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Issue 87 - Sentinel of the Sound of Sleat

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016


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Sentinel of the Sound of Sleat

Charles Douglas visits one of Scotland's most iconic destinations

It was driving home late one night after a wedding on the Isle of Skye that I turned a corner after the village of Dornie and there it was, a sparkling chandelier at the head of Loch Alsh. I was sufficiently mesmerised by this magical sight to stop the car in a lay-by and take a photograph that, alas, did not do the spectacle justice. For what I was seeing was the castle of Eilean Donan, floodlit against a clear metallic sky with its image reflected in the water. To this day it remains one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

No wonder it has been commandeered over the years for such Hollywood film classics as
Highlander, Entrapment, and The World Is Not Enough. Rugged and romantic, this is the stuff of which legends are created.

In all probability taking its name from Bishop Donan, a 6th Century Irish missionary saint, the earliest part of the castle that we see today dates from the 13th Century. Perched on a rocky islet that juts out into the confluence of three great lochs – Loch Duich, Loch Alsh and Loch Long – the location could not have been more strategic.

In the 13th Century this territory formed part of the sea kingdom of the Lords of the Isles, which stretched from Cape Wrath in the far north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south. For over three centuries Viking longboats, with their occupants set on plunder, patrolled these waters causing havoc. It is not known how many times Eilean Donan must have fallen to them and been re-captured during its early existence.

On and off, Norwegian control of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Kintyre and the Isle of Man lasted until 1240 when Alexander II of Scotland offered to purchase the territory from King Haakon of Norway. His bid was rejected, but his interest noted. When some twenty years later, Uilleam, Earl of Ross, launched a series of raids on the Isle of Skye, Haakon decided it was time to assert his authority.

In September 1263, therefore, he led a punitive fleet through the Kyle of Lochalsh and down the coastline to Ayrshire, where his army was soundly defeated by Alexander at the Battle of Largs. It was this great Scottish victory that led to the Treaty of Perth being signed, which once and for all time relinquished Scandinavian claims to Scotland's Highlands and Islands. In gratitude for the support of Clan Ross, King Alexander gifted Skye and substantial northern lands, including Eilean Donan Castle, to the earldom of Ross, but under feudal tenure. Eilean Donan subsequently passed into the hands of the Mackenzies of Kintail.

These Mackenzies were descendants of the Royal House of Dalriada, connected with both Clan Matheson and Clan Anrias and, in the following centuries, they would become the all powerful earls of Seaforth and Cromartie. It is claimed but unsubstantiated that Robert the Bruce was given sanctuary at Eilean Donan prior to the Battle of Bannockburn and, as a result, the Mackenzies were generously rewarded.

So much so that in 1362, ignoring the Earl of Ross' claim to Eilean Donan, Bruce's son, David II, confirmed the Mackenzies in their tenure. At the same time, their relatives the Macraes, by then firmly settled in Kintail, were conscripted as the Chief's hereditary protectors. The Macrae's status as Hereditary Constables of Eilean Donan was confirmed in 1509.

Of course, the Royal Stewart dynasty was only too well aware of the necessity for their far-flung interests to be independently represented. Clan Donald's lordship of the Isles remained the dominant force in the Hebrides: the earldom of Ross was paramount in the North and North East. However, when Donald of Islay married Mariotta, Countess of Ross, the inevitable instability, caused by the power base being too big, led to widespread disruption. This volatility continued until, three generations later in 1540, the title of Lord of the Isles was confiscated by the Scottish Crown.

In the previous year, Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat had laid siege to Eilean Donan to assert his superiority. Since the attack was unexpected, only three men, led by Iain Dubh Matheson, Chief of Clan Matheson, defended it. Acting on behalf of the Macraes and Mackenzies, Matheson was killed in the attack but, miraculously, Donald Gorm himself was also mortally wounded by a well-aimed arrow and the assault failed. Clan Donald retreated, but when it emerged that he had signed a treaty with Edward IV of England, the fate of the Chief was sealed. Clan fortunes rose and fell throughout the generations but, largely because of their loyalties to the Royal House of Stewart, the Mackenzies both survived and prospered.

However, the Hanovarian succession to the throne of Great Britain in 1714 once again caused widespread unrest throughout the north of Scotland. The exiled Old Pretender still commanded a loyal following and after the aborted Jacobite Rising of 1715, a plot was hatched with Catholic Spain.

When the news reached the British Government in May 1719 that Eilean Donan Castle had been garrisoned by Spanish mercenaries, three Royal Navy frigates – HMS Flamborough, HMS Worcester and HMS Enterprise – were hastily despatched to quell the incursion. Initially, the bombardment made little impact on the old fortress walls, but when the Government troops stormed the battlements they discovered a stockpile of 343 barrels of gunpowder, 27 of which were employed to reduce the site to a heap of rubble.

Thereafter, Eilean Donan was abandoned as yet another ruinous pile of stones until, in 1912, it was purchased by a wealthy Macrae clansman, Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae- Gilstrap. Although reconstruction followed the extant plan, there were various changes made that mean the castle one can see today is not an exact recreation of what stood there before.

The restoration work was completed in 1932 at a cost of £250,000, a substantial sum of money at the time, but most would agree that it was worth every penny to see the reinstatement of the sentinel of the Sound of Sleat.

The rebuilt Eilean Donan Castle was opened in all of its splendour in 1955 and it has been a magnet for visitors ever since. In the courtyard is the Murchison Stone, carrying an inscription about John Murchison of Auchtertyre who was killed at Sheriffmuir in 1715. Above the door is a Gaelic inscription, which once adorned Clan Fraser's headquarters at Beaufort Castle at Beauly, that reads: ‘As long as there is a Macrae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside.’ From here, steps lead to the main rooms of the castle where the walls are four metres thick and there is a barrel-vaulted ceiling. On the walls are paintings and items of weaponry and in the alcove hangs a painting of a group of Macraes dancing on the castle battlements on the night before the ill-fated Battle of Sheriffmuir. It was said that 58 widows were made in Kintail on the following day.

In the upstairs Banqueting Hall there are flags, shields and general items of clan memorabilia, an oak ceiling decorated with coats-of-arms, plus a lock of hair that once belonged to Prince Charles Edward Stuart. A feature of the display is the 16th Century hand- wrought iron yett (gate or grille) that was retrieved from the castle's freshwater well.

From the Banqueting Hall, a circular staircase leads to an upper floor where the bedrooms are named Loch Alsh, Loch Long, Eilean Donan, Ballimore, Loch Duich and Conchra. At the end of a corridor is a solid door carved with the date 1912 and the names of the past Constables of Eilean Donan Castle.

Before you leave, take time to marvel at the amazing views, but also spare a thought for what it must have been like to be held prisoner here long ago.

Visitor Information
Eilean Donan Castle Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX
+44 (0) 1599 555 202

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