Imagine a big, drowsy city like San Francisco or Seattle with clouds hovering low and rain. Imagine the mild seasons, the damp streets, and soggy foliage. Now imagine being able to see just beyond the horizon, the crumbling spires of ancient castles rising into the gray sky. This is what Scotland is like: a beautiful countryside filled with lovely, historical buildings and a long, rich history. Each of these castles tells their own little version of this history.
Defender of the Nation
Arguably the most popular castle in Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has endured more than most other castles have. It has seen more violence and attempts at revolution than any other castle in the United Kingdom. The Scots and English fought over it during the Wars of Independence. Queen Margaret and Mary, Queen of Scots, the mother of James VI, lived in Edinburgh Castle.
In the 1500s the castle became a military base, and with its newfound importance came a makeover. Today, Edinburgh Castle proudly houses the Half Moon Battery, a huge garrison, and a jail for war prisoners. It is also a huge part of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Icon of Independence
Out of all the castles to see in Edinburgh, the Stirling Castle arguably has the most attractions. From the largest medieval banquet hall in Scotland to the beautiful views of King’s Knot and Royal Park, Stirling is certainly a huge tourist attraction for a reason. The interior has been restored to mirror what the castle may have looked like back in its heyday during the 1500s. While costumed workers mingle with the visitors, younger visitors are welcome to the Palace Vaults, where they can try on clothing from the time period.
Stirling’s mass appeal may come from its long, bloody history. Among the various lords and ladies that have walked its halls, Stirling has served as a home to William Wallace; Robert the Bruce; Mary, Queen of Scots; and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Battles fought nearby include William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 and Robert the Bruce’s victory over Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314.
Then again, Stirling’s popularity may be from its complex, intriguing structure. There are three main enclosures inside the castle. First, there are the outer defenses, which visitors first approach. Second, there is the main enclosure. And finally, there is Nether Bailey. Within the main enclosure, four buildings form a square: the King’s Old Building, built in 1496 for James IV; the Great Hall, added in 1503 by James IV; the Royal Palace, built for James V circa 1540; and the Chapel Royal, which James VI built in 1594.
Scotland’s Uncrowned Castle
Built sometime in the 14th century, Doune Castle was first home to Robert Stewart, the first Duke of Albany and Governor of Scotland. Though not technically royalty, Stewart worked as governor and efficiently ruled over a kingdom for 32 years before his death in 1420. His son, Murdoch, succeeded him and became the castle’s primary owner. Murdoch was executed four short years later.
Doune only became an officially royal castle after Murdoch was executed by James I. It acted as a safe place for royalty, but its status as a royal castle only lasted until 1603, when James VI left to become King James I of England.
Though Doune was technically only a royal castle for a little less than 200 years, it does have another claim to fame. In 1975, the slapstick comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail featured, in some of its most iconic scenes, Doune Castle. Today, visitors can enjoy a tour narrated by actor and director Terry Jones, who directed and starred in the low-budget film.
If the comedy in Monty Python just isn’t your cup of tea, Doune is also a filming location for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’s Outlander.
Nessy, I’m Home
Beautifully situated on the shores of the infamous Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle was taken by the English in the 13th century. The castle acted as a battleground between knights and kings alike who wanted the fortress for their separate countries. Urquhart was restored to its original state in the 1500s, though a few years later, the gatehouse was destroyed. However, Urquhart is most well-known for the mythology around it.
Around the year 580, the traveler St. Columba may have visited the rocky cape where Urquhart Castle now sits, according to his biographer Adomnan. Adomnan also wrote of Columba’s encounter with “a monster in the loch.” This monster has come to be known world-wide as the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessy. Though it hasn’t been proven that Nessy exists, there are pictures out there that might may give skeptics a little doubt.
After its demise as a military stronghold during the Glorious Revolution in the 17th century, Urquhart fell into ruins. In fact, it was so decayed by 1715 that one of the towers fell to the ground during a storm.
The people in the 18th century saw beauty in the ruins that Urquhart had become, and in 1913, the castle came under state care and is now one of the most visited castles in Scotland.
No matter what castle you choose to visit on your Scottish getaway, you can rest assured knowing you can’t go wrong. But since you’re staying for a while, why not go ahead and visit all four? Certainly, there is no such thing as too many castle tours.