Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. It guards the seaward approach from the Firth of Lorn to the Pass of Brander – and thereby the heart of Scotland. The castle was built around 1220, probably by Duncan MacDougall, son of Dubhgall, Lord of Lorn, and grandson of the great Somerled ‘King of the Isles’. These were stirring times in Argyll, because of the remarkable struggle between Scotland and Norway for control over the Hebrides.

The acquisition of the region by Scotland in 1266 did not see the end of warring; far from it. Mighty Dunstaffnage saw action during the Wars of Independence (1296–1356), and was famously besieged by King Robert Bruce in 1308, after his victory over the MacDougalls at the Pass of Brander, overlooking Loch Awe. Thereafter, Dunstaffnage remained a royal castle until it passed to the Campbells, earls of Argyll, in the 1460s. From then until the last Jacobite Rising in 1745–6, Dunstaffnage’s story is inextricably interlinked with the incessant struggles by the Crown and the Campbells to control their unruly western subjects.

In 1164, Earl Somerled was killed fighting the Scots. His eldest son, Dubhgall, became the next ‘King of the Isles’. Judging by the architecture, Dunstaffnage was built by Dubhgall’s son, Duncan, around 1220. (Dubhgall also founded the priory at Ardchattan, beside Loch Etive just six miles – 10km – east of Dunstaffnage.) His new stronghold consisted of a formidable curtain wall of stone, behind which sheltered the residential and service buildings. This brute mass of masonry still overawes visitors today. It had few openings in it, just some narrow vertical arrow slits.

Dubhgall’s son, Ewen, probably added the three projecting round towers, both to flaunt his power and to improve the castle’s defences. The gatehouse tower was later altered, but the other two stand much as built. Ewen’s great hall in the courtyard also partly survives.

Late in 1746, Dunstaffnage welcomed one of its more famous guests, Flora MacDonald. This gentle-mannered lady was visiting her brother in South Uist when she met Bonnie Prince Charlie, then fleeing from the Redcoats following his defeat at Culloden in April. Flora agreed to help him escape, and dressed him up as her serving-girl, ‘Betty Burke’. They crossed to Skye, from where the prince made his escape. Flora, however, was arrested and brought to Dunstaffnage. She remained there but a few days before being escorted to the Tower of London. She was released in the following year.

A ruined 13th century chapel lies around 150 metres to the south-west of the castle. This was also built by Duncan MacDougall of Lorn, as a private chapel, and features detailed stonework of outstanding quality. The chapel is 20 by 6 metres, and formerly had a timber roof. The lancet windows carry dog-tooth carving, and have fine wide-splayed arches internally. The chapel was already ruinous in 1740, when a burial aisle was built on to the east end, to serve as a resting place for the Captains of Dunstaffnage and their families.

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Founded: c. 1220
Category: Castles and fortifications in United Kingdom

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4.4/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Ben Hallett (2 years ago)
Loved visiting this place, a real gem. Was really quiet when we visited and the guy in the giftshop was really helpful. The chapel is hidden away beautifully in the woods and the castle itself has been really well looked after. Enjoy the history display in the gift shop building as well. Highly recommended!
Emily Blain (2 years ago)
Beautiful place, gorgeous castle, so interesting. Dogs are fine to go in the castle too as long as they're on a lead. Loved it.
Wanders Nowhere (2 years ago)
Stunning 13th century castle built on a giant slab of rock and home to delightful bird life (and pigeons) and spectacular loch views. Well worth a visit for its well preserved fortifications and eventful history.
Kiwi (2 years ago)
An amazing castle, half standing and has had minimal restoration if any, well kept grass and no litter (that I seen), lovely forest and loch right next to the old castle and there is information around telling you a lot about it.
Dougie Mor (3 years ago)
Fantastic place to visit. Amazing castle and great guidance about its past. Dramatic setting if you get it on a good day.
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