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Nothing could match the Isle of Skye for beauty, I thought, as I left it behind after a three-day stay. But I was in for a surprise. Rounding a curve of the A87 in the Scottish Highlands, I came upon a sight that made me forget the stormy skies and threatening weather, and, yes, even the images of Skye.
Dark rolling clouds hung low on the brooding Scottish mountains, misty in the fine rain. They hovered over Loch Duich, its grayish waters whipped by a strong wind. On an island in the Loch, Eilean Donan Castle’s powerful presence announced itself as a formidable stronghold—as it must have to any who dared challenge the MacRae clan in the 14th century.
Today, access to the castle is made easy by a stone causeway built to connect the island to the mainland. It was still a heady walk in the increasing wind. I reached a hexagonal shaped tower, once the main entrance, but now closed. Passing through a courtyard, I climbed up stone stairs to the castle entrance. Once inside the 14ft. thick stone walls, the sounds of the storm died away like magic.
An interesting display on the castle’s history attracted me, and I was surprised to learn that what I was admiring was a rebuilt castle. The original castle dated back to the 12th century when it was built as a defense against Viking raiders. The strong defensive site proved its worth during those early centuries. The castle’s downfall came in 1714 as a result of the MacRae clan’s involvement in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to seize the country and crown. A large supply of gunpowder was stored in the castle’s basement, and Spanish troops were garrisoned there.
Disaster came from an unexpected source. The English troops cleverly came by ship over the Loch and frightened the soldiers by bombarding the castle—its walls held—into surrendering. The gunpowder proved a boon to the English, who used it to blow the place to bits, reducing it to a pile of rubble.
The ruins stood abandoned for 200 years until a new owner, Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap, reconstructed the castle as the result of a dream. Seems a local stonemason, Farquhar MacRae, was keen to rebuild. He claimed he dreamt what the plans of the original castle were and set about reconstruction based on that. It turns out his dream was authentic as the original plans were later discovered in Edinburgh and verified his dream.
I was impressed by the large billeting room where troops were housed—the barrel vaulted stone ceiling is 2ft. 6in. thick. Paintings, furniture and weapons are displayed around the room. The Great Hall or Banqueting Room contains fine Sheraton and Chippendale furniture, shields, trophies, paintings, and, supposedly, a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair.
A massive stone fireplace is heavily decorated with coats of arms. Leaded glass windows lend a touch of the Victorian romantic, rather than what would be authentic to the 1400’s. The timber ceiling beams in this reconstructed room came all the way from Canada. If you are a MacRae, you’ll be interested in the family tree displayed on the wall in the Banqueting Room.
A spiral stone staircase leads to the bedrooms—one is said to be haunted—where built-in window seats present spectacular views of the Loch. The life-like figures in the re-created kitchen reflect the early 1930s when the reconstructed castle was throwing its first big parties.
Many fascinating tales and historical events are associated with the castle, and can be read on information boards posted in the rooms. The inhabitants were certainly involved in their fair share of battles over the centuries. One story tells of prisoners who were thrown from the roof—if they could swim to shore, they were set free. The castle is even said to have provided a hideout for Robert the Bruce while being hunted by the English. A Spanish soldier’s ghost reputedly roams the castle. The castle is believed to be named for an Abbot Donan, who was beheaded along with his followers by a gang of pirates.
It’s easy to see why Eilean Donan, dramatically sited on its little island, is the most photographed castle in Scotland. The spell of this castle, darkly silhouetted against the wild Scottish Highlands will linger long in my mind.
Eilean Donan Castle is located at Dornie on the A87 nine miles (14.5km) east of bridge to the Isle of Skye. Tel. (0) 1599 555 202. Open daily 10am-5:30pm from April 1 to Oct 31.
Photo 3 courtesy Cornwall Cam