What is the oldest castle in Scotland?

Written by Chris Thornton | 19th of March 2024
The oldest castle in Scotland?

The oldest castle in Scotland is Castle Sween on the west coast of Argyll (pictured above), which dates back to the 1100s!

Scottish castles fascinate me, and I'm on a personal mission to visit them all on my travels around Scotland. It's unbelievable to think that Castle Sween is over 900 years old; and still mostly in its original form instead of being built upon over time.

Castles are perhaps the most potent symbols in Scottish history. From the highlands to the lowlands, the remnants of these stunning structures speak volumes about the country's history, architecture, and the people who once graced their halls. In this article, we will take a journey back in time and explore some of the oldest castles in Scotland - their origins, architectural styles, historical significance, and the roles they continue to play today.

In this article, I will outline thirteen of the oldest castles in Scotland.

The Concept of a Castle

The term' castle' often conjures images of towering stone structures with turrets, ramparts, a drawbridge, and a moat. While this image is not entirely incorrect, it simplifies a complex and diverse range of structures developed across different eras and geographical locations.

In its most fundamental sense, a castle is a private fortified residence of a lord or noble. These structures were predominantly built during the Middle Ages, primarily in Europe and the Middle East. The key features of a traditional castle are its fortified nature and its residential purpose, usually for the local lord or king.

Early castles in Scotland were known as motte-and-bailey castles, were made of wood and were built atop raised earthworks. The transition from these early wooden structures to stone castles occurred gradually over the Middle Ages. Stone was a more durable material and offered better protection against attacks. It was also a visible and powerful symbol of the wealth and strength of the castle's owner.

Scottish castles evolved significantly over time. The earliest fortifications, such as Dunadd Fort, were hillforts or brochs – tall, round towers built in the Iron Age. As we progress into the Middle Ages, we see the construction of stone keeps and tower houses, such as Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. Eventually, these structures were further developed into complex castellated palaces with extensive defensive walls and elaborate living quarters.

Each phase in castle design represents advancements in architectural techniques and changes in society, particularly the methods of warfare and the structure of social hierarchy.

Auchindoun Castle, a fortified castle.
Auchindoun Castle.

What are the oldest castles in Scotland?

Let's look at Scotland's oldest castles in the youngest to oldest order.

Dunvegan Castle - 1266

Location: Isle of Skye.

Nestled amongst the Isle of Skye's rolling hills and rugged coastlines lies a castle with a rich and storied history. Dunvegan Castle is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland and has been the home of the Chiefs of the Clan MacLeod for over 800 years. From its origins as a formidable fortress, the castle has evolved into an award-winning estate with formal gardens and charming holiday cottages.

The castle's history is not the only thing that makes it a must-see destination. Visitors can also take a boat trip to see the Loch Dunvegan seal colony, browse the castle's shops for quality local and Scottish gifts, or enjoy a bite to eat at the MacLeod Tables Cafe. With so much to see and do, it's no wonder that Dunvegan Castle is a beloved destination for tourists and history buffs alike.

Dunvegan Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///gossiped.jobs.coarser

Dunvegan Castle, Skye.
Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye.

Findlater Castle - 1200

Location: Cullen/Portsoy, Aberdeenshire

This ancient castle ruin can be found on the Moray Firth Coast between Cullen and Portsoy in northeast Scotland, and it's quite unique as it is built into the hillside of a small rocky peninsula. The castle is famous for its links to Viking invasions and Mary Queen of Scots.

One point of interest is the castle's completely refurbished doocot (Dovecot), which was used as a food source for the castle.

Findlater is not maintained at all, so it's definitely one you should visit before it completely disintegrates into the sea.

Findlater Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///hotdog.unspoiled.hobbies

Findlater Castle
The cliffside castle of Findlater. Photo John Luckwell.

Aberdour Castle - 1200

Location: Aberdour, Fife.

Built by the Douglas family in the 13th century, this fortified residence has stood the test of time, with additions and renovations made in the following centuries. As you explore the castle's impressive suite of buildings, dating from the 12th to the 17th century, take note of the grand hall-house, believed to be one of the oldest standing stone castles in Scotland.

Beyond the castle walls, a picturesque walled garden beckons. Filled with fragrant flowers and a charming beehive-shaped doocot, it is the perfect spot for a tranquil stroll. Guided tours in the summer months offer the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the castle's history, with highlights including the beautifully preserved painted ceiling in the east range, dating back to the early 17th century.

Aberdour Castle was also used as an Outlander filming location; fans of the hit TV will recognise it as Sainte Anne de Beaupré's monastery in France.

Aberdour Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///depending.solo.risk

Aberdour Castle
Aberdour Castle.

Castle Roy - 1190

Location: Nethy Bridge, Highlands

Castle Roy is a very old castle located just north of Nethy Bridge in the Scottish Highlands and not far from the beautiful Loch Garten. Over the last 30 years, the castle has been renovated and, since 2022, has been accessible to visitors.

Murdo the Highland cow stands guard outside, ample parking and picnic tables are available, a great place to stop while travelling the A95.

