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Dunnottar Castle
Castle in Scotland

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Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a rocky headland on the north-east coast of Scotland, about two miles (3 km) south of Stonehaven.

The surviving buildings are largely of the 15th–16th centuries, but the site is believed to have been an early fortress of the Dark Ages.

Dunnottar Castle played a strategic role in the history of Scotland from the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment, because of the location: it overlooked the shipping lanes to northern Scotland; and is situated on a narrow coastal terrace that controlled land access to the coastal south via Portlethen Moss to Aberdeen.

The site is open to the public, visited annually by hundreds of thousands of tourists.

The ruins of the castle are spread over 3 acres (1.2 ha), surrounded with steep cliffs that drop to the North Sea 50 metres (160 ft) below.

The L plan castle is accessed via a narrow strip of land, joining the mainland to a steep path leading up to the gatehouse.

The cliff and headland formations, which extend to the north and south, is a notable bird sanctuary to pelagic birds.

Dunnottar Castle


Dunnottar Castle





There are two access trails to Dunnottar. The first is an 800 metre steep footpath with modern staircases connecting the castle to a car park along the coastal road (that connects to the A92). The second is a three kilometre path from a street behind Stonehaven Harbour going south along the cliff top to the castle. This path is narrow and steep in places, but offers marine views.

The castle is open to the public on the following days (with an admission charge):-

April (Easter weekend) to October: Monday to Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

June (3rd Sunday) to September (3rd Sunday): Monday to Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

November to April (Easter weekend): closed most of the time.

Another nearby local feature of interest for hikers is the cliff top path of Fowlsheugh Nature Preserve about four kilometres south. Fowlsheugh has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its prolific seabird breeding activity.

Dunnottar Castle
Dunecht Estates Office

Telephone from the UK: 01330 860223
Telephone from the US: 010 44 1330 860223
Telephone from France: 00 44 1330 860223
Telephone from other countries: +44 (0)1330 860223

Fax: 01330 860325

Google map showing the location of Dunnottar Castle


Google map showing Dunnottar Castle


History of the Castle

The earliest known written reference to the site is to be found in the Annals of Ulster record a siege of Dún Fother in 681. Dunnottar is also mentioned as a site for a battle between King Donald II and the Danish Vikings in 900 AD. A raid into Scotland via land and sea by King Aethelstan of Wessex in 934 included an attack on Dunnottar.

William the Lion used Dunnottar as an administrative complex. King Domnall II was the first man to have been called rí Alban (i.e. King of Alba), when he died at Dunnottar in 900 AD. All his predecessors styled themselves as either King of the Picts or King of Fortriu.

William Wallace is said to have led the Scots to victory over the English at Dunnottar in 1296. The outcome was completed by Wallace imprisoning and burning alive the defeated English soldiers in Dunnottar castle church.

By 1336 the resources of Edward III of England ordered Willam Sinclair, 8th Baron of Roslin to sail eight ships to the partially ruined Dunnottar castle for the purpose of rebuilding and fortifying to use as a forward supply base for the northern campaign. Sinclair took with him 160 soldiers, horses, and a corps of masons and carpenters English efforts were undone when the Scottish Regent Sir Andrew Moray led a Scottish force that captured the same year and again destroyed the castle defences at Dunnottar.

By the close of the 14th century, Dunnottar was under Scottish control, owned the Clan Keith, whose chiefs were hereditary Earls Marischal of Scotland. The castle was rebuilt and augmented over generations by the Earls Marischal, including a large scale reconstruction under George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal (d. 1623), founder of Marischal College, Aberdeen (1593).

Early in the 16th century the Keiths added a new block to the east of the castle keep.

Mary, Queen of Scots, visited Dunnottar Castle in 1562 and again in 1564.

In 1575 a stone gatehouse to the castle was constructed, which serves as the present day visitor's entrance.

James VI was in residence for a portion 1580.

From 1580 to 1650 the Earl Marischals converted a medieval style fortress into a decorative castle, constructing ranges of edifices around a quadrangle on the northeast. These resulted in luxurious living quarters.

Between 1582 and 1584 a west wing to the fcastle was erected. Also, during the 16th century, a new chapel was built. Then, early in the 17th century two other wings to the chapel were added.

In 1639 the owner of Dunnottar was William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal. In that year he joined the Covenanters, in opposition to the established Episcopal Church and consequently in opposition to King Charles I himself. James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, an ally of Marischal, attempted to return him to the Royalist side. Unsuccessful in his attempt, Montrose attacked the fortress, and set firs to the surrounding fields. Marischal held the fortress but it sustained structural damage.

