DUNNOTTAR CASTLE, AB39 2TL
Postcode: AB39 2TL
Lat/Long: 56.945867N 2.198661W
Notes: Castle is found near Stonehaven and is well sign-posted. A dedicated car park serves visitors to the site but visitors should note it is a short walk (up and downhill) to access the castle itself.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The remains of a fourteenth century Tower House and other outbuildings set on a outcrop of rock in a dramatic coastal location.
1. By the fifth century AD Dunnottar was one of the major settlements/fortifications within the Kingdom of the Fortriu. Burghead was probably the capital.
2. Sir Robert de Keith, great grandfather of the builder of the Tower House at Dunnottar, commanded the Scottish cavalry at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) famously neutralising the threat from Edward II's archers.
3. The Honours of Scotland - a 1.3 metre long sword with Crown and Sceptre - were smuggled to Dunnottar Castle after the coronation of Charles II in January 1651. With Cromwell's men rampaging through the land keen to capture and destroy the Honours (as he had with the English equivalent) to eliminate all traces of monarchy, they were allegedly hidden in bags of wool by a Mrs Drummond, wife of a Minister near Scone. The castle came under siege between September 1651 and May 1652 during which the Honours were smuggled out by Mrs Grainger, wife of the Minister of the Kirk at Kinneff, and buried in the local church.
4. Dunnottar briefly functioned as a prison in 1685 for rebels who had supported the Duke of Monmouth's unsuccessful overthrow of James VII (II of England). The unfortunate prisoners were held in squalled conditions in a vault from May to July 1685 with many dying in captivity.
Tower House. The Tower House was built in the late fourteenth century after the Wars of Scottish Independence had finished. Its builder - Sir William Keith, Earl Marischal - was excommunicated by the Bishop of St Andrews for building on a sacred site.
Castle Entrance. The size of the original castle arched entrance can be seen above - it was narrowed to present dimensions in the seventeenth century. Benholm’s Lodging, the adjacent structure with the gunports, was built in the sixteenth century.
The site of Dunnottar Castle has been an important settlement for well over a thousands years. Its early history saw attacks from Danes and Angles as well from the native Picts whilst in the later Medieval period its coastal location made it an easy target for conquering English forces. The castle was largely destroyed during the Wars of Three Kingdoms.
HISTORY OF DUNNOTTAR CASTLE
Although Dunnottar was possibly an Iron Age promontory fort, it came to prominence in the fifth century as one the earliest Christian sites in Pictland when St Ninian built a small timber framed church there. By the late seventh century its proximity to the divide between North and South Pictland had made it an important site. A siege was recorded in AD 681 during the reign of King Bridei and in AD 693 during the reign of his successor, Taran. Later, in AD 900, King Donald II was killed trying to defend the site from the Danes whilst his successor - King Constantine II - was besieged within the castle when Athelstan, King of Wessex marched north to assert his overlordship of Northumbria and Strathclyde.
In 1286 Alexander III had died without male heir leaving multiple claimants for the Scottish throne. Bishop William Fraser of St Andrews invited King Edward I of England to arbitrate between claimants and he seized the opportunity to take control of the northern Kingdom. Prior to accepting the role of arbitrator Edward insisted that all Royal castles in Scotland were handed over to him; Dunnottar was one of these. The English King eventually settled on John Balliol, Lord of Galloway but when he proved less pliable than hoped the first War of Scottish Independence commenced. In this early part of the war a guerrilla war was waged by William Wallace who attacked Dunnottar Castle in 1297. The garrison was overwhelmed and sought sanctuary in the church with their families; Wallace showed no mercy burning the structure and those within.
Dunnottar was re-taken by the English during the Second War of Scottish Independence. In 1332 Edward III had covertly supported Edward Balliol, son of the former King John of Scotland, in his bid to display the child King David II. Balliol was crowned but was he was deposed a few months later and fled to Carlisle. He requested support from the English King in exchange for Berwick-upon-Tweed. Edward responded and decisively defeated the Scots at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333). The English took control of Dunnottar in 1336 as they sought to consolidate their power over the country but as their interest slewed away from Scotland towards the continent, the Scottish started retaking the fortifications held against them. Dunnottar itself was retaken by Sir Andrew Murray, Regent of Scotland later in the same year and burnt to prevent further military use. Thereafter the site passed into the hands of Sir William Keith who, in the late fourteenth century, built the stone Tower House and surrounding curtain wall. His heirs and successors continued to rise in prominence and in 1458 James II created William's grandson Earl Marischal.
The castle became embroiled in the Wars of Three Kingdoms. The first conflict was the so-called Bishop's War which started in 1638 when Charles I attempted to convert the Scottish church into an Episcopal system - a Bishop led structure - versus the Presbyterian model favoured by the ruling elite. A national Covenant was signed by those opposed to the King's reforms and an army raised to enforce it. Led by James Graham, Earl (later Marquis) of Montrose the then owner of Dunnottar - William Keith, Earl Marischal - joined his force. One skirmish against Royal forces was fought at Megray Mill, just a short distance from Dunnottar Castle, and Montrose had ordered the gates of the castle remained open to provide a safe haven lest the battle went badly; as it happened Montrose was victorious and went on to take Aberdeen. Nevertheless, as the War of the Three Kingdoms continued, Montrose became increasingly disenfranchised particularly after the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant which tied the Scots with the Parliamentarians. In 1645, dismayed with the anti-Royalist approach of the Parliamentary force, he changed sides to support Charles I and in March arrived at Dunnottar and attempted to persuade his former ally, the Earl Marischal, to join him. The Earl refused and in retaliation Montrose laid waste to the surrounding area including Stonehaven.
In January 1649 Charles I was executed in London. The Scottish had not been consulted and Charles II was duly invited to take the throne; he arrived in Scotland in July 1650 prompting Oliver Cromwell to invade Scotland. Although a large army was mustered to counter him, it was defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650. Nevertheless Charles II was crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651 and attempted an invasion of England that ended defeat at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. Around the sametime Dunnottar Castle came under siege from Parliamentary forces. Throughout the subsequent Winter and Spring the garrison defied the Parliamentary force but by May heavy artillery was moved into position. After a fierce, sustained bombardment Dunnottar was surrendered on 24 May 1652.
After the war the heavily damaged Dunnottar was retained by the Army and used as a depot until returned to the Keith family in 1695. During this period the ruling Stuart dynasty had been overthrown and replaced with the dual Protestant monarchs of William of Orange and his wife Mary. Although widely accepted, a Jacobite movement emerged and in 1707 William Keith, Ninth Earl Marischal was implicated and imprisoned. Although released his son - George Keith, Tenth Earl Marischal - later participated in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion including fighting at the Battle of Sherrifmuir. With the defeat of the uprising he fled abroad only returning in 1763 after a pardon granted specifically at the request of Frederick the Great of Prussia. During this period Dunnottar had been sold into the hands of the York Building Company who plundered the ruined remains for masonry, lead and other items of value.