Is there another castle in Scotland that can compete with Dunnottar’s majesty and allure? Not only is Dunnottar one of the most beautiful medieval fortifications in Britain, but it is also the location of some of the most exciting and dramatic events in British history. The fortress is situated on a spectacular promontory, and it is flanked on all three sides by very steep cliffs.
It has been torched, rebuilt, and torched once more over the course of several turbulent centuries. It has been the subject of sieges, been frequented by saints and queens, and served as the stage for exciting escapes. In the course of Scotland’s history, it has served as a religious community, a stronghold, and a dreadful jail. Additionally, it was the setting for one of the most well-known events in Scottish history.
HISTORY OF DUNNOTTAR
There may have been prehistoric settlements in Dunnottar, but the first historical record dates back to the 5th century when the tireless Celtic saint Ninian founded a church on the Rock of Dunnottar. This church is considered to be one of the earliest Christian sites in Pictland.
Ninian’s church was only one of several that Scotland’s first saint constructed across the kingdom in an effort to promote Christianity throughout the northern regions. Ninian is considered to be the patron saint of Scotland. The church that Ninian built was a straightforward construction made of timber and wattle and daub. It also had outbuildings made of timber and thatch.
As time went on, a Pictish fort and a small hamlet were built on top of the early Christian center that had been established at Dunnottar. In the latter half of the 9th century, Monarch Donald II attempted to repel an invasion by the Vikings by defending the fort; however, his efforts were futile, and the king ultimately perished in the conflict.
The stronghold was reconstructed, not with stone but with earth and timber instead. On top of the Rock, in 1276, a brand new stone church built in the Norman style was dedicated for the purpose of worship. Most likely, this church was built on the location of Ninian’s chapel.
The Viking invasion was not the first instance of violence to occur in Dunnottar; it was just the beginning. When Edward I staked his claim to the throne of Scotland, Dunnottar was once again used as a pawn in the game of kings.
However, a Scottish force led by William Wallace was able to take control of the castle after English troops had conquered Dunnottar. The English sought shelter in the church, but Wallace set fire to the building while the men were still inside. He then proceeded to destroy the castle. There are still many windows from the 13th-century church that Wallace torched that have been preserved in the contemporary chapel remains.
In the year 1336, the English made their comeback; shortly after the death of Robert I, Edward Baliol staked a claim to the throne with the assistance of English soldiers. As soon as Edward took control of the castle, he began fortifying its defenses almost immediately. The Scots regained control of Dunnottar and destroyed the town by setting it ablaze once more.
By the end of the 14th century, the Keith family, who were at the time the Great Marischals (Marshalls) of Scotland, had acquired ownership of Dunnottar. Sir William Keith was responsible for the construction of the first significant stone defenses at Dunnottar. These defenses included the stone keep and the curtain wall that surrounded the majority of the clifftop site.
In 1503, King James IV paid a visit to Keith at Dunnottar, and King James IV’s granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, traveled here not once but twice during her reign. The first time was in 1562, and the second time was in 1564, when she was accompanied by her young son, who would later become King James VI. In the year 1580, James came again to this location and spent ten days there, during which he went hunting and presided over his Privy Council. His host was Sir William Keith, the 4th Earl, often known as “William O’ the Tower” due to the fact that he rarely ventured outside of his own tower residence!
In the year 1595, an unlucky man by the name of John Crichton was found guilty of practicing witchcraft, and he was ultimately put to death by being burned at Dunnottar.
In 1639, the 7th Earl of Marischal took up the cause of the Covenanters and fought alongside the army led by the Marquis of Montrose to seize control of Aberdeen. After doing a dramatic about-face, the fiery Montrose resurfaced in 1645 at the head of a royalist army. He had taken the opposite side. Montrose attempted to negotiate, but the Earl would not treat with his erstwhile ally. Montrose’s efforts were unsuccessful. After that, Montrose destroyed the castle and the rest of the territory with his rampage.
HONOURS AND AWARDS OF SCOTLAND
But the most exciting thing that had happened in Dunnottar’s past was still to take place. When Charles II first began his campaign to seize the crown from Parliament, he chose to stay at Dunnottar as his base of operations. He was given the title of “King of Scots” during a ceremony that took place at Scone and featured the Honours of Scotland, which are the equivalent of England’s Crown Jewels.
A court crown, a ceremonial sword, and a sceptre made up the Honors, which were considered to be the most powerful representation of Scotland’s monarchy at the time. In the regular course of events, the Honours would have been placed back into storage in Edinburgh Castle. However, when Oliver Cromwell took control of Edinburgh, the Honours were relocated to Dunnottar Castle for their own protection. Cromwell was adamant about destroying the Honours, just as he was adamant about destroying the royal jewels of England.
As a result of Cromwell’s capture of the Earl Marischal, Sir George Ogilvy of Barras was given the responsibility of leading the defense of Dunnottar. The arrival of English troops at Dunnottar in September 1651 marked the beginning of a protracted siege of the town.
