Imagine stories of sword fighting, romance, wars, and intrigue, and you've got the makings for a dream vacation to Scotland to tour some of the hundreds of Scottish castles. We spent a few days in Scotland with my two oldest daughters in 2010 and toured Edinburgh castle, Stirling castle, and Tantallon castle. I fell in love with Scottish castles and the peaceful countryside, and I hope to return someday with the rest of my children.
If you were to plan a trip to tour Scottish castles, here are a few tips for planning your trip.
1. Visit a variety of Scottish castles.
We loved the larger, restored castles of Edinburgh and Stirling, but our favorite castle to explore was Tantallon castle on the North Sea. Tantallon castle was destroyed in 1651 when Oliver Cromwell led the British in an attack on Tantallon. This quiet castle is a scenic one-hour drive outside of Edinburgh.
Our favorite part about Tantallon was that we had the freedom to explore the entire castle on our own. We climbed circular stairways, went in prison cells, and climbed over the ruined walls. My daughters loved the freedom to explore and imagine what life in castle must have been like. Docents were available to answer questions, but we were able to explore everything on our own.
2. Dress warmly.
Scottish castles are fortresses usually set on hills to make them difficult to conquer. As such, they are often cold and windy. Scotland is notoriously rainy, but it was the bitter wind and cold in September that made me so grateful for my scarf. Even though we toured on 65 degree days, I was grateful for my lined jacket and especially for my neck scarf. It is hard to enjoy touring castles if you are freezing, so I cannot stress enough the importance of dressing for wind, cold, and perhaps rain, even in the summer.
3. Check the schedule carefully and arrive on time.
In the summer the castles are open fairly normal business hours, but in the spring and fall they have shortened hours and some close completely in the winter. We had a busy itinerary and watched our time carefully. When we arrived at Linlithgow Palace, we knew we only had 30 minutes to tour it before it closed at 5:30 p.m. However, we didn't know that they quit admitting guests at 5:00 p.m. We stood at the door at 5:01 knocking and no one would let us in. We enjoyed our walk around the outside of Linlithgow but were sad to miss seeing the ruins inside.
4. Take the tours.
We took a guided tour at both Edinburgh and Stirling castle, and I would highly recommend the guided tour as opposed to just walking through the larger castles. Our tour guides regaled us with stories of wars, treachery, and romance in their delightful Scottish brogue. The tours definitely brought the castles to life and helped us understand their significance in Scottish history.
Many of the larger castles offer guided tours as part of your admission.
5. Rent a car and drive through Scotland.
It may be daunting to drive on the left-hand side of the road, but if you are willing to try, Scotland is an easy country to drive in. The streets in Edinburgh are small and there are many one way streets, so I would recommend using the very efficient public transportation in the city. But when you want to leave the city and explore the Scottish castles, rent a car so you have flexibility to meander through the small towns, stop for fish and chips, and go to some of the smaller castles.
I loved driving through the green, pastoral countryside looking for highland coos.
6. Consider staying in a Scottish castle.
If you really want to immerse yourself in Scottish history, consider staying in a Scottish castle. Many castles and historic homes offer luxury accommodations.
7. Bring binoculars.
Since most castles are set on hills, you will have stunning views of land and sea. Bring binoculars for a better view of the amazing scenery.
Scotland's castles, palaces, abbeys, and ruins will entertain any family interested in history amidst beautiful surroundings. This is one dream vacation worth saving for!