5 Spectacular Scottish Castles That Are Still Standing

Each of these castles has unique features found nowhere else in the British Isles. Here are five of the most stunning Scottish Castles that are still standing today.

Jun 5, 2021By Kurt Readman, MA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA History
featured image scottish castles standing
Dunnottar Castle, Via VisitScotland.com; with Craigmillar Castle, by J M W Turner, 1834-6, Via Tate Gallery


Castles are a staple of the landscape in Scotland. Many were built in the medieval period as statements of power, and prestige, as well as for defense. Whilst castles are common throughout Europe, Scottish castles are some of the finest examples of medieval and early modern architecture still visible today. 


1. Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle, Via Historic Environment Scotland


This complex of stone buildings has a giant L-plan tower house at its center. Located just 2.5 miles to the south-east of Edinburgh, Craigmillar Castle dominates the landscape of the local area. The tower house itself has been dated to the late 14th – early 15th century, having welcomed esteemed guests such as Mary, Queen of Scots


There is an inner courtyard of a similar date, and an outer yard and recreational garden, potentially dating to a century later. The west range of the castle experienced a significant renovation in the 17th century. All of this remains standing, but only the tower is roofed, so this castle is definitely one for a sunnier day. The inner defensive wall (curtain wall) has four projecting towers with a walkable parapet adorned with armorial stones carved into it. As well as this, the walls feature inverted keyhole gun-holes. These were long slender slits built into the curtain walls of castles allowing for the defenders to shoot out at an enemy without opening themselves to attack. 


Craigmillar Castle, by J M W Turner, 1834-6, Via Tate Gallery


Having been constantly occupied for over 300 years, this castle shows the various changes in castle architecture experienced in Scotland. The first family to build here was the Preston family, who acquired the land in 1374. The Prestons became leading members of the Burgess Class in Edinburgh and were elected to the provost, on several different occasions. 

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To demonstrate their rise to the upper echelons of society, the Preston family also added extensive leisure facilities to the castle, with expansive and well-organized gardens. The area surrounding the castle is likely where the family took recreational exercise and indulged in noble sports, such as hawking and archery. Local archaeology has also determined that there was an extensive fruit orchard stretching eastward for at least two acres. 


The most fascinating feature of this garden can be seen from the very highest bedroom, and from the top of the tower. An ornamental fishpond in the shape of the letter ‘P’ measuring 75m by 20m can be found to the south of the garden. Likely shaped for the Preston family, this pond has two small platforms opposite each other on the stem of the P, whilst the design allows for the water to flow around the circle at the peak. 


Unique to Scotland, this was an ostentatious statement by the family of their importance in Scotland. As well as fascinating architecture, Craigmillar Castle has an interesting history. The castle was involved in, and potentially destroyed by the raids of the Earl of Hertford in 1544. It was also the site of the Craigmillar Bond, a notorious plot to kill Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband, Lord Darnley. 


One cannot find a more picturesque and historic Scottish castle than this. 


2. Dunnottar Castle 

Dunnottar Castle, Via VisitScotland.com


One of the more remote Scottish castles, Dunnottar Castle’s setting is as dramatic as you will see anywhere in the country. It occupies an impenetrable position on a cliff peninsula outside of Aberdeen on the Eastern coast of Scotland. 


There is only one approach to the formidable fortress. A narrow and twisting route dropping to the sea before rising back up to the castle. There is evidence of habitation dating back to the 3rd century, suggesting that the Picts utilized the area’s defensive position. Later, it was established as a place of worship by St Ninian. What we can see today, likely resembles the castle that was built here in the 13th century. 


Dunnottar and Conflict

Dunnottar Castle map drawing, Via Dunnottar Castle


It was not long before the castle was embroiled in military matters. Edward I garrisoned the castle in 1296, during the First Scottish Wars of Independence. During this conflict, William Wallace was able to oust the English by setting fire to the castle and forcing the garrison into the sea. One later burning, around 1336, encouraged the new owner William Keith to rebuild the castle in a sturdier stone, so as not to be undone in the same manner as his predecessors. Much of this rebuild can still be seen today. 


In later centuries, the castle was visited by many monarchs including James V, Mary, Queen of Scots, and James VI. It was during this time that much of the castle was luxuriously outfitted with extravagant accommodation. Although Dunnotarr would become extremely comfortable, it was also very well protected against invaders. In 1652, Dunnottar Castle was the only remaining fortress that held out against Oliver Cromwell’s invasion force. It had also been entrusted with the Crown Jewels. 


The castle lasted for eight months under heavy siege by Cromwell’s forces, only surrendering due to lack of sustenance and disease. Upon entering the castle, the invaders could not find the crown jewels, as they had been smuggled out by a local woman who was thought to be collecting seaweed. One of the most magnificent Scottish Castles, Dunnottar must be seen to be appreciated. It has a long and dark history that is only enhanced by regular rolling sea fog.


3. Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle, Via Caledonia Wild


Tantallon Castle is perched atop a high cliff edge overlooking the North Sea near Berwick-Upon-Tweed, a hotly contested area between the Scots and the English. Surrounded by the sea, the castle sits on a peninsula and can only be entered via drawbridge. 


