Crannogs, Clans, and Covenanters: Eilean Donan Castle

For the last few years, people from all over the world have been flocking to Inverness and the surrounding countryside to find the seat of the Mackenzie (and maybe the Mackenzie’s nephew). While Castle Leoch does have some basis in fact – it’s based on Castle Leod, a Mackenzie stronghold northwest of Inverness – it was not, in fact, truly the home of the Clan Mackenzie. The main seat of the Clan Mackenzie lies farther west.

 

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One thing (among an impressive many) that Outlander got right was the warlike tendencies of the inhabitants of the wild Highlands. As such, the Scots developed building techniques that increased their chances of being able to defend their constructions. One notable technique was that of the crannog, in which a small island would be constructed in a loch or marshy area. A house would be built upon the wee island, and then a bridge built back to the mainland. The idea was that if your neighbor decided to attack you, you could retreat to your house and literally burn the bridge behind you, depriving your enemy of a way to chase you down.

Another technique was to build an imposing tower with thick walls, surrounded by a massive outer wall with small gates and sturdy foundations. This dual-defense system made it incredibly difficult to breach the keep (the inner tower), and also served to protect a courtyard area, which could be used for stables, a smithy, a storehouse, and, if push came to shove, a small garden. The castle option had obvious advantages over the crannog, since if your castle came under siege you still had the possibility of feeding yourself.

 

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Most clan strongholds were built in the latter fashion. Castles could be large and comfortable, and many people could fit inside should a rival clan come charging into the area. The Mackenzies, though, clearly did not believe this was enough, and they chose to combine the two styles of construction into one: Eilean Donan Castle (pronounced ee-lan doh-nan, not like Eileen as I had thought).

Eilean Donan was built on a small island (the name actually means Island of Donnán in Scots Gaelic) constructed at the point where Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long all meet. From the island, you can see all the way up Loch Duich, a good ways up Loch Long, and much of Loch Alsh. The crannog-inspired construction also limited access from the mainland, making the island quite easily defensible. On the island was built a massive house with strong outer walls, thereby marrying the crannog and the castle.

 

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The beautiful castle at Eilean Donan, which is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland, has had a rather tumultuous history. After building the castle, the Mackenzies were very prosperous. They expanded their clan territory to stretch all the way from the area around Inverness in the east to the Outer Hebrides in the west, and they chose the side of the Covenanters in the Civil War era (the Covenanters won the war in Scotland and set up quite the regime, so having sided with them was a good thing). Starting in 1690, though, things began to slip. At the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, the Mackenzies supported King James VII/II in a losing cause against King William II. In 1715 and 1719, the Mackenzies sided with the Jacobites, the supporters of the deposed King James VII/II, but the losses of the rebellions in those two years caused fractures within the clan. Worse yet, the failed 1719 rebellion saw the destruction of the castle.

 

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For this particular rebellion, the Spanish had pledged support, hoping to reinstate a Catholic king in Britain and form an alliance that way. Some Spanish troops arrived in Scotland, but not enough to actually be termed ‘support.’ Of the Spanish troops which did arrive, a garrison was set up in Eilean Donan Castle. When help failed to materialize, the garrison was largely isolated on their little island, but, being well-stocked and feisty, they didn’t surrender to the royalist troops which blocked their egress from the island. They royalists eventually had to bring three gunships into the lochs to bombard the castle into submission. Even with so much firepower, it took them two days to get anywhere, and they still had to send people in to take the castle from the inside. The experience made the royalists so worried about a second attempt at rebellion being staged at Eilean Donan that they spent the day after the castle’s surrender stuffing it with gunpowder, which they ignited as they sailed off for Edinburgh.

The ruins of the once-glorious castle sat unattended for two hundred years. On the bicentennial of its destruction, reconstruction began on Eilean Donan, with Lt. Col. John Macrae Gilstrap leading the charge. At the time, the only drawing of the castle before its destruction known to exist was partial, and didn’t offer much information about what the castle would have looked like. Frustrated, Gilstrap when to bed one night, with a head full of worries about his project. That night, he dreamt of a beautiful castle on an island, and he could see every detail so clearly that the next morning he hopped out of bed and immediately grabbed his pencil and paper. The locals thought he was crazy to rebuild a castle based on a dream, but it brought in work, so they went along with it. After the building was nearly complete, someone in the local area unearthed another contemporary drawing of the castle, which no one had known about. From this drawing, it was clear that, with the exception of a new, arched stone bridge to the mainland, Gilstrap had been spot-on.

Did the ghosts of Mackenzies Past visit Gilstrap in his sleep and tell him what to do? Did the fairies help him? No one knows. The only thing for sure is that the historic seat of the Clan Mackenzie is one of the most picturesque Highland castles there is.

 

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Visiting Eilean Donan Castle

Getting There: Most people stop at Eilean Donan on their trip to the Isle of Skye, as the bridge from the mainland to Skye is only eight miles up the road. Many bus tours also stop here – I visited while on a three-day tour to the Isle of Skye from Edinburgh. You can also get to the nearby village of Plockton on the train line out of Inverness.

Opening Hours: The castle is generally open to visitors daily between 10:00am and 4:00pm, with extended hours in the summer. Be sure to check the website before planning your visit, as they are occasionally closed for private events!

Admission: Eilean Donan is privately owned and managed, meaning there is an admission fee, and it does not fall under Historic Environment Scotland. Prices are: £7.50 for adults, £4 for children, £6.50 for seniors.

Get more information on the local area, the exhibitions, and visiting the castle at the Eilean Donan Castle website.

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