The 5 Most Beautiful Castles in Scotland

Scotland has about 3,000 castles, probably more than any other country in Europe. It is the sheer variety in size and purpose of Scotland's castles that impresses visitors. They range from large royal or clan residences and military outposts with hundreds of rooms to fortified homes and tower houses.

These days, many castles lie derelict or in ruins, while others have been turned into castle hotels, museums, wedding locations or concert venues. In many cases, Scotland's castles still serve as people's homes and these activities help raise money to repair and preserve their Scottish heritage.

But the one thing that impressed me most about the castles of Scotland is their backdrop. It's not the Scottish castles themselves that make the lasting impression, but their setting. There are few places on Earth where human engineering comes together with breathtaking scenery, and sometimes hostile conditions, to create what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and romantic landscapes in the world.

My Favorite Five Scottish Castles

I've seen many castles during my Scotland holidays, some in ruins, while others still intact. Here are my favorite 5 castles of Scotland. If you ever go to Scotland, include at least a couple of them in your visit.

1. Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens

Some Scots will argue that Edinburgh Castle, Scotland's number one attraction, should not be in this list at all, other Scottish castles being far more beautiful. I tend to agree, to a point. The worst thing about Edinburgh Castle is the sheer number of visitors which can make your visit frustrating, especially in summer months.

But consider that:

I believe Edinburgh would be boring without Edinburgh Castle. A visit to Scotland, especially for first-time visitors, is hard to contemplate without a visit to Edinburgh Castle.

More photos of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, Tolbooth and the University Dome from Salisbury Crags
Edinburgh Castle and West Princes Street Gardens
View at dusk from Salisbury Crags
The Castle seen from Scott Monument
View from Princes Street Gardens

2. Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn Castle reflected on a frozen Loch Awe

Located on the banks of Loch Awe, on the lower slopes of Ben Cruachan, Kilchurn Castle is of true haunting beauty. It's one of Scotland's most romantic ruins. I've visited it once and went past it twice while on a bus tour. I believe Kilchurn's charm lies in its solitude and often misty atmosphere surrounding it. But in recent years, its solitude has become a real issue to visitors.

The vehicle and pedestrian gates to the level crossing on the route which leads to Kilchurn has been closed by Network Rail in 2003 making Kilchurn Castle accessible only by boat. The issue has recently been resolved making the Campbell castle again accessible to tourists.

There are two excellent viewpoints over Kilchurn Castle: one is from the South shore of Loch Awe, along the road from Dalmally to Inveraray (there is a car park not far after you turn left for Inveraray). The other one is from the North shore, along the road to Oban (the car park from Lochawe Hotel is a good viewpoint, although a bit far away).

More photos of Kilchurn Castle
Kilchurn Castle in a misty morning
Kilchurn Castle from banks of Loch Awe
Kilchurn Castle from banks of Loch Awe
Access to Kilchurn Castle
Kilchurn Castle with Beinn a’Chochuill behind

3. Castle Tioram

A black and white postcard of Castle Tioram

Castle Tioram is one of Scotland's hidden gems. The castle sits on a small island in Loch Moidart, a beautiful sea loch on Scotland's West coast. Tioram is accessible by foot only at low tide, when the sand bank linking the mainland to the island becomes exposed. Access to the shore of Loch Moidart is possible via a narrow, Highland road. The castle itself is poorly sign-posted so it's no wonder that many tourists never get to see it.

If you do get the chance to see it, you may find the castle familiar. The reason is that Tioram featured in the movies Highlander III and Highlander: Endgame. For me personally, seeing Castle Tioram in person was an experience I'll never forget. I had seen clips from Highlander with Loreena McKennitt singing Bonny Portmore on the soundtrack long before I set foot in Scotland, and this castle and Scotland's coastal scenery have haunted me ever since.

The best view of Castle Tioram is from a footpath along the South shore of Loch Moidart or from Dorlinn Cliff for the more adventurous.

More photos of Castle Tioram
Castle Tioram seen at low tide
Castle Tioram's ruins
Castle Tioram sit on its small isle
Castle Tioram's reflections on Lock Moidart
Castle Tioram framed

4. Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan from banks of Loch Duich

Many people will wonder why Eilean Donan Castle is not higher in my favorite 5 castles. Eilean Donan is one of the best known Scottish castles thanks to its picturesque setting and location. This makes it, inevitably, a tourist trap.

Located on the shores of Loch Duich and not far from Kyle of Lochalsh and the bridge linking mainland Scotland with the Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan Castle is only a quick stop for most tourists on their way to Skye, Lochcarron or Western Ross. This means that the sheer number of snaps available everywhere is mind-numbing, and tiresome.

However, there's no denying. Eilean Donan is a beautiful castle with a gorgeous backdrop to come out to after the narrow Glen Shiel (where you find the Five Sisters of Kintail). There are several viewpoints which are popular. One is looking down from the narrow road linking Dornie to Keppoch while the other is from the bridge crossing Loch Long or from the Ardelve Hotel, on the other side of the bridge.

More photos of Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan from banks of Loch Duich
Eilean Donan from banks of Loch Duich
Eilean Donan Castle at Dusk
Eilean Donan Castle Bridge
Eilean Castle with the Isle of Skye in the background

5. Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle from the West

I often think of Stirling Castle as an Edinburgh Castle that's not overrun with tourists. The castle sits on a high volcanic rock and is a magnificent fortress. An important military outpost over the centuries, Stirling certainly appears to be much larger than Edinburgh Castle which makes exploring it great fun for a family day out.

I've visited Stirling Castle four times now and my favorite spots are the outer defenses and French Spur, with its cannons looking over the Old Stirling Bridge and towards the Wallace Monument. On a clear day you can also see the Highlands in the distance.

A good vantage point is King's Knot, just west of Stirling Castle, which is why many bus tours make quick photo-taking stops in the car park nearby. Another good vantage point of Stirling Castle is from the Wallace Monument itself, on the other side of Stirling.

More photos of Stirling Castle
Wallace Monument and Robert the Bruce statue
The Forework Gatehouse
Stirling Castle from the South
Stirling Castle from King's Knot
King's Knot from Stirling Castle

Other Scottish Castles Worth Visiting

My favorite 5 castles of Scotland could not include these next castles, which are just as stunning and definitely worth a visit: Stalker Castle - set on an islet in Loch Laich, it's reachable only by boat; Tantallon Castle - now in ruins, Tantallon overlooks the Bass Rock on Scotland's East coast near North Berwick; Dunnottar Castle - an impregnable fortress built on a flat-topped rock with sheer cliffs on three sides; Duart Castle - a local landmark and sign for passengers on the Oban ferry that they've nearly reached the Isle of Mull.

If imposing castles, designed not for defense but for luxury accommodation, are more to your taste then I recommend Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland; Floors Castle, Borders; Culzean Castle, Ayrshire; Glamis Castle, Angus; Blair Atholl Castle, Perthshire.