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15 Top-Rated Castles in Scotland

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Jan 20, 2020

Little wonder Scotland is so often used as a backdrop for TV shows and movies. Not only is the scenery spectacular - there's something very romantic about the country's many attractive glens and rugged mountains - but this tiny nation possesses endless historic landmarks that lend themselves so very well to the big (or small) screen. This is especially true of the many Scottish castles that have survived the centuries.

Of the thousands of castles that once dotted the Scottish countryside - a figure some historians place as high as 3,000 - hundreds can still be seen today. Whether it's the ruins of an old fortress that suffered the indignity of siege and destruction, or the well-preserved majesty of an edifice as commanding as Edinburgh Castle, the crown jewel of castles, there's no shortage of these still impressive structures to visit.

To help you get the most out of your sightseeing opportunities, be sure to review our list of the top-rated castles in Scotland.

1. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Not only is Edinburgh Castle the most recognizable of Scotland's many historic fortresses, it's also one of the best preserved. Easy to get to thanks to its proximity to two international airports - Glasgow's and Edinburgh's airports are within easy reach by rail or car - this stunning castle attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year, all here for the same reason: to get a taste of life in medieval Scotland. The castle is perched high atop a dormant volcano, with commanding views over the city.

Established not only as a stronghold against invaders (it's reputedly the most besieged castle in the British Isles) but as a royal residence, its oldest parts - most notably St. Margaret's Chapel - date back to the early 1100s.

Highlights of a visit to Edinburgh Castle include seeing the Scottish Crown Jewels and the famous Stone of Destiny; displays of weaponry and armor; the Royal Palace of the Scottish kings; and Mons Meg, a huge 15th-century canon that's still used for ceremonial purposes and a daily salute.

Official site: https://www.edinburghcastle.scot

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Edinburgh: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle

An hour's drive west of Edinburgh is the historic town of Stirling. Here, you'll find the fully restored Stirling Castle, the "brooch of Scotland." Built in the 12th century, this stunning castle has been the scene of many important events in Scottish history, most notably as the place where, in 1542, Mary Queen of Scots was crowned.

A visit paints an authentic picture of life over the centuries, not just for royalty, but for those in the "lower" classes, too. In addition to visiting the old halls and chambers once frequented by Scottish royalty, guests can also explore the castle gardens, along with an old cemetery with its many monuments to significant characters from over the ages.

If traveling with kids, be sure to have them partake in programs, which allow them to dress-up in period costumes, as well as handle tools and utensils that would have been around at the time. Guided tours are available and are highly recommended; if you prefer to go at your own pace, grab one of the audio guides upon arrival.

Address: Castle Esplanade, Stirling

Official site: https://www.stirlingcastle.scot

3. Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle

Few legends stir the imagination quite as vividly as Scotland's Loch Ness, home to the mythical monster (apparently) of the same name. Loch Ness also just so happens to be where you'll find some of the country's most picturesque ruins: the 13th-century Urquhart Castle. Set on the southern shore of this deep lake, it's certainly a romantic spot, and framed as it is by water and the surrounding hills, it's become one of the most photographed (and recognizable) castles in Scotland.

Fun things to do here while sightseeing include taking a tour led by one of the attraction's costumed guides, or having the kids dress up in medieval costumes. Be sure to visit the Grand Tower with its incredible views over Loch Ness. Although much of the castle was laid to waste in the late 1600s, it's easy to see just how formidable a stronghold Urquhart once was.

Official site: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/urquhart-castle/

4. Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire

Balmoral Castle

If you're a follower of the Royal Family - or a fan of the hot TV series, The Crown - you'll already know a little about Balmoral Castle. Famous as the Queen's summer retreat (and one of the few residences she actually owns herself), Balmoral is set against a picture-perfect backdrop of mountains and glens in the Scottish Highlands. Although it's not open to the public when the Queen's at home, visitors are permitted when she's not around (generally spring to early summer).

If you're fortunate enough to have booked such a visit, you'll be permitted to view a variety of rooms, most notably the opulent Castle Ballroom, as well as have the opportunity to tour the grounds and gardens. Although it's a newer castle - the current structure was built in 1856, although it sits on the site of much older castles - it's certainly rated as one of Scotland's best castles to visit, when the occasion permits.

