Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Eilean Donan Castle, ubiquitous star of movies, calendars, biscuit tins and tea-towels, is pretty much a 20th-century creation. Rescued from almost total ruin, it says something for its rebuild, and the success of Scottish tourism, that it is not only one of the most photographed and visited castles in Scotland, but also one of the most recognised fortresses in the world. Indeed, thousands of tourists flock to it every year from across the globe, many of them transported by the coach-load and armed with a tour operator’s tartanry itinerary that includes every conceivable Scottish tourist attraction (with a complimentary wee dram at bedtime). Some visitors stop long enough to snap photographs from the loch side; others are efficiently processed through the neat, modern, visitor centre from which they coo their way across the bridge to get up close and personal with a real Highland fortress – except that it isn’t.
No one can deny that Eilean Donan Castle is almost preposterously picturesque and ridiculously romantic. Whilst eschewing the gushing hyperbole of some of the more vacuous tourist articles you will come across, the location – perched on a small island seemingly floating magically on the water where Lochs Duich, Long and Alsh meet, is stunning; a vision of perfection just off the A87 road to the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye. If you ran a tourist attraction or wedding venue, it couldn’t get much better than that, could it?
For almost two centuries, until purchased by Major John Macrae-Gilstrap in 1911, Eilean Donan Castle had been a steadily decaying roofless ruin. Macrae-Gilstrap was a career British Army officer whose paternal great-great grandfather had died for the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Sherrifmuir in 1715. With the help of his wife’s money, architect George Mackie Watson and local stonemason Farquar Macrae – who apparently had a significant dream in which the castle appeared to him, restored exactly as it should be – Macrae-Gilstrap was able to reconstruct the castle based on the surviving ground plan. Work began in earnest after the First World War (by which time Macrae-Gilstrap was a Lieutenant-Colonel) and, including a footbridge to connect with the mainland, was formally completed in 1932.
Eilean is a Gaelic word for ‘island’ – it can also mean a piece of raised ground – and it is generally thought that Eilean Donan means Donan’s Island. Donan was a 7th century saint who is said to have had a cell, or chapel, on the island. A contemporary of St Columba, Donan achieved everlasting fame as abbot of a monastery on the Isle of Eigg, which was attacked by bandits on 17th April 617. The story goes that Donan was celebrating mass when the raiders burst in, but the thugs were obviously a decent, patient, bunch, because they allowed Abbot Donan to finish before beheading him, and his 52 monks. Another version is that the hapless clerics were locked in the refectory, which was then put to the torch. Either way, it is a typically barbaric tale. I prefer the less likely myth that the island was once home to the King of the Otters, that the castle was built on the spot where he died and the name is derived from cu-donn, which is Gaelic for otter.
Much of the history of Eilean Donan is wreathed in the mists of elusive legend and the often bloody fog of tribal power-struggles between the Kings of the Scots, the Norse-Gaelic Kings of the Isles, their successors, and common, or garden, inter-clan rivalry. One legend tells that the founder of Eilean Donan Castle was of the Clan Matheson, a son of a chieftain, who could converse with birds. Another story tells of the king’s representative decapitating 50 local lawless miscreants and displaying their heads from the castle walls as a lesson to others.
One thing’s for sure, Eilean Donan was in an excellent strategic location. There was possibly an Iron Age fort on it, but the first definite construction identified to date is a curtain wall that almost encircled the entire island in the early 13th century, with a keep on the highest point. This fortification was probably intended as a defence against the Nordic King of the Isles. After the Battle of Largs in 1263 between King Haakon IV of Norway and Alexander III, King of Scots, Norse power declined in the area and the vacuum was eagerly filled by Clan Donald, whose chief became Lord of the Isles. Alexander III, meanwhile, gave Eilean Donan to the Mackenzies. There’s a Mackenzie tradition that Robert the Bruce was given shelter in Eilean Donan Castle at a time when he was simultaneously unpopular with many clans and being pursued by the English. The Mackenzies were later allied with the Maclennans and the Macraes; the latter would in time act as bodyguards to the Mackenzies and become known as the Mackenzies’ shirt of mail.
Sometime around the late 14th/early 15th century, the castle was reduced in size – why is not clear. Then, about 100 yeas later, a hornwork – a separate bastion – was added to provide a firing platform for cannon. In 1511, the MacRaes became constables of Eilean Donan.
