Scottish Castle Summaries

[Hermitage Castle]

Hermitage Castle

[This is an extension of the Grobius Shortling Web Page "Castles, Stone Circles, and Ancient Monuments." All the castles listed here have been personally visited, and any factual errors or wrong-headed opinions are my own fault. --Grobius Shortling, Feb 1997]

[Many of the images have been reduced to thumbnails to reduce load time, or else they are referred to with a tag; click them to enlarge.]

New (Feb 2000): Many of the photographs on this site have been converted into two-color low-resolution GIF's; they can be used as clip art. Click Here.


The castellation of Scotland falls into several categories: (1) There were the prehistoric and Roman-age places: Brochs, Traprain Law and Eildon Hill Bronze Age hill forts, etc. (2) The strongholds of the ancient British and Pictish kingdoms (Dumbarton, Stirling, Edinburgh, Dunadd and Dundurn); (3) the fortresses of the conquerors (Argyll Scots: Dunstaffnage, Tioram / Normans: Duffus, Dirleton, Bothwell, Kildrummy); (4) the Great Barons (Doune, Tantallon); (5) the Bishops and Earls and Kings (Kirkwall, Falkland, Dunfermline); (6) the Lairds (a multitude ranging from mansions like Cawdor to simple tower houses like Smailholm); (7) the military (Blackness, Fort George); and finally (8) the Georgian and Victorian Baronial style (Glamis, Balmoral, Culzean) -- just to name some samples.
  1. AFFLECK - Classic 'Tower House'; this is a Scots specialty (they have some big 'real' castles too, of course) where in effect you have a manor house built up vertically like a keep tower, for security and esthetic reasons; this one is pretty basic, just a square tower with an L-wing containing the spiral stairway--early model for what became an exercise in upper-level extravaganzas in the 17th C, where you have square projections on round turrets, round projections on square turrets, stuff sticking up all over at the top of a basically rectangular platform with wings (often in a Z-shape, which had turrets on two diagonal corners rather than on all four, offering flanking firing loops at ground level covering all approaches). See footnote. [Ardvreck]
  2. ARDVRECK - Scanty remains of a mean little castle in the remote north, on the swampy shores of Loch Assynt; the great Montrose, as a refugee, took hospitality here and was betrayed for the reward on his head -- shameful! And if any castle deserves to be a ruin, this one does. Even the name Ardvreck sounds nasty. (Beautiful setting, though.) 
  3. BALVENIE - A square courtyard castle with a nice residential tower-house complex in one corner; this is near a major whisky center (I think Dewar's), so there are more things to do in the neighborhood than visit castles. (Those are not sheep in the picture -- they are turkeys!)
  4. CAITHNESS SHORE - This is a catch-all category from Bonar Bridge to Wick -- plenty of small castles, but nothing spectacular except for Dunrobin, which is a pseudo-chateau in the Victorian French Violet-le-Duc style on the site of an older castle (this is the main tourist attraction in the area, except for Dornoch, a nice cathedral and golfing town, which achieved notoriety when the singer Madonna got married there -- and they would have preferred that it had not!). Lots of other small castle ruins here, nothing very large except for Andrew Carnegie's Skibo monstrosity (1898, private, keep out). Among the notable castles are: Dornoch (opposite the cathedral, remains incorporated into a hotel), Skelbo (a Norman-type motte in the flatlands, now a dangerous ruin blocked off from the public unless you want to climb over barbed wire fences -- but here is where they waited futilely for the arrival of the famous Maid of Norway who died in the sea crossing), Old Wick (fragments above the old Norse settlement), Sinclair & Girnigoe (actually two castles on the cliff, built right next to each other -- an impressive ruin but hard to get to), Ackergill (a restored, very tall tower house now a private hotel, convention center, or whatever), the Brora Brochs ('castles' from a much earlier time, very impressive although little remains), Berriedale and Dunbeath (not sure which is which, both pretty much inaccessible -- but one, halfway down a cliff, now restored as a private house, is very impressive viewed from the harbor at Lybster, I think it is, but could be Dunbeath town itself -- I prefer Lybster, just for its wonderful name). The waters flowing into the sea run brown here, from the peat, and are the color of Scotch whisky -- actually dye the ocean depending on which way the tide is flowing. Horrible and treeless as this shore now may seem, it has evidence of being one of the oldest inhabited areas in Scotland, going back to the Stone Age. A fascinating and much unvisited region, once one gets off the A9 highway.
  5. CRAIGMILLAR - Edinburgh's 'other' castle, couldn't be more different; has a very impressive tower-house keep and a nice rural setting; there are two yew trees right inside the gateway that were more than decoration--they provided wood for bows and arrows. Cows in the fields outside the walls, not more than a couple of miles from a major urban center (but you have to pass through some pretty dismal suburbs -- a part of Edinburgh the Festival people never want you to see -- to get there). The tower-house/keep is one of the most elaborate in Scotland and very ingeniously planned defensively. Whether it would be more impressive reroofed (which wouldn't take much, since the walls are still intact) and furnished in the period manner is a matter of taste -- that would certainly be very instructive, but somehow inapt, given all the reconstructed castles already in Scotland. If there were any Marquesses of Bute around still (and no Scottish Heritage fuddy-duddies), it would be far better to restore Bothwell or Caerlaverock.
