Scotland’s turbulent history has left an enduring mark on the landscape in shape of the many castles, fortresses and tower houses that pepper the countryside. Some – such as Edinburgh or Stirling – rank amongst Europe’s most impressive structures while other less grand examples provide a stark insight into darker times.
The first time I landed in Scotland, one of my goals was to visit every single castle. That until I found a book that lists them all. There are thousands castles scattered in Scotland! Even to visit all castles in Aberdeen and Grampian area will take years, unless if I do it every day. Maybe.
In the mean time, I set my goal to be a simpler one: visit all famous castles first. Here are 5 of them:
Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh
Scotland’s most important and famous castle. I can’t remember how many times I have been there, maybe 4 times, and counting. It is officially suggested to allocate 2-3 hours to wander around the complex. Each century has seen changes and additions on the Estate, resulting in today’s mix of military barracks, palace, fortress and war memorial. The oldest part of the complex, 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, and the famous 15th century gun Mons Meg. The One O’clock Gun fires from the ramparts each weekday, scaring pigeons and the unaware on Princes Street far below.
Balmoral Castle has been the Scottish Home of the British Royal Family since 1848, and might be the last place Queen Elizabeth can enjoy her privacy. It comprises over 18,000 hectares owned between Balmoral, Birkhall and Glen Doll, 2,940 hectares of grouse moor at Corgarff and 4,688 hectares of sporting rights rented from a neighbour. It is officially suggested to allocate one and half hour to wander around the estate – it doesn’t take too much time because there is only a part of the castle that is open to public. I just went to visit it today, half-hangover, and 10 minutes walk from the gate to the castle cleared my head and improved my mood. We saw at least 2 red squirrels crossing the pathways, and heard the sound of water flowing somewhere behind the line of pine trees. It is so peaceful I could imagine The Queen and her family find a serenity here. Totally different from over-exposed, perpetually-buzzing Edinburgh Castle.
Eilean Donan Castle, Dornie, Wester Ross
Eilean Donan is one of the most iconic images of Scotland – everywhere you go, you’d definitely find Eilean Donan Castle postcards. The castle, probably the most photogenic and photographed castle in Scotland, now the headquarters for the Clan McRae, is situated on an island at the point where three great sea lochs (lakes) meet, and surrounded by some majestic scenery. What delights me the most is the kitchen. We climb up the stairs, and without warning we see what we thought other people there. Turns out they are wax mannequins, arranging like Mrs. McRae checking the preparation of the first grand meal held in the castle back in 1932.
Stirling Castle in Stirling, located 45 minutes by train from Edinburgh, is one of the largest and most important castle, historically and architecturally, in Scotland. Situated 250 feet above the plain on an extinct volcano, it became the strategic military key to Scottish kingdom during the 13th and 14th century. Many important event in Scotland’s history took place at Stirling, including the violent murder of the eight Earl of Douglas by James II. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots, who spent her childhood in the castle and was crowned in the Chapel Royal in 1543. Much of today’s castle dates from the 15th-18th centuries. The Great Hall has been restored to how it would have looked around 1500 and there are excellent interactive displays on the castle’s history and the medieval kitchen.
Fyvie Castle, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire
Fyvie Castle is probably the grandest example of Scottish baronial architecture. We took my father to this castle when he visited us last year, which is located about 1 hour drive from Aberdeen. We didn’t hear anything about the castle being haunted – but I found later, a story is told that in 1920 during renovation work the skeleton of a woman was discovered behind a bedroom wall. On the day the remains were laid to rest in Fyvie cemetery, the castle residents started to be plagued by strange noises and unexplained happenings. Fearing he had offended the dead woman, the Laird of the castle had the skeleton exhumed and replaced behind the bedroom wall, at which the haunting ceased. The castle begun as a simple building in the 13th century, and passed through the hands of five powerful families – Preston, Meldrum, Gordon, and Leith – each of whom added significantly to it until it reached its present form. When we went there there was a wedding to be held there, and lots of Scotsman with kilts were wandering around the Estate.
Many castles are claimed to be inspirations for novels, or are used as movie sets. Slain Castle
in Cruden Bay, for example, is believed to be an inspiration of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula. Bram Stoker stayed in the nearby hotel, The Kilmarnock Arms, whilst he wrote his novel. 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. Dunnotar Castle in Stonehaven, was a location of the 1990 film Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. It is believed that Edinburgh Castle is JK Rowling’s inspiration for her Harry Potter novels, although some of the film set like Howgarts’ exterior, is taken in Alnwick Castle, 33 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne or 80 miles south of Edinburgh, which also becomes a set for other movies like Elizabeth, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Robin of Sherwood.
Now, since I’m off to London tomorrow for a week, I think it’s the right time to broaden my experience by visiting English castles, like Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace. That, if I’m not stuck in Harrods and Selfridges!