However, the event for which Eilean Donan Castle is probably best known is the part it played in the Little Rising, the often-forgotten hardly-begun Jacobite rebellion of 1719. Britain was at war with Spain and the Spanish proposed to make trouble by assisting the Jacobite cause. A two-pronged attack was planned: a main force would land in south west England and march on London, where it would miraculously depose King George I; meanwhile, a separate force in the Highlands would provide a diversion. The main fleet was, unfortunately or fortunately for the rebels, scattered by storms and had to return to port. But a smaller fleet, which included 307 Spanish soldiers and a good quantity of arms and ammunition, successfully arrived in Loch Alsh and occupied Eilean Donan Castle. Alas, the Highland clans did not flock to join the cause; support was decidedly lukewarm. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy dispatched five ships to the west coast of Scotland, to see what was going on. While two patrolled off the Isle of Skye, three – HMS Worcester, HMS Flamborough and HMS Enterprise – slipped into Loch Alsh and, on the morning of Sunday 10th May 1719, they anchored off Eilean Donan. Acting on intelligence from a deserter, a boat was sent ashore, but was fired upon. The boat was, accordingly, recalled, and all three ships turned their guns on the castle. The bombardment continued the following day when a landing party easily overcame the defenders. Accounts vary (as usual), but the castle apparently contained 40-odd Spanish soldiers, an Irishman, one Scottish rebel, 343 barrels of gunpowder and other munitions. After securing their prisoners, the Royal Navy used some of the gunpowder to blow what remained of the castle after the bombardment to smithereens. The other Spaniards had left the castle before the Navy arrived and, on 10th June, were defeated alongside about 800 Highland allies 12 miles away at the Battle of Glen Shiel. The Spanish survivors, including those from Eilean Donan, were eventually repatriated. The Highlanders melted away. There is an alternative version of the story of Eilean Donan Castle’s destruction, that it was intentionally blown up on the orders of a Jacobite commander, Colonel Donald Murchison, to prevent it being used by Government forces. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.
Two charmingly simple iron gates displaying the MacRae and Gilstrap coats of arms guard the bridge and there’s a suitably impressive main gate, with a wicked-looking portcullis, above which an inscription in Gaelic declares the friendship between the MacRaes and the Frasers.
As long as there is a MacRae inside
There will never be a Fraser outside.
I know, we haven’t mentioned the Frasers yet, have we? To be honest, I’m not sure where or how they come into the story. But they do; during the course of my research, I found some wonderful shots of a group of Clan Fraser pipers from Canada visiting Eilean Donan in 2011. I digress. The first thing we did, once on the island, was walk right round the castle taking in the views. There’s a Clan MacRae war memorial in the grounds, flanked by a pair of vintage German 77mm field guns (how did they get there?). Eilean Donan has become the Scottish seat for the MacRae Clan and it was a John McCrae, a native of Guelph in Canada, that wrote the poem, In Flanders Fields. Before entering the castle, there is a fascinating introductory exhibition. Inside the castle courtyard, where the buildings seem to grow out of the stone beneath your feet, there’s a wonderful opening near steps to the sea gate, which seems to have no other function than to provide a great view over Loch Alsh. Sadly, photography is not allowed inside the castle – I assume this is either because it is still occasionally used as a home, or because they want to sell more souvenirs – but, trust me, the highlight is the Great Hall. This, like much of the castle, is reminiscent of an early Hollywood interpretation of medieval Scottish and it is, therefore, quite magnificent without being awfully authentic. The stone walls are festooned with clan memorabilia and portraits, shields decorate the great flag-flanked fireplace, over which a magnificent stag’s head has been mounted, and a great table just begs you to sit down and enjoy a convivial dinner. Above your head run great timber beams from fir trees in British Columbia, a gift from Canadian MacRaes.
To be fair, after the Great Hall the rest of the interior tour through bedrooms and faux battlements seemed a bit of an anti-climax to me, though there is an amusing tableau in the kitchen, where costumed mannequins prepare for a dinner party in the 1930s under the watchful eye of the lady of the house, Isabella Mary (Ella) MacRae-Gilstrap.
Eilean Donan has been open to the public since 1955 and, somehow, has achieved a kind of mythical status in the minds of many. Its omnipresent image on tins of tablet*, fudge, and so on, as well as across the Internet and in pretty much every tourist guide, must ensure it is among the top visitor attractions for Scotland. Its film credits include Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), Highlander (1986), The World Is Not Enough (1999) and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007). Curiously, some people seem to associate it with the TV drama Outlander, though, unless a Diana Gabaldon fan can tell me otherwise, I don’t believe Claire or Jamie have been anywhere near it; maybe it was some other time.
So, is Eilean Donan Castle a fake? In some ways, it is. It is not a mighty medieval baronial bastion, more of a modern make-over. But are you still going to visit? Of course you are – you must – as long as you promise not to speculate, as I overheard one visitor do, over how “they built these things all those years ago”, or, worse, become overly-emotional about the experience.