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Issue 52 - 10 Best Castles

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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10 Best Castles

Keith Fergus looks at 10 of Scotland's best castles to visit and photograph.

The Galloway coastline is littered with fine castles and one of its most interesting is Cardoness Castle on the outskirts of Gatehouse of Fleet. It was built in the 15th century by the McCulloch family and with the near impregnable walls rising from the sea, Cardoness Castle commanded a strong defensive position. This came in handy as the McCulloch family were involved in many local disagreements – James McCulloch was drawn into a number of land disputes while Sir Alexander McCulloch was found guilty twice of violence against his neighbours. The many quarrels were not conducive when trying to run an estate and the McCullochs eventually lost the castle and its lands to bitter rival John Gordon in 1628. Today, Historic Scotland looks after Cardoness Castle and a visit provides an extremely interesting afternoon with several rooms in open to the public with an excellent adjacent Visitor Centre.

Castle Sween, Knapdale, Argyll Castle Sween commands a spectacular location on the banks of Loch Sween – the journey along a single track road from near Lochgilphead is also quite magnificent with beautiful views towards the Paps of Jura.

Castle Sween lies in ruin today, but by walking around the grounds a good impression of what the castle must have looked like in its heyday is apparent. It was built in the 12th century by the Suibne family from Ireland, the name anglicised to McSween, and it passed into many hands including Robert the Bruce who ousted the MacSweens after their support did not extend to the Bruce family during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Castle Sween was finally sacked by Alasdair MacColla during the War of the Three Kingdoms in the 17th Century. The many battles fought for Castle Sween are long gone and the location today is incredibly peaceful with a beautiful sandy beach nearby.

Dunure Castle, Ayrshire Although hard to believe today, the reality is that for several hundred years from the 12th century Dunure Castle was more important than neighbouring Culzean Castle. It provided the Kennedy Clan with an easily defendable situation and an excellent lookout post for early detection of any enemies – the view towards Arran is superb. As the Kennedy’s wealth grew , so did the castle with family accommodation, a chapel, and a prison being built. However, the castle has a darker past. In 1570, due to an ongoing feud regarding nearby Crossraguel Abbey, Gilbert the 4th Earl of Cassillis along with 16 of his men, captured Crossraguel’s Abbot Allan Stewart and took him to Dunure Castle and down into the ominously titled Black Vault. It was here that Stewart was stripped, bound, and slowly cooked over a large, open fire until he finally signed over the lands of Crossraguel Abbey.

Craignethan Castle, near Crossford, Lanark Sitting high above the River Clyde and the Clyde Valley, Craignethan Castle was used by Sir Walter Scott as the basis of Tillietudlum Castle in his novel Old Mortality (the small village of Tillietudlum lies only a short distance from Craignethan Castle). However, its fascinating history precedes Scott’s book by many years as it was built in 1532 by Sir James Hamilton who was executed for treason against James VI a few years later.

Although ownership of it changed hands several times over the next few decades, Craignethan’s time as an active castle only lasted about 50 years and ceased to function as one after King James VI brought the Hamilton’s to account over the death of the Earl of Lennox, the King’s Regent. Craignethan is now owned by Historic Scotland and the main structure and grounds are in remarkably good condition providing visitors with a real sense of what the castle must have looked like in its prime.

Crookston Castle, Glasgow Sitting prominently on a hillside a few miles from the centre of Glasgow, Crookston Castle was originally a wooden castle built by Sir Robert de Croc in the 1100s with a stone castle replacing this around 1400. The views from its grounds across Glasgow are excellent although Walter Scott’s assertion that Mary, Queen of Scots watched the Battle of Langside from the castle towers is far-fetched. It became the first property to be owned by the National Trust for Scotland in 1931, but Crookston Castle’s place in Scottish history is secure because of two particular events. First of all, it was besieged in 1489 by King James IV who gained the upper hand against his assailants by transporting Mons Meg through from Edinburgh and virtually destroying the castles western end. The castle was also the scene of Mary, Queen of Scots betrothal to Lord Darnley under a yew tree in 1565 which was sadly chopped down in 1816.

