One of the main reasons I was drawn to Scotland is the abundance of castles dotted around the country. I visited so many castles I lost count, and can tell you which are the best based on my criteria which include: 1) well preserved history (in the case of intact castles, as opposed to castle ruins, whose charm is drawn from the lack of preservation), 2) unique features that set it apart from other castles and 3) minimal “museum” feel, as I want to see as many original features as possible, rather than bits and bobs behind a glass case. In all, I like to be able to imagine living in the castle hundreds of years ago just meandering up the secret stairs from the kitchen to my bedroom, looking out of a turret over the misty woodlands…if you know what I mean.
As a bonus, I’ll also tell you which castles you can skip, and they may surprise you as they are the most popular and commonly visited. But first, the gems!
If you’re looking for the ultimate fairytale castle, Craigevar is it. The castle was the Forbes family home for 350 years before it passed onto the National Trust for Scotland, which has maintained the property in as close to the original condition as possible. This continuity of ownership and care makes it one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. The interior of the castle can be viewed by guided tour, where they take you into nearly every square foot of the castle (quite a rarity). The tour guide was excellent, and each piece of furniture seemed to have an interesting story.
If the word “castle” conjures up images of a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat, and of course a drawbridge, Caerlaverock Castle will not disappoint. The structure has been around since the 13th century, and since then has survived many battles and sieges due to its location near the English border. The castle has not been reconstructed since the 1600s after its final battle where it lost a tower and major wall. Since then, it has continued to deteriorate into its current, charming state of ruin. You can walk across the drawbridge, explore the castle ruins and walk the surrounding nature trails.
This is probably the most impressive looking castle in Scotland due to its imposing size and location at the edge of a dramatic cliff overlooking the sea. The castle was built in the 1300s and owned by the Kennedys from the 1700s until 1945, when it was given to the National Trust for Scotland. In addition to touring the castle, you can enjoy the landscaped gardens and surrounding woodlands.
More of an castle village than just a castle, the ruined medieval fortress of Dunnottar Castle is located on a clifftop along the northeast coast of Scotland. The geography’s natural defense, consisting of the headland surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs with connection to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, made it an ideal fortress (and hiding place for the Scottish crown jewels at one point in history). The castle “village” includes ruins of a gatehouse, palace, barracks, stable, storehouses and chapel.
The two words “walled garden” make me tingle with excitement as I imagine myself transported into a dreamy secret garden all to myself. Cawdor Castle’s gardens, including a Walled Garden dating back to the 17th Century and Flower Garden from the 18th Century, are the best I saw in Scotland.
I’ll be honest – these castles, though stunning, all start looking the same at some point. What is memorable about Castle Fraser is the walk from the parking lot when you first spy the castle and it takes your breath away. See the people at the top of the tower? If the weather is decent, you can climb up there for lovely views. I could have breathed in that lush air all day.
Located outside of Aberdeen, Crathes Castle has a little of everything with that fairy tale pink-hued exterior, well-preserved interiors, and famous walled gardens. The painted ceilings, impressive furniture and architectural details inside the castle are all memorable. The castle is solid, but the gardens are outstanding with ancient topiaries that date from the early 1700s.
This beautiful hunting estate had some of the most opulent interiors, and definitely the most impressive art collection (including a Rembrandt painting), of all of the castles in Scotland. You could spend an afternoon meandering around the expansive gardens. What sets it apart from other castles is that it is still privately owned, which means it’s still remotely possible to get an invitation to a dinner party or weekend stay…right?
Though it is not a castle, I had to mention Elgin Cathedral, which is the most beautiful medieval ruin I have ever seen. The towers of the West Front and the Chapter House are still intact and you can climb to the top for aerial views of the entire cathedral site, as well as the town of Elgin. In the cathedral you can admire the miraculously preserved decorative moldings and clerestory, with a ceiling of sky and a floor of grass, how all churches should be designed, in my opinion!
Most Disappointing Castles
And now for the castles you can skip, which I only mention because they are so popular I want to set the record straight that there are much better ways to spend your time with just a bit more effort (and distance from the main cities).
I suppose its proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh may be a draw for some people, but there are so many more incredible castles just a bit further outside of the cities that I would skip Stirling Castle altogether. Though impressively large, everything else was a disappointment, with anything of interest gutted to create museum exhibits and bland, faux-historic interiors. To end on a positive note, I will say that Stirling Castle was much less crowded than most of the other castles I visited, so if you do visit, you can take your time and enjoy the grounds, in particular the views over the surrounding countryside. However, if you are looking for a castle excursion from Glasgow, drive an hour the opposite direction from Stirling and see the magnificent Culzean Castle instead.
I know this is one of the most commonly visited castles in Scotland due to its convenient location in the heart of the Royal Mile of Edinburgh, but it’s overly museum-y quality and the insane crowds make it a less pleasant experience than most of the other castles I visited. If you’re in the area, by all means visit it, if only for the views of the city from its vantage point, but skip the long line to view the crown jewels!