castle road trips in Scotland
With its sweeping vistas and rugged peaks, the Scottish Highlands is the perfect place to embark on a seven-day castle road trip. Explore glistening lochs, meander across misty glens and spot red deer grazing in enchanting woodlands.
Begin your journey in the old crofting county of Caithness, situated in the far northern Highlands of Scotland. This county of farmland and moorland borders Moray Firth to the east and to the north, Pentland Firth: a strait separating land from the Orkney Islands.
Travel along the A836 and you will find the Castle of Mey, the former residence of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Built as a Z-plan castle between 1566 and 1572 by George, the fourth Earl of Caithness, the structure was known as Barrogill Castle before the late Queen Mother purchased it in 1952. She changed the name and set about renovating the architecture and surrounding gardens. In 1996, the Queen Mother gifted the castle to The Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust. Seen from a distance, the castle’s jutting towers and corbelled turrets pierce the sky with a chequered design typical of the 16th century.
Inside the Castle of Mey, many of the rooms are still set out as they were when the Queen Mother was in residence. Portraits of the Earls of Caithness hang in the front hall and the library, where the Queen Mother would undertake her private correspondence, is still brimming with books. Visitors can explore The Equerry's Room, The Butler’s Pantry and the grand Dining Room, which was once a billiard room.
Children will enjoy the Animal Centre, situated in the East Woods. The Animal Centre, built in traditional materials found in Caithness, was opened in 2017 and is home to eye-catching breeds of poultry, sheep, piglets and the popular Alice: a gentle donkey with grey, velvet fur.
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On the east coast of Sutherland is a breath-taking castle: Dunrobin. It rises above the North Sea like an illustration from a fairy tale. Home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century, Dunrobin Castle resembles a French château with towering conical spires. It is perched on a high terrace above walled gardens; heather-covered hilltops and vast stretches of coastline act as a natural moat surrounding the castle.
The castle’s interior is as grand as they come. There are 189 rooms in total - making it the largest stately home in the Northern Highlands - and these include a Dining Room, Music Room, Breakfast Room and a library housing more than 10,000 books. There is also a museum in the castle grounds. This was built as a summer house by William, Earl of Sutherland, but today boasts an impressive collection of ethnographic items collected from around the world.
Head beyond the castle walls and the décor is equally impressive. The castle’s carefully manicured gardens were laid out in 1850 by the architect, Sir Charles Barry. Today, visitors can explore vast stretches of clipped topiary, wander through a grove of mature trees and find the tranquil picnic area in the south-east corner. Visit the castle over the summer months and you may even see birds of prey swooping over the croquet lawn.
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Follow the A9 to the A96 and curve around Scotland’s east coast for 63 miles until you reach Fort George: a mighty artillery fortification dating back to the 18th century. Situated to the north-east of Inverness, near Ardersier, the star-shaped fortress sits isolated on a spit of land jutting west into the Moray Firth. Built by George II following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746, Fort George was intended as the ultimate defence against Jacobite uprisings. It is a 42-acre plot, home to garrison buildings, cannon batteries and battle-worn arms. One of a chain of fortifications in and around the Great Glen, Fort George was intended to assist with the subjugatation of the Scottish Highlands.
The scale of Fort George is eye-watering: the barracks alone were built to accommodate 1,600 men from two infantry battalions. As a visitor, you will approach the fortification from the landward side, where sloping grassy banks were designed to absorb artillery shells. Enter the main entrance via a raised walkway, complete with drawbridge, then cross a wide ditch. Here you will also see a large ravelin and two lunettes. The visitor’s centre is situated within the guardhouse and there are audio guides available, to help you navigate the fortification.
Wander around the bastion trace and explore the elaborate defences on the eastern flank. Head to the Grand Arsenal and peruse a gigantic collection of small arms including bayoneted muskets, pikes, swords and ammunition pouches. Beyond this, you will find a small garrison chapel, the Regimental Museum of the Highlanders and the Fort Major’s house.
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Continue heading east along the B9092 and A96, through the majestic coastal town of Nairn. Taking in awe-inspiring views of Moray Firth, you will close in upon the next fortress on your road trip: Brodie Castle. Some three-and-a-half miles west of Forres, the castle stands in extensive landscaped grounds, which are carpeted with daffodils in spring.
Brodie Castle was built by Clan Brodie in the 16th century. In 1562 the Laird, Alexander Brodie, was involved in a rebellion against Mary, Queen of Scots and his lands were seized by the Crown for a number of years. Today, visitors can wander around the beautiful Z-plan tower house and explore the labyrinthine rooms, with their period furniture and ornaments. The main entrance leads through into the arched entrance hall and winds through to the vaulted guard chamber, a room full of curiosities. Objects on view range from an intricate estate map drawn up in 1770, to the macabre skeleton of a child in a glass-fronted box.
If your tastes are more opulent, explore the library: a large Victorian room clad in American oak. Walk through to the Dining Room: a large, imposing area adorned in French furniture. Find the Red Drawing Room: a hall and gallery dominated by a magnificent wooden fireplace. Finally, explore the Blue Sitting Room: a beautiful vaulted room with deep zaffre walls.