  6. CRATHES -   This is the tower-house at its most elaborate; just an L-shaped square on the bottom with all sorts of corbelled out turrets and things at the top; famous gardens, too; not a serious fortification, but wasn't meant to be (although strong enough to give a raiding party second thoughts); it is a manor house that has been turned on edge.
  7. CRICHTON - Hidden away in the countryside, a nice retreat for Mary Queen of Scots to go off to with her lover, and also very secure as a strong castle; nice Renaissence-style interior fixings; this is my idea of a true castle for the rich, not a major government garrison with barracks and artillery defenses and all that; the setting is beautiful (but note from the picture that the castle is overlooked by a nearby hill, which makes it vulnerable to artillery attack -- hence the very thick-walled facade).
  8. DIRLETON - Another powerfully fortified private castle, but this one dominates a village; it would have been nice to be lord of the manor here; nice interior arrangements over three separate phases of building, being very instructive to aficionados of domestic and protective trends in the history of residential castles; the garden grounds and village are beautiful. This is very much like an English town in, say, Herefordshire, and in some sense, it is, being a Norman interpolation. The remnants of the architectural embellishments of the later building phases are, however, purely Scottish.
  9. DOUNE - A Baronial masterpiece; belongs to the period of the feudal barons before the age of the lairds with their tower-houses; has TWO great halls (one for the nobility, one for the retainers); a must-see. The kitchen itself is amazing with its huge fireplace -- the fireplace was more like a room, open on two sides, probably with several grilles and braziers placed there for cooking, with the smoke going up the chimney vent. 
  10. DUFFUS - (Not doofus); a strictly Norman-type castle of the keep and motte-and-bailey form; totally ruinous but impressive; this was on one of the firths in Pictland that was always accessible to colonizers, so there are even Roman remains here (though they were supposedly never in this area--but their traders certainly were, and probably even had a substantial civilian trading post here, like Cramond near Edinburgh). In the later Middle Ages, they made the mistake of building a huge stone keep on the artificial earthen mound; one whole corner has slid down because of the weak foundation.
  11. DUNNOTTAR- I think this is my favorite Scottish castle; awesome place near Aberdeen, what else can I say? This thing sits up on its cupcake-shaped island mount right out of the North Sea and has an extremely elaborate gatehouse involving caves and tunnels and formidable gun loops, but the plateau has nice domestic buildings (however, the weather must have been horrible most days of the year). It was used as a prison camp during the 17th C religious wars and some awful things happened here. The obvious strategic position dates it back as a fortress far earlier than the medieval remains; it probably was a Pictish stronghold 2000 years ago. 
  12. DUNSTAFFNAGE - [Dunstaffnage Castle]One of the old curtain-wall castles of Argyll, near Oban; this type of building was a frequent pattern in western Scotland, consisting basically of a thick stone wall built around the edge of a large rocky extrusion, with a simple arched entrance passage (towers were added later) -- other examples are Mingary and Tioram, which I haven't visited. This style is stark and solemnly impressive. Dunstaffnage was the capital ('Dun') of the ancient Irish kingdom of Dalriada, after the old hill fort of Dunadd was abandoned, Fergus and Ossian and that crowd, and the Stone of Scone (Coronation stone) was originally kept here after it was transported from Ireland in the Dark Ages..
  13. EDINBURGH - One of the most impressive cities in Europe, and it has this wonderful castle jutting up right in the middle of it; not my model of a true castle (more of a garrison fort than anything else), but it just looks so great up there over a nice public park that separates it, and the old city, from the 18th-century 'new city' (very nice) and the more modern stuff--office buildings etc. on the other side. [Note: Edinburgh could just as well have been called Dunnedin. Burgh is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Celtic word Dun, both meaning 'a tribal center on a crag'.]
  14. EILEAN DONAN- Famous post-card castle; this was pretty much completely rebuilt from a ruin just before World War I (like Duart on the Island of Mull) to satisfy the ego of a rich [Eilean Donan Castle] Scottish laird--but his ego coincided with great esthetic sensibility; I have heard, but not yet seen, that the abominable road bridge to Skye that recently replaced the famous ferry has totally ruined the view. I like this photo mainly because it is from a viewpoint not normally shown in travel guides. 
