Friday, December 13, 2019

Dunnottar Castle - Majestic Ruin with Tales to Tell

By Annie Whitehead

Dunnottar Castle: if you’ve never visited, chances are you’ll still recognise it. It’s a ruin now, perched on a headland just south of Stonehaven, in the northeast of Scotland. What remains visible dates to mainly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but there is evidence of habitation from a much earlier period.

There are two references to it in the Annals of Ulster, under the entries for 680 and 693, where it is named as Dùn Fhoithear, which means ‘fort on the shelving slope.’ The antiquarian, William Skene, commenting on Fordun’s Scotichronicon, called it Dunnottar in the Mearns, ‘Mearns’ being the old term for Kincardineshire.

It is said that Saint Ninnian, born around 360AD and known for his missionary work among the Picts, built a chapel at Dunnottar.

A dig carried out by the nearby University of Aberdeen found evidence of Pictish occupation on the sea stack of Dunnicaer to the north of the castle. It was, apparently, the oldest Pictish fort to have been found. It seems that the site remained in continuous use for some centuries.

No finds or structures earlier than the late twelfth century were discovered under the castle ruins, but the archaeologists knew from research that the site was one of the centres for trade bringing glass and pottery from Gaul into Britain and Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries. Examining the symbols carved on the group of five Class 1 Pictish stones on the sea stack known as Dinnacair or Dunnicaer, they concluded that St Ninian’s missionary church was on Dunnottar Rock and that Dunnicaer might have been a ‘disert’, or place of retreat from Ninian’s missionary station.

In the seventh century Dunnottar came under attack from King Bridei III, king of the Picts from 672 until his death in 693. He launched his assault on Dunnottar in 680/1, before turning his attention to the Orcadian kingdom where, according to the Annals of Ulster, he ‘destroyed’ the Orkney Islands. Bridei was quite some warrior, fighting and defeating Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the battle of Nechtanesmere in 685.

Pictish Stone generally accepted to depict the
battle of Nechtanesmere - public domain image

In the late ninth century, Domnall mac Causantín, better known perhaps as Donald II of Scotland, had the misfortune to be ruler at a time of Danish raids in the area. According to the Chronicles of the Kings of Alba, Donald ruled between 889–900 and 'The Northmen wasted Pictland at this time. In his reign a battle occurred between Danes and Scots at Innisibsolian where the Scots had victory. He was killed at [Dunnottar].' The castle was then apparently destroyed. With his back literally to the sea, the fight must have been intense, and desperate. Looking out over the water, on a cloudy autumn day, I couldn’t help but think that it was a rather desolate end for him.

In 934, according to the chronicler Simeon of Durham, ‘King Athelstan, going towards Scotland with a great army ... subdued his enemies, [and] laid waste Scotland as far as Dunnottar and Wertermorum (unidentified). For context, it takes around six hours to drive in a modern car along mainly dual-carriageways and motorways from the current England/Scotland border to Dunnottar, and at least as long in the other direction to get to ‘Wessex’. Athelstan was a long, long, way from home. Sometimes we are grateful to have more than one source, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry (Ms C) for the same year tells us only that ‘King Athelstan went into Scotland with both a land force and a naval force, and ravaged much of it.'

In 1276 a new church was built on the site of St Ninian’s chapel, erected in stone in the Norman style and consecrated by William Wishart, who was the bishop of St Andrews until his death in 1279

Dunnottar was to see more action when in 1297 a force led by none other than William Wallace captured the castle. It is said that the English soldiers garrisoned there took refuge in the church and that Wallace burned the church with the soldiers inside it, but I have read sources which state that this might not be true.

Things seem to have calmed down a little in the fourteenth century when the Keith family took up residence. However, this was not a time of peace in Scotland. In 1314 Sir Robert Keith was in command of the Keith cavalry at the battle of Bannockburn.

His descendant, Sir William Keith oversaw the building of the keep, which has survived to the present day.

The Keep

The family remained in the ascendant and Sir William was appointed first Earl Marischal of Scotland by King James II in 1458. Mary Queen of Scots visited Dunnottar on more than one occasion, bringing with her, in 1562, her son, the future James VI of Scotland (and subsequently I of England). In 1580 he visited by himself and apparently stayed for several days’ hunting on the Keith family estates.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the fifth Earl Marischal, George, built on the site and founded Marischal College in nearby Aberdeen.

But the family fortunes were to take a downturn.

It’s strange to think of the English Civil War having an impact on this remote part of the world, but it did, for the people of Scotland were caught up in the wrangle too. In 1645, James Graham, earl of Montrose, (who’d been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Scotland) marched his army to Dunnottar and requested a treaty with the Earl Marischal, who declined to respond. Montrose set fire to nearby homes, farms and boats in the harbour below.

Nor was Dunnottar safe from Parliamentarian forces, for Cromwell’s army also besieged it in 1650 for a long and trying eight months. The castle surrendered, but the Honours of Scotland, which were in effect the Scottish Crown Jewels, had been smuggled out of the castle to Kinneff Church nearby.

1715 saw the first of the Jacobite risings and the incumbent of the castle at this point, George Keith, the tenth (and last) Earl Marischal, was convicted of treason for taking part in the doomed rebellion. Dunnottar, among his other holdings, was forfeited to the government. Two years later, it was sold to the York Mining Company and was stripped of all valuable materials. The floors and ceilings were taken and all the furniture was removed. After that, it was inevitable that the castle would fall to ruin.

What the visitor sees today is somewhat of a romantic ruin. It must have looked much more impressive in its heyday but as it stands, it sparks the imagination. Indeed, lovers of folklore will be pleased to know that Dunnottar features in the story of Fergus.**

The young man, Fergus, encounters the young lady Galiene whose uncle is the castellan of Liddel Castle (in Roxburghshire). She falls in love with him, but he says he will only return to her once he has completed his quest to vanquish the Black Knight. He does so, but when he returns to claim Galiene he discovers that she is not there. He searches for a year, eventually encountering a dwarf who tells him that his lost love will only come back to him if he takes a shield from a witch at Dunnottar. He travels all the way to Scotland, reaches Dunnottar, slays the witch and returns via Lothian, where he finds that Galiene is now Queen of Lothian, under siege from the neighbouring king of Roxburgh. Fergus then has to fight the avenging husband of the witch he killed at Dunnottar. The story goes on, although the rest is not linked to Dunnottar.

On the overcast, windy day when I visited, it was certainly easy to see how this place inspired such legends. But perhaps it's harder to believe, looking at it in its present state, how many true stories it holds.


** The Roman de Fergus - a 13th-century Arthurian romance written in Old French


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, including To Be A Queen, the story of the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her new book, about Anglo-Saxon Women, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2020.

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  1. As we lived in Stonehaven for some years we spent many a Sunday walking to the castle along the cliffs

    1. It's a beautiful part of the world. I was there visiting family, and friends who had recently moved to the area and said it was the best decision they'd ever made!


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