Located in the Scottish Highlands, Urquhart Castle is a historic castle in close proximity to Loch Ness. It can be found on the A82 road, approximately 21 kilometres (13 miles) southwest of Inverness and just 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) east of Drumnadrochit village. The castle is now in ruins.

The ruins that exist today were constructed between the 13th and 16th centuries, although they were built on the site of an earlier medieval fortification. Urquhart was established in the 13th century and played a significant role in the Wars of Scottish Independence during the 14th century. It was later taken over as a royal castle and was frequently attacked by the MacDonald Earls of Ross. In 1509, the castle was given to the Clan Grant, but clashes with the MacDonalds continued. Despite facing multiple raids, the castle was reinforced, but eventually fell into disuse by the mid-17th century. In 1692, Urquhart was partially destroyed in order to prevent it from being used by Jacobite forces and it subsequently fell into disrepair. In the 20th century, it was put under state protection as a scheduled monument and made accessible to the public. It has since become one of the most popular castles in Scotland, with 547,518 visitors in 2019.

Located on a headland that overlooks Loch Ness, the castle is among the largest in Scotland in terms of area. Its entrance was on the west side, protected by a moat and a drawbridge. The castle’s buildings were arranged in two main sections along the shoreline. The Nether Bailey, situated in the northern enclosure, contains the majority of the better-preserved structures, such as the gatehouse and the five-story Grant Tower at the northern tip of the castle. The Upper Bailey, located on higher ground in the southern enclosure, consists of the meager remains of earlier buildings.

Historical Background

The Beginning of the Middle Ages

The name Urquhart has its origins in the 7th-century term Airdchartdan, which is a combination of the Old Irish word aird meaning point or promontory, and the Old Welsh word cardden meaning thicket or wood. Fragments of vitrified stone, a characteristic of early medieval fortifications, were discovered at Urquhart in the early 20th century. There is speculation that Urquhart may have been the stronghold of Bridei son of Maelchon, the northern Pictish king, which prompted Professor Leslie Alcock to conduct excavations in 1983. According to Adomnan’s Life of Columba, St. Columba visited Bridei sometime between 562 and 586, but the details of the location are limited. Adomnan also mentions that during this visit, Columba converted a Pictish nobleman named Emchath, who was near death, as well as his son Virolec and their household, at a place called Airdchartdan. The findings of the excavations, which were supported by radiocarbon dating, showed that the rocky hill at the south-west corner of the castle was an extensive fort between the 5th and 11th centuries. Based on these findings, Professor Alcock concluded that it is more likely that Urquhart was the residence of Emchath rather than Bridei, who probably resided at Inverness, either at the site of the castle or at Craig Phadrig to the west.

The castle in its early days

According to various sources, it has been speculated that in the 12th century, William the Lion owned a royal castle located at Urquhart, but Professor Alcock has found no supporting evidence for this claim. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Meic Uilleim (MacWilliams) family, descendants of Malcolm III, rebelled against David I and his successors. The final rebellion was quelled in 1229 and Alexander II granted Urquhart to his Hostarius (usher or door-ward), Thomas de Lundin, in order to maintain order. After de Lundin’s death a few years later, his son Alan Durward inherited the castle. It is believed that the original castle was constructed around this time, with a focus on the motte in the southwest of the site. In 1275, following Alan’s death, the king bestowed Urquhart to John II Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.

In 1296, Urquhart Castle was first mentioned in historical records when it was captured by Edward I of England. This event marked the beginning of the Wars of Scottish Independence, which lasted until 1357. Edward appointed Sir William Fitz Warin as constable to maintain control of the castle for the English. However, in 1297, Sir Andrew de Moray ambushed Sir William while he was returning from Inverness, and then laid siege to the castle. Despite a failed night attack, the English were eventually driven out and the Scots regained control of Urquhart Castle in 1298. In 1303, Sir Alexander de Forbes was unable to resist another English assault, and the castle was once again under English control. This time, Edward appointed Alexander Comyn, brother of John Comyn, as governor of the castle due to the Comyn family’s support for the English in their conflict against Robert Bruce. However, in 1307, Bruce successfully defeated the Comyns and took control of Urquhart, as well as the castles of Inverlochy and Inverness. From then on, Urquhart became a royal castle and was guarded by a series of constables on behalf of the crown.

