How to choose favourites out of 2,000 or so ? I never have been good at whittling things down so this is another long list.I love visiting castles, they rarely disappoint and in fact they do the opposite; they stir the soul.
Scotland is famous for its castles, often set amongst truly inspiring scenery. My favourites are those with either grand interiors, or military might, or fantastic settings or glorious gardens.Some manage to be a heavenly mix of some or all of these. Most castles are reputed to be haunted, with regular sightings of tortured souls. Always talk to castle staff as they often have their own authentic experiences of ghostly happenings (as I have found out on numerous occasions and they relate these spooky accounts very seriously, not to entertain.)
Consider a Historic Environment Scotland pass and/or National Trust for Scotland pass, if you plan on visiting a number of castles as costs mount up especially for the grander ones.Some however are privately owned and are not covered by passes.For some ruined castles, there is no charge.
If there’s a free tour, they really do bring the place alive.Their histories are full of drama, romance, intrigue and bloody deeds and the guides are usually fascinating to listen to and they welcome questions.Much better than just reading the written cards in each room which I always find are a dull list of facts and miss out the really juicy stories.
In alphabetical order:
Ardvreck Castle (Assynt, Far North)
Free entry to this small, 15th century ruin on wild Loch Assynt but location, location, location.There isn’t a lot to clamber around , it’s too dangerous but it’s a fine sight and in poor weather, is particularly atmospheric surrounded by the wave whipped dark waters of the loch.There is a nice wee beach too. This is one of Scotland’s most fantastic areas, big, empty spectacular country. Ardvreck is on the North Coast 500 route, on the A837 north of Inchnadamh. Look out for the herd of wild red deer which often graze in this area. On our last visit to Ardvreck, a stag looked down on us from the small hill on the opposite side of the road.
Ghost Factor – haunted by the weeping ghost of one of the daughters of a MacLeod chief, who threw herself out of a window after being promised to the Devil.There is also the ghost of a tall man, dressed in grey.
Blackness Castle (West Lothian, west of Edinburgh)
Most recently used in Outlander, the castle was built in the 15th century and was a prison and fortress.To me, it is what a stern, forbidding castle should look like. It oozes menace as you approach and walk through its thick stone entrance. Set on a small peninsula with the sea lapping at its walls, access was originally by boat and the castle guarded the approaches by sea to Stirling Castle.
Ghost Factor – a knight is said to haunt the castle.Given the number of people who died a horrible death in its grim prison pit however, it must be full of vexed spirits.
Brodick (Isle of Arran)
On beautiful Arran, this residential pile feels like somewhere I could live very easily ( until presented with repair or heating bills.) I love the antlered hallway and the rooms are grand but somehow homely too.Views from the windows look out onto the sea and it’s great to watch the Calmac ferry arrive at Brodick pier, knowing it’s not yet time to leave the island. Arran is a different world, despite being so close to Glasgow (about an hour to Ardrossan where the ferry leaves, then a 50 min sail.)
The extensive grounds are lovely, part woodland, part formal flower garden.An adventure playground makes this a very popular family day out too.There’s a brilliant little pine cone – clad summerhouse to find in the gardens too, a wee secret house almost heady inside with the scent of resin.
Tea on the terrace in the sunshine is a very nice way to spend half an hour or so.
Ghost Factor – a man sitting in the library, a white stag that appears when the Clan Chief of the Hamilton’s is near death and three women, once imprisoned due to plague and who died of starvation.
Castle of Mey (Caithness)
In a hard, ocean fringed farming landscape in the far north with views over to Orkney (Hoy), this very lived in castle was the residence of the Queen Mother. Her favourite little blue coat still hangs up in the entrance hall way. Full of photographs and family memorabilia, it’s a delightful home in the British Royal family style; chintzy and comfortable.The gardens were a disappointment when I was there in May but I’ve read that they are beautiful in peak season (I assume they get it tip top for Prince Charles’ arrival. Clearly mine wasn’t on the Head Gardener’s radar.)
