Westeros, Scotland: Scottish Locations that Reveal the Real Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin’s alchemical process for creating fantasy goes something like this: take real history, mash it all together, change a few colours, and dial it up to 11. While Martin used the histories of many nations and cultures to build the world of Westeros, the story of Scotland left an especially strong impression. From fiercely independent tribes beyond a wall at the end of the world to the ancient principle of ‘guest right’ and gravity-defying clifftop castles, Game of Thrones drew from a deep Scottish well of inspiration.

I explore a huge variety of these sources, factoids, and themes in my book The History Behind Game of Thrones: The North Remembers from Pen & Sword Books. My eight years of castle hunting, battle master-ing, academic research and personal experiences are poured into this book, effectively reverse-engineering Martin’s process. Where he turned history into incredibly well-informed fantasy, I take Martin’s work of fantasy and use it as a drawbridge by which to enter the wonderful (and often brutal) world of Scottish history.

The following are just a few examples of places you can visit to immerse yourself in Westeros without leaving our wee corner of the world.

Map of Game of Thrones-themed locations in Scotland created by renowned historical reconstruction illustrator Bob Marshall for my book.

Edinburgh Castle

The Red Wedding was one of the most shocking scenes in television history, and the bloody event that inspired it was just as scandalous in its day.

In 1440 the 18 year-old William Douglas, head of the mighty Douglas family, was invited to dine with King James II at Edinburgh Castle. James was just 10 years old, and it was his advisors – the crafty Crichton and Livingstone – who were pulling the strings.

William and his younger brother David arrived at the castle, confident that the were protected by ‘guest right’ – the sacred Scottish concept that if you are a guest in someone’s home you are guaranteed their protection, and that the host is also safe from you. You can see where this is going.

A piper began to play a haunting tune and a servant came forth with a black bull’s head on a silver platter – an ancient Celtic symbol of death. William and David were executed as traitors while the young king cried helplessly. Martin combined this event with the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 to create his macabre masterpiece.

Bannockburn Battlefield

On 23 and 24 June 1314 7,000 Scots led by Robert Bruce defeated 20,000 English led by Edward II on the banks of the Bannock Burn just outside Stirling.

The tactics used by Bruce are extremely similar to those seen during the Battle of the Bastards. Bruce’s men were inĀ schiltrons, tightly packed formations of spearmen with spears up to 15ft long. Trapped between two rivers, the English were steamrolled by the Scots until the waters were so clogged with bodies that the Scots could cross without getting their feet wet.

A schiltron in action as demonstrated by the living history experts at the Clanranald Trust for Scotland.

Robert Bruce also fought a duel that is eerily reminiscent of Robert Baratheon’s duel against Rhaegar Targaryen. Baratheon, a peerless warrior, smashed Rhaegar’s breastplate in with his war hammer in the waters of the Trident. Bruce was reckoned to be one of the top three best knights in Europe, and his favourite weapon was the battle axe. An English knight named Henry de Bohun, with full armour and a massive warhorse, charged at Bruce who only had light maille and a small axe. Bruce struck de Bohun on the head so hard that his axe split the English knight ‘from skull to breast’. You can still stand on the very spot where this happened more than 700 years later.

Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe

One look at the Ironborn castle of Pyke, standing on sea stacks atop cliffs lashed by waves, and you’ll probably think it’s pure fantasy. Scotland, however, has several coastal castles that are equally improbable, the best of which is Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe in Caithness.

Built by the powerful Sinclair family, the castle had a harbour where war galleys could take shelter and launch raids from. Sea stacks stand nearby, and the castle walls drop seamlessly with the cliff faces down into the rough waters below.

Castle Sinclair-Girnigoe photographed from the air by Chris Sinclair.

Fun fact: Several of the Iron Islands are named after Scottish locations. Old Wyk is from the Norse word ‘wyk’, from which we get vikings and the Scottish town of Wick which was founded by the Norse. Orkmont is derived from Orkney, and Harlaw is the name of a battle fought in the Highlands in 1411.

Abernethy Round Tower

When Torrhen Stark crossed the Trident to bend the knee to Aegon the Conqueror he became forever after known as ‘The King Who Knelt’.

Though the Normans never conquered Scotland, they did force the King of Scots, Malcolm III Canmore (meaning ‘big head’ or ‘big man’) to submit to them. in 1072, six years after the Battle of Hastings and not long after the infamous ‘harrying of the north’, William the Conqueror marched north to secure the submission of his northern neighbours. Malcolm III realised that he could not fight William in open battle, so he met the Conqueror at a church yard in Abernethy and gave him his fealty. An Irish-style monastic round tower now stands on the site, as well as an ancient Pictish symbol stone that would have witnessed Malcolm bending the knee to William nearly a thousand years ago.

Doune Castle

Doune Castle is famous for its many roles in TV and film, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Outlander and, of course, Game of Thrones. Think all the way back to Season 1, Episode 1 when Robert Baratheon and the Lannisters arrive at Winterfell and are greeted by the Starks (oh, those innocent times…). The courtyard they arrive is none other than Doune Castle. Unfortunately Scotland was deemed to not have a sufficient studio for filming other Game of Thrones sequences, so Doune is Scotland’s one and only on-screen appearance.

