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Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle: From Jacobite Risings to the Silver Screen

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Eilean Donan is a small tidal island in the western Highlands of Scotland, on which a world-famous castle can be found. This castle, known as the Eilean Donan Castle, is one of Scotland’s most easily recognized castles, and appears frequently in calendars, films, shortbread tins, 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.

A Saintly Sanctuary

When translated from Gaelic, Eilean Donan means the ‘Island of Donan’. Eilean means ‘island’, and Donan is derived from the name of a saint, Donnán of Eigg (also known 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. His undertaking was unsuccessful and Donan was eventually martyred for his faith during the early 7th century.

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, Eilean Donan is situated in a geographically strategic position.

Eilean Donan is situated in a geographically strategic position. (hardyuno /Adobe Stock)

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.

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 Viking raiders. King Alexander II or III and Farquar II, Earl of Ross, have all been named as the possible founders of the castle. Not long after it was built, the castle was expanded. At its greatest extent, the castle had seven towers and a curtain wall that encompassed almost the whole island.

Eilean Donan Castle, Highlands, Scotland. (Franco Bissoni /Adobe Stock)

Around the end of the 14th 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.

The Spanish Stronghold and Destruction of Eilean Donan Castle

Arguably the darkest part of Eilean Donan Castle’s history is when it 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.

Famous Eilean Donan Castle in Spring misty morning, one of the most popular monuments in Scotland. (Aenyeth /Adobe Stock)

Reconstruction and Fame of Eilean Donan Castle

The ruins of the Eilean Donan Castle were left as they were for about two centuries. But finally, in 1911, Lt. Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap bought the island, and for the next two decades, he oversaw the rebuilding of the castle. A footbridge connecting the island to the mainland was also added during the reconstruction. The castle was completed in July 1932, and is today open to the public.

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

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

And the public have come! This reconstructed medieval castle has attracted thousands of tourists every year (The Scotsman numbers them at 500,000 visitors a year) as well as advertisers, and film crews. Highlander, The World is Not Enough, and Entrapment are just a few of the well-known films that have featured the castle.

Finally, what would a Scottish Highland keep be without a couple of semi-mythical tales attached to it? In this case, Eilean Donan Castle has three especially interesting stories. First, it’s said to have been a possible refuge for Robert the Bruce in 1306-1307 after his defeat at the battle of Methven. There is also a ghost of a “mysterious lady” said to haunt its walls. And lastly, it’s been claimed a former castle constable could speak with birds.

Top Image: Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland. Source: Thum /Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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