Fascinating Scottish Castles 

Scottish Castles.... there's really nothing else quite like them!

There are over 3000 castles in Scotland, that's roughly one for every 100 square miles - a pretty impressive figure.

Scotland contains some of the oldest (and most famous) castles in the world, and they each have a story to tell about this country's fascinating, but violent and turbulent, past.

Some castles are still structurally intact, a few are currently in use as residences, many remain only as ruins... but every one of them is unique and fascinating.

These incredible structures stand as awe-inspiring monuments to the life of the Scottish people in centuries past.

Map of Scotland showing location of several important Scottish castlesScottish Castle locations. Copyright Scottish At Heart

Scottish Castles - In The Beginning

Scotland is an ancient country, and it's incredibly rich in history.

You have to go a LONG way back in time to find the first inhabitants of this land, all the way back to the 'Mesolithic' period in fact, around 7000 BC.

Of course, no castles existed at that time, and it wasn't until several thousand years later that people began to even build homes (basic wood/stone huts) rather than live in caves.

Then we have to move forward again, by approximately another 3,500 years, before the very earliest signs of 'fortifications' (early Forts) appear.

These were simple wood/stone structures and may have been the very first Scottish 'Castles'.

However, the oldest existing Scotland Castles today, go back to the 11th and 12th centuries, about the time that the Normans invaded Scotland.

That's plenty old enough for me though, and when you're standing inside one of these incredible structures you can almost feel the history seeping out of the ancient walls around you.

It's an experience no visitor to Scotland should miss.

Compelling...... formidable...... awe-inspiring...... magnificent...... intriguing..... mysterious..... haunting...... and sometimes even downright spooky!.

There are as many different words to describe the castles of Scotland as there are castles themselves - which is fitting as each one is unique in its' own right.

For me, Scottish castles are sort of like little slices of history, or maybe even individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and when you learn about each one you can start to see the whole picture (or 'pie' if we go with the 'slice' analogy).

The castles of Scotland ARE this countrys' history, and they're right here waiting for you to explore them.

The Where & Why of Scotland's Castles

Why does Scotland have so many castles? That's a fair question given how tiny the country actually is, but if you know anything about Scottish history the answer is pretty clear....

It's because this nation has a very contentious, battle-strew and bloody past, with numerous invasions (the Normans, vikings and Romans to name a few), and (until the 18th Century) an ongoing, almost continual, conflict between Scotland and the rest of Britain!

Engraving of the Battle of Otterburn in 1388Scottish v English troops at the Battle of Otterburn, 1388

Although some were built at the location of previous fortresses, or abbeys, in general Scotland castles were built with military purposes in mind, and that's why you'll find them in some of the most spectacular locations.

Whether perched on the very edge of a cliff, with the ocean pounding the rocks far below; on an island at the meeting point of 3 deep lochs; on a 'spur' of ancient volcanic rock overlooking heather-covered glens; or on craggy snow-covered mountainsides; the locations were carefully chosen by 'canny' Scots.

The fact that so many castles are still standing is testament to the skill and foresight of the ancient Scottish people who built them.

Scottish castles are closely tied to the Clans of Scotland and the Scottish monarchy.

Each clan would have a castle within their territory, where the Clan Chief and his family would live. Because of the volatile and turbulent nature of Scottish history (including considerable clan-rivalry), sometimes these castles would 'change hands' (often several times) between warring clans, and between governments and royalty.

Over the centuries, many of Scotlands' castles were visited members of the royalty and famous Scottish people (such as Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, William Wallace, various royalty and more), and they were often sought out as places of refuge and safety.

Today many of the castles that have been renovated and kept in good repair are still home to the 'landed gentry', the official 'seat' of a particular Scottish clan, or the birthplace or home of royalty.

So, although the castles of Scotland were mostly built during the period between the 11th - 14th centuries, they've proved themselves to be as strong and resilient as their creators intended.

They still stand strong and proud..... bearing witness not just to Scotlands' fascinating past, but to the tenacity, bravery and love of tradition that still lives in the heart of every Scot today!