Castle Roy on Google Maps | What3words: ///filed.treaties.seatbelt

Castle Roy
Castle Roy, newly opened to visitors in 2022.

Castle of Old Wick - 1160

Location: Wick, Highlands

This remarkably well-preserved fortress is believed to have been constructed by Harald Maddadson, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, around 1160. The Earl, who was of both Norse and Scottish descent, may have made Old Wick his chief residence on the mainland.

The castle's tower stands tall and imposing, a testament to its storied past. The ground floor would have been used for storage, while the hall was located on the first floor, and private chambers for the Earl and his family resided even higher. Visitors to Old Wick today will notice that the only entrance was once through a ladder that led to the first-floor hall on the seaward side, though this wall has since collapsed, and now the entrance to the castle is through a gap in the walls into the ground floor storage area.

As you explore the castle's interior, you may notice no signs of internal stairs, indicating that ladders were used to move from floor to floor. Additionally, there is no trace of fireplaces, suggesting that central braziers heated the rooms.

Wick Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///certified.selection.left

Castle of Old Wick
Castle of Old Wick.

Lochmaben Castle - 1160

Location: Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway

Lochmaben Castle can be found west of Lockerbie on a neck of land on the south side of Castle Loch.

There are two castles named Lochmaben Castle; the first was built in the 1160s by the Bruce family, ancestors of Robert the Bruce and is considered a possible location for his birthplace. The first castle was originally situated upon a motte but was later superseded by a superior castle built by Edward I in 1299.

The ruin of Lochmaben Castle is hard to make out, with scraps of walls scattered over a large site, but the Historic Environment Scotland information plaque explains the layout well.

Lochmaben Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///fractions.mallets.shielding

Lochmaben Castle
Lochmaben Castle.

Foulis Castle - 1154

Location: Evanton, Easter Ross

Foulis Castle is the ancestral home of Clan Munro. Originally, a tower was constructed here in 1154, but the Munros transformed it into a much larger imposing castle. Although the castle today has much more modern Georgian features, the original remnants of the castle still remain, and through excavations, original 6ft walls were discovered.

Foulis Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///recur.dark.choppy

Foulis Castle
Foulis Castle.

Cubbie Roo's Castle - 1145

Location: Wyre, Orkney

Cubbie Roo's Castle is a haunting reminder of the tumultuous past that once plagued Orkney. One of the oldest examples of its kind in Scotland, the castle was constructed as the stronghold of Viking warrior Kolbein Hruga. It is believed to have been a towering three-storey structure offering strategic views over Gairsay Sound and the surrounding landscape.

The imposing walls, which are nearly two meters thick, along with ramparts, ditches, and stone, all attest to the castle's formidable defences. It is said that Kolbein Hruga never had to defend his castle, but one of his descendants did survive a long siege at the site a century after his death. Eventually, the castle was abandoned in the early 16th century.

The castle's modern name, Cubbie Roo, derived from Orkney folklore, refers to a giant from tall tales passed down through the generations.

Cubbie Roo's Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///avoiding.plotter.indeed

Cubbie Roo's Castle
Cubbie Roo's Castle.

Duffus Castle - 1140

Location: Lossiemouth, Moray

Duffus Castle is my favourite Scottish castle, as I used to live right next to it! This large medieval castle is a classic motte and bailey-type castle, built on a man-made hill with a perimeter moat.

The age of this medieval fortress is apparent when you visit, as the northern part section has slipped down the hill and rests at an angle. The original tower house/keep was made from wood; the artificial mound was never designed to hold the weight of a stone castle and therefore suffered a catastrophic failure.

The damage to the castle adds to its look and makes it an ideal subject for photography at all times of the year. While visiting Moray, Duffus Castle is worth exploring; the new estate owners have developed the car park and added a coffee hut and seating area, making it an even more enticing destination. Spynie Palace nearby is also well worth your time.

Read more about castles in Moray.

Duffus Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///poet.timer.withdraw

Duffus Castle
Duffus Castle, an impressive example of motte and bailey castles.

Edinburgh Castle - 1103

Location: Castle Rock, Edinburgh

Built high upon Castle Rock (an extinct volcano!) Edinburgh Castle is one of the main features of Scotland's capital city. Used as both a defensible fortress and residency for royalty (until 1633), the castle has been added to considerably over the last 900 years.

The original castle is likely to have been made from wood before the time of King David I, but the king himself would add stone buildings, including St Margarets Chapel, in honour of his mother. The chapel is the oldest part of Edinburgh Castle, dating from 1130.

Edinburgh Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///buck.ears.match

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, one of the most famous and oldest castles in Scotland.

Dunbar Castle - 1070

Location: Dunbar, East Lothian

Once one of the strongest castles in Scotland, Dunbar Castle overlooked the harbour in the small town of Dunbar, in East Lothian. A fortification existed here before 1070, but the stone castle seen today dates from that time.

Dunbar Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///beards.asteroid.unstated

Dunbar Castle
Dunbar Castle.

Delgatie Castle - 1049

Location: Turriff, Aberdeenshire

Delgatie Castle, nestled in the heart of Aberdeenshire, is a magnificent structure that blends history, charm, and architectural beauty. This castle dates back to around the 11th century, although most of the existing building, including its iconic keep, is from the 15th century.

