Eilean Donan Castle, near Dornie, is one of the most easily recognised castles in Scotland and probably appears on more calendars than any other. It is, without any exaggeration, a Scottish icon. It therefore comes as a surprise to discover that although the island has been fortified since at least the Iron Age, the castle you see today was only rebuilt from earlier ruins in the years between 1913 and 1932.
The visitor to Eilean Donan Castle is in for other surprises. Before you arrive it is easy to wonder whether the reality can possibly live up to the iconic status: is it going to be like a first encounter with Stonehenge, where you look around at a surprisingly small edifice that falls far short of the mental image you have built up for it and think, "is this it?"
The biggest surprise at Eilean Donan is finding that the reality far surpasses the image. The castle is much larger than it appears from photographs or from the views of it you gain while driving past on the A87; it is far more complex and multi-faceted than it appears from a distance; and it has a totally unexpected depth of charm and character. As a result it has been placed on our personal list of "best castles in Scotland" and we suspect that other visitors are equally impressed.
Today's visitor begins at the bright modern visitor centre at the mainland end of the bridge to the island. This is run by the Conchra Trust, the charitable body which now operates the castle as a visitor attraction and preserves it for future generations to enjoy. From here you progress across the bridge, added during the rebuilding in the early 1900s, and approach the castle itself past a bastion designed to dominate the approach. The main gate is protected by galleries, murder holes and a fierce looking portcullis, but your visit begins in the South West Wing where an excellent introductory exhibition sets out the story of the castle and the island on which it stands.
From here you progress into the large and complex courtyard contained within the castle, which has a sea gate offering superb views along Loch Alsh. The tour then leads you into the main keep, where you can explore three storeys of the accommodation. The ground floor is home to the vaulted Billeting Room complete with a tableau of the final stages of the castle being planned. From here steps lead you up to the breathtaking Great Hall or Banqueting Hall. This is a magnificent room and it comes as no surprise to find it is a popular venue for weddings. (Continues below image...)
On the floor above you are able to explore a number of the bedrooms. Back in the Great Hall, a corridor leads onwards to a series of displays in the recreated kitchens and to a small museum. Side passages lead out onto the battlements, which offer superb views and a greater insight into the many elements that make up this end of the castle.
The castle you see today occupies only part of the island on which it stands, and after you emerge from your tour it is possible to circumnavigate the castle, gaining a series of unusual views of it as you do so. The island is also home to the war memorial to the members of the Clan MacRae, from Scotland and far beyond, who died in World War One.
The story of Eilean Donan Castle and of Eilean Donan, the island on which it stands, is an ancient one. Until the 1920s traces remained of what was probably an Iron Age fort and settlement on the island. This is perhaps no surprise. Eilean Donan stands in a strategically important location. To its west is Loch Alsh which helps separate the Isle of Skye from the mainland. To its south east the loch becomes Loch Duich, and extends for five miles inland to the mouth of Glen Shiel. To its north east the narrower Loch Long extends for over four miles into the surrounding mountains.
By the 600s, it seems that the island here was the site of a monastic cell founded by the Irish bishop, St Donan: and the name Eilean Donan or "Island of Donan" has stuck ever since. The next stage in the story came in the mid 1200s, when Kenneth MacKenzie held the island for the Scottish crown against Norse incursions with the help of a large medieval stone castle he built here. This seems to have enclosed virtually the whole area of the island with a curtain wall, supplemented by a keep and a massive northern tower built with walls some 4.3m thick.
Some time around 1400, for reasons that remain unclear, the castle was dramatically reduced in size so it covered a total area that was only a fraction of it previous size: 528 square metres compared with nearly 3,000 square metres for the earlier castle. The focus remained the earlier keep, but it was now accompanied by a much smaller courtyard in which were located a number of domestic buildings. The massive Northern Tower and much of the curtain wall were apparently demolished. The third phase of the castle involved further construction during the 1500s, of a heptagonal bastion to the east of the main castle linked to it by a tapering extension of the courtyard. This seems to have been built as a platform for cannons, and provided a new and more easily defended main entrance to the castle.
After King James VII/II was displaced by William and Mary in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, a series of Jacobite uprisings took place intended to reverse the revolution. The best known of these occurred in 1689, 1715, and 1745. Rather less well known was the attempt by Jacobites with Spanish support to launch what amounted to a second Armada in 1719. The plan was for a main force to land in southern England, preceded by a diversionary attack in north west Scotland which it was hoped would raise the Jacobite clans and draw Government forces away from the site of the main landings.
On 13 April 1719, William Murray, Earl of Tullibardine, and George Keith, the Earl Marischal of Scotland, landed with a force of Spanish marines in Lochalsh, and sent out messengers to call the clans to arms. The debacle of the failed 1715 uprising was still fresh in many memories, however, and only around 1,000 clansmen answered the call. The Jacobites took control of Eilean Donan Castle as their headquarters, and it was garrisoned by 46 Spanish marines. Meanwhile, the main Spanish fleet carrying 7,000 men ran into a storm in the English Channel and was dispersed, causing their attack to be called off. On 10 May 1719 three Royal Navy frigates sailed into Loch Alsh and Loch Duich and bombarded Eilean Donan Castle. The garrison surrendered and the Navy proceeded to blow up what remained of the castle to prevent it being used again: along with 343 barrels of Spanish gunpowder that had been stored here.
The remaining Jacobites, comprising some 200 Spanish marines and 1,000 clansmen, decided to march on Inverness, but encountered Government troops in Glen Shiel on 10 June. At the Battle of Glen Shiel, which saw fighting extend high up the sides of the enclosing mountains, the Jacobites were defeated. The clansmen subsequently melted away into the surrounding landscape while the unfortunate Spaniards surrendered.
Eilean Donan spent the next two centuries as a romantic island ruin. When MacGibbon and Ross visited in the 1880s while researching The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland they noted that the castle's architectural features were "almost entirely destroyed", and mapped out the fragmentary walls that remained surrounding the ruined keep.
The castle you see today is the result of the vision and dedication of two men: the laird of the day, Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap, and his clerk of works, Farquhar MacRae. Work on rebuilding the castle as a family home began on 23 August 1913. It resumed after World War One and was finally completed in July 1932 at a total cost of a quarter of a million pounds. The result is an absolute triumph, and a castle that amply deserves its iconic status.