My List of The 10 Best Castles in Dumfries and Galloway
Right now, the backpacking husband and I are renting a house in the beautiful region of Southern Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway. It’s very close to where we brought up our children and then became empty-nesters and sold everything we owned to travel the world. Finding ourselves back here again, in many ways, feels like life has come full circle.
Here we are fortunate to be surrounded by familiar green hills and glens and many historic attractions. When friends and family come to visit, they can hardly believe how many old castles are all around us here in Dumfries and Galloway, perhaps having wrongly assumed that you need to go all the way up to The Highlands of Scotland to find so many fine historic Scottish Castles and imposing Castle Ruins.
Indeed, some people drive over the border from England and straight through Dumfries and Galloway, not realising its treasures. I think that kind of makes this area like a secret location.
And, it’s not just the castles, as there are many interesting old towns and timeless villages in this area. Along the Solway Firth estuary, the third largest estuary in the UK and an area of conservation, there are expanses of rugged coastline and sandy bays and fabulous beaches at Rockcliffe, Southerness, Sandyhills and Balcary Bay.
Inland, there are deep forests and glens, rivers and lochs, and being blessed by a warmer climate than most other parts of Scotland thanks to the position of the Gulf Stream, there are also lots of large parks and botanical gardens to explore.
Did you know that Dumfries and Galloway Forest Park is home to Europe’s second International Dark Sky Park? It’s the first of its kind in the UK due to practically non-existent levels of light pollution here.
Many of these fabulous natural features and lots of other attractions and interesting places in the region will be explored by me in more detail in other posts as part of my Exploring Scotland Series.
There are indeed many castles in Dumfries and Galloway that I haven’t listed in this post. Many are not ruins at all but have been lovingly maintained or restored as grand family homes and some have been renovated into hotels where you can stay and even get married. You can read more about getting married in Scotland in ‘Plan a Romantic Wedding in Scotland’ post and find out about getting married in Edinburgh Castle.
In this post, although I had a long list of castles and castle ruins, medieval tower houses, and old forts, throughout the region to pick from and to include in this select list, I wanted to share with you my own personal favourites, and from those castles located very close to my present home in Scotland.
Aside from my neighbour, the mighty and famous Drumlanrig Castle, the castles in this post are what I would call ‘romantic ruins’ – ages-old and typically Scottish in wild settings that reek of a fabulous and often quite brutal but nonetheless fascinating history.
This is my own List of The 10 Best Castles in Dumfries and Galloway.
For the purpose of providing a visual guide and approximate locations and estimated proximities to the 10 Castles in this feature I created this map.
1. Drumlanrig Castle
Drumlanrig Castle is the Dumfriesshire home of the 10th Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry. The castle is set in a beautiful garden and within a vast (90,000 acre) country estate. It is said that the incredible views across the Nith Valley are what inspired the 1st Duke of Buccleuch to build his ancestral home in this location and on land given to him by Robert The Bruce. The Castle was built at great expense, even for a Duke, and construction took 10 years.
My own cottage home (the one I mentioned earlier in which my husband and I lived for most of our married life and where we brought up our three children) was once part of The Buccleuch Estate. We bought our cottage from the Estate as a derelict shepherd’s bothy back in the late 1980’s and we renovated and extended it into a family home.
I once had the pleasure of meeting His Grace, the present 10th Duke. Having met his father, the Late 9th Duke, several times. Back then, I was a self-employed graphic designer and I often conferred with the Late Duke on his designs for the castle’s visitors’ brochures. I even designed the label for His Grace’s own brand of Drumlanrig Scottish Whisky!
As Drumlanrig Castle was so close to our home, it’s where I would take our three boisterous boys while they were growing up, to ride their bicycles, play in the adventure playground, fish in the pond, and to explore the gardens and woodland areas, where there were so many pathways and walking routes. A favourite spot for our boys to play was in the forest on the Estate and on a narrow wooden bridge from which to throw ‘pooh sticks’ into the burn (the Scottish name for a stream).
Drumlanrig Castle is one of Scotland’s finest examples of Renaissance architecture and its treasures – with works from artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Alan Ramsay, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Rembrandt – are impressive and reputably priceless.
‘A palace so glorious, gardens so fine, and everything so truly magnificent, and all in a wild, mountainous country…’Quote: Daniel Defoe on Drumlanrig in his Scottish sojourn in 1720.
Drumlanrig Castle is built of a red sandstone and known locally as ‘The Pink Palace’.
The Castle has been the seat of The Douglas family for around 600 years.
