Scotland: Dunnottar Castle

To understand the history of Dunnotar Castle, we have to go back in time, well before a castle was even built upon the site.

The “Picts” (Late Latin painted men) lived upon the site, from 5000Bc to 700AD, and were known to worship a religion, similar to that of Druidism, in that they worshipped; masculinity, feminity and spirits of nature.

The site which the castle stands has a strong feminine presence in the spiritual world.  For one known as the “Green Lady” has been observed in the castle looking for her lost children.  As the legend goes, they were Picts who had converted to Christianity around the 5th century.

A Celtic Saint  named Ninian brought Christianity to the Picts, in the 5th century and Dun became the site for one of their churches.  It was a simple structure built out of timber, wattle and daub, a standard style of building for that time.

Brude the Pictish King of Fortriu attacked Dun in 681 to extend his powers over the north-eastern parts of Scotland.  Between 681 and 694 the time of the second siege, the people of Dun more likely turned their former church into a hill fort, to protect themselves from further attacks, by Pictish warriors.  (Dun was the pictish name meaning hill fort, and between 681 and 684, they changed their name).

The 8th – 11th century was a bloody and scary time, for Vikings the scourge of the waters, no more than a race of barbaric savages, raided settlements across Europe.  King Donald II (889-900) was killed during an attack on Dunnottar Castle, from Viking raiders.  They captured the castle, pillaged and finally destroyed it.

The castle was rebuilt out of earth and timber.  It was not until 1276, that a Norman styled stone church was built and consecrated on the site of the former Ninian chapel.

When Edward I (1272-1307) made his claim upon the Scottish throne, Dunnottar got caught up in the battle as English troops occupied the castle.

William Wallace and his army captured the castle in 1297, during the “Wars of Scottish Independence.”  Some 4000 English warriors retreated into the church; seeking refuge.  Wallace proceeded to burn the church to the ground with the English inside, and then destroyed the castle.

Robert I of Scotland died in 1329, and in 1336 Edward I made a bid for the Scottish Throne by dispatching William Sinclair 8th Baron of Roslin with eight ships to Dunnottar Castle ruins, to re-build and fortify the site.  Before the year had ended, Sir Andrew Murray had captured the castle from the English, and burnt it to the ground.

During the 14th century William Keith married Margaret Fraser, the niece of Robert the Bruce, and he became Baron of Dunnottar.

William Keith constructed a tower house, and placed it on the consecrated ground of the parish church, sending them into uproar, and he was excommunicated for his actions.  Pope Benedict XIII issued a Bull notice in 1395, effectively lifting the excommunication order placed upon him.  He went on to enhance the structure of Dunnottar by building stone defences, with a curtain wall around the cliff-top site, and a stone keep.

Dunnottar received royal visits in the shape of King James IV in 1503, Mary Queen of Scots in 1562 after the Battle of Corrichie, and again in 1564.

In 1581 George Keith became 5th Earl Marischal, and so the medieval fortress was turned into a comfortable home, yet still retaining many of its security features.

During a Catholic noble’s rebellion in 1592, Captain Carr captured Dunnottar on behalf of the Earl of Huntly, but it was short lived, for Dunnottar was restored to Lord Marischal, a few weeks later.

For it was, John Crichton was sentenced to death for practising the art of witchcraft in 1595, and burned to death at Dunnottar.

In 1639 William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal supported a Presbyterian movement (Covenanters) who opposed the established Episcopal Church.  With the assistance of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose took up arms against the Catholic Earl of Huntly, thus defeating the Royalists attempt in the seizure of Stonehaven.

James Graham later changed sides, joining the Royalists and marched north, whist William Keith remained at Dunnottar, and James Graham burnt Stonehaven to the ground.

William Keith joined forces with the Engagers who made a deal with the King, and engaged in the Battle of Preston in 1648, supporting the Royalists.

Charles I was executed in 1649 and the Engagers supported their new king: Charles II, as he arrived in Scotland in June 1650, and visited Dunnottar in July 1650.

Oliver Cromwell led a force into Scotland, defeating the Scots at Dunbar in September 1650.

The coronation of Charles II took place at Scone Palace on 1st January 1651, and the Honours of Scotland (Regalia of Crown, Sword and Sceptre) were used in the ceremony.

With Cromwell in Lothian, the Honours of Scotland could not be returned to the safety of Edinburgh Castle, and were duly smuggled into Dunnottar for their safety.  With Sir George Ogilvie as Lieutenant–Governor of the castle, they believed the Honours of Scotland, would be safe in his custody.

