Dunnottar Castle

The fortress and church are set upon a rocky headland on the north-east coast, about 2 miles
south of Stonehaven.  It has been thought that the medieval castle has disappeared, while the surviving buildings are largely of the sixteenth  and seventeenth century.  However a close inspection of the ruins that cover an area of 3½ acres suggests reality is very different. 
Portions of the 1990 film Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, were shot here.

A chapel at Dunnottar is said to have been founded by St Ninian in the fifth century, although no trace of this now remains.  Possibly the earliest reference to the site is found in the Annals of Ulster which record two sieges of Dun Foither in 681 and 694.  The earlier event has been interpreted as an attack by Brude, the Pictish king of Fortriu, to extend his power over the north-east coast of Scotland.  One medieval chronicle records that King Donald II of Alba was killed at Dunnottar during an attack by Vikings in 900.  Another states he died at Forres.  King Aethelstan of Wessex led a force into Scotland in 934, and raided as far north as Dunfoeder according to the account of Symeon of Durham writing 150 years later.  Although excavation has uncovered no trace of an early occupation, the discovery of a group of Pictish stones at Dunnicaer, a nearby sea stack, has prompted speculation that Dun Foither was actually located on the adjacent headland of Bowduns, just a third of a mile to the north of the castle.

It is said that during the reign of King William the Lion (1165–1214) Dunnottar was a centre of administration for Kincardineshire.  However, the laws attributed to William probably date to the fourteenth 
century.  The castle is mentioned in the Roman de Fergus, an early thirteenth century Arthurian romance, in which the hero Fergus must travel to Dinsotre to retrieve a magic shield.  This is interesting, as there is no other solid evidence that a castle existed here before 1336, although the order of that year implies an earlier castle had existed.  Perhaps a ‘castle' was operational at Dunnottar when, on 15 May 1276, a church was consecrated at Dunothyr by Bishop William Wishart of St Andrews.  The inventive poet Blind Harry relates that in 1297, during his highland campaign, William Wallace burned alive 4,000 captive Englishmen in Dunnottar church.  The fact that Edward I managed to ‘overlook' this crime both at the time and in 1305 when Wallace was tried seems rather perverse if he had committed such an act - not to mention the fact that it is doubtful that 4,000 Englishmen would have been north of the Scottish sea at that time in any case, plus Edward I didn't take too kindly to cases of blatant sacrilege.  Consequently the story seems unlikely as it stands, but it is possible that there was a castle here at that time and it may have changed hands like so many other fortresses during the troubled time of William Wallace.

It is therefore only in the fourteenth 
century that Dunnottar actually enters the pages of recorded history.  On 23 March 1336, King Edward III of England ordered William Sinclair to sail eight ships to Dunnottar for the purpose of rebuilding and fortifying the site.  Sinclair took with him 160 soldiers, horses, and a corps of masons and carpenters.  On 7 April Thomas Roscelyn was told to select 6 sailors and a barge and proceed to Dunnotre castle.  On 20 and 21 April further orders were issued to hurry the expedition along.  King Edward himself visited on 24 July, but soon after Thomas was killed while assaulting Aberdeen and the Scottish Regent, Andrew Moray (d.1338), led a force that captured and burned (brint) Dunnottar in October and destroyed the surrounding lands.  Interestingly this was described as ‘the siege of the pele of Dunnotre' in the royal records.  Perhaps this implies that the original castle was little more than a pele tower, probably with only wooden defences.  That said, the pele of St Briavels in the Forest of Dean was almost certainly a stone structure.

Soon afterwards, on 29 March 1346, King David II (d.1371) granted to William Moravia, fifth earl of Sutherland (d.1370), ‘our rock of Dunotir within the sheriffdom of Kincardine with free power and licence to build and construct a castle on the said rock'.  Yet it was some 50 years later, after William Keith had acquired the rock, that complaints were made about the building of ‘the tower' which is obviously the one standing today ‘upon the rock'.  On 8 March 1392, William and his wife, Margaret Fraser acquired the land and castle of Dunotyr from William Lindsay of the Byres (d.1414) who had married their daughter, Christian, before August 1378.  This was on the condition that their eldest son could be sheltered in the castle during any civil war that might occur!  This document shows that there was a functional castle at Dunnottar in 1392, before any religious arguments about the site began.  This fact is crucial to understanding the history of the development of the castle.

How the castle had come into the hands of Lindsay from the earl of Sutherland is not known.  Regardless of this, it seems that William Keith must have been responsible for further fortifications at the site.  This is deduced from papal correspondence.  On 17 August 1395 Pope Benedict XIII wrote to the bishop of St Andrews setting forth what had occurred.  He had received a petition from Keith complaining that he had been excommunicated for building a tower on the site of a church and cemetery.  Keith reiterated that the tower was a necessary evil considering the disturbed nature of the realm and the fact that no injury had come to the new church or its rector by his actions - a point that suggests that the church had been moved off the castle site many years before 1394.  Consequently the pope ordered the bishop to release William from his excommunication if what he said was true and that compensation had been paid for his using of the rock.

