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Issue 76 - 10 Best Castles

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


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10 Best Castles

The fortresses that kept medieval Scotland safe

1 Lochranza Castle
Isle of Arran

Translating beautifully from the Gaelic Loch Raonasa as ‘The Loch of the Rowan Tree River’, Loch Ranza is a sea loch and here, predominantly on its south side, sits the village of Lochranza, which used to be a major herring port.

It is surrounded on three sides by high slopes and is home to Lochranza Castle Standing at the loch’s edge the castleis now a ruin (although it is open to the public) and its history stretches back to the 1200s when it was built for the MacSween family, who also owned Skipness Castle on the other side of the Kilbrannan Sound on the Kintyre Peninsula.

Further additions were made during the 16th century, when it is thought the Montgomery family, the Earl’s of Eglinton, held the lands surrounding Lochranza.

Furthermore Lochranza Castle may have been the spot where Robert the Bruce landed on his return from Ireland while it was reputedly a hunting seat for Scottish Kings.

2 Blackness Castle
Blackness, Lothian

Blackness Castle’s turbulent history dates back to the 15th century when it was built by the Crichton’s, at the time one of Scotland’s most powerful families. Its distinctive shape is often likened to a ship.

From 1537-1543 King James V converted Blackness Castle into a key artillery stronghold, in no small part due to its position on the southern edge of the Firth of Forth. A number of cannons were used to defend the walls of Blackness Castle, some of which were nearly 6-metres thick, and it survived many attacks until Oliver Cromwell’s vast army forced a surrender in 1650, attacking the castle from both land and sea. Blackness Castle was also used as a state prison, with perhaps its most famous prisoner being Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, in 1543. Later it became an ammunition depot and today is under the care of Historic Scotland. Blackness Castle is open daily between 1st of April and 31st October and every Saturday-Wednesday between 1st November and 31st March

3 Craigmillar Castle

Even though it dates from the 14th century Craigmillar Castle is still in remarkable condition. Sitting a little south of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh this impressive building was originally a tower house built by the Preston Family. The castle walls, which climb to 17 metres in height, were added around 1440, creating a courtyard with impressive parkland and gardens surrounding the stronghold. King James V stayed here in 1517 and Mary, Queen of Scots spent time at Craigmillar in 1563 and again in 1566 as she sought refuge after the murder of her secretary David Rizzio. It was also where the Craigmillar Bond was discussed, which eventually led to the killing of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley. Craigmillar Castle passed to the Gilmour Family in 1660, with more extensions being made, including the private Gilmour Burial Aisle. The family abandoned the castle during the 18th century and today is under the care of Historic Scotland. It is open daily between April and September and Saturday-Wednesday from October to March.

4 Taymouth Castle
Kenmore, Perthshire

Sitting near the banks of Loch Tay and the River Tay, in the beautiful Perthshire village of Kenmore, Taymouth Castle was built over several decades from 1806, replacing the original 16th century Balloch Castle. This subsequently became the seat of Clan Campbell who, at one time, owned land that extended across much of Argyll.

Balloch Castle was eventually demolished and rebuilt as Taymouth Castle by the 1st Marquis of Breadalbane. The elaborate central buildings and towers were first to be constructed with other additions finally being completed in 1842, in time for the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Internally, the work was just as intricate and included a staircase that rose to over 100 feet in height through the central tower.

Although Taymouth Castle is not open to the public, the estate grounds, which contain an 18 hole golf course designed by James Braid, provide a lovely means of wandering around the castle and surrounding countryside.

5 Castle Menzies
Weem, Perthshire

The village of Weem, which is only a mile or so from Aberfeldy, is home to the marvellous Castle Menzies. The name Menzies was first recorded in Scotland during the 12th century and has its source in Normandy, from the French name Mesnières. In 1249 Sir Robert de Meyneris became Lord Chamberlain of Scotland and his son Alexander was granted the lands of Weem. Castle Menzies was built during the 16th century as the seat for the chiefs of Clan Menzies, something that continued for 400 years. The castle was placed in the unenviable position during the second Jacobite Uprising of 1746 when it hosted Bonnie Prince Charlie on his way to Culloden and then, only 4 days later, the Duke of Cumberland (the Young Pretender’s nemesis at Culloden) who arrived with his Government forces. The castle was rescued as a ruin in 1957 by the Menzies Clan Society and subsequently restored by them. Today Castle Menzies is a museum and is open daily from April to mid-October, Mon-Sat 10.30am to 5pm, Sunday 2-5pm.

