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Considering the many more castles of Scotland, it’s so hard to find another word to replace ‘romantic’ when it comes to describing them.
Sometimes it means a story; sometimes it’s a visual thing to do with setting. With 14th-century Lochleven Castle, on an island in Loch Leven near Kinross, Perthshire, the story is the thing. It was the prison for Mary, Queen of Scots who gets pretty much top marks for romance.
She was held there for nearly a year before her dramatic escape in 1568. She was aided by a young man, Willy Douglas (an orphaned relative of the Douglas family holding her captive). Clearly captivated by her presence, the wee devil, he arranged the escape and cleverly removed the keys from the castle owner, the Laird of Lochleven, as he served him a drink. He then holed all the boats on the island except the one in which he rowed off with the queen in disguise. He also locked the castle behind him and hid the keys by throwing them down the barrel of a cannon!
(Pictured Below) Lochleven Castle, telephoto shot. A small ferry takes you across, between April and October.
As for romantic settings, Eilean Donan Castle (pictured right) in Kintail on the north-west seaboard, is the very essence of the picturesque – practically an icon of Scotland. Yet this 14th-century tower complex on an islet in Loch Duich stood in ruins for more than two centuries. In 1719, the supporters of Scotland’s exiled Stuart monarchs, known as Jacobites, mounted one of their periodic rebellions, ho-hum. This one involved the occupation of Eilean Donan Castle by a small force of Spanish troops. (The Catholic Jacobites had close links with the Catholic nations in Europe.)
The Government heard of the plot, and dispatched three navy frigates to destroy the castle by bombardment. It assumed its present fully restored appearance 1912-32 – even the bridge now connecting it to the mainland is actually modern, though it looks like one of the ‘real’ old castles of Scotland in every way!
In fact, the romantically peaceful settings of many more castles of Scotland are at odds with the turmoil of Scotland’s history. For example, Kilchurn Castle (pictured distantly, below), on Loch Awe, has an especially photogenic site by the lochside fields. Again, it shows how many Scottish castles evolved to meet different needs. Kilchurn started as a typical tower-house, built in the 15th century by Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy (from the powerful family who, for centuries, were never far from the centre of Scotland’s politics).
Then, in the 17th century, John, 1st Earl of Breadalbane, extended the tower-house with further accommodation within defensive walls linked by corner towers. This is the scheme as seen today, though it was abandoned in the 1760s by its owners, the Campbells of Glenorchy, and fell into picturesque ruin.
There were more castles of Scotland associated with the mighty Campbell Earls - Castle Campbell, in the hills above Dollar, east of Stirling, was another Once known as Castle Gloom, it stands above the treetops and rises out of a green valley with a backdrop of the rounded domes of the Ochil Hills. There is a fine southwards panorama, over the central corridor of Scotland.
More castles of Scotland? Well, another aspect to this romantic theme is that visiting the castles of Scotland quite frequently also involves gardens. At Edzell Castle, on the edge of the hills near Brechin, this former seat of the Lindsays is a reminder that castle life did not always involve defence and strife. Here, in 1604, the then owner, Sir David Lindsay, Laird of Edzell, set about creating a formal garden in the contemporary fashion of the time - a kind of 17th-century makeover - with skilled stonemasons chiselling out heraldic and symbolic sculptures on themes such as arts and virtues in the walls that sheltered the laird’s symmetrical ‘pleasance’.
The red sandstone tower is in the care of Historic Scotland and, as the bones of the garden survived, the layout was restored, with a square boxwood surround taking in four parterre patterns, making it one of the very few period garden restorations anywhere in Scotland.
Like Edzell, Dirleton Castle, near North Berwick, was once a formidable fortress. Today the ancient walls overlook the elegant gardens of its later owners who saw the ruined castle as the most elaborate garden ornament. It features one of the largest herbaceous borders in Scotland, at its very best in July and August. Notable garden features are a part of the experience at many other castles of Scotland - for example at Cawdor Castle near Inverness, Aberdour and Kellie Castles in Fife, and Castle Fraser near Aberdeen.
In olden times, the north-east corner of Scotland often lay beyond the main thrust of Scotland’s sometimes warlike story. Away from the path of hostile armies, many more castles of Scotland survived intact. So, there are some advantages in being a rural backwater. (I should know. I was born there.) In fact, there was a great flowering of castle building here and the area today contains some of the very finest and best preserved.
You can enjoy them by following the North-East’s Castle Trail - a mix of Historic Scotland and National Trust for Scotland properties. As a general rule of thumb, most Historic Scotland properties are picturesque ruins and let the rain in. National Trust for Scotland properties usually have roofs on them and may even have a café and a shop that always smell nice. I think it’s the scented drawer liners. (Now, there’s a niche product for you.)
Follow the signposts – and pick up a leaflet. Actually, the leaflet bit was probably in the olden days. These days, maybe you have to rely on websites like this. That’s a terrible thought.
Anyway, you can discover, for example, the outstanding gardens at Crathes Castle west of Aberdeen, simply one of the finest gardens in Scotland. Or travel a little further north to see the five great towers of Fyvie Castle (pictured above), each associated with the five families who held it through the centuries as it grew from mediaeval fortress to Edwardian mansion.
Also on the Trail are places like Drum Castle, one of the three oldest surviving tower houses in Scotland, as well as Castle Fraser, the most elaborate Z-plan layout in Scotland. (Z-plan, L-plan and the like are always good archtectural terms to name-drop!)
Another ‘must-see’ on the Castle Trail is the famed Craigievar Castle, a fairy-tale structure sometimes described as the very finest example of Scottish baronial architecture. Built in comparatively peaceful times by a prosperous merchant in the early 17th century (before the strife of religious conflict broke out later in the century), Craigievar still stands as the original masons left. It's associated with a 20th-century traitor with a link to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour that brought the USA into WWII. Read more about it on the must see in Scotland page. Or if you want information on more castles of Scotland, then follow that link.
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Scotland in Three Days