Discover stunning cliff-top medieval homes, loch-isle fortresses, and right royal palaces.
One of the best perks of being in Scotland is that no matter where you are here, you’re never far from a castle. You can be driving along a winding coastal road, hiking over craggy mountain peaks, or sailing across a fog-sheathed loch, and suddenly you will see the outline of a castle honing into view. With so many magnificent fortresses, palaces, country estates, and dramatic ruins throughout Scotland, it is hard to narrow it down to just 10, but we’ve done our best.
Scotland’s most famous medieval fortress, Edinburgh Castle is the capital’s crowning glory, sitting proud on a mighty—and, fortunately, now extinct—volcano in the heart of the city. Having played host to kings, queens, soldiers, and prisoners for close to a millennium, it’s performed a key role throughout Scotland’s long and storied history. It also offers its visitors striking panoramic views of Edinburgh and the Lothians.
This imposing estate house has been an official residence of the royal family since 1852 and remains the Queen’s summer home of choice. It may not be as authentic as some of Scotland’s other castles (its 19th-century design is faux–Scottish baronial) but Balmoral Castle’s grandiose ballroom, formal grounds, and fascinating exhibits, along with its stunning Cairngorms National Park setting, make it a worthwhile stop.
The most postcard-perfect castle in Scotland, Eilean Donan sits pretty on a loch islet en route to the Isle of Skye. Often obscured by rolling fog, the 14th-century fortification—a merry mess of imposing towers, timber-framed roofs, and crooked staircases—connects to the mainland via a pretty, stone-arched bridge. For many, it looks as if it’s straight out of a fairy tale, which isn’t too far from the truth: It was used as the inspiration for the castle in Pixar’s Brave.
A true Scottish landmark, 13th-century Caerlaverock Castle is instantly recognizable for its rare triangular design. Although built to control trade, its strategic location on the border of Scotland and England inevitably led to a key role in the Wars of Independence; it subsequently endured cycles of ruin, repair, and rebuilding. Today you can cross the castle’s wide moat and freely enter its lofty red-sandstone walls.
Built in the 1720s as the seat of the Duke of Roxburghe, the enormous Floors Castle remains the property of the duke to this day (the current inhabitant is Charles Innes-Ker, the 11th Duke of Roxburghe); that makes it the largest inhabited castle in Scotland. Despite this, the stunning listed building, with its grand rooms decorated with plush furnishings, old portraits, and precious porcelain, has guided tours during summer.
Beautiful Glamis Castle has a long history of royal connections, from Macbeth, King of the Scots (who was the Thane of Glamis, as well as Cawdor), to Princess Margaret (who was born within its four walls). Consequently, for any lovers of Shakespeare or the British royal family, Glamis Castle is a must-see sight.
With a beautiful backdrop of rolling green hills, the impeccably-preserved 16th-century Crathes Castle is one of Scotland’s lesser-known gems. Situated just outside Aberdeen, it is home to Jacobean rooms with painted ceilings, an impressive collection of portraits, and a vast estate of gardens, fields, and woodlands.
Within easy reach of Glasgow and Edinburgh, magnificent Stirling Castle was at the heart of the Wars of Independence, and the biggest prize for Robert the Bruce’s famous victory at Bannockburn. The castle’s royal connections lasted for centuries; it was later the childhood home of Mary, Queen of Scots. Today, exhibits tell the story of the castle’s roles as a battle site, royal palace, military center, and tourism hot spot.
Owned by one of the wealthiest families in Britain, pink-sandstone Drumlanrig Castle sits at the heart of an enormous estate. Period features dating back to the 16th century, a truly world-class art collection, and a host of activities on offer, from fishing to mountain biking, make this castle a great family day out.
The site of these captivating castle ruins, perched on a cliff overlooking the turbulent North Sea, is one of the most dramatic in Scotland. Famed for saving the Scottish crown jewels from the grasp of Oliver Cromwell, Dunnottar Castle now provides a fine sea-air stop on a drive from Dundee to Aberdeen.