The Scottish Castle Experience – Some top picks
Top Scottish Castles to Visit in 72 Hours
As you will be aware by now, I’m partial to a good castle. With hundreds of ruins and palaces on offer throughout this land, it would require a solid 6 month sabbatical to experience every one of them. Allow me to narrow it down a little. Having engaged in at least one intense castle bagging experience over the summer (see #historyhunters on Twitter and Instagram), I’ve decided on a few more of my favourites. The below are all contenders for the title of Greatest Scottish Castle, but much depends on your timeframe, your preferred castle type and your location. From crumbling, barely-there ruins to jaw-dropping grand palatial magnificence, I give you….the best Scottish castles to visit in a history-packed 3 days.
You can trace the steps of the journey on the map at the bottom of the blog.
Day 1 – Dumfries to Glasgow
Ah yes, Caerlaverock ya wee beauty. I love reflecting on this absolute gem of a castle, without doubt one of the most visually impressive to be found anywhere. Moated (reason enough to visit in itself), triangular and steeped in a tumultuous history, Caerlaverock screams atmosphere and drama. Having had to endure a ferocious siege in 1300 by Edward the Longshank’s army, a mere handful of defenders were able to hold out much longer than anyone would ever have thought possible.
You can find Caerlaverock Castle in a remote spot to the south of Dumfries and check out my history tour of Dumfries and Galloway for more to do in the area.
Warmongers clearly weren’t thinking straight when they came up with Threave Castle. There is no way that such an immaculate and serene spot should ever have overseen conflict and placing a fortress in this marshy and remote stretch defies military logic. It does, however, get full marks for the 21st Century tourist on the lookout for picturesque ruins to visit.
Requiring a boat crossing, this island tower has not a huge amount to it but does offer fabulous views over the marshy terrain. The area is home to bird sanctuaries so watch out for everything from bats to ospreys.
Culzean Castle and Gardens
With the romance of the ruins and Threave and Caerlaverock still in your mind, Culzean delivers a flamboyant alternative take on the Scottish castle scene. Dramatically perched on the Ayrshire coastline, this magnificent piece of architecture is arguably the most impressive mansion of its type in the country. Much is owed to the creative genius of Robert Adam with both inside and out magnificent. A repeated residence for US President Eisenhower when he was over here, the staff like to think of it as Scotland’s White House. I bet it’s nicer.
The extensive grounds that make up Culzean Country Park could fill a whole day and are ideally suited to a picnic. Be sure to also read more about Culzean and its spooky underground caves from my visit earlier this summer.
Glasgow got a bit of a rotten deal when our rivals in the east bagged themselves Edinburgh Castle as a city backdrop. We’re not jealous, not at all, honest. Ok maybe a little. But without a city centre castle, we’re inclined to look a little further afield and Bothwell is my pick of the bunch. Gorgeous red sandstone in colour, the ancient 13th Century fortress has a very used feeling to it and has seen its share of conflict too. Utilised by both side in the Wars of Independence, the rectangular castle took a battering in a series of sieges around this time.
Bothwell Castle is around about 20 minutes east of the city centre by car. It’s not one of the better-known Scottish castles to visit and is just far enough out of the way to avoid the crowds.
Day 2 – Glasgow to Stirlingshire
For this you can either end the day in Stirlingshire or set up base in Perth in readiness for your journey to the north east tomorrow….
Talk about atmospheric ruins! The huge structure that is Linlithgow Palace has seen grander days but is still amongst the best we’ve got for Scottish historical powerhouses. Used in the Wars of Independence as a base for the English, it was destroyed by fire in 1424 before being re-structured into the palace that we see today.
One of several retreats for the Stuart Royals, its vastness underlined their status and it stood proud as a rural retreat until that delightful man Oliver Cromwell came calling in 1650. Partly demolishing the Palace, things went from bad to worse when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite war in 1745 brought further destruction via another catastrophic fire (possibly ignited on purpose by government troops).
Today, the palace is picturesquely placed on the shores of Linlithgow Loch and several floors of barren ruins await your exploration. The weather will make all the difference to your visit and your mindset. Catch it under the sun and it is opulently fabulous; under a grey sky you’ll find it chillingly malicious. A must visit.
I see Stirling as the King of the Scottish Castles. Strategically pivotal to military plans of old, the saying goes that if you held Stirling Castle, Scotland was yours. Going back to the 14th Century the fortress has been both a military hub and royal home. With several of the key battles in the Wars of Independence fought nearby, the castle changed hands several times and took a bit of a battering in the process. Equally, it served as a Royal Residence in the 16th Century for the Stuart monarchs and Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here in 1542.
As a wee boy I was a regular visitor and remember well the extensive restoration work that has made the Royal Palace the centrepiece of a visit here. Rich colours and intricate detailing give a very unique appeal to the Scottish castle interior. The ceiling decoration and magnificent tapestries are a memorable standout.
