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History of Dunnottar

The Many, Many, Destructions of Dunnottar Castle

Posted on 4 Apr 2019


Dunnottar Castle has a rich history worth exploring. Since its first historical mention more than 1,300 years ago, Dunnottar Castle has been captured and destroyed an awful, awful, awful amount of times.

Unfortunately, that’s what happens to forts in strategic locations.

And Dunnottar was in a very important place indeed - it was the gateway to northeast Scotland.

The Scottish Castle’s Ancient Origins

Starting our road trip to the Scottish castle of Dunnottar, let's first recap the ancient origins of the land. Legend says Saint Ninian first built a chapel here on the coastline of Aberdeenshire in the 5th century. A little later the Picts then built an enclosing fort.

In 900AD, the Vikings attacked Dunnottar and killed the first King of Scotland, Kenneth MacAlpin. Then, Vikings did what they did best and destroyed the fort we now know of as Dunnottar Castle.

It’s a mystery whether this destruction happened or not because there’s no archaeological debris to prove it. But it’s impossible to doubt, as Scottish forts on the east coast were made of weak wooden material. They were also highly susceptible to Viking-related problems.



B​​​​​ut Dunnottar Castle didn’t just have historic issues with our Nordic cousins. 34 years after the purported Viking raid, King Alfred the Great’s grandson, Æthelstan, joined the party and brought a large army all the way up from Wessex, England. He also destroyed the forts he found here.

Then, in 1297, when there was an English army at Dunnottar Castle , William Wallace decided to wreck the new fort. There are differing history reports about what happened to the English garrison. They either took refuge in the church, or Wallace captured them and locked them inside the church. In the end, it didn’t matter because Wallace set fire to the building with the soldiers inside.

Fun Historical Facts Related to Dunnottar Castle

If you know about this period of Scottish history from watching the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, you should know:

  • A critic called the film one of the least accurate historical films ever made. For example, tartans and kilts were not part of Scottish culture until nearly three centuries after the death of William Wallace.
  • Most Scottish soldiers at the siege of Dunnottar Castle would have worn long shirts purposefully stained yellow with urine. It’s a little gross, but you simply must get a fashionable splash of colour from somewhere​​​​​​​.



Anyway, we digress - back to the frequent destruction and history of Dunnottar castle.

The next episode of historic destruction to Dunnottar Castle came in 1336, after the death of Robert the Bruce. The English garrisoned the castle again and yes, the Scots captured it again and yes, they burnt it to the ground. Again.

I think you might be beginning to see a pattern in history here​​​​​​​.

A Stronger and More Stable Fortification at Dunnottar Castle?

Now for some good historic news for the Scottish castle.


Dunnottar Castle came into possession of the Keith family. They took note of this castle’s frequent ruination-related issues and wisely decided to build stronger walls.

So, in 1392, Sir William Keith, a Grand Marischal of Scotland, built the keep, which is still standing to this day.

You see, a bit of stone and mortar goes a long, long way​​​​​​​.

Dunnottar Castle’s History & the Scottish Crown Jewels

The history of Dunnottar Castle doesn’t stop with the destruction of the foundations. In the 17th century, somebody had the clever idea of hiding the Scottish Crown Jewels here. So, Dunnottar Castle got hit by a double whammy during the English Civil War. In 1645, royalist forces burnt down the town of Stonehaven and the boats in the harbour. Then, in the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell laid siege to the castle for eight months. They were so determined to get the Crown Jewels that they even brought in some heavy siege cannons that forced the castle to surrender.

Yet the castle wasn’t destroyed and the Scottish Crown Jewels, otherwise known as the Honours of Scotland, didn’t fall into Cromwell’s hands.

During the siege, the court crown, ceremonial sword, and sceptre were smuggled out of the castle by a church minister’s wife, Mrs Grainger. The Crown Jewels were then successfully hidden in a tiny, cute church 10km down the road for nine years​​​​​​.

The Honours of Scotland in Dunnottar


That was the heyday of Dunnottar. After that, it was pretty much all downhill for the Scottish castle.

Modern History of Dunnottar Castle

44 years as barracks caused serious damage to the interior of the Castle. The 10th Marischal learnt this the hard way in 1715 when he unwisely joined the Jacobite rebellion.. He was forced to flee into exile and had his lands seized by the king.

From then on, the story and history of Dunnottar is one of stone-stealing, dereliction, asset-stripping and neglect. It wasn’t until 1925, when the castle was bought by the Pearson family, that the buildings were restored.

So now when you visit the historic location of Dunnottar, you don’t only get marvellous tales and beautiful sea views, there’s even a beautiful stone castle for you to visit.


Visit the Historic Dunnottar Castle with Rabbie’s

After learning of the rich history of Dunnottar Castle, you can visit the location for yourself on a Scottish tour with Rabbie’s. Our small group tours to Dunnottar are available on a day trip from Aberdeen. Once booked in, you can travel in style in a Mercedes 16-seat mini-coach. On board you can capture the views through our large windows, while ensuring your phone is fully charged with our USB charging points. Secure your booking today to uncover the history and beauty of the castle, and create memories that will last a lifetime.


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