When it comes to exploring castles in Scotland, there is nowhere like the county of Aberdeen. With more castles per square mile than in any other county, this corner of Scotland is unbeatable for both historic ruins and fully functioning fortresses.
With over 300 of them, from coastal fortresses to sprawling country manors, Aberdeenshire has the only Castle Trail in the country which comprises 19 of the most dramatic and magnificent sites. Heritage, wonder and intrigue - coupled with fantastic architecture - provide a rich and exciting experience that is not to be missed. Discover the dramatic and sometimes macabre stories that bring alive the rich history of these remarkable fortresses.
We have whittled down our favourites which will lead you through Aberdeenshire from atmospheric, imposing ruins to residences fit for royalty.
Enjoy exploring some of Aberdeenshire’s most extraordinary castle ruins: evocative and eerie and a reminder of Scotland’s long, noble and complicated history.
Considered one of the most picturesque of the castles in the Grampian countryside, Tolquhon Castle was mostly built in the late 16th century and now consists of imposing ruined structures – although the Tower House built around 1400 is still visible.
Found just off the B999 between Tarves and Pitmedden and standing sentry within palatial grounds, the castle impresses with its striking gatehouse, a real gem built not to deter, but to amaze – which it still does today. In the 1580s, the owner Sir William Forbes instructed the expansion of the existing tower house which was built by master mason Thomas Leiper, whose initials can still be seen on the exterior of the main house – unusual as it was rare for a medieval architect to sign his work. The adaption made the castle an awe-inspiring residence, with lavish details such as fine carvings of Forbes and his wife.
You can also visit Forbes’ tomb in Tarves kirkyard, a mile and a half away from the house. Decorated with elaborately carved stone effigies of himself and his wife Elizabeth Gordon, it is one of the best examples of Scotland’s so-called Jacobean ‘glorious tombs’.
Exploring this fantastic site is an adventure through time; the structure is complete enough to imagine all that passed in its grounds – and make sure you hunt out the secret compartment in the laird’s quarters where he hid his valuables!
Where to stay nearby
Wardhill Castle | sleeps 16 | from £6,500/week
A fitting setting for a tour of Aberdeenshire's castle ruins, this 12th-century castle is in far better shape than the ones you'll be visiting. It has been recently refurbished to provide high-quality accommodation and is surrounded by one of the oldest private estates in the area. Sleeping 16, it's a great location for a luxurious and extra-special holiday.
Perched on a dramatic cliff some 160ft above the North Sea, Dunnottar Castle conveys a very simple message: “Don’t mess with me.” Impregnable and brooding, this ruined cliff top fortress was the home of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland.
Its dramatic location has made it attractive and mysteriously alluring, giving a history steeped in intrigue and mystery. Attacked by Vikings in 900; recaptured by William Wallace from Edward I in 1297; visited by Mary Queen of Scots in 1562 – the castle has had its fair share of historically important action. Most significantly, it hid the Scottish crown jewels from Cromwell’s forces before they were smuggled out of the castle via the cliffs to a local woman pretending to be collecting seaweed.
Today, it’s an awe-inspiring crumbling ruin and one of Aberdeenshire’s most treasured viewpoints. Less than 2 miles from Stonehaven, it is a must-see location for anyone on the Castle Trail. However, reaching the castle involves climbing over 200 steps (and the same number back down again) so access for those with limited mobility is not possible. That said, some of the best views of the castle are from the surrounding cliffs, and distance allows true appreciation of the substantial size of the structure.
Film lovers may recognise it from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1991 film Hamlet, for which it was used as a set, and the chances of spotting sea puffins or dolphins from the castle ramparts are high. Evocatively haunting, Dunnottar Castle is an iconic tourist destination for visitors the world over, and its dramatic silhouette against an evening sky will stay with you long after you have left.
Where to stay nearby
Fawsyde House | sleeps 16 | from £3,000/week | dog-friendly
This large Victorian mansion house is built in the style of a Scottish hunting lodge and even boasts its own Gothic folly. With opulent interiors and a blend of classical and contemporary style, it's the perfect base for a special Scotland getaway. All bedrooms have en-suite facilities, giving every guest a touch of luxury.
