A Travel Guide:
Planning to head to Dufftown, Keith, or Aberlour to enjoy the best of the region known as Speyside? Thinking of heading to the Glenfiddich or Balvenie Distilleries? Then it's worth walking a few extra steps from the Glenfiddich Visitor's Center to explore the remains of Balvenie Castle.
For fans of Braveheart, imagine yourself standing in the presence of King Edward I of England (Edward the Longshanks) as he peacefully visited this castle or imagine the tension as Robert the Bruce's forces approach, bent on crushing the castle's resident who was standing between him and a consolidated Scotland. That is the fun of visiting these old castle ruins!
Getting To Balvenie Castle
Location: Castle Rd, Dufftown, Keith AB55 4GH, UK
Near the junction where A941 (heading South from Elgin) and A95 (coming north through Speyside from the Cairngorms and the A9 that heads to Stirling) intersect, you'll find a cut off for a continuation of A941 toward Dufftown. Follow this for 3 1/2 miles and turn left at Glenfiddich Distillery.
When you are at the Glenfiddich Visitor's Center, make like you're going to the distillery, but don't cross the street. Instead go to the right, down Castle Road, and you'll quickly see signs on your right for the castle and a path.
The Balvenie Castle Experience
At the end of the walkway, as you pass the castle on your left, there is a booth where you will pay your admission (or show them your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass). As you walk through the entrance gateway, a grated iron gate called a "yett" has been raised to allow you access to the castle. You're now in one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland.
To the left, you'll see what used to be a kitchen and straight ahead you'll have to imagine what used to be (see the picture below). Interestingly, the one feature that is still in remarkably good condition is the well, the lifeline for any castle under siege.
Take a turn to the right and you can enter the tower. Walk up the spiral staircase and enter the unfinished chambers to see what castle dwellers had to deal with in the 15th and 16th Centuries. While the rest of the castle feels unaltered (except for some plaques, signs, and safety barriers) since it's last resident was here, the stairs appear to have been resurfaced.
History of Balvenie Castle
Balvenie Castle's origins go back to the 13th Century, when it was known as Mortlach Castle. There were three phases to this castle's life.
When Robert The Bruce's forces came calling in 1306 the current owner's, the Comyn Earls ruled much of the Highland area of Scotland - as far as Fort William at Loch Ness. By taking Balvenie Castle the new Scottish ruler Robert I was able to consolidate his power.
Sometime during the next century most of the current castle was constructed. At that time, it was under the control of the powerful Douglas clan, which had a long history of battling for power in Scotland. In fact, it was the 8th Earl of Douglas who met a most unpleasant end at Stirling Castle when King James II became fed up with the constant challenging of his authority. Not long after in 1455, the clan known as the Black Douglas' lost their power completely after defeat in the Battle of Arkinholm. James II confiscated the clan's holdings and Balvenie Castle was handed over to the king's half-brother Sir John Stewart (first Earl of Atholl) and his wife Margaret Stewart (see the story of the rose in the next section).
It is unclear when the castle fell into ruin, but it passed hands a couple of times and may have seen damage while the Jacobites held it. This third and more unclear phase ended after owner William Duff committed suicide in 1718. It was around this time that the roof was removed, thus allowing the castle to decay.
Note: It is unclear why removing the roof of castles became a practice. There is speculation it was to save on taxes. Others suggest it was to insure the castle couldn't be inhabited or used as a defensive position ever again. My guess is, it was a little of both.
A Story From Balvenie Castle
As if getting a castle handed over to you by your half-brother the king wasn't sweet enough, Sir James Stewart and his wife Margaret saw a pretty favorable rent payment as well. Each year, they were to provide the King with a single rose! That was it!
With such a light rent payment over their heads, the Stewarts refined Balvenie Castle from it's Medieval fortress roots to a vision of the ongoing Renaissance. For 250 years the castle flourished and hosted the likes of Mary Queen of Scots and others. In the early 2000's, nearby Balvenie Distillery celebrated this gesture by the king with a 16 year old single malt whisky called Balvenie Rose.
Planning Your Visit
It will cost you a little more than a rose to enter Balvenie Castle. The current admission is £6 for adults, or you can use your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass for free entry. There is no audio tour.
I didn't see an official parking area, but that happens with a few castle ruins. I parked on the street in Dufftown and walked the mile down to Glenfiddich, took the tour and then wandered over to the castle ruin before heading back to town for some coffee to warm up. When planning, make sure to check the Historic Scotland website to see if there are any closures due to weather. See what else is around Dufftown.