Those exploring the Scottish Borders should make a point to stop by Thirlestane Castle, which sits in the town of Lauder. Thirlestane Castle has been the ancient Maitland family home for centuries and is a mere 30-minute drive from Edinburgh. If you’re travelling from England to Scotland through the Scottish Borders looking for attractions, then Thirlestane Castle is one of the oldest and finest castles in the region for you to visit.
Home to an impressive collection of plasterwork ceilings, a rich history, and beautiful grounds, there’s something for everyone at Thirlestane Castle. We’re going to be breaking down the history of Thirlestane, how to get there, and the top attractions you should be making time for during your visit.
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History of Thirlestane Castle
Thirlestane Castle has such a rich history, which starts in the 13th century. Before the Castle was built, it was likely the site of an ancient church of Lauder. The region Thirlestane inhabited was an area regularly fought over by England and Scotland, but Thirlestane Castle’s history as we know it begins with the Maitland family.
The castle as we recognise it today was built in 1590 as the Maitland family home, which granted them stunning views out to the Thirlestane parkland and beyond. This castle was the centre of Maitland family affairs and had famous visitors, including James VI of Scotland, Jean Fleming, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and more!
In 1624, the Lord of Maitland’s son, John Maitland, was given the title of 1st Earl of Lauderdale, whose son ended up being John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and an extremely prominent figure in 17th-century Scottish history. They were appointed Secretary of State for Scotland. With their new title, John Maitland employed Sir William Bruce to turn Thirlestane Castle into a special place worthy of the Secratary’s affairs.
During this period, between 1670 and 1676, many of the fine furnishings and grand designs that Thirlestane Castle is known for today were built. Sir Bruce also kept many of the antiquities during their redesign, ensuring that Thirlestane would keep its Scottish heritage and history – and we’re glad they did! Throughout the 19th century, even more expansions were added to his beloved castle, with two large flanking wings, a central keep, and a south wing added.
Finally, in World War II, the Earls of Lauderdale allowed St. Hillary’s (an evacuated Edinburgh girl’s school) to stay at Thirlestane. The upper floors were used as a school room and dorm, while the Earls of Lauderdale lived and thrived in the north wing of the Castle. Today, Thirlestane Castle was handed to a charitable trust due to its need for extended repairs and has become the perfect place to indulge Scottish history during a tour through the country.
How to Get There
Edinburgh is the closest bustling city to Lauder and Thirlestane and is just shy of an hour’s drive away. You must travel along the A68 from Edinburgh until you reach Lauder – it’s as simple as that!
If you plan to take public transportation instead of driving, you can expect the journey to take slightly longer (around an hour and a half) via ScotRail. Thirlestane Castle is open from May – October, which is the best time to visit the castle anyway.
Attractions at Thirlestane Castle
Now that you know a little bit about this castle’s history and how to get there, here are a few major attractions that you need to add to your to-do list while exploring the historic houses of Thirlestane Castle:
Explore the Thirlestane Castle Interior
Thirlestane Castle holds an abundance of fantastic attractions and Maitland family treasures, hoarded from centuries of family history. You can book one of the group tours with your friends and family, with audio tours and guided tours that grant you a fascinating insight into the castle’s history.
You can indulge in the finest decorative plasterwork ceilings in the Scottish borders and appreciate the high-quality bed linen from the period grand state rooms that are dotted throughout the castle’s interior. Those who want to learn about the various points of Thirlestane Castle’s history, including its involvement in World War II, can see the dorms and school rooms that St. Hillary’s Girls School used until the late 1900s.
This Scottish castle still has something for everyone, whether you’re a fan of architecture, history, or the impressive collection of family portraits that depict the Maitland family and the many famous visitors to the castle. It remains home to the Maitland family and yours to visit, Thirlestane Castle is a world-class attraction.
See the Toy Museum
Another major attraction at the Thirlestane Castle is the toy museum, which features the Edwardian, Georgian, and Victorian toys that the St. Hillary’s Girls School used during their time here at Thirlestane Castle. You can see the toys used by generations of students, offering insight into how toys and games have evolved – they certainly didn’t have automated dinosaurs and Nerf guns!
