Charles Douglas takes a trip to picturesque Skye to take in 800 years of history at Dunvegan Castle, Clan Macleod’s ancestral home
Skye is perhaps best known for the fleeting visit of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1746, but it is also an island of contrasts with a busy infrastructure and a thriving tourist industry. And foremost among its visitor attractions is Dunvegan Castle, the ancient stronghold of the Chiefs of Clan Macleod, once one of the most influential families of Scotland’s western seaboard.
It is generally accepted that the original Leod was a younger son of Olaf (The Black), a Viking who was King of the Isle of Man and the northern isles, and who died in 1237. Leod inherited the island of Lewis and part of Skye and later Glenelg on the mainland, from his brother. His marriage to the daughter of Paul Balkasson, Sheriff of Skye, brought him Dunvegan, the formidable castle on the rock on the west coast of the island, and consolidated his power.
Leod had four sons. Tormod, the eldest, inherited Harris and Dunvegan and adopted the title ‘Macleod of Dunvegan’ as Chief of the Clan. The second son, Torquil, inherited Lewis, founding the Macleod of Lewis line, which failed in 1610.
Although the Macleods of Dunvegan have possessed their castle for over 800 years, the fortress we see today bears little resemblance to the original fortification. A ‘romantic’ restoration was carried out by the 25th Chief between 1840 and 1850 with plans by Robert Brown of Edinburgh at a cost of £8,000. Leod’s fort would have been enclosed within a mighty curtain wall with a single entrance where the sea gate stands today, and the buildings within would have been made of wood. Brown’s design extended the front and he also rebuilt the north wing. The tower of the 14th century keep was raised to 130ft.
Nowadays as you approach Dunvegan Castle on foot along the landscaped pathway, it is hard to imagine just how formidable this place must have seemed in days of long ago. From the seaward side, however, it is easier to picture the heavily armed longboats gliding back and forth on excursions to plunder the mainland and ravage the islands of the Hebrides.
John Macleod of Macleod is the 29th Chief and succeeded his remarkable grandmother, Dame Flora Macleod of Macleod, in 1976. This great lady first opened the castle to the public more than 50 years ago, and dedicated her life to spreading the ancient spirit of goodwill and kinship among clan members and Scots worldwide.
John Macleod himself has been working on the development of the estate for over 30 years, but also found time to train as an actor with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he later spent three years as a member of the teaching staff. He then studied singing with Otakar Kraus in London and Ursula Buckel in Geneva. Each summer, he hosts the popular Dunvegan Chamber Music Festival which features a series of concerts held in the castle
Entering into Dunvegan Castle, the ancient past comes to life. The hall’s fine oak staircase replaced an old stone one in the mid-19th century, and the Moorish ironwork dates from the same period.
On the first floor you are directed along a passage with military and Jacobite relics on display. At the end of the passage is the Fairy Tower with the Business Room, once Dame Flora’s study.
The Fairy Tower takes its name from Dunvegan’s most precious treasure, the legendary Fairy Flag. Several traditions are associated with this. One relates to a crusading Macleod chief who was challenged by a fairy in the Holy Land. A battle ensued which the chief won and as a result, the flag became his prize. Another legend is that long ago a fairy flew through a window into the castle nursery and wrapped the infant chief asleep in his cot in the mystical flag while singing a lullaby to him.
Whichever, if either, is the correct provenance, the flag – which can be viewed in a wall-mounted glass case – has been surrounded with magical powers ever since its arrival. On two known occasions it was carried into battle and credited with winning the day for the warring Macleods. Whether or not its powers have diminished over the centuries, it still holds a powerful spell for clan members: fighter pilots of World War II carried photographs of it with them when going into combat.
In the Dining Room, ancestral portraits hang on scarlet walls: paintings by George Scougal, Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn and Sir William Oliphant Hutchison. A huge oak sideboard carries the date 1603, may have belonged to the 15th Chief, Sir Rory Mor, knighted by James VI. In 1596, Sir Rory Mor was presented with another of the castle’s great treasures, the
Dunvegan Cup, a gift from the O’Neills of Ulster as a token of thanks for supporting the cause against England. An inscription in Latin on its silver rim reads: “Katherine, daughter of King Neill, wife of MacGuire Prince of Fermanagh had me made in the year of God 1493.” The wooden drinking cup with the silver sheath is thought to have belonged to Niall Glundubh, High King of Ireland, who ruled in the early part of the 12th century.
Entry to the Library is not possible, owing to the precious nature of its contents, but it can be viewed from outside. The fine collection of historic books includes the Dunvegan Armorial dating from 1582, and once the property of William Shaw, King James VI’s Master of Works. In the elegant Drawing Room, restyled in the 18th century, are paintings of the 23rd Chief and his second wife Sarah, by Johann Zoffany. Rory Mor’s Horn, an ancient drinking vessel, is on display here. Tradition has it that the Chief’s heir, on coming of age, must take a full horn of claret and drain it in one gulp. This is quite an undertaking since the horn holds a full bottle and a half!
The Castle Dungeon is a reminder of a ruthless way of life. Next to the Drawing Room is the Guard Room and Pit Dungeon, 13ft deep and embedded in the rock. Prisoners were cast into this space and left to die. Down a stair, the Old Kitchen gives some idea as to how the Keep was constructed with a barrel vault running the length of the building. It dates from about 1360 and is now used to display some of the older, more curious relics associated with the clan such as a Pictish symbol stone and a 17th century stone showing Sir Rory Mor’s wife. The 7th Chief’s claymore hangs on the wall.
There are other particularly interesting diversions at Dunvegan, notably a room set aside as a tribute to the MacCrimmon Family who, for generations, were hereditary pipers to the Chiefs of MacLeod. These MacCrimmons of Boreraig were responsible for the development of Highland bagpipe music as we know it today, and although the last MacCrimmon piper to a Macleod chief died in 1822, his descendants in Canada still maintain a link.
It is remarkable to think one family has lived in the same remote fortress on a rock for over eight centuries, and it is all the more reassuring to discover that the present generation is both welcoming and creative. Despite the number of visitors every year, John Macleod insists that Dunvegan is very much a family home with a “living” purpose in the 21st century. However, repairing and looking after such a place comes at a cost, and he has recently been embroiled in controversy surrounding his decision to sell the Black Cuillin mountains on the estate to pay for exorbitant roof repairs.
In the meantime, golden eagles continue to soar over the cliff tops and surrounding white beaches, and whales are often sighted off Dunvegan Head. The climate on Skye is mild, and throughout summer the castle gardens with their woodland walkways, cascading waterfalls and trickling burns are a joy to explore. This is a timeless place where past and present meet face to face, and where the music of the bagpipes keeps company with the great classical music of the world.
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