I had seen it on postcards and shortbread tins, spotted it on tourism adverts and posters. It’s apparently Scotland’s most-photographed castle (in a country with thousands of the things, that’s quite a title), and yet I wasn’t quite sure where it was, or even what it was called.
That was until this spring, while driving on the scenic (read: long) route to Inverness from the Isle of Skye, there it was in front of us in all its glory.
Eilean Donan Castle.
On the calmest, brightest day of the year so far, Eilean Donan Castle looked as if it was floating on the glistening surface of the water, at a spot where three sea lochs converge. The turrets, the rocky island on which it sits, the arched bridge to the battlements – it all invited a second glance, then a third and a fourth.
As touristy as it may be, I was grinning with excitement at seeing this Scottish architectural icon first-hand. This was the first time I had returned to Scotland since moving to the USA over a year before, and something about the sight made me swell with emotion, made me stop to reflect that this land of castles and mountains and lochs is part of who I am.
After some coffee and shortbread in the visitor’s centre – accompanied by the soundtrack of Runrig’s greatest hits – it was time to go inside. For £7 each, my Dad and I toured the interior of the castle where, sadly, photographs were not permitted. First we were treated to the history of the building, home to the Macrae Clan; the staff asked where we were all from before they launched into the Castle’s past, and even made my Dad take part in the story when they found out he spoke Gaelic.
The building we were standing in was not the one that was first built sometime in the 12th or 13th century. While the castle grew in various forms over the years – it was garrisoned by the Macraes on behalf of the Mackenzies from 1509, and hornwork was added to the building in the 16th century – we learned that it was reduced to rubble in 1719.
That was the year it was occupied by Spanish soldiers who had arrived to support the Jacobite uprising; the Government responded by bombarding the castle, and it remained abandoned and ruined for nearly 200 years afterwards. It wasn’t until 1911 that the fortunes of this now-beautiful building started to look up, when it was bought by John Macrae-Gilstrap. Plans to restore it to its former glory began in 1913, and by 1932 the reconstruction was complete.
I have to say, as a recent convert to the Outlander TV series, I was rather taken with the 18th century touches and historical anecdotes and artefacts throughout the building. I noted the dresses with extra-large hips (similar to those worn in the series) on display in one of the corridors, and followed the illustrated story of Jacobite history listed by date on one of the walls.
The entire castle is richly decorated in keeping with days gone by: extravagant bedrooms with thick curtains and four-poster beds, and kitchens decked out with pots, pans, and pretend feasts ready to go down to the elegant Banqueting Hall, where life-size portraits and tapestries line the walls. To say I was impressed with the attention to detail throughout the building would be an understatement.
Exploring Eilean Donan Castle was a way of exploring Scotland’s history as it played out in this part of the country. As I climbed narrow spiral staircases and inched out onto the battlements, I could just imagine what was happening in these very spots hundreds of years before. And it wasn’t just Eilean Donan Castle itself that awed, inside and out, but the views from atop its walls: from the castle, you’re rewarded with beautiful panoramas across to the Isle of Skye, the mountains of Kintail, and over the waters of Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh.
Safe to say, I now understand why Eilean Donan Castle is one of Scotland’s most photographed – and popular – tourist sights, and why its image adorns so many souvenirs. The castle really is a Scottish icon, and as we learned, there’s so much more to it than the impressive exterior. My advice? On any visit to the Scottish Highlands, Eilean Donan Castle needs to be on your itinerary. You never know, the sight of it might make you feel a wee bit emotional, too.
NEED TO KNOW
How to get there: Eilean Donan Castle is located on the west coast of Scotland, just outside the small village of Dornie on the main road (the A87) to the Isle of Skye. It will definitely be easier to visit if you have a car.
When to visit: Eilean Donan is closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and for the month of January – but for the rest of the year it’s open to visitors! (Check the website before you go, though, because it’s occasionally closed for lucky couples who hire it out for their weddings.)
Have you ever been to Eilean Donan Castle, or would you like to visit? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!