IN this penultimate column in my series on Scotland’s built heritage, I will be focusing on two of the great royal castles, Dumbarton and Stirling, which have both played important roles in the country’s history.

After next week’s concluding column, which will feature Edinburgh Castle, I have promised that I will do a separate four-part series on the built heritage associated with transport – i.e. road, rail, air and waterways.

I have made my own choice of the best and most important castles, all of which I have visited. I did not expect every reader to agree with my choices, but they all have a story to tell, and all have made their contribution to our history.

Apologies in advance if I have left out your favourite, but email me at and I’ll choose the “best of the rest”. I have already had several emails naming favourite castles, and so I’ll start today’s column by selecting a few “readers’ choices”.

In the 20th century, and certainly since the 1950s, there has been a trend to restore ruined or damaged castles, with more than 100 ancient castles and towers transformed by restoration projects.

The most famous of these restored castles is Eilean Donan, which is possibly the most photographed and filmed castle other than Edinburgh and Stirling. Situated on an island at the confluence of three lochs – Long, Duich and Alsh – there has been a fortification on the site since the 13th century, and it was long a seat of clan Mackenzie and their allies, clan Macrae.

The National: Castle Stalker in ArgyllCastle Stalker in Argyll At one point the entire island of Eilean Donan was surrounded by a wall, making the castle impregnable until the age of gunpowder.

It was in retaliation for Eilean Donan becoming a major headquarters of the Jacobites in the failed Rising of 1719 that the Royal Navy blew the castle apart. It remained in a ruined condition until it was restored by Lieutenant-Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap who inherited a vast sum of money and spent £250,000 in the 1920s and 1930s transforming Eilean Donan to its current condition. It has featured in many films, most notably Highlander.

One reader asked me to write about Castle Stalker and I’m happy to do so because it is surely one of the most picturesque castles in Scotland, also situated on an island, but this time off the west coast, about 25 miles north of Oban. It has a long history and has changed hands many times, and also like Eilean Donan, it was the subject of a restoration project.

Castle Stalker has an excellent website and here’s a flavour of its history written by Ross Allward of the current owning family: “Castle Stalker – in the Gaelic, Stalcaire, meaning Hunter or Falconer – is believed originally to have been the site of a Fortalice (a small fortified building) belonging to the MacDougalls when they were Lords of Lorne, and built around 1320. The MacDougalls lost their title after their defeat by King Bruce at Brander Pass in 1308 but regained it for a period after 1328.

“In about 1388 the Lordship of Lorn passed to the Stewarts, the lands including Castle Stalker. It is believed that Castle Stalker, much in its present form, was built by the then Lord of Lorn, Sir John Stewart, who had an illegitimate son in 1446, and it is reasonable to suppose that he built and occupied the Castle about that time.”

Please do visit the website for the fascinating story of the castle.

READ MORE: Stephen Flynn challenges Anas Sarwar to 'come clean' on triple lock

Another great castle on an island is Kisimul Castle, the medieval fortress on an islet off Castlebay in Barra. The seat of clan MacNeil, it dates to at least the early 15th century, and while it is currently closed for conservation works, you can find out all about it Castlebay Community Hall or on the HES website. Also on an island, though this time in the middle of the River Dee in Dumfries and Galloway, is Threave Castle, built by the powerful Lord Archibald “the Grim” Douglas in the 1370s and was possibly the first of the “tower houses” that proliferate in the south of Scotland.

ONE reader who is an avid fan of Mary, Queen of Scots asked me about castles with connections to her. I’ll deal with Edinburgh next week and Dumbarton today, but two others which spring readily to mind and are very much worth visiting are Craigmillar on the south side of Edinburgh and Hermitage in the Scottish Borders.

Small but beautifully put together, Craigmillar was where the conspirators met to plot the assassination of Mary’s husband, Henry Darnley. She was resident in the castle at the time and when you visit it you will see the evidence for my contention that Mary was in on the plot known as the Craigmillar Bond – she couldn’t have missed the conspirators next door. Hermitage in Liddesdale is a dark and brooding tower which Mary visited when James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, was recuperating from wounds. A scary place.

Other readers’ suggestions to which I must give a mention include Caerlaverock Castle seven miles from Dumfries, the only triangular castle in Scotland, which dates from the 13th century and is beautifully preserved. Crichton Castle near Pathhead in Midlothian was home to the Earls of Bothwell and has a quite stunning Renaissance-style façade enclosed within its walls.

And so to Dumbarton Castle, a personal favourite of mine since I first visited it as a teenager.

READ MORE: The Scottish-born legend whose name still adorns US cars

There has been a fortification on the volcanic plug Dumbarton Rock – 240ft high and 340 million years old – since time immemorial, due to its strategic location at the confluence of the rivers Leven and Clyde. It was at the heart of the capital of the ancient Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde, Dun Breatann, from which Dumbarton gets its name.

