Laugh, cry and shiver (and not just with the cold) as BILL WATT takes us on a journey to 12 Scottish castles.
1. CLIFF HANGER: Dunnottar
Perched precariously on a rocky bluff above the North Sea this castle is a masterpiece combining sheer beauty with a heroic and grisly history. The hilly walk to the castle is testing but rewards with spectacular views of the 440 million-year old outcrop topped by the mediaeval fortress that was home to the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland. The crown jewels of Scotland were famously saved from destruction in Dunnottar and William Wallace of Braveheart fame massacred an English battalion by burning them to death in the castle chapel. Of course, there are ghosts - a young woman seeking her lost children is often sighted.
2. BIG BANG THEORY: Edinburgh
Sitting high above the Scottish capital, Edinburgh Castle is one of the world’s most recognisable structures. The best time to visit is around 1pm each day (except Sundays), when the One O’Clock Gun is fired from the battlements. It is one great big bang, and even though the crowd is expecting it, the firing always startles. The castle is full of cannons, testament to a long military heritage, including Mons Meg, a monster mediaeval device with 175kg cannon balls. Leave time to explore … it is a large castle and with each turn comes new revelations - for example the scene of the infamous Black Dinner of 1440 where the guests of honour were beheaded before boy king James II.
3. COMIC CAMELOT: Doune
Much of comedy classic Monty Python And The Holy Grail (including Camelot, Castle Anthrax and Swamp Castle scenes) was filmed in this 14th Century fortification. Many will remember the walls of Doune Castle from where, in the movie, French guards taunt hapless English knights with lines including: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries”. Appropriately, the gift shop sells Monty Python’s Holy Ale (“Tempered over burning witches”). The castle audio tour (a must) is mostly narrated by Python star Terry Jones. Less funny but still interesting is audio co-star Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser in Outlander) describing scenes filmed here for his TV blockbuster.
4. THE 19th HOLE: St Andrews
After you’ve visited the world’s oldest and most famous golf course (the game was being played at St Andrews in the 15th Century), travel a wee bit up the road and visit what I consider the ancient town’s 19th hole – the local castle’s infamous Bottle Dungeon. For their crimes, prisoners at the otherwise scenic coastal castle were lowered into a 7.3m-deep, 4.6m-wide chamber cut into rock. Not a fair-way to be treated! Plenty of other gory events took place here as well, including infamous murders and executions that altered the course of Scottish history.
5. TAPESTRY OF LIFE: Stirling
Stirling is the place to grasp what life in a royal castle was like way back when. Costumed workers, waxwork models and mediaeval balladeers bring the past to life in the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned. The Great Hall has been re-furbished in the original king’s gold paint. When asked by a dubious American tourist about the accuracy of the colour, a castle worker rapidly replies: “We have a copy of the ancient recipe”. So there! It is also one of the few places you can see mediaeval tapestries in their pristine glory. A $4 million, 14-year project using 18 traditional weavers has brought back to life lost tapestries the original of which Queen Mary must surely have admired.
6. MONSTER MASH: Urquhart
Not every castle comes with its own monster (ghosts don’t count), but Urquhart does. Set on the edge of Loch Ness, the ruined castle is characteristically enveloped in mist, and in those conditions a sighting of Nessie (aka the Loch Ness monster) is surely a possibility. Built initially in the 13th Century, Urquhart was partially destroyed in 1692 to prevent it being used by Jacobite forces attempting to reinstate the Catholic Stuart dynasty to power. Warning: If you’re foolish enough (like a younger me) to fancy cycling from Inverness to the castle … don’t. The weather can turn in an instant.
7. YEW BEAUTY: Craigmillar
When you step through the gates of Craigmillar Castle, a few kilometres from Edinburgh’s city centre, you are greeted by the spreading branches of two ancient yew trees. They were planted to celebrate a visit by Mary Queen of Scots and so are a living link to Scotland’s most famous Queen, beheaded years later in England. As they grew, the trees were used as the source for wood to make bows and arrows. But, Craigmillar has so much more to offer, being one of the best preserved of Scotland’s medieval castles. And the views from the castle’s ramparts looking back to Edinburgh and across the Firth of Forth are spectacular.
