With an impressive count of over 300 castles, it is easy to understand why Aberdeenshire is known as ‘Scotland’s Castle Country’. Many of these castles are in great condition and others are ruins, but they are all fascinating in their own way. They tell the story of kings, alliances and vendettas, wars, and families who have made Aberdeenshire and Scotland. Castle visits are perfect for history buffs, architecture-lovers or those just love a captivating story.
At Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these castles appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the castles of Aberdeenshire, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
It is difficult to create a list of the best castles in Aberdeenshire to visit and is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are our top ten.
10. Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle is nestled on the banks of the River Dee, between the picturesque villages of Ballater and Braemar. This castle has been the Scottish home of the Royal Family since it was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852, having been first leased in 1848. The Castle is an example of Scots Baronial architecture. You can enjoy access to the formal and vegetable gardens, exhibitions in the former stables, as well as access to the largest room in the Castle, the Ballroom. Please note that this is the only room in the main castle building that you can visit. All other rooms within the Castle are not available to the public as these are Her Majesty The Queen's private rooms.
Tailor-Made Tip: Visit Crathie Church on the opposite bank of the river to see where the Queen attends church.
9. Braemar Castle
Perhaps overlooked because of its proximity to Balmoral, Braemar Castle should be a must for visitors to Royal Deeside. The castle is a more satisfying visit than its more illustrious neighbour, since you can access most of its interiors.
Braemar Castle was built by the Earl of Mar in 1628 and over the years, it has been hunting lodge, fortress, garrison, and family home. Its castellated turrets and star shaped curtain wall catch the eye as soon as you approach. You can inspect the grand dining room, drawing room, and Victorian bathrooms, with a total of 12 rooms open to the public. Each room is furnished with the furniture, memorabilia, and personal belongings of the chiefs of Clan Farquharson.
Tailor-Made Tip: Look out for the bottleneck dungeon into which prisoners were lowered or dropped. During the religious conflicts of the late 1600s it was temporary "home" to no fewer than 17 prisoners.
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8. Kildrummy Castle
Even as a ruin, Kildrummy Castle is known as ‘the noblest of northern castles’. In its medieval heyday, the huge castle dominated Strathdon as seat of the mighty earls of Mar. Built in the mid-1200s, Kildrummy was seldom far from the political spotlight. As Scottish kings battled to overcome rebellion in Moray, the castle guarded the point where main routes from the south met before entering Moray and Buchan.
The once mighty Snow Tower, the earl’s residence, collapsed in 1805. But the Warden’s Tower and two other lesser towers still stand. So does the gable of the castle chapel, a handsome building with three tall, elegant windows that let light shine on the high altar. Kildrummy Castle provided inspiration for the writers and artists of Disney’s animated feature film, Brave.
Tailor-Made Tip: The Kildrummy Inn is minutes north of the castle and is an ideal place to eat and / or stay.
Read on to find out which castle tops the list!
7. New Slains Castle
New Slains Castle was built in 1597 around the existing tower house at Bowness. The tower was extended and buildings added around a courtyard. Bram Stoker used the castle as inspiration for his story of Dracula. He wrote his novel when he stayed at the nearby hotel, The Kilmarnock Arms. Early drafts of his novel had Dracula coming ashore at Cruden Bay after his sea voyage from Transylvania. However, this was changed to Whitby in Yorkshire for the final published work.
In 1916 death duties forced the 20th Earl of Erroll to sell Slains Castle. Tragically, the new owner allowed the castle to fall into disrepair. In 1925 its roof was removed, and valuable dressed stone removed for re-use elsewhere.
The original Slains Castle lay a mile north east of Collieston and about six miles south west of its successor. This was built in the 1200s as a fortress. But in 1594 the owner, the Earl of Erroll backed a plot by the Earl of Huntly against King James VI. James responded by blowing up Old Slains Castle, and not much remains today.
Tailor-Made Tip: The Kilmarnock Arms is an excellent place to eat and / or stay. While there, ask to see the reception desk’s ledger with the signature of Bram Stoker. They will be very happy to show you.
6. Castle Fraser
Castle Fraser has been home to the Fraser family for more than 400 years. The castle is filled with family portraits, ornaments, and mementos, all lovingly preserved by the National Trust for Scotland. The long history even includes a few ghost stories! With a core that possibly dates back to the 1450s, Castle Fraser grew into a huge, fortified structure, one of the largest tower houses in the country. The traditional walled garden includes specimen trees, herbaceous borders, a medicinal border and organically grown fruit and vegetables.
Tailor-Made Tip: The small restaurant at the castle is an ideal stop for food and drink.