It is first mentioned in written history by St Patrick, who is believed to have been born nearby at Old Kilpatrick. The saint wrote to the then-king of Alt Clut, the ancient name of Dumbarton, in the 5th century.

It is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) whose website gives an abridged history of the castle: “The Rock was besieged several times. The assault by Viking kings Olaf and Ivar of Dublin in 870 was by far the worst. The pair carried off slaves and looted treasure in 200 longships following a four-month siege.

“Alexander II of Scotland built the medieval castle around 1220 as a defence against the threat from Norway, whose kings ruled the Hebrides and the islands in the Clyde. In 1305, Sir John Menteith, keeper of Dumbarton Castle, caught Sir William Wallace and handed him over to the English for trial and execution.”

It should be pointed out that Menteith, in common with many Scottish lords, had made an oath of allegiance to King Edward I of England and he captured and handed over Wallace in furtherance of that oath. He later joined Robert the Bruce’s side and fought against the English at Bannockburn.

HES continues: “The castle’s location away from Scotland’s political heartland lessened its importance somewhat. But it also made Dumbarton a good back door through which her rulers could come and go with relative ease.

“It sheltered David II (in 1333-4) and Mary, Queen of Scots (in 1548) until ships could take them to France and safety.”

MARY revisited the castle during her reign, after which it was fought over by the factions during the civil war that followed her abdication. It never regained its importance as a royal fortress but housed a military garrison down the centuries, even during the Second World War.

READ MORE: Economics experts in brutal reaction to Liz Truss speech

Most of its buildings date from the 18th century but if you climb the Rock you might speculate about its possible role in the life of King Arthur of the Britons, as his mentor Merlin is said to have resided on the Rock. Pure speculation of course, but could the Fort of the Britons have been Camelot?

Stirling Castle has been at the centre of the nation and its history for many centuries, and in one sense the Castle is one of the main reasons why Scotland’s independence was won in 1314. It is one of the largest castles in Scotland and according to HES “its origins are ancient and over the centuries it grew into a great royal residence and a powerful stronghold”.

The castle website adds: “During the Wars of Independence, which were civil wars among the Scots as well as a struggle between Scotland and England, the castle changed hands eight times in 50 years. And it is no accident that famous battles such as Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn took place within sight of its walls.”

It certainly was no accident that Stirling Castle played such a huge role in Robert the Bruce’s success at Bannockburn. The English had occupied the castle after a long siege in 1304 but Bruce’s brother Edward laid siege to the castle and the English garrison. It was agreed that if the English were not relieved by midsummer day, the castle would be surrendered.

Edward II, son of Longshanks but no equal to his father in military might, marched a huge army north to relieve Stirling Castle – but he drove his troops too far, too fast, so that they were tired and hungry when they met the much smaller Scottish army at Bannockburn. The Scottish victory saw Stirling Castle return to Scottish control and apart from a brief period in the 1330s, it stayed that way until Oliver Cromwell’s occupation of Scotland in the 1650s.

READ MORE: Scottish Greens MSP 'corrects' reporter twice during BBC interview

HES states: “In times of peace Scottish royalty came to Stirling to enjoy its comforts, the superb hunting and to hold court – the castle was often the centre of government.

“Royal building projects like the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal and the Palace of James V, marked it out as one of the most important places in all Scotland.”

Both Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James VI & I were baptised in the Castle, and James spent most of his formative years there. He went on to build the Chapel Royal for the christening of his son. the ill-fated Prince Henry.

Followers of Game of Thrones will probably already know the Red Wedding scene was based on an event that took place in Stirling Castle in 1452: the infamous Black Dinner at which King James II gave a writ of safe conduct to his foe William, 8th Earl of Douglas, only to stab his guest to death and have him thrown out of a window.

Stirling Castle also played host to an extraordinary event in 1507 in which would-be aviator John Damian tested his “wings”, only to fall swiftly back to earth and break his thigh.

The castle was very much a military base for centuries and was latterly home to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, whose regimental museum in the castle is part of the visitor experience.

During renovation work in 1981, what is thought to be the world’s oldest football was discovered behind the panelling of the Queen’s Chamber – Mary, Queen of Scots was known to enjoy watching footie. The ball is now in the Smith Museum in the town.

Robert Burns famously visited the castle in 1787, after which he wrote his poem Stirling Lines. It seems appropriate to let the Bard have the last word today:

Here Stuarts once in glory reigned,

And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;

But now unroofed their palace stands,

Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;

Fallen, indeed, and to the earth

Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth,

The injured Stuart line is gone.

A race outlandish fills their throne; An idiot race, to honour lost;

Who knows them best despise them most.