Eilean Donan Castle (pronounced Eilean Donnain in Scottish Gaelic) is said to be the most photographed castle in Scotland. It appears on an almost endless number of products/memorabilia such as biscuit tins, calendars, framed pictures, notepads, and many, many other items.
In this article, we explore what makes the castle such an iconic piece of Scottish culture, its place in history and what you can expect to find today.
‘Eliean’ means Island in Gaelic so Eliean Donan Castle literally translates to Island of Donan Castle
The name ‘Eilean Donan’ in Scottish Gaelic can be translated to mean ‘The Island of Donan‘. This refers to a 6th-century Irish saint named Donnan who lived on the Island for a period of time before he was eventually martyred on the beautiful Isle of Eigg. It is thought that when st. Donnan was on the Island he formed a small cell/community on the Island in the 6 or 7th century and the Island was used as a chapel site. The name Eilean Donan just seemed to stick around after the saint left and the castle inherited the name.
In the early 13th century during the reign of Alexander II a large curtain wall castle was built, which encompassed most of the island and was much larger than the castle that currently stands on the tidal island. For defence from any invading Viking warriors, the castle was built so wide and tall. The high towers were tactically constructed as to have a vantage point to spot any approaching Viking invaders and to provide coverage to fire down upon them.
The construction of the first castle at Eilean Donan is said to have been built because of a mythical legend. There are stories about the Chief of the Matheson Clan’s son, where he is thought, as a baby, to have had his first drink from the skull of a Raven. The legend is that a baby who has their first drink from a Ravens skull will be blessed with special powers. The Matheson Clan son was believed to have done this and as a result, he gained the ability to communicate with birds! After many years travelling he gained power, wealth and the respect of Alexander II who asked him to build a castle to help protect his reign.
Later (a specific date is not really mentioned) the castle became occupied by the Mckenzie Clan of Kintail and Eilean Donan became their stronghold. The Mckenzie Clan had claimed they helped Robert the Bruce by giving him shelter in the castle from winter 1306 to 1307. However, there is not much evidence to confirm that this as fact.
Around 1400 the castle actually shrank and ended up half the size it once was – the reasons for this are actually not quite clear. At this time the castle measured 528 square meters compared to its previous size of 3,000 square meters. The castle no longer surrounded most of the island, a few buildings were constructed in a smaller courtyard with the massive curtain wall and high north tower both demolished.
In 1715 a huge Jacobite uprising took place in order to restore the exiled James Stuart to the throne. However, the uprising proved to be a failure and it soon collapsed. Around two years later the Jacobites managed to gain help from the Spanish. In 1719 around 300 Spanish soldiers invaded the west coast to aid the Jacobites. The government responded by continuously attacking the castle, which left it in Eilean Donan castle in ruins. Over the next two days, the naval force continued to bombard the castle with 27 barrels of gunpowder until the castle was left in a shadow of its former self.
Nearly 200 years later, in 1912, the castle was given a new lease of life. Lt-Col. John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the ruined Eilean Donan Castle for the pricey sum of £250,000. Gilstrap desired to restore the castle to its past glory. Between the years of 1919 and 1932, careful restoration of the ancient construction took place. During this time a bridge was added to make access to the Island far easier. This meant that there is no worry about having to squeeze together with other passengers on a small boat if you want to view the castle. On a rather sad note, Gilstrap died before he could see the restoration of the castle fully realised. In what seemed to be fated as a rather cruel sense of irony, Gilstrap just missed out on witnessing the completion of the castle as he died six months before the structure was completed.
The original plans of the castle were not actually found until the castle was nearly finished. Previously, the restorers had to follow less accurate plans that dated back to the 19th century. It has been said that to finish the construction of the castle, the clerk of the restoration, Farquhar Macrae, had a dream one night of the restored Eilean Donan Castle. He treated this dream more like a vision and based the restoration on this basis and somehow the castle was completed, but it does have to be questioned how ‘accurate’ the restoration of the castle truly was in the end.
