Dunnottar Castle

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Dunnottar Castle
Gaelic: Dùn Fhoithear


Dunnottar Castle 2.jpg
Grid reference: NO881839
Location: 56°56’46"N, 2°11’49"W
Town: Stonehead
Built c.1400–1600
Condition: Ruined
Owned by: Dunecht Estates
(in the care of Clan Keith, Earl Marischal)

Dunnottar Castle is a romantic ruin of a mediæval fortress upon a rocky headland on the coast of Kincardineshire, about 2 miles south of Stonehaven. The surviving buildings are largely of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the site is believed to have been fortified in the Early Middle Ages.

The castle stands where the mountainous land of the Mounth punches into the North Sea, and the strategic location of this castle has ensured that Dunnottar has played a prominent role in the history of the north from the Dark Ages to the 18th-century Jacobite risings. Dunnottar is best known as the place where the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels, were hidden from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century.

The property of the Keiths from the 14th century, and the seat of the Earl Marischal, Dunnottar declined after the last Earl forfeited his titles by taking part in the rising of 1715. The castle was restored in the 20th century and is now open to the public.

The name 'Dunnottar' is from the Gaelic Dùn Fhoithear, meaning "fort on the shelving slope"[1])


This is a forbidding, romantic location. The ruins of the castle are spread over three and a half acres, surrounded by steep cliffs that drop to the North Sea, 150 feet below. A narrow strip of land joins the headland to the mainland, along which a steep path leads up to the gatehouse.

The various buildings within the castle include the 14th-century tower house as well as the 16th-century palace. Dunnottar Castle is a scheduled monument, and twelve structures on the site are listed buildings.


Early Middle Ages

A chapel at Dunnottar is said to have been founded by St Ninian in the 5th century,[2] although it is not clear when the site was first fortified, but in any case the legend is late and highly implausible. Possibly the earliest written reference to the site is found in the Annals of Ulster which record two sieges of "Dún Foither" in 681 and 694. The earlier event has been interpreted as an attack by Brude, the Pictish king, to extend his power over the northeast coast hereabouts.[3] The Scottish Chronicle records that King Donald II, the first ruler to be called rí Alban (King of Alba), was killed at Dunnottar during an attack by Vikings in 900.[4] King Aethelstan of Wessex led a force into Scotland in 934, and raided as far north as Dunnottar according to the account of Symeon of Durham.[5]

W D Simpson speculated that a motte might lie under the present caste, but excavations in the 1980s failed to uncover substantive evidence of early mediæval fortification. The discovery of a group of Pictish stones at Dunnicaer, a nearby sea stack, has prompted speculation that "Dún Foither" was actually located on the adjacent headland of Bowduns, half a mile to the north.[6]

Later Middle Ages

During the reign of King William the Lion (ruled 1165–1214) Dunnottar was a centre of local administration for The Mearns.[7] The castle is named in the Roman de Fergus, an early 13th-century Arthurian romance, in which the hero Fergus must travel to Dunnottar to retrieve a magic shield.[8][9] In May 1276 a church on the site was consecrated by William Wishart, Bishop of St Andrews.[8]

The poet Blind Harry relates that William Wallace captured Dunnottar in 1297, during the Wars of Scottish Independence. He is said to have imprisoned 4,000 defeated English soldiers in the church and burned them alive.[2] In 1336 under orders from King Edward III, Willam Sinclair, 8th Baron of Roslin, brought eight ships with 160 soldiers, horses, and a corps of masons and carpenters to rebuild and refortify the castle.[10] Edward himself visited in July,[11] but his efforts were undone before the end of the year when the Scottish Regent Sir Andrew Murray led a force that captured and again destroyed the defences of Dunnottar.[2]

