Aberdeenshire’s Best Castles
The sheer number of castles scattered across every part of the Scottish landscape is astounding. With each one in a different condition and dating from a different time, no two castles are remotely the same, and each can tell its visitors a new story. Perhaps more than any other area, Aberdeenshire plays host to countless strongholds that are ready to be explored by eager visitors. From the nine castles of the Knuckle to more remote ruins, this article highlights some of the unmissable locations for anyone in the outskirts of the Granite City.
Where the rivers Deveron and Bogie converge near the border of Aberdeenshire, the Earl of Fife built an impressive castle for himself sometime between 1180 and 1190. Passing through the hands of countless owners who made just as many additions and adjustments, Huntly Castle now stands in semi-ruin following catastrophic damage after the Jacobean rising. Much of the surviving building was the work of the 4th and 6th Earls of Huntly, such as the luxurious stately palace, several high-rising towers, and the intricately crafted frontispiece above the castle’s main entrance.
For over 650 years, Clan Irvine was proud to call Drum Castle their ancestral home. An exceedingly rare example of a tower house remaining unaltered throughout its history, scholars believe it to be the third oldest of its kind in Scotland. The National Trust purchased the castle in more recent years, opening its sprawling family rooms and masterfully tended rose gardens to the public for the first time. Looking over the quadrant gardens, visitors can enjoy an assortment of home baking in the wonderful Mary’s Larder.
In its stunningly rugged location on a rocky outcrop high above the North Sea, Dunnottar Castle’s prominent role in Scottish history should come as no surprise. Walking the bridge, surrounded by the choppy blue void below, is a breath-taking experience no matter how many times you do it. Clan Keith gradually constructed the estate between the 13th and 17th centuries, although only a haunting set of ruins remain. Visitors should note that, given its severely defensive placement, Dunnottar is a relatively inaccessible castle, although the views are more than worth the effort.
Perhaps second in fame only to Edinburgh, the preferred residence of Queen Elizabeth II has been a staple of Scottish tourism since it came under royal ownership in 1852. The estate comprises a staggering 50,000 acres that are organised in such a way to make them microcosmic of the wider Caledonian highlands. Moors, farmlands, and forests are populated by Highland cows and deer herds, with the incredible palace standing as the space’s centrepiece. Much of the castle’s architectural design was directly overseen by Prince Albert soon after his and Queen Victoria’s acquisition of the estate, strengthening the inseparable bond between royalty and Balmoral.
Held by the likes of James I and Alexander Stewart, the sprawling fortresses of Kildrummy Castle are our best surviving example of 13th-century castle design. The shield-shaped layout featured various towers and an extensive gatehouse, as well as natural defences via the ‘Black Den’ ravine. Also still standing are aspects of the castle’s chapel, including the high altar positioned beneath the trio of lancet windows. However, it is Kildrummy’s location that sparks the most interest, given its incredible views onto the rolling highland surroundings.
Unlike the larger, multi-building designs of its contemporaries, Knock Castle is constructed in the vertical style of a laird’s residence. Just miles away from Balmoral, the ruined castle gives visitors a glimpse into the scenic life of Scotland’s landed gentry. Much of the building’s history is shrouded in opaque enigma, but no part more so than its eventual fate. Historians posit a variety of explanations for how Knock Castle became the ruin we can see today, although none can be confirmed as absolute fact, leaving the fort as a fascinating mystery of Scotland’s past.
Clan Farquharson’s ancestral home stands surrounded by the luscious greenery of Aberdeenshire at its most beautiful. This scenery, as well as the architectural grace of the fortress itself, belies the extensive military history that brought Braemar Castle into the limelight of Scotland’s development. Of course, violence is not the only thing that made Braemar into such a culturally significant location – the grounds also hosted Queen Victoria during the traditional Highland Games, which quickly became a keystone of the nation itself.
Fields of golden rapeseed lead visitors to the quiet dignity of 16th-century Inchdrewer Castle, standing just a stone’s throw away from Aberdeenshire’s northern coast. Although the details of its construction are obscured by a lack of exact chronicles, historians believe it was built while James IV was King of Scotland. For much of the 20th century, however, the castle lay derelict and unfortunately abandoned, until its recent purchase by fashion mogul Olga Roh. This abandonment has allowed spectral speculating to run wild, with even celebrated Scottish author Nigel Tranter reporting sightings of a ghostly white dog.
The nine castles of the Knuckle are ancient structures found scattered around the north-eastern coast of Aberdeenshire – an area that resembles the knuckles of a fist. Although some remained preserved or even inhabited, Pitsligo Castle was not so fortunate, and only a few of the fortress’ buildings remain explorable. What remains of the castle gazes onto the gorgeous bay of Rosehearty from its hilltop vantage point, giving visitors an incredible view of the Buchan landscape. This idyllic patch of history is now undergoing restorative works and will gradually be returning to its former majesty as the project continues.
New Slains’ status as a muse for writers and cinematographers should come as no surprise to anyone who comes across it. Built from remarkably well-preserved 16th century stone, its extensive surviving buildings stand upon high, rugged clifftops that look down upon the choppy North Sea below. Bram Stoker, famed for writing the seminal gothic novel Dracula, frequently visited nearby locations such as Cruden Bay, leading many to speculate that the imposing structure inspired the eponymous vampire’s own fortress. However apocryphal that tale may be, it does not diminish the haunting, almost ethereal atmosphere that clings to every brick of New Slains Castle.
Possibly the most instantly recognisable in the country, the fairytale pink stonework of Craigievar Castle has enchanted visitors across its multi-century life. With the layered hills of the Grampians stretching far beyond and the various intricately carved structures adorning the walls, the pink castle is simply breathtaking. Inside is just as impressive, as the former owners bequeathed a mass collection of art and historical artefacts to the National Trust when they took ownership of the property. Every aspect of Craigievar could be taken straight from a fantasy novel, including the wonderous lands that surround it, which visitors can navigate via several unique woodland trails.
From the year 1030 onwards, there has always been a fortified structure where Delgatie Castle currently stands, just a few miles northwest of Delgaty itself. Much of what we know of Delgatie comes from the writings of its final private owner, the Feudal Baron Captain John Hay. Clan Hay ruled the castle for hundreds of years since Robert the Bruce stripped it from its previous owners during the Wars of Independence. John Hay himself worked tirelessly to restore his ancestral home to its current state, and the passionate Delgatie Castle Trust continue his legacy by maintaining the homely feel of its interior as well as the authentic design of its outside.
As remote as castles could ever hope to be, visitors to Corgarff Castle can admire the unique star-shaped wall surrounding it during the long walk west. Tragedy and fire struck Corgarff frequently since its construction in the mid-1500s, including one occasion that may have directly inspired the tragic ballad ‘Edom o Gordon’. Both Jacobites and Redcoats held the castle (on separate occasions), as did a small group of whisky distillers during the 1820s. For such an isolated building, the thick walls of Corgarff have countless stories to tell, all of which are explorable now that the property is owned by Historic Environment Scotland.
A true relic of ancient times, the fact that Fyvie Castle still stands in such remarkable condition at 800 years old is simply astonishing. Myth and legends shroud much of the castle, including its mysterious construction, which some attribute to the great Scottish king William the Lion. More substantial chronicles highlight that the likes of Robert the Bruce and even Charles I spent time in the castle before it transitioned from a fortified structure into a family residence. Each subsequent family enhanced Fyvie with their own tastes and touches, making the final product a really beautiful palace facing out onto the stunning Aberdeenshire countryside. Inside, guests can also appreciate the incredible collection of portraits and other antiquities that have amassed in the walls throughout the years.
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Jutting out from the centre of an incredibly flat patch of land, the Udny family home has been through several reinventions but none that diminished its absolute noticeability. Its contemporary state is its most historically authentic – a rectangular tower-house that, despite its simplicity, remains imposing against the barren greenery around it. Over the centuries, various lairds took control of the castle and attempted to construct additions, yet history documents their financial failures. Although still under private ownership, the Udny family are used to curious visitors on their grounds, so tourists are encouraged to take a look at the stunningly imposing monolith if they can.
Cluny Castle has the rare boon of being deeply rich in both history and aesthetic beauty. Intricate curves meet slick straight lines to create an almost intimidatingly gorgeous building, arguably the best-looking Z-plan castle still surviving in Scotland. Cluny has consistently been in the hands of one branch or another of the Gordon family, even after one subsection was ousted for their participation in the Jacobite rebellion. Physical changes only truly began occurring on the property in the 19th century – a full 300 years after its initial construction – when Colonel Gordon took control. His descendants have continued the Colonel’s legacy, opening the castle up to corporate events and weddings in search of a fairytale venue. Although Cluny is not open to the public, its grounds are a stunning space to explore, full of lush greenery and giving incredible views of the building.