Visiting castles are always at the top of my list of places to visit. I can’t seem to get enough of them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and each are unique in their own right. Some are only ruinous remains; while others still have inhabitants living in private quarters within their walls. I’ve visited over 30 in various locations and have yet to find one I don’t like.
Creating this list of my 10 favorite was more difficult than I first imagined. Just narrowing it down to 10 was almost a lesson in futility; they are all so unique and each has something special to offer. I have not listed them or ranked them in any particular order of preference. I just offer them for your pleasure. You can decide the order they should be in.
Craigievar Castle near the town of Alford
(National Trust for Scotland)
What do I like about this castle?
For starters it has such a ‘fairy tale’ look about it. Heck, it even has a pinkish-colored harl coating on the outside! (It is reputed to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle motif.)
It’s toted by the guidebooks as “one of the most elegant examples of tower-house architecture from the 17th century. Inside, the collections reflect the taste and patronage of its inhabitants, ranging from medieval armory to portraits by Raeburn.” It certainly lived up to its reputation!
I especially enjoyed the guided tour they offer. Each tour guide escorts only about 5-6 people at a time. The tour lasts about 45 minutes to an hour and takes you all through the extensively decorated, ornate and authentically renovated interiors.
The cost of the tour is well worth it. It is quite fascinating, informative and it is easy to ask questions because of such a small group.
The grounds also have nice woodland pathways to follow, cows in the pastures and wonderful vistas abound in the surrounding landscape.
The castle originally included a walled courtyard with four round towers; only one of the round towers remains today.
Dunnottar Castle near the town of Stonehaven
(Scottish Tourist Board)
Dunnottar is a dramatic ruined cliff-top fortress perched at the water’s edge in a very magnificent & scenic setting complete with a piper!
That’s the part that drew me to it in the first place (the scenery not the man in a kilt! But I must admit it was a really nice touch!)
As I wandered around the many buildings here I discovered how important Dunnottar was in its day. This place was an impregnable fortress. It is full of history and even though I didn’t get a guided tour, it was very well marked and easy to follow. No rush – no crowds, plenty of time for contemplation and exploration.
I learned that its past is chuck full of historical figures including William Wallace & Mary Queen of Scots.
I also particularly liked it because at least 3 generations of great grand parents of my own Keith family ancestors lived here and carried the distinguished titles of the Earls Marischal – one of the most powerful families of the time. How cool is that?
Crathes Castle near the town of Banchory
(National Trust for Scotland)
It’s easy to spend an entire day at this enchanting 16th-century tower house Castle; so much to see and enjoy!
It has it all – a stunningly decorated interior jammed packed with treasures within its walls, exquisite world-renowned gardens – it even has a tree top adventure, ‘Go Ape,’ in the surrounding woodlands for the kid in all of us!
Although I visited in early spring, and therefore before the plethora of flowers were blooming magnificently, the garden did not disappoint. Every inch of every pathway offered a vista of garden fantasy and delight.
I especially enjoyed the ancient sculpted Yew trees and hedges.
Also available are wildlife ‘Ranger Walks’ in the nearby woodlands featuring talks on flora and fauna, ‘Arting Around’ craft workshops for children and they host numerous special events throughout the year. If you plan a visit, be sure to check their website for an interesting choice of upcoming events. After touring the extensive Castle and its gardens, you can relax and refresh at the on-site café and/or stroll through their gift shop.
Dunrobin Castle near the town of Golspie
Dunrobin is the first Castle I ever visited and will long remain among my favorites. As I approached the stately home following its beautifully tree-lined front carriage drive I was captivated at once.
It is located in the Highlands of Scotland in a beautiful setting overlooking the Dornoch Firth and is the seat of the Earl of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland.
The interior holds tons of exquisite furnishings and treasures and the self-guided tour winds through the various rooms and levels of the Castle with surprises around every corner.