Big cafe/visitor centre close by which does some very decent food and goes like a fair.Given how relatively empty this part of Scotland is, entering the cafe was like suddenly finding everyone in the same place.
Ghost Factor – haunted by broken-hearted Lady Fanny Sinclair who threw herself out of a castle window after her love affair with a stable boy was discovered and the young man banished by her furious father.
Absolutely beautiful gardens (they are listed), fascinating interior and very impressive to look at on the approach through the grounds.The tower house is 14th century and the castle has associations with Shakespeare’s Macbeth though it was built long after he reigned in the 11th century.
One oddity of Cawdor Castle is that it was built around a hawthorn tree. The tree is visible in the cellar, known ever since as “The Hawthorn Room.” Legend has it that the tree has magical qualities which have saved the castle from disaster. Analysis has revealed that the tree died in about 1372, presumably as a result of being deprived of light following the building of the castle:they also found out that it is a holly and not a hawthorn.It is quite unique and very strange to see it still standing, as if frozen in time.
Nice looking cafe but I ran out of time to sample its delights.
Ghost Factor – a young woman without hands and wearing a blue velvet dress has been seen.She was the daughter of an Earl and was discovered by her father with her lover in their secret meeting place in the castle.He pursued her in fury and as she tried to escape by lowering herself from a castle window, he cut off her hands (those windows again….)
A pink fairytale beauty said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle , this is my favourite of all the Aberdeenshire castles. The interior is well worth seeing, guided tour only. Some of the plaster ceilings (1624) are exquisite. It is one of the best preserved and most authentic tower houses in Scotland.Big cafe operation which is ok.
Ghost Factor -many, many tales of ghostly happenings, often in the Blue Room. A chill as the temperatures drops suddenly for no reason; the sound of music playing; apparitions in stairwells…..
Another cracker of a castle not far from Craigievar but with some of the finest gardens in the country. The chiselled yew hedges are an iconic image of this 16th century beauty. Gorgeous painted ceilings steeped in symbolism adorn the rooms.The grounds extend to nearly 600 acres with many trails marked out for strolling.Didn’t have time to try the cafe – next time.
Ghost Factor – quite a bit of info from the National Trust’s own page: ‘the Green Lady’s Room, named after the spirit of a young woman who has often been seen by the fireplace wearing a green dress and cradling an infant in her arms. When the castle was renovated in the 1800s, the bones of a child – presumed murdered – were discovered under the hearthstone of the fireplace. The archives tell of the unearthly appearance of a luminous block of ice that moves like someone walking but is not human in shape – these visions are always accompanied by a sharp drop in room temperature. The tower house is also home to the White Lady, thought to be Alexander Burnett’s young lover, Bertha. Poisoned by Lady Agnes for being unworthy of her son’s hand in marriage, Bertha visits on the anniversary of her murder.
Culzean Castle (Ayrshire)
Pronounced Cull – ane, the castle is built high on a cliff with the surf pounding below and the mountainous Isle of Arran sitting serenely across a wind-whipped sea.It’s a sensational location.The garden grounds are enormous and beautifully planted.In fact, you could walk through Culzean Country Park all day, through bluebell woods (in May) formal gardens, a Walled Garden, deer park, swan pond as well as hike down to a small beach and rocky shore.The castle itself inside is very interesting with wonderful vistas – that entrance hall clad with weaponry! Well worth joining one of the free tours. Dwight Eisenhower stayed in one of the apartments, now a holiday let.
This is a big operation and there’s a large cafe, nice gift shop and even an excellent second hand bookshop.They’ve recently opened a very smart tea-room/lunch spot in one of the unique oval-shaped rooms with views to the sea; I had a very good scone here last summer. It’s much nicer and more sedate than the much noisier and very ordinary main cafe.