  15. FORT GEORGE -   Great Hanoverian fortress at the northern end of the Great Glen (Loch Ness and the Caledonian canal); pure British imperialism, but now that it isn't used to oppress, it is a beautiful site, and very instructive of fortification technology; but you can see where Culloden was fought from here, up in the hills to the south, which is a bit depressing.
  16. HERMITAGE- Grim, grim place in the disputed border area between Lowland Scotland and Northumbria; this place, with its thuggish hulk of a castle, gives one the creeps, even though the countryside isn't gloomy ALL of the time; nasty things happened here (however, I love this part of Britain, and have some ancestors who came from these parts -- on one of my several visits, the surrounding fields were all bright yellow with mustard crops, under bright sunlight, and what a difference that made!).
  17. HOLYROOD - Attractive fortified palace at the bottom of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, with a sad history of unpleasantry (Riggio's murder, for example); now a showplace for the Victorian royalty, even if they prefer Balmoral; this is the city's third castle (I mentioned [Lauriston] Craigmillar already, but I forgot to mention the fourth, LAURISTON in Cramond, which is an Edwardian mansion built by a rich bourgeoise around an old tower house, very comfy place with velvet and leather and exotic high-tech Edwardian plumbing -- the lady of the manor was very fat, so there are some fascinating adaptations in the bathrooms).§
  18. KIRKWALL - Orkneys; a Bishop's Palace and an Earl's Palace right next to each other near St Magnus Cathedral; guess which one is more impressive? Not really castles, but equipped with defensive gun-loops and solid walls as such places had to be back then; Kirkwall is a very Scandinavian sort of place even now, considering that the Orkneys belonged to Norway back in the days of Macbeth (oh, if you weren't thinking, of course it is the Earl's Palace that outshines the other). Stromness, the other major Orkney town, doesn't have a castle, unfortunately, but oddly enough impresses one as a Scandinavian version of Falmouth, Cornwall -- both of those are beautiful towns, with backyards being the ocean front, in effect.
  19. NEIDPATH - Peebles; nice tower house; the interior space was so huge and the walls so thick, that they were able to carve out lots of separate rooms, nooks, and crannies, in a way that no longer makes any sense now that the place is not lived in and the functions are not obvious any more; one whole wing of the place fell down at an early period and they never rebuilt it, just put some balconies and privies on it; these people were serendipitous and just did whatever came into their heads at the time. The ground plan of the tower is a parallelogram, possibly because of the lay of the land for foundation requirements, but does not make much sense for the internal arrangements of the rooms, which for that reason do not have square corners where you could comfortably fit tables, beds, and shelves.
  20. ST. ANDREW'S - Bad stuff happened here during the Reformation, lots of burnings at the stake, riots between the townies and gownies of the university, factional stuff between prelatists and Calvinists; castle is not that impressive, certainly not as impressive as the cathedral remains, but does have a really nasty dungeon, called a bottle dungeon because it was just a pit, wider at the bottom than at the top, with the only entrance being a trapdoor where the cork would go--they just tossed you into it and that was that; there is also a tunnel leading from the pub across the street toward the gatehouse that was done when the Covenanters were besieging the Episcopalians and tried to mine their way in; a counter-tunnel breaks into it at the top, where the besieged, hearing the noise, dug their way outward and broke into the attackers' mine; didn't do them any good, though--they lost eventually and were slaughtered and their castle slighted.
  21. STIRLING - Looks just like Edinburgh Castle, but it sits in the middle of a motorway complex that puts the BQE/LIE to shame; this used to be called the key to the Highlands (Braveheart territory), but the area is a place to be avoided nowadays if possible; haven't actually been in the castle, so I can't say how good it is, but the gen is that it is quite impressive.
  22. TANTALLON - Beautifully sited promontory castle facing out to Bass Rock island (very scenic); they pretty much just walled off the ness on one side with a very thick and heavily fortified curtain wall with towers; so the castle is basically a straight line rather than an enclosure; it's not quite clear what the strategic importance of this castle was, since it's off the beaten path to anything and on no major road -- but it did get attacked heavily and frequently (because it was there?).
  23. URQUHART - Loch Ness's castle; another picture postcard beauty, and heavily visited; there's a controversy now about proposals to build a huge bus and car park and visitor center (i.e. fast food); if you object, sign the petition on the Internet (search on Urquhart), if you think it will do any good; as far as I'm concerned, Loch Ness might as well be sold to Walt Disney and themed up 'properly'--it's not a place I recommend any more (though it was great in 1975 when my brother and I were able just to park by the roadside and camp out on the beach after attending a great Ceilidh (sp?) up the road--there were weird slurping noises along the shore that night too, but probably just waves, not Nessie).
    [Urquhart Castle]