A Douglas stronghold, it was built with the clan motto, Forward Braveheart!
The producers of Outlander used the Castle for filming their second series.
A Painting by Leonardo da Vinci known as Madonna Of The Yarnwinder (estimated to be worth £20million) was stolen during a daring robbery at the castle in 2003 by a gang posing as tourists. It was recovered in 2007 but after the 9th Duke’s death.
Check the Drumlanrig Castle Website for opening times and entrance fees:
2. Sanquhar Castle
Every day, I walk along the lane from our house on the riverbank, and I cross a bridge over the River Nith. Along this back road, I have a fine view of the ruins of Sanquhar Castle, and I often try to imagine it as it must have looked to those who lived in this part of Scotland so very long ago.
Sanquhar Castle is now a ruined 13th century castle with evidence of towers and a courtyard. But it was once an important stronghold of the powerful Crichton family.
In 1639 the castle was sold to Sir William Douglas of Drumlanrig who then went onto build Drumlanrig Castle. Both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are said to have visited. Kings and Queens are also said to have stayed in the castle: Edward I in 1298. Mary Queen of Scots in 1568 and James VI in 1617. The castle fell vacant about 1690 and is now in the ownership of the Marquis of Bute, Lord Sanquhar.
Sanquhar Castle is easily seen (in an unfortunate and sad state given its remarkable history) and accessible from the A76 road on the southern outskirts of Sanquhar. It is also adjacent to The Southern Upland Way. But unfortunately, I can’t recommend you explore Sanquhar Castle too closely, as it’s in such a ruinous state that it could be deemed to be too dangerous.
Two ghosts reputedly haunt the castle. The ‘White Lady’ is said to be the spirit of a young woman called Marion of Dalpeddar, who is said to have disappeared in 1590. A skeleton of a girl was reportedly found during excavations in 1875-6. Another ghost is said to be that of John Wilson, who was wrongly hanged by the Crichtons, and manifests itself with groans and the rattling of chains.
The Marquess of Bute, a lover and restorer of buildings of the middle ages, undertook a period of restoration of Sanquhar Castle from 1895-1901 but he died before work was completed.
3. Morton Castle
Once part of a chain of castles along the strategically important Nith Valley route, which runs from the Solway Firth north to the Clyde Valley. Like Sanquhar Castle, Morton Castle is a mid to late 13th century fortified stone hall house said to originally date from 1307. It was one of the strongholds dismantled under the terms of the 1357 Treaty of Berwick between England and Scotland (in exchange for the release of David 2nd from captivity in England) but rebuilt in the 1400’s.
It sits on high ground amongst the Lowther Hills with steep slopes down to Morton Loch. The castle is now in ruins but the remains consists of a rectangular two storey block with what would have originally been an impressive gatehouse and a circular tower with a pit prison below. In 1459, the hall was a stronghold of the Douglas’s and occupied until 1715.
Morton Castle is withing walking or cycling distance of my home here in Scotland and it’s a place I used to take my children to play and picnic in the summertime. The castle has a long history and for me it holds special memories of hot summer days when my children were young.
Historic Scotland says of Morton Castle: one of Scotland’s most enigmatic castles: a rare hall-house standing in a location as breathtaking as it is remote.
Morton Castle is located 17 miles north-west of Dumfries on the A76. Join the A702 north-east of Thornhill at Carronbridge. The road leading to the castle is unmarked and a single track so it’s a bit of an adventure to find it but don’t give up because there is no entrance fee to walk around the castle and enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of the setting and it’s well worth the investigation.
Robert II bestowed his daughter, Egidia, on her betrothal to William Douglas, son of Archibald Douglas, Lord of Galloway, a dowry of the castle of Morton. Since this time, the castle and lands of Morton have been in the possession of the family of Douglas. In 1810 the Scotts, Dukes of Buccleuch (Drumlanrig castle) succeeded this and other property of the dukes of Queensberry.
Morton Castle was used as a location in the 1978 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps with Robert Powell.
Morton castle is often cited as one of the best kept secrets in Scotland, due to its locations and a distinct lack of signposts.
4. Caerlaverock Castle
Caerlaverock Castle offers the visitor more than just a ruin to explore. There is a coffee shop and exhibits and a visitor’s center and also a castle themed adventure park for children. This made my visit here when my three boys were very young a great success!
The castle’s proximity to the English border meant that Caerlaverock Castle was embroiled in the Wars of Independence almost as soon as it was built. This castle takes a little effort to get to as Caerlaverock lies just off the B725 some seven miles south of Dumfries, close to where the River Nith flows into the Solway Firth.
