“I read about it in Dunnottar, a History”

Alright, so that’s not how the original quote goes (sorry Ms Rowling) but Dunnottar is just too great of a place to skip writing up a history post.  I’ve got a few more photos to share with you but if you saw my little makeshift timeline from last week you’ll know there is so much more to this castle than meets the eye.  And if you missed the timeline, no worries! Just click here.

Stormy Dunnottar

Most sources agree that Dunnottar’s beginnings are a bit hazy, but it was definitely a Pictish fortress in use by the mid-600s.  Aside from raids in the late 600s, Dunnottar was the site of a Viking attack in 900.  King Domnall II (that’s Scottish for Donald for those south of the wall) was killed in this attack-though his death certainly wasn’t the last on Dunnottar’s grounds.  You might remember a little political event known as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum?  That may have been the most recent struggle between Scotland and England, but before the two countries settled their differences in the ballot boxes they did so on the battlefield.  In 1297, during the Wars of Independence, William Wallace captured Dunnottar from the English.  As if that weren’t badass enough, as legend has it he imprisoned 4,000 English soldiers in the church…and then torched the place.  Granted, I’m not entirely sure how large the church actually was–if 4,000 University of Maryland graduates filled the basketball court and first-tier stands at my graduation a few years back it would have to be enormous–but gruesome political statement and potential exaggerations aside, Dunnottar has seen some serious action.

Over the next century Dunnottar became an architectural tug-of-war England and Scotland fought over, and was a bit worse for wear by the end of it.  Between Wallace’s capture and the 15th century, King Edward III sent ships to repair the buildings–only for the Scots to destroy its defences before years’ end.  If it sounds like I’m generalising it’s because I’m hopelessly bad at remembering names and dates; if you’re great at these details, though, I’d encourage looking up more in-depth accounts!  While the English kept handing Dunnottar to more southern lords, the Scottish nobility won it back in a rather indirect, if not unsurprising, way.  The Marischal of Scotland* married Margaret Fraser, Robert the Bruce’s niece, and was granted the barony of Dunnottar.  After a bit of a religious mix-up (he was excommunicated for building on consecrated ground and had to write the Pope directly to be re-instated) the castle stayed in the family.  Dunnottar remained the Earl Marischal’s until the last Earl sided with the rebels in the 1715 Jacobite Rising…but I’m jumping ahead a bit.

Looking out to sea

Just because Dunnottar Castle was recognised as the home of the Earls of Marischal doesn’t mean its role in Scotland’s historical drama came to an end.  After Charles I was executed and his heir Charles II arrived in Scotland, Oliver Cromwell led troops after him.  When Charles II was crowned at Scone Palace in 1651 the Scottish honours were used–makes sense considering Scone Palace is in Perth, Scotland–but Cromwell’s presence meant the honours couldn’t be returned to their home in Edinburgh.  As Marischal of Scotland, the Earl Marischal had official responsibility for the honours.  And where does one hide valuable cultural artefacts when threatened by soldiers?  In sacks of wool.  They were smuggled into Dunnottar and guarded by Sir George Ogilvy and his troops.  Cromwell, ever so wise, correctly guessed where the honours were and laid siege to the castle.  And it would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for some exceptionally clever women!  Accounts as to how the honours were snuck back out vary, but in any event the honours made their way under the floorboards of Old Kirk in Kinneff–just up the road from Dunnottar.  Cromwell left a bit of chaos in his wake, arresting Ogilvy and imposing heavy fines on the Earl of Marischal, but the honours returned home without capture.

The last major event at Dunnottar came in 1685 during the rebellion against King James VII.  One hundred and sixty-seven Covenanters** were arrested and held in a cellar, now known as the Whigs Vault (pictured below), for refusing to ally themselves with the new king.  From the end of May until the end of July they were held in the vault and, while a few managed to escape, others were recaptured, died while imprisoned, or were sent to New Jersey in a colonisation scheme.  The Earl of Marischal finally lost Dunnottar in 1715 when he joined the rebels in the Jacobite uprisings.  After the rebellion was abandoned he fled to France and his estates, including Dunnottar, were forfeited to the crown.  The castle changed hands a few times and was left to ruin until the Vicount of Cowdray bought the estate in 1925 and his wife began repairs.  The Cowdray family still owns Dunnottar Castle and leaves it open to the public–all while continuing restorations.

Whigs vault

Dunnottar is, if you couldn’t tell from this series, a fascinating estate with an unbelievably rich–and conflicted–history.  If you’re ever in Scotland take the time to visit; only a few hours’ train from Edinburgh and 20 minutes (plus a walk) from Aberdeen.  If you can’t get to this rugged country quite yet, read all about it online; the BBC has a few great articles on it, as do many Scottish tourism sites!


*the Marischal of Scotland was the official custodian of the Honours of Scotland, and king’s protector when at Parliament

**Covenanters were part of the Scottish Presbyterian movement which played a crucial role in Scotland’s history, denouncing the Pope and Roman Catholic Church–the other major religious presence in England and Scotland at the time


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