The rock on which Dunnottar Castle stands might have been designed specifically to permit the building of the most impregnable fortress in Scotland. Sheer cliffs 160ft high almost completely surround a flat area over three acres in size. The rock itself was once joined by a narrow fin to the mainland, but even this was carved away to ensure access along it was not possible.
There were only two ways in or out of Dunnottar Castle. The first was via the incredibly strongly defended main gate set in a cleft in the rock where unwanted callers would be vulnerable to attack from all sides. The second was via a rocky creek leading to a cave on the north side of the rock. From here a steep path led up the cliff to the well defended postern gate.
Given Dunnottar's obvious defensive qualities, it is no surprise to find that it has been home to fortifications of one sort or another for most of the past two thousand years and probably much longer. The very name "dun" is Pictish for fort and it is believed that St Ninian came to Dunnottar in the late 400s, converting the Picts to Christianity and founding a chapel here.
The Annals of Ulster record a siege of Duin Foither in 681, at what was likely to have been Dunnottar. Dunnottar is also a possible site for a battle between King Donald II and the Vikings in 900, and it is thought that a raid into Scotland by land and sea by King Aethelstan of Wessex in 934 targeted the fortifications here.
Mentions of Dunnottar become more reliable and frequent from the 1100s when William the Lion used it as an administrative centre. Later, in 1276, a parish church was founded here on the site of St Ninian's original chapel. It did not last long, Edward I of England took Dunnottar in 1296, and William Wallace took it back in 1297, in the process burning down the church with the entire English garrison still in it.
From the late 1300s earlier fortifications, probably largely of wood, were replaced by Sir William Keith with the core of the stone keep still visible today, and he also built parts of the stone defences around the entrance. In 1531 Dunnottar, declared to be "one of the principal strengths of our realm" was granted to the Earls Marischal of Scotland by James V.
Mary Queen of Scots visited the castle in 1562 and 1564, and James VI stayed in 1580. Between 1580 and 1650 the Earls Marischal converted a grim and forbidding castle into a much more opulent mansion, building ranges of buildings around a quadrangle on the north east side of the area on top of the rock. These offered some of the most luxurious accommodation in Scotland: yet all behind the rock's formidable defences. A number of the Keith family lived out significant eposodes of their lives here. Lady Agnes Keith was born here in about 1540, and George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal died at Dunnottar in 1623.
Two later incidents have ensured that Dunnottar holds a place in Scottish history that is both famous and infamous. By May 1652 Dunnottar Castle was the only place left in Scotland holding out for Charles II against Cromwell's forces under the command of General George Monck.
Parliamentary forces were particularly keen to take the castle because it was being used for the safe keeping of the Honours of Scotland, the Crown Jewels, and for Charles II's personal papers. But when the castle surrendered on 26 May after an eight month siege Cromwell's men found the cupboard was bare. The King's papers has been smuggled through their lines hidden in the clothing of a woman, and the Honours had been lowered down the cliffs to a local woman pretending to be collecting seaweed. These irreplaceable treasures were hidden under the floor of the nearby Kinneff Old Church until the Restoration of the Monarchy.
Dunnottar's darkest moment came in May 1685 when 167 Covenanter prisoners, 122 men and 45 women, were locked in the Whig's Vault below one of the buildings in the Quadrangle. Some died of starvation and disease, while others were killed after trying to escape. The survivors were transported to the colonies as slaves (where most died of fever) after two months in the castle.
In 1715 the tenth Earl Marischal backed the losing side in the Jacobite uprising and was condemned for treason. His estates were forfeited and Dunnottar Castle was sold to the York Building Company, who removed everything that was transportable and usable. From 1925 efforts have been under way to consolidate the structure and today a visit offers an insight into one of the most fascinating castles in Scotland.
Dunnottar Castle lies just off a minor road, itself just off the main A92 a mile or so south of Stonehaven. A small car park gives access to a path that descends the landward cliffs before climbing up to the castle itself. The nature of the path to the castle means that disabled access is very difficult.
Read about Thomas D. Murphy's tour of Dunnottar Castle in his 1908 book, British Highways and Byways From a Motor Car.