Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that all castles in Scotland are the same. It is rich in ancient strongholds, and each one is delightfully unique. Here are three of my favourite…
When you climb up one of the dark, narrow staircases of Tantallon Castle and emerge into the daylight at the top, you’re quite likely to be speechless – partly from spiralling around in the rather claustrophobic stairwell, and partly because the wind immediately snatches your breath away, along with any words of surprise.
As you gaze out across the Firth of Forth, its slaty blueness punctuated by the rounded lump of Bass Rock with its spindrift of wheeling gannets, it feels a little bit as if you’re flying. Or are you just dizzy? This is definitely not the best time to look down.
In the 14th century, Tantallon Castle in East Lothian was the seat of the ‘Red Douglases,’ a junior branch of the Douglas line. The Douglas Tower, originally seven storeys high, was the private lodging of the Earl and his lady, while the central tower was originally defended by a portcullis and drawbridge. Inside the great hall, guests enjoyed lavish banquets and listened to the music of minstrels in the gallery above. For centuries, the owners of Tantallon played a colourful part in Scottish history. Archibald, the 5th Earl, rebelled against James III, and later his two sons died alongside James IV on Flodden Field.
With an acquisitive eye on the Scottish throne, the 6th Earl imprisoned the young James V in Edinburgh for two and a half years. It’s fair to say that the Douglases liked to live dangerously.
From the visitor’s point of view, Tantallon is an absolute delight. There are layers of history preserved in the architecture, and those massive walls conceal a labyrinth of dark corridors in which to lose yourself. As you gaze up into the gaping windows of the central tower you can try to pinpoint the one where – on more than one occasion – the ghost of a man wearing a ruffed collar has been photographed. And then there’s the castle’s vertiginous clifftop position, wind-scoured and wild, caught between an infinity of sea and sky.
Drama, magnificence, pure romance – as castles in Scotland go, Tantallon ticks all the boxes. You might come away with your hair violently re-arranged, but you’ll never forget this one.
A ruined castle on an island in the middle of a loch? An imprisoned queen, a forced abdication and a daring escape? It might sound like a fairy tale, but it isn’t. On the shore of Loch Leven, a freshwater loch in the old county of Kinross-shire, you can step into a small motor boat and be whisked away into the world of heartbreak and intrigue inhabited by Mary Queen of Scots.
The small island on which the castle stands is totally peaceful. No one lives there now, and the only callers are seasonal visitors and hundreds of waterbirds. The loch itself is surrounded by farmland and low hills, and as you glide across the water you have a sense of leaving something behind, drifting away from the real world into something you can only just perceive.
Mary Queen of Scots was brought as a prisoner to Loch Leven Castle in 1567, and shortly afterwards her infant son, James, was declared King. The dispute was both religious and political: a Protestant rebellion against the Catholic queen. And Mary, although a strong-minded woman in so many ways, made some very unfortunate decisions in her choice of husband. Just a month into her captivity, she suffered a miscarriage; some sources say that she was carrying twins. The father was her third husband, the notorious Earl of Bothwell.
Mary could always find allies. Amid the revels of May Day in 1568, she disguised herself as a maidservant and slipped away by boat, aided by a willing young lad who made sure everyone was drunk and then locked them inside. When I first read about this, I so wanted to change history and give Mary a happy ending. But less than two weeks afterwards she was defeated in battle and fled across the border into England. She was caught in a trap, one that would lead ultimately to her execution.
There’s a softness and serenity about the castle now, as if nature is comforting old wounds. Lichen grows on the stonework, and the courtyard is a carpet of lush grass. It’s only when you leave, and glance backwards from the boat, that you wonder about the shadows falling in the silent rooms.
Castle Sween is named after its flame-haired builder, a chieftain of Irish descent called Suibhne Ruadh or Sweeney the Red. It stands on the coast of Knapdale in Argyll, looking out towards the Sound of Jura. Dating from sometime in the 12th century, this is one of the oldest castles in Scotland; Suibhne and his descendants once held lands from Loch Awe to Skipness, but by the 15th century this castle was the home of a Macmillan chief, who added an impressive tower and commissioned a beautiful high cross in Kilmory Knap Chapel, a few miles further south.
You have to go looking for Castle Sween – it takes quite a bit of persistence and several hours of driving if you’re coming from Edinburgh or Glasgow. We went there in spring, with frothy heads of mountain ash just opening in the hedgerows and drifts of bluebells flowing down to the shore. Information signs tell you that the castle was last attacked and burned in 1644, during the Civil War, and has been a ruin ever since. Quern stones for grinding corn stand forlornly in the old kitchen, with its massive bread oven a testament to the hospitality that once greeted guests here. Inside the Macmillan Tower, you can see traces of the great hall.
In the castle’s heyday most visitors would have arrived by sea, and it’s easy to imagine a row of galleys lined up below the walls. Artefacts found here include a harp peg, dating from the 1400s when the castle was possessed by the Lords of the Isles. The Dean of Lismore’s Book, a collection of ancient poetry compiled in 1512 and translated from Gaelic in 1862, describes the arrival of a fleet at Castle Sween:
The castles of Argyll have more than a whiff of swashbuckling heroism about them: in place of the close-closeted intrigue of the Stewart kings, there’s a sense of freedom and vigour, of exhilarating seamanship that knew every inlet, every tidal race and every harbour of this ragged coastline. Knapdale is a landscape of low rocky hills, pebbly beaches, wind-stunted oak trees and sea lochs speckled with tiny islands – bracing and embracing, luring you down long peninsulas until you’re gazing out towards Ireland with your feet in the whitest sand. Wet and windy perhaps, but if I had to choose between the castles in Scotland one that I would live in, I’d choose this one. Assuming, of course, that the red-haired Suibhne didn’t mind.
So, next time you are planning a trip, keep in mind my three favorite castles in Scotland for a day tour. Each one tells a unique story to get lost in as you walk through the different sites.