This attraction is especially popular with young children and offers a fun way to teach them a history that is both engaging and fun for them.
Book one of Thirlestane’s Events
Throughout the year, Thirlestane Castle holds several fantastic events that draw guests from all over the world. If your trip coincides with one, or you’re planning to book your visit while one is on, then you have events like the Daschund Day, BVAC Classic Car Show, Wild Outdoor Activity Camps, and even public shows that show off the history of the Maitland family today.
Ensure that you check out the Thirlestane Castle website for events that are taking place during your holiday – the Afternoon Tea at the state dining room comes highly recommended.
Stay a Night at Thirlestane Castle
If you’ve fallen in love with Thirlestane Castle as we have, you’ll be happy to know you can enjoy a wonderful stay here. Thirlestane Castle has several luxurious accommodation options where you can stay within the Maitland family house and savour the views out to the Scottish Borders.
Individual castle suites have one, two, or three-bedroomed options. If you plan to come with a large group of friends and family, you can book out the entire South Wing of the Castle (sleeps 16 total) along with the courtyard, vaulted cellar, and Victorian dining room.
Those looking to be closer to nature should opt for the Woodland Lodges set in the Lauderdale woodlands.
Enjoy the Thirlestane Castle Gardens
Thirlestane Castle Gardens are a delightful way to get fresh air and enjoy a picnic. The stunning summer Scottish months are the best time to come and visit Thirlestane’s castle gardens, not only because of the weather but also because of the wealth of experiences you can enjoy.
And if you need a helping hand, the present castle offers guided tours with expert local guides that take you through the stunning interior and the gardens year-round. And after it’s all done, you can enjoy a complimentary cup of afternoon tea with exceptional views out to the castle’s gardens.
Try the Thirlestane Outdoor Experiences
Thirlestane has numerous outdoor experiences for guests to try during their vacation, from relaxing to high-octane. These all have recommended bookings, as availability on the day you arrive can be scarce depending on the time of year.
There are numerous activities and outdoor experiences you can enjoy at Thirlestane Castle, featuring showstoppers like:
Equestrians are welcome to come to Thirlestane and enjoy several fantastic horse riding opportunities along the Scottish Borders. Even if you haven’t ridden a horse before, having your first experience take you along the Scottish coastline or through the moorlands is an exceptional way to start. Tour the town of Lauder and Thirlestane Castle in the best ways possible with a horse ride through the countryside.
Guests can choose between a week-long riding holiday, which costs £3720, the ultimate horse riding adventure in the Borders, or a guided ride tour around the estate, which costs £180.
You can enquire about availability through the Thirlestane Castle website. Booking recommended.
Thirlestane Castle has an abundance of heathland and moorland at its disposal, home to roe deer, partridges, grouse, and pheasants. Guests interested in countryside pursuits like shooting and stalking have an opportunity to tackle the wildlife at Thirlestane Castle.
Enquiring about availability is essential, but once booked, you can expect one of the best places for shooting in Scotland.
Thirlestane Castle sits near the banks of the River Leader, one of the many tributaries to the winding River Tweed. The River Leader is home to numerous species of fish, including trout, salmon, and grayling, making it an excellent location for a spot of fishing.
There’s nothing better than a relaxing holiday filled with soaking in the sun and shade, line in the water, and the added bonus of good chat and drinks shared amongst friends. The castle is remarkably close to many great fishing spots, so take advantage of this opportunity the next time you visit Thirlestane Castle.
As with Thirlestane’s other experiences, booking in advance is essential.
If you’re looking for more active experiences, look at the Survival Experiences offered at Thirlestane Castle. Some programmes cover how to survive the Scottish wilderness, including climbing, general survival skills like building fire & finding shelter, and even how to use a bow, arrows, and tomahawk.
Wild camping is extremely popular in Scotland, so undertaking one of Thirlestane’s survival experiences is a great choice.