In 1329, Sir Robert Lauder of Quarrelwood served as the constable of Urquhart Castle. He later participated in the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, which resulted in a Scottish defeat. After returning, Lauder defended Urquhart Castle against a potential English invasion. At the time, there were only five castles in Scotland that were controlled by the Scots, including Dumbarton, Lochleven, Kildrummy, and Loch Doon. In 1342, David II, the King of Scotland, spent the summer hunting at Urquhart, making him the only monarch to have stayed at the castle.

Over the course of the next two centuries, the Great Glen was frequently subjected to raids by the powerful rulers of a semi-independent kingdom in western Scotland, the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who had a legitimate claim to the earldom of Ross. In 1395, Domhnall of Islay took control of Urquhart Castle from the crown and maintained possession for 15 years. His brother, Alexander Macdonald, Lord of Lochaber, also had a contract with Thomas Dunbar, Earl of Moray, to defend the Regality of Moray, which included access to the Great Glen. In 1411, Donald Macdonald led his troops through the glen on his way to claim the earldom of Ross. He encountered Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, at the Battle of Harlaw, which he won, securing control of Ross. James I recognized him as the first earl of Ross in his family. However, the crown soon regained possession of Urquhart Castle.

In 1437, Alexander of Islay, Earl of Ross, son of Domhnall, launched a raid in the vicinity of Glen Urquhart, but was unable to capture the castle. The king provided financial support to fortify the castle’s defenses. In 1449, at the age of 16, Alexander’s son, John, inherited his father’s title. In 1452, John also conducted a raid up the Great Glen, taking control of Urquhart and receiving a lifetime grant for the lands and castle. However, in 1462, John entered into an agreement with Edward IV of England against Scottish King James III. When James found out about this in 1476, he stripped John of his titles and handed Urquhart over to his ally, the Earl of Huntly.

Urquhart Castle Grants

To restore order in the area surrounding Urquhart Castle, Huntly enlisted the help of Sir Duncan Grant of Freuchie. In 1502, his son John Grant of Freuchie (d.1538) was granted a five-year lease of the Glen Urquhart estate. In 1509, John Grant was given permanent ownership of Urquhart Castle, as well as the Glen Urquhart and Glenmoriston estates, by James IV, on the condition that he repair and rebuild the castle. The Grants remained in possession of the castle until 1512, despite continued raids from the west. In 1513, after the defeat at Flodden, Sir Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh took advantage of the turmoil in Scotland by laying claim to the Lordship of the Isles and occupying Urquhart Castle. Grant regained control of the castle before 1517, but not before the MacDonalds had stolen 300 cattle and 1,000 sheep, as well as looting the castle’s provisions. Grant attempted to seek compensation from MacDonald, but was unsuccessful. After the death of his father, James Grant of Freuchie (d.1553) became involved in a feud with the Macdonalds of Clanranald, Huntly, and Clan Fraser, which resulted in the Battle of the Shirts. In retaliation, the MacDonalds and their allies the Camerons captured Urquhart in 1545. This event, known as the “Great Raid”, resulted in the MacDonalds taking 2,000 cattle, as well as other animals, furniture, cannons, and even the gates from the castle. However, Grant eventually regained control of the castle and was also awarded Cameron lands as compensation.

