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Castle of the Week 106 - Dunnottar Castle, Scotland

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Short History of the Castle


Dunnottar Castle is one of the most spectacularly located castles ever built. It lies in northern Scotland, 15 miles south of Aberdeen, majestically positioned on a high plateau on a promontory out in the north sea. If the castle design seems familiar to you, it might be because Dunnottar Castle was the place for the recording of Hamlet with Mel Gibson. But what the castle is most famous for was when a small garrison of 70 men held out against Oliver Cromwell's army for eight months and by that saved the Scottish Crown Jewels, the 'Honours of Scotland', from being captured and destroyed by the English.

Despite what you may think, because of its excellent positioning, Dunnottar was invaded and captured many times. For example, in the 9th century, King Donald II died whilst unsuccessfully trying to defend Dunnottar from a Viking invasion. The Englishmen captured the castle two times, but it was both times recaptured by the Scots.

There isn't very much remaining of the castle nowadays, only eleven half destroyed small buildings including barracks, lodgings, stables and storehouses. All these are from different periods in the castle's history. The prominent building though is the L-shaped 14th century keep. It's a little battered by Cromwell's cannons, but still intact.

In the 17th century Dunnottar Castle was serving as a home for the Scottish Earl Marischals. The Marischals were at that time one of the most powerful families in the land. They oversaw all ceremonial activities in the country, including the coronations. They were also responsible for the guarding of the Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the 'Honours of Scotland'. The story of how a small garrison in Dunnottar saved the crown, sceptre and sword from certain destruction is one of the most captivating in Scottish history.

The Miracle at Dunnottar


Yes, the "miracle at Dunnottar", many people, mostly priests, were very fast at calling it. But in what way else could you explain how a scratch garrison of 70 badly armed men with limited supplies could hold out for eight months against English elite troops, and after the fall of Dunnottar succeed in smuggling out the king's papers and the Crown Jewels past the Englishmen.

In 1649 Charles I, king of both Scotland and England, was executed by Oliver Cromwell. A year after, Charles's son (later Charles II) arrived in the north east, in order to retake the lands that were rightfully his. During his way south, he stayed over one night at Dunnottar. In England however, Oliver Cromwell became so enraged upon hearing the news that Charles II had come back, that he invaded Scotland immediately. In some haste therefore, Charles II was crowned king of Scotland in Scones. But the Crown Jewels could not be returned to Edinburgh Castle, which now had fallen into the hands of the Englishmen. Cromwell's army was advancing fast through the Scottish highlands, so the king ordered the Earl Marischal to hide and defend the jewels and many of the king's papers at Dunnottar Castle.

It was not long before Dunnottar Castle was besieged by an English army led by General Lambert. Its unique position made Dunnottar Castle almost impregnable against infantry attacks, which led to a garrison of 70 men being able to hold Dunnottar for eight months. But when Cromwell became so angry that he sent heavy cannons to Dunnottar to raze the major buildings, the outcome was unavoidable. But before surrendering, the king's secret papers were taken through the English army by a brave lady who had hidden them around her waist. The jewels, however, were dropped down to the shore on the seaward side and picked up by a servant, who was there looking like he was collecting seaweed. The Crown Jewels and the king's papers were later taken to a village called Kinneff, and buried in the kirk of a church.

Dunnottar Castle, however, never recovered from the damage it had suffered during this long siege. The last Earl Marischal was executed for treason because of his part in the Jacobite Rising in 1715. His lands, including Dunnottar Castle, were taken by the government. A rich salesman bought the castle and greedily took all its treasury's wealth for himself and then left the castle to decay. The castle was left to itself until the year 1925, when a program of restoration was made and started.

Write-up by Arn de Gothia. Pictures courtesy of CastleXplorer.
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*) denotes a former staff member.