The essential guide to Scotland's castles

HUMANS have lived in Scotland for 11,000 years. For the first 8,000 years, they seemed able to live mostly in peace. Then the climate cooled, and men were forced to fight over the fast-diminishing good ground for their survival. They littered the Highland glens and Lowland valleys with huge hillforts. In the far north and west, they built towering stone structures we call brochs.

Then came the Roman legionaries around AD78. They built forts and marching camps - and the Antonine Wall, between the Forth and the Clyde, Imperial Rome’s most northerly frontier. No sooner had they gone than new invaders appeared - Gaels from Ireland, Angles from England, Vikings from Norway. Strong defences remained a priority, and places with dun fort (Dunkeld, "fort of the Caledonians") are reminders of those Dark Ages.

But none of these peoples built castles.

The castle emerged around 1000 with the rise of the Normans on the continent of Europe. Their owners ruled by giving vassals land in return for military service – feudalism. The castle was the fortified residence of a feudal baron.

Norman mercenaries fought for King Macbeth at Dunsinnan in 1054, but they didn’t settle. In 1072, William the Conqueror invaded Scotland but had to return south to quell revolts in his new conquest, England. It wasn't until early in the following century that the Normans returned, this time by invitation, and brought with them the castle.

Feudal Scotland (12th century)

In 1093, King Malcolm III was killed fighting the Normans in England. He was the last great Celtic king of Scotland. His youngest son, David I, became brother-in-law of Henry I, the conqueror’s son, and over the course of the 12th century, he and his successors transformed Scotland into a feudal kingdom.

Many Norman knights settled in Scotland and brought with them motte-and-bailey castles – timber structures built on a mound of earth and surrounded by formidable ditches, sometimes water-filled moats. The motte itself was a high mound on which the lord of the castle had his residence; it was also the place of last resort in time of siege. Beside the mound was the bailey, or service court, housing ancillary buildings such as the great hall, chapel, kitchens and stables. There are over 300 of these known in Scotland.

Not all castles were built on new sites. Some important royal castles, including Edinburgh, were built on formidable rock outcrops inhabited since the Bronze Age 2000 years earlier.

Fast Fact: In 1098, Alexander I, the elder brother of David I, ceded the Northern and Western Isles and vast swathes of the north and west mainland to Norway. The Norsemen also built castles in Scotland.

12th-century castles worth a visit

• Castle Sween, Argyll (Historic Scotland) - Sven the Red's castle, built circa 1200, is Scotland’s oldest standing castle.

• Cubbie Roo's Castle, Orkney (HS) - Scotland's oldest dateable stone castle, built circa 1145 by Kolbein Hruga ("Cubbie Roo"), a Norseman.

• Duffus Castle, Moray (HS) - the best preserved motte-and-bailey castle in northern Scotland, built by the founder of the House of Moray.

• Edinburgh Castle (HS) - 1000 years of Scottish military history are encapsulated in this spectacular location at the heart of Scotland’s capital.

• Mote of Urr, Galloway (Privately owned) - the best preserved motte-and-bailey castle in all Scotland, built by Walter de Berkeley, David I's chamberlain, circa 1150.

• Roxburgh Castle, Scottish Borders (P) - this mighty castle, built to protect Scotland’s second most important town after Berwick, was probably the most fought over by Scots and English.

• Stirling Castle (HS) - simply awesome, and overlooking Scotland’s most famous battlegrounds, Stirling Bridge (1297) and Bannockburn (1314).

Scotland's Golden Age (13th century)

In the 13th century, Scotland and England generally lived in peace with each other, leaving the Scots free to reclaim the lands in the west lost to Norway. The nation prospered under the long reigns of Alexander II and Alexander III, and the landed aristocracy marked that prosperity by replacing the old timber castles with new and expensive stone versions.

Mighty nobles like Walter de Moray, Lord of Bothwell, had huge households numbering 200 or more that needed large castles to accommodate them. They built impressive curtain-walled castles, so-called because their encircling walls were drawn around the castle complex like curtains. Lofty towers, housing the principal apartments, projected out from, and rose high above, the curtain wall.