Eilean Donan Castle is located near a small village named Dornie, which is located in the stunning western Ross-shire area of the Scottish Highlands. Around 1 kilometre from the former fishing village of Dornie lies a small tidal island – and on this island Eilean Donan Castle is beautifully perched. The island and the castle has been excellently placed at the meeting point of three different lochs; Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long. Sometimes the castle is referred to by people as the Isle of Skye castle. The Castle is not actually on the Isle of Skye but it is very close and can be reached by driving along a nearby bridge. Before the bridge was constructed people had to board a ferry in order to reach the Skye.
In 2007 a film about the latter half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was dramatised into the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Years. The movie starred Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. It detailed a number of crisis she faced in the later years of her reign including an assassination plot and a threat from the Spanish Armada. The exterior of Eilean Donan Castle plays the role of ‘castle Fotheringhay,’ wherein the story Queen Victoria finds herself imprisoned.
In 1999, the castle depicted the headquarters of M16 in the James Bond movie ‘The World is not Enough‘ with Pierce Brosnan. Bond visited the castle to find out what terrifically useful Scottish themed gadgets had been crafted for his top-secret mission by the gadget making extraordinaire ‘Q.’
If you have not seen the film then you really should, if only to find out what happens with those bagpipes Q has enthusiastically provided Bond with!
The Castle also features in the 1995 film ‘Rob Roy‘, which portrays the rather Robin Hood lifestyle of the legendary Scot Rob Roy MacGregor. The story of the film accounts Rob Roy’s lifestyle after he has been wronged by a nobleman and his nephew. Due to this Rob Roy becomes an outlaw as he searches for revenge on those that have wronged him.
What do you think? Was Rob Roy an unstable crook or was he a Scottish hero? Read our article on the subject to help you decide.
“There can only be one!”
Those are the immortal words from the cult classic 1986 film ‘Highlander.’ Sure most of the film took place in then-current day New York City, but at its heart, the film has a love for the Scottish Highlands. There are many flashback sequences that tell the story of fictional 16th-century swordsman Conner MacLeod (played by actor Christopher Lambert) who meets a mysterious man named Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos (played by legendary Scottish actor Sean Connery).
Eilean Donan Castle is very much the star of the flashback sequences as the castle appears a number of times. Picture the castle surrounded by an army of warriors equipped with swords and shields riding on horseback over the castle bridge, bagpipes playing in the background and battling clans. Then you pretty much have the scenes of Eilean Donan Castle in the movie.
If you like the sound of Braveheart sprinkled with a little SciFi, then you must watch Highlander in preparation for a visit to the castle!
Especially on a sunny day, the surroundings of Eilean Donan Castle are absolutely stunning with a scenic backdrop of lush green hills glistening in the distance. The castle is a truly awe-inspiring place to spot the local wildlife which inhabits the mountains, sky and surrounding water. Gaze up into the sky and be on the lookout for eagles soaring above the castle. Look below in to the waters to spot dolphins floating near the surface of the sea and watch out for otters swimming nearby. Maybe, just maybe, you could find some porpoises happily gliding in the waters.
As you enter the castle grounds you can find an inscription written in Gaelic that reads “as long as there is a Macrae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside”. This refers to the strong bond between the clan Fraser and the clan Macrae. Despite being completed in 1932, the castle was not opened for public viewing until 1955. When first entering the castle you will walk across the stone arch bridge and walk into the courtyard. The courtyard houses a compact yet beautifully decorated area with historic-looking stone walls and staircases.
This room contains an array of captivating artefacts that belong to the Macrae family and the castle. There are also a number of artefacts included in the room which are also local to the area.
A stunning room with beautifully etched stone walls and hosts a ceiling decorated with Douglas Fir wood which was imported from British Columbia during the restoration process. The Douglas Fir was actually a gift from the Macraes of Canada. The Banqueting Hall has also seen many marriages celebrated over the years. For those couples looking to tie the knot in perfect Highland scenery, then it is possible to book Eilean Donan Castle for weddings.