Delgatie Castle was historically associated with the Hay family, notably Earl of Erroll, and played a significant role during Scotland's tumultuous periods, such as the Wars of Scottish Independence. The castle is said to have been visited by Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1562, adding another layer to its rich history.

Some people say Delgatie is the oldest castle in Scotland, but for me, it's had too many extras tagged onto it over its long history to be considered truly old.

Delgatie Castle on Google Maps | What3words: ///signified.blossom.handy

Delgatie Castle.
Delgatie Castle - an old castle but shows much newer features.

Castle Sween - 1100 - The oldest castle in Scotland

Nestled on a rocky ridge overlooking Loch Sween, Castle Sween is a historical gem that has stood the test of time. According to Historic Environment Scotland, it is the oldest standing castle on the Scottish mainland that can be dated confidently. The castle takes its name from Suibhne, or "the Red," a chieftain of Irish descent who is believed to have built it in the 1100s when the region of Argyll lay outside the Kingdom of Scotland.

The castle features a thick, 2m-thick curtain wall that stands 8m high and surrounds a quadrangular courtyard. Despite its age, the castle has undergone numerous renovations and alterations, resulting in a complex picture of its rich history. For example, the broad buttresses on the outer walls are Norman in style, while the absence of windows and other openings aside from the entrances suggests the castle dates back to the 1100s.

Castle Sween, one of the earliest stone castles built in Scotland.
The old walls of Castle Sween.

Throughout the centuries, Castle Sween has played a significant role in the history of Scotland. In the 1200s, control of Argyll and the Isles was disputed between the King of Norway and the King of Scots, and the MacSweens were replaced as Lords of Knapdale by the Stewart Earls of Menteith in 1262. In 1300, the MacSweens attempted to reclaim their castle, but it was eventually recaptured by Robert the Bruce and passed to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in the late 14th century. The castle was entrusted to the Campbell Earls of Argyll in 1481, and it was attacked in 1644 by supporters of the Royalist cause. Sir Alexander MacDonald finally destroyed the property three years later, in 1647.

Excavations at Castle Sween also revealed that the site was occupied long before the castle was ever built, making it an even more fascinating and historically rich destination.

Castle Sween windows
Castle Sween side profile showing original windows.

Although some other castles in this article are around 50 - 80 years or so older than Castle Sween, they have been built upon so much over the centuries, with much newer sections replacing parts of the castle; I don't think they count. Castle Sween is still in its original form from the 1100s and is therefore considered the oldest castle in Scotland.

Castle Sween on Google Maps | What3words: ///nerves.sushi.mush

Castle Sween battlements.
A view from Castle Sween's battlements.

Other old Scottish castles

Honourable mentions for other old castles go out to:

Dunrobin Castle, British royal family. Scotland's oldest inhabited house.
Dunrobin Castle, the oldest parts of the castle aren't visible here.

Old Scottish castles FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions about old castles in Scotland.

When was the first castle in Scotland built?

Castle Sween is considered to be the earliest remaining example of castle architecture in Scotland from the 1100s. There are older castles in Scotland, but they have been significantly added or even replaced with more modern features.

There would have been older castles/forts all over Scotland, probably made from wood instead of stone, so no one knows which was the first ever built. Large stone structures built all over north Scotland predated castles, named Brochs; these were precursors to castles in Scotland. See Carn Liath Broch.

What is the oldest structure in Scotland?

The oldest structure in Scotland is the "Knap of Howar" in Papa Westray, part of the northern Orkney Islands. It dates from 3700 BC.

Which is the oldest castle that still exists?

Castle Sween is the oldest example of a castle in Scotland, still showing original architectural details from the 1100s.

What is the oldest castle in the UK?

Chepstow Castle (Castell Cas-Gwent in Welsh) in Wales is considered the oldest castle in the UK, built-in 1067.

Why are many castles now ruined?

It became unfashionable to live in cold, draughty castles; large comfortable houses became the norm in more peaceful times.

Who looks after Scotland's oldest castles?

Historic Environment Scotland, commonly referred to as Historic Scotland, is the official government agency responsible for safeguarding the country's historic environment and promoting its understanding and enjoyment. Established in 2015, it combines the functions of the former government bodies Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS).

Blackness Castle, a royal castle.
Blackness Castle

Key information on the oldest castles in Scotland

  • Castle Sween is considered the oldest castle in Scotland because it was unaltered since it was first built in the 1100s.

  • Before castles, round stone houses named "Brochs" were the defensive structure of choice.

  • Wooden hilltop forts were the precursors to castles, often replaced by new stone buildings.

  • Historic Environment Scotland are the keepers of many of Scotland's ruined castles.

Old Inverlochy Castle
Old Inverlochy Castle, dating from the 1270s.

Conclusion

Scottish castles are a fantastic way to learn about the history of Scotland. There's nothing like exploring a castle situated in stunning surroundings, discovering who lived there and what their lives were like - it fires the imagination!

I hope this article about the oldest castles in Scotland has been useful; which will you visit first?

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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