Fortifications have dominated Scotland’s landscape for well over two thousand years. First there were hill forts, brochs and duns, then came the more recognisable motte and bailey castles of the eleventh century. Stone castles appeared around 1200, then tower houses over one hundred years later. From whichever period of history, these castles have inspired awe, fascination and often fear. Scotland can boast of over 2,000 castles, of which hundreds reside in the stunning landscapes of the Highlands and Islands. But which one is the best?
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 the Highlands, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
It is difficult to create a list of the best castles of the Highlands and Islands. It is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are our top ten.
10. Old Inverlochy Castle
Old Inverlochy Castle dates back to the 13th century, and played a part in Scottish and English history during the Civil Wars of the 1640’s. In 1645 the royalist Earl of Montrose routed the roundhead forces of the Campbell Chief Duke of Argyll at the second Battle of Inverlochy. In 1654 the Castle was abandoned in favour of a large timber fort built nearby by Oliver Cromwell. Then, in 1690, this timber fort was then replaced by a stone fort named “Fort William” after King William III.
Tailor-Made Tip: The castle is fee to visit and always open. There is limited parking in front of the main gate, but this is usually sufficient.
9. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is located along the NC500, about 3 miles north of Wick, with the large car park for the castle being reached via narrow country roads. The castle is considered to be one of the earliest seats of Clan Sinclair. It comprises the ruins of two castles: the 15th-century Castle Girnigoe; and the early 17th-century Castle Sinclair. The earlier Castle Girnigoe was built by William Sinclair, the 2nd Earl of Caithness, probably sometime between 1476 and 1496. In 1577, George Sinclair, the 4th Earl of Caithness, imprisoned his own son John, Master of Caithness, in Castle Girnigoe, on suspicion of rebelling against his rule. He was held there for seven years, after which his father fed him a diet of salted beef, with nothing to drink, so that he eventually died insane from thirst. Expansion occurred in 1606 when Castle Sinclair was built, comprising a gatehouse and other buildings, along with a curtain wall. These were connected to the earlier castle by a drawbridge over a ravine.
Tailor-Made Tip: Wear some sturdy footwear, as the ten minute walk down a track from the car park can be a little muddy in places.
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8. Inverness Castle
The Inverness Castle, made of red sandstone, that can be seen today was built in 1836 by architect William Burn. It is built on the site of an 11th-century defensive structure which is said to have been built by Malcolm III. Until recently, much of the building housed the Inverness Sheriff Court and was not open to the public. However, the south tower was purchased by the Highland Council in 2020 and the castle will be transformed into a visitor attraction. Maybe once it reopens, it will feature higher in top ten lists!
Tailor-Made Tip: The north tower is accessible to visitors, where they can access a viewpoint, giving great views of the city and river.
Read on to find out which castle tops the list!
7. Ardvreck Castle
Ardvreck Castle defended the eastern shore of Loch Assynt. There are just enough remains to identify it as once having been a three storey tower house of traditional design. The castle dates back to about 1490 when the lands were owned by the Macleods of Assynt. Its only place in history is an especially inglorious one. On 27 April 1650, the Marquis of Montrose, fighting for the Royalist cause, lost the battle of Carbisdale to the Covenanter army. His flight brought him, two days later, to Ardvreck Castle, where he sought sanctuary. But he was tricked into the castle dungeon and the Covenanter troops sent for. Montrose was taken to Edinburgh, where he was executed on 21 May 1650. Ardvreck Castle was attacked and captured by the Mackenzies in 1672. In 1726 they replaced it with the more modern Calda House (apparently recycling some of the stone from Ardvreck when they did so).
Tailor-Made Tip: There is a small, but beautiful waterfall that can be accessed across the A837 road, just north east of the castle.
6. Castle of Old Wick
A hidden delight of the NC500, the Castle of Old Wick was probably built in the 1100s, possibly by the half-Norse Earl Harald Maddadson. Known as ‘The Old Man of Wick’, the castle is dominated by its four-storey tower. Parts of its seaward side have long since collapsed, but it retains a striking and dramatic presence.