Ghost Factor – 7 ghosts amongst whom is a piper who haunts the castle. For more on the spooky story of why – https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/the-ghosts-of-culzean-castle
I love pretty Dirleton village and this impressive ruined castle also has wonderful gardens of herbaceous borders filled with flowers.The entrance over the now-dry moat is all I imagine a castle entrance should be.The two enormous stone towers were built in 1240, some of the oldest castle architecture we have. Plenty of nooks and crannies to explore as well as the small woodland grounds. Dirleton itself is well worth spending some time in; don’t miss the beautiful old church. The Dirleton Arms did a very good lunch on our last visit in the summer of 2018 too. There is a 2 mile or so flat walk to a very nice beach (and the potential to walk a little further to attractive North Berwick too, a very smart wee holiday town.) Dirleton is only about 30 mins drive from Edinburgh.Close to Tantallon Castle too.
Ghost Factor – the Devil himself (!) is said to have appeared in the castle, dressed as a man in black.
Drumlanrig (Dumfries and Galloway)
Magnificent – what a sight it is on the approach along a wide, elegant drive lined with Lime Trees. I made a first visit here last summer and fell in love with the place.The journey to it along the Durisdeer road is so beautiful too. The grounds are gorgeous (there are ‘only’ 90,000 acres) and you could walk for miles on the various marked trails.Soft rolling hills are all around.Inside, the castle is palatial and there is an excellent free tour.120 rooms! Thankfully the tour didn’t include anything like that number or I’d still be there. This place oozes wealth and grandeur, home of the Duke of Buccleuch, one of Scotland’s wealthiest landowners. Nice cafe set up too.
Ghost Factor – 3 at last count. A headless woman, Lady Anne Douglas, a monkey (yes, a monkey) and a spooky corridor called the “Bloody Passage’ where such a foul murder took place that the bloodstains were unable to be washed out.
Duart (Isle of Mull)
Even the sail from Oban to Mull is a delight but it is location, location again that draws me to 700 year old Duart. Perched on a promontory, it makes for an impressive sight as the ferry sails by on route to Craignure. Mountains all around rising out of the cold, wind whipped sea.No gardens as such but a lovely area to clamber around and feel glad you’ve made the effort to get here. Duart is the seat of the Clan Maclean and was built to guard the sea entrances to Mull and Loch Linnhe.The outer walls are 10 feet thick.Mull itself is one of my favourite places – wildlife central (sea and golden eagles, otters) – much quieter than Skye, with some stunning roads trips on offer round its coast.
Don’t miss Iona either, about an hour from Duart followed by a short 10 min ferry crossing.
Ghost Factor – a headless horseman whose arrival heralds the death of a Maclean.
An iconic sight, absolutely stunning, these beautifully preserved ruins sit amidst immaculate lawns and perched on a dramatic crag, almost an island.It’s well worth paying the entry fee to explore the surprisingly numerous buildings, accessed after climbing 200 steps. Great views down onto the sea below and along the cliff-girt coastline.
Ghost Factor – a girl dressed in plaid has been seen wandering the ruins.
The sight of this grand baronial fairytale castle took my breath away , even from the car park. All on its own overlooking the cold North Sea, I could have spent half the day here.The interior is impressive, the gardens even more so and the views from the huge outdoor terraces are glorious.The adjacent Museum has some fine carved Pictish stones but is dominated by what the Duke of Sutherland shot and had stuffed from his travels throughout the world; it’s worth a look but will not be to everyone’s taste.I found a lot of the memorabilia fascinating but it is a reminder too of a family whose reputation during the Highland Clearances was as black as it could be.
There’s a Bird of Prey display on at certain times, well worth seeing.
Ghost Factor – a young woman haunts the Seamstress Room,where crying has been heard. Said to be a beautiful girl that the Earl (in the 15th century) planned to force into marriage, she died trying to escape (windows may have been involved again.)
Dunvegan Castle (Isle of Skye)
I last visited this beautifully located castle on a day of glorious sunshine; the gardens alone are worth the visit, they are a glory. Don’t let the fairly ugly exterior put you off.
Inside, there are some very interesting and impressively grand rooms and artefacts including the famous Fairy Flag. In tatters, this famous flag of the Clan Macleod is rumoured to have been given to a Macleod during the time of the Crusades.It is said to protect the Clan in time of danger but it’s magic will only work three times – and it has been used twice already – in 1490 and 1520, both during terrible battles against the Macdonalds. On both occasions, the tide of the battle was turned in the Macleod’s favour when the flag was unfurled.
