As far as castles go, it’s difficult to imagine a more remote and dramatic location than Dunnottar. Perhaps with the most impenetrable position of all Scottish castles, this one sits on top of its own cliff peninsula on the road to Aberdeen, defended on all sides by the forces of nature. Dunnottar Castle also comes with a good dose of dastardly history with an intrepid mix of torching, smuggling and pillaging.
Add to this some seriously stunning scenery and vistas to rival the best anywhere and Dunnottar Castle should most definitely be on your must-see list of attractions in Scotland. In this guide, we take a longer look at the history behind this clifftop fortress and dive into the highlights of Dunnottar. We also offer some persuasive reasons to visit and then suggest the perfect spot to stay in a castle nearby.
In common with all Scottish castles, Dunnottar Castle is all about location. It sits on a red stone outcrop on the cliffs just outside Stonehaven. When it was first built, the castle was next to the only route over land to Aberdeen and so of huge strategic importance in Scotland.
There are 50-metre high cliffs on three sides of the site (just over three acres). While those are pounded by the North Sea, the fourth is joined to the land. This section was once a peninsula, but its access was destroyed in favour of a cliff pathway. As a result, you can only reach Dunnottar via a narrow, twisting route that ends in a tunnel, making it one of the most difficult Scottish castles to get into.
Dunnottar Castle fast fact
As well as winding, the path up to the castle’s clifftop position includes 200 steps. Bear this in mind if you’re planning a visit.
A bit of history
Way back in the 3rd century, the Picts were the first to see the defensive possibilities in this impregnable spot; their fortress on Dunnottar is the oldest discovered in Scotland. St Ninian set up a place of worship a century later, which stood the test of time until it was destroyed by the Vikings in the 12th century. Another 100 years or so on and the fortress was rebuilt along with a handful of defensive buildings. It was from this 13th century rebuild that the first of many brutal happenings at Dunnottar were recorded.
During the Wars of Independence, the English captured the castle, later besieged by William Wallace and his Scottish troops in 1297. The 4,000 English soldiers, loyal to Edward II, found themselves overwhelmed and hid in the church. Wallace and his soldiers then ransacked the site and torched it in one of the bloodiest episodes – even by Medieval standards.
The heyday of this Scottish castle arrived in the 14th century when the Keith family, one of the most powerful in the country, built the Tower House that dates from 1392. Almost 200 years later, the Keiths added the Palace, known as The Quadrangle, built to take in the magnificent views from the castle.
Making the most of the vistas and the luxury castle accommodation, many monarchs visited Dunnottar. Mary Queen of Scots stayed for the first time in 1562 and her son, James VI, made several visits with the longest in 1580. Charles II also enjoyed the Palace before Cromwell overthrew the monarchy.
Hiding The Honours
Cromwell took centre stage for the next episode at Dunnottar in an era that rivals the best adventure novels. The castle was deemed the best place to hide the Scottish crown jewels, The Honours, during Cromwell’s eradication of monarchists in Britain. The Honours, including the crown, sceptre and sword of state, were taken to the castle to wait for the restoration of the monarchy. However, Cromwell got wind of their whereabouts and his troops laid siege.
Those loyal to the Crown held out for a full eight months, but the continual bombardment was impossible to resist. Exactly how The Honours left Dunnottar isn’t clear – some sources say they were smuggled out under the skirts of a pregnant woman; others claim they were lowered down the cliffs to a waiting fisherwomen. But when Cromwell’s troops stormed the castle they found no trace of them. The Honours were buried at nearby Kinneff church and unearthed 10 years later when the monarchy returned; they now lie in state at Edinburgh Castle.
In 1715, Dunnottar’s final reckoning arrived when its owner, the last Earl Marischal George Keith, was convicted of treason for supporting the Jacobites. The British government seized the castle and sold it to the Yorkshire Mining Company who stripped it completely. Their clearing was so thorough they even removed floors and ceilings, leaving Dunnottar a mere shell.
