Stick a pin in the map of Scotland, and the odds are that you’ll find a castle within five miles of it.
From the forbidding tower houses of medieval lords to the gleaming palaces of the Stewart kings, they all have stories of human passion and pride, joy and sorrow locked into their walls – and the magic keeps drawing us in.
Join me on a virtual tour around six of my favourites…
Sitting atop an extinct volcano, Edinburgh’s iconic castle makes an explosive setting for the Military Tattoo which is held here every August. Why should you visit? Walk in the footsteps of Scotland’s kings and queens, from Queen Margaret in the 11th century right up to the present day; marvel at the might of Mons Meg, the impressive siege gun that belonged to James II; admire the glittering crown jewels or ‘Honours‘ of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny on which all monarchs are still crowned; gaze up at the hammerbeam roof of the Great Hall, and experience the serenity of the gorgeous little chapel of St Margaret, Edinburgh’s oldest building.
The ancient seat of the Dukes of Atholl, Blair Castle gleams like a pearl in the Perthshire hills. And it has seen so much history… starting life in 1269 as a tower house, the castle was improved and extended by each successive generation. It welcomed Mary, Queen of Scots on a hunting party in 1564, and it was captured by Cromwellian forces in 1652. Then, in 1689, Jacobite clans massed under its roof before they swept to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie. When Queen Victoria stayed here, she granted her guardsmen the Queen’s Colours, which led to the founding of the Atholl Highlanders – still recognised as Europe’s only private army, although their role today is ceremonial!
Duart Castle, Isle of Mull
Standing sentinel over the Sound of Mull, one of the most jealously guarded waterways in medieval Scotland, Duart Castle is the ancient stronghold of Clan Maclean. The generations of Clan Chiefs have donated some colourful characters to Scotland’s history but it’s the 11th chief, Lachlan Cattanach, whose notoriety is best remembered. One of his dastardly ideas was to maroon his wife, whom he detested, on a rock in the Sound of Mull in the full expectation that the next tide would drown her. It didn’t, however. She was rescued by passing fishermen, and the wicked Lachlan was later stabbed or ‘dirked’ in his bed, reputedly by his wife’s relatives. Great views can be had of Duart Castle from the deck of the CalMac ferries which pass under its walls on their way to and from the Isle of Mull.
Births, deaths, coronations, courtships, lavish banquets, cold-blooded murder… it’s all gone on at Stirling Castle! Not to mention the desperate battles that have raged below its walls, shaping the destiny of Scotland as a nation. Pride of the Stewart kings, the castle boasted the largest banqueting hall in medieval Scotland, and its royal apartments were decorated in lavish Renaissance style to welcome James V’s new bride, Mary of Guise. After James’ untimely death in 1543 his daughter, the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned here; from a safe vantage point on the ramparts she would watch glorious pageants in the fields below.
Scotland is renowned for its picturesque castles, but they don’t come much more spectacular than Dunnottar in Aberdeenshire. Pictish rulers, Viking raiders, William Wallace – all have had a hand in this history of this place, but its glory came in 1652, when it was the last stronghold in Scotland still holding out for Charles II against the armies of Oliver Cromwell. The crown jewels, which had been hidden here, were carefully lowered down from the castle walls on the end of a rope, to a servant who was pretending to gather shellfish on the shore. They were then spirited away until Charles II was restored to the throne!
Another gilded residence of the Stewart kings, Linlithgow would be just as magnificent as Stirling or Edinburgh but for a cruel twist of fate. In 1746 it was set ablaze by the Duke of Cumberland’s army, as a kind of parting blow after they had quelled the Jacobite rebellion. But don’t let its stark walls put you off: the history is still deep inside. It was here, from the highest tower, that the young Margaret Tudor anxiously watched for the safe return of her husband, James IV, from the Battle of Flodden; sadly, he never came. When James V married Mary of Guise in 1538, it is said that the courtyard fountain was made to flow with wine; and their daughter, Mary, was born here, inheriting the crown of Scotland when she was just six days old.
All these castles are open to the public (admission charges vary). Dunnottar is occasionally forced to close when high winds or heavy rain make the cliffs dangerous for visitors.
Jo Woolf is a British writer with a keen interest in history and the natural world. She lives in Central Scotland, and is happiest when she’s wandering around the ruins of an ancient castle or pottering along a pebbly shore. Jo writes an online magazine called The Hazel Tree: www.the-hazel-tree.com