In the 14th century Dunnottar was granted to William de Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland (d.1370),[12] and in 1346 a licence to crenellate was issued by King David II.[13][14] Around 1359 William Keith, Marischal of Scotland, married Margaret Fraser, niece of Robert the Bruce, and was granted the barony of Dunnottar at this time. Keith then gave the lands of Dunnottar to his daughter Christian and son-in-law William Lindsay of Byres, but in 1392 an excambion (exchange) was agreed whereby Keith regained Dunnottar and Lindsay took lands in Fife.[15][12] William Keith completed construction of the tower house at Dunnottar, but was excommunicated for building on the consecrated ground associated with the parish church. Keith had provided a new parish church closer to Stonehaven. William Keith's descendents were created Earls Marischal in the mid 15th century, and they held Dunottar until the 18th century.[2]

16th century rebuilding

George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, by Cosmo Alexander

Through the 16th century the Keiths improved and expanded their principal seats: at Dunnottar and also at Keith Marischal in East Lothian. King James IV visited Dunnottar in 1504, and in 1531 James V exempted the Earl's men from military service on the grounds that Dunnottar was one of the "principall strenthis of our realme".[16] Mary, Queen of Scots, visited in 1562 after the Battle of Corrichie, and returned in 1564.[2] James VI stayed for 10 days in 1580, as part of a progress through Fife and Angus,[17] during which a meeting of the Privy Council was convened at Dunnottar.[18] During a rebellion of Papist nobles in 1592, Dunnottar was captured by a Captain Carr on behalf of the Earl of Huntly, but was restored to Lord Marischal just a few weeks later.[19]

In 1581 George Keith succeeded as 5th Earl Marischal, and began a large scale reconstruction that saw the mediæval fortress converted into a more comfortable home. The founder of Marischal College in Aberdeen, the 5th Earl valued Dunnottar as much for its dramatic situation as for its security.[20] A "palace" comprising a series of ranges around a quadrangle was built on the north-eastern cliffs, creating luxurious living quarters with sea views. The 13th-century chapel was restored and incorporated into the quadrangle.[13] An impressive stone gatehouse was constructed, now known as Benholm's Lodging, featuring numerous gun ports facing the approach. Although impressive, these are likely to have been fashionable embellishments rather than genuine defensive features.[21]

Civil wars

In 1639 William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal, came out in support of the Covenanters, a Presbyterian movement who opposed the episcopacy of the established Church and the changes which Charles I was attempting to impose. With James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, he marched against the Roman Catholic Earl of Huntly, and defeated an attempt by the Royalists to seize Stonehaven. However, when Montrose changed sides to the Royalists and marched north, Marischal remained in Dunnottar, even when given command of the area by Parliament, and even when Montrose burned Stonehaven.[22]

William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal

After this, Marischal joined with the Engager faction, who had made a deal with the king, and led a troop of horse to the Battle of Preston (1648) in support of the royalists.[22] Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Engagers gave their allegiance to his son and heir and Charles II was proclaimed king in Perth in June 1650. He visited Dunnottar in July 1650,[22] but this prompted Oliver Cromwell to lead a force north, defeating the Scots at Dunbar in September 1650.[23]

The Honours of Scotland

Charles II and was crowned at Scone Palace on 1 January 1651, at which the Honours of Scotland (the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre) were used. However, with Cromwell's troops in the Lothians, the honours could not be returned to Edinburgh. The Earl Marischal, as Marischal of Scotland, had formal responsibility for the honours,[22] and in June the Privy Council duly decided to place them at Dunnottar.[15] They were brought to the castle by Katherine Drummond, hidden in sacks of wool.[24] Sir George Ogilvie (or Ogilvy) of Barras was appointed lieutenant-governor of the castle, and given responsibility for its defence.[25]

In November 1651 Cromwell's troops called on Ogilvie to surrender, but he refused. During the subsequent blockade of the castle, the removal of the Honours of Scotland was planned by Elizabeth Douglas, wife of Sir George Ogilvie, and Christian Fletcher, wife of James Granger, minister of Kinneff Parish Church. The king's papers were first removed from the castle by Anne Lindsay, a kinswoman of Elizabeth Douglas, who walked through the besieging force with the papers sewn into her clothes.[24] Two stories exist regarding the removal of the honours themselves. Fletcher stated in 1664 that over the course of three visits to the castle in February and March 1652, she carried away the crown, sceptre, sword and sword-case hidden amongst sacks of goods. Another account, given in the 18th century by a tutor to the Earl Marischal, records that the honours were lowered from the castle onto the beach, where they were collected by Fletcher's servant and carried off in a creel (basket) of seaweed. Having smuggled the honours from the castle, Fletcher and her husband buried them under the floor of the Old Kirk at Kinneff.[24]

