Discover Your Inner Highlander At These 3 Scottish Castles

About United Kingdom · about Culture & History

A lot of people's favorite TV viewing these days involves tartans and time travel against a backdrop of essential Scottish scenery: misty lochs, craggy mountains, and castles that are among the most iconic and recognized in the world.

Fiction meets historic fact at Scotland's castles. An estimated 3000 castles were once part of the landscape of Scotland. That's nearly one castle every 100 square miles.

Many ancient castles still remain to remind us of Scotland's turbulent history of powerful men in kilts wielding broadswords, and women who were just as tough. You can tap into your own inner highlander at these must-see Scottish castles.

Edinburgh Castle

Imposing and massive, Edinburgh Castle looms from its perch on an outcropping of volcanic rock 260 feet (80 m) above the Scottish capital. Scotland's most urban castle dominates the city skyline spectacularly. As the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris, Edinburgh Castle is the symbol of the Scottish capital. It's the most-visited attraction in Scotland.

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Castle Rock, with such obvious defensive advantages of the sheer cliffs on three sides, has been occupied since the Iron Age. A royal castle has stood there since the 1100's. Edinburgh castle is magnificent, seeming to grow out of the volcanic rock. But it's no fairy tale. Researchers have identified 26 attacks on the fortress in its history, making it one of the most besieged places in the world.

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Edinburgh Castle retains its military and regal connections, housing the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, as well as the Scottish regalia, known as the Honours of Scotland: royal crown, sword and scepter.

The only approach to Edinburgh Castle is from the sloping side. It's a scenic walk up the Royal Mile through Edinburgh's Old Town to the castle. Don't miss the daily (except Sunday) firing of the 'One O'Clock Gun'.

Three special times of the year to visit Edinburgh Castle include: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August, a spell-binding and evocative series of performances of fife and drum and Scottish regiments in traditional regalia; and the fireworks marking the end of the summer Edinburgh Festival as well as Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.

Eilean Donan Castle

This is one of the most photographed and filmed castles in the world. (And one of the most popular backdrops to wedding photos in the U.K.)

Where Edinburgh Castle's defenses came from the cliffs surrounding it, Eilean Donan's protection was water. Eilean Donan means 'the island of Donnán'. (Top Photo Credit). It's a small tidal island at the point where three great sea lochs meet in the western Highlands of Scotland.

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And while romantic-looking now, there's evidence the island was fortified from the Iron Age. The current castle was restored from ruins in the early 1900's, when a footbridge connected the island to the mainland. Until then, it was only water accessible, and a clan stronghold that was repeatedly attacked.

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Don't miss among the rare artifacts on display a sword said to have been wielded at the fateful battle of Culloden.

A Gaelic inscription above the door reads: "As long as there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside", referring to a bond of kinship between the two clans, similar to one which adorned the Fraser clan's Beaufort Castle. The MacRae clan are still Constables of Eilean Donan Castle today.

Eilean Donan Castle is even more spectacular in real life than in the many photos and films that feature it, where the magnificent Highland landscape almost dwarfs the castle. When you are there in person, it is much larger and imposing than it seems in pictures. Standing on the footbridge with winds from the lochs swirling around you, is the moment you'll say to yourself, 'I've arrived in the Highlands'.

Dunnottar Castle

Even more wild and dramatic is Dunnottar Castle on top of an immense rocky cliff over the north east coast of Scotland. The ruins of the castle are surrounded by steep cliffs that drop 160 feet (50m) into the North Sea below. Only a narrow strip of land with a steep path joins the headland to the mainland.

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Given the castle's strategic location and impregnable position, it's no wonder the site has been fortified for over 2000 years. 'Dun' is the word for 'fort' in the early Pict's language. This haunting location was the home of the Keiths and Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland. When Oliver Cromwell's army invaded Scotland in the 1600's, the Earl Marischal, as Marischal of Scotland, was responsible for the Honours of Scotland (the Crown Jewels), and had them hidden from Cromwell at Dunnottar Castle. (Brought there by a woman named Katherine Drummond hidden in bags of wool.)

Less than a century later, another Earl lost his titles participating in the Jacobite rebellion, and the castle declined until its restoration 300 years later.

Romantic, dramatic, and evocative, Scotland's castles aren't just instagrammers' dreams. A visit to a Scottish castle is your own version of time travel and a way to connect to the essence of this fabled culture.

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