Isle of Skye Stories and Tips

Dunvegan Castle: 800 years of history

Loch Dunvegan Photo, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Dunvegan Castle is the principal historical attraction on the Isle of Skye, and a popular site to visit, a fixed point on the route of numerous tour buses but also frequented by many an individual tourist, particularly middle-aged Americans in search of their roots (immigration from Skye was huge).

It is situated north of the rather dull village of Dunvegan and approximately 30km west of Portree, at the base of the hammer-head shaped Duirnish peninsula.

The castle is known as the ancestral home of the Chief of Clan MacLeod for almost 800 years. It is reputedly the oldest continuously occupied castle in Scotland.

The castle's history is inextricably linked to the history of the Clan MacLeod, being the seat of MacLeod of MacLeod (the current Chief is Hugh MacLeod of MacLeod, the 30th chief of the MacLeod Clan). The MacLeods' heritage goes back to the Norse named Leod, one of the Lords of the Isles. He was the son of Olaf the Black, who in 1237 came into the possession of the Isle of Skye (as well as other Hebrides).

The castle has been constructed on a 10m high basalt column that rises vertically from the east bank of Loch Dunvegan (until recently it was surrounded by water at high tide) and it is said that the first stronghold there was built by Leod himself in the early 13th century. The current structure comprises numerous parts and six distinct buildings dating to various periods in Dunvegan's long and colourful history, starting with the keep that was raised in the mid-14th century by Malcolm, the third Chief. This is still largely extant.

The early 16th century saw the building of the Fairy Tower, whose name is connected to the revered MacLeod relic, and quite possibly the most interesting object displayed in the castle - the Fairie Flag. Some legends claim that it was given to one of the first MacLeods by his faerie wife, some say it was captured from the Saracens during the crusades (though the material is silk dating to 4th to 7th centuries). The Flag is supposed to grant MacLeods victory in battle every time is unfurled, but can only be used three times, with one use now left after the battles of Glendale (1490) and Trumpan (1580).

The site of the castle is eminently defensible and until the 18th century the only entrance was through a sea gate with a portcullis. A land-side entrance was only create mid-18th century during the times of Jacobite rebellions. The rebellions split the MacLeod clan, as many of the MacLeods supported the Jacobites despite the Chief being against the Pretenders. Flora MacDonald, known for aiding Bonnie Prince Charlie's escape to Skye, happened to marry a tutor to a young MacLeod who became the next Chief and the castle now holds some of her memorabilia.

New wings were added to the castle in the late 18th century, housing barracks of the Black Watch led by the 17th Chief, followed by the bridge over the moat leading to the current main entrance on the landward side.

The first half of the 19th century saw a major restoration in the spirit of Scottish Romantic Revival, with ''picturesque'' turrets, crenellated battlements and similar features added to the outer shell of the castle.

However, this was accompanied by the decline of MacLeods, with the clan system already close to dismantling by then, following the changes after the Jacobite risings. The financial effort of the restoration work, combined with the cost of dealing with the Potato Famine in the mid-19th century (many of the Highland Scottish landowners and clan chiefs, unlike the Irish absentee landlords, made active effort to ease the impact of the famine on their tenants) forced the impoverished 25th Chief to migrate to London to seek office employment.
The MacLeods returned to Dunvegan in 1929 in the person of the 27th Chief, now an old man. Significant parts of the castle were restored and rebuilt ten years later after a major fire ravaged the building.

The castle was first open to the public in 1933 by the 27th Chief and since then, despite its remote location, has grown to be one of Scotland's premier tourist attractions welcoming tens of thousands of visitors a year.

Whether it's actually worth your visit depends on your schedule in Scotland and the budget. From the outside it's a rather grim pile; although fairly impressive and in a fabulous setting. Those of limited means may want to limit the visit to just a look, but those with interest in the history and able to bear the combination of the ''stately home'' cultish feeling with the tartan tat and the crowds will find a lot of fascinating history and a few interesting artefacts here too.

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