Fast Fact: Not every mighty baron felt compelled to build a great stone castle. King Robert I (Robert the Bruce) spent his last four years beside the River Clyde, not at the awesome fortress on Dumbarton Rock but in a modest timber-built manor house on the opposite bank of the River Leven.

13th-century castles worth a visit

• Balvenie Castle, Moray (HS) - awesome Highland stronghold, associated with three powerful dynasties: Comyns, Black Douglases and Stewarts.

• Bothwell Castle, Lanarkshire (HS) - the greatest castle the Middle Ages has bequeathed to Scotland, despite countless bloody sieges.

• Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries and Galloway (HS) - formidable Maxwell stronghold famously besieged by Edward I of England in 1300.

• Dirleton Castle, East Lothian (HS) - a wonderful castle, inspired by mighty Coucy-le-Chateau in northern France.

• Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire (National Trust for Scotland) - one of Scotland’s oldest surviving square keeps.

• Dunstaffnage Castle, Argyll (HS) - this MacDougall stronghold is typical of the castles built by the sons of mighty Somerled, so-called King of the Isles.

• Kildrummy Castle, Aberdeenshire (HS) - this imposing castle sheltered Robert Bruce’s queen and daughter, before enduring a great siege in 1306 in which his brother was captured.

• Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute (HS) - Scotland’s only circular castle, built by the Stewarts but fought over by Scots and Norsemen alike.

The Wars of Independence (14th century)

The invasion by Edward I of England into Scotland in 1296 heralded a century of warfare and bloodshed. Castles passed between the warring parties like a bone between two dogs. Many structures, including Bothwell Castle, were severely damaged and had to be almost entirely rebuilt. Others (such as Lanark Castle) were intentionally destroyed on orders of Robert the Bruce so that they could no longer be occupied by the enemy.

The conflict also saw the political map of Scotland comprehensively redrawn. Established dynasties (the Balliols and the Comyns, for example) were ousted by families loyal to Bruce (including the Campbells and the Douglases). These new lords rejected the great curtain-walled castles, with the sole exception of the Earl of Douglas at Tantallon. Instead, they introduced the tower-house castle, centred on a lofty stone tower. These had massively thick walls, could be the equivalent in height of a 10-storey block of flats and were usually rectangular on plan.

Fast Fact: Many tower-house castles survive today as tower houses only (Threave Castle for one). Don’t be fooled into thinking that the tower was all there was. Many other buildings – the great hall and kitchens - were of wood and have long disappeared. Only at a very few (such as Doune Castle) can the full extent of these tower-house castles be appreciated.

14th-century castles worth a visit

• Cawdor Castle, Nairn (HS) - simply one of the most magnificent strongholds in all Scotland, dripping with history.

• Doune Castle, Stirling (HS) - built by the Duke of Albany, known as Scotland's "uncrowned king" because he effectively ruled the country from 1386 to 1420, and looking every inch a magnificent royal palace.

• Hermitage Castle, Scottish Borders (HS) - a bleak Border fortress of the Black Douglases located in Liddesdale, "the bloodiest valley in Britain".

• Lochleven Castle, Perth and Kinross (HS) - island fastness which was Mary Queen of Scots’ prison in 1566-67, and from whence she escaped.

• Neidpath Castle, Scottish Borders (P) - an eye-catching lofty L-plan tower house gracing the banks of the River Tweed.

• Spynie Palace, Moray (HS) - the best-preserved medieval bishop’s palace in Scotland has the country’s largest tower house looming over all.

• Tantallon Castle, East Lothian (HS) - last of the great curtain-walled castles built in Scotland and absolutely awesome in its cliff-top setting.

• Threave Castle, Dumfries and Galloway (HS) - forbidding fastness of Archibald "the Grim", where the final act in the fall of the mighty Black Douglases took place in 1455.