The Oldest Castle in Scotland

There are so many Scottish castles, both on the mainland and on the numerous islands, that no one can say for sure which is the oldest. In some cases historians can't even pinpoint when a specific castle was built.

However, Castle Sween, which is located on Loch Sween on the western coast of Argyll, has the honor of being the oldest Scottish castle on the mainland that can be dated relatively accurately.

Castle Sween. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Raven1977 using CommonsHelperCastle Sween
Raven1977 using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 2.5, Commons.Wikimedia.org

Historians believe that Castle Sween can be confidently dated to the 12th century due to some design features, including an absence of windows and buttresses on the outer walls.

As with other Scottish castle sites, archaeological evidence suggests that the castle was built on a site that had been previously occupied, and likely built upon. Excavations at Castle Sween have found Stone-age, Neolithic and Medieval artifacts.

Famous Scottish Castles

With over 3000 to choose from, making a 'short list' of Scotland castles is pretty much an impossible task.

There's a castle (or several castles!) to suit every taste... whether you prefer spectacular, windswept ruins or enchanting, 'fairytale' architecture.

But I made a valiant effort to pick out a handful of Scottish castles, ones that I feel will showcase the richness and diversity of these awesome structures. I hope you enjoy them.

Balmoral Castle

Close up view of Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle has played a significant role in the lives of British Royal Family.

Originally built as an 'Estate House' in 1390, Queen Victoria fell in love with it during a visit to the Scottish Highlands in the mid 1800's.

She described this Scottish castle as "my dear paradise in the Highlands"

Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle in Scotland

Cawdor Castle is absolutely gorgeous... it's also surrounded by multiple stories, myths and legends.

It's extremely old, dating back to somewhere around the 14th or 15th century.

As a 'Cawdor Campbell' myself, I'm a little bit biased, but I definitely think this is a castle of the 'fairytale' variety!

Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle and Castle Rock

Dumbarton Castle sits 240 ft above the town of Dumbarton.

It's perched perilously high, straddling the twin peaks of a volcanic rock known as 'Dumbarton Rock', an incredible naturally-occurring defensive location.

Written records of this rock date back to the 5th century, and a simple fortress of that time.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous Scottish castles. It sits high on volcanic rock, over 250 ft. above the city of Edinburgh.

This impressive rocky foundation is actually a 70 million year old extinct volcano!

It has sheltered some of Scotland's most famous historical figures and is still 'active' in many ways.

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle

The name of Eilean Donan Castle comes from the Gaelic meaning 'Island of Donan' ('Eilean' being 'Island' and the 'Donan'.

This castle is believed to have been named after the 6th Century Irish Saint, Bishop Donan, who lived in Scotland during the latter part of the 6th century AD)

Probably the most photographed of all of Scottish castles.

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle with Loch Ness in the background

Urqhuhart Castle is one of the largest castles and strongholds of Medieval Scotland and has a long (and bloody) history.

As with so many of Scottish castles, Urquhart Castle has a magnificent setting and is strategically placed in terms of defense.

It sits on the shore of Scotland's famous Loch Ness, home of the fabled Loch Ness monster.

Castle Mey

Orikrin1998, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Castle Mey is the Queen Mother's Scottish Castle, and is the most northerly castle in the UK.

Castle Mey was built in the mid 1500's by the fourth Earl of Caithness.

It changed hands many times before HRH the Queen Mother bought it in 1952, after the death of her husband, King George VI.

The Queen Mother's castle in Scotland is now lovingly maintained by a trust with HRH Prince Charles overseeing it's care, allowing it to remain as it was during her time of residence.

Survey currently limiting access to castles and historic buildings/sites

Scottish castles are obviously old, some of them ancient!  Many of them are located on, or near, the coast or on elevated land which puts them at high risk of being damaged by environment and weather (including climate change).

An inspection program of hundreds of historical buildings and sites, including many of Scotland's castles, has been underway since 2021 resulting in restricted access to many of them.

If you're planning on visiting a castle, historic building or site, it's a good idea to check their official website for information on any restrictions or closures that may apply.

You can also find a list of all sites with restrictions (as of January 2022) here at historicenvironment.scot