Eilean Donan Castle, view across the footbridge, Scotland.

Eilean Donan Castle: Idyllic Scottish Setting Carries a Dark History

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Eilean Donan is a small tidal island in the western Highlands of Scotland, on which a castle can be found. This castle, known as the Eilean Donan Castle, is one of Scotland’s most easily recognised castles, and appears frequently in calendars, films and photographs. Apart from being a picturesque castle in the middle of a body of water, the Eilean Donan Castle is also notable for its history, especially for the role it played during the Jacobite risings of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Eilean Donan Castle is a rebuilt castle at Dornie in the Scottish Highlands. It is located on Eilean Donan, an island near the point where the sea lochs Loch Duich, Loch Alsh and Loch Long meet. This view from north was made at high tide.

Eilean Donan Castle is a rebuilt castle at Dornie in the Scottish Highlands. It is located on Eilean Donan, an island near the point where the sea lochs Loch Duich, Loch Alsh and Loch Long meet. This view from north was made at high tide. (© Guillaume Piolle, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Saintly Sanctuary

Eilean Donan may be translated from the Gaelic to mean the ‘Island of Donan’. Eilean means ‘island’, whilst Donan is believed to be derived from the name of a saint, Donnán of Eigg (known also as Donan). This saint, who lived between the 6th and 7th centuries, is probably of Irish origin, and is remembered for his attempt to convert the Picts of north-western Scotland to Christianity. This undertaking was not successful, and Donan was eventually martyred for his faith during the early 7 th century.

The 20th Century reconstructed Eilean Donan, Highlands Loch Castle entrance

The 20 th Century reconstructed Eilean Donan, Highlands Loch Castle entrance ( CC0)

This island is located at a point where three sea lochs (Scottish’ lakes’) meet, Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long. The first of these is located to the west of Eilean Donan, and separates the Isle of Skye from the mainland. To the island’s southeast is Loch Duich, which extends inland right up to the mouth of Glen Shiel. Lastly, Loch Long is located to the northeast of Eilean Donan, and extends into the surrounding mountains. Occupying a position where these three lochs meet, it may be said that Eilean Donan is situated in a geographically strategic position.

Eilean Donan Castle. The castle is set at the meeting point of three sea lochs (Long, Duich and Alsh)

Eilean Donan Castle. The castle is set at the meeting point of three sea lochs (Long, Duich and Alsh). ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

The importance of this island was grasped by the inhabitants of the area since ancient times. Until the 1920s, for instance, the remains of what may be an Iron Age fort and settlement could be seen on the island. The inhabitants of such a settlement would have been able to easily defend it from hostile forces, and would have had access to the surrounding areas via the lochs. It has been suggested that by the later part of the 6th century AD, the island was home to a monastic community founded by St. Donan. Due to this, the island became known as Eilean Donan. There are also several churches in the area that are dedicated to this saint.

Eilean Donan Castle, Castle, Scotland. It was in ruins, and was restored between 1912-1932.

Eilean Donan Castle, Castle, Scotland. It was in ruins, and was restored between 1912-1932. ( CC0)

A Remote Viking Resistance

It was, however, only during the early 13th century that the first castle was built on the island. During that period, much of northern Scotland, as well as the Western Isles, were settled or controlled by the Vikings. In addition, the Vikings carried out raids in the areas not under their rule. Therefore, a castle was built on Eilean Donan as a defensive measure against these Viking raiders. Not long after it was built, the castle was expanded. At its greatest extent, the castle had a curtain wall that encompassed almost the whole island.

Around the end of the 14 th century, however, the size of the castle was reduced drastically – to about a fifth of its original size. The reason for this is unclear, though it has been postulated that too many men were required to defend the large castle.

Eilean Donan Castle, as viewed from the south-east at sunrise. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF /CC-BY-SA 3.0 )

The Spanish Stronghold

The Eilean Donan Castle played a role in the Jacobite risings of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1719, the castle was occupied by 46 Spanish soldiers who were part of the force sent to raise support for the Jacobites in Scotland. The English, however, got news of the plan, and sent three frigates to deal with the matter. The ships bombarded the castle for three days, though the defenders were well protected by its massive walls. A land assault followed, and the outnumbered Spanish surrendered. A Spanish magazine with over 300 (343 to be exact) barrels of gunpowder was discovered in the castle, and this was used to blow up the structure.

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