The 69 soldiers who were stationed there managed to survive the harsh winter. By the month of May in 1652, Dunnottar Castle was the sole location in all of Scotland where the royal flag continued to be flown. The English, however, came in their heavy artillery and immediately began to pound the stronghold. The cannons blared for ten days straight, during which time the number of defenders steadily decreased. Ogilvy finally capitulated and handed over control of Dunnottar to Cromwell’s forces after a total siege time of eight months.
But where were Scotland’s honor guards when they were needed?
No matter how hard they looked, Cromwell’s troops were unable to locate them. They had been hidden away, right under the eyes of the English army’s watchful eyes the entire time.
There are a few different accounts of how the Honors were preserved. According to one account, the English permitted Mrs. Grainger, the wife of the pastor at Kinneff, a few miles down the coast, to enter the castle on compassionate grounds. This is one version of the story. After then, Mrs. Grainger completed the Honors while hiding them under her skirts.
According to a different account, the Honors were brought down the cliffs in a basket and given to Mrs. Grainger’s serving woman, who was pretending to collect seaweed near the shore at the time. The maid then smuggled the honors out of the area when the English soldiers were looking the other way by concealing them in a creel with some dulse.
They were concealed at the foot of the Grainger’s bed, and then later moved to the church at Kinneff, where they were buried in secrecy beneath the floor close to the altar. The preacher and his wife dug up the honors on a semi-regular basis and allowed them to dry out in the open air prior to each burning.
The anger felt by the English was completely understandable, and they responded by wreaking devastation on the fortress. The chapel was leveled, and the Ogilvys were taken into custody. Mrs. Ogilvy passed away as a result of the mistreatment she received, but Sir George lived through it and never revealed the location of the honors.
THE WHIG’S VAULT
However, that was not the concluding part of the Dunnottar Castle story. Even though the Keep was in ruins and the great hall was destroyed, the castle was still able to be utilized as a barracks because enough of it was still standing. In the year 1685, religious strife was at its peak, and the authorities were harshly persecuting whatever remnants of Presbyterianism that they could find.
They were marched to Dunnottar and incarcerated in a damp, dark cellar that has since become known as the Whig’s Vault. These individuals had refused to embrace the new prayer book and recognise the king’s sovereignty in matters pertaining to spirituality.
They remained there until the end of June, confined in appallingly overcrowded conditions and without access to any sanitation facilities whatsoever. A number of the Whigs ultimately gave in and pledged their allegiance to the new government. Others made an attempt to flee; 25 were successful, although 15 of them were eventually apprehended.
Two people were killed when they attempted to descend the mountain but fell to their deaths. The remaining individuals were sent to the West Indies, but of these individuals, a total of seventy did not survive either the journey or their arrival. On the borders of Stonehaven, in the churchyard of the Dunnottar parish church, there is a straightforward memorial made of stone that honors the Covenanters.
Visitors from the modern era can descend into the Whig’s Vault, where they can marvel at the fact that any of the Covenanters were able to survive their captivity in such a dim, wet, and claustrophobic area.
The 9th Earl Marischal was successful in reclaiming Dunnottar for the Keith family in the year 1695. However, after 44 years of service as a garrison, Dunnottar was no longer appropriate for use as a house for a family. After this, the 10th Earl of Marischal committed a serious error of judgment when he participated in the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 in support of James VII and II.
However, the Rising was doomed from the beginning, and both James and the Earl were forced to flee to France. The Earl welcomed James to his house at neighboring Feteresso Castle, but the Rising was ultimately unsuccessful. His estates, including Dunottat, were confiscated by George I. The York Building Company purchased the property and proceeded to gut it after taking ownership. After a number of years had passed, the Keiths were successful in retaking Dunnottar; nevertheless, it was not until 1925 that any meaningful attempt was made to reverse the deterioration that had occurred over the course of centuries.
Today, guests have the opportunity to explore a variety of structures, such as what is left of the chapel and Earl’s hall, the stables, the smithy, the storehouse, the barracks, and the early stone keep, also known as the tower house. A refurbished Drawing Room and the Whig’s Vault are also available for guests to explore.
The remnants are actually rather vast, taking into account everything that the castle has been through in its history. However, with the exception of the Drawing Room, which has been rebuilt, almost all of the structures have been abandoned and their roofs have collapsed.
The setting of Dunnottar, on the other hand, is what makes a visit there so memorable; it is impossible to imagine a more evocative or romantic setting. Walks can be taken in either direction along the cliffs, and those who are at least somewhat nimble can reach all the way down to the water’s edge on either side of the headland for breathtaking vistas of the Rock.
The turnoff for Dunnottar on the A92 is approximately three kilometers (about two miles) south of Stonehaven. There is a parking space, and the top of the cliffs can be reached via a hike of about a quarter of a mile. From that point, you can get some exercise by descending nearly 200 steps to the base of the cliffs and then climbing back up to the point where the Gatehouse entry is located. However, there are a few seats located around halfway down so that you can stop and take a break.