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire
Once one of the largest castles in Scotland, the ruins of Urquhart Castle date back to the 13th to 16th centuries. Though little remains of the castle’s former glory (only the Grand Tower still stands proudly), the Urquhart Castle is one of the most popular attractions in the area nonetheless. And no wonder, the stunning location boasts one of the best views over the famous Loch Ness, while the dramatic history tells of numerous battles as the ownership of this military stronghold has been contested time and again by various clans as well as the Scottish and English armies.
Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire
The beautiful and well-kept Balmoral castle had its beginning as a hunting lodge for King Robert II in the 14th century, and has since been added to by numerous other royal residents. Today, it is in possession of the British royal family who acquired it in 1852. Surrounded by 50,000 acres of picturesque farmland and woods within the scenic Cairngorms National Park, visitors can explore the beautiful gardens, while the Castle Ballroom inside is open to visitors when the Royal Family is not in residence.
Stirling Castle, Stirling
The carefully restored Stirling castle has an important place among Scottish castles both historically and architecturally. Strategically situated on top of imposing cliffs in central Scotland, this large defensive castle has provided a backdrop to many pivotal moments in Scottish history and was the favored residence of the Stewart kings and queens. The past is brought alive by hands-on displays and costumed characters, which makes Stirling castle a great family destination.
Glamis Castle, Angus
The grand Glamis Castle, an award-winning fortress with red sandstone walls and pointed turrets located in a prehistoric village, is known as the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and counted among the most beautiful castles in Scotland. The home to the earls of Strathmore for over 600 years as well as the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth II, the castle has been adapted and changed numerous times, with the majority of the buildings dating to the 17th century. Today, visitors can enjoy a walk in the formal gardens as well as see the historic rooms on a guided tour.
Eilean Donan, Loch Duich
The Eilean Donan Castle is one of Scotland’s most photographed (and to many, romantic) castles. The fortified castle was first built on a small tidal island in the 13th century and has since been partially destroyed during the Jacobite rising, fallen into ruin and finally fully restored again in the early 20th century. Now connected to the mainland by a stone bridge, the castle has made an appearance in several films and television series.
Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire
The Baronial-style Castle Fraser numbers among the grandest castles in the country. Featured in the film The Queen (2006), this impressive five-storey tower house was constructed between 1575 and 1636 and offers wonderful views over the 300 acres of beautiful landscaped grounds and peaceful woodlands. Inside the castle, visitors can admire original furniture as well as Fraser family portraits.
Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire
The Craigievar Castle looks like it’s been picked straight from the pages of a fairytale book and is said to have inspired the design of Cinderalla’s castle in the Walt Disney movie. The enchanting pink-tinted stone walls and the iconic tower house are located among the rolling hills of Aberdeenshire’s beautiful countryside, and inside, visitors can admire an impressive collection of rare items, including art and weapons – all illuminated only by natural light, as they would have been in the past.
Culzean Castle, Ayrshire
Another Scottish castle poised dramatically on a clifftop along a rugged coastline, the Culzean Castle was featured at the back of a Scottish £5 banknote from 1987 to 2016. Originally built in the 14th century, the castle is now known for the elaborate trademark style of Robert Adams (who rebuilt the castle in the 18th century). Visitors can also marvel at medieval caves, a highly ornate greenhouse and 600 acres of beautiful gardens and woodland in the area. For anyone keen, it’s even possible to stay in the castle apartments as a paying customer.