It has its origins in medieval times and has been added to over the ages much like many Castles have evolved over the centuries. Through this charming round window you can see the evidence of the older part being integrated into the new.
I also am particularly fond of its French Formal gardens which were fashioned after the gardens at Versailles. Beauty Galore!
One of my favorite aspects of Dunrobin is its Falconry demonstrations conducted by the Castle’s own Resident Falconer in the gardens.
The Falconer provides a very informative, interesting, entertaining talk and live demonstration about the various birds of prey he cares for and trains upon the premises. A definite ‘must see!’
Cawdor Castle in the village of Cawdor
I love Cawdor. It has so many splendid features.
It is set amid gardens and woodland scenery with a river running through. There’s something ‘cozy’ about this place that attracts me time and time again.
It belongs to the Campbell family, in fact, the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor, still lives there if I’m not mistaken.
How can you not love it, starting with the drawbridge?
Take the self-guided tour inside, enjoying its finery. There’s even a dungeon!
“One curious feature of the castle is that it was built around a small, living holly tree. Tradition states that a donkey, laden with gold, lay down to rest under this tree, which was then selected as the site of the castle,” according to the self-guided tour literature. The remains of the tree may can be seen in the lowest level of the tower.
And then there are its numerous gardens…
The Walled Garden (originally planted in the 17th Century), the Flower Garden (18th century) and the Wild Garden (added in the 1960s).
There are hidden fountains in secret corners, a hedge maze and arbors to stroll under.
The property includes beautiful woodlands featuring numerous species of trees and lots of wonderful paths to follow crossing over and following the river.
There’s even a golf course!
When you’re done touring the Castle and its beautiful adjoining property wander down to the nearby village, catch a game of Lawn Bowling…
…visit the old church and wander among its delightful assortment of headstones…
… or whet your whistle at the local pub!
Eilean Donan Castle near the town of Dornie
(Conchra Charitable Trust)
This is one of the most iconic Castles and probably the most photographed!
Can’t imagine why!
This ancient island stronghold of the Clan MacKenzie and their allies, Clan Macrae, has possible roots dating clear back to the 6th or 7th century by an early Christian monastic cell.
Eilean Donan has made several appearances in films including being featured prominently in Highlander (1986).
The self-guided tour winds through each of the various buildings, inside and out.
One of the most outstanding features I enjoyed were the realistic and detailed models of people dressed in period clothing depicting life as it used to be.
In the kitchen for instance, it was all set up with cooks, scullery maids, food-laden trays and various elements of a royal feast being prepared. It is so well done, I felt like I was walking into a frozen time warp. There was even a cat chasing a mouse! It was extremely artistic and detailed; certainly the best of its type I’ve ever seen.
Back across the bridge on the way to the car park is a Visitor Center with a café where you can refresh and sit enjoying the magnificent view. The adjoining gift shop is also a shopper’s delight.
Stirling Castle in the town of Stirling
Stirling is another dramatic, iconic and Royal Family Castle example sitting atop an crag with steep cliffs on three sides.
It is extremely important historically as well as architecturally and offers everything a visitor could expect.
Beautiful kingly palaces and Great Halls, Chapels, ramparts with canons, guides dressed in period clothing …
…beautiful furnishings fit for a King and his Queen…
…and simply exquisite, ornate, hand-woven ancient tapestries to enjoy.
On another crag nearby stands the Wallace Monument commemorating Sir William Wallace, the famous 13th-century Scottish hero.
I also especially enjoyed exploring the numerous graveyards near the castle, particularly the ones adjacent to the King’s Knot garden below the castle.
Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh
According to the Historic Scotland website, ‘Edinburgh Castle has been at the heart of Scotland’s life for well over 1,000 years. Well defended on its tall volcanic crag, it has been occupied since prehistoric times. By the medieval era it was an important royal residence, and the city growing up around it became the nation’s capital.’
It is a beautiful castle with much to see; plan on being there for a while when you visit. Located at the top of the Royal Mile extending from Holyrood Palace at the lower end all the way to the Castle, it is truly magnificent.
