Although Wilderness Scotland holidays focus on taking people to Scotland’s most wild and beautiful places, we will often visit a Scottish castle or two on our trips. Castles have become iconic to Scotland, with between 2,000 and 4,000 registered castles and of which hundreds are open to the public.
Above all, Scottish castles are known for their drama. They are often formidable structures set in magnificent scenery. Castles have played an important role in Scottish history, frequently the focal point of dispute. Castles which are open to visitors usually feature detailed exhibitions and have beautiful grounds begging to be explored.
To give you a flavour of what we’re boasting about, in no particular order we present our 15 most dramatic castles in Scotland, some of which we visit on our adventure holidays.
Location: Loch Moidart | Age:13th century | Clan: MacDonald
Sitting on a small tidal island in Loch Moidart, you’ve got to admit that it’s set in one of Scotland’s most spectacular vistas. The Castle ruins can only be accessed on foot during low tide or via the water by canoeing or sea kayaking up to it. Castle Tioram once boasted an incredibly strategic position, controlling access to Loch Shiel. Castle Tioram is in a complete state of ruin and entry to the castle is restricted.
We’ll paddle past Castle Tioram and land on the island on our Atlantic Coast sea kayaking trip.
Location: Kintail | Age: 13th century | Clan: Mackenzie
By far one of the most photogenic Scottish castles, Eilean Donan Castle has gradually become one of Scotland’s most recognisable landmarks. Like Castle Tioram mentioned above, Eilean Donan was built on a tidal island. It sits between where Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh meet. The castle was lovingly rebuilt and restored in the 20th century, which included the construction of the now so familiar bridge. The castle has been open to the public since 1955 and comes equipped with an ample carpark and visitor centre. TIP: Wait till dusk to get that stunner of a shot as the floodlights go on.
Learn more about Eilean Donan in our blog Scotland’s Most Photographed Castle.
Location: Strathmore | Age: 14th century | Family: Royalty
Aside from tourists tripping over their tongues trying to pronounce Glamis, (check this here) you can reportedly find 4 residential ghosts. These mysterious ghosts have been seen numerous times by various witnesses and all come with an interesting backstory.
One of the other legends includes a hidden chamber that to this day has not been found. This hidden chamber has been rumoured to contain either a monster, a vampire, a ghost and even the Devil himself playing a game of cards.
We visit Glamis Castle on our road cycling Grand Tour of Scotland.
Location: Isle Of Rum | Age:20th century
Kinloch Castle is probably one of the most comely looking castles on this list. It’s rated dramatic for its location on the isolated Isle of Rum in the Small Isles. The castle was completed around 1900 and was a no-expense-spared luxury retreat for George Bullough. George had inherited the island from his father who had bought it to use as a private shooting estate.
The castle was built using eye-catching pink sandstone, featuring modern plumbing, an internal telephone system, fabulous landscaping, a variety of exotic pets such as crocodiles and parrots and even its own orchestrion. In today’s money, the cost of building the castle is equivalent to around £15 million pounds! The castle lived up to the extravagance that it was built for, used for hosting glamorous balls and entertaining hunting parties.
After George’s death, the castle was sold to a government agency and became a National Nature Reserve. The castle and island are now owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage.
Sometimes on our walking holiday to Knoydart, our clients will visit the Isle of Rum and Kinloch Castle on a day trip.
Location: Aberdeenshire | Age: 13th century | Clan: Keith
Perched precariously on a jutting headland overlooking the North Sea, this imposing medieval fortress is definitely up there as far as dramatic castles go. It oozes impregnability, surrounded by sheer cliffs and the raging north sea. The only realistic way to enter the castle is via a short and exposed stretch of land and up through the gatehouse.
The remaining ruins are a tribute to the castle’s fascinating and violent history. The exposed castle walls are peppered with gun ports and arrow loops, ensuring that any invaders could be quickly dispatched when trying to approach the castle.
In contrast to Dunnottar Castle‘s turbulent history, the modern-day ruins make for a wonderful day excursion in Aberdeenshire. If visiting from Stonehaven, an impressive 30-45 minute walk along the cliffs takes you straight to the castle. TIP: Make sure ahead of time that the paths are open. They are sometimes closed due to landslides.
If pressed for time, facing closed paths or not able to do the longer route; there is a public car park close to the castle. After a 5 minute walk past some fuzzy Highland cows, you are rewarded with fantastic views and photo opportunities of the castle.
Location: Loch Ness | Age: 13th century | Clan: Urquhart
Formerly one of Scotland’s biggest castles, the ruins of Urquhart still show what a grand and imposing presence it must have been. What it’s got going for itself is location, location, location.
