01 January 2023
Our guide to the top castles open to the public during the winter months offers ideas for enjoying the country’s heritage and history throughout the year.
1. Brodick Castle
A red sandstone baronial style castle on the Isle of Arran which offers stunning views over the Firth of Clyde. A fortress has stood on this site since at least the fifth century AD and the current castle dates back 800 years, with major alterations made during 1844, during which the castle was almost tripled in size.
Today, visitors can see the castle as it would have been furnished in the early twentieth century, when it was the home of the Duke and Duchess of Montrose. There are collections of silverware, porcelain and trophies, as well as a display of 87 stags heads in the entrance hall.
Brodick Castle, Brodick, Isle of Arran KA27 8HY; tel: 0844 493 2152; website.
2. Caerlaverock Castle
A medieval stronghold which has the look of a ‘storybook’ castle with moat, twin towers and battlements. The castle’s proximity to the border with England means it has been involved in sieges and raids, and today’s visitors can see a siege warfare exhibition.
The castle has a triangle shape which is unique in Britain and the origins of the design are not yet understood. The complex is also home to the Nithsdale Lodging, a seventeenth-century property which stands in the castle courtyard.
Caerlaverock Castle, Caerlaverock, Dumries & Galloway DG1 4RU; tel: 01387 770244; website.
3. Castle Campbell
A medieval castle which stands high above the town of Dollar and was once a stronghold of the Campbell earls of Argyll, who were at the height of their political power in the Middle Ages. The castle’s fifteenth-century tower house is one of the best preserved in Scotland, and visitors can also see the outdoor pulpit from which John Knox preached.
Castle Road, Dollar, Clackmannanshire FK14 7PP; tel: 0131 668 8000; website.
4. Craigmillar Castle
A ruined medieval castle which includes a fourteenth-century tower house, a courtyard and gardens. The castle is known for its links with Mary Queen of Scots, who is said to have stayed at the castle as a guest of the wealthy Preston family.
The tower house is one of the oldest in Scotland and offers views across the city of Edinburgh. It stands seventeen metres high, with walls which are three metres thick in places. The rest of the castle developed around the ancient tower house as new buildings were added, making this a fascinating complex to explore.
Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh EH16 4SY; tel: 0131 661 4445; website.
5. Dirleton Castle
With eight centuries of history, Dirleton Castle is a fascinating ruin to explore, with the thirteenth century de Vaux towers (among the country’s oldest castle architecture), one of Scotland’s best preserved pigeon houses, an ancient prison and castle chapel.
The castle gardens include the world’s longest herbaceous border.
Dirleton Castle, Dirleton Road, North Berwick EH39 5ER; tel: 01620 850330; website.
MORE: Ten abbeys open in winter
6. Dunnottar Castle
A ruined medieval fortress (left) which stands in splendour on a rock promontory on Scotland’s north east coast. Many of Scotland’s most famous historical figures have visited this castle over the centuries, including William Wallace and King Charles II.
Visitors can explore the extensive ruins which include the chapel, drawing room, stables, storehouses and keep.
Dunnottar is open throughout the winter, weather dependent, so please telephone before making a visit during the winter months.
Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire AB39 2TL; tel: 01569 762173; website.
7. Edinburgh Castle
One of Scotland’s most famous historic buildings, Edinburgh Castle has been at the heart of history for more than 900 years. Located on an extinct volcano with wide-ranging views over the city and Firth of Forth, the castle is well preserved and is also home to the National War Museum.
Among the highlights of a visit are the Mons Meg gun, which is fired at 1pm daily; the royal palace with the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny; the Great Hall; and twelfth-century St Margaret’s Chapel, known as the oldest building in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG; tel: 0131 225 9846; website.
8. Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan (pictured top) is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles and known across the world as a symbol of Scotland. There has been a castle on the site of the current building for at least 1400 years and four different versions of the castle have been built since the thirteenth century.
The castle’s important position at the head of three sea lochs in the Highlands has meant that it has been bitterly fought over down the centuries and in 1719, it was partially destroyed in a Jacobite uprising, lying in ruins for almost two centuries before it was rescued in 1911 and restored.
Eilean Donan Castle, Dornie, by Kyle of Lochalsh IV40 8DX; tel: 01599 555202; website.
9. Stirling Castle
One of Scotland’s most historically important and complete castles, Stirling Castle (right) has been a fortress for at least nine centuries and was once a favoured residence of the Stewart monarchs. The palace has recently been refurbished to show what life would have been like here in the time of King James V.
Among the highlights of a visit are the Chapel Royal, the last royal building to be erected at Stirling; the magnificent Great Hall which formed the centrepiece of royal celebrations; and the Regimental Museum which explores links between the castle and the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.
Stirling Castle, Castle Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ; tel: 01786 450000; website.
10. Urquhart Castle
Urquhart is one of Scotland’s largest castles and stands on the banks of Loch Ness, where it served as a fortress for more than five centuries. The castle’s strategic position has meant that it has changed hands several times in its history and suffered raids from the Lords of the Isles during the fifteenth century.
Nowadays, visitors can explore the Grant Tower, with wide ranging views and see the Urquhart Ewer, one of the artefacts discovered at the castle during recent excavations.
Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness IV63 6XJ; tel: 01456 450551; website.
11. (bonus content!) Brodie Castle
The ancestral home of Clan Brodie, Brodie Castle boasts a fine collection of art and an outstanding library. Visitors can explore rooms of antique furniture, works of art and ceramics collected by the Brodie family over the centuries, and read a letter sent by Robert the Bruce about the Chief of Clan Brodie's argument with nearby monks.
Brodie Castle, Brodie, Forres IV36 2TE; tel: 01309 641371; website.
12. Huntingtower Castle, Perth
This medieval castle is connected with Mary Queen of Scots, as she stayed here during the 'chaseabout raid' with her husband Henry Lord Darnley.
Huntingtower, by Perth PH1 3JL; website
Originally published October 2014. Reviewed January 2023.
(images: Eilean Donan copyright Akela NDE; Caerlaverock, copyright Ronald Hanbury; Dunnottar copyright JJHake; Stirling copyright David Monniaux)