Dunnottar Castle is one of the most iconic castles in Scotland and a must-see location on the Scottish Castle Trail. Steeped in Scottish history, a dream location for photographers, bustling with marine wildlife and sea birds, no trip to the east coast of Scotland would be complete without a stop at Dunnottar Castle. Read on for everything you need to know about visiting Dunnottar Castle.
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Dunnottar Castle is one of the best castles to visit in Scotland. Located on the east coast, not far from Stonehaven and Aberdeen, the castle is part of the Scottish Castle Trail, which connects 19 stunning castles in Aberdeenshire.
The iconic images of Dunnottar Castle are all over the internet – it rests high on the cliffs of a prominent headland, seemingly impregnable. The perfect stronghold in medieval times.
The castle is as breathtaking as it is fascinating thanks to its bloody history, intricate architecture and beautiful surroundings.
I first visited Dunnottar Castle on a road trip in northeast Scotland with my mum and have been back several times since. Every time I find myself in Aberdeenshire in fact – and that’s because it is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Scotland.
This post contains a full guide for visiting Dunnottar Castle – everything you need to know and many facts about the castle that might convince you to add it to your itinerary!
Dunnottar Castle Visitor Information
Dunnottar Castle is located approximately 2 miles south of Stonehaven, a pretty harbour town on the Aberdeenshire coast.
The castle is part of the Scottish Castle Trail and lies along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Route, a scenic road trip along the coast.
Use my Stonehaven travel guide to plan your trip.
Getting to Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is just a 5-minute drive from Stonehaven and there is a free car park.
Coaches can park for free if the group’s castle visit is pre-booked, but charges apply for groups who just stop for photos.
Since parking is limited, visitors are encouraged to leave their car in Stonehaven and walk to the castle, which takes approximately 40 minute to one hour from the harbour.
The walk leads from the harbour up a narrow footpath, but then it flattens out as it follows the coast south towards the castle. The castle comes into view as you reach the foot of the Stonehaven War Memorial.
By Public Transport:
The bus services X7 and 107 leave from Stonehaven and stop near the castle car park.
On a Guided Tour:
Rabbie’s offers a 1-day tour on the Scottish Castle Trail from Aberdeen which includes a stop at Dunnottar Castle.
Entrance fees at Dunnottar Castle
The castle is privately owned and costs £7 for adults, £3 for children, £17 for families (2 adults + 2 children) [2020 prices].
It is not included in passes such as the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass, the VisitBritain Heritage Pass or the National Trust for Scotland membership.
Tickets are available from the kiosk at the castle gates.
It is free to walk to the various viewpoints along the cliffs. You don’t have to buy a ticket in order to get those iconic shots of the castle you have seen all over the internet.
However, it is well worth visiting the castle to learn more about its history and architecture.
Dunnottar Castle is open year-round.
During the summer season (1 April to 30 September), opening times are 9 am to 5.30 pm every day.
During the winter (1 October to 31 March), open hours are reduced. Check the castle website for exact times.
Due to its exposed location, the castle may shut during bad weather or high winds for safety reasons.
Access + Facilities
Unfortunately, medieval Scottish castles were not built with accessibility in mind.
In order to reach the castle, you first have to walk down a lot of steps and then walk back up again on the other side. There are many steps on the castle grounds too and uneven ground. Dunnottar Castle is not wheelchair accessible.
There are toilet facilities at the castle.
There is a food truck at the car park selling hot and cold drinks, light meals and snacks.
You can buy a guidebook for Dunnottar Castle at the ticket kiosk for £5.
There is a free app available for visitors. Search “Dunnottar Castle” on your app store.
You can get married at Dunnottar Castle during the summer season (April to September) or just come for your wedding photographs. Find out more here.
An iconic castle on the Scottish Castle Trail
Dunnottar Castle is a picture-perfect castle ruin. It looks like a team of art directors have carefully chosen the perfect headland along the Aberdeenshire coast and assembled rocks into medieval shapes.
It is so beautiful, it is hard to believe it’s real.
And yet, it is. Dunnottar Castle is easily one of the most iconic fortresses on the Scottish Castle Trail and a must-see attraction in this part of Scotland.
Luckily, Aberdeenshire is still a hidden gem in Scotland and the coastal route with its castles, cliffs and beaches is largely off the beaten track.
Don’t expect huge crowds and even if there are many other photographers hunting that famous shot, the viewpoints along the coast are generously spread out. It is easy to get photos without people in the way – just watch the steep cliffs and obey the safety fences and signs.
Steeped in Scottish History
Even though the ruins that remain today date mostly to the 15th and 16th century, it is believed that the rocky headland of Dunnottar has been fortified since the Early Middle Ages.
Because of its strategic location, Dunnottar Castle has played a significant role throughout Scottish history.
The earliest written reference to a fortified site in this location goes back to the 7th century. In those times, the castle was attacked by Picts as well as Vikings.
