Saturday, January 23, 2010

Some of my favorite castles of Scotland

As you can probably guess by now, I love castles! Today I'm going to list 12 of my favorite castles in Scotland. This was much harder than I thought it would be as I have so many favorites. These castles are not in any particular order and are not necessarily my top 12. I am going to present to you a mix of ruins, complete castles, fortifications, some open to the public and some inhabited. I did not include abbeys, cathedrals or any other type of historic sites. A castle is defined as private fortified residence of a lord or noble. What is the difference between a castle and a palace or mansion house? Palaces and mansions are stately homes, while a castle is built for fortification. Castles of course can also be stately homes but their main purpose is to protect and defend.
I am going to start appropriately enough with the first castle I ever visited in Scotland, Doune Castle. Doune is a 14th century stronghold in the central area of Scotland near Stirling. It is best known as the setting for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail but that is not why I like it. Most castles over the years go through many changes and updates but Doune has remained relatively unchanged in almost 700 years and gives a wonderful insight into castle life in medieval times. You can easily see where the family would have lived and the area of the castle for soldiers and servants. The kitchen with an oven large enough to walk into is one of my favorites. I have been to Doune numerous times and it still holds the same delight that it did for me on my first visit. Doune is owned by Historic Scotland and open to the public.
Next on the list is Caerlaverock Castle in the south of Scotland on the Solway Firth and was home to the Maxwell Clan. Caerlaverock is a 13th century moated castle built in a triangular plan with an immense twin tower gate house and imposing corner towers. I know of no other castle in Scotland with this shape. Although in ruins, there is enough of the castle left not only to marvel at its mighty presence but also to imagine its grandeur defined by the ornamental stonework that still dominates the interior of the castle. This castle is owned by Historic Scotland and open to the public.
Third on the list is the Castle of Mey. Constructed on a z-plan, the castle was built between 1566 and 1572 with corbelled turrets and jutting towers very typical of that period of the 16th century. I love anything to do with the Queen Mum who passed away in 2002 at the age of 101. In 1952 following the death of her husband, King George the VI, she heard that the castle was to be abandoned and decided to save it. She fell in love with its isolated charm as so many others have since. And isolated it is, as it is the most northerly inhabited castle on the British mainland. The Queen Mother renovated and restored it and for almost half a century she spent many happy summers here. As you walk in the front door you can almost see her standing on the stairway welcoming you in. This castle is privately owned and open to the public.
Fourth on the list is Glamis Castle as is only fitting since we have been talking about the Queen Mother who grew up in this castle. Glamis is the ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore and has been their home for over 600 years. Glamis is a fairytale castle but also has the reputation as the most haunted castle in Scotland! The castle has seen many additions, alterations and reconstructions as each generation of the Strathmore family attempted to make their mark. The end result is a romantic stronghold complete with turrets, towers and castellations. In the great hall, two small chairs flank the fireplace and were favorite seats of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Princess Margaret was born here in the apartment that was designed for the future Queen Mum and King George by her parents. This castle is privately owned and open to the public.
For our fifth castle we go back to ruins with Dunnottar Castle. This dramatic cliff top fortress is in a truly spectacular setting. Just outside of Stonehaven which is about 15 miles south of Aberdeen on the east coast, visiting this castle is not for everybody. After traveling the footpath from the car park you are met by a steep pathway with numerous steps that will take you down to the water only to be met by another set of steps that you must climb to the top of the cliff to visit the castle. The climb is well worth the effort if for nothing else but the views. The site of Dunnottar goes back in history thousands of yeas and the present castle played host to William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II. Most famously though, it was at Dunnottar Castle that a small garrison held out against the might of Cromwell's army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels from destruction. Dunnottar is privately owned and open to the public.
Our sixth castle is Crathes, a delightful fairytale castle with glorious formal gardens. Not far from Dunnottar in Aberdeenshire, this beautiful 16th century castle is one of the best preserved castles in Scotland and home to the Burnetts of Leys for over 350 years. With its portraits, oak ceilings, heraldic shields, Elizabethan fireplace and Jacobean painted ceilings, this castle interior is splendid! One of the most historic objects in the castle is the Horn of Leys, a jewelled ivory horn given by Robert the Bruce to the Burnetts in 1323 when he granted them the Lands of Leys. Crathes is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is open to the public.

Tomorrow, castles seven through twelve. I have tried to provide what we do on our tours which is a mix of castles of differing ages, uses and construction.

Shannon McDonald Tate

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