Meanwhile, by May 1652 the commander of the blockade, Colonel Thomas Morgan, had taken delivery of the artillery necessary for the reduction of Dunnottar.[25] Ogilvie surrendered on 24 May, on condition that the garrison could go free. Finding the honours gone, the Cromwellians imprisoned Ogilvie and his wife in the castle until the following year, when a false story was put about suggesting that the honours had been taken overseas.[25] Much of the castle property was removed, including twenty-one brass cannons,[26] and Marischal was required to sell further lands and possessions to pay fines imposed by Cromwell's government.[22]

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the honours were removed from Kinneff Church and returned to the king. Ogilvie quarrelled with Marischal's mother over who would take credit for saving the honours,[22] though he was eventually rewarded with a baronetcy. Fletcher was awarded 2,000 merks by Parliament but the sum was never paid.[24]

Dunnottar drawn by John Slezer in 1693

Whigs and Jacobites

Religious and political conflicts continued to be played out at Dunnottar through the 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1685, during the rebellion of the Earl of Argyll against the new king James VII, 167 Covenanters were seized and held in a cellar at Dunnottar. The prisoners included 122 men and 45 women associated with the Whigs, an anti-Royalist group within the Covenanter movement, and had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new king.[27] The Whigs were imprisoned from 24 May until late July. A group of 25 escaped, although two of these were killed in a fall from the cliffs, and another 15 were recaptured. Five prisoners died in the vault, and 37 of the Whigs were released after taking the oath of allegiance.[27] The remaining prisoners were transported to the colonies; a grim settlement known as New Jersey, as part of a colonisation scheme devised by George Scot of Pitlochie. Many died on the voyage, as did Scot himself.[28] The cellar, located beneath the "King's Bedroom" in the 16th-century castle buildings, has since become known as the "Whigs' Vault".[27]

Both the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, and the Hanoverians, the supporters of George I and his house, used Dunnottar Castle. In 1689 during Viscount Dundee's campaign in support of the deposed King James VII, the castle was garrisoned for William and Mary with Lord Marischal appointed captain.[29] Seventeen suspected Jacobites from Aberdeen were seized and held in the fortress for around three weeks, including George Liddell, professor of mathematics at Marischal College.[30]

The family utterly reversed their allegiance at the Jacobite Rising of 1715 and George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, took an active role with the rebels, leading cavalry at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. After the subsequent abandonment of the rising Lord Marischal fled to the Continent, eventually becoming French ambassador for Frederick the Great of Prussia. Meanwhile, in 1716, his titles and estates including Dunnottar were declared forfeit to the crown.[31]

Ruins of the castle in the late 18th century

Later history

The seized estates of the Earl Marischal were purchased in 1720 for £41,172, by the York Buildings Company who dismantled much of the castle.[15] In 1761 the Earl briefly returned home and bought Dunnottar back, only to sell it five years later to Alexander Keith, an Edinburgh lawyer who served as Knight Marischal of Scotland.[15] Dunnottar was inherited in 1852 by Sir Patrick Keith-Murray of Ochtertyre, who in turn sold it in July 1873 to Major Alexander Innes of Cowie and Raemoir for about £80,000.[32] It was purchased by Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray, in 1925 after which his wife embarked on a programme of repairs.[27] Since that time the castle has remained in the family, and has been open to the public, attracting 52,500 visitors in 2009.[33]

Dunnottar Castle, and the headland on which is stands, was designated as a scheduled monument in 1970. In 1972 twelve of the structures at Dunnottar were listed, three at Category A: the keep; the entrance gateway; and Benholm's Lodging. The remaining listings are at Category B

