Dunvegan Castle, which stands about a mile north of the village of Dunvegan, is the mighty Hebridean stronghold of the Clan MacLeod and has dominated this part of northern Skye and the lands and waters around for some eight centuries. Today it is a popular visitor attraction offering the chance to experience first hand many of the public rooms in the castle, view treasures like the famous Fairy Flag, and wander the castle's extensive wooded grounds and explore its collection of formal and not so formal gardens. Visitors can also take seal boat trips on Loch Dunvegan or visit the MacLeod Tables Cafe and the range of gift, craft and knitwear shops either in the castle itself or beside the car park.
Dunvegan Castle stands on top of a peanut-shaped plug of basalt which projects some 30ft above the surrounding landscape and which measures some 175ft from north to south and 110ft from east to west. The rock stands on the east side of Loch Dunvegan in a sheltered north-facing bay, and until a degree of infilling of the landward side took place in recent centuries, the rock on which the castle stands was surrounded by the sea at high tide. The sides of the rock fall sheer except where its plan is slightly indented on its north west side. Until as recently as 1748 steps leading up to the sea gate on this side of the rock offered the only access to Dunvegan Castle.
The story of Dunvegan Castle is intimately linked to the story of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod who, apart from during an 80 year period after the potato famine of 1847-1850, have lived here throughout the eight centuries of its recorded existence. The result is an amazingly complex building which, under a unifying "Romantic Restoration" commissioned by the 25th Chief in the 1840s, comprises a series of distinct buildings which can be traced back to 10 different periods of building.
The stories of Dunvegan Castle and of Clan MacLeod both begin with Leod Olafson, who was born in about 1200. Leod was a son of Olaf the Black, the Norse King of the Isle of Man. Olaf was himself descended from the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, remembered for his defeated by King Harold II of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 less than three weeks before the latter's own defeat by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.
Leod's association with Dunvegan followed his marriage to the heiress of the Macarailts or Macrailds, the Norse rulers of Skye. It seems highly likely that the Norse had already fortified the superb defensive site now occupied by Dunvegan Castle, and equally probable that others had done so earlier, back to the Iron Age and beyond: but nothing can be found on the ground that dates back to before Leod's time.
Leod's oldest son, Tormod, became the First Chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan, Harris and Glenelg. His second son, Torquil, became the founder of the MacLeods of Lewis. Leod's Dunvegan Castle comprised a defensive curtain wall built of stone around the top of the rock on which it stood. The only entrance was via the sea gate on the north west side, and the interior buildings would have been of wood and probably thatched. Small parts of this first curtain wall remain, incorporated into later buildings.
As First Chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan, Tormod left no mark on the castle, but he did preside over a period of huge change. 30 September 1263 marked the culmination of the Battle of Largs, which saw Alexander III of Scotland repel King Håkon IV of Norway. Håkon died in Orkney en route back to Norway, and with him died the claims of the Norse over large parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Many Norse lairds responded to the changed circumstances by shifting allegiance to the quasi-independent Lordship of the Isles: and many Norse-speaking families rapidly became Gaelic-speaking clans.
The first building at Dunvegan that remains largely standing was the keep, added by Malcolm, the 3rd Chief, in about 1350. In about 1500 a free-standing tower, the Fairy Tower, was added at the south east corner of the castle, and the gap between the two was largely filled in by Rory Mor's House in 1623, built by one of the great Chiefs of Dunvegan. The 18th Chief made further additions in the 1660s and 1680s, and in 1748 the first entrance was constructed on the eastern or landward side of the castle, reached by a long flight of stone steps. These would have been used by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson when the pair stayed at Dunvegan Castle during their tour of the Highlands and Islands in 1773.
In 1790 the 23rd Chief, Norman MacLeod, significantly increased the size of the castle when he added new wings intended to serve as barracks for the troops of 2nd Battalion of the 42nd Regiment (later The Black Watch), which he raised locally and then led in America and India. His son added the main eastern doorway you see today, and the bridge across the by now largely infilled moat on that side of the castle. It was the 25th Chief, another Norman, who commissioned the Victorian harmonisation of the different elements of the castle in the 1840s.
The MacLeods had played a significant part in many aspects of the wider story of Scotland during these centuries. The MacLeod Chiefs began to pay rent for their lands to the Scottish Crown from 1498, in the form of three birlinns or war galleys held for the service of the King, and a regular supply of peregrine falcons. A particular disaster befell the clan in 1657 when 800 MacLeods were killed in support of the losing cause of Charles II at the Battle of Worcester.
The then Chief of Clan MacLeod did not come out in support of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, though many individual members of the clan did. The changes that swept across the Highlands and Islands in the aftermath of the '45 largely destroyed the traditional clan system. The efforts of the 25th Chief to ease the impact of the potato famine on his tenants in the years around 1850 impoverished him, and he moved to London to work as a clerk. It was not until 1929 that the 27th Chief resumed residence at Dunvegan Castle as an old man. In more recent times the family have struggled to maintain Dunvegan Castle, and the 29th Chief, John MacLeod, made headlines in 2000 when he placed the Cuillin Hills on the market for the £10m it was estimated it would cost to repair Dunvegan Castle. The sale never proceeded, and his aim seems to have been to raise the public profile of the issues involved in funding the ongoing maintenance of this magnificent castle.
If so, he certainly succeeded, and anyone touring the castle today can readily appreciate how important it is to the Isle of Skye, and to Scotland more widely, that such a significant part of our collective history remains available to be explored and enjoyed by generations to come.