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, with Edinburgh Castle being the most famous. Unsurprisingly, there are many impressive castles within a 45-minute drive of the Edinburgh city centre, 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 around Edinburgh, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
It is difficult to create a list of the best castles near Edinburgh and to make that task even more demanding, we have included a couple of Houses and even a Palace. It is sure to be a little controversial with some, but here are our top ten.
10. Balgonie Castle
Balgonie Castle, near Markinch in Fife, is a fine 13th- or 14th-century tower of five storeys standing in a courtyard, which encloses ranges of buildings, some of them ruined, dating from the 14th to 18th centuries. The castle was built by the Sibbalds, who held the property from before 1246, but passed to different families over the years. James IV visited the castle in 1496, as did Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1565. Balgonie was captured and plundered by Rob Roy MacGregor and 200 clansmen in 1716. Balgonie is believed to be haunted, and ghostly voices and apparitions have been witnessed in the Great Hall. A skeleton was found buried under the floor in 1912! A ‘Green Lady’, Green Jeanie, has been seen in recent times, and there are also stories of a spectral 17th-century soldier, the sounds of a ghostly dog, a hooded figure, and a medieval apparition!
Tailor-Made Tip: The castle is not currently open to the public, but you can drive up to it an examine the outer defences.
9. Midhope Castle
First mentioned in 1458 Midhope Castle is located on the Hopetoun Estate near Hopetoun House. Midhope Castle dates back to the 15th Century and although the exterior is relatively intact the castle is derelict inside. The castle may have remained in anonymous run down building were it not for the highly popular TV programme Outlander. Midhope Castle is the location for fictional Lallybroch, the family home of character Jamie Fraser and the castle now has a special place in the hearts of millions.
Tailor-Made Tip: The exterior of the castle may be viewed and can be visited by purchasing a vehicle pass to from Hopetoun Farm Shop or at Hopetoun House.
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8. Aberdour Castle
Aberdour Castle has seen 500 years of noble living, serving as a residence to the powerful Mortimer, Randolph and Douglas families. Today, its ruined structures and roofed buildings show clearly how impressive a medieval castle this would have been. Aberdour is among the oldest masonry castles still standing in Scotland. Hidden in the complex are the remains of a two-storey hall-house, which may date to the early to mid-1100s. Fine walled and terraced gardens and parkland are found to the east and south of the castle buildings, which includes an attractive beehive-shaped dovecot.
Tailor-Made Tip: Make sure to visit the neighbouring St Fillan’s parish church (just a two minute walk from the castle). The church dates to the mid-1100s.
Read on to find out which castle tops the list!
7. Melville Castle
Melville Castle is an impressive castellated mansion seven miles South East of Edinburgh city centre, with a spacious pillared entrance hall, elegant staircase, and fine reception rooms. Today, Melville Castle is a splendid hotel, but almost 500 years ago, Mary Queen of Scots was a frequent visitor to Melville Castle, invariably in the company of her Italian secretary and close companion Seigneur David Rizzio. Rizzio eventually took apartments in the castle and it became known to the local people as Rizzios house. On one of the Queen’s visits, he planted a tree as a token of his love for her. The tree, a majestic Spanish Chestnut survives to this day some 450 years later. The Queen responded by planting 5 oak trees along the drive which also survive to this day. In 1786 the old medieval edifice was demolished by James Playfair, the renowned Scottish architect, and the new castle was built on its footprint. In 1842, on her first tour of Scotland, 23 year old Queen Victoria was a guest at the Castle and was enamoured by the beautiful and tranquil character of the Estate. Walter Scott was also inspired to write of ‘Melville’s Beechy Grove’ in his work ‘Grey Brother’.
Tailor-Made Tip: The food at The Brasserie Restaurant is excellent and you don’t need to be staying at the hotel to book a table. Also, take time to walk the beautiful grounds of the castle if time permits.
6. Hopetoun House
Hopetoun House has been home to the Hope Family since the late 1600’s and the present Lord Hopetoun and his family still live in Hopetoun House. Hopetoun House, a remarkable and beautiful stately home, is filled with stunning collections and sits in majestic grounds with nature trails and scenic walks. Designed by William Bruce and then altered and extended by William Adam, Hopetoun House is one of the finest examples of 18th century architecture in Britain. The magnificent interiors which have remained virtually unchanged for three centuries reflect the elegance of the Georgian era and are decorated with the best period furniture, paintings, tapestries and clocks, with beautifully crafted finishes of carving, gilding and plaster work.
