Clans & Castles
Scottish clans, dating back to the 12th century, were originally extended networks of families who had loyalties to a particular chief. In Scotland a clan is still a legally recognised group with an official clan chief.
Clan names are usually associated with land: an area of Scotland where the clan lived. The clans lived off the land, with cattle being their main source of wealth and, along with border disputes, the prime cause of inter-clan unrest. The most important clan chiefs held power over the lands within their control, acting as a king, protector and judge. If a clan chief expanded territory, the new peoples swearing him allegiance often took the clan name so the history of clans is complex and interwoven.
The clan system was the main political system in Scotland until the time of the battle of Culloden in 1746, when the Jacobite rebellion was crushed by the royal troops of King George II. The Highland Clearances were key to the ending of the clan system. Thousands of Scots emigrated to the New World, seeking a better life.
Visit www.scotclans.com for more information.
There are many castles in the North Highlands, some now in private hands, others where, given time, you can visit. Below we have given a brief outline of some of the castles that are currently open to the public.
The Castle of Mey (formerly Barrogill Castle) is located in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland, just over 100 miles from Invergordon.
Royal residence: The castle was in a semi-derelict state when, in 1952, it and its policies were purchased by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, the widow of King George VI who had died earlier in the year. The Queen Mother set about restoring the castle for use as a holiday home, removing some of the 19th century additions, and reinstating the Castle's original name. She regularly visited it in August and October from 1955 until her death in March 2002, the last visit being in October 2001.
In July 1996 The Queen Mother made the property, the policies and the farm over to the Queen Elizabeth Castle of Mey Trust, which has opened the castle and garden to the public regularly since her death.
Cawdor Castle is set amid gardens, approximately 10 miles (16 km) east of Inverness and 35 miles from Invergordon. www.cawdorcastle.com The castle is built around a 15th century tower house, with substantial additions in later centuries. Originally a property of the Clan Calder, it passed to the Campbells in the 16th century. It remains in Campbell ownership, and is now home to the Dowager Countess Cawdor, stepmother of Colin Campbell, 7th Earl Cawdor.
The castle is perhaps best known for its literary connection to William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, in which the title character is made "Thane of Cawdor". However, the story is highly fictionalised, and the castle itself, which is never directly referred to in Macbeth, was built many years after the life of the 11th century King Macbeth.
Cawdor Castle Gardens: The castle is known for its gardens, which include the Walled Garden (originally planted in the 17th Century), the Flower Garden (18th century), and the Wild Garden (added in the 1960’s).
Dunrobin Castle www.dunrobincastle.co.uk is a stately home in Sutherland, and the family seat of the Earl of Sutherland and the Clan Sutherland. It is located 1 mile (1.6 km) north of Golspie, and approximately 30 miles from Invergordon.
Dunrobin's origins lie in the Middle Ages, but most of the present building and the gardens were added by Sir Charles Barry between 1835 and 1850. Some of the original building is visible in the interior courtyard, despite a number of expansions and alterations that made it the largest house in the north of Scotland.
Dunrobin Castle railway station, on the Far North Line, was opened in 1870, as a private station for the castle. The present waiting room was constructed in 1902.
Since 1973, the house and grounds have been open to the public, with private accommodation retained for the use of the Sutherland family.
Dunrobin Castle Gardens: The gardens, completed in 1850, have taken inspiration from the French formal style of the Gardens of Versailles. Each parterre is set around a circular pool with a fountain, with the essential layout the same since it was created in around 1848. Regular falconry displays are held in the gardens.
Museum: The museum retains its Victorian-Edwardian arrangement, and is housed in an 18th century summer-house adjoining the formal gardens. In it are displayed the trophy heads of animals, from around the world, shot by family members and an important collection of archaeological artifacts.
Eilean Donan Castle www.eileandonancastle.com sits on a small tidal island where three lochs meet, Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh, in the western Highlands, about 80 miles from Invergordon. Since the castle's restoration in the early 20th century, a footbridge has connected the island to the mainland.