Castles and Cannons (15th century)

Throughout the 15th century more and more landowners (lairds) were able to afford to build a stone castle. The overthrow of the over-mighty Black Douglases in 1455, for example, resulted in many lesser lairds rising up the property-owning ladder. Generally, they built tower houses, not as big as the earlier ones, and with thinner walls. A few of these structures sprouted wings, called jambs, to house the main stair mostly (Kilchurn Castle is a good example).

During the century, guns began to rival more traditional weapons like the trebuchet - generally used to break down walls - and crossbow. Mons Meg, Europe's best-preserved medieval siege gun - still proudly on display in Edinburgh Castle - arrived in Scotland in 1457. Castle builders had increasingly to take their greater destructive power more fully into account - generally by inserting gunholes in walls.

Fast Fact: There are probably quite a few more 14th- and 15th-century tower houses in existence than we realise, but they lie hidden behind the grand extensions built by later owners. Blair Castle and Glamis (pronounced Glams) Castle are two examples.

15th-century castles worth a visit

• Alloa Tower, Clackmannanshire (P) - ancient residence of the Erskine earls of Mar, with two stone vaults and walls three metres thick.

• Borthwick Castle, Midlothian (P) - perhaps Scotland’s most impressive tower house, with a superb great hall and many masons’ marks.

• Castle Campbell, Clackmannanshire (HS) - this Lowland seat of the Campbells of Argyll is dramatically sited between the burns of Care and Sorrow.

• Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh (HS) - a fascinating complex of nooks and crannies, where Lord Darnley’s murderers plotted his end.

• Crichton Castle, Midlothian (HS) - worth a visit just for the north range’s diamond-faceted Italianate facade, but there’s so much more besides.

• Dean Castle, Ayrshire (Local Authority) - well restored tower-house castle, now holding a remarkable collection of armour and musical instruments.

• Huntly Castle, Aberdeenshire (HS) - hugely impressive castle of the Gordons, with a grim pit-prison beneath graceful lordly apartments.

• Kilchurn Castle, Argyll (HS) - this Campbell stronghold is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles thanks to its dramatic setting.

• Orchardton Tower, Dumfries and Galloway (HS) - Scotland’s only circular tower house, and so very prettily set.

• Smailholm Tower, Scottish Borders (HS) - a prominent Border landmark, where Walter Scott spent his childhood and fired his imagination.

Garrisons and Private Homes (16th & 17th century)

This was the time of the Protestant Reformation (1560), when many former tenants of the Church became landowners in their own right. They took the dour Scottish tower house to new heights of planning and design. They built not only L-shaped ones, but E, T and Z-shaped structures too. They considerably improved the interiors and exercised remarkable ingenuity in their external appearance.

This was also the period in which the gun achieved outright superiority as the weapon of war. Castles were simply unable to respond, and a new form of defence – the artillery fort (Eyemouth Castle) – was conceived to garrison troops and defend the realm. By the end of the 16th century, the medieval castle had become little more than a private home.

Fast Fact: Tower houses of the later 16th century were fundamentally different from their predecessors. Most were built by small-time lairds with few feudal obligations, small estates and even smaller households. No need for them to build large castles; a simple tower housing most of their requirements - kitchen, public room, private apartment - sufficed.

16th and 17th-century castles worth a visit

• Brodie Castle, Moray (NTS) - a fine Z-plan tower house lurks behind the alterations and extensions of later times.

• Carnasserie Castle, Argyll (HS) - an excellent example of an integrated great hall and tower, and so beautifully executed.

• Castle Fraser, Aberdeenshire (NTS) - the finest 17th-century castle in Scotland’s castle country, with a wonderfully bold round tower.

• Castle Menzies, Perth and Kinross (P) - an arresting sight by the Tay, this fine Z-plan castle, with a later addition, is now Clan Menzies’ home.

• Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire (NTS) - one of Scotland’s finest tower houses, with an amazing wallhead and sumptuous great hall within.

