The castles of Scotland tell a fascinating story which is quite distinct from that of those found in its southern neighbor, England. In England the need for fortified residences became less and less several centuries before the same could be said of Scotland. England was generally a flat and productive country which quickly became well ordered under a universal set of laws – English Common Law. In Scotland, however, the arbitrary rule by lords and princes and the rule of the king and his ministers was hotly disputed for centuries. Indeed, the Scotland we know today didn’t exist as a single kingdom until 1493 when the king of Scots finally annexed the northwestern Isles. Even so, regional and inter-tribal warfare continued there until the Jacobite rebellions were finally crushed in the eighteenth century, nearly two hundred years after the crowns of England and Scotland had joined to form the United Kingdom.
When one considers the centuries of struggle, the bloody disputes between clans, the strife among princes, paupers and lords, all set against some of Europe’s most stunning scenery, it is not hard to understand why the castles of Scotland offer a tantalizing vehicle with which to explore this beautiful nation. Our fascinating sojourn begins in the Lowlands and makes it way around the country – traveling north through the dramatic Highlands and atmospheric islands before heading east to the coast of the shimmering North Sea and finally concluding in Scotland’s heart – the ancient capital of Stirling. Along the way we encounter 22 of the most stunning castles found in Scotland, exploring them inside and out and discovering their hidden secrets.
To better understand the journey, it is important to note that in the Middle Ages Scotland was divided into two countries – as in many ways it still is today – the Highlands and the Lowlands. While the politics of the country have evolved, the underlying geography remains quite the same. We begin in the Lowlands – the flatter and certainly more agriculturally and industrially productive areas that border England. Here we explore a number of structures built along the frontier between England and Scotland that are in many ways reflective of the historic tension between the two nations. Not least of these is the great fortress of Edinburgh castle which was commissioned before the Scots even came to Scotland and saw action while the Romans still guarded England. The modern structure shows little evidence of its early medieval past, but in the fifteenth century it blossomed into the great citadel we still see today.
From the Lowlands we set off along the great divide of Scotland where the Antonine wall was built in the Roman era to separate the civilized from the barbarous. In homage to this thought we visit the great fortress of Dunbarton, guarding one of the northern outposts of civilization in the destructive Dark Ages, before continuing to the bonny banks of Loch Lomond. From here we venture into the Highlands and Isles of Scotland, with gorgeous scenery marking the passage as we visit iconic structures such as Inveraray Castle, built in fantasy medieval style, and Dunstaffnage Castle, a great baronial fortress first constructed in the Dark Ages and owned by the MacDougalls from the thirteenth century. In contrast we find the fifteenth-century tower-house, Castle Stalker, which keeps watch from an island in stunning Loch Linnhe, and is more recently famous for appearing in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Continuing north and traveling through the mesmerizing scenery of Glencoe, we see Inverlochy Castle, a thirteenth-century baronial castle, before traveling over the sea to the magical Isle of Skye – home to haunting Dunvegan Castle – the seat and stronghold of the Clan MacLeod, which is still inhabited. Our excursion to Skye also takes us to the world-renowned, picturesque castle of Eilean Donan – seen in the film Highlander – which we explore upon returning to the mainland. From Skye we journey across the Highlands to reach the banks of Loch Ness and soon come upon iconic Urquhart Castle – another thirteenth-century fortress – which was stormed by Robert the Bruce.
Along the way we encounter structures of spectacular beauty and contrasts, such as the fifteenth-century Cawdor castle – made famous by William Shakespeare in his Macbeth – and eleventh-century Duffus Castle, one of the earliest in Scotland and one of the few with a Norman motte. The richness of the word castle is perhaps best illustrated as we tour Ballindollich Castle – an opulent sixteenth-century ‘castle’ known as ‘the pearl of the North’ which can be compared to Balmoral castle – the present residence of the Queen in Scotland. Not far away we discover seventeenth-century Craigievar Castle, built both for show and an element of defense in highly treacherous times.
Our fantastic journey is also peppered with special programs and private receptions. At Cawdor Castle, for instance, we enjoy a tour which is personally guided by the Dowager Countess Cawdor herself – the castle’s current resident. On Skye, we are treated to a private reception in the library of Dunvegan Castle before sitting down to an elaborate private dinner at our nearby country-house hotel. We also have the opportunity to learn some traditional Scottish dances as we enjoy bagpipes and an authentic Highland Ceilidh while staying in the very shadows of the ruins of Kildrummy Castle.
Arriving at the cliffs above the North Sea, we discover the ancient fortress of Dunnottar perched upon a rock in a highly-defensible position nearly cut off by the sea. Its dramatic setting is almost as captivating as its history during the turbulent Scottish Wars of Independence. In complete contrast we encounter Glamis Castle, built with an element of local defense and now one of the prettiest castles in the country. This stands as a complement to nearby Loch Leven Castle – another dark medieval stronghold of the Wars of Independence and finally an island prison for Mary Queen of Scots.
Ultimately, we come full circle, arriving back nearly where our journey began, visiting Stirling Castle – like Edinburgh Castle, built on its basalt crag and commanding the neck of Scotland. It was here that Edward I and William Wallace brooded over the future of Scotland, with Edward smashing the castle down with his great warwolf – a massive machine of war in 1304. Some years previously, Wallace had defeated an Anglo-Scottish army beneath the walls of the castle at the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge. It is perhaps fitting that our sojourn draws to a close here in the very heart of Scotland. For in this one place we find the heady mixture of Scotland – Highland and Lowland, clans and tartans, history and nostalgia – combined.