Beautiful displays, entertaining introductory guided tours, and stunning displays of royal accoutrements will delight you at every turn. The “Honours of Scotland” (once saved at Dunnottar) are now safely housed here.
It has many buildings housing war memorials, precious jewels, hidden nooks and interesting stairs and walkways leading to new discoveries each way you turn.
One of the biggest canons I’ve ever laid my eyes on is here and the ramparts the canons are perched upon offer fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding city.
Historical figures and events are beautifully represented throughout.
Expect crowds, even in the off season, it’s not only one of my favorites, but the rest of humanity as well!
Dundonald Castle in the village of Dundonald
This castle was built by Robert II to mark his succession to the throne of Scotland. Some of its prominent inhabitants are in my Stewart ancestral lines, therefore it meant a great deal to me to wander through and connect with the place they lived in and fought for.
It now is in ruins and yet can easily transport me back in time. It doesn’t appear to be a castle that is visited much and so I enjoyed the quiet solitude and having the place to myself. (Maybe it was just a quiet day…)
It has a small building at the base of the hill serving as the Visitor Center complete with a small café and gift shop. It also has a nice selection of models on display in its interpretive center depicting how the castle would have appeared at various stages of its development throughout the ages.
It appeared to me that this castle is often overlooked but to me it is a true gem of a find!
Culzean Castle near the town of Maybole
Last, but by no means least, I offer you a glimpse of yet another fine castle in Ayrshire, Culzean, sitting majestically at the water’s edge and surrounded by woodlands and unbelievable gardens.
Where do I start with over-the-top? Okay, how about when you first enter the front door?
Immediately upon entering I felt as though it was required to relinquish my weapons so they could be incorporated into a display! Wowsers!
Exploring this amazing house was so much fun! Every room felt as though its inhabitants were ‘out for the day’ and that they would return at any moment. Extremely authentic and incredibly detailed!
Beautiful paintings and portraits throughout…
…other expertly crafting and detailed creations of particular interest
Fully stocked servants quarters; a fully stocked kitchen! (Geez how many copper pans does one need?) The hearth even contained a favorite Scottish quote of mine, “Waste Not Want Not.” It is carved into a tile and mounted for all to see and heed.
Then there’s the incredibly gracious and varied gardens; I’ll let them speak for themselves.
They even have their own private herd of deer and a very large lake with a cute little cafe to get something to eat while you enjoy the view.
The estate is quite expansive. I spent the good part of a day exploring and didn’t begin to discover so many of its ‘hidden charms!’ Just driving along the wooded drive from the highway, passing the gatehouse and approaching the Castle was an adventure providing exciting anticipation. I would have loved to follow the path around the lake but my feet refused and couldn’t be persuaded. (Okay, okay! Here – twist my arm – guess I’ll have to go back one day and continue my adventure!)
Which Castle is your favorite? Is it possible to even have a favorite?
Just like the people who built and inhabited them, each Castle is as unique as their stewards’ fingerprints. The land they occupy is diverse and the garden delights they present to us is a never-ending splendor to the senses.
Planning a trip to Scotland? (If not, maybe this has stirred up some interest and desire.)
Want to visit and explore some Castles of your own?
Check out a couple of websites. I highly recommend the National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland and Scottish Tourist Board for starters. The first two manage a huge inventory of properties; the third has a lot of information about visiting the beautiful country. Many castles are still privately owned, however, and therefore are not among their listings. These privately-owned properties usually have their own website that you can search for on Google.
When I travel to Scotland and plan to visit numerous castles, I like to buy a membership for both of the organizations before I leave. By the time I visit at least 2 or 3 properties, the membership has paid for itself. As a member, not only do I gain free admission to any of their properties by presenting my membership card at the door, but I also get free parking and sometimes other discounts in the gift shops and cafes. Check it out.
Until the next time….