Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness at dawn

Urquhart Castle is probably the most popular visitor attraction in the Loch Ness area (if you don't count the Loch Ness Monster!). The castle is situated in a dramatic location overlooking the loch and was once one of the largest medieval fortresses in Scotland.


The castle dates to the 13th century, but the history of the site goes back much further. Around the year 580 AD the Irish missionary, Columba, came to the area to baptise a Pictish nobleman by the name of Emchath. We do not know for certain where Emchath lived, but Pictish artefacts have been found at Urquhart, so it is possible the Picts had a broch here.

In 1228 Alexander II quashed a rebellion in Moray. He thought it prudent to create a friendly buffer against further rebellion, so he granted the lordship of Urquhart to his son-in-law, Alan Durward. It was probably Durward who built the curtain wall that protects the highest point of the castle.

Urquhart was strengthened by the powerful Comyn lords around 1275, then garrisoned by the English in 1296, at the outbreak of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

View from the visitor centre
The view from the visitor centre

Sir Alexander Forbes drove out the English in 1297, but Edward I recaptured it in 1303 after a siege that left the defenders weakened by hunger.

Forbes and all his followers were slain on Edward's command, but retribution was not slow to come, nor was it gentle. In 1306 Robert Bruce captured Urquhart once more and ruthlessly killed all the English defenders.

The English were back in 1333, but troops loyal to Bruce's son, David II, withstood the siege. Recognising the strategic importance of Urquhart, the Stewart kings lavished money on strengthening the defences, creating a complex array of walls, twin-towered gatehouse, keep, and a separate citadel.

A reconstructed trebuchet stands above the castle
A reconstructed trebuchet
stands above the castle

It was not only against the English that Urquhart Castle had to be defended; throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the castle was attacked on numerous occasions by the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles.

Urquhart lay on the border of land controlled by the Scottish crown and the Macdonalds, and from 1437 the Macdonalds attacked on almost an annual basis. They succeeded in capturing the castle in 1452, but the crown retook it in 1456.

The Lordship of the Isles was finally subdued for good in 1495, but even then the attacks did not cease, for alliances of western clans launched periodic attacks whenever the opportunity arose. The castle withstood attacks in 1513 following the Battle of Flodden, and again in 1544.

The castle was last attacked in 1689, during the first Jacobite Rising, and finally deserted in 1692. Rumour suggests that the departing royal troops blew up the castle gatehouse to prevent it ever being used again.

The perimeter wall from the loch-side
The perimeter wall from the loch-side

The most impressive feature of the castle is an imposing 16th-century tower house. You can walk the ruined ramparts and get fantastic views down the loch - watch out for the Loch Ness Monster, which has been 'sighted' several times from the castle towers.

There are numerous displays of historic artefacts found during excavations on the site, and the modern visitor centre tells the story of the long history of the castle and its inhabitants.


We came as a family, and our kids absolutely loved it. Our daughter insisted that she saw Nessie, but I won't pass judgement on that. I thought the exhibition in the visitor centre was excellent, and really gave a good understanding of the history of the site.

There is a lot to see, so allow plenty of time. Urquhart Castle is traditionally one of the most popular visitor destinations in Scotland, so expect lots of other visitors, but honestly, the site is big enough that you won't feel overwhelmed by crowds.