Updated 09.01.2018: Nothing says old world European adventure like castle hopping through Scotland. Today’s guest contributor, Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, is here to take us on a fabulous Scotland roadtrip, passing through some of the country’s most majestic castles and jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside.
The swirl of tartan, mournful bagpipes and castle ruins called me to Scotland. On an earlier trip, I’d fallen in love with Edinburgh and its iconic 12th-century royal castle perched upon Castle Rock. But, I skipped returning to the capital, focusing on exploring the romantic countryside, rugged Highlands, remote islands, and as many castles as possible.
The Ultimate Guide to a castles road trip in Scotland
First I gathered my courage to begin driving a rental car on the left or ‘wrong side’ of the road. Breathing deeply, I put my foot on the gas and took off. The highway felt fairly comfortable, but the narrower, country roads created tension and stress. Where, exactly, did the edge of the car end?
While I anticipated the roundabouts or circles to be death defying, they came easy; I honestly grew to like them. You let traffic from the right proceed until an opening is clear, then drive around on the left side of the circle. Locals understand the concept and traffic flows smoothly.
My initial destination Stirling, in central Scotland, required just a few hours drive through fertile Lowlands. On approaching the town, the castle looms high atop a volcanic crag as though hanging from a cloud.
Like Edinburgh’s, the icon is gloriously illuminated at night. Stirling Castle interweaves with two of the most significant battles in Scotland’s history: Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. The fortress withstood 15 sieges, and various parts were rebuilt many times.
Our entry into the stalwart gem immediately took my travel buddy and me back to the 14th-century. The Inner Close displays some of the earliest relics: decorative window treatments, gargoyles and many figures and statues.
The King’s Bedroom ceiling incorporates copies of the Stirling Heads: colorful circular reliefs that represent a who’s who the royal court. Years of recovery and restoration saved the originals now displayed in a special exhibition hall. Don’t miss them!
Tours enter the lavish recreated royal residence, constructed for Mary of Guise and James V who died there in 1542. The Great Hall gives the aura of a royal banqueting room. Mary, Queen of Scots, brought her infant son (later James VI and I) to Stirling for safety after his birth in Edinburgh.
We continued exploring the many buildings, one with a multi-room passageway containing a ‘please touch’ area for children. It thoroughly amused, compelling me to don a frock.
The Great Kitchens include mannequins dressed in period costumes. Wandering to the far corners of the curtain wall exposes an outstanding tapestry exhibition.
The castle and medieval old city exude royalty and might. Allow one to two days if you wish to visit the Church of the Holy Rude, the Kirkside Cemetery, Argyll’s Lodge and the nearby William Wallace Memorial. Follow our tips for things to do in Stirling.
Back on the road, we headed for the Highlands, the road blending into the undulating countryside and an endless mountain range.
Cloud-topped Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain emerged in the distance. It was a Julie Andrews “hills are alive” moment for this Floridian accustomed to flat terrain.
The Highlands captivate and confound like they do in films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall. I felt humbled and insignificant surrounded by the vast uninhabited high peaks.
Next came Inveraray Castle whose symmetrical towers and turrets make it a palace fit for a storybook princess. The grounds abut the northwest border of Loch (lake) Fyne and belong to the Duke of Argyll, head of the prominent Clan Campbell.
The former Highland clan system divided society into extended tribal groups led by chiefs but declined after the Jacobite uprising and the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Then came the Highland Clearances, mass forced emigration, which ended the clan system.
Inveraray’s Armory Hall hangs an eye-opening collection of weaponry formerly used by the clan to fight the Jacobite rebels. The current castle shows more wealth than strength, built in the 18th century for the 3rd and 5th Dukes.
Inveraray’s romantic formal gardens impress, practically bursting in Technicolor during our August visit. Like most stately UK mansions, the bucolic surrounding grounds are often dotted with sheep or cows. Leave time to explore or just sit for a spell and bask in their glory.
With a storm brewing, we managed to rush through nearby Kilchurn; a desolate castle ruin rendered the more dramatic by a dark sky. There’s not much to explore, but the forlorn site speaks to photographers and artists. On a nice day, Kilchurn’s grounds would make an ideal picnic spot.
Inverness and Loch Ness
Venturing on through twisty-turny two-lane roads it was hard to get lost, but difficult to get to anyplace quickly. We weaved through more mystical Scottish landscape in Cairngorms National Park.
Eventually, we reached Inverness, a modern city close to the famous and immense Loch Ness. The city itself disappointed, offering a few museums and a Victorian castle permanently closed to the public.
Cruising on mysterious Loch Ness brought us to Urquhart Castle, a formerly mighty fortress I’d put on the ‘not-to-be-missed’ list. The foreboding, partially restored ruins stand regally on a promontory, often shroud in fog. They cast a poignant spell from a water approach.
With our boat docked, a docent described the castle history before we began climbing its towers for lookouts over the water. Sadly, Nessie did not make an appearance but understand that Loch Ness holds more water than all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales put together. She has no lack of options for remaining elusive.
From our B&B base in Inverness, we proceeded to Cawdor Castle, famous for its association with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Folks imagine the castle as the setting for the murder of Duncan, but it does not date that far.