During the sixteenth 
century the Keiths improved and expanded Dunnottar where James IV was a visitor in 1504 listening to a child playing on a monocordis.  In 1531 James V (d.1542) exempted the earl's men from military service ‘in hosts and on raids' on the grounds that Dunnottar was one of the ‘principall strenthis of our realme'.  During a rebellion of Catholic nobles in 1592, Dunnottar was captured by a Captain Carr on behalf of the earl of Huntly, but the castle was restored to Keith just a few weeks later.

In 1581 George Keith succeeded as fifth  Earl Marischal and is said to have begun a large scale reconstruction that saw the medieval fortress converted into a more comfortable home.  He valued Dunnottar as much for its dramatic situation as for its security.  A ‘palace' comprising a series of ranges around a quadrangle was commenced on the north-east cliffs, creating luxurious living quarters with sea views.  At this time the chapel was supposedly restored and incorporated into the quadrangle, while an impressive towerhouse, known as Benholm's lodging, was constructed to help command the entrance.

In 1639 William Keith, the seventh  Earl Marischal, came out in support of the Covenanters against King Charles I.  With James Graham, first Marquess of Montrose, he marched against the Catholic Earl James Gordon of Huntly, the second Viscount Aboyne, and defeated an attempt by the Royalists to seize Stonehaven using artillery taken from the castle.  Montrose then changed sides, leaving Keith isolated in Dunnottar when Montrose advanced to the base of the rock, but did not assault the fortress.  Eventually Keith joined with the Engager faction, who had made a deal with the king, and led a troop of horse to defeat at the battle of Preston in 1648.  Charles II visited Dunnottar in July 1650, before his crowning at Scone palace on 1 January 1651.  At this event the ‘Honours of Scotland', the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre, were used, but with Cromwell's troops in Lothian, the honours could not be returned to Edinburgh and so were stored in Dunnottar castle.  In November 1651 Cromwell's troops then blockaded the castle which contained 69 men and 42 guns.

By May 1652 the commander of the blockade, Colonel Thomas Morgan, had taken delivery of the artillery necessary for the reduction of Dunnottar.  During the initial bombardment a dozen shells were thrown into the ‘great tower' resulting in the deaths of 7 men.  By 24 May the garrison was reduced by sorties and bombardment to just 35 men.  On the strength of this, the men being utterly exhausted by their ordeal and massively under strength to hold the fortress, they surrendered on condition that the garrison could go free after the 8 month long siege.  Before surrendering the Honours were smuggled out of the castle, so the Cromwellians imprisoned the custodian and his wife in the fortress until the following year.  Much of the castle property was removed at this time, including twenty-one brass cannons; the chapel was ‘demolished' and the library ‘suffered prejudices'.

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Honours were removed from their hiding place at Kinneff church and returned to the king.  In 1685, during the rebellion of the earl of Argyll against the new King James VII, 167 Covenanters were seized and held in a cellar at Dunnottar.  The prisoners included 122 men and 45 women associated with the Whigs, an anti-Royalist group within the Covenanter movement.  The tortured survivors of these were eventually transported to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, as part of a colonisation scheme devised by George Scot of Pitlochie.  The cellar, located beneath the king's bedroom in the sixteenth 
century buildings, has since become known as the Whigs' Vault.

In 1689, during Viscount Dundee's campaign in support of the deposed James VII, the castle was garrisoned for William and Mary with the Lord Marischal appointed captain.  In the Jacobite Rising of 1715 George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal, took an active role with the rebels and then fled to the Continent, eventually becoming French ambassador for Frederick the Great of Prussia.  Meanwhile, in 1716, his titles and estates, including Dunnottar, were declared forfeit to the crown.

The seized estates were purchased in 1720 for £41,172, by the York Buildings Company who dismantled much of the castle.  The castle attracted 52,500 visitors in 2009.


Dunnottar's strategic location allowed its owners to control the coastal terrace between the North Sea cliffs and the hills of the Mounth 2 miles inland.  The site covers a headland of around 3½ acres.  Viewed from the land approach the keep or main towerhouse of William Keith is the most prominent feature, but not the main defence.

The approach to the castle is overlooked by ancient masonry outworks on the Fiddlehead, a promontory to the west.  This guarded the only landward entrance to the site, the easy approach being blocked by the main gate set in an impressive wall.  The round Romanesque arch in this, 5'6" wide and 9' tall, is set in a 7'6" thick curtain wall which entirely blocks the easy route of approach.  The gateway had a portcullis in an internal thickening.  At a much later date, after 1772, this gateway was partially blocked up to make a smaller, rectangular doorway.  Some centuries earlier two rectangular guardrooms were added on either side of the entrance and Benholm's lodgings, an imposing 5 storey tower (originally only 3 storeys, but subsequently raised in height) with 3 tiers of gun ports covering the entrance, were added.  The old curtain makes up the rear wall of this irregular tower.  Inside the main gate a group of four gun ports face the entrance.  They were operated from within the long vault beyond, whose rock cut interior would appear to date back to the age of the curtain wall.  From here the entrance passage turns sharply north and then dog-legs to the east, running underground through two tunnels to emerge in the main courtyard.  Note that the alignment of the gun ports in Benholm's lodging, facing across the approach rather than along it, means that they are of limited efficiency and were probably served by very short range guns loaded with grape shot rather than solid balls.  An inventory of 1612 records that four brass cannons probably served the 4 ports in the vault.  The additions to the defences here are thought to date to the 1570s due to the survival of a carved coat of arms on which could once be read part of a date, said to be [?]57[?].

