One of Scotland’s most iconic Castles, Dunnottar clings to the cliffs south of Stonehaven. Much of what remains dates to the 15th and 16th Centuries, but there is a history of occupation going back much further.
A chapel at Dunnottar is considered to be the earliest structure dating to the 5th Century when St. Ninian founded it. It is unclear when the site was fortified, although its natural situation is practically impregnable without any man-made additions!
Two sieges of “Dún Foither” are recorded in 681 and 694 in the Annals of Ulster which are thought to refer to Dunnottar. King Domnall II was killed at Dunnottar during a Viking raid in 900, so there was certainly some form of fortification in place by then. Aethelstan of England lead an invasion for as far north as Dunnottar in 934.
The actual construction of a castle – rather than a fortification – is unclear, there are rumours of a motte existing here – but if so it was by a long way the most northerly of the early Norman Castles. Certainly by the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214) the Castle is a large stone structure in the manner of a courtyard castle.
William Wallace captured Dunnottar from the English in 1297, imprisoned 4,000 defeated English soldiers in the church and burned them alive. 4,000 does seem a bit of an exaggeration … just how big was this church? In 1336 Edward III ordered William Sinclair to sail eight ships to Dunnottar to rebuild and refortify. Edward visited in July of that year but before the end of the year Sir Andrew Murray recaptured the Castle for the Scots and the defences were thrown into the sea.
David II of Scotland gave a licence to crenellate in 1346 and in 1359 the Castle came to the ownership of William Keith, Marischal of Scotland who, around 1392, constructed a tower house at Dunnottar. This cause him to be excommunicated by Benedict XIII for building on consecrated ground, but William wrote to the Pope pointing out he had built a new church closer to Stonehaven and the excommunication was lifted. William’s descendants – as Earls Marischal – lived at Dunnottar until the 18th Century.
Throughout the 16th Century the Keiths improved the Castle – James IV visited in 1504, James V in 1531 and Mary, Queen of Scots in both 1562 and 1564. James VI stayed for 10 days in 1580. A brief skirmish happened in 1592 when Dunnottar was captured by one Captain Carr – but just a few weeks later Lord Marischal was back in charge.
By this time George Keith, the 5th Earl, had begun a large scale rebuilding of the Castle as a fortified palace. Much of the structure that remains today is his, albeit in a ruined state. Although the defensive features are, at least in part, merely decorations it did not stop the Castle performing a defensive function during the Civil War period.
In 1639 William, the 7th Earl, supported the Covenanters against the King and took part in the siege of Stonehaven alongside the Marquess of Montrose. Montrose, however, swapped sides and became a Royalist. Marischal remained at Dunnottar whilst Montrose burnt Stonehaven to the ground – not a popular move locally.
Marischal then, perhaps, showed his true colours by making a deal with the King and switching sides himself. Charles II – still uncrowned – visited Dunnottar in 1650 but he was followed by Oliver Cromwell who defeated a Scots army at Dunbar in September of that year.
Charles was crowned at Scone in January 1651 and the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown Jewels) were used. But they could not be returned to Edinburgh as Cromwell was already there – so they were taken, hidden in sacks of wool, to Dunnottar Castle. By November Cromwell was knocking on Dunnottar’s door and began a blockade of the Castle. It became necessary for the Honours to be moved again and Elizabeth Douglas and Christian Fletcher decided to remove them by smuggling them from the Castle by various means. Fletcher herself stated she smuggled them out amongst sacks of goods. They were then buried in the Old Kirk at Kinneff where they remained until 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne. By this time, though, Dunnottar had suffered the fate of most Castles that opposed Parliament – it was ‘reduced’ by artillery to a ruin.
Even though it was a ruin, Dunnottar was still the strongest building in the area, and throughout the next two centuries it was used frequently as a prison. During one escape 25 Whigs got out of the castle – two fell off the cliffs and died, and 15 more were recaptured, five of whom subsequently died in the dungeons. The remaining prisoners were transported to New Jersey.
During the Jacobite period the owners of Dunnottar swapped sides – the 9th Earl holding several Jacobites prisoner in the dungeons, the 10th Earl leading the cavalry at Sheriffmuir on behalf of the 1715 Rebellion. Marischal fled to France and in 1716 his estates were forfeited to the Crown.
After the Keth’s left the Castle went through a number of disinterested owners, some of whom dismantled the buildings for the materials. It was not until 1925 that the 1st Viscount Cowdray and his wife began to restore the Castle. Their family still own it today and it is to them we must look for rescuing these staggering ruins.
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