The story of Caerlaverock Castle begins with the granting of lands in the area to Sir John De Maccuswell (or Maxwell) in 1220.
What we now know as Caerlaverock Castle was completed in the 1270’s and was occupied by Herbert Maxwell, son of Sir Aymer and nephew of Sir John. Between 1299 and 1634 the castle was besieged many times and changed hands between the Scottish and the English through sporadic and blood battles.
In 1640, Caerlaverock was held by the Maxwell’s for King Charles I against a besieging army of Covenanters.
To explain: Covenanters were those people in Scotland who signed the National Covenant in 1638. They signed this Covenant to confirm their opposition to the interference by the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Damage to Caerlaverock Castle caused by the Covenanters during and after the siege was never repaired. What you can see today is pretty much what was left in the Summer of 1640. Lord Robert Maxwell fled the country and spent the rest of his life in exile on the Isle of Man, dying there in 1646.
Caerlaverock Castle is a fine example of a moated triangular twin towered medieval stronghold. It was placed into State care in 1946. It is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.
You can also find the foundations of another, earlier, castle visible at the end of a nature trail through the woods to the south.
The Maxwell Clan also owned Threave Castle.
Caerlaverock castle is often used as a film location.
5. Threave Castle
A short drive from Dumfries on the A75, Threave Castle with its gardens and nature reserve is well signposted and makes for a great day out in the summer. The castle is a formidable sight. Built by Archibald ‘the Grim’ in 1369 – so named because his face was so ferocious-looking in battle – as a stronghold for the Black Douglases. Archibald died at Threave in 1400.
The massive tower house is a mostly intact fortress standing 30 meters tall. It has been attacked many times over hundreds of years and has changed hands surprisingly often considering its formidable marshy surroundings and fortified island location.
In 1455, the castle was besieged by King James II for two months and fell after the king bribed the garrison to surrender. Caerlaverock Castle was finally abandoned in 1640.
The castle, on its island, is accessed by a half a mile or so walk to the ferry point along good farmland paths. At the small jetty, pull on the rope at the brass bell loudly and the boatman will come across from the island to take you to the castle on a short and rather romantic boat ride over the River Dee.
A silver penny minted in 1300 was found during excavations on the island in the 1970s,
Hundreds of years ago, Threave island was much smaller than today, as the water level was higher.
Threave Castle is that it was used as a prison for French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.
Unexplained ghostly breathing noises have been heard in Threave Castle!
For more information: to check opening/closing times: entrance fees:
6. Kenmure Castle
Kenmure Castle is a spooky and atmospheric ruined 16th century fortified mansion house or castle. It sits one mile south of the town of New Galloway in south-west Scotland and to the north of Loch Ken. Kenmure has been suggested as a possible birthplace in 1249 of John Balliol who went onto became King of Scotland. It later belonged to the Douglas and Maxwell families.
Kenmure Castle became a property of the Gordon family from 1297 and a heraldic panel bearing their arms surmounts the south door. The core of the present building was largely erected in the 17th century but by 1790 Kenmure Castle was described as a ruin.
Robert Burns (1759-1796) visited Kenmure Castle and it was here that Burns was inspired to write his song, ‘Scots Wha Hae’.
A sundial bearing the date 1623 from Kenmure is now in Dumfries Museum.
There are stories of a tunnel leading away from the castle
The castle is said to be haunted by a headless piper, “The Headless Piper of Kenmure”.
For more information: The Castles of Scotland Website
7. Cardoness Castle
The lands of Cardoness are situated south-west of what is now Gatehouse of Fleet, near Castle Douglas, were in the hands of the notoriously lawless McCulloch family in 1466. The McCulloch lairds built the present Cardoness Castle in the late 15th century. In the late 17th century, financial mismanagement following the execution of Sir Godfrey McCulloch for the murder of a Clan Gordon neighbour led to their loss of the castle to a family enemy.
The castle is a fine example of a six story Scottish tower-house castle. It has basement chambers and there are several floors connected by a spiral staircase. The floors have all gone but you can still see the grand fireplaces and where the rooms would have been.
There are superb views over the beautiful Fleet Bay to the Solway Firth beyond. The castle is at the top of a small steep hill. Today it is reached up a steep concrete path with 33 steps and a steep ramp from the courtyard to the castle entrance.
Legend tells the story of the McCullochs celebrating the arrival of a long-awaited male heir (after nine daughters) by holding a party on a frozen pond. The ice broke and all the McCulloch family perished except for one daughter who was ill in bed.
