castle road trips in Scotland
Use Edinburgh as a base for a three-day castle road trip and watch history and cultural collide. During this trip, we see where prisoners were held during medieval times, explore secret crypts and walk in the footsteps of Scotland’s most rapacious rulers. What are you waiting for?
What better way to start a three-day road trip than in the hilly capital of Edinburgh? Located in the Eastern Lowlands of Scotland, Edinburgh is a melting pot of culture, art, sport and, of course, comedy. The landscape is distinctive: the city is draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the North Sea, with a medley of medieval tenements and cosmopolitan bars in its centre. You could spend three days just exploring Edinburgh’s historic monuments, cathedrals, museums and gardens, but one imposing structure deserves your attention: Edinburgh Castle.
Built on the remains of a volcanic crag, Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s skyline. It stands at the head of the Old Town and has done for 800 years, commanding panoramic views of Arthur’s Seat, Carlton Hill and Salisbury Craggs.
Wander up the Royal Mile to the Castle’s Esplanade, an area regularly transformed into a unique concert venue, and enter the fortress. The ancient portcullis at Argyle Tower welcomes visitors, with the Lion Rampant - the Royal Flag of Scotland – flying overhead. Walk the cobbled paths, pass through Foog’s Gate and discover St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh, which dates back to the 12th century. King David I built this private chapel, which formed part of a larger building containing the royal lodgings.
Every day, visitors gather to watch the daily firing of the One O’Clock Gun, from Mills Mount Battery. The most popular area of the castle is the Royal Palace. Located on the east side of Crown Square, the Palace was remodelled to become a resident for the Stuart monarchs. It houses the crown jewels of Scotland - the crown, sceptre and sword of state – along with the small room where James VI of Scotland (later James I of England and Ireland) was born. In the Royal Palace you will also find the sacred Stone of Destiny, taken and built into the English throne in 1296, and returned to Scotland in 1996.
To the north of Edinburgh Castle’s walls, visitors will find Princes Street Gardens. Prior to the 18th century, this land was a manmade bog known as Nor’ Loch. It was used as a defence for the castle, before being drained in 1759.
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For your next stop, head 8 miles south via Old Dalkeith Road. Travelling away from the city centre, we cross The City of Edinburgh Bypass and approach the village of Newbattle. Standing at 150-feet above sea-level, to the right of the river South Esk, this low-lying hamlet is home to an architectural masterpiece: Newbattle Abbey.
Surrounded by 125 acres of grassy parkland, Newbattle Abbey is built on the site of a medieval Cistercian Abbey. Founded in 1140 during the reign of King David I it has links to Mary, Queen of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (a 14th century letter to the Pope, making the case for Scottish independence). It even has a treasure chest, believed to have come from a captured ship of the Spanish Armada.
Today, Newbattle Abbey opens its doors to budding historians and families alike. Book yourself onto one of the Abbey’s legendary tours and marvel at the intricate artwork in the chapel. Explore the crypt and relax in the library. Tour guides give an exciting account of the building’s enigmatic past, from the evolution of its architecture to the families who once lived there. There is even the opportunity to dine like royalty in the grand drawing room. Beyond the walls, the sights are just as impressive. Why not bring a bike and pedal through Lord Ancrum’s Wood, or stop off in the Italian Garden?
Before travelling north of Edinburgh, it is worth heading back towards the city for a whistle-stop tour of Hopetoun House. Dating back to the 1600s, Hopetoun House is often referred to as “Scotland’s finest stately home.” Designed by William Bruce and later altered by William Adam, the rooms are hung with elegant Georgian art and furnished with beautifully-crafted period pieces. Rich tapestries adorn carved walls while, outside, wildlife abounds in the Spring Garden. For those who want to explore this enchanting structure further – and you probably will – it’s worth joining the House Guide at 2 pm for an extensive tour of the grounds.
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Head six miles north along the M9, to Blackness Castle and see where prisoners were held during medieval times. The castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1650, and was later used to hold French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. More recently this 15th century fortress has featured in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990).
Alternatively, continue driving up the M9 and head straight to our next destination: Stirling Castle.
Sat atop an extinct volcano, above the River Forth, Stirling Castle was once a favourite royal residence. Today it remains one of Scotland’s largest and most significant castles.
Enter the Royal Palace of James V and view the King and Queen’s apartments. See the famous Stirling Heads: metre-wide oak medallions from the 15th century, carved with the likenesses of royals, emperors, classical heroes and Bible characters. Meet costumed characters from the 16th century. Wander through the Chapel Royal, built by James VI for the baptism of his son, Henry, and peep at the fascinating displays at the Regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Meanwhile the kitchens have been reconstructed to show how cooks used to serve a royal feast.
Children can dart around in the Palace Vaults, where there are fun exhibitions designed for younger visitors. In the Queen Anne Gardens, they can meet costumed characters roaming the grounds. Older visitors may prefer to take in the spectacular views of the Wallace Monument from the rooftop patio of the castle’s Unicorn Café.
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(*Including taxes and fees)