Eilean Donan Castle Facts: Explore The Most Photographed Castle

Martha Martins
Nov 03, 2023 By Martha Martins
Originally Published on Jun 08, 2022
Eilean Donan Castle Facts: Explore The Most Photographed Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most frequently visited castles in Scotland.

With a rich history, spanning several centuries, the origin of its name goes as far back as the sixth century. Eilean Donan Castle remains one of Scotland's most historic structures!

The interesting historical facts behind this medieval castle are sure to interest any travel or history enthusiast, so if that includes you, keep reading to learn more!

The History Of Eilean Donan Castle

The words 'Eilean Donan', when translated from the native Gaelic, can be translated literally as 'The Island of Donan'. This is because an Irish saint lived in that part of Scotland, whose name was Donnán. This man was later martyred on Eigg, another island in Scotland. Thus, the modern castle is named after Bishop Donan.

Although there has been no history of Christian occupation, it cannot be ruled out, as there may be evidence yet to be unearthed beneath the layers of the modern castle. The only circumstantial evidence that points towards an occupation, is the presence of a vitrified rock, which indicates that there may have been an occupation for around 1500 years.

This is owing to the fact that vitrified rocks were commonly found during the Iron Age, when it was common, during the building process, to have walls that had such high temperatures to allow the builders to fuse the stone.

However, this was not when the first castle was built. It was only during the 13th century that the first Scottish castle was constructed, during the reign of Alexander II. Over the years, the size of the castle has both grown and shrunk.

In the 13th century, the castle was much larger. The castle itself served as a kind of bastion between the Viking Lords and the Scots, with the former on the west and north of Eilean Donan Castle.

There is a legend surrounding the first drink of a child in Scotland, which relates closely to Eilean Donan Castle. It states that if a baby drinks out of a raven's skull upon being born, then this child will develop occultist powers!

Plenty of other folktales exist around the Matheson Clan's chief, who supposedly did this and later acquired powers, such as being able to talk to birds. The King was impressed by this chief and asked him to build the castle; the one we know today as Eilean Donan Castle.

Location Of Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle has occupied an important location in Scotland for most of its existence. The strategic location of the castle, in particular the tower house, was such that it gave a bird's eye view of any approaching enemies, which allowed the Scots to be more proactive about their defensive lines.

Earl William wanted to expand the territory under his rule to include Scotland's islands as well and thus, wanted to make inroads to Eilean Donan. Thus, in 1266, he demanded that the castle be returned to him, to which Kenneth Mackenzie definitively declined. This led to Earl William launching yet another attack on the castle.

As the century progressed, the Mackenzie clan was largely on the losing side in their feud with the Earls. William III, Earl of Ross, with the assistance of Leod Macgilleandrais, captured Mackenzie and had him executed in 1346, for having refused to give up the castle in 1266.

By the end of the 14th century, the structure of Eilean Donan Castle had been depleted by a significant amount, owing to the battles that had taken place. At this time, the decision was made to make sure that Eilean Donan Castle would be safe from harm from the warring clans.

However, at the same time, ensuring that the castle was properly armed at all times was far too expensive to maintain.

In addition to this, it was agreed that a small building didn't quite need this degree of reinforcement, especially on a small island. However, the strategic importance of the location of Eilean Donan Castle could not be undermined.

Many clans had a strong personal relationship with Castle Eilean Donan over the years, and the ownership of the castle switched between these clans over the centuries. The clans included the clan Macrae, the clan Mackenzie, and the Clan MacLennan.

The Islands of Scotland, as well as the Highlands, became the central area upon which a majority of clan feuds played out during the medieval period, with the medieval castle bearing the brunt of this damage.

During these feuds, Eilean Donan Castle was often a target. Usually, the attackers were from the clan MacDonald. The castle saw no major activity between the end of the 14th and the middle of the 17th century, but was temporarily held by a garrison (of the parliamentary form), only to be quickly reclaimed by Royalists soon after.

Once it had been reclaimed by Royalists, the castle looked markedly different from its earlier glory. A detailed sketch from that time showed that the castle did not have much of a roof and many of its grandiose and ornate walls were also giving out.

