When you think of Scottish castles, what comes to mind? Spooky, misty moors? Courageous knights in suits of armor? Drawbridges and battles? Mead and merriment?
They’re all that, and more, as my sister Kathy and I learned on our CIE Tours 8-day bus tour called “Scottish Dream.” We joined 36 others on this trip, which started in the bustling city of Glasgow in western Scotland, and we traveled by coach bus in a horseshoe shape, ending in the capital city of Edinburgh.
There were a lot of reasons to love this trip, including the six castles we visited. Listed alphabetically, here are some of the extraordinary castles of Scotland.
1. Armadale Castle
Isle Of Skye
To get to the Armadale Castle ruins, we took the Lord of the Isles car ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye, part of the Inner Hebrides archipelagos off the western coast of Scotland. The Isle of Skye is nicknamed “The Misty Isle” due to the hazy weather that blows in from the Atlantic. Our tour guide, Fran, said that of her 14 years guiding tours, she had only seen beautiful weather on this isle about three times, but our day was one of them!
Armadale Castle was in ruins and roped off for safety since it was built in the 19th century. Still, the building facades were impressive. From the castle website, “Armadale Castle was once the seat of the Macdonalds of Sleat, part of the mighty Clan Donald. Now a ruin, it overlooks the Sound of Sleat and is encircled by some 40 acres of gardens, landscaping, and magnificent trees.” Indeed, the gardens were stately with footbridges over bubbling streams, decorative gates, trellises, and more.
Pro Tip: Tickets were included in our bus tour, but you can purchase tickets for the museum and grounds on-site.
2. Blair Castle
Blair Atholl In Highland Perthshire, Scottish Highlands
The famous Scottish Highlands cover about 10,000 square miles in northern Scotland. On the 145,000-acre Atholl Estates, one of the largest in Scotland, sits Blair Castle. It’s been the home of the Atholl family for more than seven centuries, with a diverse history of turbulent and peaceful times.
If first impressions matter, Blair’s Great Hall entrance does the job. Two stories high, it has dark wood-paneled walls covered in muskets, swords, shields, and the like. We saw wooden carved staircases, family portraits, tapestries, and period furniture, as well as elaborate bedrooms, an entire room of fine china, and a Victorian ballroom with 175 pairs of antlers. I guess it’s “all in a day’s decorating” in such a remarkable place.
I loved the Tapestry Room with Mortlake tapestries once owned by King Charles I. Tapestry-covered chairs, sofas and rugs made it a room of exquisite detail and texture.
Traditional Scottish Quaich
During our own exploration time, I asked a castle guide about a big silver bowl I saw. She said it was a traditional Scottish quaich — a handled bowl, usually made of silver, shared between friends. In my naïve Minnesota way, I asked if they shared soup in that lovely bowl. In her gracious Scottish brogue, she said, “Oh, it would have been whisky, my dear!” Why yes, of course.
Pro Tip: From July to September, the Scottish Highland heather fields bloom in purple majesty. By October, when we traveled, they had turned a rusty red but were still lovely.
3. Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, sits high on Castle Rock with dramatic views of the city and Blackness Bay. We had a guided tour and time on our own. Here are a few highlights.
Although photography is strictly forbidden in the Crown Room, we did see “The Honours” — the Scottish Crown Jewels — explained as the crown, scepter, and sword of state used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543. They were beautiful, and security was everywhere in that small room!
The castle’s impressive Reception Hall has been called a marvel of medieval Scotland, completed in 1511 for King James IV. On one long wall were suits of armor and a display of swords and shields, all very ornate.
On the other long wall were wooden alcoves with benches. I walked by what I thought was a mannequin in period costume, positioned with a book, motionless. When Kathy walked by, the woman looked up from the book straight at her. You can imagine our surprise!
Pro Tip: If you are traveling to Edinburgh Castle in August, don’t miss the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an elaborate “pomp and ceremony” military performance that showcases music and cultural acts from around the world.
4. Eilean Donan Castle
Dornie By Kyle Of Lochalsh, Scottish Highlands
The magnificent Eilean Donan Castle sits on an island where three great lochs (lakes) meet. According to the website, “…the first fortified castle was built in the mid-13th century and stood guard over the lands of Kintail. Since then, at least four different versions of the castle have been built and rebuilt as the feudal history of Scotland unfolded through the centuries.”
Pro Tip: This was just a photo stop on our bus tour. You can purchase admission tickets at the ticket office or use self-service ticket machines at the castle.
5. Glamis Castle
About an hour and a half north of Edinburgh, the Glamis Castle looked stately even on a rainy day. The website says it was “the ancestral seat to the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne since 1392 … Glamis is renowned for its rich history and famous visitors from Mary Queen of Scots to James V and was the childhood home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.” No photos were allowed inside when we were there.
Additionally, Glamis Castle is said to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Macbeth is referred to as the “Thane of Glamis”). Although we didn’t have time to see it, the Macbeth Trail is a 25-minute walking path to seven wooden sculptures, each portraying a major scene from the play.
6. Inveraray Castle
Also in the Scottish Highlands, Inveraray Castle sits on the banks of Loch Fyne, about 60 miles from Glasgow. We had a guided tour here and once again, walked through elaborate rooms with chandeliers, dining areas, living rooms, fireplaces, and more.
The website quotes the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, “Inveraray Castle is first and foremost a family home in which our family has had the great privilege of growing up in. However, its very existence reflects the part played by the Campbells in the rich tapestry of Scottish and British history.”
For you Downton Abbey fans, you might remember this castle from the Christmas 2012 episode, which was shot here.
Bonus: Castle-Like Lodging
Muthu Newton Hotel
Touring all these castles may make you feel like royalty. When it’s time to rest your weary head in the Scottish Highlands, stay at the glorious Muthu Newton Hotel. Originally built as a family home (Wow!) in the 17th century, it features 63 rooms and elegant gardens and grounds.
Atholl Palace Hotel
Another stellar lodging fit for royalty is the Atholl Palace Hotel. It’s also a popular wedding venue, and when we were there, we loved seeing a bridal party of men in tartan kilts and women in beautiful gowns with stylish fascinators on their heads.
Scottish castles are legendary and unique. Of course, not everyone might think so.
Like all good Scottish guides, Fran was very knowledgeable about history, geography, geology, plant and animal life, clans, and customs. She gave us abundant narration on the tour.
Looking back over her 14 years of guiding tours, she told us a funny story about two women on a tour who took copious notes on her every word. As the tour continued, Fran noticed they cut way back on note-taking. One day, Fran caught a glimpse of their notebooks with cryptic notes: “ABC MDS.”
On subsequent days, if she glanced at their notebooks, she saw the same thing: “ABC MDS.” Finally, she asked them what it meant. Sheepishly (pun intended), they told her: “Another Bloody Castle, More Damned Sheep.” When note-taking got old, they resorted to an easy abbreviation to sum it up!
When you go to Scotland, I’m trusting you’ll see beyond “another bloody castle” to the uniqueness, beauty, and stories in each one. These six extraordinary castles are a great place to begin.