Construction began as early as 1370. King James II granted permission to add on to the tower in 1454. More additions came over the next 600 years, the renovations joining rooms and accommodating changes in floor heights.
The current owning family, the Thanes, still live in the apartments part of the year, and it feels that way. Look for framed family photos. If it is not raining, as it often is in Scotland, stroll through the intricate formal gardens or hike a trail through the densely forested area.
The Isle of Skye
Leaving Inverness brought a stunning drive to the Isle of Skye, reached from the famous Skye Bridge, opened in 1995. We snaked across rock plains and mountain ridges to the outskirts of colorfully painted houses lining the main street of Portree. The population of the entire island stands around 10,000, and I felt small compared to the immensity of the undeveloped land.
Hiking dominates the activity list on Skye, and we trekked up to the Basalt pinnacles known as the Old Man of Storr. Land slippage created the formation along the 20-mile cliffs of the Trotternish Ridge.
The Old Man can’t compare to the more imposing Black Cullin Mountains but proved ample physical challenge. We felt our age, especially as a passing young couple toted a toddler in a backpack.
With castles a continuing highlight, a stop at Dunvegan Castle topped the day. Dunvegan, renovated over 800 years, reigns as the stronghold of MacLeod chieftains. The gray stone home calls for a visit to see the Fairy Flag, a storied piece of silk hundreds of years old and claimed to have mystical powers.
Walking the perimeter of the clan grounds and gardens produces a great photo op from the marina side, where seal boat trips embark. We, however, drove further into the desolate, but haunting landscape to lunch at the Three Chimneys Restaurant, finding one of the best meals of the whole trip.
Eilean Doane Castle
Minutes after leaving the Isle, we arrived to the soulful sound of bagpipes at one of Scotland’s most photographed spots: Eilean Doane Castle. This stone fortress juts out into Loch Duich, site of past bloody battles of the Mackenzies and MacRae clans. A dramatic stormy atmosphere at this fabled location brought another photographer’s delight. Don’t skip the hour-long tour of the interior.
Backtracking circuitously, we eventually descended in central Scotland’s Pitlochry. The inviting town makes a fine base for further castle explorations.
Scone Palace and Blair Castle
Next day we drove up toward Perth and toured Scone Palace. I learned that Scone is called the crowning place of Scottish kings. Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots, brought the legendary Stone of Scone, the king-making seat, there in 843. The rock stayed at the palace from the 9th to 13th centuries forming a seat or stone in the coronation chair.
In 1296 the stone disappeared, spirited to Westminster where it remained for the next 700 years. It is believed to have sat under the coronation throne for many investitures, including Queen Elizabeth II’s ceremony. Visitors hear of pranks concerning the Stone, but the sacred relic was finally returned to Scotland in 1996 and sits on display in Edinburgh Castle.
Today, Scone Palace remains the regal home of the Earls of Mansfield, whose treasures within include priceless furnishings, paintings, porcelains, and ivories, making for quite an interesting tour.
A drive in the opposite direction from Pitlochry brought us to Blair Castle, with its unusually well-appointed interiors. The arms and amour displayed in the Entrance Hall established a privileged air and included a shield from the 1746 Battle of Culloden. Queen Victoria stayed on an extended visit in 1844, and many furnishings and mementos from her visit remain.
Castle Blair’s extensive grounds and gardens add an enchanting dimension to the ancestral home of the Murray family, the Dukes of Atholl. No castle weariness came upon us even this far into our roaming, each one brought new life to centuries of Scottish history.
Recalling stories and photos, spectacular Dunnator Castle demanded a detour to make a visit. Talk about the epitome of a border castle — it sits high above the North Sea on the edge of an enormous flat-topped rock with dangerously sheer cliffs.
Trudging up the rugged trail to reach the summit, recalled the footsteps of thousands who tread here in the past. A tour guide shared the story of the eight-month holdout by a small garrison at this remote outpost against Cromwell’s army, saving the Scottish Crown Jewels.
Usually a whisperer, history nearly shouted from this place, the vibrations reminding all not to drop Dunnator from an itinerary. I’m sorry we could not linger longer at this striking geological gem.
The Queen Mum was born and raised here and returned many times. Queen Elizabeth II also has fond memories of this magnificent dwelling. Soak in the riches and majesty, character and refined tastes. You first enter the dignified dining room, the table set for forty in full Victorian splendor. Magnificent wood paneling of the finest English oak surrounds the room giving it a warm golden glow.
The Crypt, full of suits of armor, earlier served as a room where the family received King James VI, King James VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots. The drawing room feels like an art gallery brimming with priceless objects d’art. The symbolic Glamis Lion appears throughout the castle in various forms. By all means, don’t miss glamorous Glamis.
As we prepared to leave Scotland for Northumberland, I reflected on the fun and knowledge I’d gained about Scotland’s fascinating history. I marveled at its ethereal beauty, shimmering lochs, unforgiving crags and breathtaking landscape. I’d conquered the roads and castles and they did not disappoint. I will always feel Scotland in my soul.