Scotland’s Spookiest Castles!

A tumbling ruin in the empty hills, filled with dark nooks and echoes of fell deeds still murmuring in the stones. What better setting to let your spine-tingling imagination run loose than a castle? They’ve been the lairs of vampires in literature, the dwellings of cursed beasts in film, and the cursed bastions for sadistic lords in actual fact. In the Halloween spirit, here are a few of the Scottish castles that you probably shouldn’t visit in the dead of night without a spine of steel and a change of trousers.

I’ve left out a real doozy in the form of Yester Castle, whose Goblin Ha’ was built by a legion of goblins under the thrall of a 13th century nobleman. For that story, check out my last blog post on The Top Ten Scottish Castles (You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

You can also listen to me chat about the spookiest castles in Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out for the Weekend programme with Fiona Stalker here.

 

HERMITAGE CASTLE

Looking like a great titan with its jaw agape waiting to swallow those foolish enough to enter, Hermitage Castle is a dread to behold and aptly guards Liddesdale, the ‘bloodiest valley in Britain’. As if the imposing exterior of the castle weren’t enough to scare you off (it’s been described, masterfully, as ‘sod off in stone’), the interior is a packed-in mess of ruined rooms with some red-stained stones that evoke the castle’s resident demon. 

 

 

Hermitage is stalked by a Redcap, a type of demon that constantly requires fresh blood to keep its hat dyed a vivid red. If the hat dries up, the Redcap dies. The Redcap was the familiar to the wicked Lord de Soulis, a cruel 14th century laird who tormented and killed locals at whim. Rumour had it that he was impervious to metal weapons, so when he was finally overthrown he was boiled alive inside a lead caldron on nearby Nine Stane Rig. Redcaps particularly prey on solo travelers in castle ruins – a custom made foe for any castle hunter!

 

REPENTANCE TOWER

Repentance Tower

 

No one knows exactly why this tower in Dumfries and Galloway has such a foreboding name. One theory is that Sir John Maxwell, Warden of the West March, built it as a lookout tower for nearby Hoddom Castle and as penance for treachery. John had pledged himself to Henry VIII, and when he suddenly switched sides at the Battle of Durisdeer the hostages held in his name were executed. 

Repentance Tower is flanked by a graveyard, and from a certain position it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the stones. The tower spares no thought for comfort and is a stark, uncompromising and almost window-less structure. Situated atop a windswept hill, its name is perfectly suited to its atmosphere.

 

Repentance Tower  

 

ALMOND CASTLE

If you ever need to find a set for the next teen slasher film, look no further. What was once a place of affluence and pleasure is now a gaunt and oppressive tower situated on the site of a demolished brickworks west of Linlithgow. Many castles are now within industrial areas, but in that category Almond Castle takes the top prize for the spookiest. 

 

Almond Castle

 

The expanse of the abandoned lot makes the castle come into dreadful focus, and the grass growing through the cement and rubble lying about gives it a post-apocalyptic feel. I try to avoid such judgments wherever possible, but do be aware that it is in a rough area and I encountered a few ‘interesting’ folk while investigating it. Best to explore Almond with company, and don’t forget the cardinal rule – NEVER split up! 

 

 

NEW SLAINS CASTLE

A labyrinthine ruin atop spectacular cliffs north of Cruden Bay, New Slains Castle has been a sought-after spot for spookiness for over one hundred years. In 1894/5 Bram Stoker stayed in the area and took a special interest in the castle. He eagerly sought an invitation from the laird, the Earl of Erroll, and it was this process that gave rise to the idea that a vampire can’t enter a home unless invited. Bram Stoker, of course, went on to write Dracula and inspire a whole new era of vampire lore. The castle itself is full of corridors and dark corners, which when paired with the crashing of the waves would make any adventurer’s heartbeat skip the odd beat. It was all blue skies and sunshine during my visit, but undoubtedly New Slains is at its best when the skies grow dark and stormy.

 

 

THREAVE CASTLE

A 600-year-old castle on a secluded island with windows that appear to weep and countless tons of stone weighing down upon you. That’s Threave Castle. Oh, did I mention it was built by a man named Archibald ‘the Grim’? Throw in active bat colonies and the pitch blackness that descends upon the island stronghold at night, and you’ve got a place seemingly custom-built to give you the creeps. 

 

Threave Castle

 

The castle itself is indeed grim enough, but every once in a while the Historic Environment Scotland custodians like to have a little fun. I freely confess to screaming like a little girl when I looked down into the castle’s pit prison only to see a corpse-like mannequin staring right back up at me! Some HES-run castles have such figures in their prisons to show the appalling conditions, but this one effortlessly gave me more of a fright than most Halloween specials. I don’t have a decent picture, unfortunately, but you can see that Threave Castle was never a place intended to convey a happy-go-lucky demeanour. 

 

 

BUCKHOLM TOWER

Buckholm possibly makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up more than any other castle in Scotland. Standing on a hillside above Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, it at first seems like a typical 16th century towerhouse. When I visited I had no idea of the long and disturbing history of the place, and what I experienced there left me almost physically sick. No doubt, this place has the goriest story I know of any castle. 

 

 

While I don’t have the space to tell it in full, an excellent account of the tower’s twisted legacy can be found here. For now, suffice to say that when you enter the tower’s lower chamber several meat hooks still hang from the ceiling. Their iron looks worn, as though it has withstood the test of time in this dark abode. I’m a tactile person so I wanted to reach out and touch them, but – and I say this as someone who does not believe at all in the supernatural – I was overwhelmed by an intuition that practically screamed “DON’T”. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, but I’m thankful that I did.

I found out after returning home and reading up on the place that it wasn’t just fodder than hung on those hooks but victims of the evil Laird of Buckholm. The visceral terror of men being killed upon the hooks is a bit much even for me, and I watched the Red Wedding without flinching. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Buckholm, but if I do, it will be against every ounce of better judgment I have. 

 

Buckholm Tower meat hooks

 

Sweet dreams!