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Scottish Castles – The 10 Most Dramatic Castles in Scotland

Posted on May 30, 2016 by Meike van Krimpen

When we think of Scottish Castles they range from many grand, ancient and theatrical castles to comely palaces, impressive strongholds, ruined fortresses and intimidating keeps.

Although Wilderness Scotland holidays focus on taking people to Scotland’s most wild and beautiful places, we’ll often visit Scottish castles on our trips. To give you a flavour of what we’re boasting about, in no particular order we present our 10 most dramatic castles in Scotland, some of which we visit on our adventure holidays.

1. Castle Tioram

Scottish Castles

A group of kayakers prepare to get back on the water with Castle Tioram sitting prominently in the background.

 

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 strictly forbidden.

2. Eilean Donan Castle

 

Scottish Castles

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, 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.

3. Glamis Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

Glamis Castle is known primarily for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and as the birthplace of the Queen Mother, HM Queen Elizabeth. However, it’s made it on to this list  for being rumoured to be one of the most haunted castles in Britain.

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 back story.

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.

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4. Kinloch Castle

Scottish Castles

Kinloch Castle is probably one of the most comely looking castles on this list. It’s rated dramatic for it’s 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 it’s 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.

5. Dunnottar Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

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 gate house.

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.

Which of our Tours Visit Castles? Want to Stay in a Castle?

Below we’ve listed the tours we take and the castles we visit (v) or pass on our way.

Wilderness Scotland Tours The castles we visit
Road Cycling – The Grand Tour Inverness Castle, Cawdor Castle, Lochindorb Castle, Castle Grant, Balmoral Castle, Glamis Castle (v), Aberdour Castle and Edinburgh Castle.
Sea Kayaking – West Coast Explorer We actually sea kayak right past Eilean Donan Castle…pretty cool. (check out the header image)
Open Canoeing – Great Glen Canoe Trail  Inverlochy Castle, Glengarry Castle, Urquhart Castle, Inverness Castle.
Luxury Adventure – Highland Perthshire Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Blair Castle (v) and you’ll actually stay in Fonab Castle.
Wilderness Walking – Argyll and the Isles   Gylen Castle (v), Kilchurn Castle.

6. Urquhart Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

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.

7. Lochranza Castle

Scottish Castles

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.

8. Duart Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

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 the 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 make for good photo opportunities such as the one pictured above.

9. Ardvreck Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

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 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.

  • If you are driving the North Coast 500 with us, Ardvreck castle comes as a highly recommended stop.
  • We also hike to the ruins of Ardvreck during our ascent of Stac Pollaidh on our walking trips to the Wilds of Assynt.

10. Tantallon Castle

Scottish Castles

Photo Credit: Visit Scotland

 

Last but certainly not least on this list of the most dramatic Scottish castles 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 consists 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 it’s enormous seabird colony. Hours can be spent watching oyster catchers and gannets diving for fish.

The little harbour featured in the picture is Seacliff Harbour, the smallest and most scenic harbour in the U.K! 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.

Visit Scotland’s Iconic Castles for Yourself.

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.

About the author

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Meike van Krimpen

With my parents' work taking my family away to exotic countries meant that I grew up between Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands and have had the opportunity to visit some amazing countries along the way. This has left me with an unhealthy addiction to curry and all things spice, and also to travelling! When it was time to go to university I wandered off to Scotland for a new adventure and have somehow not managed to leave yet!

Read more articles by Meike


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