6 Castle Stalker
Port Appin, Argyll

Translating from the Gaelic ‘Stalcaire’ as either Hunter or Falconer, Castle Stalker commands a wonderful position on Loch Laich, an inlet of Loch Linnhe, near to Port Appin on Scotland’s west coast. Clan MacDougall constructed a fort here around 1320 with Castle Stalker’s present guise being built by Lord Stewart of Lorn in the 15th century. It has passed, several times, between the hands of the Stewarts and Campbell’s including, bizarrely, on one occasion because of a drunken wager by the 7th Stewart Chief Duncan. Castle Stalker also withstood the Stewart cannon balls during the 1745 Jacobite uprising and, slightly less seriously, had a prominent role in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The landscape surrounding Castle Stalker is remarkable particularly at dusk if the waters of Loch Linnhe and Loch Laich lie still, reflecting the muscular mountains of Morvern, which dominate this stunning slice of Scotland’s western seaboard.

7 Inverlochy Castle
Inverlochy, Lochaber

Despite having been built around 1280 by the Lord of Badenoch, John Comyn, and having been the scene of some of Scotland’s most famous battles, Inverlochy Castle remains in good condition. Standing in the shadow of the mighty Ben Nevis, near to Fort William, a lovely walk from the town centre and then along the River Lochy reaches the castle. It held a strategic position at the Great Glen’s southern entrance and
was one of a number of forts that secured the Comyn’s as one of Scotland’s most powerful families. It was the scene of 2 major battles, in 1431 and again in 1645, when Royalist forces led by the Marquis of Montrose overwhelmed the Earl of Argyll’s Covenanter army. Its 10-metre angled walls, designed against scaling ladders, have remained remarkably intact behind a once deep mote. Queen Victoria visited in 1873 but was unimpressed – “there is little left of it to see” she complained. Inverlochy Castle is open daily and entry is free.

8 Eilean Donan Castle
Dornie, Kintail

Eilean Donan Castle holds a wonderfully picturesque and dramatic position. It was named after St Donan, an Irish Saint who arrived here around 580AD and it is believed he set up a small cell or community on the island. The original castle was constructed around 1220 and it is thought the building took up the entire island. By the early 16th century three different, and increasingly smaller, versions of the castle had been constructed. Eilean Donan Castle’s location on Scotland’s western seaboard also meant it played a considerable role in the Jacobite uprising of 1719. Incredibly Eilean Donan Castle then lay derelict for some 200 years until Lt Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island in 1911 and dedicated the next 20 years of his life to restoring the castle. The Conchra Charitable Trust has owned Eilean Donan Castle since 1983 with its principal activity being its restoration and preservation and to allow public access. It is open daily from 1st February to 31st December.

9 Drum Castle
Drum, Aberdeenshire

Drum Castle has been under the care of the National Trust for Scotland since 1975 and is open daily between July and August and Monday to Thursday between September and June. The lands in and around Drum have been farmed since medieval times with the woodland here part of the Royal hunting forest that used to extend from Drum to Banchory, several miles to the west. During the 14th century, William de Irwyn was appointed by Robert the Bruce to manage the Royal Hunting Forest of Drum as well as the Barony of Drum. The impressive tower house, which was built around the 12th century, and still dominates Drum Castle today, was also part of the agreement. Drum Castle has been owned by 24 consecutive generations of the Irvine family ever since. The mansion house was built onto the tower house in 1619 with further extensions taking place during the early 19th century. Internally Drum Castle is equally impressive with several beautifully decorated rooms.

10 Castle Fraser

The 15th century Baronial Castle Fraser stands in gorgeous countryside 16 miles west of Aberdeen and is the ancestral home of the Fraser family. The Fraser’s arrived in Scotland from Anjou in France around the 11th century – it is thought the name Fraser comes from fraise, the French word for strawberry. Settling in Tweedale, they reached Aberdeenshire during the 13th century. The striking 5-storey Castle Fraser was built between 1575 and 1636 with further renovations being carried out between 1797 and 1800 by Elyza Fraser, who was Laird of Castle Fraser between 1792 and 1814, and her close friend, Mary Bristow. Castle Fraser is the most elaborate Z-plan castle in Scotland and internally contains many Fraser family portraits, including one by Henry Raeburn, and a number of fine 18th and 19th-century furnishings. The castle is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland and is open daily between July and August and Wed-Sun between September and June.