The Top 10 Scottish Castles (You’ve Probably Never Heard of)

The sheer variety and almost overwhelming quantity of castles in Scotland makes any ‘Top 10 Castles’ list a work of subjectivity; I don’t think I’ve ever seen two that were precisely the same. Often, though, there are predictable recurring characters: spectacular fortresses like Caerlaverock, fairytale towers like Craigievar, or the world-famous Eilean Donan that adorns many a shortbread tin.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re awesome! However, my favourite finds are often the castles that leave you every bit as breathless as the heavy hitters but draw puzzled looks from all but the most seasoned history hunters. So, in honour of Heritage Awareness Day 2017, here are ten castles that you have (probably) never heard of but would never forget if you went.


DUFFUS CASTLE (Elgin, Moray)


In the 1130s the Flemish knight Freskin was sent north to help pacify the rebellious region of Moray. Freskin’s heirs took the name de Moravia, ‘of Moray’, and became the Murray family who fought tirelessly alongside Wallace and Bruce in the Wars of Independence. Freskin was part of a wave of European knights invited into Scotland by King David I, and it was these knights who built Scotland’s first castles. Duffus was a classic motte-and-bailey castle, albeit a huge one, built of timber and earth. The mound couldn’t handle the weight of the later stone keep and the tower came crashing down some time by the early 15th century. It’s a fascinating study in the evolution of Scotland’s early castles, and very family-friendly with lots of grassy slopes to roll down. Of course, I certainly never partook in such childish activities…
Duffus Castle


DUNSKEY CASTLE (Portpatrick, Dumfries & Galloway)

I have a definite weakness for coastal castles. The combination of stone and sea is irresistible to me and always makes the castles themselves feel more raw and elemental. Even though Dunskey Castle was never a fighting powerhouse, its location alone lends it plenty of drama.


Dunskey Castle


Located at the extreme southwest tip of Scotland, Dunskey affords clear views across the sea to Northern Ireland – where the original Scots came from in the centuries following the Roman withdrawal from Britain. The coast in this region is relentlessly awe-inspiring, so Dunskey is well worth going out of the way to explore.


FATLIPS CASTLE (Minto, Scottish Borders)

Yes, it’s really called Fatlips Castle, and good luck getting through this post without a few repressed chuckles. Why the comical name? There are several theories – a popular story tells that its Turnbull lairds would greet visiting ladies with an audacious kiss on the lips, while another possibility is that it’s a mockery of the appearance of one of its early lairds. Just accept that it’s called Fatlips Castle and we can get through this together.



A sentinel atop the Minto Craigs, Fatlips Castle has commanding views over the rolling countryside and is an outstanding example of the type of tower common in the Borders. This was a region plagued by constant warfare until the early 17th century, whether perpetrated by invading English armies or by the notorious Border Reivers – the pleasant lads who give us the word ‘bereaved’.



FINDLATER CASTLE (Cullen, Aberdeenshire)

The less famous cousin of Dunnottar Castle near Aberdeen, Findlater Castle in its otherwordly state of ruin looks to me like a natural part of the landscape. Earth has encroached on the castle, with inner chambers flooded with sand and little distinction between the castle’s walls and the very cliff it engulfs. This is one of the most adventurous castles I’ve been to, with a somewhat treacherous approach, fascinating nooks and crannies on several levels, and it’s very own pirate cave around the corner. It’s one of the most cinematic castles in Scotland and wouldn’t look out of place on a Star Wars or Indiana Jones set.



A castle is recorded here from the mid-13th century as a bulwark against the Norse. They may have taken Findlater but they lost the war in the aftermath of the Battle of Largs in 1263, bringing an end to the era of Norse invasions of Scotland. What you see now is the product of 15th century work. While Findlater is tremendous fun to explore, make sure to be cautious – the site is difficult to access especially when muddy and, as with all castle visits, make sure not to do anything to jeopardise yourself or the integrity of the castle.


Findlater Castle


GYLEN CASTLE (Isle of Kerrera, Argyll) 

It’s a journey I’ve made four times now, and I hope to make it at least as many more before long. The train journey to Oban is one of the most spectacular routes in Britain, and from there it’s a short trip south to the Gallanach ferry. The three or four minute trip across the water brings you to the Isle of Kerrera, and it is one of my favourite places in Scotland. Full of sheep, scenery and sea air, the small island is very walkable and by hiking around 45 minutes from the ferry you reach a castle that seems straight out of a storybook.



The MacDougalls built this 16th century tower as well as almost every castle in the area – Dunstaffnage, Dunollie, Aros and more. It was burnt by Covenanters in 1647 as part of the War of the Three Kingdoms which tore Scotland, Ireland and England apart. These waters were once commanded by the Lords of the Isles, the Norse-Gaelic descendants of Somerled whose strength was measured in castles and galleys. In Argyll the sea is the dominant force behind history, and you feel that at Gylen Castle.