The location of the Castle is a dream , overlooking the tranquil waters of Loch Dunvegan. The bobbing heads of huge Atlantic Grey seals can be seen from the shore.They haul themselves out of the cold water to rest on the myriad little islets that dot the loch.
Cafe beside the car park is just ok.
Ghost Factor -a phantom bagpiper has been heard playing from the top of the south tower.
Some prefer Stirling Castle, but having visited both many times, the capital’s grim fortress wins the day for me.There is a huge amount to see. From tiny, 12th century St Mary’s Chapel, whitewashed inside and so simple with its lovely stained glass, to the apartments (original decoration) where Mary, Queen of Scots was born.The Grand Hall’s weaponry display is so impressive, as is the tale of brave Ensign Ewart. The sombre and emotionally charged National War Memorial houses Regimental Books with the names of the dead from the two World Wars. These include the names of my two great uncles from North Uist, Murdo and John Maclellan, both pipers with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. The Scottish National War Museum has some fascinating artefacts and evocative paintings of tragic battles. It’s very easy to spend half a day at the castle but perhaps not if military history makes you stifle a yawn.
And I haven’t even mentioned Mons Meg and the firing of the 1 o’clock gun every day, booming over the city as hundreds watch nearby, hands over ears. The Half Moon Battery also offers some great photos with its line of cannon pointing through the walls towards the Old Town.
I love the view over handsome Edinburgh from the castle walls too with the sea in the distance. Much better than from Arthur’s Seat. The elegant Ramsay Buildings look fantastic. And who can forget the image of the castle lit up at night during the Military Tattoo or when fireworks burst over it to welcome in the New Year?
Never been a fan of the big, noisy commercial cafe operation so I usually get tea and a scone elsewhere.
Ghost Factor – said to be one of the most haunted places in Scotland. A headless drummer has been seen, though mostly only heard, on the battlements and the ghosts of castle prisoners are said to still roam the fortress where they lived their last days.
Eilean Donan (Lochalsh)
A show stopper on the A87 and one of Scotland’s most romantic and iconic images. Well worth seeing from the outside, though it is a reconstruction from the early 20th century of the original 17th century structure. However, it looks very old and very beautiful! Inside, it is not so interesting, though I have once done the hour long tour and found it well done.But crossing the stone bridge and wandering round the outside, all amidst wonderful loch and mountain scenery , is a treat. I always visit the Clan MacCrae War Memorial and Roll of Honour too with its utterly poignant and moving inscription from Lt Col John Macrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ –
‘We are the dead, short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flander’s Fields.’
Ghost Factor – a Spanish soldier is said to haunt the castle as does the ghost of a Lady Mary.
Falkland Palace (Fife)
Dominating pretty Falkland village, the Palace looks very like Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh but the interior is much lovelier and more interesting. This was the country residence of the Stewart kings and a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots.The gardens are a delight too in summer and one of Britain’s oldest tennis courts is housed in a building at the bottom of the immaculate lawns.Nice National Trust shop and plenty of good tea-rooms in the village.Falkland itself is well worth a stroll, just a delightful place to be.
Ghost Factor – Mary, Queen of Scots herself and also White and Grey ladies, as well as sinister faces which have been seen from the Queen’s Room.
Home of the Duke of Roxburgh, this is a grand 18th century country house rather than a true castle.But it is a wow.Enormous and elegant, with sumptous rooms and truly glorious gardens, it’s the largest inhabited castle in Scotland. All set in rolling Borders countryside.Good cafe.
Ghost Factor – the sobbing figure of the 1st Duchess has been heard in the Long Gallery.
Another wow on first sight, the childhood home of the Queen Mother and where Princess Margaret was born. Glamis has that fairytale look about it and some beautiful gardens. In fact, there are extensive woodland grounds to explore. Inside, it is tour only and well worth doing as the rooms are magnificent.The neighbouring village of the same name is very picturesque.Decent cafe.