It remained little more than a few walls, battered by the relentless North Sea for two centuries until 1925. The Pearson family bought the castle and Lady Cowdray set about restoring it before opening it to the public.
Dunnottar Castle fast fact
Dunnottar is named after its very apt Gaelic name, Dun Fhoithear, literally meaning ‘fort on the shelving slope’.
Highlights at Dunnottar Castle
When you’re visiting this Scottish castle, don’t miss:
- Dramatic approach – the steep climb followed by a tunnel gives you a perfect idea of the Castle’s defences.
- Tower House – surprisingly intact given its history, this part of the Castle is a great example of Scottish castle architecture.
- The Quadrangle – put yourself in some regal shoes and imagine one of the best castle stays in Scotland.
- Whigs Vault – see for yourself the dingy, cramped conditions that were home for two months to 167 Covenanters in 1685 before those who survived were deported to the colonies as slaves.
- Sunrise – seeing dawn break over the North Sea behind the Castle counts as one of the loveliest experiences at Dunnottar.
- The views – admire the sea and coast for miles from almost every vantage point within the walls.
- The walk from Stonehaven – the 30-40 minute walk offers the best perspective of the Castle and its lofty position.
- Local wildlife – seals often bask on the beaches below and dolphins frequent the waters. If you visit in winter, keep your eyes pealed for stoats in ermine white.
Dunnottar Castle fast fact
When it was built, The Quadrangle was considered to be the most luxurious castle accommodation in Scotland, more than fit for a king!
Why visit Dunnottar
Its location ranks as one of the most dramatic anywhere and you get the chance to feast your eyes on some of the most striking coastlines in Scotland. Wind-swept grassland, plunging cliffs and thrashing waves all come together in one very romantic backdrop.
Dunnottar also offers an insight into castle defences and has a good dose of legends and mysteries. Whigs Vault will make your hair stand on end as will the church (now in ruins) torched by William Wallace.
Although Dunnottar is increasing in popularity, it isn’t one of the busier Scottish castles. Plus, its size means you can easily get away from the crowds and enjoy its unique location almost on your own. It’s also a perfect stop-off on the Angus Coastal Route, a truly scenic Scottish road trip.
Fast fact about Dunnottar Castle
The fort on the shelving slope has featured in several films including Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Victor Frankenstein starring Daniel Radcliffe as well as being the inspiration for Disney’s DunBroch castle in Brave.
The castle opens daily from 9am to 5.30pm from April until the end of September. For the rest of the year, it opens from 10am and closes between 2.30 and 4.30pm. See the website for full details.
Access is best from Stonehaven where you park and then walk to the castle. Wear sturdy footwear and wet weather clothes – the weather changes notoriously quickly here. And note that Dunnottar closes whenever weather conditions make it unsafe.
Dunnottar Castle fast fact
If you’re feeling energetic, walk down the beaches at the foot of Dunnottar for some unusual views of the castle and an idea of its clifftop position.
Staying in a castle near Dunnottar
If visiting Dunnottar has given you a taste for castles to stay in Scotland, how about renting your very own regal accommodation? This Victorian delight awaits you in nearby Royal Deeside and the estate includes views of Lochnagar Hill, at the heart of the Queen’s Balmoral Estate.
Up to 29 of you can lord and lady it in the Great Hall, Minstrels’ Gallery and vast rooms decorated in antiques and Dutch Masters. You’ll be among marble, oak panels, brilliant chandeliers and a Steinway grand.
This stay at a Scottish castle comes with full board provided by your private chefs and you also get to hear about its history with anecdotes to rival those at Dunnottar. Discover this and many more unique castles to rent in Scotland in our exclusive collection.
Read more in our castles in Scotland series including:
1. Stirling Castle
2. Eilean Donan Castle
3. Urquhart Castle
4. Culzean Castle
5. Balmoral Castle
6. Glamis Castle
7. Crathes Castle
8. 7 reasons to visit Stirling
9. Castles in Scotland – all you need to know
10. 14 Scottish castles with Royal connections
11. Fascinating facts about royal castles
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