5. Drum Castle
Drum Castle is a combination of a 13th century square tower and a Jacobean mansion house, with the additions of Victorian lairds. In 1323 the castle was granted to William de Irwyn by King Robert the Bruce. The castle remained within the Irvine family until 1975, when it was handed over to the National trust of Scotland. Irvine memorabilia is shown in the Family Room and the house contains an excellent collection of portraits and good Georgian furniture. The High Hall of the castle tower is still in its medieval state which is accessed by a narrow newel stair offering fine views from the battlements. The original house was enlarged with the creation of a very fine Jacobean mansion house in 1619 and a later addition during the reign of Queen Victoria. The grounds contain the Old Wood of Drum ancient oak woodland.
Tailor-Made Tip: Don’t miss the old walled garden. It has a fine collection of historic roses.
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4. Crathes Castle
Crathes Castle was established in the late 16th century castle, and is memorable for its towers, turrets and stories of its resident ghosts. King Robert the Bruce granted the lands of Leys to the Burnett family in 1323: the ancient Horn of Leys, which can be seen today in the Great Hall, marks his gift. Some of the rooms still retain their original painted ceilings and collections of family portraits and furniture and are well maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. The castle’s most famous ghost is that of the Green Lady. This ghost is said to manifest as a green mist floating across the room. It is even said that Queen Victoria saw the apparition during a visit.
The 1.5 hectares of walled garden incorporates herbaceous borders and many unusual plants. The great yew hedges, fascinating examples of the art of topiary, date from as early as 1702. The garden, as you see it today, was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, and consists of 8 garden rooms, each with its own theme. The gardens have been planted in such a way that there is colour all year round.
There are also seven waymarked trails, including one suitable for wheelchairs, which lead through the mixed woodlands, along the Coy Burn and past the millpond.
Tailor-Made Tip: If you are looking for an adventure at Crathes Castle, try the treetop challenge, zipline and high ropes of Go Ape, which are set up in the grounds of the castle.
Have you guessed yet which castle tops the list?
3. Fyvie Castle
Fyvie Castle is an imposing fortress with over 800 years of history. Starting as a royal castle around 1200, Fyvie was probably a square wooden structure initially. Over the years, several Scottish kings stayed here, including Alexander II and Robert the Bruce. The castle passed from the king to the Lindsays, the Prestons, the Setons, then eventually the Gordon family. Each owner added their own mark on the castle, and it is said that each of the five families to own the castle added a tower (there are actually only four towers, but, for the purpose of this saying, the 1890 projecting wing was included as the fifth!).
The interiors of the castle more than match the outside walls of this fairy-tale castle. The rooms have a rich collection of artworks, including the largest private collections of Raeburns in the world.
Tailor-Made Tip: Make sure to set aside time to visit the castle’s 18th-century walled garden. The garden is a must-see, beautifully laid out and brimming with Scottish fruits and vegetables.
2. Craigievar Castle
Craigievar Castle is spellbindingly beautiful. Construction of the castle was begun in the Scottish Baronial style around 1576. Its exterior remains virtually unchanged since William Forbes completed it c1626. Craigievar was a family home until the 1960s, creating a quirky blend of cosy interiors and rare antiquities within the ancient walls. In accordance with the former owner’s wishes, artificial light has not been installed in the upper floors. This means that the castle's extensive collection of historic artefacts and art is seen in the shifting light from the sun, exactly as they would have been when they were made.
Tailor-Made Tip: Take a good look of the stunning pink exteriors. Do you recognise anywhere else? Well, it is said that design of the Walt Disney’s Cinderalla castle was based on Craigievar.
1. Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is romantic, evocative, and historically significant, perched on a giant conglomerate on the edge of the North-Sea. An impregnable fortress that holds many rich secrets of Scotland’s colourful past. The dramatic and evocative ruined cliff top fortress was the home of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in the land. William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose, and the future King Charles II have graced the Castle with their presence. Most famously though, it was at Dunnottar Castle that a small garrison held out against the might of Cromwell’s army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels, the ‘Honours of Scotland’, from destruction.
Tailor-Made Tip: If you want to follow story of the ‘Honours of Scotland’, visit Kinneff Old Church, a ten-minute drive south. The Crown Jewels were secreted out of the castle and buried under the floor of the church.
The region is bursting with history and a visit to Aberdeenshire’s castles is a great way to discover its fascinating stories. In truth, there are many more Aberdeenshire castles that would not have looked out of place on this list, but we hope that you enjoyed our pick of the best. If you think there was a more deserving castle that should have been included, let us know in the comments below.
Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these castles appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the castle of Aberdeenshire, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
Join me next time when I continue exploring the castles of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Tailor-Made Itineraries posts every two weeks, and you can subscribe to the latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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