Scotland has some magnificently located castles. Think no further than Stirling Castle or Edinburgh Castle, both built on top of rocks that allow them to dominate the landscape for miles around. But if we had to pick just one to trust with our lives in a time of great danger then it would without any doubt be Dunnottar Castle. No other Scottish castle comes close in terms of a sense of sheer brooding impregnability. This is a castle which looks across to the nearby coastal cliffs and whose presence, even today, conveys a very simply message: "Don't mess with me."
The outcrop of 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 was once joined by a narrow fin to the mainland, but even this was carved away to ensure access along it was not possible.
During its active life there were only two ways into 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 the location of a battle between King Donald II and the Vikings in 900. Donald II was killed during the battle and the Vikings subsequently destroyed the castle. Some rebuilding must then have taken place because it is thought that a raid into Scotland by land and sea by King Aethelstan of Wessex in 934 also 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. 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 King 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 the Quadrangle on the north-east side of the plateau. These offered some of the most luxurious accommodation in Scotland: yet all securely located behind the rock's formidable defences. A number of the members of the Keith family lived out significant episodes 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's place in Scottish history 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 of 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. The difficulty in accessing the castle probably saved it yet again: it seems likely that if it had been readily reachable by cart, far more of the structure would have been demolished and taken away.
Dunnottar Castle was purchased by the Cowdray family in 1925 and the 1st Viscountess Cowdray embarked on a systematic programme of consolidation and repair. Since then the castle has remained in the family, and has been open to visitors. You can read about a visit to the castle some years before the Cowdray's purchased it in Thomas D. Murphy's 1908 book, British Highways and Byways From a Motor Car.
Dunnottar Castle lies just off a minor road, itself off the main A92 a mile or so south of Stonehaven. A car park that has been considerably extended in recent years gives access to a path that descends the landward cliffs before climbing up to the castle itself. Reaching the castle involves descending or climbing over 200 steps (with the reverse on the way back) so access for those with mobility difficulties is inevitably problematical.
The walk gives a good opportunity to appreciate the unusual geology of Dunnottar Castle's rock, which is formed by large pebbles set into an extremely durable conglomerate. The purpose of the passage which someone has cut through the base of the rock seems unclear. The remarkable array of gun loops set into the massive wall that flanks the main gate was added at the end of the 1500s and was probably ornamental rather than purely defensive. Once any attackers had breached the main gate, however, they encountered a series of features whose intent was both single minded and deadly. Well placed gun loops and guard chambers added to the difficulties of attackers trying to force their way through a series of superbly well defended chambers and tunnels which eventually emerge onto the grassy plateau of the rock not far from the keep.
For the modern visitor, Dunnottar Castle is a fascinating place. It is also a very large one. Some of the best views of the castle can be gained, especially in afternoon or evening sunlight, from the nearby cliffs, and it is obvious from a distance that the remains are substantial. It is only when you begin to explore them, however, that you realise just how substantial they are. The main reason for this is that at Dunnottar you have not one castle but, arguably, three different and quite distinct groups of buildings, plus ancillary structures, spread out across an extensive site.
Most obvious is the Keep, built in the late 1300s and towering over the landward end of the plateau. This comes complete with a storehouse, a smithy and a stable block, built in the 1500s. Nearer the centre of the plateau is Waterton's Lodging, in effect a separate residence built in the late 1500s for Thomas Forbes, Laird of Waterton. The third distinct phase of development at Dunnottar is the Quadrangle, built between 1580 and 1650 and of a size and form that in other places in Scotland would be regarded as a palace in its own right.
The Quadrangle comprises three ranges of domestic accommodation around a grassy square which is home to a large circular cistern, the castle's main water supply. The fourth side of the Quadrangle is formed by the Chapel. This is the oldest surviving building on the rock and dates back, in part at least, to 1276. Add in a number of other buildings, a superbly restored drawing room in the north range of the Quadrangle, and the opportunity to explore more cellars than you are likely to find anywhere this side of Linlithgow Palace, and a visit to Dunnottar Castle really does make for an excellent day out.