Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh – Clan MacKenzie
Now better known as an iconic Scottish landmark and one of the world’s most photographed castles, Eilean Donan has a long and storied history as the traditional clan seat of the Highland Clan MacKenzie.
First constructed in the 13th century, the castle is built on a tidal island at the meeting point of three sea lochs; Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh, and is believed to have been named after a 6th century Irish Saint, Bishop Donan, who came to Scotland around 580 AD.
It would be the threat of Viking invaders which would lead to the construction of the castle in the 13th century as it held a vital strategic position on the border between the lands the Lords of the Isles (under Norse rule) and the Earls of Ross. This threat would end in 1266, however, with the signing of the Treaty of Perth which passed control of the Western Isles and other Norse lands to the Scottish crown following a victory over Viking forces at the Battle of Largs in 1263.
It was after fighting at this battle that Colin Fitzgerald, the man traditionally believed to have been the progenitor of the MacKenzies, would be given the lands upon which the Castle sits as a reward. Fitzgerald would later change his name to MacKenzie and, as they say, the rest is history.
As the years passed, the castle would often become a designated safe place for some of the country’s most famous (or infamous) figures to hide due to its relative isolation in the north-west of the country and Robert the Bruce is said to have sheltered there over the winter of 1306 and 1307.
In the following years, it would be an infamous figure who would stay at the castle, however, as before visiting, the Earl of Moray would order the execution of 50 wrongdoers with their heads to be displayed on the castle’s walls as he arrived in 1331.
The MacKenizes would retain control of the castle for the majority of the next 200 years after this event before passing it to the MacRaes, who became constables in 1509. The two families would remain connected after this and the MacRaes acted as the ‘bodyguards’ of the MacKenzies as the family grew from strength to strength. After this handover of power, that the Castle would begin to become a serious target for invading armies and in 1539, Donald Grumach MacDonald, a claimant to the Lordship of the Isles, was killed by an arrow shot from the castle by Duncan MacRae as he besieged its walls.
Later, during the Jacobite Rising of 1719, the Eilean Donan would become home to a garrison of Spanish troops controlled by staunch Jacobite, William MacKenzie, 5th Earl of Seaforth, as they waited for a delivery of weapons and a cannon from Spain. Unfortunately for them, the English caught wind of this short stay and, despite the relative safety previous tenants had enjoyed at the castle due to its isolation, the British Government would launch a fleet of 3 heavily armed frigates to preempt a full-scale invasion. The ships would bombard the castle for 3 days, meeting limited success due to its 14 feet thick walls, before invading and forcing the Spanish defenders to surrender. Upon taking the castle, the English forces found 343 barrels of gunpowder, which would then be used to destroy what was left of the castle following the bombardment.
Eilean Donan would lie in a state of disrepair for the next 200 years until the island was purchased in 1911 by Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gillstrap. McRae would dedicate the next 20 years of his life to rebuilding the once great castle, restoring it to its former glory, and the newly constructed fortification would be reopened in July of 1932 in addition to the now iconic arched bridge which connects the castle to the mainland. The structure would stay under the control of the MacRaes until 1983 when it was passed to the ownership of the Conchra Charitable Trust. It has been open to the public since the year 1955 and now features a tremendous visitor centre.
Eilean Donan is an icon of Scottish culture and has featured on numerous advertising campaigns for Scottish tourism, boxes of shortbread and multiple blockbuster movies such as the James Bond film, The World is Not Enough in 1999. It is a true piece of Scottish history and is rightly revered by many Scots as one of the country’s greatest landmarks.