AN Englishman’s home is his castle, so the saying goes, but in bygone centuries there was every possibility that a Scotsman’s home WAS a castle.

Either still occupied or in ruins, we are positively festooned with castles and I suspect most people in Scotland live within a few miles of a castle or regularly visit one.

I have now reached part 10 of this series on Scotland’s built heritage and how structures and buildings, gardens and parks, have impacted on our history and culture.

I have promised I will do a separate four-part series on the built heritage derived from transport – road, rail, air and waterways – and that will start immediately after I conclude this series of columns, with the 12th and final column being devoted to Edinburgh Castle’s extraordinary story, which has been so central to our nation’s history.

When you consider there are more than 1500 known castles in Scotland, and probably the same number again lost to history, you will see I have a massive task to try to convey the breadth of the impact that castles have had on our history.

For the purpose of the exercise I have not differentiated between castles that are intact and those that survive as ruins – the latter are often more interesting than the former.

As I wrote in part one of the series, we are truly fortunate to live in a beautiful country and though castles, almost by definition, were built by rich, often greedy and sometimes downright nasty people, they have added much to Scotland’s built heritage. As before, I will make my own choice of the best and most important, all of which I have visited.

I will pick my favourites and, again, I don’t expect every reader to agree with my choices but they all have a story to tell, and all have made their contribution to our history.

Apologies in advance if I’ve left out your favourite, but email me at and I’ll choose the “best of the rest”.

As I pointed out in my column on stately homes, some of them are called castles, but I side with the late great historical fiction writer Nigel Tranter, an expert on the subject of castles – which he defined in his factual masterwork The Fortified House in Scotland as “fortalices, lesser castles, peel towers, keeps and defensible lairds’ houses.”

In other words, castles were originally fortifications which is why, with a few exceptions, I will be writing about castles that started life as fortified houses. Nigel really was the go-to man for knowledge about castles, with many of the fortified buildings he featured in his books now landmarks across Scotland.

As a for instance, the most famous castle in Scotland after Edinburgh is surely Balmoral (below), but I don’t think it would have made Tranter’s list as it was always intended by its creator Prince Albert to be just a stately home.

The National: Balmoral Castle

The Castle of Mey, however, so long associated with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was originally a fortified castle built around 1570 by the Sinclair family, who became the Earls of Caithness. Much added to and preserved, its royal connections continue with King Charles a strong supporter of the current activities at his granny’s house.

Castle Sween (below), the ruins of which look over Loch Sween near Lochgilphead, is generally accepted as the oldest standing castle on the Scottish mainland. It dates from the 1100s when the sovereignty of Argyll was in dispute between Norway and Scotland.

According to Historic Environment Scotland (HES): “In the late 1300s, the castle passed to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles and several families served as keepers. In 1481. King James III, fearful of the MacDonalds’ treachery, entrusted the castle to the Campbell earls of Argyll. The castle was destroyed by Sir Alexander MacDonald in 1647.”

A typical story of the medieval period and the Middle Ages. From the early 12th century onwards, the feudalism brought about by King David I changed Scotland utterly.

The National:

He and his successors encouraged powerful Norman and Flemish lords, such as the Bruce family, to settle on lands given to them by the monarchs of the day. True to their background, these barons built motte-and-bailey-style castles, the best remaining example of which is the Bass of Inverurie, but gradually these were replaced by the stout stone fortified houses – towers and castles – that proliferated in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The biggest impetus for Scottish lords to build castles came from England, because the constant fear of invasion from the south forced Scotland’s landowners to construct defensive fortifications.

One of the greatest of these was Bothwell Castle (below), which is arguably the best surviving example of a medieval castle, in its ruined but well-preserved state.

The National:

You really have to visit it to see the sheer scale of the place.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic and Monuments of Scotland in its seminal work Exploring Scotland’s Places wrote this in 1985: “Originally planned by Walter de Moravia (Moray), who acquired the estate in 1242, it was laid out on a grand scale but was apparently only partially completed before the outbreak of the Wars of Independence (1296-1357) when it was twice besieged and deliberately dismantled in order to deny it to the English.

“In 1337, after demolition for a second time, the castle appears to have been abandoned until about 1362. It was then acquired by Archibald “the Grim”, 3rd Earl of Douglas, who initiated an extensive programme of rebuliding which continued into the early 15th century.

“In 1669 Bothwell again changed hands, this time passing to the 1st Earl of Forfar who built a new house to the east and partially dismantled the castle to provide stone for the new building.”

Castles being attacked, demolished and rebuilt happened a lot during the Wars of Independence.