The final raid, known as the Great Raid, was recorded by historian Hector Boece in 1527. He mentioned the crumbling walls of Urquhart Castle, but by the end of the 16th century, the Grants, a powerful force in the Highlands, had rebuilt it. Repairs and renovations continued until 1623, although the castle was no longer a preferred residence. In 1644, a group of Covenanters (Presbyterian agitators) broke into the castle while Lady Mary Grant was staying there, looting her belongings and forcing her out due to her affiliation with Episcopalianism. A 1647 inventory revealed that the castle was almost completely empty. During Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland in 1650, Urquhart Castle was overlooked in favor of constructing forts at both ends of the Great Glen.

After James VII was overthrown in the Revolution of 1688, Ludovic Grant of Freuchie supported William of Orange and stationed 200 of his own soldiers in the castle. Despite being under-equipped, they were well-provided for and were able to hold off a siege from 500 Jacobite supporters of the exiled James until the main Jacobite force was defeated at Cromdale in May 1690. The garrison eventually left and destroyed the gatehouse to prevent the Jacobites from reoccupying the castle. The remains of the gatehouse can still be seen, along with large blocks of collapsed masonry. Parliament ordered £2,000 to be paid to Grant as compensation, but no repairs were made. The ruins were further damaged by locals who plundered the stonework and other materials for their own use. In addition, the Grant Tower partially collapsed during a storm in 1715.

Subsequent events

During the 1770s, the castle had lost its roof and was considered a charming ruin by artists and tourists who visited the Highlands in the 19th century. In 1884, the castle was inherited by Caroline, Dowager Countess of Seafield, the widow of John Ogilvy-Grant, 7th Earl of Seafield, after the death of her son Ian Ogilvy-Grant, 8th Earl of Seafield. Following Lady Seafield’s passing in 1911, her will stated that Urquhart Castle should be placed under state care. In October 1913, the responsibility for maintaining the castle was transferred to the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings. Historic Environment Scotland, formerly known as Historic Scotland, now oversees the upkeep of the castle, which is recognized as a scheduled monument due to its national significance.

The proposal for a new visitor centre and car park by Historic Scotland in 1994 aimed to address the issue of parking on the A82 road. However, the plan faced strong opposition from the local community and was subjected to a public inquiry, which ultimately approved the project in 1998. The new visitor centre is built into the embankment below the road and features a rooftop parking area. It also houses a display showcasing the history of the site, a medieval replica exhibit, a cinema, a restaurant, and a shop. The castle is open year-round and is available for hosting wedding ceremonies. In 2018, Urquhart Castle welcomed 518,195 visitors, making it the third most popular site managed by Historic Scotland, following only Edinburgh and Stirling castles.


The area of the drawbridge is identified as A, while B is referred to as the gatehouse. C is known as the Nether Bailey or Outer Close, and D is the chapel. Moving towards the center, we have E as the Inner Close. The iconic F Grant Tower stands tall, and G is where the Great Hall is located. H is the designated space for the kitchen, while I is the water gate. J is the Upper Bailey or Service Close. The Motte and shell keep are represented by K, and L is the Doocot. Other notable structures include M the Smithy and N the beautiful Loch Ness.

Located on Strone Point, Urquhart Castle sits on a triangular promontory on the north-western shore of Loch Ness, controlling the path along this side of the Great Glen and the entrance to Glen Urquhart. The castle is situated close to the water, with low cliffs on the northeast side of the promontory. On the inland side, there is ample space for gathering, where there would have been a “castle-toun” of service buildings and gardens and orchards in the 17th century. The ground rises steeply to the north-west, leading up to the visitor centre and the A82. A dry moat, believed to have been dug in the early Middle Ages, stretches 30 metres (98 ft) at its widest point to defend the approach from the land. A stone causeway with a drawbridge, which used to span the gap at the centre, allows access. The castle side of the causeway was previously enclosed by walls, creating a secure area similar to a barbican.

