1. Dunnottar Castle
This amazing ruin, a top an almost impregnable looking cliff, was home to the powerful family of the Earls Marischal. It may have been a Pictish fortress in the Dark Ages. At one time or another, the most important people in Scotland - including William Wallace (who set fire to its chapel) and Mary Queen of Scots - visited. Taking the Royalist side during the Civil War, the castle garrison resisted Cromwell's army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels (now in Edinburgh Castle) from being destroyed. The castle and its dungeons are also connected with several gruesome stories, include the mass imprisonment of more than 100 Scottish protestant protesters, the Covenanters, who refused to bow their heads to a Catholic king. In the end, impregnable or not, the last Earl took the wrong side once to often. He was convicted of treason in 1715, his property seized by the government and the castle allowed to fall into ruin. In 1925 repairs were undertaken to make it safe for the public to visit.
Just south of Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire (home of the Hogmanay Stonehaven Fireballs), Dunnottar Castle can be visited year round and is accessible off the A92, about two miles south of Stonehaven or via a coastal path from Stonehaven Harbour. Admission is charged.
Visit the official website for full details.
2. Eilean Donan Castle
If you've ever looked at a guidebook about Scotland or a travel brochure extolling the country, then you have probably seen Eilean Donan. It is one of Scotland's most iconic images. Located on an island, at the confluence of three great sea lochs - Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long - it is reachable over a footbridge and is on the main tourist route to the Isle of Skye. Named for an Irish Saint, Bishop Donan, who arrived in Scotland in the 6th century, the castle was probably built in the early 13th century to protect the area, then known as the Sea Kingdom from the then Viking controlled areas of Scotland.
At one time the castle may have been much bigger, covering most of the island on which it stands and surrounded by a curtain wall. But over the centuries, clan feuding probably took its toll. In the 17th century, the castle was virtually destroyed because of its role in the Jacobite uprising. A large quantity of gunpowder had been stored in the Castle and when English forces overran Eilean Donan, they blew up 343 barrels of gunpower and most of the castle.
The current owners acquired the castle in 1911 and rebuilt it from existing ground plans. Interiors, including bedrooms, the kitchen and the great banqueting hall, appear as they would have looked in 1932 when the castle restoration into a family home for the MacRaes was completed. Outside the castle's current walls, the remains of the medieval castle and the curtain wall can be seen.
Eilean Donan is open from the March 1 to October 31. It can be hired for weddings and has a luxury vacation rental cottage available by the week. Visit the official website for more details.