Along with tartan, bagpipes and thistles, castles represent one of the most iconic symbols of Scotland. The Scottish landscape is dotted with castles at almost every turn. In fact there are more than 1,500 castles in Scotland with their architecture and styles reflecting the country’s history. Many lie in ruins while many others continue to be used as homes or as castle stays in Scotland.
Here, we take a look at the history of castles in Scotland and their styles through the ages.
Although the Scots have been building castles since the Iron Age, the first castles proper appeared in the 1100s. With the introduction of feudalism under the Normans came the need for fortified buildings. Generally simple in structure and construction, most castles in Scotland in this period were little more than a motte and bailey.
A mound (motte) was topped with a tower, usually in wood with an enclosed courtyard (bailey) for living quarters. The low cost and speed of construction of this kind of castle meant they quickly went up all over the country.
Best examples of early Scottish castles
Few castles from the 12th and 13th centuries survive. One of the best examples of a motte and bailey castle is Bass of Inverurie, built between 1152 and 1219. The original mound now lies in a graveyard where you can also see some Pictish standing stones.
The oldest castle stays in Scotland
Bring out your inner Game of Thrones fan at this medieval castle with a ton of original features including turnpike stairs and stone flagon floors plus four-poster beds.
The need for stronger defences led to a change in materials for castles in Scotland in the 14th and 15th centuries. Stone replaced wood and structures became tall towers. Around 800 tower houses built in the country during this period had thick stone walls and a wooden stairway inside up to the first floor that could be quickly dismantled in case of attack. Some tower houses included battlements so that those inside the castle could shoot attackers or douse them in water or fire at close quarters.
In the 1430s, a line of watchtowers in the form of tower houses marked the Borders area. They included a beacon on the roof to warn of attack and served as a refuge for local inhabitants while the incursion lasted.
Best examples of tower houses
Threave Castle near Dumfries is an excellent example of a classic Scottish tower house. Other fine structures that are still standing include Tantallon in East Lothian, opposite Bass Rock. This Scottish castle has one of the last medieval curtain walls built in the country. If you’re interested in how castles dealt with artillery defence, take a look at Ravenscraig Castle, near Kirkcaldy and built in 1460.
Inspirational tower houses
We have several fine tower houses on our books and all make great castle stays in Scotland. Here’s just one example – take a look at this impressive fortress in Aberdeenshire.
From defence to status symbol
Stone walls might be thick but they were easily battered by new weaponry in the form of canons and guns. Fighting also shifted away from siege and castle-taking to battle fields so the purpose of castles began to move from defence posts to more practical uses. Scottish lords built new castles or adapted old ones as administrative centres. Within the castle walls, courts dispensed justice, prisoners awaited trial and troops had their barracks.
At this stage in history, Scottish castles also acquired symbolic status, representing wealth and power for their owners. Design replaced battlements with turrets, partly for lookout purposes but mostly for show and decoration. Tower houses received additional wings giving them a characteristic E, L or T-shape. The birth of the much, much grander Scottish castle had arrived.
Fine examples of great location
Defensive castles were first and foremost about location and Scotland certainly has some great places for building fortresses that are difficult to get to. Edinburgh Castle perches high above the city on sheer volcanic rockfaces. Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven, takes inaccessibility to a whole new level with its clifftop position on a headland reached by a narrow walkway.
Great locations for castle stays in Scotland
Many of our self-catering holiday homes in Scotland are castles and all lie in amazing locations. Discover our prime spots and then pick your stay in a castle.
The birth of the Renaissance castle
Once Scottish castles were no longer bastions of defence it was only a matter of time before they became palatial. The practice of remodelling castles into palaces had its heyday during the reign of James V in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His architects took examples of classic symmetry in French and Italian Renaissance trends and applied them to Scottish castles.
Best Renaissance castles in Scotland
Perhaps the most famous example of conversion from plain stone castle into royal castle comes at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Nearby Linlithgow Palace, now in ruins but still very regal, also illustrates Scottish Renaissance style as does Crichton Castle in Mid-Lothian.
Stay in a Scottish castle palace
Combine the traditions of a castle with the opulence of a palace at this magnificent large holiday home on the Scottish Borders. Book your right royal stay now.
A recipe for success
Hot on the heels of the Renaissance movement in castles in Scotland came the Baronial style. Brought in from the 1560s onwards, its main champion was the King’s mason William Wallace who took traditional Scot fortification architecture and added a dash of Flemish influence and a dose of the Renaissance trend. The result was the so-called Z-plan castles whose modifications meant they transformed from garrison buildings into comfortable homes.
By the 17th century, peace between England and Scotland meant there was no longer any real use for a defensive castle so construction declined until the end of the 18th century. Nobles began to set their sights on luxury homes in Scotland. As a result, many old castles were restored in keeping with their new high-end status, receiving bigger windows, grander entrances and a ton of embellishments. Scotland’s finest Georgian castles date from this period.
Examples of original Baronial-style castles
If you want to see a Z-plan castle, make a visit to Claypotts Castle near Dundee. For traditional Baronial style, it doesn’t come much finer than at Caerlaverock Castle and Drumlanrig Castle, both in Dumfries.
Enjoy an eclectic stay in a castle
Few Scottish castles showcase quite as many styles as this one. Built in the 14th century, this lovely castle to rent combines historical with modern to perfection – who knew stone nooks and crannies would make such great homes for artwork? Book your classy castle stay now.
From castle to shooting lodge
The Victorians also left their architectural stamp on the Scottish castle landscape. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert reportedly fell in love with the Highlands when they visited in 1842. Their chosen pied-à-terre Balmoral was extensively remodified in Victoria style and built fit for a Queen.
The monarch’s summer visits prompted nobles and courtiers to seek out their own castles in Scotland. The lack of suitable candidates led to a surge in the construction of Balmoral-style shooting lodges, known by their owners as castles. Many chose the Baronial style for their residences and several Scottish castles underwent major renovation work to bring them up to date with the latest trends.
Floors Castle in Roxburghshire is one of the best examples of the second round of Baronial style. Built originally in the 1720s, the castle had extensive embellishment in the 19th century. The result? A fairytale façade of turrets and cupolas. And did you know that Windsor Castle also has a touch of Scottish Baronial?
Baronial castle stays in Scotland
Discover just what Baronial means for a holiday home. Check out this magnificent 18th century castle, fit for a King, Queen and all your courtiers.
Castles in Scotland today
With such diverse history and usage, Scottish castles today range from ruins and visitor attractions to palatial residences and large group accommodation. We specialise in the latter and ensuring you and your group have as grand and stately an experience as possible!
Read our other articles about Scottish castles:
- Scottish castles with royals connections
- A Game of Thrones wedding at Wardhill Castle
- Where to stay in a Scottish castle
- Fascinating facts about royal castles & palaces
- 10 of the best Scottish castles to rent
- Scottish castles in “Outlander”
- Halloween & haunted castles
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