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The castles of Scotland range from mighty fortresses on rocky crags to lonely towers on the hillsides - drawing visitors with their promise of drama, dark deeds and romance. OK, I wrote that for some now defunct magazine a few years back but you get the picture. Scotland is a land of castles. Taking in some of the castles of Scotland is certainly a popular activity for visitors. And an essential part of the experience of Scotland. Ruinous, romantic, rugged - and that's only the Historic Scotland staff who look after them...
In various parts of Scotland, there are grass-covered mounds, sometimes called ‘mottes’ - all that remain of the foundations of the first castles of Scotland, built of wood that rotted away long ago . By the 12th century, Anglo-Norman families settling in Scotland were busy organizing the man-power to heap-up these mounds on which the carpenters would then get busy. (You can see one of them under construction on the Bayeux Tapestry, as this was a Norman technique.) The trouble is, a big heap of earth, covered in grass, isn’t the most amazing sight you ever saw, but hang on in there, it gets more interesting, partly because not everyone followed this fashion.
On the island of Wyre, Orkney, there is a small rectangular tower enclosed by a ditch. A Norseman called Kolbein Hruga built it around 1145. Cubbie Roo’s Castle, as it is known today, is probably the earliest stone castle in Scotland. Castle Sween, south-west of Lochgilphead in Argyll, is the oldest mainland stone castle. It’s slightly easier to reach than Cubbie Roo’s mini-fortress, though the last time I was there it had a big caravan and camping site next to it and you had to compose your photograph quite carefully.
(Above) Not much of a castle, eh? This is all that's left of Duntulm Castle on Skye, abandoned by the Macdonalds in the 18th century. The famous Cuillin Hills are meant to be behind it but it was a very grey day. (It'll be nicer when you go...)
Scotland’s warring past means its earliest castles have been battered by siege-engines and cannon, then altered, rebuilt and, in some cases, even vanished entirely. A good example of how old fortresses evolved over the centuries can be seen at Urquhart Castle in the Great Glen, where ruined walls overlook Loch Ness. Today,this is one of the most popular castles of Scotland.
Here, Historic Scotland, the national agency for the preservation of historic buildings, has a fascinating visitor centre. Urquhart Castle is one of Scotland’s largest and saw many battles and sieges in its long history. It also gives a good view of Loch Ness, so keep that camera battery topped up.
The stronghold here was important throughout the Wars of Independence with England. Soon after these wars began in 1296, the English army captured Urquhart. Within two years, the castle was back in Scottish hands. Later, in 1509, the Chief of Clan Grant was granted the castle and its story continued with frequent raids by the Macdonald Lords of Isles in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was last used by Government troops following the Jacobite Rising of 1689.
(Above) Hidden in the woods of the Highland edge, distant Doune Castle may be a historically important castle of Scotland but it's best known for that famous scene in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' involving a wooden rabbit. If you never liked John Cleese then you have just read the most obscure picture caption this site is likely to have. (Hmm. I'd wait and see. Ed.)
Ancient mottes and ruinous castle sites are just part of the sheer variety of castle visiting options. Some of these very old sites have been continuously occupied for centuries.
Amongst the castles of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle stands as an icon of the nation. It was at the castle in 1566 that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, who became King James VI of Scotland and I of England following the Union of the Crowns in 1603. The Scottish Regalia, the ‘crown jewels’ of Scotland are displayed in the Castle today.
(Top) From the north-west, distant view of Stirling Castle, on the tip of a wooded crag. (Above)The castle's outer defences. Hmm. Taken on another gloomy day I see.
Stirling Castle was one of the most important castles of Scotland, from a strategic point of view, controlling the main routes between Highland and Lowland. Not surprising, consequently, it looks down upon some of the most famous battlefields in Scotland’s history, including where the freedom-fighter Sir William Wallace’s army defeated the occupying English forces at Stirling Bridge in 1297, and where Bruce defeated the same foe at Bannockburn in the summer of 1314. I just wish that Robert the Bruce's public relations team had suggested somewhere more slightly picturesque.
As a fortress and royal palace, the buildings that make up the fortified site of Stirling Castle buildings were rebuilt or refashioned as the times dictated. Yet much survives, including the impressive 15th century Great Hall, the marvellous Renaissance Palace and the Chapel Royal of King James.
There is a whole category of castles, all over Scotland, which are worth visiting simply for the atmosphere. This would certainly include Tantallon Castle, east of North Berwick and within easy reach of Edinburgh. Built by the Douglases, they defended a narrow rocky neck of land on the Firth of Forth with a huge red sandstone curtain wall, whose sheer scale still draws the eye today. Six-storey towers at either end of the fortification were destroyed by artillery in 1651, but the centre tower, stairways and high-level walkways can still be explored. There are superb views across the Firth to the Bass Rock to the north.
Further north, this characteristic defended promontory on a craggy coastal location is seen again at St Andrews Castle. Steep cliffs and the sea protected St Andrews Castle from maritime attack, while rock cut ditches once defended the landward approaches. The castle was the main residence of the bishops and archbishops of St Andrews who had to be prepared to defend themselves and the property of the church.
The final example in this east coast trio of castles that used natural rocky features for defence is (pictured right) Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. A cliff-edged plateau, all but detached from the mainland, is accessed by a single gap in nine metre high curtain walls facing the land. Beyond the walls and portcullis, past guardroom and magazine an enclosed roadway finally emerges on to the grassy platform with its varied buildings, including a 14th-century L-plan tower-house built by Sir William Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland. (To bluff your way through the castles of Scotland, you only have to remember that from the simple square tower house, there developed more complex shapes, including the L-plan, as above, and the popular Z-plan. Do not confuse with the F-plan though, which is a diet, not a castle.)
The Scottish Regalia, (Scotland’s ‘Crown Jewels, the second oldest set of royal baubles in Europe) as seen in Edinburgh Castle today, were taken for safe keeping to Dunnottar in 1652, to prevent them falling into the hands of the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell, sent north to crush royalist sympathies in Scotland. (See? I told you the history of Scotland in the 17th century is really, really complicated.) The Regalia were eventually smuggled out, some say, by lowering them down the cliff to a waiting boat.
Dunnottar was also where 122 men and 45 women who were Covenanters – a faction whose religious beliefs directly opposed those of the monarchy - were imprisoned in terrible conditions in 1685 in the Whigs’ Vault. The building still stands today, at the seaward end of the promontory.
Here are some more tours and places to visit in Scotland.
(Left) Here's a castle of Scotland with a novel use. This is Kinnaird Head at the north-east tip of Scotland, in Fraserburgh. This 16th-century towerhouse, built by the local Fraser lairds was altered to be the base for Scotland's first lighthouse built by the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1787. In this picture, it's partly hidden by the Wine Tower, on the edge of the sea, an even older construction than the castle, and about which there are local legends. (Usual ingredients - imprisoned lovers, phantom pipers and so on.)
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Scotland in Three Days