The country of Scotland, on the island of Great Britain, is home to more than 1,000 castles. One region, Abderdeenshire, claims more castles per acre than any other part of the United Kingdom. More people than ever are flocking to visit castles in Scotland, including over 5 million in one recent year.
What draws so many visitors to Scotland’s castles? These grand estates embody the proud history of Scots who fought for survival and independence. The architecture, furnishings, art, and artifacts—even the ruins of some castles—all have stories to tell about those who lived and worked there. And almost all of Scotland’s castles, whether richly restored, painstakingly preserved, or lying in ruins, stand amidst the most stunning and dramatic vistas you can imagine.
Castle Building in Scotland
Castles in Scotland date back to the reign of David I in the 12th century. As a young man, David lived in England and saw castles built by Norman invaders to strengthen themselves against the native population. David invited several Norman nobles north to Scotland and granted them titles and lands. Soon, their castles began dotting the countryside and shorelines.
The earliest Scottish castles were stone tower houses built by clans and other regional leaders during medieval times. Tower houses were especially common in the vulnerable Scottish Borders area, where attacks sometimes came from England. Tower houses are tall, narrow buildings with elevated doors and small windows. Kisimul Castle, built in the 1400s on the tiny Isle of Barra, is a three-level tower house. A stone curtain wall attached to the tower house encloses and protects a few smaller buildings.
Some of the much larger castles in Scotland today were built around these older tower houses. One example is the famous Cawdor Castle in the Scottish Highlands. The thane of Cawdor built this enormous stronghold around a four-story tower house. The famous Glamis Castle expanded the footprint of a much older tower house that also served as a royal hunting lodge for the kings of Scotland.
How Scottish Castles Have Been Used
Originally, castles were secure homes for powerful families. Some served as military fortifications against the English and occasionally against fellow Scots. A few castles even became prisons for political prisoners. Architectural details in Scottish castles reveal these original functions. Many have thick stone walls, small windows, protected entrances, and other defensive features.Some have dungeons.
As peaceful times prevailed, wealthy and royal families improved many Scottish castles for sumptuous country living. For example, Braemar Castle in the Highlands was originally built in the 1600s both as a hunting lodge and as regional defense against growing political unrest. When rebellion broke out in 1689, Braemar Castle was conquered and burned. Eventually, the British government requisitioned and rebuilt the ruined castle. In 1749, Braemar became a garrison for Hanovarian troops. By the end of the century, it was converted into a home again, grand enough eventually to host Queen Victoria of England.
Today, many Scottish castles serve as monumental witnesses of the country’s history. Many castles and their extensive grounds are open to the public. Some have museums, armories, and other historical displays. Edinburgh Castle, perhaps the most important and famous castle in Scotland, houses the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Scottish National War Memorial. At Stirling Castle, costumed interpreters welcome visitors to a restored Renaissance-era edifice with a regimental museum, art gallery, and tapestry display and recreated scenes of everyday life from the past. These and hundreds of other castles continue to share Scottish heritage with millions who come to visit their storied settings.