In terms of scale, Stirling Castle is by far the largest and most time-consuming to visit on this list. Allow a couple of hours to explore its many nooks and crannies.
This formidable fortress has become one of Scotland’s most recognisable due to its roles in Monty Python, Game of Thrones and its starring performance as Castle Leoch in Outlander. An intimidating and robust exterior is matched by a practical and evocative courtyard and structure. Although pretty bare, Doune Castle is in remarkably good condition. It was residence to the powerful Duke of Albany in the 14th Century, even serving as a prison for captured government forces in the Jacobite wars.
The Great Hall is fit for a Royal banquet and I challenge your imagination not to run wild. Be sure to get up top to the roof where you’ll be treated to some fabulous views over the nearby River Teith. Looking north you can also spot Loch Lomond and the Southern Highlands.
With the impregnable might of Stirling and Doune behind you, it’s time to appreciate a bit of beauty. It’s not all misery and slaughter when it comes to Scotland’s historical attractions, as Castle Campbell will testify. Romantically set bang in the heart of Dollar Glen, it delivers a stunning view over the Ochil Hills and Central Scotland.
With a relatively limited historical story (surprising given its proximity to Stirling) it was however a lowland stronghold for the powerful Clan Campbell. It was torched in 1654 as an act of revenge against the Campbells for their support of Cromwell’s marauding forces.
Day 3 Perth to Stonehaven
Assuming you’re not completely castle-saturated yet, the final day of the marathon kicks off at the former crowning spot for Scottish monarchs of old. Another of the stately home-style castles, Scone is a sumptuous palace inside and out. Richly decorated rooms (with more than a hint of France to them) offer insight into lifestyles that most of us can barely fathom. I’m sure if the Outlander filming location folk could have bagged Scone, they would have. The proximity of the palace to Perth was thought to have been central to the fact that Perth was once Scotland’s capital city.
Scone is just a few minutes’ drive from Perth city centre and, like every stately home in Scotland, has grounds that are a must for the curious.
And so we enter the land of the Scottish Baronial mansion. From Angus and continuing up the north east delivers a whole different type of castle and Glamis has been a royal residence since 1372. The grounds on the estate are gigantic and worth a wander.
Visits are on a guided tour basis, last around an hour and should be booked in advance in peak season to avoid disappointment. Richly furnished and screaming wealth, it’s no surprise to learn that this was a favourite of the late Queen Mum. Princess Margaret was born here in 1930, with the Queen’s sister retaining a great affection for Scotland to this day.
In an area of Scotland that is littered with grand Highland mansions and enviable estates, it is refreshing to stumble upon such a characterful little ruin as Edzell. Remote, serene and immaculate it has the crumbling and atmospheric feel of a former fortress with the clear grandeur of impressive gardens and palatial delicacy in its structural design.
In truth, Edzell Castle has no military backstory and served as a noble residence for the Lindsay family in the 16th Century. The views from the tower house over the rural grounds are fantastic and, due to the relative remoteness, this is a very different kind of castle experience to the others on the itinerary today.
The gardens are a highlight so Edzell is one worth visiting in the warmer (no laughing!) months of the year.
I am left optionless but to ponder what that eureka moment was like when someone first stumbled upon the site of Dunnottar and thought….this place needs a castle. Sizing up the quite ludicrous geography of this coastal pedestal and concluding that a fortress here would be near-impregnable. Precariously sited atop a mound off the east coastline and surrounded by 50 metre cliffs it has a league all to itself in the visual department.
A favourite of the Scottish castles to visit in anyone’s book, Dunnottar is a match for any other on the planet. It’s the kind that could have inspired the George R R Martins of this world. As ferocious as the Dreadfort with the impossibility of the Eerie and the coastal hostility of Storm’s End. Ahhh. It’s just epic.
Such a place needs an appropriate back-story. Fortunately Dunnottar has plenty of them, going back as far as the 9th Century. The most interesting chapter, though, came with the arrival of the Honours of Scotland (our crown jewels) in the 17th Century. Hidden in Dunnottar for safe-keeping, Oliver Cromwell’s troops laid siege in order to steal them. Somehow or other, they were successfully smuggled out and kept secret, much to Cromwell’s fury. Shame. They now live in Edinburgh Castle.
You can drift around the ruins of Dunnottar to your heart’s content but the most fun is to be had with stalking out the various different angles and appreciating its incredible isolation.
This is purely a creative approach to a Scottish castle itinerary and is by no means set in stone. Mix up your own Scottish castles to visit in any way you wish. Skip some, move days around, spread it over more time, do it in reverse….it’s all up to you. Your choice of base is entirely up to you as well. My suggestions of Dumfries, Glasgow, Perth and Stonehaven have been chosen entirely for their geographic convenience. To do this in 72 hours will require your own wheels and quite a lot of time on the road so I stress….enjoy it in your own way.
To help with your planning you can trace the above castles on the map below. From the south west to the north east – who does castles better than Scotland?
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