Scotland is chock-full of historic castles and castle ruins. In some ways, I find the remains of castles even more intriguing than those that have been maintained and preserved. These are just three of my favourite castle ruins in Scotland for you to check out!
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 began its life as a medieval fortress, but the current ruins seen today date between the 13th and 16th Centuries. In 1229, Alexander II, King of Scotland granted Urquhart to his usher, Thomas de Lundin. Upon his death, the castle passed to his son, Alan Durward. The original castle was built sometime after this, but the exact date is unknown.
Urquhart suffered numerous raids over the centuries. Ownership fell to the English in 1296 after King Edward I of England invaded. This invasion marked the beginning of the Wars of Scottish Independence. The Scots regained control of Urquhart Castle two years later, but didn’t hold onto it for long. In 1303, Edward attacked the castle again. This time, he brought trebuchets as part of his arsenal.
Trebuchets are heavy siege weapons, similar to a catapult. A modern replica of a trebuchet now stands outside the walls of Urquhart Castle. It could hurl large stones or rubble up to 400 meters away, destroying walls and towers with ease. King Edward successfully took back the castle, partly with the assistance of this impressive weapon.
Urquhart returned into Scottish Hands after followers of King Robert the Bruce annihilated Clan Comyns in 1307.
But the biggest threat to Urquhart came 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 two hundred Government soldiers protecting the castle held them off.
When the last of the soldiers left in 1692, they intentionally destroyed the gatehouse so that the Jacobites couldn’t re-occupy it. Remains of the fallen masonry are still on site and haven’t been moved.
Efforts were taken to strengthen its fortifications. But eventually, by the 17th Century the castle was abandoned.
The State took ownership of the castle in 1913. Historic Scotland still maintains the ruins today.
Address: Drumnadrochit, Inverness IV63 6XJ, UK
Hours of Operation:
April to September: Daily, 9.30am to 6pm
October: Daily, 9.30am to 5pm
November to March: Daily, 9.30am to 4.30pm
June to August: Open until 8pm
Loch Leven Castle
Loch Leven Castle 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.
The castle dates from around 1300. As noted in the plaque above, the Douglas family owned it for around three hundred years. Mary, Queen of Scots came to the island in 1565, as a guest of Sir William Douglas. In June of 1567 she visited the castle again, but this time, she arrived as a prisoner.
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. Many people suspected that the Earl had Lord Darnley murdered. Rumours swirled that Mary was also guilty in the murder, as her marriage to Lord Darnley was tempestuous at best.
Mary’s marriage to the Earl didn’t win her any supporters either. Since he divorced his wife only twelve days prior to marrying Mary, Catholics considered their union unlawful. They not only refused to recognize the Earl’s divorce, but denounced their Protestant wedding ceremony. Mary was eventually accused of conspiracy to commit murder and adultery and hauled off to Loch Leven.
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 unwillingly signed a Deed of Abdication under threat of death. Just five days later, her thirteen-month old son James with Lord Darnley became king.
On May 2, 1568, Mary managed to escape the tower to an awaiting boat with help from Sir William Douglas’ brother George. (Interestingly, when they drained the Loch in the early 19th Century, they discovered several relics. The most telling was a sceptre hilted with ivory and a carved stem with the words “Mary Queen of Scots” emblazoned upon it. They discovered it near the supposed landing place where Mary made her escape.)
Mary quickly revoked her abdication and began to assemble an army of 6,000 men. But 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 that Mary allegedly wrote sanctioning an attempted assassination of Elizabeth eventually led to her downfall. Mary was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. But 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. Elizabeth had Mary executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on February 8, 1587.
Sir William Bruce bought Loch Leven from the Douglas family in 1675. But once he built a new dwelling nearby, Loch Leven simply became an empty garden feature.
By the 18th Century, Loch Leven fell into disuse. It passed through several hands before going to the state in 1939. Historic Environment Scotland now oversees management and protection of the castle. The castle ruins are also a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Address: Pier Rd, Kinross KY13 8UF, UK
Hours of Operation:
April 1 to September 30: Daily, 10am to 4.15pm (last outward sailing)
October 1 to October 31: Daily, 10am to 3.15pm (last outward sailing)
November 1 to March 31: Closed
*Note that the ferry to Loch Leven only holds a maximum of 12 people, so I would recommend booking your reservation in advance during the busy summer months.
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.
Unfortunately there were no informative plaques on site to learn about the history of Duntulm, other than a commemorative 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, the MacLeod clan and MacDonald clan feuded a lot. 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!
In 1618, the Privy Council and Sir Donald MacDonald of Sleat, the 9th chief, signed a charter agreeing that he would repair Duntulm Castle. Sir Donald subsequently had a second tower added. Other additions followed over the years. Unfortunately, after 1732 the castle was abandoned. Sir Alexander MacDonald chose to build a new home about 8km away. He took 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:
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.
Address: Trotternish, Skye, Scotland
GPS Coordinates: 57.6835°N 6.3489°W
These are just a handful of the amazing castle ruins in Scotland you can explore. So which ones are your favourites?