It is very interesting to take a look at the statistics about why people come to visit Scotland. As you work your way through the figures, for example you can find that less than 5% of visitors come for the food – and yet paradoxically over 50% of people report that they find the food to be outstanding. Clearly there is a paradox based on the fact that food quality has risen out of all recognition in recent years while Scotland’s reputation for quality food has not yet caught up with the reality. Visitors are amazed at the quality of food they are served, and in many ways it is probably better for the reality to exceed the expectation than the other way round!
For many years there has been one quite constant aspect of Scotland’s overseas appeal, one that creates both high expectation and high reality, and this can be headed The Castles of Scotland. For a high proportion of our visitors, Scotland’s castles are a prime reason to visit the country. Perhaps one reason why this might be the case is that there are so many castles. Another reason is that the castles are so diverse, no two are the same and indeed there is the full range from total ruins to well maintained and modernised. There is also the important element of historical significance – so often castles have become symbolic of particular historical events. One further point of interest is to do with the use of Scottish castles for the settings of modern films. If you combine all of these elements, and the fact that there are several hundred castles in Scotland, you can well imagine why visitors to these shores very often come along with a ‘Castle’ theme to their holiday.
Castles were built in Scotland during the Middle Ages; initially these were timber fortresses, but in the late 11th century stone was started to be used for their construction – very often on the site of the original timber fortress. Between the years of 1200 and 1800 castles were needed as defensive strongholds with major conflicts taking place between Highland clans, between English leaders and Scots, and specifically in relation to the Jacobite rising of 1745. For those ardent castle visitors there are 68 castles in the Highland region, 40 in Argyll and Bute, and 34 in Perth and Kinross. Many of these are no more than ruins, and some of them have been restored having been totally destroyed.
One of the best known castles in Scotland is Eilean Donan. This 13th century castle sits on a small island just off Loch Alsh which separates the Island of Skye from the mainland. The castle was believed to have been built as defence against the Vikings, and in the days when the seas were virtually the only means of transport the castles which had sea access would have been hugely important. Eilean Donan Castle was occupied by Spanish forces who came to support the Jacobite cause. The English learned of the presence of the Spanish troops and they sent three ships to bombard the castle. It took them three days to make any progress with their bombardment, partly as a result of the walls of the castle which faced the sea being fourteen feet thick. Eventually the Spanish surrendered, and when the English searched the castle they found a large store of gunpowder, which they used to blow it up. For nearly two hundred years the ruins of the castle remained until in 1932 the island and its ruins were bought by Lt Col John Macrae-Gilstrop who devoted the rest of his life to the reconstruction of Eilean Donan Castle. This is perhaps typical of the ebb and flow of fortunes that have faced many castles, and one of the reasons why they attract so much interest from visitors.
Edinburgh and Stirling castles have both been substantially restored, and both have been turned into substantial visitor centres. Hence they both play a major role in explaining the history of Scotland with specific reference of course to the events that took place within those walls. The notes on Stirling for example read a bit like a Who’s Who of personalities over the years including Alexander the First, Henry the Second, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, James the fifth, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert Burns!
Many castles are still lived in, and are not open to the public. For example, Craignish Castle and Ardmaddy Castle, both in Argyll and both in strategic sea-front positions. Ardmaddy was substantially rationalised in recent memory when a large part of it was demolished in order to create a dwelling more suited to today’s living. Duntrune Castle is also a lived-in sea-front castle in Argyll. Duntrune was built by the Clan MacDougall in the 12th century; it was later taken over by the Campbells, and finally was bought by the Malcolms of Poltalloch in 1792. There is said to be a ghost in Duntrune of a handless piper, whose hands were cut off by his masters the Campbells when they realised he was piping a tune as a form of warning to the MacDougalls who were in the process of launching an attack to take back the castle. During works carried out not long ago in Duntrune the skeleton of a handless man was discovered, giving full credibility to the story behind the ghost.
Some castles are lived in as well as being open to the public. Inveraray Castle is one such example. The Duke and Duchess of Argyll and their family live in one wing of the castle while the main part of the castle and grounds are open to the public. The Duke is often to be seen – and can be chatted to – as he works with his team in the visitor centre.
Many of Scotland’s castles have been used for the settings of well-known films. For example, Duart Castle – Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones and When Eight Bells Toll starring Anthony Hopkins. Doune Castle was the setting for two Monty Python films – the Holy Grail and Game of Thrones, as well as Outlander, and Inveraray Castle was used as the setting for the 2012 Christmas episode of Downton Abbey.
Clearly, the castles of Scotland serve as a pull for visitors having a range of interests. They represent a rich resource including focuses for research and centres for information, as well as subjects for some outstanding photographs!
Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.