Medieval castles in Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is a historic fortress which dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh from its position on the Castle Rock. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age (2nd century AD), although the nature of the early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal castle on the rock since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a r ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most important castles, both historically and architecturally, in Scotland. The castle is a great symbol of Scottish Independence and a source of enduring national pride. Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it an important fortification from the earliest times. Stirling Castle is a Scheduled Anci ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Stirling, United Kingdom

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle dominates a rocky promontory jutting into Loch Ness. That promontory has hosted some famous names in its long history. Around AD 580 St Columba was making the long journey from his monastery on the island of Iona to the court of Bridei, king of the Picts, at Inverness. As he was passing up Loch Ness, he was called to the residence of an elderly Pictish nobleman at Airdchartdan (Urquhart). Emchath was close ...
Founded: 13th century | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most recognised castles in Scotland. It is, without doubt, a Scottish icon and certainly one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Highlands. When you first set eyes on it, it is easy to understand why so many people flock to its stout doors year after year. Strategically located on its own little island, overlooking the Isle of Skye, at the point where three great sea-lochs meet ...
Founded: c. 1250 | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Bishop's Palace

The Bishop"s Palace, Kirkwall was built at the same time as the adjacent St Magnus Cathedral. It was built for the cathedral"s first bishop, William the Old of the Norwegian Catholic church who took his authority from the Archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim). The ruined structure now looks like a small castle. Originally it is thought to have been like a typical Royal Norwegian Palace, with a large rectangular hal ...
Founded: 12th century | Location: Kirkwall, United Kingdom

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a rocky headland on the north-east coast of Scotland. The surviving buildings are largely of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the site is believed to have been fortified in the Early Middle Ages. Dunnottar has played a prominent role in the history of Scotland through to the 18th-century Jacobite risings because of its strategic location and defensive st ...
Founded: 15th century | Location: Stonehaven, United Kingdom

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar is one of Scotland’s most perfectly preserved castles. It began as a simple tower-house residence. Gradually, over time, it developed into a complex of structures and spaces, as subsequent owners attempted to improve its comfort and amenity. As a result, there are many nooks and crannies to explore. The surrounding gardens and parkland were also important. The present-day Craigmillar Castle Park has fascina ...
Founded: c. 1375-1425 | Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle was the seat of Clan MacLeod chiefs. Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the stronghold of the chiefs of the clan for 800 years. A curtain wall was built round the hill in the 13th century around a former Norse fort which was only accessible through a sea gate. A castle was constructed within the curtain wall by Malcolm MacLeod around 1350. Today Dunvegan c ...
Founded: c. 1350 | Location: Isle of Skye, United Kingdom

Dornoch Castle

Dornoch Castle was built around 1500 as the home of the bishops of Caithness. Bishop Robert Stewart gifted the castle to John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland in 1557. In 1570 the castle was set alight in a feud between the McKays and Murrays. The rebuilding which followed included the addition of the upper part of the tower. The castle decayed during the 18th century, but was restored in 1813–1814 to serve as a scho ...
Founded: c. 1500 | Location: Dornoch, United Kingdom

Cawdor Castle

Cawdor Castle is built around a 15th-century tower house, with substantial additions in later centuries. Originally a property of the Clan Calder, it passed to the Campbells in the 16th century. It remains in Campbell ownership, and is now home to the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor. The castle is perhaps best known for its literary connection to William Shakespeare"s tragedy M ...
Founded: 15th century | Location: Cawdor, United Kingdom

Broughty Castle

Broughty Castle was erected in 1490 by the 2nd Lord Gray, on a charter from James IV, in response to increased English naval activity. It was taken without a shot fired by the English in 1547, and reclaimed by the Scots two and a half years later. The castle fell back into English hands in 1651. In 1860 the threat of French invasion prompted Broughty’s conversion from a ruin to a modern artillery defence. The castle wa ...
Founded: 1490 | Location: Dundee, United Kingdom

Dunrobin Castle

Dunrobin Castle is the most northerly of Scotland's great houses and the largest in the Northern Highlands with 189 rooms. It is also one of Britain's oldest continuously inhabited houses dating back to the early 1300s. Dunrobin Castle has been called home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century and was first mentioned as a stronghold of the family in 1401. The castle stands possibly on the site of an ...
Founded: 13th/19th century | Location: Highland, United Kingdom

Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn Castle is a ruined 15th and 17th century structure on a rocky peninsula at the northeastern end of Loch Awe. It was the ancestral home of the Campbells of Glen Orchy, who later became the Earls of Breadalbane also known as the Breadalbane family branch, of the Clan Campbell. The earliest construction on the castle was the towerhouse and Laich Hall. Kilchurn Castle was built in about 1450 by Sir Colin Campbell, f ...
Founded: c. 1450 | Location: Argyll and Bute, United Kingdom

Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle has the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland. It overlooks the Scottish town of Dumbarton and guards the point where the River Leven joins the River Clyde. Its recorded history reaches back 1,500 years. At that time the place was known as Alt Clut, ‘Rock of the Clyde’. Later it became known by the Gaelic name Dun Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’, from which the ...
Founded: c. 1220 | Location: Dumbarton, United Kingdom

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. It guards the seaward approach from the Firth of Lorn to the Pass of Brander – and thereby the heart of Scotland. The castle was built around 1220, probably by Duncan MacDougall, son of Dubhgall, Lord of Lorn, and grandson of the great Somerled ‘King of the Isles’. These were stirring times in Argyll, because of the remarkable struggle b ...
Founded: c. 1220 | Location: Argyll and Bute, United Kingdom

Rothesay Castle Ruins

Rothesay Castle ruins has been described as one of the most remarkable in Scotland for its long history dating back to the beginning of the 13th century, and its unusual circular plan. The castle comprises a huge curtain wall, strengthened by four round towers, together with a 16th-century forework, the whole surrounded by a broad moat. Built by the Stewart family, it survived Norse attacks to become a royal residence. Th ...
Founded: 13th century | Location: Rothesay, United Kingdom

Newark Castle

Newark Castle is a well-preserved castle sited on the south shore of the estuary of the River Clyde in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde. For centuries this location was used to offload seagoing ships, and led to the growth of Port Glasgow close to the castle on either side and to the south. When dredging techniques made the Clyde navigable as far as Glasgow the port became a shipbuilding centre, and the castle was surrou ...
Founded: 1478 | Location: Port Glasgow, United Kingdom

Inverlochy Castle Ruins

Inverlochy Castle was built around 1280 by the powerful ‘Red’ Comyns, lords of Badenoch and Lochaber, to command the southern end of the Great Glen. The site of two battles, the castle remains largely unchanged since its construction. The moat that surrounded the castle has long gone but the location at the western end of the Great Glen and natural defensive postion against the River Lochy gave Inverlochy cas ...
Founded: c. 1280 | Location: Fort William, United Kingdom

Lochranza Castle

Lochranza Castle dates from the 13th century when it was owned by the MacSweens. In 1262, King Alexander III granted the castle and its lands to Walter Stewart, the Earl of Menteith. It is believed that Robert the Bruce landed at Lochranza in 1306 on his return from Ireland to claim the Scottish throne. By 1371, the castle was the property of Robert II. It is thought that at this time it was used as a royal hunting lodge. ...
Founded: 13th century | Location: Isle of Arran, United Kingdom

Fyvie Castle

The earliest parts of Fyvie Castle date from the 13th century – some sources claim it was built in 1211 by William the Lion. Fyvie was the site of an open-air court held by Robert the Bruce, and Charles I lived there as a child. Following the Battle of Otterburn in 1390, it ceased to be a royal stronghold and instead fell into the possession of five successive families, each of whom added a new tower to the castl ...
Founded: 13th century | Location: Turriff, United Kingdom

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a baroque French château built between 1658-1661 for Nicolas Fouquet. It was made for Marquis de Belle Île, Viscount of Melun and Vaux, the superintendent of finances of Louis XIV, the château was an influential work of architecture in mid-17th century Europe. At Vaux-le-Vicomte, the architect Louis Le Vau, the landscape architect André le Nôtre, and the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun worked together on a large-scale project for the first time. Their collaboration marked the beginning of the 'Louis XIV style' combining architecture, interior design and landscape design. The garden's pronounced visual axis is an example of this style.

To secure the necessary grounds for the elaborate plans for Vaux-le-Vicomte’s garden and castle, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages. The displaced villagers were then employed in the upkeep and maintenance of the gardens. It was said to have employed eighteen thousand workers and cost as much as 16 million livres. The château and its patron became for a short time a focus for fine feasts, literature and arts. The poet La Fontaine and the playwright Molière were among the artists close to Fouquet. At the inauguration of Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Molière play was performed, along with a dinner event organized by François Vatel, and an impressive firework show.

After Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, and his wife exiled, Vaux-le-Vicomte was placed under sequestration. The king seized, confiscated or purchased 120 tapestries, the statues, and all the orange trees from Vaux-le-Vicomte. He then sent the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun) to design what would be a much larger project than Vaux-le-Vicomte, the palace and gardens of Versailles.

The Marshal Villars became the new owner without first seeing the chateau. In 1764, the Marshal's son sold the estate to the Duke of Praslin, whose descendants would maintain the property for over a century. It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the château was the scene of a murder in 1847, when duke Charles de Choiseul-Praslin, killed his wife in her bedroom, but this did not happen at Vaux-le-Vicomte but at the Paris residence of the Duke.