Tailor-Made Tip: There is a large car park at the end of Wellington Avenue. Park there and follow the coastal walking path for about ten minutes to arrive at the castle. The path can be muddy!
5. Dunvegan Castle
Dunvegan Castle is the seat of the MacLeod of MacLeod, chief of the Clan MacLeod. Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the stronghold of the chiefs of the clan for more than 800 years. A curtain wall was built round the hill in the 13th century around a former Norse fort which was only accessible through a sea gate. A castle was then constructed within the curtain wall by Malcolm MacLeod in about 1350. The castle also has a beautiful and floral garden, which is well worth setting time aside to visit and is one of the highlights of a trip to the Isle of Skye.
Tailor-Made Tip: One of the castle’s most famous exhibits is its magical ‘Fairy Flag’. Learn the story of the flag at the castle then drive towards Stein and visit the actual Fairy Bridge which is featured in the story.
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4. Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle was once one of Scotland’s largest castles and saw great conflict during its 500 years as a medieval fortress. Control of the castle passed back and forth between the Scots and English during the Wars of Independence. The power struggles continued, as the Lords of the Isles regularly raided both castle and glen up until the 1500s. The last of the government troops garrisoned here during the Jacobite Risings blew up the castle when they left. Urquhart’s iconic ruins remain, offering glimpses into medieval times and the lives of its noble residents.
Tailor-Made Tip: To get a spectacular view of the castle from the water, take a Loch Ness by Jacobite boat cruise. These boats leave from Brackla Harbour, just a ten minute drive north from the castle.
Have you guessed yet which castle tops the list?
3. Fort George
Fort George is the finest example of 18th-century military engineering anywhere in the British Isles, though the army base never fired a shot in anger. Today, the fort would cost nearly £1 billion to build and equip. Strategically located on a promontory jutting into the Moray Firth, the army base was built on a monumental scale, making use of sophisticated defence standards, with heavy guns covering every angle. It was built in the wake of the Battle of Culloden (1746) as a secure base for King George II’s army. The fort housed a 1,600-strong garrison, more than 80 guns, and a magazine for 2,672 gunpowder barrels. Fort George is currently the home of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, but is open daily to visitors.
Tailor-Made Tip: When walking along the battlements, keep your eyes open for a sight of the Moray Firth dolphins. These dolphins often make an appearance near the fort.
2. Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands with 189 rooms. Dunrobin Castle is also one of Britain's oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s, home to the Dukes of Sutherland just outside the village of Golspie. Sir Charles Barry was retained in 1845 to completely re-model the castle, to change it from a fort to a house in the Scottish Baronial style. Barry had been the architect for the Houses of Parliament in London and was much in demand. There is very much a French influence with conical spires to the whole project, including the gardens, based on Versailles, which he laid out in the 1850s.
Tailor-Made Tip: Don’t miss the falconry displays on the castle lawn. The shows feature golden eagles and peregrine falcons, alongside more exotic species such as the European Eagle owl. The displays are held twice daily during the warmer months (during 2021, this will be 1st May to the 31sst October).
1. Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan Castle is situated on an island at the point where three great sea lochs meet. Surrounded by some majestic scenery, Eilean Donan is one of the most iconic images of Scotland all over the world. Although first inhabited around the 6th century, 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 re-built. Partially destroyed in a Jacobite uprising in 1719, Eilean Donan lay in ruins for the best part of 200 years. Then Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and proceeded to restore the castle to its former glory. After 20 years of toil and labour the castle was re-opened in 1932.
Tailor-Made Tip: Watch the cult fantasy action film Highlander before your visit, to get a taste of the castle and its iconic bridge!
The region is bursting with history and a visit to the castles of the Highlands and Islands is a great way to discover its fascinating stories. In truth, there are many more 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 the Highlands, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
Comment below and let me know what was your favourite Highland castle.
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