You can’t come to Scotland without visiting a castle! From the impressive castles of Edinburgh and Stirling, to those that started life as fortified family homes, these Scottish castles give a flavour of the history and life in Scotland, on a royal or domestic scale. On our recent weekend break, we managed to visit not one but three castles in Scotland, each with a fascinating story to tell.
Perched on the hill, overlooking the old town, Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland’s most visited historic attractions and for good reason. At the top of the Royal Mile, behind the fortified gates, are a collection of buildings that were built up over the centuries by the successive Kings and Queens of Scotland such as James IV, James V and Mary Queen of Scotts. It was here the Queen Mary gave birth to James VI who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as King of England.
The castle is always full of visitors, so I’d recommend that you arrive as it opens, as you can easily spend a few hours or even a full day here. Inside there’s plenty to see in the different buildings, each one containing a different museum or point of interest. These were the highlights of our visit;
The Honours of Scotland
We started with the Scottish Crown Jewels known as The Honours of Scotland, as this exhibition gets crowded so we wanted to see it first. The entrance in Crown Square will get you in quickest to see the jewels themselves, consisting of the crown of Scotland, the sceptre and sword of state. There’s also another entrance with a shorter queue that takes you through an exhibition about the crowned Kings of Scotland and the coronation ceremony. After the unification of England and Scotland, the jewels were hidden and lost from view for a hundred years but found again in a great chest and put on display to the public in 1819.
The Royal Palace Apartments
With ornate plaster ceilings, panelled wooden screens and colourful royal crests, you can feel the luxury and comfort of the royal household of King James V and Queen Mary of Guise. It was here too that their daughter Mary Queen of Scotts gave birth to King James VI, in a small side room little bigger than a cupboard, where no doubt the Queen could have some privacy from the court as she gave birth.
Scottish National War Memorial
If you have any family connections to the Scottish Regiments, you’ll want to visit the impressive Scottish National War Memorial. It was built in the 1920s on the site of an older church, to commemorate all those who fought in the two world wars and in military campaigns since 1914. Photos are not allowed inside the memorials, but at each of the regimental monuments inside you’ll find a leather bound book listing the names of the dead and the regimental colours hanging above.
The Great Hall
This impressive hall was used by the monarch to receive guests and is now painted in rich red with wooden panelling and decorated by medieval swords and armour. Look up to the small round window at one end to the right of the fireplace, which was the spot where the monarch could observe what was going on in the hall and listen in on the conversation of his courtiers.
Underneath the castle you can visit the vaults that were used to hold prisoners of war and see the straw mattresses and hammocks strung close together that formed the living and sleeping quarters of prisoners from France, America and other enemy countries in Europe during the 18th century.
The large open esplanade in front of the castle entrance is used for parades and concerts and in August is converted with seating for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It’s amazing to think that many thousands of visitors are packed each night into this area to watch the tattoo and that the performers have to parade on a sloping surface, which looks surprisingly small compared to the way it appears on TV when it’s broadcast to millions of people.
If you go: Edinburgh Castle Website, Adults £17, Children £10.20, audioguides in 8 different languages £3.50, Explorer Pass £31 and gets you into all 78 Historic Scotland attractions for 3 days over a 5 day period (7 day explorer pass also available). Open daily from 9.30am
Where to stay in Edinburgh:
Old Town Chambers: Luxurious, modern apartments in the Old Town, conveniently located on The Royal Mile
The Inn on the Mile: An alternative, boutique hotel on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, housed in a historic building which was once the British Linen Bank
Tigerlily Hotel: A boutique hotel in a Georgian building, with colourful, contemporary decor, an elegant bar and restaurant
If you’re looking for a guide to Edinburgh, I recommend the DK Eyewitness pocket map and guide to Edinburgh, with a pocket sized format that’s full of ideas on things to do. I also love the Wallpaper Edinburgh Guide with an edited insider’s checklist for the design conscious traveller.
Around an hour’s drive from Edinburgh is Stirling Castle which is equally impressive although not quite as heavily visited as Edinburgh Castle. The castle has gone through a multi-million pound renovation and shows the castle as a renaissance royal residence, as it was at the time of King James V and Queen Mary of Guise. The rooms are shown with brightly painted ceilings featuring symbolic heads, motifs and heraldic painting above the stone fireplaces. It reminds us that the faded furnishings and painted plasterwork we see today are not the vibrant colours that they were when originally made. These were the highlights of our visit that I especially enjoyed;
The Stirling Tapestries
In the Queen’s Inner Hall you’ll see seven hand-woven tapestries that are copies of originals made in the 1500s, featuring the hunt of the unicorn, a symbol of purity and strength. These copies were hand-woven using the original techniques over a period of 13 years and there’s a fascinating exhibition in a separate building that shows how the tapestries were woven with some of the looms and wools on display.
The Stirling Heads
Having seen the brightly painted motifs on the ceilings of the royal apartments, we visited an exhibition to see these carved oak medallions which were recovered from the original 16th century ceiling. The commentary shows the symbolism of the different heads and how they demonstrate the dress and fashions of the time, with the wood being painted over in bright colours once mounted on the ceiling.
The Queen Anne Gardens
Close to the castle entrance there’s a lawned area, with a shady tree and views from the battlements over the surrounding countryside which included gardens and the royal hunting ground. I could imagine Mary Queen of Scotts playing here as a child with her governesses, under the watchful eye of her mother Queen Mary of Guise.
If you go: Stirling Castle Website, Adults £15, Children £9, Explorer Pass £31 and gets you into all 78 Historic Scotland attractions for 3 days over a 5 day period (7 day explorer pass also available). Open daily from 9.30am
If you’re looking for a guide to Scotland I recommend the DK Eyewitness guide to Scotland which is full of photos and illustrations of the places you can visit.
Where to stay in Stirling: Powis House is a country house bed and breakfast in an 18th century mansion, just outside Stirling.
The Blackwatch Castle and Museum
The regimental museum of The Black Watch, is housed in 12th century Balhousie Castle in Perth. It’s just gone through a multi-million pound renovation with new displays and cafe and is a fascinating place to visit, even if you don’t have any family connections to the regiment. In beautifully presented displays, the museum tells the story of one of Scotland’s best known regiments, who have played a leading role in Scottish and international military history since the regiment was founded in 18th century.
The museum and castle regularly hosts special exhibitions, such as the 2016 Weeping Window poppy installation with a sculptural flow of poppies, similar to those that were on display at The Tower of London. From June 2017, the castle will be showing The Kelpies at the Castle, an exhibition of 10ft high scale models of the well-known Kelpies sculptures, highlighting the role of horses in Scottish and military history.
We really enjoyed our lunch at The Black Watch museum cafe, in an airy wooden beamed building, which offers friendly table service for lunches and afternoon teas. This is where the popular lectures, organised by The Friends of the Black Watch, are held each month, with talks by leading historians as well as family friendly events.
If you go: The Blackwatch castle and Museum website: Adults £7.50, children over 5 £3.50. Open daily from 9.30am, free parking, free entrance to cafe and shop.
For more information about holidays in Scotland, check out the Visit Scotland website.
Where to stay in Perth: The Townhouse is a boutique bed and breakfast in an elegantly restored Georgian townhouse, in the centre of Perth
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links which enable me to make a small commission to support this blog
Photo credits: The Great Hall and Scottish Crown Jewels photo from Edinburgh Castle gallery, all others by Heatheronhertravels.com