This week, I am taking you back to Scotland, where my wife and I vacationed in 2013; we know that we will go back for a more extensive visit, as we both love it!
As we were on our way from Fort William to Isle of Skye, we knew that our trip would take us past the lovely castle of Eilean Donan, so we made sure that we had time for a visit. The drive up from Fort William taking the A82 to the A87 was extremely picturesque, particularly the final stretch along Loch Duich.
I have included a shortened version of the history of the castle from Wikipedia here for your edutainment:
History of the Castle
It is possible that an early Christian monastic cell was founded on the island in the 6th or 7th century, dedicated to Donnán of Eigg, an Irish saint who was martyred on Eigg in April 617. No remains of any Christian buildings survive, though fragments of vitrified stone, subjected to very high temperatures, have been discovered indicating the presence of an Iron Age or early medieval fortification.
In the earlier thirteenth century, during the reign of Alexander II (ruled 1214–1249), a large curtain-wall castle (wall of enceinte) was constructed that enclosed much of the island. At this time the area was at the boundary of the Norse-Celtic Lordship of the Isles and the Earldom of Ross: Eilean Donan provided a strong defensive position against Norse expeditions. A founding legend relates that the son of a chief of the Mathesons acquired the power of communicating with the birds. As a result, and after many adventures overseas, he gained wealth, power, and the respect of Alexander II, who asked him to build the castle to defend his realm.
At a later date, the island became a stronghold of the Mackenzies of Kintail, originally vassals of Uilleam, Earl of Ross. At this early stage, the castle is said to have been garrisoned by Macraes and Maclennans, both clans that were later closely associated with the Mackenzies. Traditional Mackenzie clan histories relate that Earl William sought advantage from the Treaty of Perth of 1266, by which King Magnus VI of Norway ceded the Hebrides to Scotland, and demanded that his kinsman Kenneth Mackenzie return the castle to allow his expansion into the islands; Mackenzie refused, and Earl William led an assault against Eilean Donan that the Mackenzies and their allies repulsed.
The Mackenzie clan histories also claim (with little, if any, supporting contemporary evidence), that Robert the Bruce sheltered at Eilean Donan during the winter of 1306 to 1307; the castle escaped any other involvement in the Wars of Scottish Independence. In 1331 Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, sent an officer to Eilean Donan to warn the occupants of his forthcoming visit. In preparation 50 wrongdoers were rounded up and executed, their heads being displayed on the castle walls to Moray’s approval. By the middle of the 14th century the Mackenzies are said to have been on the losing side in the ongoing feuding with the Earls of Ross; Earl Uilleam IIIgranted Kintail to Raghnall Mac Ruaidhrí in 1342. With the assistance of Leod Macgilleandrais, the Earl allegedly apprehended Kenneth Mackenzie, 3rd of Kintail, and had him executed in 1346 at Inverness. Through this period Eilean Donan is said to have been held by Duncan Macaulay for the Mackenzies, against the Earl and his allies. Kenneth’s young son Murdo Mackenzie supposedly evaded the Earl’s attempts to eliminate him, and on the return of David II from exile Murdo Mackenzie was allegedly confirmed in the lands of Kintail and Eilean Donan by a charter of 1362 (of which, however, no trace survives to the present day). At some point in the earlier 14th century it is thought that the Clan Macrae began to settle in Kintail as a body, having migrated from the Beauly Firth, and there gained the trust of the Mackenzie lairds through possible kinship and an advantageous marriage. The Macraes began to act as Mackenzie’s bodyguards, acquiring the soubriquet “Mackenzie’s shirt of mail”.
Jacobite rising and destruction of the castle
In 1689, King James VII of the House of Stuart was declared to have to forfeit the throne, and the crown was offered to William of Orange, in the so-called “Glorious Revolution”. The revolution also established Presbyterianism in Scotland, although the Highlands generally remained Roman Catholic and loyal to the Stuarts. A series of Jacobite Risings followed, leading to an increased military presence in Scotland as government forces attempted to penetrate and subdue the Highlands. In 1714 while surveying fortifications for the government, the military engineer Lewis Petit made the only surviving drawing of Eilean Donan. The sketch-elevation and carefully drawn plan show a dilapidated castle, largely roofless but for a small building by the entrance.
A major Jacobite uprising took place in 1715. Led by the Earl of Mar, it was an attempt to restore the exiled James Stuart, the “Old Pretender”, to the throne. William Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth, joined the Jacobite army, leading out men of the Clan Mackenzie and Clan Macrae. The Macraes mustered at Eilean Donan, and are said to have danced on the roof of the castle before setting out to the Battle of Sheriffmuir, where 58 Macraes were among the Jacobite dead. The battle was indecisive and the rising collapsed soon after.
Following the failure of the rising of 1715, the Jacobites found new support from Spain, now opposing both Britain and France in the War of the Quadruple Alliance. The Duke of Ormonde led the main invasion fleet from Spain, while an advance party of 300 Spanish soldiers under George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, arrived in Loch Duich in April 1719, and occupied Eilean Donan Castle. The expected uprising of Highlanders did not occur, and the main Spanish invasion force never arrived. At the beginning of May, the Royal Navy sent ships to the area. Early in the morning on Sunday 10 May, HMS Worcester, HMS Flamborough, and HMS Enterprise anchored off Eilean Donan and sent a boat ashore under a flag of truce to negotiate. When the Spanish soldiers in the castle fired at the boat, it was recalled and all three ships opened fire on the castle for an hour or more. The next day the bombardment continued while a landing party was prepared. In the evening under the cover of an intense cannonade, a detachment went ashore in the ships’ boats and captured the castle against little resistance. According to Worcester‘s log, in the castle were “an Irishman, a captain, a Spanish lieutenant, a serjeant, one Scotch rebel and 39 Spanish soldiers, 343 barrels of powder and 52 barrels of musquet shot.” The naval force spent the next two days and 27 barrels of gunpowder demolishing the castle. Flamborough then took the Spanish prisoners to Edinburgh. The remaining Spanish troops were defeated on 10 June at the Battle of Glen Shiel.
Restoration and reuse
Between 1919 and 1932, the castle was rebuilt by Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap. The restoration included the construction of an arched bridge to give easier access to the island. Macrae-Gilstrap also established a war memorial dedicated to the men of the MacRae clan who died in the First World War. The memorial is adorned with lines from John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, and is flanked by grey field guns from the war. Eilean Donan was opened to the public in 1955, and has since become a popular attraction: over 314,000 people visited in 2009, making it the third-most-visited castle in Scotland. In 1983 ownership of the castle was transferred to the Conchra Charitable Trust, established by the Macrae family to maintain and restore the castle, and a purpose-built visitor centre was opened on the landward side of the bridge in 1998.
The castle is regularly described as one of the most photographed monuments in Scotland, and is a recognised Scottish icon, frequently appearing on packaging and advertising for shortbread, whisky and other products. Eilean Donan has made several appearances in films, beginning with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1948 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1953. The castle featured prominently in Highlander (1986) as the home of Clan MacLeod and served as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough in 1999.
Source for the background information: Wikipedia Article on Eilean Donan.