Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan, which means the isle of Donnán, is a small tidal island where three lochs meet, Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh.  In the West Highlands of Scotland the castle is one of the most photographed monuments in the British Isles and is a recognised Scottish icon, frequently appearing on packaging and advertising.  The castle itself has made several film appearances, beginning with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1948 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1953.  The castle was the setting for the 1980 short film Black Angel and featured prominently in Highlander (1986); was backdrop to a scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998; served as the Scottish HQ of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough in 1999 and stood in for Fotheringhay castle in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.


Eilean Donan is supposedly named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in April 617, who is said to have established a church on the island.  It is thought that some fragments of vitrified stone that have been discovered indicate the presence of an Iron Age or early medieval fortification.

It is held that during the reign of Alexander II (1214–1249) a large enclosure castle was constructed on Eilean Donan island.  At this time the area marked the boundary between the lordship of the Isles and the earldom of Ross.  In reality there is no certainty as to when this wall and the undoubted buildings that once lay within were constructed.  Later in the century the island was possessed by the Mackenzies of Kintail, who were originally vassals of Earl William of Ross (1251-74).  It is stated, without contemporary evidence, that after the Treaty of Perth of 1266, by which King Magnus VI of Norway ceded the Hebrides to King Alexander III, Earl William demanded that his kinsman, Kenneth Mackenzie, return the castle to him.  Mackenzie refused, and Earl William led an assault against Eilean Donan that the Mackenzies and their allies repulsed.  The Mackenzie clan histories also claim that Robert the Bruce sheltered at Eilean Donan during the winter of 1306 to 1307 - although the castle is not known to have been involved in the Wars of Scottish Independence.  Indeed much is written about the ‘history' of the castle that does not appear in any original source.

The first solid history to be attached to the castle is found in the civil wars of the mid seventeenth century when the earl of Seaforth sided with Charles I (1625-49).  In 1650, after the king's execution, the parliament of Scotland ordered a garrison put into Eilean Donan.  The local people did not welcome this and when a party of 30 soldiers came out from the fortress to request provisions from the local people, a band of 10 men who opposed their demands met them.  An argument broke out, which led to the garrison men being driven off with several casualties.  Shortly afterward the garrison is said to have left.

In 1714, while surveying fortifications for the government, the military engineer Lewis Petit made the only surviving drawing of Eilean Donan before its destruction.  The sketch, elevation and carefully drawn plan, show a dilapidated castle, largely roofless but for a small building by the entrance.

The next year war broke out with a Jacobite rebellion that soon petered out.  However, the rebels found new support from Spain during 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, tenth Earl Marischal, arrived in Loch Duich in April 1719.  His forces soon occupied Eilean Donan castle.  Regardless, the expected uprising of Highlanders did not materialise, and the main Spanish invasion force never arrived.  Consequently at the beginning of May, the Royal Navy sent ships to the area and early in the morning of Sunday, 10 May 1719, 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 so.  The next day the bombardment continued and 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 the 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 musket shot'.  The naval force spent the next two days and 27 barrels of gunpowder demolishing the castle.  HMS Flamborough then took the Spanish prisoners to Edinburgh, while the remaining Spanish troops were defeated on 10 June at the Battle of Glen Shiel.  This definitively ended the castle's military history.

Two hundred years later, between 1919 and 1932, the castle was rebuilt by Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap.  The restoration included new construction, namely of the arched bridge to give easier access to the island and a war memorial dedicated to the men of the MacRae clan who died in the First World War.

Eilean Donan was opened to the public in 1955 and has since become a popular attraction with over 314,000 people visiting the castle in 2009 - making it the third most visited castle in Scotland.

Although very little historical evidence for the medieval castle survives, a mapmaker, Timothy Pont (c. 1565–1614), did make a description:

The castell of Ylen Donen is composed of a strong and fair dungeon [keep] upon a rock, with another tower compasd with a fair barmkin wall, with orchards and trees, al within ane yland of the lenth of twa pair of butts [i.e. archery butts] almost round.  It is sayd of old that castel consisted of seven tours.

Much of this is verifiable from the current remains, although not all of the 7 towers are now visible.