In 1875, after thirty years of neglect, the estate was sold to Alfred Sommier in a public auction. The château was empty, some of the outbuildings had fallen into ruin, and the famous gardens were totally overgrown. The huge task of restoration and refurbishment began under the direction of the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, assisted by the landscape architect Elie Lainé. When Sommier died in 1908, the château and the gardens had recovered their original appearance. His son, Edme Sommier, and his daughter-in-law completed the task. Today, his descendants continue to preserve the château, which remains privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. It is now administered by their three sons Alexandre, Jean-Charles and Ascanio de Vogüé. Recognized by the state as a monument historique, it is open to the public regularly.

Architecture

The chateau is situated near the northern end of a 1.5-km long north-south axis with the entrance front facing north. Its elevations are perfectly symmetrical to either side of this axis. Somewhat surprisingly the interior plan is also nearly completely symmetrical with few differences between the eastern and western halves. The two rooms in the center, the entrance vestibule to the north and the oval salon to the south, were originally an open-air loggia, dividing the chateau into two distinct sections. The interior decoration of these two rooms was therefore more typical of an outdoor setting. Three sets of three arches, those on the entrance front, three more between the vestibule and the salon, and the three leading from the salon to the garden are all aligned and permitted the arriving visitor to see through to the central axis of the garden even before entering the chateau. The exterior arches could be closed with iron gates, and only later were they filled in with glass doors and the interior arches with mirrored doors. Since the loggia divided the building into two halves, there are two symmetrical staircases on either side of it, rather than a single staircase. The rooms in the eastern half of the house were intended for the use of the king, those in the western were for Fouquet. The provision of a suite of rooms for the king was normal practice in aristocratic houses of the time, since the king travelled frequently.

Another surprising feature of the plan is the thickness of the main body of the building (corps de logis), which consists of two rows of rooms running east and west. Traditionally the middle of the corps de logis of French chateaux consisted of a single row of rooms. Double-thick corps de logis had already been used in hôtels particuliers in Paris, including Le Vau's Hôtel Tambonneau, but Vaux was the first chateau to incorporate this change. Even more unusual, the main rooms are all on the ground floor rather than the first floor (the traditional piano nobile). This accounts for the lack of a grand staircase or a gallery, standard elements of most contemporary chateaux. Also noteworthy are corridors in the basement and on the first floor which run the length of house providing privacy to the rooms they access. Up to the middle of the 17th century, corridors were essentially unknown. Another feature of the plan, the four pavilions, one at each corner of the building, is more conventional.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was originally planned to be constructed in brick and stone, but after the mid-century, as the middle classes began to imitate this style, aristocratic circles began using stone exclusively. Rather late in the design process, Fouquet and Le Vau switched to stone, a decision that may have been influenced by the use of stone at François Mansart's Château de Maisons. The service buildings flanking the large avant-cour to the north of the house remained in brick and stone, and other structures preceding them were in rubble-stone and plaster, a social ranking of building materials that would be common in France for a considerable length of time thereafter.

The main chateau is constructed entirely on a moated platform, reached via two bridges, both aligned with the central axis and placed on the north and south sides. The moat is a picturesque holdover from medieval fortified residences, and is again a feature that Le Vau may have borrowed from Maisons. The moat at Vaux may also have been inspired by the previous chateau on the site, which Le Vau's work replaced.

Gardens

The château rises on an elevated platform in the middle of the woods and marks the border between unequal spaces, each treated in a different way. This effect is more distinctive today, as the woodlands are mature, than it was in the seventeenth century when the site had been farmland, and the plantations were new.

Le Nôtre's garden was the dominant structure of the great complex, stretching nearly a mile and a half (3 km), with a balanced composition of water basins and canals contained in stone curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and patterned parterres that remains more coherent than the vast display Le Nôtre was to create at Versailles.

Le Nôtre created a magnificent scene to be viewed from the house, using the laws of perspective. Le Notre used the natural terrain to his advantage. He placed the canal at the lowest part of the complex, thus hiding it from the main perspectival point of view. Past the canal, the garden ascends a large open lawn and ends with the Hercules column added in the 19th century. Shrubberies provided a picture frame to the garden that also served as a stage for royal fêtes.

From the top of the grand staircase, this gives the impression that the entire garden is revealed in one single glance. Initially, the view consists of symmetrical rows of shrubbery, avenues, fountains, statues, flowers and other pieces developed to imitate nature – these elements exemplify the Baroque desire to mold nature to fit its wishes, thus using nature to imitate nature. The centerpiece is a large reflecting pool flanked by grottos holding statues in their many niches. The grand sloping lawn is not visible until one begins to explore the garden, when the viewer is made aware of the optical elements involved and discovers that the garden is much larger than it looks.