Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland has been a popular filming location for decades. Some of you may recognize it from films such as Rob Roy, Entrapment, or The World Is Not Enough. I best remember it as the ancestral home of Connor MacLeod from the Highlander franchise. And if you remember it the same way I do, well, why not queue up your favourite rendition of Bonny Portmore before you start reading. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Eilean Donan is the name of both the castle and the tiny island it inhabits. The name dates back to 617 AD. Saint Donnán of Eigg was a Gaelic priest. He was martyred in 617 after attempting to bring Christianity to the Pictish people in northwestern Scotland. Some stories say he had established a church on the island, but there’s no physical evidence of this.
The castle itself dates back to the 13th Century, and has quite a lengthy and tumultuous history. A lot of people called Eilean Donan castle home over the centuries, too. Let’s dive in and take a look at its past inhabitants, shall we?
The earliest known structure on Eilean Donan was a fortress wall connecting seven towers. King Alexander II of Scotland (1198 – 1249) built it around 1220 AD to defend the mountains of Kintail and the Isle of Skye against Viking attacks. Eilean Donan island is in a very strategic location, making it an important defensive site, but also desirable to invaders. Three sea lochs (lakes) meet at this point – Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh.
One of Alexander II’s most important contributions to history was signing the Treaty of York with King Henry III of England in 1237. This treaty established the English-Scottish border, which remains virtually unchanged to this day.
At this point in time, the Norwegians controlled the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Edgar of Scotland signed the islands over to Magnus III of Norway back in 1098. But this didn’t sit well with Alexander.
During his reign, Alexander II had tried to purchase the islands from King Haakon IV of Norway, but without success. In 1249, he sailed to the west coast with an army to take the Outer Hebrides by force. Unfortunately, he contracted a fever en route and died at the Isle of Kerrera in the Inner Hebrides.
After King Alexander II’s death, his only son Alexander III became king at the tender age of seven. Once he reached adulthood, Alexander III took up his father’s cause to purchase the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. He sent King Haakon IV one last request to buy the islands from him – or he would take them by force. Needless to say, the threat didn’t go over well.
In 1263, Haakon sent representatives to demand that Alexander stand down on his claims to the Hebrides. Alexander cleverly dragged out the negotiations into autumn. On October 1, 1263, fall storms grounded several Norse ships, giving the Scots the advantage. The next morning Haakon and 1000 of his troops reached shore, where Alexander’s men waited to attack. Haakon and his army retreated and headed home.
In the end, though, the Battle of Largs ended in a stalemate. Haakon planned to launch another attack after the winter months, but he died in December 1263 before he could do so. His son, Magnus VI, aka Magnus the Lawmender, had no interest in taking up his father’s fight. In 1266, he handed the Hebrides and the Isle of Man over to Scotland. In return, he received 4,000 marks in silver and an annual payment of 100 marks, under the Treaty of Perth.
So how does all this relate back to Eilean Donan castle? Well, as the story goes, Alexander III granted a charter of the lands of Kintail, including Eilean Donan, to one Colin Fitzgerald, for his aid in the Battle of Largs. However, there is much debate as to the authenticity of this claim, and in fact, the charter may have been forged.
At any rate, Colin of Kintail had a son named Kenneth. His name became MacKenneth, which later evolved into MacKenny or MacKenzie.
By 1297, Clan MacKenzie of Kintail took over ownership of Eilean Donan. Traditional Clan Mackenzie histories claim descent from a Fitzgerald ancestor, which may be the link between Colin Fitzgerald and the MacKenzies.
By the late 1300s, the size of Eilean Donan castle shrunk by approximately 1/5 its original size. This was most likely due to a lack of manpower to keep up its defences.
The Mackenzie clan histories also claim that they sheltered Robert the Bruce here in 1306, during the Wars of Scottish Independence. However there’s no real evidence to support this.
In 1331, Randolph, Earl of Moray, and nephew of Robert the Bruce, sent one of his officers to Eilean Donan castle in preparation of his visit. The officer rounded up 50 “misdoers” and executed them, placing their heads on the castle walls as a warning to other clansmen.
Around this time, the MacKenzies were also feuding with the Earls of Ross. Some of William III, Earl of Ross’ followers had conducted a plundering raid on the district of Kenlochewe. Kenneth MacKenzie went after them, killed some of the raiders and recovered a substantial amount of the stolen goods. Incensed, the Earl of Ross captured Kenneth MacKenzie and had him executed in Inverness in 1346. During this tumultuous time, Duncan Macaulay defended Eilean Donan as constable for the Mackenzies against the earl and his allies.