Tailor-Made Tip: Go to the observation deck on the roof of the house to get excellent views over the two road bridges over the Forth.
5. House of the Binns
The House of the Binns is set in beautifully landscaped parkland overlooking the River Forth. This house near Linlithgow has been the home of the Dalyells for 400 years. The present house was built in 1612 by Thomas Dalyell, an Edinburgh merchant who made his fortune at the court of King James VI and I in London. Thomas’s son, General Tam Dalyell, formed the legendary regiment of Royal Scots Greys. There are many mementos of him in the house, as well as colourful legends about his dealings with the Devil to discover.
Tailor-Made Tip: Look out for the peacocks prowling around the grounds of the house!
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4. Linlithgow Palace
Linlithgow Palace was once a majestic royal residence of the Stewarts, but today lies roofless and ruined. James I ordered work on a palace to begin in 1424, following a fire that severely damaged the earlier residence. The elegant, new ‘pleasure palace’ became a welcome rest stop for royals on the busy road between Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. The Stewart queens especially liked the peace and fresh air, and Linlithgow Palace served as the royal nursery for James V (born 1512), Mary Queen of Scots (born 1542) and Princess Elizabeth (born 1596). The palace, however, fell quickly into decline when James VI moved the royal court to London in 1603. The end came in 1746, when a great fire swept through the palace.
Tailor-Made Tip: Visit St. Michael’s Church, at the entrance of the palace. The church, first mentioned in 1138, is beautiful inside and was where Mary Queen of Scots was baptised.
Have you guessed yet which castle tops the list?
3. Craigmillar Castle
Craigmillar Castle stood a mile outside the old city walls, providing a retreat from Scotland’s capital. Mary Queen of Scots famously used the castle as a safe haven in 1566. Ironically, its owner, Sir Simon Preston, a loyal supporter of Mary, would turn her jailer just a year later. Climb the tower house, one of Scotland’s oldest, which houses fascinating features like a fine great hall and a prison. Get lost in Craigmillar’s nooks and crannies – its many mysterious chambers make it a great castle to explore.
Tailor-Made Tip: Look for the remains of an unusual fishpond in the grounds – it’s laid out in the shape of a letter P, for Preston.
2. Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle's mighty fortifications make this 15th-century castle look like a ‘ship that never sailed’. Blackness was built as a Royal castle in 1453. By 1537, James V began to convert the castle into a state prison and artillery fortification. His ambitious project was driven by the looming threat from Henry VIII’s Protestant England. Work completed in 1542, just before the Wars of the Rough Wooing. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s heavy guns devastated the defences, forcing the garrison to surrender. The scars remain today.
Tailor-Made Tip: Walk out along the jetty to get a great view of the water-facing defences.
1. Edinburgh Castle
Probably not a surprise, but our top ten list is headed by Edinburgh Castle. This historic fortress dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh from its position on the Castle Rock. The castle stands upon the plug of an extinct volcano, which is estimated to have risen about 350 million years ago. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age (2nd century AD). There has been a royal castle on the rock since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until 1633. From the 15th century the castle's residential role declined, and by the 17th century it was principally used as military barracks with a large garrison.
The castle has a complex building history. The oldest part, St Margaret's Chapel, dates from the 12th century; the Great Hall was erected by James IV around 1510; the Half Moon Battery by the Regent Morton in the late 16th century; and the Scottish National War Memorial after the First World War. The castle houses the Honours (Crown Jewels) of Scotland, the Stone of Destiny, the famous 15th century gun Mons Meg, the One O' Clock Gun and the National War Museum of Scotland. The castle is Scotland's most-visited paid tourist attraction, with over 1.4 million visitors in 2013.
Tailor-Made Tip: Always book your ticket online – queues for tickets can be long (although due to Covid, you must now book online anyway. The castle is managed by Historic Scotland, so consider buying an annual membership (currently £52.20 for an adult) and you will be able to access all of their properties across Scotland for free.
The area around Edinburgh is bursting with history and a visit to its castles is a great way to discover its fascinating stories. In truth, there are many more castles and stately homes 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 castles around Edinburgh, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.
Join us next time when our family adventures when we explore the Moray region of Scotland. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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