The Hon Charles Anthony Pearson, the younger son of the 3rd Viscount Cowdray, currently owns and runs Dunnottar Castle which is part of the 51,892-acre Dunecht Estates.[34]


Plan of Dunnottar Castle
Key: A Gatehouse and Benholm's Lodging • B Tunnels • C Tower house • D Forge • E Waterton's Lodging • F Stables • G Palace • H Chapel • I Postern gate • J Whigs' Vault • K Bowling green • L Sentry box • M Cliffs • N North Sea

Dunnottar's strategic location allowed its owners to control the coastal terrace between the North Sea cliffs and the hills of the Mounth, 2 miles inland, which enabled access to and from the eastern Highlands.[35] The site is accessed by way of a steep, 900-yard footpath (with modern staircases) from a car park on the coastal road, or by a 2-mile cliff-top path from Stonehaven. Dunnottar's several buildings, put up between the 13th and 17th centuries, are arranged across a headland covering around 3.5 acres.[7] The dominant building, viewed from the land approach, is the 14th-century keep or tower house. The other principal buildings are the gatehouse; the chapel; and the 16th-century "palace" which incorporates the "Whigs' Vault".

The gatehouse (C) and Benholm's Lodging (L) seen from within


The approach to the castle is overlooked by outworks on the "Fiddle Head", a promontory on the western side of the headland. The entrance is through the well-defended main gate, set in a curtain wall which entirely blocks a cleft in the rocky cliffs.[36] The gate has a portcullis and has been partly blocked up. Alongside the main gate is the 16th-century Benholm's Lodging, a five-storey building cut into the rock, which incorporated a prison with apartments above.[13] Three tiers of gun ports face outwards from the lower floors of Benholm's Lodging, while inside the main gate, a group of four gun ports face the entrance. The entrance passage then turns sharply to the left, running underground through two tunnels to emerge near the tower house.[7] Simpson contends that these defences are "without exception the strongest in Scotland",[37] although later writers have doubted the effectiveness of the gun ports. Cruden notes that the alignment of the gun ports in Benholm's Lodging, facing across the approach rather than along, means that they are of limited efficiency.[38] The practicality of the gun ports facing the entrance has also been questioned,[13] though an inventory of 1612 records that four brass cannon were placed here.[39]

A second access to the castle leads up from a rocky cove, the aperture to a marine cave on the northern side of the Dunnottar cliffs into which a small boat could be brought. From here a steep path leads to the well-fortified postern gate on the cliff top, which in turn offers access to the castle by way of the Water Gate in the palace. Artillery defences, taking the form of earthworks, surround the northwest corner of the castle, facing inland, and the south-east, facing seaward.[26] A small sentry box or guard house stands by the eastern battery, overlooking the coast.[40]

Tower house and surrounding buildings

The tower house

The late 14th-century tower house has a stone-vaulted basement, and originally had three further storeys and a garret above.[2] Measuring 39 feet by 36 feet, the tower house stood 50 feet high to its gable.[41] The principal rooms included a great hall and a private chamber for the lord, with bedrooms upstairs.[13] Beside the tower house is a storehouse, and a blacksmith's forge with a large chimney. A stable block is ranged along the southern edge of the headland. Nearby is Waterton's Lodging, also known as the Priest's House, built around 1574,[42] possibly for the use of William Keith (died 1580), son of the 4th Earl Marischal.[13] This small self-contained house includes a hall and kitchen at ground level, with private chambers above, and has a projecting spiral stair on the north side.[42] It is named for Thomas Forbes of Waterton, an attendant of the 7th Earl.[43]

The palace, with the Silver House in the foreground

The palace

The palace, to the northeast of the headland, was built in the late 16th century and early to mid-17th century. It comprises three main wings set out around a quadrangle, and for the most part is probably the work of the 5th Earl Marischal who succeeded in 1581. It provided extensive and comfortable accommodation to replace the rooms in the tower house. In its long, low design it has been compared to contemporary English buildings, in contrast to the Scottish tradition of taller towers still prevalent in the 16th century.[44] Seven identical lodgings are arranged along the west range, each opening onto the quadrangle and including windows and fireplace. Above the lodgings the west range comprised a 115-foot gallery. Now roofless, the gallery originally had an elaborate oak ceiling, and on display was a Roman tablet taken from the Antonine Wall.[45]

