When I think of Scottish castles, I immediately think of Dunnottar Castle. It’s been near the top of my bucket list for as long as I’ve had one. I admit, the fact that it is the castle associated with Clan Keith (the clan I belong to) had a lot to do with that. I’ve seen a lot of posts and pics shared by fellow Clan Keith members over the years.
Located on the northeast coast of Scotland, it’s a bit out of the way of most day trip tours, but well worth the effort to make a side trip. Stonehaven is the closest town, just 3 km away and is easily accessed by train. The castle itself requires a lot of stair climbing and walking. There are no elevators, so be prepared to get some exercise. 🙂
If you think it looks familiar, the castle depicted in the Disney Pixar movie Brave was inspired by Dunnotar. Initially, Merida’s DunBroch family castle was going to be set against a loch in the Highlands. Yet after visiting Dunnottar Castle, the team decided to imitate its staggering surrounds by making DunBroch an outpost by the sea. Dunnottar was also used as a filming location for Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.
This is not a theme park modernized tourist attraction. Dunnottar is a proper defensible medieval castle. Attackers would have been forced to enter through a gate that allowed defenders ample opportunity to stop them. Enemies faced murder holes, steep and turning walkways, exposure from walls above and through arrow-slits.
We were there in September and found only a few other folks inside, so were able to take our time and explore. All of the exposure and anticipation did not diminish my experience in the least. Having some knowledge of the castle only enhanced the powerful sense of history I felt while there.
Our mother was Clan Keith, and proud of her Scottish heritage. She never made it across the ocean to Scotland, and we wanted to honor her memory while there. We found the perfect place; within the Countess’ Suite, windows open on one side to the ocean and the other facing the interior quadrangle. My sister and I took out our flask of fine single malt whiskey, had a sip and shared memories of Mom. We each had a locket with a few Mom’s ashes inside, and we poured a wee dram of the Scotch (uisge-beatha water of life) across the lockets and left a few Mom’s ashes in the suite. She was well known to have enjoyed a drink. I think she would have approved.
A Little Extra
Below is a short (3:35) film for The Discovery Channel’s “You Are Here” series on Dunnottar Castle located in Stonehaven, Scotland. Hosted by Graham Edwards. Produced and edited by Sarah Weinstein.
Make sure you check the Dunnottar Castle website to see if it is open to the public. The afternoon of the first day we arrived in Stonehaven, it was closed due to high winds, and we saw a chopper responding to a call for assistance (we were told someone had fallen).
You can purchase a guidebook at the gate and download a free smartphone app before you get there. There are also some informative plaques along the way. A restroom facility is available inside the grounds, but no vending machines or gift shop, so you may want to bring along some water and a snack.
Dunnottar was the home of Clan Keith from the 14th century, and the seat of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in the land. The last Earl was convicted of treason for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1715, and as a result of this, his estates, including Dunnottar, were seized by the government.
William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II, all graced the Castle with their presence. Most famously though, it was at Dunnottar Castle that a small garrison held out against the might of Cromwell’s army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels, the ‘Honours of Scotland’, from destruction. Crown, scepter, and sword now take pride of place in Edinburgh Castle.
Dunnottar was far and away my favorite castle of all those I’ve visited to date. Photos truly cannot capture being there in the moment feeling the weight of history. Walking where William Wallace, Oliver Cromwell, Mary, Queen of Scots, and perhaps even one of my ancestors stood was a profoundly moving experience. I will go back.