By: Claire Heginbotham | Published on March 9, 2023

Ahh, Scotland; the kilts, the rolling highlands, the bagpipes, the whiskey … what's not to love? If you've seen the popular series "Outlander," you'll know exactly what I mean. And if not, prepare yourself, because the real Scotland is more poetically dramatic than any prime-time TV series.

Castles are a staple of Scottish history and culture, and there are plenty of Scotland castle tours to choose from on your visit to the country for some cultural tourism. Each one has its epic saga to tell, unique architecture to share and a rich culture not usually found in the modern world. While some are private, many castles are open to the public. Millions of visitors from around the world come to admire their grandeur. Whether standing atop a rocky cliff or nestled in green hills of waving heather, these towering piles always evoke a sense of wonder.

Today, Scotland castle tours remain an important window into Scottish heritage and history. Whether you're interested in learning more about kings and queens gone by or just looking for some beautiful scenery to add to your Scotland tours, here are some of the most famous castles to visit in Scotland.

The History Of Scottish Castles

Scottish castles can be traced back to the 12th century when the French Norman knights invaded England. King David I, the youngest son of Malcolm III and Queen Margaret, was so impressed by Norman rule that, as king of Scotland, he commissioned the Normans to build castles pretty much everywhere. He was also the first Scottish King to live in Edinburgh (but more on that later!).

Back in the 1100s, castles were the height of technology. While a stone arch may look pretty basic, a lot went into it in the days before power tools and backhoes. First, a talented stone worker had to hew the rocks down to the correct size with accurate angles. Then, a builder had to place the medieval blocks to balance them together. To top it all off, the lead architect had to know how to build a structure that would withstand weather and attack. Of course, castles also needed to be built on a defensible position (such as a hill or cliff) and required considerable funds to build and maintain. Construction could take multiple generations!

Most castles standing today were built between the 12th and 16th centuries—not only as defensive structures but also as symbols of power and prestige. A few castles around Scotland are even still owned and inhabited by the founders' descendants.

Scottish nobility fought constantly for control over land. While there was plenty of fighting between the clans, there was also a massive clash with the English during the 13th and 14th centuries. The bloody War of Independence that ensued united Scots in their desire to break away from English rule. During this time, castles were a vital asset. They protected from enemy attacks and were an excellent base to launch raids on rival clans.

The Scots have a reputation for being a feisty bunch who won't say no to a good fight. And back in medieval days, that was truer than ever. In the Battle of Flodden, the bloodiest battle in British history, the Scottish side lost 10,000 men. While many nations' war stories will place heroic emphasis on one person — looking at you, Napoleon — Scottish history more often celebrates the entire family or clan, proclaiming that each person is as brave as the next.

A few castles around Scotland are still owned and inhabited by the founders' descendants.

Take Famous Royal Scotland Castle Tours

Not only are castles steeped in legend and folklore, but they are uniquely popular with the public thanks to their strong ties to royalty. Rich history, incredible artifact collections and current royal use make some Scottish castles more famous than others.

Edinburgh Castle is, without a doubt, the place to visit if you only have time to see one castle when you cruise to Edinburgh. As one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, it's situated atop a rocky hill that looms over the city. The ground where it stands was used for strategic positioning as early as the Iron Age and is the most besieged place in Britain.

The sprawling building has a complex history of additions and renovations. Considering the number of sieges and leadership changeovers it has witnessed, there's plenty to discover. The castle's story began in 1093 when Queen Margaret (later made St. Margaret) died, and her son King David I built the intimate St. Margaret's Chapel in her honor. The next addition was built some 300 years later by King James IV. His Great Hall was a place for lavish banquets and Scottish state events, and today, its bright red walls are adorned with an arsenal of Scottish weaponry. Unfortunately, his brother-in-law, King Henry VIII of England, put a quick end to those banquets when his English forces killed James IV two years later at the Battle of Flodden. Talk about family grudges!

There are many historic rooms and lookout points to explore in Edinburgh castle: the Half Moon Battery, James VI's Birth Chamber in the Royal Palace, Argyle Tower, the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the daring Lang Stairs are all worthy spots. I recommend picking up an audio tour and choosing a guided itinerary to get the most out of your experience and see why Edinburgh has the best walking castle tours in Scotland.

Balmoral: The Royal Summer Home

Balmoral Castle is distinguished by its status as the royal family's holiday home. Yes, that means the likes of Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales have graced these halls on many occasions. The absolute highlight of Balmoral castle is the Ballroom — which happens to be the only room you will visit, as every other room in this castle is deemed private by Her Majesty. The rest of your guided tour will take place in the surrounding gardens and buildings and includes a relaxing drive around the grounds. You can also arrange a self-guided driving tour in certain areas.
While other castles may boast a long history rife with bloody battles, Balmoral is more about the English royal family. In 1852, Prince Albert purchased the castle for Queen Victoria, and they chose to demolish the old structure and build a bigger residence. The new castle was completed in 1856 and has ever since been improved on and closely managed by the royal family. Its gorgeous gardens make it one of the most enjoyable castle tours in Scotland during the summer months.

Immerse Yourself In The Arts In Stirling Castle

Wrapping up the list of royal hotspots is Stirling Castle, one of the most important sites you can visit on your trip to Scotland. Along with Edinburgh castle, this castle is one of the most frequent hosts to royals, and the walls practically burst with Scottish culture. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here at just nine months old — she threw a crying fit through the entire ceremony!