The MacRae clan arrived in Kintail around 1362. They worked as personal bodyguards to the MacKenzie clan.
After Kenneth the 7th’s death in 1497, his son John of Killin succeeded him. However, he was still a minor, so his uncle, Hector decided to take advantage by installing his own constable at Eilean Donan: Malcolm MacRae. Around 1503, the Earl of Huntly offered to secure the castle for King James IV. Hector MacKenzie eventually agreed to forfeit the castle with John’s insistence, but his constable refused. John’s supporters laid siege to the castle, and Malcolm MacRae eventually relinquished the castle. In 1509 John of Killin obtained a Crown charter for the lands of Kintail, including Eilean Donan. The MacRae’s became constables of the castle in 1511.
In 1539, Donald Gorm MacDonald, 5th of Sleat, attacked the castle, but he was unsuccessful. And unlucky, as Duncan MacRae killed him with an arrow. Interestingly, the MacDonald clan also had connections to Urquhart Castle in Inverness and Duntulm Castle in Trotternish, Isle of Skye, which I wrote about in previous posts.
In 1719, William Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth, garrisoned the castle along with Spanish troops. They arrived to support the Jacobite uprising. Three ships from the Royal Navy captured the castle, using 27 barrels of gunpowder to blow it up. The castle sat as a ruin for over two hundred years.
Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought Eilean Donan in 1911/1912 from Sir Keith Fraser of Inverinate. He wanted to preserve the castle ruins to honour his family’s legacy in their role in protecting the castle for so many generations.
MacRae-Gilstrap himself was an interesting fellow. He had a lengthy military career, joining the Royal Highland Regiment as a lieutenant in 1883. He married Isabella Mary Gilstrap in 1889, niece and co-heiress of a wealthy philanthropist. When Isabella’s uncle passed away, John MacRae took the additional surname of Gilstrap as part of the terms of the will. He then took on a senior role in the Gilstrap, Earp & Co. business, the largest malt producer in Britain at the time.
He was also a senior member of the MacRae clan of Conchra (although his brother, Stuart was the eldest, and therefore the representative of the family). Due to some debate over which MacRae family branch held the senior position over the others, the clan didn’t have a formally recognized chief.
In 1909, Sir Colin MacRae, of the Inverinate MacRae’s, applied to the Court of Lord Lyon for a grant of arms as chief of the clan. MacRae-Gilstrap opposed his claim, and eventually the Lord Lyon determined that Sir Colin had not proven his right to use the chiefly arms. Despite the ruling, Sir Colin continued to refer to himself as chief.
He employed Farquhar MacRae as stonemason and George Mackie Watson as the architect. But Farquhar had other plans for the castle ruins. Instead of merely preserving the remains of Eilean Donan, he claimed he had a dream where the castle was restored to what it once was. When MacRae-Gilstrap returned from Word War I, he decided to go ahead with the proposed rebuild.
Construction took approximately 12 years and cost 250,000 pounds. During this time, Farquhar earned the Gaelic nickname Fearachar a’ Chastiall or Farquhar of the Castle. Unfortunately, he died six months before the castle was completed. The courtyard now contains a bronze plaque with his nickname and the dates 1912-1932.
Later that same year, the castle was complete, including a monument to Clan MacRae:
A stone bridge also connects the island to the mainland.
This is the entrance to the castle.
Note the crest over the doorway. The phrase Cho fad ‘s a bhios MacRath a-stigh cha bhi Frisealach a-muigh roughly translates to “As long as a MacRae is inside, there will not be a Fraser outside”:
MacRae-Gilstrap passed away in 1937. His grandson, John MacRae, opened Eilean Donan castle to the public in 1955.
But, as one might expect, the castle is very costly to maintain. So, in 1983, the MacRae family formed the Conchra Charitable Trust in order to care for Eilean Donan.
The trust oversees restoration and preservation of the castle, as well as enhancements to improve the visitor experience. Although you can tour the interior as well as the exterior, photography is not allowed inside. Just keep that in mind so you aren’t disappointed when you get there!
Eilean Donan castle is considered one of the most romantic and well-photographed castles in Scotland, and that title is well earned. It’s a really beautiful castle with an incredibly rich history.
Eilean Donan Castle
by Kyle of Lochalsh