Located on the coast of Cruden Bay, Slains Castle is a monument to what happens to ruins when they surrender to nature. Abandoned and roofless, with crashing waves on the rocks below and the eerie wails of gulls on the wind, it is not surprising that Slains Castle leaves people feeling a little spooked.
Since its construction in 1597 by the Earl of Erroll, the castle has been reconstructed many times; the stark ruin visible today is the result of the castle’s location and various misfortunes of the owners over time. The Earls of Errol were an influential family in the Cruden Bay area for many years but sold the castle to Sir John Ellerman when they fell upon hard times in 1919. Sir John gave up the castle in 1925 and the roof was removed to avoid paying taxes – perhaps not as sinister as some might think!
The imposing location and the destitution of Slain Castle have played on the imagination of many a visitor, conjuring images of this cliffside fortress in its glory days. The front of the castle lies directly along the edge of the cliffs, while its rear is protected from unwanted guests by a deep cleft that cuts into the cliffs as far as the main road. The heart of the castle is the courtyard, and winding intersecting corridors lead around rooms so deeply carpeted in nettles that it takes some time to work out whether they were originally outside or inside.
Slains Castle today is a slightly unsettling place, however it must have always had a bit of an air of mystery, as it’s said to have inspired the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which he wrote following a visit in the 19th century. Foreboding and a monument to coastal Aberdeen’s heritage, Slains Castle can really begin to play on the imagination.
Where to stay nearby
Newton House | sleeps 14 | from £2,050/week | dog-friendly
This stylish large house sleeps 14 in recently refurbished accommodation. The large wood burner is a welcoming warmth after a day of exploring, and the peaceful setting of rolling countryside all around can’t help but relax you. Overall, Newton House is a great base from which to explore this fantastic part of Scotland.
Remarkable because of its splendid architecture, the once magnificent, sumptuous and ornate Huntly Castle served as a baronial residence and stronghold for five centuries. Over a period of 600 years, this site saw four different castles and was attacked at least eight times – and it has the scars to prove it.
Majestically sited at the confluence of the rivers Bogie and Deveron, on the outskirts of the pretty market town of Huntly, the many different developments make exploring the ruins fascinating. The south range of the castle today still stands to full wall height, with partial remains of the east range visible, as well as a brewhouse and bakehouse in the courtyard.
The earliest stronghold on the site sheltered Robert the Bruce in the 14th century – quite a claim to fame! Huntly Castle is ornate in its stonework which is designed to incite awe, and exquisite carved stonework is apparent in three areas. The first can hardly be missed as it is the inscribed stone frieze on the front of the palace. The second is the magnificent frontispiece stretching vertically above the main entrance to the palace on the courtyard side; highly coloured and designed to impress visitors, it is unparalleled anywhere else in Britain. The third is the carved heraldic fireplaces in the lodgings of the marquis and marchioness on the second floor of the palace.
With stairs to climb, views to enjoy, and cellars to explore, the breadth of history in this one place is fantastic. Throw in the haunting of the Green Lady, the ghost of a girl who found herself with a child but no husband and committed suicide, and Huntly Castle is not to be missed.
Where to stay nearby
Scotstonhill Farmhouse | sleeps 8 | from £795/week | dog-friendly
Within an hour’s drive towards the coast at Lossiemouth, you will find this modernised and renovated house that sleeps eight; the ideal accommodation for family holidays and for a group of friends who are looking to spend some time sightseeing in Moray and the surrounding area. Enjoy the spacious bedrooms, the cosy wood burner and a soak in the hot tub after a long day exploring all on offer.
Walk the castle ruins and you’ll uncover Scotland’s illustrious and sometimes gruesome past. There is a remarkable story in every historic restoration, and despite war, bankruptcy and many attempts to desecrate and destroy, these battered garrisons stand resolute against the test of time and centuries of savage assault from the remorseless North Sea. A visit to see the vestiges of Scotland’s remarkable fortresses is unmissable.
We have lots of other self-catering holiday homes in Aberdeenshire – discover our full range today.