FROM ancient ruins in remote Highland glens to lochside fortresses, grand residences and the working one that dominates our capital city, Scotland’s castles are iconic.

They offer real and tangible insights into the past, while being physical and architectural reminders of how bloody and violent so much of our history is. Wars, feuds and landgrabs feature prominently in the histories of our castles, as do kings and queens, princes and princesses, tales of love and loss, death and destruction, heroes and villains, all passed down through the generations.

With this in mind we’ve compiled a list of castles and tales that should appeal to those with an interest in the more gruesome and spooky elements of Scottish history – every castle worth its salt should have at least one ghost story - while offering a splendid way to see and enjoy the country. And though we can’t promise many fairytale endings, we can guarantee that the scenery – and the architecture - will be spectacular.

Dunnottar Castle

Perched upon a rocky headland jutting out into the North Sea a couple of miles outside Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Dunnottar has one of the most stunning locations of them all. And the history of this ancient fort is just as dramatic. A key strategic target during the Wars of Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, it was taken by English soldiers then recaptured by William Wallace in 1297 following a lengthy siege.

Wallace showed no mercy, ransacking the castle, rounding up the enemy soldiers, locking them in the church and setting it on fire - around 4,000 men are believed to have been burned alive. Those lucky enough to escape had no option but to jump off the steep cliff into the water – and jagged rocks – below.

Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, AB39 2TL. Open all year round. Adults £7, children £3.

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Stirling Castle

As well as being one of the biggest and most strategically important castles in Scotland, Stirling is also one of the bloodiest. A particularly chilling moment involves a king you certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of: James II. In 1452, the young monarch – known as “James of the fiery face” due to a birthmark - is believed to have had a falling out with William, Earl of Douglas. James drew a dagger and stabbed the Earl, with the king’s courtiers piling in, too. The earl’s body was found in the castle grounds the next day with 26 stab wounds, after having been thrown out of a castle window.

Stirling Castle, Stirling, FK8 1EJ. Open all year round. Adults £15 (concessions £12), children £9.

Pollok Estate

Beautiful Pollok House on Glasgow’s south side, designed by Robert Adam, is a place of architectural calm, harmony and balance. The estate it sits in has a more colourful history, however, which includes a “bewitched baronet” and the “witches of Pollok”.

In the 1670s, wealthy estate owner Sir George Maxwell, a keen “witchfinder”, fell ill not long after the arrival of a mute serving girl called Janet Douglas. The girl miraculously regained the power of speech and immediately blamed Sir George’s illness on five local people – including a 14-year-old girl – that she accused of consorting with the devil. A subsequent trial found the five guilty and all were burned at the stake, except the teenager. Douglas grew famous and powerful as the Witchfinder of Polloktoun and was thought to have travelled to America, where she reputedly became involved in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692.

Pollok House, Gardens and Estate, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow G43 1AT. £Adult £7.50, concession £5.50.

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St Andrews Castle

With its picturesque location in this most beautiful of Fife towns, next to the cathedral looking across the North Sea, St Andrews Castle looks peaceful and even quaint. But this belies a troubled and violent history dating back to the 13th century.

The castle played a prominent role in the Scottish Reformation – St Andrews was the headquarters of the Catholic church in Scotland - becoming a place of religious persecution and assassination. Among many gruesome events, the execution of Scotland’s last pre-reformation cardinal, David Beaton, is among the most shocking. Protestant nobles had long wanted to get rid of Beaton, who was responsible for the death of religious reformer George Wishart. A gang of protestant assassins disguised themselves as stone masons and broke into St Andrews Castle on 29 May 1546, where they murdered Beaton and mutilated his corpse, hanging it from the ramparts as a warning to others.

St Andrews Castle, The Scores, St Andrews, KY16 9AR. Adults £9, concessions £7.20, children £5.40.

Slains Castle

Constructed in 1597 on a jagged clifftop near Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, as the seat of the powerful Earls of Errol, Slains Castle will forever be best known as the inspiration for one of the scariest and most popular stories of all time. When Irish author Bram Stoker started visiting the north east of Scotland in the late 19th century, the castle was still owned by the Errol family.