Dunino Den

The faces carved into the heart trees – the term for a weirwood marked by the Children of the Forest – are amongst the most haunting images in Game of Thrones.

Dunino Den, just south of St Andrews, has been used as a ritual site for over 2,000 years. People still leave offerings to the ‘faerie folk’ there, and a deep black well cut into the natural rock, a canopy of trees, and a bubbling river lend the whole place an air of ancient mystery.

Sure enough, in a rock face alongside 1,000 year old carvings of crosses, is a bearded face with deep-set eyes and a god-like demeanour staring back at you. Though it was almost certainly carved within living memory, the face is part of a timeless tradition of carving icons into sacred places (just make sure that if you visit Dunino, or any of the other locations on this list, that you don’t add any of your own as they are all protected historic sites).

Craigmillar Castle

Just 2 miles south of Edinburgh Castle, Craigmillar is one of the most complete and fun to explore ruined castles in Scotland. It also neatly parallels the architectural development of Winterfell. Both Winterfell and Craigmillar are built on small rocky outcrops. They both started with a stone tower at the centre and gradually expanded outwards adding courtyards and curtain walls over successive generations. Winterfell has two curtain walls, with the inner wall being higher and thicker than the outer wall – just like Craigmillar.

Best of all, Craigmillar’s entrance is flanked by two yew trees which are as much as 500 years old. They easily evoke the godswood at Winterfell, and it takes only the tiniest leap of imagination to envision Ned sharpening his greatsword under its branches while Bran climbs the ruined tower and Arya practices archery in the courtyard. It turns out that George R. R. Martin agrees – on 17 January 2019 he retweeted my post that put forward this theory!

National Museum of Scotland

There are countless awesome artefacts in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh that echo Game of Thrones, from a boar-shaped horn used in battle against the Romans by the ancient Caledonians (who inspired the Wildlings) to stone markers from the Antonine Wall, Rome’s final frontier in Britain. The most chilling, however, is the Ballachulish figure, a 2,500 year-old wooden figure discovered on the banks of a Highland loch in the 19th century.

No one knows exactly what the figure is meant to depict, but one possibility is the Cailleach, a terrifying figure from Gaelic lore that is Scotland’s closest equivalent to the White Walkers. The Cailleach is a ‘divine hag’ who brings winter to the land when she washes her great plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool on the west coast. Ice crystals from the plaid cover the country, and the Cailleach rides across the mountains in a chariot pulled by tremendous black hounds. Winter ends when her subjects ceremonially rise up against her, at which point she retreats to her holdfast deep in the mountains until it is time for winter to come again.

Achnabreck Cup & Ring Marks

The moment when Jon led a pre-Mad Queen Daenerys into the caves beneath Dragonstone to show her the ancient carvings etched in the dragonglass, I literally stood up out of my seat and yelled ‘Those are cup and ring marks!’ I’m sure every Scottish archaeologist watching did the same.

It looks like, in the show at least, we’ll never know the meaning of those carvings and the spiral symbol left by the White Walkers, and maybe that’s appropriate – the real version of these symbols are still a total mystery to use over 5,000 years after they were made. You’ll find cup and ring marks across Europe, but Scottish locations like Achnabreck in Argyll are some of the best with clusters of hundreds of carvings found on a single rock face. They may have aided prehistoric navigation, marked tribal territory, or had some other, more ethereal meaning – we’ll likely never know. Their dead-ringer resemblance to the symbols in Game of Thrones simply cannot be a coincidence – some production researcher simply must have stumbled across some ancient Scottish archaeology!

The Antonine Wall

It all started with the wall. Martin visited Hadrian’s Wall in 1981 and wanted to imagine what it felt like to be a Roman legionary stationed on it not knowing what was going to come screaming out of the northern mists at you. “What tended to emerge from those trees were Scots, and we couldn’t use that” he said of his process of creating the culture beyond the Wall. While Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous Roman wall, the Romans in fact built another wall cutting off the supposedly ‘barbarian’ in Scotland, known as the Antonine Wall.

Built of earth and timber and extended for just under 40 miles, it’s a far cry from the 700ft, 300-mile long wall of ice in Game of Thrones. In the imaginations of Classical writers, however, both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall represented the bulwark of the known world against the unknowable terrors of the icy north. The best remains of the Antonine Wall are found at sites including Rough Castle in Falkirk, Croy Hill north of Glasgow, and Bearsden when the remains of a Roman bath house – a truly rare luxury in the distant north – can still be seen.

These are just the tail of the dragon when it comes to Game of Thrones locations in Scotland. So, if you’re despairing after the end of season eight (welcome to the club), rest assured that the Westeros you know and love hasn’t gone anywhere. If you’re in Scotland, there is an endless extended universe in your own backyard – so ride forth, Ranger, and explore it!

My book, available through Pen & Sword, Amazon, Scottish book shops including Blackwells and Waterstones, and – soon – at Historic Environment Scotland castles including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Doune.