On reaching the rock top, curtain walls once covered the summit of the approach to N&S, although those to the north are now just marked by a rampart which made up a later artillery battery.  To the south of the exit from the Romanesque tunnels, is Waterton's lodging.  This, also known as the priest's house, is thought to have been built around 1574, possibly for the use of William Keith (died 1580), son of the fourth  Earl Marischal.  The date is ascertained from a stone said to have been discovered in 1785 in front of the building which was inscribed with the date 1374 and the initials D.L.  This date was claimed to be an error for 1574.  However as we now know that the castle was held by the Lindsay family in the late fourteenth century, it is quite possible that the date was correct, though there is no mention of any D Lindsay in the records - the father of the William Lindsay who held the castle being a David who died in 1356.

Waterton's lodging is a small self-contained house, including a hall and kitchen at ground level, with private chambers above.  It has a projecting spiral stair on the north side and is named after Thomas Forbes of Waterton, an attendant of the seventh earl.  Its most spectacular feature is the stair tower which commences on a round base that changes to a square cap house at second floor level.

West of this tower is the heart of the castle, the L plan tower keep which, with its little curtain walled bailey, blocks the access to the masonry fortified Fiddlehead.  This in turn commands and flanks the entrance to the crag through its command of the entrance curtain wall and Benholm's lodging.  Quite clearly the documentary evidence shows that the keep was the first fortification ‘on' the rock rather than before it, like the entrance curtain and tunnels are.  The tower has a stone-vaulted basement and originally had three further storeys with a garret above.  It measured 41' by 36' on its longest sides and stood 50' high to its gable.  Its late date may coincide with the thinness of its walls at only 5'.  The tower is entered via a ground floor Romanesque doorway - all the other openings are rectangular.  That said a pre-restoration photograph of the keep taken from the Fiddlehead shows that all the windows on that side had gone.  It is therefore possible, indeed likely, that the windows on the other sides are also modern.  The original entrance doorway was defended by a door without and a yett within.  Inside the doorway was a straight stair leading to a spiral stair on the floor above.  This gave access to the battlements.  Standing beside the keep is a storehouse and a blacksmith's forge with a large chimney.  Beyond are the stables next to the entrance to Fiddlehead.

The ‘inner ward of the keep' was left via a defensible gateway and curtain walls which continued as a narrow passageway onto the Fiddlehead itself.  In the elbow of this dog-legged fortification is a narrow, Romanesque postern gate.  This is the traditional site of the entrance made by Wallace in 1297.  As the aftermath of this attack is most likely fictional, it is possible that what was actually remembered is the attack of 1336, although it is not impossible that the castle was taken from its Edwardian Scottish garrison in 1297.  Further masonry defences are to be found winding their way around the summit of the crag, especially to the N&E outside the palace.  It is uncertain to what age these structures belong.

The palace, to the north-east of the headland, was commenced in the late sixteenth century to provide more suitable accommodation than the priest's house and keep.  It comprises three main wings set out around a quadrangle roughly 150' by 135'.  Seven identical lodgings are arranged along the west range, each opening onto the quadrangle and including windows and fireplace.  Above the lodgings the west range comprised a 115' long gallery.  Now roofless it originally had an elaborate oak ceiling and displayed a Roman tablet taken from the Antonine Wall.

The basement of the north range incorporates kitchens and stores with a dining room and great chamber above.  At ground floor level is the water gate, between the north and west ranges, which gives access to the postern on the 
north cliffs.  The east and north ranges are linked via a rectangular stair.  A north-east wing contains the earl's apartments and includes the king's bedroom in which Charles II stayed.  Below is the Whigs' Vault, a cellar measuring 52' by 15'.  This cellar, the prison of 1685, has a large east window as well as a lower vault accessed via a trapdoor in the floor.  The central area of the palace contains a circular cistern or fish pond 52' across and 25' deep.  A bowling green cum parade ground is located to the west.  At the south-east corner of the quadrangle is the chapel, supposedly dating back to 1276.  The current remains seem to be mainly sixteenth century, although some of the lower walling and two lancet windows may be thirteenth century.

A second, presumably early access to the castle leads up from a rocky cove which could accommodate a small boat to the north of the castle.  From here a steep path leads to a postern or sea gate on the cliff top, which leads to the castle via the 5' wide water gate in the palace.  Other sea gates are discussed under Dunvegan.  Artillery defences, taking the form of earthworks, surround the north-west corner of the castle, facing inland, and the south-east, facing seaward.  A small sentry box or guard house stands by the eastern battery, overlooking the coast.

Why not join me at Dunnottar and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry