Fierce chainmail-clad warriors, epic battles of the north and stalwart stone fortresses.
These are the images I had in my head as I planned my road trip around Scotland, all the while remaining keenly aware that imagination rarely informs reality. However, not only were these images of the history of Scotland accurate, the sites I saw exceeded my expectations completely!
From huge castle complexes perched on top of unreachable rocky outcrops, rolling green hills visible from centuries-old battlements and all the Anglo-Saxon history you could want, Scotland has it all. Get lost in a maze of passageways and turret walls; peek down into long forgotten dungeons and gaze out over moss-covered walls. Close your eyes and imagine the plight of the attackers, the vigour and resolve of the defenders and the way the courses of world history were changed at these very spots. Here are just a few of the historic castles I explored during my travels.
Admission £16.50; Allow approximately five hours
Towering over the streets of Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most iconic fortresses – Edinburgh Castle. Sitting on the aptly named Castle Rock, the site has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age, and has featured throughout Scottish history. Attacked and laid siege to 26 times in it’s 1100 year history (most notably during the Scottish Wars of Independence), the site has become the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked fortifications in the world. Entering through the Portcullis Gate, the sheer size of the fortification becomes apparent – this was in impregnable stronghold that not even the strongest artillery and siege weapons of the days could conquer. Grab an audio tour and prepare to wade through centuries of bloody battles, bids for the throne and heroic defenders.
A bustling tourist attraction of course, it was the historical importance of the site to the Scottish national identity that made this a must-visit place for me while in Edinburgh. Amongst the ruined fortifications and parapets I could feel the weight of the years of history, the fates that the site shaped, the blood that was split defending the Scottish lands. The battlements, portcullis and stone walls strongly suggested the impervious defences the castle provided in ages past, while the chapels, rooms and gate houses provide ample space for collections of Scottish artefacts, regalia and historical art.
Check out the Honours of Scotland, the Royal Crown Jewels of Scotland, lost and hidden over the centuries but now guarded in the Crown Room. Adorned with restored medieval cannons, armour and weapons, and offering panoramic vistas over the city, the castle allowed a unique chance to step back into the past and into some of the bloodiest and fiercely fought battles in Britain’s history. Make sure you explore the dark and dank dungeons, and read the fascinating story of Mons Meg, one of the largest cannons in the world, still on display atop the castle walls. Enjoy the famous time signalling One o’clock gun firing daily, begun in 1861 to assist sailers in setting their maritime clocks with its loud audible shot.
Admission £14.50; Allow approximately three hours
About an hour drive north-west of Edinburgh was the next castle on my whirlwind tour of historical sites. Established around the 12th Century, Stirling Castle played a pivotal role in defending the south of Scotland from invasions from the northern Highlands and was besieged at least eight times. It was said of Stirling Castle’s strategic position on the River Forth that “If you held the castle, you held the crossing. If you held the river, you could hold the realm” – the control of the fortress was critical in defending the Scottish lands during invasions and uprisings.
Never was this important strategic position more apparent than in 1298, when the English attacked Stirling, the last remaining Scottish stronghold left standing after the Army ravaged the lands. The castle was besieged and the defenders held the attackers for six long years. It wasn’t until Edward I of England built the biggest trebuchet ever constructed that the defences of the castle crumbled and the English stormed the gates. The castle was held by the English for the next ten years. Then the Scots. Then the English. Stirling Castle changed hands often during the proceeding centuries – the importance of the stronghold was known by both the Scots and the English.
The fortification has been the scene of the crowning of several Scottish Kings and Queens, the most well-known of whom was Mary, Queen of Scots. She spent much time at the castle, raising her son, James VI in the houses of Stirling. James would later go on to become James I, King of England, after he unified the Scottish and English crowns in 1603. The unicorn, seen above on a tapestry from the Queen’s Chamber within the castle, was a symbol of Stirling throughout the centuries. Make sure to look up in the Queen’s Chamber for the dazzling portraits on the roof.
Admission £8.50; Allow approximately three hours
Majestically located on the shores of the idyllic Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is one of the most important historical fortifications in the Scottish Highlands and only a short, scenic half hour drive from Inverness. Defended by a ditch and drawbridge, the ruins of the castle have become one of the most visited sites in Scotland. The largest surviving buildings include the Grant Tower at the North end of the fortress – climb the stairs for an amazing view out over the Loch.
Originally built to serve as a fortification in the northern Highlands, the castle was used in the Wars of Independence before being granted to Clan Grant. The Jacobite Rebellion in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries saw the fortification destroyed, most notably the Gatehouse, which was blown up to prevent the invading rebels from using the fortress. Laying in ruins until conservation and heritage work began in the 20th Century, extensive excavations have revealed a thriving community guarding the Great Glen and one of the largest castles in Scotland.
Today the site, mysterious and still, adds a sense of charm and serenity to the shores of the famous Loch. Spend some time exploring the different ruins on the site, including a the foundations of a stable, docks, blacksmith workshop and kitchen – then gaze out into the glassy lake and imagine what the bustling complex would have been like 400 years ago (and try and spot the elusive Loch Ness Monster!). Watch the documentary in the visitors centre cinema, and enjoy the spectacularly creative reveal at the end!
Eilean Donan Castle
Admission £7.00; Allow approximately two hours
Eilean Donan Castle sits on a small island at the confluence of three Lochs; Loch Dutch, Loch Long and Loch Alsh. The historical 13th Century stronghold of Clan Mackenzie, the picturesque castle and its scenery are a welcomed stop on the road between Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
The details of the original defences of the castle have been lost, but what little information remains suggests a courtyard surrounded towers and a sea-gate giving access to the Lochs. Drawings suggest three metre think keep walls topped by turrets and a heavily defended bastion entrance.
For more information on these castles and a full list of historical sites in Scotland (and there are heaps!), check out http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/index.htm.