Plan a visit to the northeast coast of Scotland, rich with historic fortresses, stunning castles and the royal family’s famous summer residence
Dramatic cliffs, fairytale-pink castles and the the beloved summer home of Queen Elizabeth make the Aberdeenshire castles of Scotland a noble and fascinating holiday destination.
The most famous among them, Balmoral Castle has been the Scottish home of the British Royal Family, since 1852. The 50,000 acre estate was featured in season 4 of The Crown on Netflix. Lady Diana Spencer was first introduced to the Royal Family at Balmoral. A country girl at heart, she marches happily alongside Prince Philip as they hunt a stag on a sodden Scottish moor.
When we travelled to Scotland with our young teen boys, this land of castles and the Aberdeen seaside seemed an easy sell. We had also learned that one side of my husband’s family, the Pirie clan, came from Aberdeen, the largest city of the region.
Having visited, I can say that the Aberdeenshire Castles trail, rich in history, beautiful architecture and gorgeous scenery would appeal to many travelers.
There are more than 260 castles, stately homes and medieval ruins in the region; I’ve selected 10 of the most popular to share here, several of which we visited and others which are on my list for next time. I definitely intend to return to Scotland.
I’ve arranged them into a four-day itinerary of Aberdeenshire Castles. Tickets for each castle are purchased separately, online. However, if you plan to visit multiple castles, you may want to consider a membership with the National Trust of Scotland which preserves and manages six of the properties listed below: Crathes Castle, Craigievar Castle, Castle Fraser, Drum Castle, Leith’s Hall and Fyvie. National Trust of Scotland.
Note: Please check websites for latest information regarding hours, exhibits and whether masks are required.
Balmoral Castle, the summer residence of members of the royal family, is set in the stunning Cairngorms National Park, as shown on the map above. It’s ideally suited for the country life which the royal family has such an affinity for and was the beloved retreat of Queen Elizabeth who spent each August here.
The first home was built here in the 14th century, but the property wasn’t owned by the royal family until 1852 when Prince Albert purchased it for Queen Victoria.
How to Visit Balmoral Castle
When open, a one-hour tour takes guests inside the castle to the ballroom where important objects from around the castle have been placed on display. The Game Larder and Ice House are also a part of the tour, and afterward, guests are free to explore the grounds and gardens. Bookings must be made in advance at the Balmoral website.
Another special way to explore the estate, and view wildlife in the stunning national park, is on a Balmoral safari tour. Check the Balmoral website for the latest information.
And if you want to live like royalty for a few days, cottages are available for rent on the Balmoral property during certain times of the year, although booking doesn’t appear to be available as of fall 2022.
After Balmoral, Dunnottar Castle is a stark but stunning contrast. A ruined medieval fort set high on a rock cliff, surrounded on three sides by the North Sea. It was built between the 14th and 17th centuries, although the site was a part of Scottish history as far back as the 5th century when it was a Pictish fortress (the Picts were the Celtic people who lived in this this region in the early and middle ages.)
The castle is accessed by a narrow isthmus of land and stone-cut path which winds to the top with gorgeous views along the way.
It’s fun to meander among the ruins and imagine all that has happened here: the site has been besieged and invaded by the Vikings, and it was bunt and rebuilt more than once. Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1562 and Cromwell’s English army was held off, and the Scottish Crown Jewels saved from destruction.
And beyond all that, it is simply a stunning place to walk around. The ruins are interesting and the coastal views spectacular. Below the castle is a striking beach with tidepools that is also worth a visit, especially if you are with kids.
Dunnottar is a spectacular stop on the Aberdeeenshire Castles Trail, so I recommend prioritizing it on your itinerary. It is open as of late 2020, and tickets are only available for purchase online: Dunnottar Castle.
Drum Castle features one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, built in 1323. Climb the medieval tower to enjoy an amazing view of this historic estate and countryside. The property was built over centuries so represents various periods including a Jacobean mansion house and a Victorian library with a collection of 4,000 rare books.
The “Garden of Historic Roses” here has four unique rose garden areas – roses have grown here for 400 years! If this is of particular interest, the roses are best enjoyed in June and July. Drum also has a stunning stone chapel with stained glass windows; it’s a well-preserved gem dating to the 1500’s.
If you’ve always wanted to sleep in a castle, this is your chance. Drum Castle has a one-bedroom 16th century apartment located in its ancient courtyard. Sleep at Drum Castle.
Crathes castle may not be the most spectacular of the Aberdeenshire Castles, but the setting has a fantastical sort of “Alice in Wonderland” charm and setting.
Perhaps it’s the ancient yew hedges shaped into giant bulbous sculptures. Or maybe it’s the perfectly manicured croquet field with colorful gardens at its edge. It all made me feel as though the Queen of Hearts or Cheshire Cat might appear as we toured this pretty Scottish estate.
There is as much to see outside Crathes Castle and if you are lucky as we were, a chance to play croquet with members of the local croquet club. Allow extra time for some unexpected fun at Crathes.