Reverend Farquhar, the castle's last Constable, had also been removed from his position of responsibility in 1651. This, too, contributed to the lack of maintenance of the Scottish castle.

The castle was occupied by Spanish soldiers in 1719, who were allies of the Jacobites. However, they were defeated by the Royal Navy of England, who attacked the castle with three ships and ended up capturing it.

Not one Spanish soldier remained standing. The Royal Navy left the castle in ruins, using gunpowder to significantly damage Eilean Donan from within.

Over the next 200 years, Eilean Donan Castle remained in its destroyed state, before it was finally restored by a member of the Macrae family.

There is a myth that discusses the exact location of Eilean Donan Castle. It states that it was built upon an island that was the burial ground of the King of the Otters. It is said that the descendants of this King can still be seen on this island today!

Another legend speaks of the Loch Duich, which is closely located to the castle. Here, three brothers were out fishing and found three seal-maidens, who had taken off their furs, having assumed a human form. These brothers stole the furs, hoping that they could goad the maidens into becoming their wives.

The legend of Loch Duich states that the youngest brother, being kind at heart, returned the seal skin that he found. As a result, the girl's father allowed the youngest brother to visit her once every nine nights.

The other two brothers suffered disastrous fates, with the middle brother losing his wife once the maiden found out about the stolen fur, and the eldest brother losing his wife in the process of burning the fur as a measure of caution.

Castle Eilean Donan has a rich and colorful history that spans several centuries.


Architecture Of Eilean Donan Castle

The architecture of Eilean Donan Castle informs its mass appeal today just as much as its history and location.

Today, the castle is actually entered from the south side, with the main entrance containing an inscription, which reads, in Gaelic, 'As long as there is a Macrae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside.'

Next, it opens into a smaller courtyard, where visitors can see the exposed bedrock around the main tower house. In the southwest, there is an L-shaped block, while in the northwest section, there is a smaller tower.

In the west curtain, there is a sea gate, which was introduced in the modern rebuilding of the castle. Closely connected to this sea gate is the arched bridge which leads to the mainlands.

On the first floor, there is the banqueting hall, which contains beams of Douglas Fir. The banqueting hall also includes a fireplace reminiscent of the 15th century, a coat of arms, and an oak ceiling.

Restoration And Reuse Of Eilean Donan Castle

Although Eilean Donan Castle has a rich history preceding the modern era, its stories in recent times are just as captivating. Moreover, its current form differs significantly from its original appearance.

In 1912, Eilean Donan Castle was purchased by John MacRae-Gilstrap, a member of the Macrae clan. His desire was to preserve the ruins that his forefathers had hoped to protect, as a kind of war memorial.

To make this happen, he employed a stonemason, who dreamt that the castle be restored to its former glory, and thus, John MacRae-Gilstrap changed his plans to accommodate his stonemason's dream.

Interestingly, the stonemason's name was Farquhar MacRae, so he was a part of the Macrae family as well. The castle was completely rebuilt by 1932, once John came back from the first World War and decided to support Farquhar.

The new build contained a monument to those who had died to protect Eilean Donan Castle, and it connected to the mainlands as well. The castle was first opened for public visits in 1955.

A specific committee was formed in 1983 to ensure that Eilean Donan Castle received proper care, called the Conchra Charitable Trust. The castle has appeared in several TV shows and movies, including 'The World Is Not Enough' and 'Highlander'.

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Written by Martha Martins

Bachelor of Arts specializing in Linguistics

Martha Martins picture

Martha MartinsBachelor of Arts specializing in Linguistics

Martha is a full-time creative writer, content strategist, and aspiring screenwriter who communicates complex thoughts and ideas effectively. She has completed her Bachelor's in Linguistics from Nasarawa State University. As an enthusiast of public relations and communication, Martha is well-prepared to substantially impact your organization as your next content writer and strategist. Her dedication to her craft and commitment to delivering high-quality work enables her to create compelling content that resonates with audiences.

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