NEWARK CASTLE (St Monans, Fife) 

At Newark Castle (one of several with the same name throughout Scotland) not only do you get a fun ruin to explore, you get a magnificent view across the Firth of Forth to the imposing Bass Rock and East Lothian coast. King Alexander III spent much of his childhood here, which is slightly ominous as he died almost within sight of the castle to the west at the cliffs near Kinghorn. This triggered the succession crisis that led to the First War of Independence, so visiting a Newark does bring a somewhat haunting feeling to those who know their history.


Newark Castle


The Castle is accessible along the Fife Coastal Path, a trail covering the entirety of Fife’s shoreline which so happens to take in some cracking castles. Fife isn’t perhaps the first destination people think of when visiting Scotland, but there are tons of historic gems and most are an easy day or half-day trip from Edinburgh.




Standing on the cliff’s edge in Sinclair Bay, Caithness, Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe is easily a rival for the biggest and most formidable castles to the south. Much is uncertain about its history, but the Sinclairs were Earls of Orkney and had international connections due to, amongst other ventures, their participation in the Crusades. Much has been made of Templars in Scotland and most of it can be thrown out, but there is no arguing that the Sinclairs built this castle on the northern edge of Scotland with every intention of making it a major residence and power centre.


Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe


It’s often forgotten that large swathes of Scotland were controlled directly by the Norse, and their presence is perhaps most keenly felt in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. Far from being a far-flung corner, the far north of Scotland was a crucial node in the trading and raiding network between Scandinavia, the British Isles, Ireland and northern Europe.



SKIPNESS CASTLE (Skipness, Kintyre) 

Scotland’s earliest stone castles were simple yet effective – four thick walls with a courtyard, aptly called castles of enclosure. That’s how Skipness started in the early 13th century, with the tower being added by the Campbells in the early 16th century. The pink trim is a hallmark of castles in the area, with Lochranza Castle on Arran (visible from Skipness) bearing the same feature. Built by the MacSweens, a powerful Norse-Gaelic family whose chief seat was Sween Castle in Knapdale, the only reason Skipness isn’t one of the most popular Scottish castles is because of its relative isolation. If you like castles such as Loch Leven or Castle Tioram, Skipness should definitely be on your list.



One of the reasons I loved visiting Skipness was because it’s really a two-in-one. The nearby Skipness Chapel, dedicated to St Columba, would be well worth seeing even if the castle didn’t exist. Several medieval grave slabs depicting gallowglass warriors can be found in the kirkyard.



TURNBERRY CASTLE (Turnberry, Ayrshire)

Ignore the golf course and head to the castle where Scotland’s greatest hero king was (almost certainly) born. Turnberry Castle was the home of Marjorie, Countess of Carrick and mother to Robert Bruce. It’s a fittingly epic place for such a life to start – the rugged coastline stretches off in both directions, with Ailsa Craig looming near. The castle itself is a fascinating ruin akin to Findlater in that its components are slowly becoming one with the cliffs themselves.



An especially intriguing feature of the castle is an apparent sea gate that allowed boats to shelter in a rock-cut harbour within the castle itself. How cool is that? In 1310 Robert Bruce ordered the destruction of the castle, an act in line with his policy of destroying Scotland’s castles so the English couldn’t use them against him. Bruce simply didn’t have the men to garrison castles and was fighting a guerrilla campaign for most of his early years as king. It’s ironic that Robert Bruce is, historically, probably the most prolific destroyer of Scotland’s castles!


Turnberry Castle


YESTER CASTLE (Gifford, East Lothian)

I’ll be talking about Yester Castle on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out for the Weekend on October 27th as part of a talk about Scotland’s spookiest castles. Yester definitely tops my list in that regard. A deceptively cavernous ruin hidden in the woods, Yester Castle has every hallmark of a horror film set – rusted iron bars guarding ominous doorways, a secret entrance under a hill, and stairway that leads into pure darkness. Every irrational instinct tells you there’s more lurking around Yester than just history.



The highlight of the castle is the Goblin Ha’ (Hall), supposedly built by a legion of goblins under the thrall of Hugo de Giffard, known as the ‘Wizard of Yester’. You can only get inside by crouching through a small, dark corridor which emerges suddenly into the rib-vaulted chamber. My breath was further cut short when I saw yet another passage in the corner of the Ha’ descending into utter darkness. I followed it down perhaps 25 steps until the pass was block by rubble, which of course just sent my mind to racing about what is on the other side? Watch a video of me heading into the Goblin Ha’ here:



How many of these have you been to? Are there any of your favourite I missed? This could have been a completely different list on a different day, so it’s by no means definitive. If you want to explore some of the best Scottish castles off the beaten path, however, this list is a good place to start.