Note: There are actually some Scottish castles for sale, if you've got a few quid to spare; I forget the web site, if it still exists, but just do a search on Scottish Castles. If I won the lottery, I'd buy a ruin like Ardvreck and rebuild it -- ah me!

Note: On a tour in the early 1960s, I also visited the following castles (but don't remember much about them): Huntingtower, Bothwell, Kildrummy, Glenbuchat, and Hailes -- maybe even a couple more.

Scottish Castles Yet to Be Visited: Mingary, Tioram*, Cawdor, Blackness, Cubby Roo's Castle (Orkneys), Sween, Duart (Mull), Borthwick, Loch Leven, Craigievar, Kilchurn, Caerlaverock*, Kissimul (Barra), Noltland (Orkneys), Smailholm, Scalloway (Shetlands), Stirling, Yester ("Goblin Hall"), Edzell, Elcho, Dumbarton*, Glamis, Castle Campbell*, Claypotts, Threave, Aberdour.... [The number of unvisited castles in this section is rather extensive; we tend to prefer visiting the NW Highlands -- for the mountains and rainbows, not the castles.]

* Must See

[These are on my want-to-see list. If you have other recommendations or comments, please let me know. Write to: Grobius]

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Uppquhark Castle -- an imaginary Scottish Castle: Upchuck Lodge


SCOTTISH CASTLE TYPES Glasgow Daily Record; an important introduction to the historical development and categorization of the castle in Scotland [dammit, this very nice source is now gone, as the Daily Record revamped their web site and didn't bring this with it]
THE CHATELAINE'S SCOTTISH CASTLES This has them all, whether her own personal pages (which are great) or links to others, like official clan sites; this is the most comprehensive site about Scottish Castles on the Web
DARK ISLE Beautiful site by an 'amateur' who has visited and photographed them all
RAMPANT SCOTLAND -- CASTLES Nice compendium with many more links
CASTLE TIORAM An excellent, archeologically detailed site dedicated to the restoration of this beautiful castle
CALEDONIAN CASTLES Good comprehensive gazetteer of Scottish castles


