Dunnottar Castle's dramatic backdrop (photo: Kenny Lam/Visit Scotland)

Castle Hopping in Scotland

By Lara Zarum

In Scotland, history isn’t some far-off notion reserved for schoolbooks—it’s something you inhabit with every step you take, especially when you step into one of the country’s countless castles.

When the Normans conquered England in the 11th century, Scotland’s King David I invited them to settle on Scottish land. They did—and they brought their castle-building techniques with them. It’s estimated that thousands of castles were built here over the next few hundred years. More than a thousand are still standing today as picturesque ruins, hostels and luxury hotels, or fully functioning places of residence.

Begin castle hopping in Scotland in its capital city, Edinburgh. Then wind your way through six different Highland districts—a.k.a. “council areas”—and end your tour in Glasgow, the country’s largest metropolis.

You could easily spend the whole day wandering the corridors of Edinburgh Castle, the most visited paid tourist attraction in Scotland. Perched high atop a 350-million-year-old volcanic crag, the castle occupies a huge tract of land. It includes St. Margaret’s Chapel—built around 1130 and considered the oldest building in the city—and Scotland’s National War Museum and the Crown Room, which houses the Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the Honours of Scotland.

Pack a lunch and hike up Arthur’s Seat, a 250-metre-high hill right in the centre of the city. Formed by an extinct volcano, it’s a gentle climb and leads to a panoramic view of Edinburgh. If you prefer to go the cultured route, visit the Scottish National Gallery or the National Museum of Scotland, both of which offer free admission.

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You’ll be visiting small Highland towns for the next few days, where traditional Scottish food reigns. So in the city, try Mother India’s Café, a tapas-style Indian restaurant nestled in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Dine on juicy chili king prawns and creamy chana dal. In the morning, fuel up with a rich cappuccino or an iced latte from Black Medicine, arguably the city’s best coffee shop. Then, set off bright and early for your first true day of castle hopping.

Your first stop should be Doune Castle near Stirling, once the home of Robert Stewart, the first Duke of Albany, who ruled Scotland from 1388 until his death in 1420. Located on the banks of the River Teith—which was historically a natural boundary between the Highlands and Lowlands—the ruined castle makes a cameo in Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem Lady of the Lake, in which he writes of “the bannered towers of Doune.”

Glamis Castle in nearby Angus is a far cry from the rugged ruins of Doune. Home to the Lyon family since the 14th century, Glamis in its present state largely dates from the 17th and 18th centuries—by Scottish standards, it’s positively contemporary. Aside from an ornately furnished interior, Glamis is distinguished by its immaculately manicured gardens.

In Aberdeenshire—which boasts more castles per hectare than any other area in the U.K.—Dunnottar Castle is a ruined fortress perched on a steep cliff overlooking the North Sea.

Stop off at Gloagburn Farm Shop, between Doune and Glamis castles. Owned and run by third-generation farmers, Gloagburn offers breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea service. Nibble on smoked ham or farmhouse cheddar sandwiches made with homemade bread, or go full Scottish with the traditional afternoon tea.

Dunnottar Castle is a short drive from the chic Tolbooth Seafood Restaurant, nestled on a scenic harbour in a 16th-century building in the town of Stonehaven. Try Scotland’s famed salmon, poached in a lemon-vegetable broth and served with shaved fennel and saffron potato salad.

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A whisky barrel at the Glenlivet Distillery; Loch Fyne restaurant near Inveraray Castle

Cawdor Castle as it stands today was built in the late 14th century. Though the name suggests a connection to Shakespeare’s Macbeth—the title character was named Thane of Cawdor before becoming king—the real Macbeth never lived there. It still belongs to the Cawdor family, who are probably fed up with Macbeth questions by now: The 5th Earl of Cawdor once famously said, “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!”

From Cawdor Castle it’s a 15-minute drive to the most historically significant site in the Highlands: Culloden Battlefield. In 1746, Culloden was the site of a bloody battle between British troops and the Highland clansmen of the Jacobite army. Outnumbered, the Jacobites lost, and the British enacted laws—including a ban on tartan—to integrate Scotland with the rest of the kingdom. Today, Culloden stands as a monument to the end of an era for Highland clan culture.

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You can’t visit the Highlands without touring a whisky distillery—there are nearly 100 active malt distilleries in Scotland. The Glenlivet Distillery is en route to Cawdor Castle from Stonehaven, and you can enjoy a free guided tour. Top off your tour with a complimentary taste of the golden nectar.

From there, head to Inverness, considered the capital of the Highlands, for a night of dancing at Hootananny. The tavern features live music and a menu of Scottish fare like cullen skink—a smoky soup of haddock and potatoes in a white-wine-and-cream broth. If you’re feeling brave, try classic haggis, neeps and tatties—a minced-meat dish made with sheep or lamb lungs, onions, oats and seasoning, served with mashed turnips and potatoes.

Eilean Donan Castle is often described as the most photographed castle in Scotland. Located on its own little island (Eilean Donan means “island of Donan”), the castle lay in ruins for hundreds of years before being rebuilt in the early 20th century. Today, it’s a popular spot for weddings.

Treat yourself to a stay in the luxurious Inverlochy Castle Hotel. A 19th-century Gothic Revival mansion, the building has been operating as a hotel since 1969. The ornately furnished bedrooms overlook the magnificent castle grounds and striking mountains in the distance. Pack your Sunday best: gentlemen still require jackets to dine in the castle’s upscale restaurant.

The village of Drumnadrochit, near Inverness, is known as the centre of the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon. Visit “Nessieland,” a charmingly corny exhibition dedicated to the mystery, or enjoy a scenic cruise through the dark waters of Loch Ness.

Drumnadrochit is also home to the quaint 300-year-old Benleva Hotel Pub, where you can fuel up on roast pork loin, the curry of the day or fresh pizza with house-made tomato sauce.

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Evening falls on Eilean Donan Castle (photo: Kenny Lam/Visit Scotland)

Inveraray Castle is home to the 13th Duke of Argyll, who lives on the 26,000-hectare estate with his wife and three children. The castle opens to the public from late March through October. Aside from offering tours of the mansion and gardens, the castle hosts regular summertime events—notably the Inveraray Highland Games in July, which features sporting events, Highland dancing and, of course, plenty of bagpipes.

There’s no better place to bid farewell to the Highlands than Glen Coe, a spectacularly beautiful U-shaped valley (glen is derived from the Gaelic gleann, meaning valley). And this is Scotland we’re talking about, so the beauty of the valley is inevitably marred by its bloody history: Glen Coe is the site of a 1692 Scot-on-Scot massacre that left 38 members of Clan MacDonald dead at the hands of the Campbells.

Stop off at Loch Fyne Restaurant & Oyster Bar, a quick 15-minute drive east of Inveraray Castle. Enjoy fresh oysters, as well as scallops, crab, lobster, and fresh or smoked salmon, dry-cured on the premises.

Put rural Scotland in your rearview mirror by heading to Glasgow, a bustling city full of galleries, shops, restaurants and plenty of pubs. As the sun sets on your adventure, order a pint and toast the country’s long history—sometimes tragic, often bloody, but never dull.