Simultaneously the Covenanters met at a conference in nearby Muchalls Castle. Events at Dunnottar and Muchalls Castles were important during the English Civil War, and played a role in the reconciliation between the monarchy and the Covenanters.

King Charles II was received in a visit to Earl Marischal in 1650; but in 1651 the English General Overton began a siege of Dunnottar Castle seeking the prize of Scotland's Regalia, the royal crown, sword and sceptre used in the coronation of Charles II at Scone Palace. The castle was defended by a small garrison of approximately 70 men. Governor Sir George Ogilvy of Barras surrendered to Overton's predecessor, General Morgan; however, the English were denied the Regalia, which had been smuggled away during the siege by Anne Lindsay.

In 1685, during the rebellion of Argyll and Monmouth, 125 men and 42 women were herded into the dungeon known as the "Whigs Vault" in the Dunnottar Castle. Many perished in the prison; the survivors were transported to the West Indies.

Both Jacobites and Hanoverians used Dunnottar Fortress. In 1689 during Viscount Dundee's campaign, fourteen suspected Jacobites from Aberdeen were held in the fortress for about a year, including George Liddel, professor of mathematics.

In 1715 the Dunnottar cannons were used by the Jacobites. Following this uprising all the possessions of the Earl Mariscal were forfeit, and the fortress was dismantled three years later.

After the seizure of Dunnottar from the Earl Marischals, the castle was neglected until it was purchased by the Cowdray family in 1925. The 1st Viscountess Cowdray embarked on a programme of repair. Since that time the Castle has remained in the Cowdray (Pearson) family, and has been open to visitors.

The Hon Charles Anthony Pearson, the younger son of the Third Viscount Cowdray, currently owns and runs Dunnottar Castle which is part of the larger Dunecht Estates. Dunecht Estates extends to 53,000 acres and comprises seven different Estates – Dunecht Estate, Ramoir and Campfield Estate, Dunnottar Castle, Forest of Birse, Edinglassie Estate, West Durris Estate and Bucharn Estate.

Dunnottar Castle


Puffins at Dunnottar Castle


Re-enactment of the Declaration of Arbroath at Dunnottar Castle


Dunnottar Castle



Dunnottar Castle has eleven buildings built between the 13th and 17th centuries. The dominant building, viewed from the land approach, is the 14th century keep or tower house, which shows damage from Cromwell's cannon bombardment.

The other principal buildings are the 17th century chapel; a quadrangle structure on the east side; and the "Whigs Vault", shaped in a barrel vault design, and was the setting of an 18th century mass imprisonment.

There are two entrances for the castle. The first is through the well-defended main gate set in a cleft in the rock, where attackers would have been assaulted by defenders.

The second access to the castle is through a rocky cove, the aperture to a marine cave on the north side of the Dunnottar cliffs. From here a steep path leads to the cliff top, which is the well fortified postern gate.

Dunnottar Castle in the 17th century – Detail from Slezer's Theatrum Scotia (1693)





Miscellaneous Facts about the Castle

Portions of the 1990 film Hamlet starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close were shot there.

In summer 2009, a landscape photograph of the castle was chosen as an official desktop wallpaper and included with the Microsoft operating system Windows 7, bring an image of the castle to millions of desktop PCs.

The site on which the Castle sits has been inhabited since Pictish times (5000 BC to 700 AD) although an exact date is not known.

The importance of the site to the Picts stems from their religion, believed to be akin to Druidism, and which worshiped masculinity, femininity and nature spirits. The site of the Castle and the surrounding area has a strong feminine nature and symbology, which at Dunnottar takes the form of the "green lady". The spirit of the green lady has been seen in the brewery at the Castle. She is said to be looking for her "lost children" who are the Picts who converted from her religion to Christianity around the 5th Century AD.

The name Dunnottar stems from the Pictish word "Dun" which means hill fort or place of strength.

The Earl Marischal was an office bestowed on the Keiths by James II. The role was one of the three great offices of State, along with the Constable and the Steward. The Earl Marischal had specific responsibility for ceremonial events, the Honours of Scotland and for the safety of the King's person within parliament. Consequently it was not unusual for the monarchy, including Mary Queen of Scots, to spend time and stay at Dunnottar.

Film Location For:

Hamlet (1990)    

Dunnottar Castle


Dunnottar Castle








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