Blair Castle (below), for example, was begun by John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, in 1269, to command the main route between the Highlands and southern Scotland. It was soon in the hands of the Earls of Atholl, but was forfeited in 1308 when the family rebelled against King Robert the Bruce.

It later passed into the Murray family and was at the centre of historic events for many decades, such as when Bonnie Dundee gained control of it for the Jacobites in 1689 only for him to lose his life at the Battle of Killiecrankie. He was buried in a chapel near the Castle.

The National: Blair Castle  © Paul Booth

Blair was remodelled in the 19th century and though the current Duke of Atholl lives elsewhere, it is still the clan seat and the home of the only private army in Europe.

The greatest period of castle building in Scotland was connected with territorial disputes between various powerful families, with the north-east becoming a centre of castle-building – to this day there are more castles in the old county of Aberdeenshire than anywhere else in Britain.

The development of the clan system meant the building of castles to secure clan territories, and many of these castles have been added to over the centuries.

A personal favourite is Cawdor Castle near Nairn (main article picture), which features in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and which was originally developed as a fortification during the reign of King William the Lion in the 12th century.

There's a great story told by the Cawdor family on their website about how the castle was rebuilt: “The legendary tale goes that the Thane of Cawdor decided to build a new stronger tower. Following the instructions he received in a dream, he loaded a coffer of gold on to the back of a donkey and let it roam about the district for a day.

“Wherever the animal lay down to rest in the evening, there his castle should be sited and it would prosper for evermore. The donkey lay down under a tree which is now petrified at the base of the old tower at Cawdor.”

Castle Campbell (below) near Dollar started life as a stronghold of the Stewart clan, but was taken over through marriage by the Campbells as their lowland base.

The National: Castle Campbell

Originally known as Castle Gloom, the name was officially changed by King James IV, and the Campbells’ adherence to the Protestant Reformation and the Hanoverian Government after 1714 put the castle at the centre of events for centuries.

Though attacked and burned, it remains relatively intact.

Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye is another of my favourites. It was first begun in the 13th century and has been the seat of Clan MacLeod ever since. It is home to the Fairy Flag, the most precious treasure of the MacLeods.

The MacLeod website explains: “It is a flag, rather tattered, made of faded brown silk and carefully darned in places … “In 1066, King Harald Hardrada of Norway set out to conquer England. He took with him the magic flag, ‘Land Ravager’. This flag guaranteed victory to whoever possessed it.

At the battle of Stamford Bridge, Harald Hardrada was killed and the flag vanished.

“The MacLeods of Dunvegan can trace their ancestry back to Harald and have in their possession a tattered silk flag called the Fairy Flag. How it came to be in Dunvegan Castle has never been revealed but it was said a MacLeod received it when he was in the Holy Land on a Crusade.”

The legend is that the Fairy Flag will prevent the MacLeods from losing in battle but the magic can only work three times and it’s been used twice ...

The stunning ruin Dunottar Castle near Stonehaven is replete with Scottish history. It was already a formidable fortress by the end of the 13th century.

Sir William Wallace attacked its English garrison in 1297 and had his enemies burned to death or thrown over the cliffs on which it is built. Dunottar was also used to house the Honours of Scotland during Oliver Cromwell’s occupation in the 1650s.

East Lothian is home to two of my favourite ruined castles, Tantallon and Dirleton.

About the latter, HES states: “Dirleton Castle is one of Scotland’s oldest surviving strongholds. The 13th-century fortress was for 400 years a magnificent fortified residence to three successive noble families – the De Vauxs, Haliburtons and Ruthvens … the impressive cluster of towers dating from the 1200s is among the oldest castle architecture surviving in Scotland. These remnants from the De Vauxs’s time include the imposing keep at the south-west corner.”

Tantallon Castle just along the coast is a quite striking ruin. It is also in the care of HES, which describes it thus: “In 1354, William Douglas was given the estates of his father, Sir Archibald Douglas and uncle, the ‘Good Sir James Douglas’ (a close friend of Robert the Bruce). This land included the barony of North Berwick.

“William was made Earl of Douglas in 1358 – by which time masons may already have begun to build Tantallon. The house of Douglas split into two branches in the 1380s: the ‘Black’ and the ‘Red’. Tantallon passed to the junior line – the earls of Angus also known as the ‘Red Douglases’. They owned the castle for the next 300 years, often clashing with the Crown.

“The castle was besieged by James IV in 1491, James V in 1528, and Oliver Cromwell in 1651.”

As he did elsewhere, Cromwell laid waste to Tantallon and it was abandoned, standing today as mute testament to the depredations of the dictator.

Next week I will continue with my selection of castles but principally I will write about two I know well, the “royal” castles of Stirling and Dumbarton.