• Craignethan Castle, South Lanarkshire (HS) - the last great private fastness built in Scotland (circa 1540), with elaborate and unusual artillery defences.

• Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire (NTS) - a wonderful survival, with fine interiors - including fascinating ceilings - to match a beguiling exterior.

• Earl's Palace, Kirkwall , Orkney (HS) - a stunning work of architecture, built by the tyrant Earl Patrick Stewart, executed with his son in 1615.

• Edzell Castle, Angus (HS) - the highlight of the “Lichtsome Lindsays” castle is its wonderful walled garden and summer house, built in 1604.

• Eyemouth Fort, Berwickshire (LA) - the first artillery fort built in Britain (1547), and forerunner of the magnificent Elizabethan walls of Berwick.

• Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire (NTS) - the highlight of this splendid castle is the monumental entrance facade, built by King James VI’s chancellor.

• Kellie Castle , Fife (NTS) - painted and ornamental plaster ceilings grace the interior of this fine E-plan tower house.

• MacLellan's Castle, Dumfries and Galloway (HS) - a huge town house for a humble provost of Kirkcudbright, with more than 15 private rooms.

• Noltland Castle, Orkney (HS) - described as looking like “some antique man o’ war” because it bristles with gunholes, 70 in all.

• Tolquhon Castle, Aberdeenshire (HS) - William Forbes’s 1580s residence is widely regarded as one of Scotland’s prettiest castles.

Romantic Castles (18th - 21st centuries)

Scots have never ceased their love affair with the castle. Despite the passing of the medieval age, these ancient seats of lordship have remained objects of compelling interest in the dramatic Scottish landscape. This "romantic" perception even led to quite a few being restored, and an architectural style was evolved - Scots Baronial - whose debt to the masons of medieval times is self-evident.

Today, Scotland's castles – whether ruined or restored – are hugely popular, and rightly so. To visit a Scottish castle is to come face-to-face with the country’s turbulent past.

Fast Fact: Quite a few of our medieval castles are hidden behind castellated (or turreted) architecture of a post-medieval age (think Dunvegan Castle), and some of our best-loved medieval castles aren't really castles at all but great country seats (Culzean, for example). One or two have been so comprehensively restored (Eilean Donan) that hardly anything ancient survives at all.

Romantic castles worth a visit

• Blair Castle, Perth and Kinross (P) - the last castle in Britain to be besieged (1746) is a splendid example of the Scots Baronial style.

• Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran (NTS) - a medieval seat of the Hamiltons, wonderfully refashioned in Victorian times.

• Culzean Castle, Ayrshire (NTS) - a handsome country seat created by Robert Adam (house) and Alexander Nasmyth (landscape) 200 years ago.

• Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye (P) - this Macleod seat, the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland, is largely a creation of the Victorian age.

• Eilean Donan Castle, Highland (P) - the most photographed castle in Scotland is largely a restoration of the early 20th century.

• Glamis Castle, Angus (P) - the fictional home of Macbeth, but the real home of the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother - a joy to behold.

There are countless numbers of ruins, fortifications, towers and walled structures that comprise the broad definition of a castle. They are all different in size, scope and style – but they all share one common element. The castles are about people who lived there, who sometimes fought, and often died, there. They are the very buidlings that housed the living, breathing and dying of Scots people.

In many ways, Scottish castles are a living musuem – an archive – of this country's history and heritage and should be explored from top to bottom and coast to coast.

Chris Tabraham is Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments with Historic Scotland, the government agency responsible for the built heritage in Scotland. An archaeologist by profession, during his 35-year career he has excavated widely throughout Scotland - mostly on castle sites - and published extensively. His most recent works include The Illustrated History of Scotland (Lomond Books, 2003), Scotland's Kings & Queens (Colin Baxter, 2004), Edinburgh Castle:Prisons of War (Historic Scotland, 2004) and Scotland's Castles (Batsford Books, 2nd edition 2005).