Reputed to be the most photographed castle in Scotland, Eilean Donan is located in the Western Isles near Dornie, Ross-shire, at the meeting point of Loch Long, Loch Duich, and Loch Alsh.
The Isle of Skye can be seen across the loch.
The following excerpts of castle history are quoted from the booklet Eilean Donan Castle written by John MacRae and published in 1978 by J.Arthur Dixon, Newport, Isle of Wight.
In the superbly romantic setting amid silent, tree clad hills, Eilean Donan Castle possesses a rare and dream-like quality. Yet, standing lone sentinel on its rocky promontory at the meeting point of three sea lochs – Loch Long, Loch Duich and Loch Alsh – it is, in reality, a fortress of solid stone and formidable defences. It is not hard to realise the position commanded by the Castle during the troubled times of the marauding Norse and Danish adventurers who raided along these coasts. Nor is it difficult, when gazing down today from the heights above the shore of the loch, to visualise an era of savage but somehow glorious warfare, when the Clans fought and the MacRaes found refuge in this impregnable fortress, defying the attacks of their enemies.
Much of the history of the Castle has been preserved within its solid walls and immortalized in the ballads and stories handed down from generation to generation.
The beginnings of Eilean Donan reach back into the early mists of time. Evidence of a Pictish fort was found in vitrified rock uncovered during excavations – some of which has been kept for visitors to see. At the beginning of the seventh century Saint Donan (d.618) lived on the island as a religious hermit: the name “Eilean Donan” means the “Island of Donan”. This is the period when Christianity was first introduced to the Western Isles. The first fortified stronghold was established in the reign of Alexander II (1214-1250). In 1263 Alexander III gave the Castle to Colin Fitzgerald, son of the Earl of Desmond and Kildare (later to become MacKenzies) as a reward for services in the battle of Largs. This famous battle culminated in the defeat of the Norwegian king, Haco. Following his death shortly after, his successor, Magnus, ceded all the Western Isles to Scotland. Traditionally, it is believed that in the early part of the fourteenth century Robert the Bruce, out of favour with many of the clan chiefs as well as being hunted by the English, was given refuge in Eilean Donan Castle by John MacKenzie, Second of Kintail. Later, in 1331, the fortunes of Robert the Bruce had changed: he had defeated his enemies and established his position as King of Scotland. He sent his nephew, Randolph, Earl of Moray and Warden of Scotland to Kintail.
Scant respect for the law was being shown by the region, and if it was here that Randolph’s “Crownare” – crown officer – beheaded fifty local misdoers and exibited their heads around the battlements of Eilean Donan Castle as a grim warning to others.
The MacRaes, who formed the bodyguard of the Chief of Kintail and were known as “MacKenzies Coat of Mail” first became Constables of the Castle in 1509. They took control of the area and the Clan was involved in many raids and sieges. One such epic occasion occurred in 1539 when Donald Gorm, a Lord of the Isles, lead 400 warriors in an attack on the Castle. The Acting Constable, Duncan MacRae, withstood the assault; he successfully defended the castle and, with his last arrow, fatally wounded Donald Gorm, Lord of Sleat.
In 1719, at the time of an unsuccessful Jacobite rising in favour of the Old Pretender, the Spanish, who were assisting the Jacobites, sent an expeditionary force to Scotland and set up their headquarters at Eilean Donan. On 10th May, 1719, three English frigates, Worcester, Enterprise and Flamborough, under the command of Captain Boyle, sailed into Loch Alsh and attacked Eilean Donan. The Castle, defended by only forty-eight Spaniards commanded by a Captian and Lieutenant, fell after a short bombardment to superior artillery fire, and the Spanish soldiers surrendered. Taken aboard the frigates, the Spanish soldiers were shipped back to Leith and imprisoned there. The rising ended one month later on 10th June with the defeat of the Jacobites (poorly provisioned and armed) at the Battle of Glen Shiel.
The castle lay in ruins for almost 200 years following the attack. With the help of Farquhar Macrae who had seen a vision of the castle restored to its former glory, Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap rebuilt the castle (1912-1932) at a cost of 250,000 pounds. In some parts of the castle, the walls are up to fourteen feet thick, and the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Billeting Room, built by Farquhar Macrae, is two and a half feet thick at the centre. The look of the present structure was also confirmed by old plans of the castle preserved with other records in Edinburgh Castle.
Eilean Donan Castle is now owned by the Conchra Charitable Trust and is maintained for the public at large. Although the trustees, Mrs. Marigold Macrae and Baroness Miranda van Lynden, have discretion as to use for special events and still use the castle on occasion, tourists are able to view the Billeting Room, Banqueting Hall, Kitchen and other sections as they are opened to the public.
More in-depth historical notes and additional photos of Eilean Donan Castle can be viewed at Joanne Mackenzie-Winters’ excellent web site; The Chatelaine, and the Eilean Donan Castle Official Website.