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Eilean Donan

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Eilean Donan Castle

Of all the castles and historic sites in Scotland, Eilean Donan Castle,  is surely the jewel in the crown. A more picturesque location you would not expect to be found anywhere else.

The building stands on a small island (St. Donan) named after a medieval Celtic saint, who had lived there, probably as a hermit.

Eilean Donan Castle’s position almost triangulates with the three lochs, Duich, Long, and Alsh. Looking westwards across Loch Alsh, the far mountains of Skye come into view. The scenery is a photographer's dream, the way the light changes, encroaching weather systems, the changing of the seasons particularly autumn when the hillsides and glens are a riot of russet reds and yellows heralding the approach of winter. Eilean Donan has all this and much more to offer. History here positively seeps out of the stonework.

In medieval times much of the North and West of Scotland were in turmoil, for centuries, native kings, clan rivalries, and constant pillaging by Norse invaders had left the entire area in a sorry mess. Robert the Bruce was sheltered at Eilean Donan in 1306.

In the 13th century the Western Isles became aligned with the Scottish kingdom after the Battle of Largs in October 1263 when King Haakon of Norway was defeated by the forces of Alexander II. As a token of thanks, Colin Fitzgerald took the isle of St. Donan and surrounding lands into his possession. Fitzgerald was the son of the Earl of Desmond and Kildare. At some point the island and lands came into the hands of MacKenzie of Kintail. Around about this time, Robert the Bruce’s nephew, Randolph the Earl of Moray in his capacity as the Warden of Scotland dropped in for a visit.

Whilst at the castle he caused to have fifty people (probably thieves and rogues) executed, their heads were then spiked to the battlements. You could say it was an early form of gargoyle embellishment. His intention, no doubt, to show the people where the real power resided.

Until 1504 Eilean Donan lay with the Mackenzie’s and latterly became one of the many strongholds controlled by the MacDonald’s Earls of Ross, Lords of the Isles.
The castle fell to troops led by the Earl of Huntly, little information exists on how this was achieved, but the words treachery and subterfuge come quickly to mind.
The Earl of Huntly then installed the MacRae’s as Constables of the castle, in 1509, a position they retain to this day.

In 1539 Eilean Donan came under the scrutiny of Donald Gorm of Sleat. A renegade against authority, Donald was powerful in his own right, so with a large fleet he sailed up Loch Alsh aiming for the castle. Only in the last few moments preceding the assault were the lightly manned forces protecting the castle reinforced by a band passing clansmen led by Duncan MacRae a bitter foe of Donald of Sleat, holding him responsible for the death of an uncle.

The majority lay with Donald of Sleat’s men, the defenders were forced to withdraw from the battlements and continue the fight from the keep. Problems upon problems, the Constable lay mortally wounded, men and ammunition running low, Duncan MacRae with only a single arrow left had one chance to change the outcome, he drew down on Donald of Sleat. The arrow hit Donald in the foot severing an artery. Disheartened. The invaders withdrew and sailed off.

Unfortunately the castles luck did not hold out. The Jacobite rebellion of 1715 failed and with no help from the French, King James the old pretender appealed to the Spanish court for help, sadly, only a token force of some 46 men arrived to be met by William MacKenzie the 5th Earl of Seaforth to garrison the castle. They did not have to wait too long for a response from the English. On the morning of the 10th of May, three frigates, Enterprise, Worcester, and Flamborough sailed up Loch Alsh and launched a couple of broadsides at the castle. Resulting in devastation, resistance was futile against such overwhelming firepower, from the ruins, the flag of surrender went up and the survivors were taken aboard ship in irons.

For another 200 years the ruins of the castle stood exposed to the ravages of time, tide and weather of Wester Ross.

In 1912, Lt. Col John Macrae-Gilstrap decided to restore the castle to its former glory.
One man, Farquhar MacRae had a vision of how the castle had looked in its heyday, and on that basis rebuilding work went ahead.

Restoration was completed in 1932, but the strange thing is that a few weeks later, a set of detailed drawings going back to the 17th century were uncovered, the comparison between drawing and finished article were uncannily accurate, all thanks to MacRae’s dream!