Exploring Castles in Scotland







When I mentioned dinner in a castle dungeon, I got my grandsons’ attention.

And as enticing as it was to see, as we entered the former dungeon, an exact replica of King Robert the Bruce’s weighty sword used in the first war of Scottish independence at nearby Stirling, it was only one of the Scottish castle memories in the Highlands of Scotland—not to mention Harry Potter’s railroad—that will hopefully bring them back to the land of their ancestors one day.


A suit of armor presides over guests at Dalhousie Castle’s dungeon dining room.


My grandsons Oliver and Henry at the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Taking my grandsons Oliver, 12, and Henry, 9 (along with their parents—my son, George York, and his wife—and their aunt, my youngest daughter, Alice York) to Scotland was a dive into the country’s history. Scottish castles, whether rising on islands as strongholds or in mists across the moors, are an integral part of the often rugged landscape. Whether medieval fortresses, turreted Gothic Revivals or single defensive towers, it is estimated that there were 3000 castles in Scotland’s history, with 1500 remaining today. For the two boys, castles evoke legends of heroic knights, powerful wizards, fierce creatures, epic battles, and long-ago adventures.

The castle is indeed a metaphor for Scotland. Its mountainous and even treacherous terrain surround something vastly worthy of protection. The peaks of the Highlands majestic monuments to the brave denizens of this magnificent place. Scottish history is replete with repeated episodes of incursion followed by surrender to the understanding that Scotland cannot be conquered—just ask the Romans, the Vikings, and many other forces who all eventually decided to surrender to all that is sublime about this land of castles.


Highlands waterfall.

After a short visit in London, the fast train took us to Edinburgh where we visited our first castle, the most famous of all in Scotland. Set on a towering crag at the head of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle has repelled many assaults on its ramparts, and its great cannon, Mons Meg, one of the world’s largest canons by caliber and first outfitted in 1449, attracted Henry and Oliver’s quick attention. It still fires daily at 1 pm, heralding a moment’s reflection of the bravery, sacrifice, and proud history of Scotland.


Edinburgh Castle.


Oliver and George stand in front of the impressive Mons Meg.

Queen Margaret, who was later made a saint, died at the castle in 1093. The tiny chapel built by her son, King David I, is Edinburgh’s oldest building. Mary Queen of Scots chose to give birth to her son, James VI, in this royal palace in 1566 because of its protected position. The Scottish crown jewels on exhibit are the oldest in Britain, and most moving is the smooth Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, used for centuries to inaugurate monarchs, including the first king of Alba (Scotland’s original name), Kenneth MacAlpine, in 843. It was seized in 1296 by King Edward l of England and rested in Westminster Abbey until 1996 when it was officially returned to Scotland.

Choosing to travel to the Highlands over spring vacation meant that we could take advantage of excellent winter rates at the two castles where we stayed and see others from less crowded vantage points. May through September are its busiest times, but we found the daffodils bursting forth as well as the beginnings of the yellow gorse that cover the countryside in May. Thanks to the Gulf Stream the flows around the nearby Hebrides islands nearby, the temperature was pleasant “sweater weather.”


Ben Nevis.

With Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom, as a backdrop, we enjoyed two nights at the 19th-century Inverlochy Castle near Fort William in the central western Highlands. During a trip to Balmoral in 1873, Queen Victoria spent a week at Inverlochy sketching and painting and wrote in her diaries: “I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot.” We heeded the warnings about climbing Ben Nevis hearing that there are more climbing accidents there than on Everest because people don’t come prepared for often icy conditions and steep climbs. Some sportsmen staying at the castle seemed to prefer a game of snooker in the billiards room. Though snooker tables are larger than pool tables, their six holes for sinking the 21 balls are smaller. But the children preferred outdoor chessboard.


The children enjoying a game of outdoor chess.

We decided to stick to a tour beginning on Loch Linnhe, a sea loch (lake) close to Fort William. We learned that in this almost deserted terrain several movies had been shot depicting many eras due to the area’s rugged and isolated beauty. Not far from the boats to the Isle of Skye, there’s a viaduct made famous by the Harry Potter movies (over which you can ride the Jacobite train known as the Harry Potter Express); the legendary Ossian’s Cave, high on the face of the Three Sisters Mountains featured in a James Bond movie; and Rannoch Moor, with its boggy terrain created during the last ice age. Known most recently as a filming location for the Outlander TV series, it has a trivia history as well: it’s the ancestral home of Scrooge McDuck!

Seeing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, built from 1897 to 1901, was a delight for Oliver and Henry who adored the exhibits at Warner Brothers “Making of Harry Potter” studios near London. Our guide shared that visitors to the viaduct fall mostly into two categories: wizarding cape-wearing Potter fans and history buffs (and it is quite easy to tell the two factions apart).