The pit prison at Cardoness is where the McCulloch’s kept any unwelcome visitors and is one of the best surviving in a Scottish tower house castle.
Find out more at: Historic Environment Scotland
8. Maclelland’s Castle
In 1569, the land at the south side of the River Dee, together with and the convent buildings standing in the centre of what is now Kirkcudbright town center, were acquired by Sir Thomas MacLellan of Bombie, Provost of Kirkcudbright.
Thomas MacLellan demolished the convent, leaving only the chancel to serve as the burial vault for the family. Construction of MacLellan’s Castle began around 1577.
Sir Thomas was not above bending the law to further his interests in Kirkcudbright. But he overstepped the mark in detaining a cargo ship, in Kirkcudbright harbour in 1575. Two years later he was in trouble again after being caught purchasing wine from a known pirate.
MacLellan’s Castle is laid out in an L-plan, consisting of two wings meeting at right angles. The four-storey castle has a kitchen on the ground floor and a great hall on the first floor for entertaining guests. The upper floors most likely provided accommodation. MacLellan’s Castle was always more for show than for defense.
The family sold the castle in 1752. From 1782 to 1912 it was held by the Earls of Selkirk. The castle is now under the care of Historic Environment Scotland.
There is a secret spyhole behind the great hall fireplace known as ‘the laird’s lug’ and used by the owner to eavesdrop on his guests
James VI visited in 1587 and gave Sir Thomas a silver gun. It is now in the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright.
For more information: Historic Environment Scotland
9. Lochmaben Castle
Lochmaben Castle was built by Edward I in the 13th and 14th centuries and later rebuilt during the reign of James IV of Scotland. It was always an important outpost in hostile territory for the English and they made tremendous efforts to keep it in their possession throughout the 1300s. It withstood several sieges and attacks before falling to the Scots in 1385.
The castle became a royal possession in 1445. James IV initiated works and later James V was a regular visitor. The castle remained a major site in wars with the English before it was finally abandoned in the 1700s after which its stones were taken for use in local buildings. Today it’s situated among attractive woodland next to a loch.
Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley came to Lochmaben in October 1565
In June 1592 it was said that Francis Stewart, the 5th Earl of Bothwell, dressed as a woman to infiltrate and capture the castle.
For more information: Historic Environment Scotland
10. Torthorwald Castle
Torthorwald Castle is a large ruined rectangular tower and fortress at the centre of the village of Torthorwald just outside Dumfries. What remains today is a mere shell but still a physical witness to a rich history in the making.
The ruins stand on private farmland. However, just like Sanquhar Castle, both the castle and its tower and surrounding earthworks can still be easily viewed from adjacent public roads and on-road parking is possible with care.
There is evidence that first castle on the site was built in the 12th century and owned by Sir David de Torthorwald. In the 1400’s the castle is passed to Thomas Carlyle and the building of a substantial tower house begins.
This is the building which forms part of the current ruins seen today. The basement and first floor hall of this tower are vaulted and in one corner is a turnpike stair that leads to the upper floors. It appears that the original entrance was on the first floor.
Notably, Thomas Carlyle was married to the sister of Robert The Bruce.
In 1544, in a fierce family dispute, the castle was attacked by Carlyle in a raid against his own sister-in-law. In 1609 the castle passed by marriage to the Douglas’s. Douglas of Torthorwald had vowed to avenge the execution of his relation the Earl of Morton by The Earl of Arran (a protector and favourite to the young King James IV).
Douglas gave chase to Arran while on his travels through the hills and the King’s favourite was dragged from his horse by Douglas and stabbed to death. His head, cut from his body, was mounted on a spear and fixed to the walls of Torthorwald Castle.
In 1630 repairs to the castle are undertaken. It must have been the work of James Douglas, who did not succeed to Drumlanrig until ten years later. The last inhabitant of Torthorwald Castle is said to have been one of his younger brothers, Archibald Douglas. In 1715, the castle is abandoned.
The name Torthorwald derives from ‘hill of Thorold’
Efforts were made in the nineteenth century to stabilise the structure but the north end of the tower collapsed in 1993.
For more interesting information:
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my favourite castles in Dumfries and Galloway, and I’ve inspired you to ‘go left’ when heading north and over the border into Scotland and to explore the beautiful South West, where there is such a rich history and so many interesting places to explore. Have you visited any of the castles I’ve mentioned or any others in Dumfries and Galloway? Leave a comment and let me know!
For Further Information and Resources:
Before you travel, please check the latest Scottish Government guidance