The castle was founded in the 13th century, and became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan Macrae. In the early 18th century, the Mackenzies' involvement in the Jacobite rebellions led in 1719 to the castle's destruction by government ships. Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap's 20th century reconstruction of the ruins produced the present buildings.
Urquhart Castle www.urquhart-castle.co.uk sits beside Loch Ness in the Highlands. It is approximately 13 miles south-west of Inverness.
The present ruins date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, though built on the site of an early medieval fortification. Founded in the 13th century, Urquhart played a role in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century. It was subsequently held as a royal castle, and was raided on several occasions by the MacDonald Earls of Ross. The castle was granted to the Clan Grant in 1509, though conflict with the MacDonald’s continued. Despite a series of further raids the castle was strengthened, only to be largely abandoned by the middle of the 17th century. Urquhart was partially destroyed in 1692 to prevent its use by Jacobite forces, and subsequently decayed. In the 20th century it was placed in state care and opened to the public: it is now one of the most-visited castles in Scotland.
We have listed below a number of the castles which are now in private ownership.
Ackergill Tower (or Ackergill Castle) is located north of Wick, Caithness. It was built in the early 16th century, and is a category ‘A’ listed building. Ackergill Tower is a five-storey oblong tower house. The four-storey wing to the rear was added in the early 18th century. The property was run as a luxury hotel for many years but was closed and returned to private ownership in 2018.
Ardross Castle The 1st Duke of Sutherland bought Ardross in the late 1700s, and built a hunting lodge. In 1845, the 2nd Duke sold the estate to Alexander Matheson and since then the castle has been sold on a number of times. It is currently used as a conference and wedding venue.
Balnagown Castle is located beside the village of Kildary in Easter Ross. There has been a castle on the site since the 14th century, although the present building was remodelled in the 18th and 19th centuries. Balnagown is the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan Ross, although since the 1970’s it has been owned by the Egyptian-born businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed.
Carbisdale Castle was built in 1907 for the Duchess of Sutherland on a hill across the Kyle of Sutherland from Invershin in the Scottish Highlands. Until 2011 it was used as a youth hostel, operated by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. The hostel closed for repair in 2011, and has subsequently been sold as a private residence.
Foulis Castle is situated five miles south-west of Alness in Ross and Cromarty. It is a white washed mansion that incorporates an old tower house with gun loops. The castle was held by the Clan Munro from the 12th century or earlier and they had a stronghold there. At the entrance to Foulis Castle, note the golden eagles on each pillar, symbols of the Clan Munro. The castle remains the family home of the Munro’s.
Inverness Castle sits on a cliff overlooking the River Ness, in Inverness. The red sandstone structure evident today was built in 1836. It is built on the site of an 11th century defensive structure. There has been a castle at this site for many centuries. The castle itself is not currently open to the public, however a recent development has led to the Castle Viewpoint which now offers spectacular views of Inverness, looking south over the River Ness and beyond and north over the Ness Bridge towards the Black Isle. The castle was home to Inverness Sheriff Court which recently relocated, allowing the castle to be developed as a top tourist destination, which currently has a planned opening date in 2025.
Skibo Castle is located to the west of Dornoch in Sutherland, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. Although the castle dates back to the 12th century, the present structure is largely of the 19th century, and early 20th century, when it was the home of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. It is now operated as the Carnegie Club, a members-only hotel and country club.
Teaninich Castle is situated just to the south of Alness. It is not known exactly how long a castle has been on the site of Teaninich Castle but it is thought to date back to at least the 16th century. It was bought by the Munro’s in February 1660, the receipt for which is still preserved in the Teaninich Charter Chest. Two worn lintel stones dated 1734 and 1770 built into the rear of the present castle cum mansion suggest an earlier building of some size and style.
Tulloch Castle is situated in Dingwall and possibly dates from the 12th century, when the Bains and later the Clan Davidson laid claim to its lands. Over the years, it has served as a home for members of the Bain family, Clan Davidson, and the Vickers family. It was used as a hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk, and as a hostel for the local education authority. It is currently used as a hotel and conference centre. The castle retains many of its period features, including the 250-year old panelled Great Hall, and painstakingly restored original fireplaces and ceilings. It is also rumoured to be haunted.