Tower Houses

The Scottish tower house would appear to be a derivation of the Norman keep, but it is not except in an analogical sense. It is basically a uniquely Scottish thing (perhaps traceable as far back as the Pictish Brochs); there are some tower houses in England, too, in the Borders area. A tower house is a laird's basic accommodation, similar to a manor house, built vertically for security reasons. [Very important then, because, as the Chinese say, these were interesting times.] Variations in size and complexity range from a simple tower (but possibly considerably different in bulk: e.g., Affleck vs. Smailholm, Drum vs. Corbridge Vicar's Pele), through the mid-range (Crichton, Edzell, Castle Campbell), to the mansion (Cawdor, Glamis, Borthwick), depending on the builder's budget. The early ones were simple square towers with a spiral staircase in one corner. Very soon after, a projecting wing containing the stairway became a component (the L-plan); this provided flanking cover for the entrance, which also often was protected by an iron grating or 'yett' in front of the [Urquhart] wooden door. Most tower houses had an outer courtyard ('barmkin') containing the necessary outbuildings -- stables, storerooms, extra accommodation -- that has not always survived because of lighter or wooden construction. So the stand-alone tower on its crag gives a misleading impression.

Later developments of the tower house were in two contrasting areas -- greater security and more comfortable domestic arrangements. Defensibility was provided by the addition of another wing at the diagonal corner to the turret flanking the door (the Z-plan); vertical arrow loops were replaced by horizontal oval gun loops sited to cover all sides of the building. These turrets, which were larger than the L-wing, allowed for more rooms in the interior (bedrooms, kitchens, chapels, etc.), and the spiral stairs could be built as circular projections in the re-entrant (elbow) angle. As the need for defense declined (although it never lapsed until the mid-18th C), the comfort and display factors became more important. Corbelled-out projections on the upper stories, and conical 'candle-snuffer' tops to the turrets, became the hallmark defining the typical Scottish castle. The Victorian 'Scotch Baronial' style carried this to excess. A lot of these are hotels now and you can sit and sip single malts to your heart's content under a gross display of deer antlers and stuffed capercaillies (large grouse), and there are the perennial fishermen and golfers too -- that appeals to some visitors, and why the hell not? but it's not my turn-on.

There is, however, something totally secure and comforting sitting before a fireplace in a vaulted stone-walled room, sipping an aged single-malt whiskey and listening to the wind and rain howling outside. You can take or leave bagpipes, but I like a lone pipe at a far distance rather than a mass of those noisy people dressed in silly costumes -- preferably you should be listening to "Jock O'Hazeldean" or "The Silkie" by the Corries, on tape, with a topless lassie in a kilt sitting beside you. Or if you are in the mood, a rousing reel from Silly Wizard and the Cunningham brothers and a sword fight with pool sticks. Or just bump against the furniture with a stately strathspey in the background.


§ Cramond, by the way, has the excavated remains of a Roman military fortress, which proves that there used to be civilization above the area where Hadrian's Wall was built a hundred years later; the Roman general Agricola almost conquered Scotland, but had to give it up in the Highlands for reasons very similar to the US withdrawal in Vietnam. If they'd won, history might have been changed and the name of the country/province might have become Pictonia, but I doubt it -- the Irish, Saxons, and Norwegians were yet to come, and Scotland is not called Pictland mainly for that reason. The Selgovae, the British tribe holding the Lowlands back then, from their capital at Eildon Hill (Newstead) on the Tweed, collaborated with the Romans, became effete and regarded as quislings by their neighbors the Votadini, based at Traprain Law and, later, Edinburgh, and by the northern 'Picts' -- whoever they were, but it means 'painted people' -- in Perthshire and Moray. Agricola had won a great battle at Mons Graupius, somewhere near Aberdeen, against the Caledonians under Calgacus, but even with something like 30,000 casualties (according to the Roman 'press'), most of the Picts escaped into the Grampian mountains, from which they waged a long and exhaustive guerrilla war against the Romans, who eventually just gave up. What does this have to do with the plumbing at Lauriston Castle? Don't know -- you tell me! [back]

Link to a general commentary on Celtic Castles by clicking Here.

Dunnottar / Eilean Donan

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