What they had not bargained on was the sheer determination of Oliver Cromwell, to destroy what was sacred to the Scots; the Honours of Scotland.  For in September 1651, so started the siege of Dunnottar, against a garrison of sixty-nine men, who held out for eight months, before surrendering a battle scarred castle to Cromwell’s army.

What Cromwell wanted most had been smuggled away for safety, right under the noses of the English army?

So how were the Honours of Scotland smuggled out of the castle?  It is believed that Mrs Grainger, the minister’s wife from Kinneff, slipped them under her skirt, whilst visiting the castle on compassionate grounds.  Or they could have been lowered over the wall to a servant of Mrs Grainger.  It shows to what extent people would go, to save their heritage, from the English army, intent on destruction.

At the news that they could not be found in the castle, Oliver Cromwell was so enraged, that the chapel and castle were torn apart, and ransacked of fixture and fittings.  Cromwell’s government then imposed fines upon Marischal, and he was forced into selling his lands and possessions to pay them.

Charles II was restored to his rightful place in 1660, and the “Honours of Scotland” were removed from their hiding place in Kinneff Church and returned to the King.

Dunnottar Castle; its Keep now in ruins, and the great hall, all but destroyed, yet there was still enough to create a military presence in the area.

The year was 1685 and King James VII was on the Scottish throne, and religious turmoil had broken out, as authorities had stamped out Presbyterianism.  A total of 167 men and women, who would not accept the King’s ruling on spiritual matters, and the use of the new prayer book, were imprisoned in Dunnottar for five weeks, and their dark cellar became known as the “Whigs Vault.”

Some 167 entered the vault, 37 were released upon taking an oath to their King.  Of the remaining, some managed to escape, but most were shipped off to a Penal Colony in the West Indies, and seventy were known to have died on the voyage.

Viscount Dundee’s campaign in support of the now deposed James VII in 1689, saw Dunnottar Castle garrisoned for William and Mary with Lord Marischal appointed captain for the duration.

The 9th Earl Marischal regained Dunnottar in 1695, but years of military occupation had taken its toll on the building.  The 10th Earl Marischal made a mistake that would see the loss of the family home.  He joined up with the Jacobite Rebellion, supporting James VII.  James and the Earl Marischal were forced to flee their homeland, after an unsuccessful uprising, and headed to France for safety.


The northern parts of Scotland are known to suffer from the savage waters of the North Sea.  Some ten miles south of Aberdeen, sits Dunnottar Castle, close to the town of Stonehaven.

Time has not been good to Dunnottar, this fine old castle has stood up well, to what man has thrown at her.  She is located on the shoreline, and nature has been doing its worst, gale force winds beating down upon her, and savage waters lapping at her walls for hundreds of years.  All that remains is a ruinous building, slowly slipping away, taking its memories with her.

A 14th century Tower House (Keep) had a dual use, on one hand it represented a noble mansion, whilst still being a fortified mansion.  It contained a stone-vaulted basement, with three floors above and a garret topping, measuring 39ft x 36ft x 49ft high, which housed a great hall, private chamber, bedrooms and kitchen.  Alongside stood outhouses, containing a storehouse and forge.

Located close by stands the Priests’ House as used by William Keith.  It contained a hall and kitchen on the ground floor, with private chambers above, with a northerly spiral staircase, and it is believed to have been built in the 1570’s.

The palace built in the latter part of the 16th and mid 17th century, are based on three wings within a quadrangle, believed to be the work of 5th Earl Marischal.  It was an unusual design for those times, as most buildings tended to be tall, and this was a long and low design.

It had seven lodgings that opened out onto the quadrangle, above was the gallery, all part of the west range, and at the end of the gallery was the drawing room linked to the north range.  The north range basement housed kitchens and stores, with dining room and great chamber above.  Located between north and west ranges on the ground floor is the Water Gate giving access to the northern cliffs.

The east range has a larder, brewhouse and bakery on the ground floor level with a suite of apartments for the Countess above.  A north-eastern wing would contain the Earl’s apartments, which included the “King’s Bedroom” as used by Charles II, when he stayed at Dunnottar.  An inscribed stone can be found within: 7th Earl and his wife dated 1654.

Below is the famous “Whigs’ Vault” 52ft x 15ft, and a lower vault accessed by a trap-door in the floor.

Artillery defences surrounded the north-west corner of the castle, facing inland, and the south-east corner, facing seaward, and overlooking the coastline.

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