Ghost Factor – too numerous to mention. Poor Lady Glamis, who was burnt at the stake as a witch in 1537, is said to haunt the castle. The spirit of a young servant boy has also been seen outside the Queen’s Room.
Another fairytale castle in an unusual bluish stone flanked by daffodil covered lawns in spring. Home of the Duke of Argyll – on our last visit his young son passed us riding his bicycle through the grounds.Very interesting inside and the grounds and gardens are delightful. A 45 min slog is worth it on a clear day up to the small watchtower above the castle, giving great view over the site and Loch Fyne. The little town itself is very pleasant to wander, right on the loch and with some nice shops: an upmarket clothing shop, couple of specialist whisky shops and several tea rooms.Small tea room in the castle which is ok; there’s a terrace for sitting out in good weather too.The mountains of the West Highlands are all around.Great drive out to here from Glasgow (about 1hr 40.)
Ghost Factor – several. A young Irish harpist, a lady in grey (a popular colour of dress in those times it seems) as well as a ghostly ship.
Just beautiful. The gardens are a joy, with many scented roses.The oldest part of the castle is 14th century. Very peacefully set in rolling Fife farmland and near pretty Pittenweem, one of the East Neuk villages.Watch opening hours, they vary.Small scale and nice tea room.
Ghost Factor – Anne Erskine fell from the oldest tower and though never seen, her footsteps have been heard thumping the floor (falling from these places seems to be a regular hazard). The castle has been exorcised but to no effect.
An imposing and picturesque 15th century ruin sitting below the 3,000 foot peaks of the Southern Highlands and edged by Loch Awe.There is a very good view of the castle from the Inveraray road where some of its most iconic photos have been taken. But it’s well worth parking in the (unmarked) car park near the railway bridge on the A85 and walking 5 mins to see it all up close. Check opening times.
Ghost factor – said to be haunted by the disembodied voice of a child, walled up long ago in the upper part of the structure.
Wonderful military stronghold towering over the town from its impenetrable crag.I’m always drawn to it as we drive past it on the A9.Have visited countless times and it never pales in terms of impressiveness or interest.There’s a pretty garden too and – somewhere – a small round hole created specially in one of the walls to allow the young Mary Queen of Scots to survey her realm. She had to remain hidden from monstrous Henry VIII who was on a mission to capture her and marry her off to his young son Edward.The castle is worth visiting for the Stirling Heads gallery alone.Some of the renovated decoration in the rooms, to me, seems not that well done but who am I too judge? It’s still a magnificent place.
I tend to avoid the cafe, one of these big commercial operations.
Ghost Factor – haunted by a Highlander in full kilt regalia.Visitors have approached him for assistance only for him to disappear before their eyes (not an unheard of occurrence in relation to serving staff in general.)
Tantallon (East Lothian)
A superb, 14th century ruin of red sandstone, perched dramatically on a cliff with views to the Bass Rock and over the cold North Sea.Various staircases lead onto secure platforms which allow visits up to the very top ramparts – slightly vertiginous for me, I usually scuttle down quite quickly.Look out for peregrine falcons hunting seabirds along the cliff faces. Sea – cliff beach is a short drive away (small charge for parking) and also give a great view of the castle’s location across the shore.
Ghost Factor – some unusual recent sightings of a figure at a window opening which has excited interest on youtube.
It is a shell, but the location on Loch Ness is such an iconic one I had to include it.Yes, it gets incredibly busy, especially in peak season, with people swarming everywhere over the well spread out ruins but I loved our visit here in late December.It was a gloomy day, with low cloud and grey skies but it just added to the atmosphere of the place. There’s a very good video to watch before going out to explore, well worth seeing and setting out the history well.Immaculate lawns and the mesmerising lap of the waves down at the spot where boats used to berth in ancient times.
Busy cafe operation, just ok.
Ghost Factor – none mentioned however the loch is home to the fabled Loch Ness monster, enough to be getting on with!