For a relatively small country, Scotland boasts an incredibly diverse topography of lochs, glens and mountains. Dotted across that landscape are some 3,000 castles – almost one for every 100 squared miles. Many of them have played a starring role in hit TV shows and movies too. But which to visit? From tumbling ancient fortresses to sleek palaces, we’ve cherry-picked seven of the best castles in Scotland.
Where are the best castles in Scotland?
1. Edinburgh Castle (Edinburgh)
The Scottish capital’s most famous landmark, Edinburgh Castle dates all the way back to the Iron Age. It started life as a hill fort on top of the mighty rock, but when the Anglos invaded in 638 AD it took on its English name – Edinburgh. The town grew out from the castle, down the slope to form the Royal Mile.
It’s played a pivotal role in some of Scotland’s most important moments, from the Jacobite Uprising to the Jacobite Uprising. Famous residents include Mary Queen of Scots, King James VI, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott.
(Interested in visiting Edinburgh? Take a look at some of these interesting facts about Edinburgh before you pop off)
2. Stirling Castle (Stirling)
Perched atop Castle Hill and surrounded by snow-capped steep cliffs, Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s largest castles. It’s important too – before the union with England it was Scottish royalty’s favourite residence. It’s seen eight sieges, including the Wars of Scottish Independence. The last siege saw Bonnie Prince Charlie unsuccessfully attempt to take control of the castle in 1746.
A trip here offers a fascinating insight into the world of Scotland’s Renaissance kings and queens. From the Great Hall to the Palace Vaults, it’s brimming with tapestries, art and artefacts.
3. Dunrobin Castle (Sutherland)
The most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, Dunrobin Castle looks more like a French chateau than a Highlands palace. Think twirling turrets, spires and drawbridge and you’re almost there. We have Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament, to thank for its fairytale-like design.
It’s also the largest castle in the Northern Highlands too, boasting 189 rooms. The Earls (later Dukes) of Sutherland built the castle in the early 14th century and it’s been inhabited ever since, albeit in different guises. During World War I it acted as a naval hospital and between 1965 and 1972 it was a boy’s boarding school.
4. Eilean Donan Castle (Highland)
Possibly one of the most photographed castles in the world, Eilean Donan Castle is perched in a picture-postcard setting on a tidal island at the entrance of Loch Duich in the western Highlands. It’s named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in 617 AD. Legend holds that he established a church on the island, though there is no evidence of its remains.
Built in the 13th century, it quickly became the Clan Mackenzie stronghold. But when the Mackenzies got involved in the Jacobite rebellions of the early 18th century, the government destroyed the castle in 1719, so what you’re looking at isn’t actually the original. Lieutenant Colonel John Macrae Gilstrap re-built the castle in the 20th century.
5. Balmoral Castle (Aberdeenshire)
Say what you like about Queen Elizabeth II, she’s obviously got good taste. It’s been the Scottish holiday home of the Royal Family since 1852 when Prince Albert bought the estate from the Farquharson family. Architect William Smith redesigned the property and transformed it into one of the best examples of Scottish baronial architecture in the country.
Sprawling across around 50,000 acres, the working estate includes grouse moors, forestry and farmlands, as well as deer and Highland cattle. Despite being private property rather than part of the Crown Estate, you can visit the grounds, gardens and exhibitions.
This 17th-century fortress is squeezed between the epic Cairngorms National Park. It’s the stuff of fairytale fantasies, complete with turrets, spiral staircases and a spooky dungeon. By most castles standards it’s relatively small, concealing just 12 rooms charmingly furnished in true Renaissance fashion. The Earls of Mar built the castle in the 17th century as a base for hunting excursions in the Braes of Mar. The Jacobites set the castle alight in the first Jacobite Uprising and the Crown seized the castle after the Earl of Mar changed sides during the second rebellion.
The castle has had some impressive guests over the years, with appearances from Queen Victoria, Prince Phillip, and everyone in between. For the past decade, the local community has run the castle and it’s now undergoing impressive restoration works.
Located right in the heart of the Scottish borders, Floors Castle boasts sweeping views of the River Tweed and Cheviot Hills. The Innes-Ker family built it for the 1st Duke of Roxburghe over three centuries ago in 1721. The castle is packed full of art, tapestries and antiques collected over the centuries.
Beyond the castle, visitors can explore the Victorian Walled Garden, Millenium Garden, woodlands and river trails. YOu can even see the holly tree said to mark the spot where King James II was killed in a siege in 1460. There’s also a brilliant cafe offering lunches and light bites. As well as diving into the building’s history, visitors can take part in a whole host of activities, like fly fishing and grouse shooting.