castle road trips in Scotland
With its stunning coastline, picturesque fishing villages and rolling hills, Aberdeenshire is the perfect place to embark on a five-day castle road trip.
We begin our journey at Cairngorms National Park: the UK’s largest National Park. This beautiful park, with its woods and waterfalls, has everything from distilleries and family attractions to water sports and wildlife watchers. It is also home to our first stop, Braemar Castle.
Built in 1628 by the second Earl of Mar, John Erskine, the L-shaped tower commands panoramic views of the River Dee. The castle is believed to have replaced a much older royal castle, Kindrochit, which was built in the 11th century.
Today, Braemar is the only castle in Scotland run by the local community. An ambitious restoration project was launched in 2008. Please note that access to Braemar Castle is via a steep stone staircase, which is not suitable for those with mobility issues.
Wander up the magnificent spiral staircase and explore 12 furnished rooms, all adorned in period styles. There is also an audio guide available, so visitors can learn about the rich history that confronts them at every turn. A child-friendly Jacobite exhibition includes artefacts and costumes. Make sure to take a peek into the Laird’s Pit: a small, unventilated prison into which local offenders were thrown.
Beware: Braemar Castle is believed to be haunted by a number of ghosts, including the spectre of a bride who threw herself from one of the turrets in despair. Today her ghost is said to appear to visitors – but only newlyweds.
Beyond the castle walls, visitors will find climbing, cycling and walking routes that weave through the countryside. Look out for red deer, red squirrels, golden eagles and the western capercaillie (wood grouse), which lives in the local woods.
The next stop on your road trip takes you 22 miles north-east of Braemar Castle, to the tranquil hamlet of Corgarff. Nearly 500 years old, Corgarff Castle is a fine medieval tower fit for exploring. Sat at the head of remote Strathdon, visitors are greeted with a patchwork quilt of green as they approach the castle’s ordinary-looking façade. However it is the star-shaped perimeter wall, equipped with musket loops, which gives Corgarff its unique appearance. Rolling hills form its backdrop.
Originally a noble residence, Corgarff was home to the Marquis of Montrose. The original structure was set ablaze by Jacobites in 1689 and 1690, in attempts to prevent its use by government forces. Later, Corgarff Castle became an army base until 1831. Visit the reconstructed barrack rooms to imagine being stationed here as a Redcoat, hunting down Jacobite sympathisers.
Around 57 miles north-east of Corgarff is the stunning Fyvie Castle. This 13th-century stronghold is home to a superb collection of weapons, armour and paintings, including works by Raeburn and Gainsborough. It also boasts sumptuous Edwardian interiors. Royal guests have ranged from Robert the Bruce to Charles I.
Fyvie Castle is steeped in myth, folklore and legend. Locals believe that ghosts roam the banks of the picturesque loch; meanwhile there is said to be a secret room in the castle, sealed lest anyone entering the chamber meets with disaster.
When the weather is tame, Fyvie Castle is a perfect spot for memorable photo opportunities.
Make your way towards the west coast of Aberdeenshire, past the town of Inverurie. The third day of your trip begins around 17 miles north of Aberdeen, at Tolquhon Castle. Tolquhon (pronounced “toh-hon”) could be a ruined fortress from a fairy-tale. Set in the grand Grampian countryside, this 16th-century castle has imposing medieval walls. These wrap round a 15th-century tower house, while delicately inscribed panels adorn the entry to the drum-towered gatehouse. As you pass through the castle, look out for the carved effigies that sit either side.
In 1584, Sir William Forbes embarked on a remarkable program to rebuild Tolquhon. Within five years he had transformed the structure from a fortified tower house to a palatial residence. Explore the family rooms and go “below stairs” in the charming main house at the far end of the courtyard. The first floor was once home to a large turnpike staircase, several painted ceilings and beams decorated with religious texts, but these were lost over recent centuries. Visit the large moulded fireplace and explore the secret chamber – probably used for storing the laird’s important documents - built onto the upper chamber. Children will have fun touching the gun-loops pierced into the gatehouse façade, and finding holes that once housed wooden beehives called “skeps.”
As with so many castles in Scotland, supernatural spottings are rife. There are said to be mysterious groaning sounds and a White Lady, who has apparently been seen wandering through the ruins at midnight. Alternatively, travel five miles up the B999 and visit Haddo House: a sumptuous stately home located near Tarves.
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Head south on the B993 for 9 miles, through the village of Kemnay. This picturesque route takes in the best of Aberdeenshire’s peaceful farmland and carries you to your next castle, Castle Fraser. One of the grandest baronial tower houses in the country, its rugged grounds and manicured gardens stretch across a 300-acre site. The castle itself was built in the 16th century to a Z-plan design, and was the home of the Frasers of Muchalls.
Today, Castle Fraser is owned by the National Trust for Scotland but retains its roots as a family home, filled with portraits and period furniture. Browse extensive collections of art, see finely-crafted Victorian carpets and even stumble across Charles Mackenzie Fraser’s wooden leg!
Wander through the Great Hall and make your way into the library: a treasure trove of family books. Here you will also find a Worked Room, featuring 18th-century embroideries.
Head outside and take one of two leafy trails, both of which weave through extensive parkland, historic walled gardens and woodland, giving views of the much-loved Bennachie range of hills.
Just 15 miles west of Castle Fraser is another fine example of Scottish Baronial architecture, Craigievar Castle. Located six miles south of Alford, Craigievar’s blush pink exterior and high turrets give it a fairytale appearance. Its extensive parkland flows effortlessly into the surrounding countryside. Craigievar Castle was completed in 1626 by the merchant William Forbes, whose family and descendants continued to live in the castle for 350 years. Today, Craigievar Castle houses a fine collection of Jacobean woodwork, art and furniture.
In accordance with the Forbes family wishes, electric lighting has never been installed at the castle. Sunny afternoons are the perfect time to explore the castle and, as autumn draws in, the low angle of the afternoon sun illuminates the portraits on the castle walls. Craigievar Castle is closed in the winter, but walking trails in the castle grounds remain open.
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We couldn’t create a road trip around Aberdeenshire without featuring one of the most famous castles in the world: Balmoral. The Scottish home of the Royal Family, it was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852. Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, a mourning Victoria shut herself away in Balmoral, with “faithful servant” John Brown as her closest confidant.
Queen Victoria once described Balmoral as “my dear paradise in the Highlands,” and it’s easy to see why. The estate comprises 50,000 acres of heather clad hills and ancient woodland with Lochnagar, one of Scotland’s most famous mountains, dominating the horizon. While much of Balmoral’s interior is closed to the public, visitors are permitted to explore the Castle Ballroom, which is the largest room in the castle. There, visitors will find an exhibition of paintings, sculptures and artefacts. The Castle Ballroom is also used by the Royal Family to host two big dances known as the Ghillies’ Ball.
Amble across the charming gardens devised by Queen Mary in the 1920s and pass glasshouses, fountains and colourful wildflowers. Look for the stone cottage nestled into the west flank of the estate, where Queen Victoria sometimes used to take breakfast. There is also an audio tour that gives an insight into the workings of the estate, bringing to life former residents such as Prince Albert, the Tsar of Russia and the staff who have helped maintain the property for centuries. If you are in search of an even more immersive Balmoral experience, a luxury land rover safari is available.
Want to enjoy the picturesque estate late into the evening? Book a night’s stay in one of the on-site holiday cottages.