Commanding spectacular views on the banks of Loch Ness, the castle has seen plenty of bloody history and fabled Nessie sightings. It’s now one of the most visited of Scottish castles! It’s a frequent stop on various Nessie tours and also positioned conveniently along the main road connecting the North to the West of Scotland.
Learn more about Urquhart’s turbulent history in our blog: Urquhart Castle – History, Nessie & Sherlock Holmes
Location: Arran | Age: 13th century | Clan: Stewart
This 16th-century tower house can be found sitting on the shores of Loch Ranza on the Isle of Arran. On first sight, this lonely ruin looks like any other tower house found in Scotland. It’s actually an old hall house which was converted into a tower house. Lochranza Castle is a good spot for a picnic if you ever visit Arran, it’s got beautiful views of the village and out to the Sound of Argyll.
Ride up to Lochranza castle on our Arran, Islay & Jura road cycling holiday.
Location: Isle of Mull | Age: 13th century | Clan: Maclean
The Scottish do like building imposing castles on top of cliffs, don’t they? Found on the Isle of Mull, this bulky keep stands guard at the mouth of Duart Bay. To this day Duart Castle is the seat of Clan Maclean, one of the last privately owned Clan castles in Scotland!
The MacLean clan feature in a variety of bloody stories from the area, giving Game of Thrones characters a run for their money! Deadly weddings, torturing family members, kidnapping and various murder attempts, just to name some of the rumoured misdeeds.
Tours are restricted to certain sections of the castle as the rest is still kept as a family home. The castle is impressive from pretty much all angles, however, several ferries pass the castle which makes for good photo opportunities such as the one pictured above.
We pass the castle on the ferry on our Mull, Staffa & Iona wildlife holiday.
Location: Assynt | Age: 16th century | Clan: MacLeod
Ardvreck Castle is a spectacularly located ruin on the shores of Loch Assynt in Sutherland. Little remains of the tower house to this day but you can still walk up to it on good paths from a nearby carpark. The surrounding scenery of Loch Assynt and Sutherland’s hauntingly beautiful skyline is what makes these ruins worth visiting.
The original castle is said to be built by Clan MacLeod of Assynt in the late 1590s, but control of the lands was lost to Clan MacKenzie in the 1670s. Ardvreck’s most notable moment in history was in 1650 when the Marquis of Montrose came seeking shelter at the castle after the battle. It’s said that the Marquis was tricked into the castle with the promise of sanctuary. Instead, he was betrayed, taken as a prisoner and handed over to the Covenanters to be hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor in Edinburgh. This lack of Highland hospitality is what was said to mark the oncoming decline of the MacLeods of Assynt.
Location: North Berwick | Age: 14th century | Clan: Douglas
Next up on this list of the most dramatic castles in Scotland is Tantallon Castle. An excellent day trip from Edinburgh, a visit to the castle can be combined with some fish and chips in the charming coastal town of North Berwick nearby. The ruins consist mostly of a 12 feet thick and 49 feet high wall. The wall sets the tone immediately, this castle has seen a lot of battle.
Numerous battles and sieges have battered the castle since it’s construction. It was the final siege by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1651 which left the castle in the state of ruin it is today. However bloody the history, it will all be left to the wayside once you see the view. The castle sits on top of formidable sea cliffs which overlook the famous Bass Rock and its enormous seabird colony. Hours can be spent watching oystercatchers and gannets diving for fish.
The little harbour featured in the picture is Seacliff Harbour, the smallest and most scenic harbour in the UK! Definitely go for a walk on the beach at Seacliff just down from the castle. The harbour is completely hidden from view till you’ve pretty much almost fallen into it when walking along the rocks. The harbour was blasted out of the red sandstone in 1890 by the laird at the time. The aim was to provide safe and sheltered mooring for local fishermen and landowners.
We visit Tantallon Castle on our Tour of the Scottish Borders road cycling holiday.
Location: Port Appin | Age: 14th century
Castle Stalker was built on a tidal island in Loch Laich near the coastal village of Port Appin, and ticks the box when it comes to dramatic locations. The castle is privately owned, although tours can be arranged. The castle is most well known for being featured in Monty Python – The Holy Grail as the “Castle of Aaargh”.
The castle’s history is quite turbulent, having changed hands a few times and being the site and cause of a battle or two. It was originally built by the MacDougall clan, then taken over by the Stewarts when they received lordship over Lorn. Ownership changed a few times over the years between the Campbells and Stewarts over varying reasons and finally, the castle was abandoned by the Campbells and bought privately. Learn more about Castle Stalker and the Campbell Stewart conflict.