Dirleton Castle, East Lothian If you pay a visit to Dirleton Castle, which sits a couple of miles west of North Berwick, you will not only witness one of Scotland’s finest castles, but you will have the added attraction of its renowned gardens. The origins of Dirleton Castle date from the 13th century when a number of circular towers were built by John de Vaux and during the 14th century the castle passed between the Scots and the English on several occasions during the Wars of Independence. Dirleton Castle was then extended over the next couple of hundred years before it was effectively destroyed by Oliver Cromwell and his maraudering army in 1651.

Like many of our castles, Dirleton is now under the care of Historic Scotland. The castle is an impressive sight throughout the year but the gardens, which include the world’s longest herbaceous border, are particularly stunning throughout the summer months.

St Andrews Castle, St Andrews, Fife Dramatic is possibly the word that would spring to mind when explaining the position of St Andrews Castle. Its walls are almost an extension of the cliffs it sits upon at the entrance to the town which is now famous for being the home of golf.

A fort of some description has been here since the 12th century and was originally known as the Bishop’s Palace and, like many castles in Scotland, the Wars of Independence were not kind to it. St Andrews Castle was no different as it was destroyed and subsequently rebuilt on several occasions as well as changing hands between the Scots and the English until it was eventually destroyed by the Scots so that the English could not use it as a stronghold. It was left in this ruinous state until rebuilt around 1400 , and much of the structure that remains today dates from this time. An excellent Visitor Centre is located adjacent to the castle.

Gylen Castle, Kerrera, Argyll Kerrera, lying off the coast near Oban, is home to Gylen Castle which was built by the MacDougall’s in 1587. It holds a dramatic position, but it is what the castle held within its walls that is of the greatest interest. The Brooch of Lorne, which is one of the most important items in Scottish history, is an esteemed MacDougall war trophy, ripped from the breast of Robert the Bruce during the Battle of Dalrigh in 1306. The brooch was then kept at Gylen Castle , but ended up in the hands of the Campbells and did not re-emerge until the 1820s when General Duncan Campbell of Lochnell returned it to the MacDougall clan, and it has been in their hands ever since. Gylen Castle has been restored in the last few years thanks to a grant from Historic Scotland, and fundraising by Clan MacDougall. It is now open to the public.

Crathes Castle, Banchory, Aberdeenshire Like Dirleton Castle, Crathes Castle, near Banchory, also has the added bonus of magnificent walled gardens. The castle and gardens are now under the ownership of The National Trust, but the origins of Crathes Castle date back to the 16th century when it was built by the Burnett family and its unusual design and pinkish walls certainly make it stand out from the pack. The Burnetts seemingly never managed to get on the wrong side of anyone and, because of this, the castle, both inside and out, is in a remarkably fine condition.

There is a certain sense of stepping back in time when you enter the castle and it is renowned for its Jacobean ceiling paintings. Stepping back outside, and the walled garden is a treat.

The eight themed gardens are kept in incredible condition and are home to an amazing variety of plants.

Cawdor Castle, Inverness-shire Cawdor Castle, sitting proudly a few miles from Inverness, is also extremely well preserved both inside and out. It seems unlikely, but William Shakespeare allegedly visited the castle when he was researching his play Macbeth, and Cawdor Castle is often confused with Inverness Castle as the location of King Duncan’s murder by Macbeth. An interesting story also lies behind why the castle was built where it was.

Apparently when the Thane of Cawdor wanted to build himself a fortress in the 14th century, he dreamt that it should be built where a donkey loaded with gold and sent off on its own would rest its head, and there the Thane’s family would flourish.

The Thane followed this advice, and when the donkey sat down to rest beside a holly tree, it was here that the castle was built. The tree, although now dead, can still be seen in Cawdor Castle. Whether the story is true or not, it certainly makes for interesting reading and a visit to Cawdor Castle is just as fascinating.

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