Castle of the Week 70 – Eilean Donan

Often called the most romantic castle in Scotland, and familiar from films such as Highlander and The World is not Enough, the island of Eilean Donan has been fortified for about 800 years. Situated where three sea lochs meet on the west coast of Scotland, near the pretty village of Dornie, the current castle was rebuilt between 1912 and 1932 exactly as it was.

There is evidence of an iron age fort, but the island was given its name (which means island of Donan) in the 6th century. It was named after an Irish saint, Bishop Donan, who came to Scotland in the late 6th century . Opinion is divided as to whether he formed a small community on the island or lived as a hermit.

From the 9th to the 13th century there were many viking invasions so there may well have been a castle, but there are no visible signs. In 1263 it was given to Colin Fitzgerald (later MacKenzie) by King Alexander III as a reward for helping in his victory at the Battle of Largs when the Scandinavian Crown lost control of the Western Isles. He was given instructions to build a strong castle to defend the area. He built a large castle which covered the whole island. It was surrounded by a curtain wall containing two small towers and one entrance, a seagate. The keep was placed on the highest point and there was a large tower at the north end of the courtyard. It would have been fairly easy to defend, with archers on the walls shooting flaming arrows down into attacking ships.

In the early part of the 14th century Robert the Bruce, hiding from the English, was given refuge and shortly afterwards, in 1331, Randolph, Earl of Moray and Warden of Scotland, a strict disciplinarian, had the castle walls decorated with the heads of 50 local men he had executed for supposed misdemeanours.

Later in the 14th century the castle was rebuilt on a smaller scale as the vikings were gone and the Lord of the Isles established. The keep was now in the north-east corner of the much smaller courtyard. It was four storeys tall with its entrance on the first floor reached by a movable wooden ladder or steps. In 1362, the MacRae clan moved into the area and became bodyguards to the MacKenzie chiefs.

In 1504 Alexander Gordon, Earl of Huntly, failed in an attempt to take the castle on behalf of King James IV and seven years later, the MacRae clan became Constables of the Castle which gave them control over much of the surrounding area.

There was a dispute over the claim to the title of Lord of the Isles in 1539 which ended when Donald Gorm MacDonald, one of the claimants to the title, sailed 50 galleys up to the castle and laid siege to it. There were only two men in residence – the constable and a watchman. A third man, Duncan MacRae, was passing and came to help. The constable was killed by an arrow and Duncan was left with one arrow. As the legend goes, Gorm landed on the island to direct a battering ram and passed too close to the wall. Duncan fired his one arrow which hit Gorm in the foot. Insensed by this, he wrenched it out, severing an artery, and he died. His men tried unsuccessfully to set the castle on fire.

The MacKenzies supported the royalists in the Civil War. Following the execution of King Charles I, the constable was removed from his post and the castle was garrisoned by a Scottish parliamentary force. They were not welcomed by the local people and, after attacking a deputation of local worthies, several of the garrison were killed and the rest forced to flee. In 1645 General Monk, Cromwell’s Lieutenant, returned with a large force and had his revenge by burning and plundering the district.

In 1715 the castle, already falling into disrepair, was garrisoned by Government troops to keep it safe from the Jacobite threat. Once again the locals forced them to flee. The Jacobites took control of it until 1719 when it was garrisoned by 46 Spanish soldiers and attacked by 3 Government frigates. Two of them, the Enterprise with 44 guns and the Worcester with 48, bombarded the castle until it was a ruin. The Enterprise’s captain accepted the garrison’s surrender and blew up what was left. It remained a picturesque ruin for nearly 200 years.

In 1911 the castle was bought by Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap and a year later he began a project to restore his clan’s home. It is said that his clerk of works, Farquar MacRae, had a dream of what the castle should look like and, just before it was completed in 1932, plans drawn in 1714 were discovered in Edinburgh Castle which showed that Farquar’s dream castle was completely accurate. The only non-historical part is the bridge connecting it to the mainland. Prior to this, a boat was the only way to leave or arrive.

In 1983 a charitable trust was formed by the MacRae family to care for the castle and they live in the southwest wing. It is open to visitors during the summer and is floodlit during the evening.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of Castles of the World.

Download Eilean Donan, a siege by Guss370