With an area that makes it one of the largest castles in Scotland, Urquhart Castle has a walled portion that is roughly shaped like a figure-8 along the bank of the loch, measuring 150 by 46 metres (492 by 151 ft). It is divided into two baileys (enclosures), with the Nether Bailey located to the north and the Upper Bailey to the south. These baileys, also known as the “upper bailey” and “nether bailey” respectively, were of varying importance during the 14th century. The northern enclosure is identified as the “inner” and the southern as the “outer” by MacGibbon and Ross, while Tabraham refers to them as the “inner close”, “outer close”, and “service close” respectively. The curtain walls of both enclosures mainly date back to the 14th century, although there have been additions and modifications over time, particularly in the north where most of the remaining structures are situated.

Nether Bailey

The 16th-century gatehouse is located on the inland side of the Nether Bailey and is made up of twin D-plan towers that flank an arched entrance passage. In the past, the passage was safeguarded by a portcullis and a double set of doors, with guard rooms on either side. Above the entrance are several rooms that may have been used as lodging for the castle’s caretaker. The gatehouse is surrounded by collapsed masonry, dating back to its destruction after 1690.

The Nether Bailey has been the center of activity in Urquhart Castle since the 1400s. It is anchored by the Grant Tower, which served as the main tower house or keep. The tower, measuring 12 by 11 meters (39 by 36 ft), has walls up to 3 meters (9.8 ft) thick. Its foundations date back to the 14th century, but most of its structure was rebuilt in the 16th century. Originally five stories tall, the tower remains the tallest part of the castle despite the collapse of the southern wall in the 18th century. The remaining parts of the parapet, which were redesigned in the 1620s, show that the corners of the tower were topped with corbelled bartizans (turrets). The main entrance on the west side, as well as the postern on the east, are protected by machicolations – narrow openings used to drop objects on attackers. The western entrance is also guarded by a ditch and drawbridge, accessible from the “Inner Close” area separated from the main bailey by a gate. Visitors can still access the remaining interior sections through a circular staircase built into the east wall of the tower. The interior would have included a hall on the first floor, with additional rooms on the floors above and attic chambers in the turrets. The main floors had large windows added in the 16th century, but with small pistol holes below for defensive purposes.

The 14th-century curtain wall of the tower is supported by a range of buildings located to the south. The central part of this range is occupied by the great hall, while the lord’s private apartments, including the great chamber and solar, are in the northern block and the kitchens are in the southern block. According to sources, a rectangular building, possibly a chapel, stands on a rocky mound in the Nether Bailey.

The section titled “Upper Bailey” has been edited and can be found on the Wikipedia page for Urquhart Castle.

Located at the southwest corner of the castle, the Upper Bailey is centered around a rocky mound. This elevated portion of the headland is where the earliest defenses of Urquhart were built and remnants of vitrified material, commonly used in early medieval fortifications, were found on its slopes. These findings align with Professor Alcock’s identification of the site as an early medieval fortification. In the 13th century, the mound was transformed into the motte of the original castle by the Durwards, with the remaining walls serving as a shell keep. The ruins of this structure, while incomplete, suggest the presence of towers on the northern and southern sides.

In the eastern wall of the Upper Bailey, there is a 16th-century watergate that provides a way to access the shore of the loch. Adjacent to this gate, there may have been stables. To the south, across from the motte, lies the base of a doocot (a pigeon house) and the remains of 13th-century buildings, which may have once been a grand hall but were later repurposed as a smithy.

Urquhart Castle Relics

Repairs and excavations were conducted on the castle once it came under public ownership. However, these efforts were interrupted by the onset of World War I. Despite this setback, the work was eventually completed in 1922. Numerous artifacts were discovered during the excavations, such as a 15th century bronze ewer, coins, jewelry, crosses, and other objects dating back to the 13th to 17th centuries. While some criticism has been directed towards the lack of recorded location and stratigraphic information, the collection remains highly valuable and is currently under the care of the National Museum in Edinburgh. Samson (1983) has compiled a comprehensive list with accompanying illustrations.


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