01 September 2021
Enjoy exploring Scottish history with History Scotland’s pick of ten top Scottish medieval castles, ranging from Scotland's oldest tower house, to the 'castle in the sea'.
Several of Scotland’s medieval castles, such as Edinburgh, Eilean Donan and Stirling receive several hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. We have omitted these from our ‘top ten’ and concentrated instead on alternative medieval fortresses.
1. Blackness Castle, Linlithgow
A 15th-century fortress built in the 1440s by Sir George Crichton, 1st Earl of Caithness, possibly on the site of an earlier fort. The castle is sited on the southern side of the Firth of Forth and with its imposing appearance, it’s easy for today’s visitors to imagine what life was like here when it was a state prison and stronghold for the powerful Crichton family.
Currently open throughout the year, 10am-4pm (except Friday and Saturday). Don’t miss the castle’s three towers: stem, main mast and stern – the latter tower was the site from which cannons were fired when the castle was under attack or siege.
Blackness, Linlithgow EH49 7NH; website.
2. Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire
Scenically located on the banks of the River Clyde near Bothwell, this large medieval castle, built in the late 13th century, played a key role in the Wars of Scottish Independence between Scotland and England.
Perhaps the most famous episode in the history of this mighty fortress was its 1301 siege by Edward I of England, when it was besieged by almost 7,000 soldiers, with its inhabitants holding out for a month before surrendering.
Don’t miss the prison tower and 14th-century chapel – built for contrasting purposes but each a key part of life in the castle during the Middle Ages.
Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10am-4pm throughout the year (closed 25, 26 December and 1, 2 January).
Castle Avenue, Uddingston, Bothwell, Glasgow G71 8BL; website.
3. Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries & Galloway
This medieval fortress might have a fairytale look but its appearance belies its status at the heart of border warfare in the Middle Ages. Built in the 13th century to an unusual triangular plan, it is surrounded by a moat and topped by impressive battlements. Like Bothwell Castle (above), Caerlaverock was placed under siege by Edward I of England, in the summer of 1300, and was forced to surrender within two days.
Today’s visitors can enjoy the castle’s countryside setting (the castle itself is closed at the time of writing in August 2021) and explore nearby Caerlaverock Nature Reserve.
Castle Road End, Dumfries DG1 4RU; website
4. Cawdor Castle, Invernesshire
This medieval castle was the home of the Cawdor family for over six centuries. Built as a private fortress in the late 14th century, it housed an incredible 23 generations of the same family. Visitors can explore twelve beautiful rooms including the tapestry bedroom, 17th-century kitchen, old kitchen and the ‘Tree Room’ which houses a 14th-century holly tree, around which the original castle was built.
B9090, Cawdor, Nairn IV12 5RD; website
5. Doune Castle, Perthshire
A medieval stronghold on the banks of the Ardour Burn, built around the year 1400 by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, the ‘uncrowned king of Scots’. Doune became a royal castle after the death of Robert’s son Murdoch, who was executed in 1424.
The castle’s Jacobite links come from the 1745 Rising, when it was occupied by Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his men, then subsequently used a prison for government troops captured at the Battle of Falkirk.
In more recent years, the castle has gained fame for its role as Castle Leoch in the Outlander TV series. Don’t miss the Great Hall with its musicians’ gallery and double fireplace. (Castle currently closed, check the website for updates).
Castle Hill, Doune FK16 6EA; website
6. Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire
The onetime seat of the chief of Clan Irvine is one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses and showcases 700 years of history, from a garden of historic roses to a 16th-century chapel.
The property was gifted to William de Irwin by Robert the Bruce and a Jacobean manor house was added later, followed by Victorian renovations – each generation adding its stamp to this unique building. Closed 1 Jan to 30 Apr, then open 10am-4pm Sat & Sun in May, 10am to 4pm Mon-Fri 28 May-30 Aug, 10am-4pm Sat & Sun 1 Sep-30 Nov.
Drumoak, Banchory AB31 5EY; website
7. Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll & Bute
This substantial medieval ruin, one of Scotland’s oldest surviving stone castles, was built for the Macdougalls before the year 1240, then captured by Robert the Bruce in 1308. The castle stayed in royal hands until the mid 15th century, when it was passed to the Campbell earls of Argyll.
Today’s visitors can see the castle’s impressive curtain wall, three-storey towerhouse and 13th-century chapel. (Castle currently closed, check website for details).
Castle Grounds, Dunbeg, Oban PA37 1PZ; website
8. Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye
Scotland’s oldest continually-inhabited castle was built in the 13th century and is the seat of MacLeod of MacLeod, chief of the Clan MacLeod – the family has occupied the castle continually for 800 years.
Explore ten different periods of building, from the 1200s through to the 1850s, when the 25th Chief carried out a romantic restoration, remodelling the building in a mock-medieval style. Open 14 May to 15 October, 10am-4.30pm.
Dunvegan House, Isle of Skye IV55 8WF; website
9 Glamis Castle, Angus
Witness to 1,000 years of history, the setting to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, childhood home of the Queen Mother and home to the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Glamis Castle has no shortage of headline history moments; indeed the site played a role in history even before the castle was built – King Malcolm II was murdered here in 1034, six years before Macbeth became King of Scots. In 1329 Robert the Bruce took Glamis into royal hands from the Balliol family and in 1400, building began on today’s castle.
Visitors can enjoy a guided tour around the castle, hearing stories from the building’s long and colourful past. Open daily, 10am to 5pm.
Glamis Castle, Glamis, Angus DD8 1AJ ; website
10. Kisimul Castle, Outer Hebrides
This ‘castle on the sea’ is reached by boat and is the seat of the chief of Clan MacNeil. Caisteal Chiosmuil, the island stronghold’s Gaelic name, means ‘castle of the rock of the small bay’. The castle’s first lord was Gilleonan Macneil and it was probably he who built the castle as a headquarters for his sea-faring clan.
Don’t miss the spectacular view across the bay from the castle battlements. (The castle is currently closed, check website for updates).
Castlebay, Isle of Barra HS9 5UZ; website
Please check with individual properties before travelling as Covid-19 restrictions can change at short notice and may affect visitor arrangements.
Image copyrights: Bothwell, Robert Brown; Caerlaverock, Tom Parnell; Blackness, Gene Selkov, Cawdor, John C Carnes; Doune, godot13; Drum, Oejulita; Dunstaffagne, Marina2014; Dunvegan, Neil Aitkenhead; Glamis, Le Cardinal; Kissimul, GerritR.