Scotland’s castles are at the heart of the country’s clans, legends, battles and ghosts. With thousands to choose from – in fact, it’s estimated that there are no fewer than 3000 scattered across Scotland – how do you choose?
Our advice is to stick to specific regions to efficiently explore this vast territory. Here are five Scottish castles along the route from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye, two of Scotland’s tourist hotspots.
Perched atop an extinct volcano, it dominates the city of Edinburgh. With 900 years of history, this fortress at the top of the Royal Mile is not to be missed! If you’re lucky like us, you’ll be greeted by a military parade and a bagpipe band.
The grounds of Edinburgh Castle contain several buildings, including St. Margaret’s Chapel, which was built around 1130 and serves as the royal church. The Royal Palace (former residence of Mary, Queen of Scots) houses the Honours of Scotland, the oldest crown jewels in the United Kingdom. The scepter, crown and sword, set with precious stones, are on display and carefully guarded. They are true treasures, last used at the coronation of King Charles II in the 17th century!
About an hour’s drive from Edinburgh is Stirling Castle, one of the most important Scottish castles. The city made history thanks to the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace became a Scottish hero (think Braveheart!).
From the top of the strategically placed hilltop fortress, the view over the green fields is almost endless. No doubt enemies could be spotted from afar! The castle consists of several buildings, including the Royal Palace, the Great Hall, the Mint, the Royal Chapel, and the Prince’s Tower, the only one of the castle’s four towers still standing. While the buildings are fascinating to visit, the vast outdoor grounds overlooking the valley are delightful to explore.
You may even feel the presence of the Green Lady, the castle’s “official” ghost and faithful servant of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was crowned at Stirling Castle in 1543.
Less than 15 kilometers from Stirling is Doune Castle. It offers more freedom to explore, provided you climb the stone stairs to the watchtowers carefully. Although not perfectly preserved, it’s possible to imagine life in the 14th century in the Great Hall (very well preserved), the lord’s chambers and the servants’ quarters.
Fans of the TV series Game of Thrones will recognize it as the exterior of Winterfell, the Stark castle. Doune Castle was also used for filming parts of the Outlander series.
After stepping back into the Middle Ages, a different world awaits at Inveraray Castle. Still inhabited today, the Scottish castle was completely rebuilt in the 18th century and offers a glimpse into the luxury and rural life of the British aristocracy. No wonder it was featured in the TV series Downton Abbey.
The Duke of Argyll opens the doors to his family home, a legacy of the Campbell clan. The collection of period arms (pistols, swords, sabres, etc.) and fine china is impressive, and the public rooms reflect the family’s opulence. In addition, beautiful wedding gowns and aristocratic outfits worn by the Campbells over the centuries are on display upstairs.
Take time to enjoy tea in the vaulted room downstairs, admire the family portraits scattered throughout the castle, and visit the beautifully landscaped gardens of Inveraray castle, whether the sun is shining or not. This is Scotland after all!
Eilean Donan Castle
Situated on the A87 road to the Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan Castle sits beautifully on the shores of Loch Duich. A famous filming location (it is the castle of the MacLeod clan in Highlander and appeared in Skyfall), the castle is connected to the mainland by a stunning arched bridge. Its picturesque setting and timeless appearance often named as one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland…you decide!
It is now owned by the Clan MacRae, who undertook its reconstruction.
The guardroom, kitchens, banqueting hall and several rooms are furnished and decorated to evoke medieval life. The interior is less authentic than Doune Castle, but the exterior is breathtaking.
What is the most beautiful castle in Scotland? More options in the Highlands and on the Isle of Skye!
And there are equally magnificent and unique castles to see in other regions of Scotland, especially in Aberdeenshire, which has the highest number of castles per acre in the UK!
Along the way and on the Isle of Skye, there are several other Scottish castles that are well worth a visit if you have the time. Some highlights:
A beautifully preserved small 14th century castle belonging to the Clan MacDougall. Certainly one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland due to its unique geographical location. It’s situated on an island in Loch Laich near Port Appin and is visible from the A828 road. It’s only accessible at high tide!
An impressive 15th century ruin on the edge of Loch Awe. Several chapters of Scottish history unfolded here; an audio guide is essential for full understanding.
This partially ruined medieval castle stands at the entrance to Loch Etive, near the village of Oban. It’s included in most Scottish castles itineraries – and also quite a mouthful. Say Dunstaffnage castle three times fast!
The ultimate castles in Scotland postcard view! Urquhart Castle sits on a small rocky promontory overlooking Loch Ness near the village of Drumnadrochit.
An inhabited castle belonging to the Clan MacLeod in the village of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Dunvegan Castle is a must-visit on any excursion to Skye!
A ruined castle once belonging to the Clan MacDonald on the Trotternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye.
A medieval fortress in ruins that stands proudly on a rocky headland on Scotland’s northeast coast. Dunnottar castle offers stunning views of the North Sea and Sinclair’s Bay, and is surrounded by steep cliffs that add to its charm. You can explore a large tower, chapel, banqueting hall and living quarters. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland!
Mey Castle and Gardens
This is where the magnificent gardens laid out by the Queen Mother are located. Built in 1572 but abandoned, the estate was purchased in 1952 by the Queen Mother, who took great care of it for the rest of her life. This probably explains its magnificent state of preservation.