On a precipitous sea-girt promontary, Dunnottar Castle is one of the most spectacular medieval castles in Scotland, long a property of the Keith Earls Marischal, scene of the famous siege involving the Scottish Crown Jewels, and with an impressive fortified entrance.
Kincardine & Deeside: About 2 miles south of Stonehaven, on minor roads east of A92 or A957, on promontory jutting into sea, 0.5 miles east of Dunnottar Mains, at Dunnottar Castle.
NO 882839 OS: 45 AB39 2TL
OPEN: Open all year: Apr-Sep, daily 9.00-17.30; Oct-Mar, daily 10.00-16.30 or dusk, whichever is sooner (check website). Closed 25-26 Dec and 1-2 Jan. Sales area. Closed during bad weather. Weddings and events.
Tel: 01569 762173 Web: www.dunnottarcastle.co.uk
Getting to the castle involves a walk, steep climb, and a steeper one back.
Dunecht estates: Web: www.dunechtestates.co.uk
Kinneff Old Church: open daily. Web: www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk
Colour photos as captioned © Tom Wolf, www.tom-wolf.com
Set on a virtually impregnable cliff-top promontory some 160 foot above the sea, Dunnottar Castle is a spectacular ruined courtyard castle, parts of which date from the 12th century, although there was probably a stronghold here from the earliest times.
The hugely impressive and heavily fortified entrance is through a doorway, defended by a portcullis, and several rows of gunloops, and then up a flight of steps and through a tunnel.
The large site has many buildings. An early 15th-century L-plan tower of four storeys and formerly a garret stands at one corner. The walls are pierced by gunloops, and all corners are crowned by open rounds. The basement is vaulted, and contained a kitchen and cellars. There was a lesser hall, on the first floor, and the main hall on the second floor had private chambers adjoining and above.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries, ranges were built around a large courtyard, enclosing a bowling green. One range contained a hall and private chamber, another a long gallery floor, and the last much accommodation. Other buildings included a large chapel, a stable block, a forge, barracks, and a priest’s house.
St Ninian established a church here at the beginning of the 5th century. There was a stronghold from early times, and it was besieged by the Picts, then in 900 by Vikings when Donald, King of Scots, was slain.
A castle here was captured by William Wallace from the English in 1296, one story relating that he burnt 4,000 Englishmen here. Edward III of England took Dunnottar in the 1330s and strengthened it, but it was quickly recaptured by Sir Andrew Moray, the Regent.
The Keiths acquired the property in 1382, exchanging Struthers in Fife for Dunnottar with Lindsay of The Byres. William Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, was a noted scholar, and founded Marischal College in Aberdeen. By the beginning of the 16th century, Dunnottar was one of the strongest fortresses in Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, stayed here in 1562.
Despite its strength, it was captured by Catholic nobles in their rebellion of 1594. The Marquis of Montrose unsuccessfully besieged it in 1645. William, 9th Earl, entertained King Charles II here in 1650, and in 1651 the Scottish crown jewels were brought here for safety during Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland. General Lambert besieged the castle in 1652, but this proved extremely difficult, and the castle was only reduced after eight months by starvation and mutiny. The regalia and state papers were smuggled out to be hidden for nine years in nearby Kinneff Old Kirk [NO 855749] until recovered at the Restoration. The church is open to the public and may be visited.
In 1685 Covenanters, numbering some 167 women and men, were packed into one of the cellars during a hot summer and nine died while 25 escaped. The others, when freed, were found to have been tortured. There is a memorial in Dunnottar Parish Church to those who died.
The castle was held for William and Mary in 1689 and many Jacobites were imprisoned here. The Earl Marischal threw in his lot with the Stewarts during the Jacobite rising of 1715, and was subsequently forfeited. The Duke of Argyll partly destroyed Dunnottar in 1716, and it was more fully slighted in 1718.
Between the wars, the castle was consolidated and partly reroofed. The castle is part of the Dunecht estates and is owned by Charles Pearson, son of Viscount Cowdray, and covers some 53,000 acres of rural Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, including Dunecht, Raemoir and Campfield, Dunnottar Castle, Forest of Birse, Edinglassie, West Durris and Bucharn.
External shots of the castle were used, along with Dover and Blackness, in the making of the film Hamlet with Mel Gibson, and Dunnottar was used as a location in the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.
In 2017 the castle had more than 110,000 visitors.
Dunnottar Parish Church [NO 863852] was begun by the Keiths, but the present
building dates from 1782. The Marischal Aisle, built by the 5th Earl in 1582, was restored by Marischal
College in Aberdeen in 1913 (also see above), and many of the Keiths were buried here.
There is also the poignantly sad carved memorial of 1622 to Mary Keith, the young daughter of William, 5th Earl Marischal, in Benholm Kirk or Parish Church [NO 804692], which was deicated to St Marnoch or Marnock. Death, in the form of skeleton, has been carved, stabbing the Earl and his wife through the chest with spears. The church is now in the care of Scotland's Redundant Churches Trust.
Sightings of several ghosts have been reported at Dunnottar, including the apparition of a girl, around 13 years old and dressed in a dull plaid-type dress, a young deer hound, and a tall Scandinavian-looking man.
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