Dunnottar Castle on Scotland’s Northeast Coast

Castles are amazing. I don’t care if it has been renovated into a luxury hotel, if it’s a well-preserved ruin, or if all that remains is a crumbling mess. Every castle has a tale to tell, and I love them all.

Honey from "Notting Hill".

Today I would like to take you to Dunnottar Castle, which sits on the North Sea, about two miles from the town of Stonehaven, Scotland. I can still remember my reaction the first time I rounded the path, and Dunnottar came into full view. Hmmm, how do I describe it? Okay, got it. Do you remember the romcom “Notting Hill” starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts? (Where have all the romantic comedies gone, by the way?) Do you remember the scene where William (Grant) takes the famous actress Anna Scott (Roberts) as his date to his sister Honey’s birthday party? And do you remember what Honey said when she came face to face with Anna for the first time? Hahaha! Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.

Dunnottar Castle.

Perched atop a massive flat rock with sheer cliffs on three sides and connected to the mainland by only a narrow stretch of earth, Dunnottar Castle and its surrounding landscape is an extraordinary sight to behold. Honestly, photos cannot do justice to the magnitude of the rock upon which the castle resides.

Rugged sea cliffs on the North Sea.

The history of Dunnottar Castle is rich and turbulent, reaching as far back as 400 A.D. to the time of Ninian, an early missionary among the Picts. It was here, in the northeast corner of Pictland (what later became Scotland), that the country’s first Saint brought Christianity to the people the Romans called the “Painted Ones.” Ninian and his community of disciples established a base at Dunnottar, and from there, they spread the Word throughout the region.

North Sea coast.

“Evidence of Picts living on the sea stack of Dunnicaer, just north of the Castle, has been found by a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen. Carbon dating shows this to be the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered.” −dunnottarcastle.co.uk

The first of Dunnottar’s troubles may have transpired in the 9th century when it fell under Viking invasion. The warrior invaders not only killed King Donald II, who perished while defending it, but they also destroyed the castle.

Dunnottar Castle ruins.

By 1276, however, Dunnottar Castle was operating as a royal residence once again. A stone parish church was consecrated on the site where St. Ninian’s Chapel had stood. Two of the chapel windows survive to this day!

Interior wall of Dunnottar Castle.
The chapel, where the English garrison took refuge during an attack.  William Wallace burned the chapel…and the men hiding inside!

The years of quiet were short-lived. In the hundred years that followed, Dunnottar became a volleyball of sorts, bouncing back and forth between Scottish and English control (four times, in fact!). Figures like King Edward I of England, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Edward Balliol, and the Regent, Sir Andrew Moray all played significant parts in the violent, dramatic saga.

Dunnottar Castle ruins.

From the 14th century until 1715, what remained of Dunnottar owned by the Keiths – the Earl Marischals (‘Marshals’) of Scotland and one of the most powerful families in the country. It was during their tenure that the castle (many of the remains which we still see today) was mostly re-built, including the tower house and curtain wall. Dunnottar played host to many visitors during these years, including James VI and, of course, (who else) Mary Queen of Scots!

The tower house at Dunnottar Castle.
The tower house
Dunnottar Castle ruins.

As you can see, up to this point, Dunnottar had had quite a bumpy ride! And alas, it wasn’t over yet for the mid-17th century brought hardship to the castle once again. In 1645, James Graham, First Marquis of Montrose, laid waste to the barony of Dunnottar, going so far as to burn the boats in the harbor and the nearby town of Stonehaven. And in 1651, Oliver Cromwell and his army laid siege to Dunnottar. Somehow the castle’s defenders managed to hold out for eight long, exhausting months. Heavy cannons arrived in 1652, and sadly, in May of that year, surrender was made…BUT not before the Honors of Scotland (The Scottish Crown Jewels) – the real object of Cromwell’s desire – were secretly removed from the castle and taken to nearby Kinneff Church for safekeeping. Imagine the tantrum Mr. Cromwell must have thrown when he learned they were not there! Ha!

Scottish-Crown-Jewels
The Honors of Scotland, which now reside at Edinburgh Castle

As turbulent as Dunnottar’s history was, perhaps the ugliest thread in its historical tapestry is that which took place in 1685. One hundred sixty-seven Covenanters (those of the Presbyterian faith) refused to renunciate their allegiance to the National Covenant of Scotland. They declined to acknowledge the church structure set forth by Charles II. Charles outlawed Presbyterianism and promoted a political church hierarchy. As a result of their non-compliance, one hundred twenty-two men and forty-five women were apprehended and taken to a dark, dank cellar at the castle known as the ‘Whigs’ Vault.’ They were thrown together, shoulder-to-shoulder in the muck and mire, with no sanitation and little food for some two months. Thirty-seven people eventually capitulated and were released. Twenty-five managed to escape, but fifteen of those were recaptured and tortured. Two fell to their deaths on the rocks below. A sorrowful time indeed.

A sign for The Whig's Vault at Dunnottar Castle.
A stone vault.

Thirty years after the imprisonment of the Covenanters, the 10th and last Earl Marischal George Keith was convicted of treason for his part in the Jacobite rebellion. In 1715, Dunnottar was seized by the Scottish government. In 1717, the castle was purchased by the York Mining Company who (tragically) stripped everything of value, leaving only the castle’s shell.

Finally, (thank goodness, right?), we come to the end of Dunnottar’s long, unsettled history. Lady Cowdray purchased the castle in 1925 and embarked on a project to perform much-needed repairs. Thanks to her foresight, the public now has access to this magnificent place where so much history transpired.

And magnificent it is.

A castle window that overlooks Scotland's North Sea coast.

Have a splendid rest of your week, everyone.  See you again soon!

Cheers,

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