The Best CliffTop Castles in Scotland
A Look at our Most Dramatic Coastal Ruins
Scotland’s Most Spectacular Clifftop Castles
This post is entirely the fault of Game of Thrones. Like many around the planet, I’ve spent the last several Monday nights with my jaw on the floor, sweat lashing off me, eye twitching, hands trembling (spilling whisky in the process and barely noticing) and heartrate racing. Quite aside from a stunning plot, the drama of the most successful TV show ever owes much to the magnificent locations (real or otherwise) used in filming. Me being me, my mind wanders to Scotland at this point. When I see the audacity of the incredible clifftop castle at Casterly Rock, the island mega-fortress at Dragonstone and the ridiculous spectacle that is Highgarden, well, I’m obligated to find Scottish comparisons. With that high level of drama in mind, I give you my top picks for best clifftop castles in Scotland.
When ‘The Rock’ came under attack in this latest season of Thrones, Tantallon Castle was the comparison that fought its way to the summit in my mind. The definition of dramatic, its coastal situation made an assault on its glowing orange/red walls a dreadful prospect. A sea attack would see an assault into a cliff face, while even a land siege would encounter challenges given the open expanses and lack of shelter from all angles. Protected on three sides by that sheer drop though, this is a masterpiece for the military strategists out there.
As readily defensible as it may have been, it still saw plenty of action. It was assaulted in the 15th and 16th Centuries by King James IV and V as the inhabiting Douglases displayed a cavalier relationship to the ruling monarchs of the time. The final siege of Tantallon happened in the 17th Century when the bad bugger Oliver Cromwell’s forces inflicted a 12 day bombardment on the fortress. Up to 3000 men with a vast array of artillery battered the castle and its 91 defenders into eventual submission. Not an easy nut to crack by any means.
Found north of North Berwick on the east coast, this 14th Century ruin is one of the most photogenic in the country. Alas, it’s exposed coastal placement has blocked a drone flight nearby for me thus far, but I’ll get there later this year hopefully.
Swinging over to the west coast, this little beauty perhaps stretches the ‘clifftop’ element a little (it’s more of a rocky promontory) but has all of the attributes that I’m looking for in the dramatic stakes. Lacking in the historical military magnificence of the likes of Tantallon for sure, it does have at least one story worthy of the big screen. In 1429, Dunure served as a meeting point for perhaps Scotland’s fiercest historical clan rivals – the Macdonalds and the Campbells. The Macdonalds were Lords of the Isles, while the Campbells were allied to King James I. Dunure was presumably neutral turf for their clandestine meeting. The fiery relationship between the clans turned sour and the Macdonald representative was murdered at the get-together. While James subsequently executed his Campbell envoy in supposed retribution, the bad blood between both sides remained as stark as ever.
While the ruins themselves are unsafe and not enabled for much exploration these days, the treat is in the visual spectacle. Wander around the rocky beach, find your favourite photo angle and snap away.
Just down the road from Dunure, these guys put Ayrshire on the castle lovers’ map for sure. A totally different proposition altogether, this opulent and even extravagant mansion is a joy to behold. A masterpiece of the famed architect Robert Adam, the spiral staircase deep within the castle interior is particularly notable. Guided tours and even overnight stays are possible in this place and it’s right up there with Scotland’s top castles in every way. The massive surrounding grounds add to the appeal – it suddenly becomes a huge day out when you factor in the neighbouring deer park, orangery et al.
While far from obvious on first sighting, Culzean is very much a classic Scottish clifftop castle. The west facing wall looks down over a sheer drop and, in truly sensational style, the cliff face is dotted with mysterious caves. Carved deep into the stone, you can read more about this amazing feature here and it’s worth enquiring about seeing them for yourself (limited guided tours only).
The fabulous little island of Kerrera is well-regarded for its walking opportunities, but it’s Gylen Castle that steals the show for me. Dramatically glaring out over the Firth of Lorne, it’s a superb vantage point to spy marauding ships coming in from the west coast. Built in the 16th Century it has seen very little by way of occupation (it’s a tower more than a castle in truth) but was besieged by the Covenanters in 1647. It was then torched and was not thought to have been occupied again.
Kerrera makes for a great day out from Oban and requires only a 5 minute ferry crossing. Gylen can be included as part of your walking circuit of the south of the island. Not too far away Duart Castle on Mull is another one very worthy of a mention in this category if you fancy some island hopping.
This is very likely the single most impressive castle in Scotland. A bold statement from me, but it’s hard to argue. Ludicrously set on a rocky outlet protruding out of our east coastline, it just doesn’t seem possible for such a place to exist. 50 metres of sheer cliff surround the near-islanded ruins and it’s been feeling the full brutal force of the North Sea elements since the 9th Century. Although appearing in Hamlet (1990), its absence from Game of Thrones type stuff leaves me perturbed. It truly is astonishing.
The Honours of Scotland were hidden here in the 17th Century (from good old Cromwell again) and, with the castle under blockade, were somehow smuggled out of the fortress on the quiet. When Cromwell’s forces eventually took the castle and found out there was no sign of Scotland’s crown jewels, I can imagine he was ever so slightly peeved. I’d have found it very hard not to have laughed in his face personally but the surrendering defenders were probably more diplomatic than that…
New Slains Castle
Continuing north along the east coastline, you’ll eventually reach this remarkable pile of bricks near Cruden Bay. Going back to the 16th Century, it lacks the historical value of others on this list but comes first for impact on your nerves. Appallingly isolated and with only brutal winds and the crashing of waves beneath to keep you company, this place is something else. Perhaps most brilliantly of all, Slains Castle is thought to have been the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula castle. That. Is. Brilliant.
What you’ll see now is a veritable maze of remains that are begging for a poke about. Overgrown and bursting with atmosphere, this is one of the most fun ruins in the country for me – specifically due to the fact it’s unmaintained and has basically been left to decay. It’s best visited on foot from Cruden Bay on a lonely farm track out to the coast. I would not be doing this at night!
Are there more great clifftop castles in Scotland?
Of course there are, this is Scotland. There is at least one glaring omission from this collection. Keiss Castle in Caithness has long been on my list and seems very worthy of inclusion. Problem being, I’ve never been! I have experienced almost everywhere in Scotland but I have a policy of never writing about places I’ve never been – it’s why I’ve chosen my blogging niche – so it will be added as soon as I’ve notched it up. The plan is for a trip via here in October, so stay tuned.
Are you a fan of coastal clifftop castles in Scotland? Do you know of any other, in Scotland or otherwise, that the likes of Tolkeinn, Martin and Gabaldon should know about?
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