There's plenty to see, but when inside Stirling castle, I knew what my priorities were. I made a beeline for the Royal Palace chambers, eager to see one of the most impressive recreations of medieval tapestry art. Hung in these chambers are replicas of the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. They cost £2 million to recreate and are absolutely stunning. James V commissioned two sets of tapestries that depicted unicorns — a national emblem of Scotland.

All in all, Stirling Castle makes for a most entertaining visit with plenty of interactive displays, tour guides in full costume and visual re-imaginings of castle life. At night, the castle hosts Shakespearean plays, light shows and other events.

Castle Tours That Celebrate Scottish Culture

When it comes to travel destinations, I'm partial to the hidden, mysterious or forgotten. And while many of Scotland's epic castles still attract millions of tourists, some are less frequented than others. I recommend you see at least one of these gems to truly connect with the wild Scottish countryside for a vacation story like no other.

While other castles may impress you with their size, Braemar Castle wows with its sheer architectural ingenuity. The top-heavy castle stands above the Highlands on a small hill, surrounded by a grove. Walking up to it, you can just imagine the sense of foreboding it struck in approaching enemies.

Originally, Braemar castle was built as a hunting lodge for the Earls of Mar, some of Scotland's earliest rulers. But in 1715, the 6th Earl fled the country after losing a rebellion, and Braemar castle was seized by the crown and eventually bought by the Farquharsons of Invercauld. When the uprisings, rebellions and battles eventually died down in 1830, the Farquharson family turned the castle into a peaceful countryside retreat that has since hosted a slew of famous visitors. In 2007, the small local community took over care of the castle. The site is currently undergoing a massive renovation project that should be completed in late 2023. If you arrive before then, you'll have to make do with the spectacular exterior view.

The seaside Dunnottar Castle holds a special place in my heart. It clings to a cliffside some 160 feet high and looks over the dramatic waves of the North Sea. Scientists have found evidence that this rock once hosted a Pictish fort as far back as 5000 BC. Whatever happened next didn't make it into the history books, until 900 AD, when a Scottish King was killed here by Vikings who devastated the buildings. While those ruins are long gone, you can still see the ruins of a chapel built in 1276 — just before the War of Independence kicked off in full force. Legend has it that the Scots themselves were the ones to ruin the chapel, burning it with English forces inside. A lot happened at Dunnottar from then on, including a resident pet lion, a smattering of invasions and a final sale to the Cowdray family, who still own and protect the castle. You'll want to give yourself plenty of time to soak up the striking views at this castle — it's worth the drive.
Yet another castle that went from ruins to riches is Eilean Donan Castle. Set on the breathtakingly beautiful Isle of Skye, the castle makes an impact at first sight. Eilean Donan was demolished by 343 barrels of gunpowder during a failed Jacobite uprising in 1719 and laid in ruins for 200 years. It was bought by Lieutenant Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap, a member of the Macrae clan, who took 20 years to restore it before opening the castle to the public in 1932. Today, Eilean Donan makes for a fun family outing with interactive elements such as real cannonballs that you can touch and a Claymore sword you can hold.

Visit Macbeth And A Hogwarts Castle Tour In Scotland

Ever studied Shakespeare in school? Glamis Castle was allegedly the inspiration for William Shakespeare's murder drama Macbeth. This is where the historical events that inspired the story played out, and where King Malcolm II was murdered, eventually leading to King Macbeth being deposed and replaced by King Malcolm III. Today, the castle hosts plenty of events and performances. In a rare turn of events, Glamis has happily remained in the Strathmore family since 1372 and continues to be a family home, so you'll find plenty of royal history to discover.
If you want to indulge a book-loving child (or your inner child), there's always Alnwick Castle. This real castle served as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the first two Harry Potter films. Fantasy film buffs will instantly notice memorable spots, such as where Harry took his first flying lesson or where the trio snuck out to Hagrid's cabin and the Forbidden Forest. Apart from its magical atmosphere, the castle has been home to the Percy family for seven centuries and has undergone major restoration to return it to its medieval glamour. My advice? Make a day of it on your Scotland vacation, and partake in broomstick training, archery lessons and a theatrical dragon quest. When you can't take any more activities, relax at a local restaurant, and leave room for some high-quality Scottish fare.

Come For The Architecture, Stay For The Magic

The list of potential castle activities to check out on your vacation to Scotland goes beyond architecture tourism. Book a cruise to Inverness and play a round of nine-hole golf at the magnificent Cawdor castle, or enjoy a tipple while surveying the rugged landscape and loch at Inveraray castle. You could walk through generations of artifacts and eclectic military architecture at Blair castle. And you definitely could go hunting for the shy Loch Ness monster hiding in the waters surrounding Urquhart Castle. With over 1,500 castles in Scotland, there really is no shortage of sites to explore.

Castles have a long and storied history in Scotland, playing an important role in the country's journey to the modern age. Today, many of these castles are open for cultural tourism. Explore their grand halls, learn about their fascinating past and pretend you're in a fantasy novel.

Written By

Claire Heginbotham is a professional copywriter and adventure traveler. Over the last five years, she's published work with Royal Caribbean, Gaijinpot, Kuroko Tours, and many more. She's traveled to hundreds of bespoke Asian destinations where the unknown flourishes.

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Romantic Cawdor Castle Gardens near Inverness
Romantic Cawdor Castle Gardens near Inverness

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