Three Beautiful Castle Ruins to Visit in Scotland

If you’re planning a trip to Scotland and love the romance and history of a good castle ruin, I have a few suggestions for you to check out!

Urquhart Castle

Located on the shores of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle‘s history goes back over 500 years. In fact, it was once one of Scotland’s largest castles. Now in ruins, the size still manages to impress. You can get a nice view of it from the water if you take a boat tour of Loch Ness:

Urquhart Castle from Loch Ness

Urquhart began its life as a medieval fortress, but the current ruins seen today date between the 13th and 16th Centuries. Despite its location, or perhaps because of it, Urquhart was raided numerous times over the centuries. Ownership fell to the English in 1296 after an invasion by King Edward I of England, then back again to the Scots only two years later, and so on through the years.

Overhead view of Urquhart Castle

But the biggest threat to Urquhart seemed to come in the form of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. These powerful rulers from a semi-independent kingdom in western Scotland repeatedly raided Urquhart over the span of two hundred years. Talk about persistent! Some of their efforts failed outright, but in 1517 they did manage to drive off 300 cattle and 1,000 sheep from Urquhart land, as well as steal some castle provisions. They attacked the castle again in 1545, this time with their allies, the Camerons. This raid proved their most successful: they seized 2.000 cattle and hundreds of other livestock, cannons, three boats, furniture, and even the gates!

During the Revolution of 1688, five hundred Jacobites attacked, but were held off by two hundred Government soldiers protecting the castle.

Urquhart Castle

In 1692, when the last of the soldiers left, the gatehouse was intentionally destroyed so that it couldn’t be reoccupied by the Jacobites. Remains of the fallen masonry are still on site and haven’t been moved.

Fallen Masonry at Urquhart Castle

Efforts were taken to strengthen its fortifications, but eventually, by the 17th Century the castle was abandoned. The castle was given to the State in 1913, which still maintains the ruins today under Historic Scotland.

Loch Leven Castle

Loch Leven Castle (or Lochleven – I’ve seen it written both ways) is located near Kinross. There are a few things that make Loch Leven really stand out as a fabulous ruin to visit. The first is that it’s only accessible by boat as the ruins are located on an island. The second is what makes Loch Leven famous: it once imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.

Loch Leven plaque

The castle was originally built in 1300, and, as noted in the plaque above, was owned by the Douglas family for around three hundred years. Initially, Mary, Queen of Scots came to the island as a visitor either in 1565, as a guest of Sir William Douglas. But in June of 1567 she arrived as a prisoner.

Loch Leven Castle

Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, had died under mysterious circumstances. The home he was staying in, Kirk o’ Field, exploded after the cellars were packed with gunpowder. Lord Darnley’s body was found in the garden, however he did not succumb from the explosion, but from strangulation. Only three months after his death, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, whom, it was thought, had Lord Darnley murdered. Rumours swirled that Mary was also guilty in the murder, as her marriage to Lord Darnley had been tempestuous at best.

remains of stairwell, Loch Leven

Her marriage to the Earl didn’t win her any supporters either. Since he had divorced his wife only twelve days prior to marrying Mary, their union was considered unlawful by Catholics, who not only refused to recognize the Earl’s divorce, but denounced their Protestant wedding ceremony. Mary was accused of conspiracy to commit murder and adultery and hauled off to Loch Leven.

Loch Leven Tower House

Mary suffered greatly in her first few months at Loch Leven. Between July 20 and 23, just a few weeks after arriving, she miscarried twins. On July 24, she was forced to sign a Deed of Abdication under threat of death. Her thirteen-month old son James with Lord Darnley was crowned as king five days later.

Loch Leven Tower exterior

On May 2, 1568, Mary managed to escape the tower to an awaiting boat with help from Sir William Douglas’ brother George. (Interestingly, when the Loch was drained in the early 19th Century, several relics were found. The most telling was a sceptre hilted with ivory and a carved stem with the words “Mary Queen of Scots” emblazoned upon it. It was found near the supposed landing place where Mary made her escape.)

Loch Leven interior

Mary quickly revoked her abdication and began to assemble an army of 6,000 men. She was defeated during the Battle of Langside on May 13, 1568. She fled to England to seek help from Queen Elizabeth I, her cousin. However, plots by Mary’s supporters to replace Elizabeth as Queen of England took some nasty turns. Letters purported to have been written by Mary sanctioning an attempted assassination of Elizabeth eventually led to her downfall. Although she was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, Elizabeth refused to carry out the execution until her ministers convinced her that it was the only way to keep her position safe and secure. Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on February 8, 1587.

Duntulm Castle

This castle ruin is located on the Isle of Skye near Trotternish, and is in the worst state of disrepair of the three castles. But if you’re a lover of rustic and untouched ruins, this one will be right up your alley. The geography and views are especially spectacular. Another bonus: it’s free to walk around, just mind your footing as there are some treacherous spots here and there. There is a warning sign before you reach the castle to stay within the designated areas, due to the ruins being structurally unstable. In fact, one of the towers crumbled into the sea below as recently as 1990.

Duntulm Castle Ruin

Unfortunately there were no informative plaques on site to learn about the history of Duntulm, other than a commemorative cairn:

Duntulm cairn

So I had to do my research back at home. It’s believed the area has been inhabited since the Iron Age, but Duntulm Castle itself was built around the 14th or 15th Century by the MacLeods. Unfortunately, in this area there were numerous feuds between the MacLeod clan and MacDonald clan, and by the early 16th Century the MacDonalds had taken ownership of Duntulm. If you’re thinking the MacDonald name sounds familiar, scroll back up to Urquhart Castle. Yes, it’s the same clan that laid siege numerous times to that castle as well!

Duntulm Castle wall

In 1618, a charter was signed between the Privy Council and Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat, the 9th chief, that he would repair Duntulm Castle. Sir Donald subsequently had a second tower added. Other additions followed over the years, but by 1732 the castle was abandoned. Sir Alexander MacDonald chose to build a new home about 8km away, taking most of Duntulm Castle’s stones with him for building materials. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine his new home had a better view than this one:

Duntulm Castle view

The nice thing about Duntulm is that there are very few tourists frequenting the site, so you can explore at your leisure, even though there isn’t much left to see.

These are just a few of the amazing castle ruins to be explored in Scotland. So which ones are your favourites?

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