Standing atop a rock outcrop three miles north of Oban, Dunstaffnage Castle is an impressive fortification overlooking what was once the most important junction of the sea-lanes on the west coast of Scotland.
The strategic location, and the presence of such an inviting lump of rock on which to build, means that this has been a defended site for nearly 1500 years. In the 600s the Kings of Dalriada, the Kingdom of the Scots who migrated to Argyll from Ireland, built a stronghold here. It is even suggested that this was the original keeping place of the Stone of Destiny.
By 1249 the fortress here was held by the Macdougalls, appointed by King Håkon IV of Norway. In July 1249 Dunstaffnage was to be the first target of Alexander II in his campaign to seize the Hebrides from Norwegian rule. However, with his fleet assembled in Oban Bay, Alexander died in unexplained circumstances on the island of Kerrera. Dunstaffnage Castle and the Macdougalls lived to fight another day: a day that came just 60 years later.
Much of the castle you see at Dunstaffnage today was built by the Macdougalls in the 1200s. It is not clear whether it was this castle or its predecessor on the site that was Alexander's target in 1249. The castle did, however, transfer to royal possession when it was captured after a siege by Robert the Bruce in 1309. The Chiefs of Clan MacArthur were subsequently appointed as hereditary Captains of Dunstaffnage Castle, and it remained in their hands until 1470, when custody was transferred to the 1st Earl of Argyll, Colin Campbell. In 1502 the castle was passed from the Earl to his cousin, whose family still hold the title of hereditary Captain.
Dunstaffnage was burned in May 1685 during an attempted uprising by the Earl of Argyll against James VII/II supported by Dutch troops (see our Historical Timeline). His uprising was quashed and the Earl was executed, but too late to save Dunstaffnage.
During the Jacobite uprising of 1745, Dunstaffnage was garrisoned by government forces. It also became the temporary prison of Flora MacDonald in 1746 after she was arrested for assisting Bonnie Prince Charlie. Still visible along the west curtain is a range of arrow slits 'fish-tailed' at the base showing they were converted for use with firearms.
The basic shape of Dunstaffnage is an irregular quadrangle, largely determined by the contours of the rock on which it stands. The corner towers, two of which remain today, are tucked into the structure of the curtain wall rather than projecting from it as is the norm with such structures. Again this is dictated by the outcrop.
A projecting gateway was added to the castle in the early 1500s, largely obscuring the eastern tower. A century later the upper part of the gatehouse was reconstructed and the lower floor subdivided. The original great hall stood on the inner face of the north east wall at first floor level and adjacent to the principal north tower. Its blocked up windows can still be traced in the east curtain wall.
In 1810, the existing gatehouse was gutted by fire, destroying the principal residence of the then Captain. However, the courtyard buildings remained in occupation until the end of the 1800s. The hereditary Captain remains keeper of the castle to this day.
Sadly, the current gatehouse is not open to the public, instead being reserved for the occasional use of the current Captain of Dunstaffnage; and this leads to a steady stream of disappointed visitors fruitlessly rattling the locked doors leading to its various levels.
A peep through the windows at the top of the wall walk shows its floors are in good condition and its fireplaces intact, and it is arguable that the better airflow associated with more public access would be in the long term interests of the structure.
A short walk south west from the main castle buildings is the chapel, built at the end of the 1200s and extended in 1740. In the ruins, the remains of the paired windows in the chancel show a high standard of workmanship. The eastern extension to the chapel forms the burial aisle to the Campbells of Dunstaffnage, whose monuments are amongst those still standing within the shell of the building.
Dunstaffnage Castle is surrounded by attractive woodland and grassy areas sweeping past the visitor centre to the shore of Dunstaffnage Bay. Here you can enjoy the views across the moored vessels associated with the nearby marine laboratory to Dunbeg and, further away to the east, to Connel and the bridge over the Falls of Lora.