Official site: https://www.balmoralcastle.com

5. Eilean Donan Castle, Invernesshire

Eilean Donan Castle

Considered one of the world's most photogenic castles, Eilean Donan Castle - named after a Celtic Saint - is like something out of a painting by one of the great romantic artists of bygone years. Perched on an island in lovely Loch Duich and facing the Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan dates from the 1200s and is reached by a stone footbridge, adding to its charm and mystique.

It was fully rebuilt in the early 1900s after lying in ruins since the 1700s. A visit entails exploring a number of rooms and halls with displays of period furniture, along with an impressive collection of weaponry, some of which saw action at the infamous battle of Culloden. Tours are available from costumed guides and re-enactors, adding further to the fun.

Official site: https://www.eileandonancastle.com

6. Culzean Castle & Country Park, Ayrshire

Culzean Castle

In the eyes of many American visitors, charming Culzean Castle is possibly the most important of Scotland's many castles. Built in the late 1700s, this fairy-tale-like edifice was where General Dwight Eisenhower stayed for a period after WWII. The rooms in which "Ike" slept, converted especially for his use as a gesture of goodwill for having aided the British, can be rented for an overnight stay.

After exploring the castle's interior with its rich collections of furniture and weaponry - including a large collection of guns and swords - spend time wandering the grounds and gardens. Extending over some 600-acres, it's the castle's spectacular clifftop setting that draws the most gasps of appreciation, along with countless memorable selfies. If you're visiting in summer, be sure to check out the network of sea caves under the castle.

Official site: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/culzean

7. Glamis Castle, Strathmore

Glamis Castle

Famous for having been the setting of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Glamis Castle is in many ways the classic Scottish fortress. Featuring tall battlements with imposing turrets, this grand castle dates from the 15th century and also boasts a Royal connection: it was here that Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was born, along with her daughter, Princess Margaret (the reigning monarch, Elizabeth, also spent a portion of her childhood here).

In addition to enjoying some of its most impressive rooms as part of a guided tour - the castle is still the ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne - visitors are invited to spend time exploring the castle's 14,000 acres of grounds, including its forest trails and lovely gardens.

Official site: https://www.glamis-castle.co.uk

8. Inveraray Castle, Argyll

Inveraray Castle

Although not the most storied of Scotland's many great castles - battles were neither won nor lost here - Inveraray Castle is nevertheless one of the most popular castles among tourists. Built in the 1770s and still the ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll, Inveraray impresses most not because of its Gothic Revival exterior, but for the remarkably elaborate décor of its interior.

Once inside, visitors find themselves in awe of their Neoclassical surroundings, with room after sumptuously decorated room challenging the senses with their splendor. Must-sees here include the Drawing Room, which houses the family's collection of rare Beauvais tapestries; a large collection of weapons in the Armoury Hall; and the sumptuously decorated dining room.

If you can, be sure to spend time exploring the 16-acre gardens, perhaps following this up with afternoon tea in the tearoom.

Official site: https://www.inveraray-castle.com

9. Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven

Dunnottar Castle

Boasting one of the most impressive settings of any Scottish castle - and there's plenty of competition - spectacular Dunnottar Castle will be known to many for its numerous TV appearances. Set high above the North Sea with commanding views over both the water and the surrounding land, this dramatic clifftop setting is like something out of a storybook -and it's inspired many a story, too.

Though now the castle is mostly ruins, highlights of a visit include wandering the 3.5-acre site accompanied by a great phone app available from the castle's website (or better still, a tour guide), which explains the castle's pivotal role in Scotland's history, including protecting the Scottish Crown jewels from the invading English. And getting here is half the fun, especially if you take the scenic coastal footpath from the nearby village of Stonehaven.

Official site: https://www.dunnottarcastle.co.uk

10. Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire

Castle Fraser

Completed in 1636, Castle Fraser Garden & Estate has also had its fair share of Hollywood moments, including as a star of the award-winning The Queen starring Helen Mirren. This imposing yet romantic edifice sits on over 300 acres of stunning countryside, much of it available for tourists to visit while sightseeing in Scotland.

Highlights of a visit include wandering the rooms and halls of the interior, stopping to take a close-up look at centuries' old portraits of the Fraser family, its vast collection of preserved period furniture, discovering secret passageways and staircases, and climbing up the tall tower for its incredible views over the estate.