The basement of the north range incorporates kitchens and stores, with a dining room and great chamber above. At ground floor level is the Water Gate, between the north and west ranges, which gives access to the postern on the northern cliffs.[46] The east and north ranges are linked via a rectangular stair. The east range has a larder, brewhouse and bakery at ground level, with a suite of apartments for the Countess above. A north-east wing contains the Earl's apartments, and includes the "King's Bedroom" in which Charles II stayed. In this room is a carved stone inscribed with the arms of the 7th Earl and his wife, and the date 1654. Below these rooms is the Whigs' Vault, a cellar measuring 52 feet by 15 feet. This cellar, in which the Covenanters were held in 1685, has a large eastern window, as well as a lower vault accessed via a trap-door in the floor.[47] Of the chambers in the palace, only the dining room and the Silver House remain roofed, having been restored in the 1920s. The central area contains a circular cistern or fish pond, 52 feet across and 25 feet deep,[48] and a bowling green is located to the west.[2] At the south-east corner of the quadrangle is the chapel, consecrated in 1276 and largely rebuilt in the 16th century. Mediæval walling and two 13th-century windows remain, and there is a graveyard to the south.[13][7]

Dunnottar on film

Portions of the 1990 film Hamlet, a version with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, were shot at Dunnottar.[49]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Dunnottar Castle)


  1. Watson & Macleod (2010), p.8
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Coventry (2006), pp.278–279
  3. Alcock & Alcock (1992), p.269
  4. Anderson (1990), pp.395–397
  5. Foot (2004)
  6. Alcock & Alcock (1992), pp.281–282
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "Dunnottar Castle". Canmore. RCAHMS. http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/36992/details/dunnottar+castle/. Retrieved 1 November 2012. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Simpson (1966), p.4
  9. Wenthe (2012), pp.45–46
  10. Sumption (1991)
  11. Simpson (1966), p.7
  12. 12.0 12.1 McGladdery (2004)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 Geddes (2001), pp.25–27
  14. Simpson (1966), p.8
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Groome (1885), pp.442–443
  16. Simpson (1966), p.9
  17. Goodare & Lynch (2000), p.1
  18. Simpson (1966), p.10
  19. Simpson (1966), pp.10–11
  20. Howard (1995), p.53
  21. Cruden (1981), pp.223–224
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 22.5 Stevenson (2004)
  23. "Battle of Dunbar II". Historic Scotland Battlefields. Historic Scotland. http://data.historic-scotland.gov.uk/pls/htmldb/f?p=2500:15:0::::BATTLEFIELD:dunbarii. Retrieved 27 November 2012. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Baigent (2004)
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Henderson & Furgol (2004)
  26. 26.0 26.1 MacGibbon & Ross (1887), p.573
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 Later History of Dunnottar Castle
  28. Handley (2004)
  29. Simpson (1966), p.23
  30. Ponting, Betty. "Mathematics at Aberdeen". The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive. St Andrews University. http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Extras/Aberdeen_1.html. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  31. Furgol (2004)
  32. Jervise (1875), p.346
  33. Martinolli & Bereziat (2010), p.35
  34. Dunecht Estates
  35. Alcock & Alcock (1992), pp.267–269
  36. Simpson (1966), p.29
  37. Simpson (1966), p.33
  38. Cruden (1981), p.223
  39. Simpson (1966), p.31
  40. Simpson (1966), p.56
  41. Simpson (1966), p.35
  42. 42.0 42.1 Howard (1995), p.83
  43. Simpson (1966), p.40
  44. Cruden (1981), pp.185–186
  45. "Auchendavie East". Canmore. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/45159/details/auchendavie+east/. Retrieved 13 December 2012. 
  46. Simpson (1966), p.46
  47. Simpson (1966), p.50
  48. Simpson (1966), pp.52–53
  49. Filming locations for Hamlet (1990) at the Internet Movie Database


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