Its formidable location makes it one of the most well-defended Scottish castles in history. Built in the 1350s, the castle is a uniquely constructed building in Scotland, consisting of a large wall that faces some dramatic coastline. The wall stands at over 15 meters tall and 3.6 meters thick, a truly magnificent defensive fortification. 


Tantallon Castle, by J.M.W.Turner, Via Tate Gallery


Tantallon truly began to embrace its defensive potential in the 15th and 16th centuries by adding a barbican in the front of the gate tower as well as new gun towers beside the gate.


These additions incorporated advanced wide-mouthed gun holes, some of the first to arrive in Scotland. After damage was sustained in 1528, some of the walls were filled with rubble to better deflect the improved artillery of the period. 


Tantallon castle faced three significant sieges in its time, weathering the first two. It was finally brought to heel in 1651 by Cromwell and his troops. A small force of fewer than 100 troops, held off against a force of 1000 men, led by General Monk on behalf of Oliver Cromwell. The siege lasted for twelve days, but unfortunately, due to the heavy artillery employed by Cromwell’s forces, the gatehouse was destroyed, allowing enemy troops to raid the castle.


Today, the castle remains how Cromwell’s forces left it; battered and broken, but still standing. One of the greatest Scottish Castles that must be visited on any trip to Scotland, Dunnottar offers visitors a unique perspective on medieval architecture in the British Isles.


4. Crichton Castle

Crichton Castle, Via Historic Environment Scotland


Crichton Castle is one of the most isolated and most impressive Scottish castles that can be found in Midlothian, overlooking the River Tyne. Mainly composed of 15th and 16th-century structures, the castle demonstrates the many castle-building techniques that flourished in Scotland during the Renaissance. It also once had a long line of prominent owners, and its elaborate decoration demonstrates this perfectly.  


The earliest part of the castle, which featured a tower house, can be dated to the later-half of the 14th century. The tower rose to at least three stories, making it a prominent and formidable landmark.As the Crichton family rose to prominence in Scottish politics during the 15th century, the keep and surrounding area were developed extensively. The nearby collegiate church, stables, and the formal apartment above the entrance, were all built in this period. 


Crichton Castle North Façade, photo by Prussianblues, Via Wikimedia Commons


When Francis Stewart (the 5th earl of Bothwell, nephew of Mary, Queen of Scots’ 3rd husband, James Hepburn) took command of this castle, he introduced a revolutionary design. 


Francis had spent much of his time abroad, and had experienced renaissance culture in Italy, bringing back with him some more radical ideas about decoration. The north wing in particular shows that he translated these ideas from the continent. The castle features the only example in Scotland of a wall constructed with a diamond façade, similar to the Italian Palazzi. He also introduced a Scale and Platt staircase, which was also innovative for Scotland in the 16th century. 


Crichton Castle is one of the more frequently forgotten medieval Scottish Castles, due to its lack of military history. Nevertheless, it demonstrates a striking change in architectural design in Scotland, rarely seen in the few remaining Scottish castles. Hidden away in the hilly landscape, this castle is a jewel in the rough.  


5. Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle, Via West Lothian Archaeology


Blackness Castle, or “the ship that never sailed,” is a fortification found on the Firth of Forth near Linlithgow Palace. The remains of the castle still standing today, is mostly made up of 15th century architecture, that was later developed in the 16th century to make it a defensive royal fortress. The walls themselves were designed to look like a giant ship setting sail from the land, hence the name. 


This famous Scottish castle is well known not only for its distinctive shape but for its role in housing political prisoners from the 16th century. Most famously, Cardinal Beaton was held here in the 1540s, before being moved to St Andrews, due to his ambition for power during the infancy of Mary, Queen of Scots. Whilst he was held in the lofty tower house in some comfort, later prisoners were not so lucky. Often held in the basement, or the tower closest to the sea, prisoners here were kept in dark, damp conditions, buffeted by the wind and the freezing ocean. 


Blackness Castle, Via Historic Environment Scotland


The design of the castle is credited mostly to Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, tasked by James V between 1537-42 to create a fortress capable of withstanding the popular gun-powdered artillery. He thickened the walls and relocated the main entrance so that he could add a caponier to the castle. This was a vaulted gun gallery that allowed guards to mow down their enemies who were forced into narrow avenues of approach. All of these additions made the castle much more formidable for both land and sea assaults. 


Unfortunately, during the 1650s, when Cromwell’s troops approached, they were able to force the garrison into submission through a mixture of land and sea bombardments. After 24 hours of the assault, the garrison surrendered with the castle having experienced some damage. The castle remains today one of the most striking and formidable Scottish castles still standing. 


Scottish Castles: More Than Meets The Eye

Dunnottar, photo by Filippo Biasiolo, Via UnSplash


Scottish Castles come in all shapes and sizes. 


Despite the centuries of conflict that Scotland experienced, many of these fantastic structures remain standing today and can be visited by those seeking to relive history. From prime defensive locations to prominent protective structures and innovative decorative architecture, Scotland truly has it all.  

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By Kurt ReadmanMA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA HistoryKurt holds a BA in history and a MA in Conflict Archaeology and Heritage from the University of Glasgow. He has studied the political and religious relationships of the British Isles as well as Europe. Kurt’s main specialties lie in the Medieval to the Early Modern Period. In addition to this, he has spent time working with the Siege of Haddington Research Group.