Fun things to do for families include exploring the walled garden, and wandering the estate's many trails before turning the kids loose in the adventure play area.

Location: Sauchen, Inverurie

Official site: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/castle-fraser

11. Duart Castle, Isle of Mull

Duart Castle

Perched on the shores of the Sound of Mull, on the picturesque Isle of Mull on Scotland's west coast, 700-year-old Duart Castle is the traditional home of the Maclean clan, and as such sees numerous tourists - many of them descendants from overseas - visiting in order to trace their roots. Whether you're a Maclean or not, it's a magnificent castle to explore.

Highlights of a visit include walking around the castle's imposing walls before entering its central courtyard and taking in the old dungeons, as well as the Great Hall and State Bedroom, which along with other areas of the castle are undergoing constant restoration and preservation. There's also a great exhibit relating to the history of the Maclean clan, along with an excellent tearoom.

Official site: https://duartcastle.com

12. Dunrobin Castle, Golspie

Dunrobin Castle

Looking like something straight out of a Disney movie, the fairy-tale charm of Dunrobin Castle in Golspie is a big draw for tourists looking for fun things to do in Scotland. Set overlooking the coast near the quaint village of Dornoch in the northern reaches of the country, Dunrobin owes much of its charm to its distinctive French-inspired architectural flourishes, from its chateau-like turrets to its elegant walled gardens.

It's also one of the biggest of Scotland's castles, featuring no less than 189 rooms, most of them dating from the mid-1800s (though the castle's roots can be traced back to the 1300s). Highlights of a visit include seeing the Drawing Room and Library, viewing the many portraits and landscape paintings that line the walls of its hallways, and visiting the museum for its archaeological artifacts and animals.

Tours are available, and look into the availability of the falconry displays regularly put on for visitors.

Official site: http://www.dunrobincastle.co.uk

13. Blair Castle, Perthshire

Blair Castle

A standout among Scotland's top castles for its whitewashed exterior, the Murray clan's Blair Castle in Pitlochry dates back to the 13th century and is remarkably well-preserved. Set against an idyllic background of thickly forested hills and overlooking River Garry, Blair Castle's elegant rooms and halls are a delight to explore. Along the way, you'll see evidence of the earliest medieval sections of the castle, along with later Georgian and Victorian additions.

Among the castle's many collections is one dedicated to arms and weaponry, along with hunting trophies, artwork, and tapestries. Be sure to also spend time wandering the castle's magnificent gardens and grounds, home to the second tallest tree in the UK (it's 62 meters high). Guided tours are available, and a tearoom is located on-site.

Official site: https://blair-castle.co.uk

14. Cawdor Castle, Nairnshire

Cawdor Castle

Another fortress made famous by Shakespeare - it served as the fictional home of Macbeth's Thane of Cawdor - the attractive Cawdor Castle & Gardens is well worth including in your Scotland travel itinerary. The ancestral home of the Campbell family, this attractive medieval castle is still held by members of the clan.

Highlights of a visit include having the chance to view the family's significant collection of paintings, including works by the Old Masters, as well as displays of contemporary artworks, along with interesting sculptures. Be sure to also pop into the cellars, where you'll have a chance to take a peek at the old thorn tree over which the castle's original tower was constructed. The garden is also worth visiting, with sections dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

Address: B9090, Cawdor, Nairn

Official site: https://www.cawdorcastle.com

15. Floors Castle, Kelso

Floors Castle

The palatial Floors Castle & Gardens certainly impresses with its scale. Constructed in the early 18th century as a country getaway for royalty, this spectacular castle with its vast lawns and tall turrets is to this day home to the Duke of Roxburghe, making it Scotland's largest still-lived-in castle.

Start your visit inside, taking in the rooms open to the public (tours are recommended) with their large collections of artworks and prints, elegant porcelain, and antique tapestries. The grounds themselves extend over 50,000 acres, and are still used for farming, as well as hunting and fishing. An on-site café provides a good excuse to extend your visit.

Official site: https://www.floorscastle.com

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Visiting Scotland: There is much more to Scotland than castles. For more ideas on things to see and do, have a read through our list of Top Tourist Attractions in Scotland. Interested in visiting smaller destinations? See our guide to the Best Small Towns in Scotland and discover some of the country's lesser-known places.

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