Panoramic shot of Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland

As far as Scottish castles go, they don’t come more romantic than Eilean Donan Castle. Perched in a stunning location at the head of no less than three sea lochs, the Castle features as one of the most photographed spots in the country. Its iconic status ranks alongside bagpipes, tartan and the Loch Ness Monster as symbols of Scotland. 

Eilean Donan has an appealing history and a location that is second to none. It’ll therefore come as no surprise to discover that it ranks as one of the most visited places in Scotland. If you’re a fan of Scottish castles or just love a truly beautiful place, pop this one on your must-see list and then read our guide to perhaps the best castle in Scotland.

Eilean Donan Castle history

Like the vast majority of Scottish castles Eilean Donan comes with a colourful history. And in common with many others, its past is a tale of riches to rags and then back to riches again. 

To understand the castle’s backstory, you first have to look at the location. Eilean Donan boasts a very powerful strategic position, dominating the Kintail lands that reach the shores of three sea lochs. At the head of Loch Alsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long lies the small island with commanding views over the surrounding water and countryside that includes the Isle of Skye on the western horizon.

Eilean Donan’s pivotal position

Before it was of military use, Eilean Donan served as a religious retreat and earned her name. The Irish saint Bishop Donan was responsible for the first dwelling on the island in the late 6th century where he probably set up a community for Scotland’s Christians, persecuted by the Picts. His lasting legacy comes in the name – Eilean means island in Gaelic. 

Seven centuries later, the island discovered its true strategic power when local lords fortified it to help protect their lands from the Vikings. This first version of Eilean Donan Castle is thought to have been its largest and the fortress with seven towers probably occupied the entire island. But big is not always better and the castle was reduced to around one fifth of its size at the end of the 14th century, probably because its size made manning it an impossible task. 

Later additions included the sea gate and a firing platform in the 16th century to allow the new fangled cannons to operate from the castle. But the biggest and most devastating event took place in 1719 when the Royal Navy razed it to the ground. Quelling part of the Jacobite rising, British troops bombarded the castle where over 300 Spanish troops were on hand to help the rebel forces. The three day blasting saw the Spaniards surrender, but Eilean Donan wasn’t completely destroyed until the Royal Navy lit the 343 barrels of gunpower hoarded inside.

Eilean Donan Castle fast fact:

The ghost of a Spanish soldier, killed in a battle at the castle in 1719, is said to haunt the rooms of Eilean Donan. Is his one of the longest castle stays in Scotland…?

A new lease of life

The castle lay derelict for almost 200 years until 1911 when Major John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the ruins and set about their complete restoration. Taking original historic plans as their base, his architects and workmen rebuilt the castle entirely and restored it to its 14th century glory. They also constructed the arched bridge across the loch to the castle allowing access other than by boat. In 1932, Eilean Donan Castle reopened as she is today.

Bridge accross the Loch to Eilean Donan Castle
Bridge accross the Loch to Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle fast fact:

Macrae’s restoration was fraught with difficulty, not least because of the remote location and boat-only access. When the work was complete in 1932, the Dundee Courier described it as “nothing short of amazing”. 

Highlights at Eilean Donan Castle

Take one look at a photo of Eilean Donan Castle and it’s easy to see why it ranks as one of the most popular things to see in Scotland. When you’re there, don’t miss: 

  • The location – picture-perfect, surrounded by brooding sea lochs and majestic Scottish mountains. 
  • The interiors – Macrae curated these carefully and they include period furniture (with some particularly fine examples of Sheraton and Chippendale), oil paintings and a collection of weapons. 
  • The living quarters – see what makes up some of the finest castle accommodation in Scotland. 
  • The Banqueting Hall – also known as the Great Hall, the jewel in the Eilean Donan crown has magnificent beams and decoration. 
  • The wildlife – while you’re admiring the views from the castle, keep an eye open for otters, dolphins and porpoises in the lochs and birds of prey in the sky above you.
  • The sea gate – don’t miss the views of Loch Alsh through the sea gate in the courtyard. 
  • The shifting tides – if you can, catch the castle at low and high tide to appreciate how the landscape changes.

Eilean Donan Castle fast fact:

The beams in the Banqueting Hall are made from Douglas Fir from British Columbia, gifted to Macrae by his Canadian Macrae relatives. 

Why visit Eilean Donan Castle

This iconic building represents the very best of castles in Scotland, usually built in strategic locations and for defensive purposes. A visit to Eilean Donan Castle gives you a real feel for the purpose behind its construction as well as offering some of the finest vistas in the country. 

Visit this Scottish castle for an insight into the country’s history and the shaping of its destiny, particularly the Jacobite risings. The visitor centre at the entrance to the bridge on the mainland tells the Eilean Donan story very well and sets the scene perfectly for your tour. 

Eilean Donan Castle fast fact:

Because the castle sits on an island, it’s difficult to get a real idea of its size until you step inside the walls. Most visitors discover that it’s considerably bigger than it appears from the mainland.

Visitor information

Eilean Castle opens daily between 1 February and 30 December. Opening hours are longer during the summer, but in general the castle is always open from 10am to 4pm. See the website for month-by-month details. There’s also a visitor centre, gift shop and café onsite.

Eilean Donan Castle fast fact:

Eilean Donan has featured in many big name films throughout the years including The Master of Ballantrae (adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and starring Errol Flynn in 1953), Highlander (with Scotland’s own Sean Connery in 1984) and 007’s The World is Not Enough (with Pierce Brosnan in 1999). 

Stay in a castle near Eilean Donan

If you’re visiting Eilean Donan, you might be wanting to experience your very own stay in a castle. And a little way down the coast from this iconic castle, lies one just for you. Location comes with a capital ‘L’ here too – loch and mountain views stretch before you, although at this castle accommodation in Scotland you couldn’t be in a more secluded spot.

Like Eilean Donan before Macrae’s restoration, you can only access this castle by boat (or helicopter) from nearby Mallaig. But unlike Eilean Donan, this stay in a Scottish castle comes with all mod cons, luxury touches and a hot tub overlooking the loch. Take a look and then book your very own castles to stay in Scotland.

Read more in our castles in Scotland series including:

1. Stirling Castle
2. Urquhart Castle
3. Dunnottar 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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As far as Scottish castles go, they don’t come more romantic than Eilean Donan Castle. Perched in a stunning location at the head of no less than three sea lochs, the Castle features as one of the most photographed spots in the country. Its iconic status ranks alongside bagpipes, tartan and the Loch Ness Monster as symbols of Scotland.