It is believed that Stoker came up with the character of Count Dracula while out walking on the cliffs near the castle on a particularly windswept day. He apparently “saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading around him like great wings…” Published in 1895 to international acclaim, an earlier draft of Dracula had the count sail from Transylvania to Cruden Bay.

The castle was sold in 1916 and fell into disrepair; these days you visit the ruin at your own risk, which makes it all the more fascinating and creepy.

Slains Castle, off the A975, Cruden Bay, Peterhead, AB42 0NE.

Edinburgh Castle

Dominating the skyline of the capital on its famous rock, it’s hard to underestimate the role played by Edinburgh Castle in the nation’s turbulent history. There has been a fort on the site since the rule of David I in the 12th century and it was a royal residence until 1633.

Of the countless violent events that have taken place there over the centuries, one of the most malicious took place during the witchcraft paranoia of the 16th century. Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was unfortunate enough to born into a family hated by King James V. After the poisoning of her first husband in 1528, she married again in 1532 but was later convicted of planning to act against the king. He accused her of witchcraft and satanic rituals, though it was clear the accusations were false. Janet was imprisoned in a dungeon in Edinburgh Castle, where James’ supporters collected “evidence” by torturing her and her family, including her young son. Eventually a confession was obtained through mutilation and she was burned at the stake on 17 July 1537 on the castle esplanade, with her husband and son forced to watch.

Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG. Adults £19.50/£17.50, concessions £16/£14, children £11.50/10.50.

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Glamis Castle

Following her terrible end at Edinburgh Castle, Lady Glamis is still said to haunt her family seat in Angus. Glamis Castle – ancestral home of the Queen Mother - has plenty of dark stories of its own, of course, including one that if true, is as cruel as it is tragic.

Records state that Thomas Lyon-Bowes, heir to one of Scotland’s oldest titles, the Earldom of Strathmore, was born in 1821 at the castle, then died on the same day. But legend has it he was born with serious deformities and locked away in a secret chamber in the castle, his existence denied. A midwife claimed he had survived and a workman who said he came across young Thomas at the castle claimed to have been offered money to emigrate.

Over the years the story became a cause celebre in the UK and US, feeding the Victorian gothic imagination, with poor Thomas being referred to as the “Monster of Glamis”.

Glamis Castle, Angus, DD8 1RJ. Adults £15.50, concessions £12, children £10.

Ardvreck Castle

On a spectacular and remote peninsula on the banks of Loch Assynt, an hour north west of Lairg, stands the ruined Ardvreck Castle, ancestral home of the MacLeods of Assynt. As is the case with so many Highland castles, the current tranquillity of the location belies a horribly violent past. In 1650, following the Battle of Carisdale, the Marquis of Montrose was betrayed to the Covenanters and subsequently executed and dismembered, his body displayed for all to see. The castle is also said to be haunted by the weeping ghost of one of the daughters of an ancient MacLeod chieftain who threw herself out of a window after being promised to the Devil.

Ardvreck Castle, Lairg, IV27 4HL.

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Dunrobin Castle

The most northerly of Scotland’s grand country houses, Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland – home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland - is also one of the oldest, dating back to the 1300s.

Legend has it that Margaret, daughter of the 14th Earl, fell in love with a man her father disapproved of. She attempted to elope with her lover by climbing down to him from her room on a rope made of sheets. But her father came into the room while she the escape plan was afoot and she lost her grip and fell to her death. Her lover is said to have put a curse on her father and Margaret’s ghost is said to wander the upper floors of the castle, crying for her lover.

Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, KW10 6FS. Adults £12, concessions £10, children £7.50.

Honourable mentions:

The ghostly Spanish Soldier said to appear at Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh, one of 46 killed during its capture during the 1719 Jacobite rebellion.

The Green Lady of Crathes Castle, near Banchory, said to have been seen by Queen Victoria on a visit there, who stalks the castle with an infant in her arms. The skeletons of a woman and child were unearthed behind a hearth stone during renovations in the 1800s.

The Phantom Trumpeter of Fyvie Castle, in Aberdeenshire, is said to have died of a broken heart after finding out about the death of his beloved.

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