The first military phase seems to have comprised an irregular curtain wall enclosing the bulk of the island above the high tide line.  Archaeology has uncovered no trace of an earlier vitrified fort.  As such this seems to be yet another rumour that interesting castles always seem to attract.  The original enclosure contained an area of around 32,000 square feet.  The remains of this wall can be best seen to the north where there are the foundations of a large rectangular tower to the north-west, about 39' by 43'.  Further foundations suggest similar towers at the north-east and south-west corners of the enclosure.  The ward was accessed via a sea gate in the north-west curtain wall between the north-west tower and the keep.  This overlooks a small landing beach where boats could be drawn up and mimics the layout at various other waterside castles.  These are listed under Dunvegan castle.  The archaeological excavations also found evidence of 2 curtain walls to the 
north.  The first lay towards the north-east angle of the north-west tower, but this was superseded by another set south of this that measured an incredible 30' thick, while the remains stood up to 2' high.  This wall postdated the construction of the north-west tower and was built in 2 phases, the first wall being only 15' thick.  Presumably the second phase dated to the sixteenth or seventeenth century and was concerned with making the castle defensible against cannon.  The dig also found that metalworking had taken place in the north part of this castle while a great hall stood nearby.  There was probably also a landward entrance towards the tidal shore, although so far only fragments of the west curtain have been uncovered.

A towerhouse or keep was built against the curtain wall at the high point of the island, probably in the fourteenth century.  This measured 54' by 41', with walls 10' thick, while the older curtain was used as part of the foundations of at least the 
north wall.  The vaulted ground floor was originally divided in two, with a stair in the north wall giving access to the first floor hall.  Above this were probably another 2 storeys and then a garret.  The tower, according to Petit's later drawing, was topped by crowstep gables and surrounded by a walkway and bartizans (small turrets) at the corners.  

Later, probably around the turn of the fifteenth century, a smaller internal enclosure, around 80' square, was added in front of the keep upon the summit of the island.  The entrance to this was from the east.  Further development took place within this courtyard in the sixteenth century and additional defences were added to the east side.  Although it is stated that this new enclosure allowed the old castle curtain around the shoreline to be abandoned this is not certain.  Indeed the opposite may be true as Pont hints that before 1614 the entire enclosure seemed to be still fortified as there is surely not enough room for orchards within just the inner enclosure.  However, this may have been going to ruin judging from Pont's difficulty in knowing how many towers there originally were.  Further, if the outer wall had been systematically demolished when the inner castle was built, surely the current remains would have been better demolished to make sure that the outer defences could not be used as cover by attacking forces.

During the sixteenth century two buildings were added to the southern periphery of the enclosure.  A small house was constructed within the south-east angle of the wall.  This had a circular stair tower on its 
north side giving access to the walkway along the eastern curtain wall.  Located just inside the gate, this is likely to have served as a house for the castle's constable or keeper, and is the only building shown with a roof on Petit's 1714 survey.  At the south-west corner of the enclosure an L plan block was put up. The south part is sited outside the line of the inner curtain wall, with a northern wing, which may have been a slightly later addition, inside the wall.

In the later sixteenth century the castle was extended to the east to create a bastion or 'hornwork'. This comprises a pair of 5' thick walls enclosing a triangular courtyard, linking the east wall of the inner castle with an irregular hexagonal structure.  This ‘tower' is 38' across and contains a well at its lowest level, some 16' across and 33' deep.  Although it has been described as a water tower or cistern, the presence of a door on its eastern side, as shown in nineteenth century photographs, indicates it was built as the main entrance to the inner castle.  The water-filled interior must have been crossed by a removable bridge, presenting yet another obstacle to attackers.  From the bridge access to the castle would have been up a flight of steps into the triangular courtyard, and then through the gate in the east curtain wall.  Dredging of the reservoir in 1893 recovered two brass guns, referred to as 'double hagbuts' and a yett.  This iron gate may have been installed in the east door to the hexagonal bastion and is now on display inside the castle.  At some point in the seventeenth century this elaborate access was abandoned and a more convenient entrance opened in the south wall of the hornwork.

Although the twentieth century reconstruction followed the extant ground plan, the details of the present castle differ from its original appearance as shown by old drawings and photographs.  Today the castle is entered from the south, via a modern gateway complete with modern portcullis.  Through this is the courtyard, the level of which has been lowered exposing the bedrock around the towerhouse.  The present buildings to the south-east of the ward reflect the form of the earlier structures, including the circular stair tower, but are larger in extent than their medieval forebears.  To the south-west only the south portion of the L shaped block was reconstructed, as a plain 3 storey house, while in place of the 
north wing is an open platform giving views over the loch.  The keep itself follows the original dimensions, though the formerly subdivided ground floor is now a single room.  On the first floor is the banqueting hall and fifteenth century style fireplace.  Small mural chambers within the walls are accessed from each hall.

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


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry