From the sweeping storybook landscapes of Outlander and Braveheart to the dreamy setting of Disney’s Brave, the castles of Scotland have earned their fair share of screen time. And why not? Even the most ruined of fortresses hold pride of place among the country's most breathtaking countryside. As Scotland celebrates a year of History, Heritage, and Archaeology in 2017, there’s never been a better time to see them in person.
Even miles away from Edinburgh, you can still catch a glimpse of its namesake castle, which sits high above the rest of the city on the summit of Castle Rock. The statement-making perch was no accident: built in 1,000 A.D., the castle was positioned to see enemies from afar and survive many a bloody struggle during the country’s tumultuous fight for independence. It became a symbol of Scotland’s military strength and grandeur; today, it remains one of its biggest attractions, housing the National War Museum, the Scottish Crown Jewels, and the famous one o’clock gun, which signaled to captains sailing the Firth of Forth during the 1800s to align their maritime clocks.
Eilean Donan is easily one of Scotland’s most photogenic castles, built on a tiny tidal island in the western Highlands where three lochs merge. Erected during the 13th century as a defense against Viking raids, it was destroyed during the Jacobite risings but restored in 1932 with the addition of a single stone footbridge that now connects it to the mainland. Despite being named after Celtic saint Donnán of Eigg, who was martyred here in 617, the castle's present story is far more romantic: it's earned cameos in countless wedding albums as well as scores of films including Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The World is Not Enough.
Dunnottar Castle is drama personified, a medieval fortress built on a precarious slice of cliff jutting over the crashing waves of the North Sea, accessible only via a steep, stone path that cuts through to the top of the rock. Many famous names have passed through its halls, including Mary Queen of Scots and William Wallace, though its finest hour came in 1651 when Oliver Cromwell’s army laid siege to the castle for eight months in pursuit of the Scottish Crown Jewels—which were smuggled to safety by a minister’s wife. The castle never recovered and remains in ruins today, which only adds to its mystique.
Unlike Scotland’s typical brutalist fortifications, Stirling Castle is a feat of Renaissance architecture—think royal apartments, a great hall lined with stained glass windows, and wall walks with dreamy views over the city of Stirling and central Scotland. Emerging from a high craggy peak, sheer cliff faces on three of its four sides, the castle was once one of the most impenetrable strongholds in Britain—made most famous when warrior William Wallace helped the Scots recapture it from the English during the historic Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. (The National Wallace Monument can be seen from the castle’s ramparts.) Strategic placement aside, it was also a home of choice for royalty including Mary Queen of Scots, who grew up here and was crowned in the chapel in 1534.
Duart Castle is one of Scotland’s last privately-owned clan castles (Clan Maclean has lorded over this imposing hillside keep since the 14th century) and stands watch over the mouth of Duart Bay on the Isle of Mull. While still a family home, visitors are allowed to tour its dungeons, great hall, and grounds. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Ben Nevis, some 30 miles away.
What was once Scotland’s biggest castle now stands in ruins on the banks of Loch Ness, but the views from its Grand Tower are as spectacular as ever. Thanks to its position on the road that connects North and West Scotland—and pride of place as the number one spot for sightings of "Nessie"—Urquhart is one of the most visited castles in the country.
You may not know Glamis Castle by name, but chances are you’ll know what it’s famous for—namely, as the setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as the birthplace of the Queen Mother (and where her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, spent her childhood). While the 14,000-acre estate is undeniably beautiful, there are also rumors that the place is haunted by the ghosts of King Malcolm of Scotland, who died in the castle, and Lady Glamis, a former owner who was burned at the stake as a witch by James V.
The powerful Campbell clan dominated western Scotland during medieval times, building many castles to defend their territory. Kilchurn Castle, in Argyll, might be their most picturesque, erected on a spit of land that juts out of Loch Awe’s northern tip. Head up to the tower battlements for views that stretch all the way to Ben Cruachan.
No exciting battles were waged in or outside the walls of Inveraray Castle—it was conceived in 1743 as a quiet country home for the Dukes of Argyll and has remained in the family for centuries—but its beauty cannot be overstated. Think crenellated corner towers, original Beauvais tapestries, grand family portraits, and a weaponry collection that includes a dagger once owned by Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor—all surrounded by a 60,000-acre estate on the shores of Loch Fyne. After perusing the grounds, head to the tearoom for a taste of house-made cakes à la Downton Abbey, whose third-season Christmas episode was coincidently filmed here.