Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Five

Dunstaffnage Castle east elevation

Dunstaffnage Castle north elevation
Dunstaffnage Castle south elevation
Dunstaffnage Castle (13th Century) was the most historically significant building visited on my mini-tour of the West Highland coastal castles earlier in the year. It is also one of the very oldest stone castles in Scotland. Unlike the other ruins visited, Dunstaffnage is a "paid attraction", so Andrew and I could explore in safety and without gymnastics. The wall walks give a great high level overview of the castle and how it fits into the landscape. Its location is extraordinary, perched upon an outcrop of rock that seems to emerge from a area of flat ground seemingly from no-where. Andrew was mesmerised by the unexpectedness of this geological marvel. I was more unimpressed "Well that's why they would have built the castle here!".
wall walk panorama 1

wall walk panorama 2

wall walk panorama 3

It was also the most easy building to understand and read, not just from the signage but the extant structure: though we discovered the small exhibition room only after we had done the exploring rather than before. Definitely the wrong way round.

The building is located at the far end of a modern industrial estate: a decidedly unprepossessing approach. Surely we had taken a wrong turning? But once you reach the considerable and attractive grounds of the castle, the magnificent setting of the building, in a natural harbour facing a modern marina, becomes quite apparent.

The rocky outcrop on which the castle was perched, and which entranced Andrew, was clearly some kind of conglomerate rock with rounded boulders and pebbles in a matrix, that was gently eroding.

From the other buildings visited it was clear Dunstaffnage had been pivotal to the history of the area, it was the major fortified building and there were connections with royalty as well as the major clans of the area.

Of the buildings visited, it was the most "Game of Thrones" as with a little imagination you could envisage the complete life of the castle going on around you. At its 15th Century peak, the building had looked stunning with 4 major circular defensive towers round the perimeter. Parts of these towers still exist but not to their former heights, and one had been turned into a 17th Century laird's tower: a significant feature of the building nowadays but not a patch on the 15th Century look and feel. If you wanted a mediaeval castle with full military works this would be the one.

Being a paid tourist attraction somehow tames a building, and I have a preference for the more untamed buildings in the more untamed landscapes. It is, however, definitely worth a visit for its historic significance, and to see a relatively complete "canonical" building of its period against which to just others.

There is a 13th Century Dunstaffnage Chapel in the grounds that Andrew and I almost missed - assuming some extant arches near the castle has been the chapel. Don't be fooled. The actual chapel is quite a walk from the castle, several hundred yards away, and is now to be found hidden in some woods. The construction of the castle and the chapel looks contemporaneous as the same type of Gothic windows in the chapel are to be found in lower parts of the castle walls - perhaps a great hall? What is clear is that Gothic windows in a Scottish building of this date reveal a very classy building indeed.

If you think "Game of Thrones" exaggerates blood-spattering at nuptials, I suggest you read the history of the Dunstaffnage Chapel and about one infamous wedding there.

Dunstaffnage Chapel interior

Dunstaffnage Chapel exterior detail

the well Dunstaffage Castle


  1. Dunstaffnage does have an interesting history for sure. I did find information that a John Stewart was on his way to his wedding at the chapel when some of Alan MacDougall's supporters stabbed him and he survived long enough to complete his vows. Is this the incident you alluded to?

  2. Thanks Laura - that was the very incident I referred to. I understand there was considerable debate at the time as to whether the wows were completed, as this affected the dynastic inheritance greatly. Wars were subsequently fought by the different branches of the family tree on this very point.

  3. I only found a few references (didn't dig too deep....yet) and the main reference I found was on Wiki... and well, Wiki is only as good as the person entering the info and sometimes well, we'll leave it at that, lol. What you've mentioned there about the inheritance and debate seems quite plausible. I found it interesting also that the MacDougall's built and owned the castle until Robert Bruce took it and gave it over to the Campbell clan. Imagine losing something like that!

  4. Hi David, you may not remember me I sold you an old table when you were just starting your project my wife was with me when I delivered the table you showed us around the castle then we toasted the project with Kipling cakes lol. just wanted to say hope everything is coming along fine, Andy. ;)

    1. Hi Andy! Yes, I remember you both and the table. :-) A good friend was going to visit and help out right at the beginning, but insisted that before she could do anything I needed a kitchen table! It has done many years of good service though I hid it to protect it when I discovered it was being used as a workbench! :-) I was hard at work today with my builder fixing up a corridor floor - as you can imagine it's a long time scale project. Do pop up again, but wait for some better weather.