OIn the late 13th century, William Wallace is said to have captured the castle from the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence. It is believed that he locked the English soldiers in the castle church and burnt them alive.
Efforts to rebuild the partially ruined castle were often interrupted by more attacks, but eventually the owners – the Keith Earls Marischal – expanded the castle site throughout the 15th and 16th century.
Scottish Kings and Queens, including Mary Queen of Scots, were guests at Dunnottar Castle and attended extravagant feasts and gatherings.
Site of Religious and Political Conflicts
Dunnottar Castle has witnessed many religious and political conflicts in the 17th and 18th century.
During the time of the Covenanters, Dunnottar Castle was used to hide the Honours of Scotland (the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre) and saw many fights.
The Covenanters were a Scottish Presbyterian movement that was opposed to the religious changes proposed by Scottish King Charles I.
In 1685, 167 Covenanters were captured and brought to Dunnottar Castle as prisoners. They were locked up in a dark and narrow vault – the “Whigs’ Vault” – and kept there for nine weeks without sanitation. Many tried to flee, but most were captured and killed. The rest was eventually shipped off to the West Indies, but only half survived the journey across the Atlantic.
Ironically, the Whigs’ Vault is one of my favourite places at Dunnottar Castle because it is so stunningly beautiful. A good place to rest for a while and reflect.
Just a few decades later, Dunnottar Castle was also used to hold suspected Jacobites prisoner until George Keith, the 10th Earl Marischal, supported the Jacobite cause and joined their army at the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715).
Defeated, the Earl fled to Europe, the Castle was seized, largely dismantled and fell into ruins.
Exemplary Scottish Castle Architecture
Dunnottar Castle was eventually bought by Sir Weetman Pearson in 1925 and his wife and successors have since done a great deal to repair and restore the castle. It opened to the public in 2009.
Dunnottar Castle is an excellent example of Scottish castle architecture and great site to learn about the different structures that make up castle life.
From its well-defended main gate and the gatehouse, that was built straight into the vertical rock, to the characteristic 3-storey Towerhouse, the structures are incredibly well-kept. You can climb up many flights of stairs and discover various walkways between different buildings and levels of the castle site.
The absolute highlight is the generous 16-century Palace at the far side of the headland. It offered extensive accommodation for the Earl and his family as well as guests, halls and galleries for gatherings, feasts and dances, and a beautiful drawing room that has been restored to its original state.
Needless to say, the view from all of the rooms are breathtaking. You can hear the waves crashing against the rocks below and see nothing but the deep-blue sea.
Discover Coastal Wildlife
Castles are often considered to be for history buffs, but Dunnottar Castle has something for everyone.
The scenery surrounding Dunnottar Castle is simply stunning. There are beautiful beaches and bays on both sides of the headland, and more further along the coastal path.
During the summer, wildflowers bloom up and down the coast. Bright yellow gorse provides a bright contrast to the deep blue sea.
Sea birds nest in the cliffs below the castle walls and on a good day you might be able to spot marine mammals – seals and dolphins – in the surrounding waters.
I saw a seal playing in the waves during my last visit in March 2020!
Photographing Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is a pure joy to photograph.
You will get the best results towards the end of the day when the setting sun dips the stone of the castle walls in a golden hue.
There are many iconic viewpoints for photos along the coastal path back towards Stonehaven, further along, south of the castle as well as on the way down to the castle.
Drone photography is permitted but only outside of opening times.
Continue to walk the Coastal Path
The coastal walk from Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle leads along a wide track that is easy to follow and won’t require you to wear hiking boots.
You can continue to explore the coast beyond the castle, though.
Theoretically, you can walk all the way from Dunnottar Castle to the RSPB Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve and on to Catterline.
However, the path is overgrown and uneven underfoot as there are many rabbit burrows in the soil. It’s best to wear sturdy hiking boots and only attempt this walk if you are comfortable walking next to steep cliffs.
I recommend bringing plenty of water and snacks with you as it gets tiring to walk on uneven ground for an extended period of time.
In the summer, Fowlsheugh is home to a thriving puffin colony, who come to land to nest and raise their chicks (mid-April to late July).
A visit to Dunnottar Castle would not be complete without a stop in the nearby harbour town of Stonehaven.
The bustling seaside town is a great home base to explore the area. It gives you access to a plethora of restaurants, pubs and cafes – many with vegan options – and there is lots to discover.
From public art along the waterfront and medieval history by the harbour to beautiful architecture and a heated outdoor pool, Stonehaven has it all. Don’t miss out!
Dunnottar Castle is one of my favourite castles to visit in Scotland and surprisingly still an underdog among Scottish heritage sites.
I hope I have convinced you to visit Dunnottar Castle on your next trip to Scotland and give off-beat destinations like Stonehaven and Aberdeenshire a chance!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.