George and the children stand in front of The Knight Bus at the Harry Potter Studios in England.

The history of the region, first settled 5000 years ago, is rich in military victories and defeats and, of course, battles of the clans. The Picts lived in the region during the Iron Age and got their name from the Romans, probably due to their tattooing. Due to the rugged terrain created by the retreating glaciers, the Romans chose not to settle in this wide area that spans all the way up to John o’ Groats in the far north of Scotland.


MacDonald Castle.

The ruined castle, pictured above, proved fascinating, with its tales of family rivalry: that of the MacDonald and Campbell clans that terminated in the Massacre at Glencoe. The Earl of Argyll’s regiment, led by Campbells, were the guests of the MacDonalds, and proceeded to slaughter 38 of their hosts and other guests. The MacDonalds had refused to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs, William III and Mary II. The feud is still discussed to this day with generations of Scots told “never trust a Campbell.”  Scotland’s favorite poet, Sir Walter Scott memorialized the massacre.

Dinners at Inverlochy couldn’t have been more delicious. George particularly enjoying “tucking in” to the full Scottish breakfasts, complete with haggis, while the kids stuck with the pancakes and brown sugar-sprinkled oatmeal. Dinner included beautifully plated courses overseen by Chef Michael Roux Jr. For Scotch lovers a separate bar featured an amazing collection, including the popular Ben Nevis variety (Alice and I stuck with their impressive selection of teas). And we were sure to try the “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes) while in the area.


Inverlochy Castle. Photo courtesy of Inverlochy Castle.


A view of the parlor at Inverlochy.


The hotel’s full Scottish breakfast.

Across the countryside, signs are in both English and Gaelic, as a nod to the region’s heritage, although it is estimated that only one percent of the Scottish population—more on Skye and islands in the Inner Hebrides—speak it. Speaking of road signs, if driving, know that the roads are quite narrow—proceed with caution.

In nearby Glencoe and at many restaurants along the lochs, the seafood is incredible: tiny scallops, lobster, clams, and wonderful oysters, not to mention terrific fish and chips.

Our ancestors, the Carmacks, who were members of the Buchanan clan, lived along the shores of Loch Lomond. From the stark northern terrain to the gentle farmland graced with newborn yews as we drove towards Perth, we could see why this striking landscape is one of Scotland’s most famous. After lunch along the Loch, we drove through Stirling, known as the gateway to the Highlands from the Lowlands, which served as the original home of the Scone of Destiny and the early seat of Scottish Kings. The tall monument to William Wallace, the great hero in the battle for Scottish independence (and made iconic in our modern era by the movie Braveheart), can be seen in the distance. We regretted that we couldn’t stop to learn more about the Battle of Stirling Bridge led by Wallace in 1297.


Loch Lomond.


Aldie Castle.

The day’s destination, and the challenge for all, was discovering Aldie Castle, home of ancestors from the Mercer family, one of whom came to the United States in time to fight with General Washington. Using map coordinates and the advice of a woman we met on a back road, we found Aldie Castle at a distance. George had visited when he was just six with his grandmother, my mother, Bonnie Carmack, who, without Google in those days, found it by asking at the local post office. Granny, as Bonnie was known to her grandchildren, was an inspiration for the entire trip and this particular day’s journey. With her spirit in our hearts, and her binoculars at the ready, she also helped guide us—her daughter, two of her grandchildren, and two of her great-grandchildren—to  our destination.

This was all on the way to Dalhousie Castle, just outside of Edinburgh, for that special dinner in the dungeon, surrounded by armor and swords, and a night’s stay at the hotel and spa, the oldest inhabited castle in Scotland with foundations laid 800 years ago.


Dalhousie Castle.


The famous dungeon dining room.


The key to one of our cozy rooms, complete with four poster beds and in-room tea kettles.

While many other fabulous sites, the newly-born lambs cavorting in the Highlands, and marvelous dining, are part of our Scottish memories, the castles linger most to each of us across these three generations: “These castles are the beating hearts of this country.  They are where heroes defended their home and established a national identity. You feel that you are a part of history,” George said. “You feel your boots sink into the marsh as you look across the loch to the castle on the opposite shore. You feel the brightness of the sun, the dampness in the air, and see the rocky glistening in the clouds. Standing here in this place with family, it’s an experience that imprints on your DNA, being able to return to honor our ancestors, and to introduce your children to them. It is that connection that makes this trip truly special.”


Photos courtesy of the York and Bross families and the Public Domain unless otherwise noted.