“Even dud photographers can’t fail to take a decent picture here. Perhaps that’s why movies including Highlander and Rob Roy used it as a backdrop.”
8. CALENDAR GIRL: Eilean Donan
Every December of my Australian childhood a package arrived in the mail from my Gran in Scotland … a calendar featuring 12 images of Bonny Scotland. I reckon each of those calendars included Eilean Donan castle, situated on the road to the haunting Isle of Skye. It provides the most iconic of Scottish images, a 13th Century castle on a small island where three sea lochs (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh) meet and surrounded by the ruggedly beautiful highlands. Even dud photographers like me can’t fail to take a decent picture here. Perhaps that’s why movies including Highlander and Rob Roy used it as a backdrop.
9. WHISKY CHASER: Dunyvaig
After a dram or two of whisky at one of the island of Islay’s famous distilleries, why not head to Dunyvaig Castle, situated dramatically on Lagavulin Bay. In fact, that’s exactly what a Lagavulin distillery guide told us to do after a round of tastings. But he wasn’t getting all romantic about the once grand symbol of the power of the MacDonald clan and its leader known as the Lord of the Isles. It’s just that the best view of the Lagavulin distillery in its stunning setting can be taken from the castle’s headland. Be warned though, the castle itself is dangerous and inaccessible - sadly just a picturesque ruin.
10. SHIP AHOY: Blackness
Known as the Ship That Never Sails, Blackness Castle juts aggressively into the waters of the Firth of Forth. Its nickname derives from an unusual shape that mimics a ship. A royal castle from 1453, it also served as a prison for noble prisoners … and others. Though the VIPs were kept in comfort, the others weren’t so lucky. In 1924, a manacle was discovered in the pit where commoner prisoners were held. It still held the wrist bones of the long-forgotten convict. More recently, the castle served as the prison where Jamie Fraser was incarcerated in the TV series Outlander. The castle ramparts provide magnificent views of the three famous bridges that link southern and northern Scotland.
11. PIPE DREAM: Blair
Nothing says Scotland like the skirl of the pipes. So, to be greeted at Blair Castle by a lone, kilted piper is a special moment. Blair, in Perthshire, is a spectacular white structure, originating in the 13th Century but renovated continuously since. Its interior is full of weapons and deer antlers - both impressive and spooky. Like so many Scottish castles, Blair was the centre of dramatic and tragic events. During the 1745 Jacobite rising Blair’s owners, the Murray family, were split. Two brothers backed Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebels, but the duke stuck with the government. It led to Jacobite commander Lord George Murray besieging his own ancestral home.
12. SKYE HIGH: Dunvegan
Situated on what is surely one of the world’s most spectacularly scenic islands – the Isle of Skye – Dunvegan castle is famous as the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, occupied by the MacLeod clan’s chiefs for nearly 800 years. It’s array of battlements, turrets and high walls, lined with ancient cannons, stands guard over a stark but beautiful backdrop. That grandeur is maintained inside. On display are remnants from the Jacobite rebellion, including Bonnie Prince Charlie’s waistcoat, and the MacLeods’ most precious treasure – the famous Fairy Flag, endowed with magical powers. The gardens around Dunvegan are simply beautiful and a selfie-taker’s dream.
Most of Scotland’s castles come with an admission price, which vary greatly. The bigger the castle, the more you seem to pay. But they are all worth it.
Opening hours vary across days and seasons, so check online before you visit.
Access to sites is mostly quite simple, including parking, but there are exceptions eg Dunnottar is quite a challenging hike from the parking/set-down area; Craigmillar’s parking area was limited; Dunyvaig was a damp stroll and the ruins are inaccessible.
Nearly all of Scotland’s castles are haunted, but the “wee ghosties” tend to leave travellers alone
The author used a hire car or public transport to get to these sites. His trip was self funded. He flew British Airways from Sydney to the UK return and hired a car through Hertz.