Enjoy a private tour of the castle on our wildlife holiday to Mull, Iona, and Staffa.
Location: Thornhill | Age: 17th century | Clan: Douglas
Drumlanrig Castle is a truly remarkable building. Built out of the red sandstone typical to Dumfries and Galloway, the castle is a beautiful example of 17th century Renaissance architecture. It’s often referred to as the ‘Pink Palace’ due to its colour and it’s also absolutely enormous, boasting 120 rooms, 17 turrets, and 4 towers. Drumlanrig is as opulent on the inside as it is on the outside, with beautifully decorated rooms and fabulous furniture and artwork.
Drumlanrig was built to reflect the status of the freshly minted 1st Duke of Queensberry, the descendants of which, the current Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry, still use Drumlanrig as their Dumfrieshire home.
If the castle is not open to the public, it’s still worth visiting for a tour of the elaborate and extensive gardens on the estate which are open daily from around the start of April to the end of September.
Complete a 12-day, 750km long road cycling adventure at Drumlanrig on our 5 Countries tour.
Location: Edinburgh | Age: 12th Century – 21st Century
Edinburgh Castle is without a doubt the most famous castle in Scotland and an Edinburgh icon, perched on an ancient volcanic plug overlooking the city. The fortress has been a royal castle since the reign of David the 1st in the 12th century and has been a royal residence at times, but since the 17th century, it was primarily used for housing military barracks. The castle has changed hands countless times over the course of history and historians claim that it is one of the most besieged castles in the world.
At present, Historic Environment Scotland manages the castle and it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Scotland. It now comprises of several museums, exhibitions, and displays the Scottish crown jewels. The cost of entry to the castle is steep, but you can easily spend a whole day there exploring the various nooks and crannies. TIP: The famous Edinburgh Military Tatoo takes place on the esplanade in front of the castle every summer and is definitely worth experiencing.
Visit Edinburgh Castle on a self-drive adventure from Edinburgh to the Highland Perthshire.
Location: Linlithgow | Age: 12th Century
Linlithgow Palace, 24 kilometres west of Edinburgh, was one of the main residences of the Scottish monarchs, and Mary Queen of Scots’s birthplace. The ruins of the palace at present-day suggest the former grandeur of the Royal Residence and ‘pleasure palace’. The Stewart family preferred Linlithgow to Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle, and invested greatly in rebuilding and maintaining the palace for many years. However, after the royal court was moved to London in 1603 the palace fell into disrepair. The palace has been twice destroyed by fire, once in the 1400s, and the last in 1746. Cumbernauld’s troops set the castle ablaze, on their march to meet Bonnie Prince Charlie on the battlefield at Culloden.
Today, the castle is a perfect day trip destination from Edinburgh. If you are an Outlander fan, some scenes were filmed at Linlithgow palace, and you can plan yourself a day filled with Outlander destinations as there a few nearby with Bo’Ness, Blackness Castle and Midhope Castle all within 15 minutes drive from each other.
Location: Golspie | Age: 13th Century | Clan: Sutherland
The French renaissance style architecture of Dunrobin Castle is striking and uncommon in Scotland. The castle is also one of the oldest great houses that has been continuously inhabited, firstly by the Earls and later by the Dukes of Sutherland. In its original form, the castle was a fortified hill fort but it has seen many additions and renovations over the hundreds of years that followed. The castle as you see it today is the result of work done by Sir Charles Barry in 1845 and later Sir Robert Lorimer in 1915. The castle has led a bit of a double life, functioning as a hospital during the First World War, and later as an all-boys boarding school for a period of 7 years.
Visitors to the castle will be delighted by the fascinating museum located within castle grounds, and the beautiful gardens. Along with the exterior changes, Sir Charles Barry also laid out the extensive French gardens which were inspired by the Palace of Versailles. Summer visitors get to enjoy falconry displays in the gardens with a visit to the castle.
You can include a visit to Dunrobin Castle on our Self-Drive – North coast 500 itinerary.
As a quintessential Scottish experience, we do include the occasional visit to castles within our tours but we like to do it in our own special way.
Rather than take the ‘official tour’ for instance, at Eilean Donan (in the header image) we like to sea kayak right up to the ramparts, paddle under the bridge and generally attack it from the sea. The same goes for Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness where we quietly approach and plan our ambush by canoe. By land it’s a slightly different tactic and on the Grand Tour we see an incredible 8 castles en route from Inverness to Edinburgh (we promise to do some actual cycling) and the one where we continually manage to sack and claim for ourselves is Fonab Castle overlooking Pitlochry and Loch Faskally, here we enjoy 5-star hospitality every night.
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