A castle and fortress and one of the most impressive on this list, Fyvie is considered the finest example of Scottish Baronial architecture. It was owned by five successive families over 800 years with each adding a tower onto the castle.
Fyvie is very large and offers lots to explore including a walled garden and loch (a small lake), racquets court and bowling alley, ice house and bird hide.
Inside, are a collection of lavish oil paintings and portraits by Raeburn, Batoni, Romney, Gainsborough, Opie, Lawrence and Hoppner.
This impressive house is filled with interesting objects from around the world, the treasures of ten generations of the aristocratic Leith-Hay family. The building dates to 1650 and also has a military exhibition, which tells the story of generations of military men in the family. The house also served as an auxiliary hospital during World War I.
After exploring the castle, wander through the beautiful gardens, spiral mazes and wooded trails. There is also a shop and tearoom here.
This baroque mansion was built by architect William Adam; it was an ambitious and expensive project completed in 1735, after several delays and disagreements.
This house also has an eclectic recent history. It was sold by the family in 1906 and thereafter served as a hotel, and a sanatorium. During World War II it was an internment camp and a headquarters for Allied regiments. In 1940, a bombing raid by the German army damaged the house.
After extensive restoration work, Duff House opened to the public in 1995 as a country house art gallery. Visit to see the permanent artwork collection – a satellite of the National Galleries of Scotland – works by El Greco, Gainsborough, Raeburn and Ramsay, as well as important tapestries.
Castle Fraser dates to 1636 and features one of the largest tower houses in Scotland. This castle is beautifully preserved and decorated inside with a striking Great Hall.
This is well-suited to exploration by children with fun features such as secret staircases, trapdoors, a spy hole and a wooden leg. It also has a walled garden; all its features create a sort of magical castle of your imagination.
This gorgeous pink castle looks like something out of a fairytale; it feels as if Rapunzel might appear in the highest window and unfurl her hair. The architecture is a classic and beautiful example of the Scottish Baronial style, with iconic turrets. It remains one of the best-preserved of this style in Aberdeenshire and all of Scotland.
The castle is explored on a guided tour and it has a significant collection of art and artifacts, including paintings and an armory. There are also two hiking trails here: a 1.2 km walk and a 3.2 km hike.
Its tall narrow shape give it a unique and magical feeling. It’s said that Craigievar Castle was Walt Disney’s inspiration when he envisioned Cinderella’s Castle for Walt Disney World.
I didn’t make it to Tolquhon Castle but it’s said to be a fascinating ruin and beautiful site. You could skip this if you feel you’ve already seen a castle ruin at Dunnottar. Conversely, if the drama of the Dunnottar ruins were especially enjoyable for your group, make a stop at Tolquhon.
As with other castles on the tour, the oldest part of the castle is a tower house, said to be built by Sir John Forbes in 1420. What remains of the castle today was finished in 1589.
Although ruined castles don’t have all of the details that tell a story of the daily life of the people who once lived here, the dramatic remains offer inspiration for the imagination.
Visit Scotland is a wonderful resource for planning a trip to see the Aberdeenshire Castles, as well as the rest of Scotland.
Where to Stay near Balmoral & Castle Trail
We stayed in a gorgeous Scottish country house with gorgeous views in all directions. The Raemoir House is only half an hour from Aberdeen which has an international airport. From here, you are in the midst of Scottish Castle country and about 40 minutes to Balmoral Castle. (I’ve marked the location on the map at the top of the story.)
The original house dates to 1690 and all the main rooms have an open fire; we visited in June and enjoyed the expansive lawn and sitting outside, but this would be perfect in winter. After a day of site seeing I felt as if we had stepped into a Victorian novel as we enjoyed a cocktail and played games in the stunning Oval Room with its Victorian flocked-velvet walls and old family portraits.
The house has a gorgeous formal dining room and for a more casual meal with the kids, we loved the Big Fish bar (pictured above). The big catch and celebrity of the bar weighs 96 pounds apparently. He sits above a well appointed and stocked whiskey cabinet.
The property is set on 14 acres of secluded wood with walking trails nearby. A lovely hike to the top of the hill offers views of the North Sea in the distance.
It was a little pricey, as we needed two rooms since we were traveling with the boys, but it was a worthwhile indulgence and highlight of our time in the UK. And the prefect place from which to explore the stunning castles of Aberdeenshire.
Scotland Car Rental
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We rented our car in Scotland with EuropCar and were very happy with the car, the price and the service. I’ve found the biggest way to save money is to reserve well ahead (most car reservations can be cancelled for free). Car rental pricing is dynamic – as demand increases closer to the date, so does the price.
A couple of things to keep in mind about UK car rentals: Not everyone is comfortable driving in the UK, on the left side of the road. My husband is fine with it, I’m not. Secondly, cars in the UK and Europe more often have standard transmission; if you want an automatic, you will have to request it specifically, and double-check they have it available.
Find more information and quotes at: EuropCar.