Outside, a 71-hectare estate dominates Forres’ countryside. Children will find a large pond and adventure playground sitting within the grounds, while immaculate walled gardens are sure to impress green-fingered adults. In fact, there is a National Collection of more than 110 plant varieties bred at Brodie Castle.
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Follow the A96 back towards Inverness and pass down onto the A82. For the fifth day of the castle road trip, you are heading to the most famous loch in the world: Loch Ness. Connected at its southern tip by the River Och and extending for 23 miles, Loch Ness is the fabled home of one of Scotland’s greatest exports: Nessie! The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has been debated since the early 1930s and has drastically increased tourism to the region since then. Historians believe, however, that people have inhabited the Loch Ness area since the Iron Age and Pictish times. Castle Urquhart stands on a rocky promontory on the north shore of Loch Ness. It peers out upon Glen More, or The Great Glen: a 60-mile fissure scoured by glaciers during the last ice age. The beauty of the Glen is world-famous and offers a taste of the Highlands at their most dramatic.
The site of the castle is where St Columba is said to have worked miracles in the 6th century. Since it was built 500 years ago as a medieval fortress, Castle Urquhart has seen great conflict. It was regularly passed back and forth between the Scots and English during the Wars of Independence. In the Middle Ages it was raided a number of times by the powerful Lords of the Isles, then blown up during the Jacobite Risings - resulting in the ruins, which are still standing today.
Urquhart resembles an open museum, confronting visitors at every turn. Take in the Grant Tower and photograph eerie shots of mist sprawling over the iconic Loch. Peer into the gloomy prison cell said to have held legendary Gaelic bard Domhnall Donn, and imagine opulent banquets staged in the Great Hall. There is an impressive collection of artefacts left behind by former residents, including the 15th century Urquhart Ewer. There are also historical replicas such as a full-sized, working trebuchet siege engine. There are exciting discovery missions for children and a café for when legs run tired.
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Turn left onto the A82 and continue onto the A87. Weaving along the banks of Loch Cluanie, passing the towering peaks of Sgùrr Fhuaran, you continue your seven-day road trip with a stop at Eilean Donan Castle.
Situated on a picturesque island at the point where three sea lochs meet - Loch Duich, Loch Long and Long Alsh - Eilean Donan nestles into the sleepy village of Dornie. The castle dates back to the 13th century and was once the stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies, the Clan Macrae. In the early 18th century, the castle’s role in the Jacobite risings led to its destruction by Royal Navy ships. Eilean Donan remained in ruins until 1911, when John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the castle and spent 20 years rebuilding the remains.
Eilean Donan Castle has been used as the backdrop for countless blockbusters including The World is Not Enough and The Wicker Man. It is easy to see why, when you walk across the bridge and face the grand heptagonal building which was once the main entrance. This leads through to a funnel-shaped courtyard with imposing upper defences. Explore the Billeting Room and see artefacts from the Macrae family, period furniture and cannonballs fired during the Royal Navy bombardment of 1719. Wander through the Banqueting Hall and note the timber beams hewn from Douglas Fir, tea sets of Liverpool china, duelling pistols and dirks. The castle is a treasure trove of hidden gems.
Visitors can spend days on end roaming the surrounding landscape. Travel a short distance to visit the Brochs of Glenelg (Iron Age roundhouses), wander through the Lochalsh Woodland Garden at Balmacara or scramble up to the Falls of Glomach: one of the highest waterfalls in Britain. From Eilean Donan itself, you can also see the spectacular Cuillin mountain range of Skye and the head of Loch Duich.
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Follow the A87 and amble across the Skye Bridge for spectacular views over Loch Alsh. Continuing for 25 miles down the A851, you will approach the ruin of Dunscaith Castle. While the castle itself might not be much to look at, its profound history and panoramic views make it an essential stop-off point on any visit to Skye. Built on an offshore rock rising 40 feet above sea level, Dunscaith Castle once belonged to the Clan MacDonald of Sleat and was captured by King James I during the 15th century. While the whitewashed interior has deteriorated over the centuries, visitors can still see the courtyard and stairway, which once led up to a tower. Dunscaith Castle is also a good post from which to take striking photographs of Scotland’s rugged coast.
Just 10 miles south-east of Dunscaith Castle is Armadale Castle and Gardens. Set in a stunning 20,000-acre estate in south Skye, this ruined country house once belonged to the traditional lands of Clan Donald, one of the largest Scottish clans. Purchased by the Clan Donald Lands Trust in 1971, Armadale Castle offers visitors breath-taking views across the Sound of Sleat and its grounds are home to wildlife including red deer and golden eagles. Many visitors flock to Armadale Castle to enjoy the serene walking trails. Amble through 40 acres of woodland and find young firs, carpets of bluebells and an elegant collection of birch trees. The garden ponds, cheerful giant daisy flowers and terrace walks offer a tranquil setting for picnics and days out. There is also an award-winning museum situated to the left of Lord Macdonald’s drive: six interconnecting galleries, which tell the history of the Highlands and the story of Clan Donald.