Eilean Donan Castle
The castle stands on a site that has been fortified since the 13 th century, but in that time the structure has gone through several phases of building and rebuilding, culminating in the atmospheric fortress seen there today, a 1920's restoration. Eilean Donan means simply ‘Island of Donan', for the castle is actually built on an island and linked to the land by an arching stone bridge; Donan refers to a 6 th century Irish saint, Bishop Donan. The original stronghold was built in 1220 by Alexander II of Scotland as a precaution against Viking raiders. It stands at the entrance to Loch Duich, which in the medieval period was strategically vital for defending and controlling much of the Western Highlands and Isles.
During the 13 th century, the Lords of the Western Isles ruled a kingdom that was remote from and independent of the Scottish mainland, thus Eilean Donan Castle, during this period, was a fairly large structure maintaining a considerable garrison for its defence. Circumstances had changed sufficiently by the end of the 14 th century for there to be a dramatic reduction in its size, in fact, it accommodated only one fifth the original area. The original large keep was retained, standing at the highest point on the island, but now dominated a much smaller more compact courtyard.
In the 16 th century, with the arrival of cannon, these new weapons were located on the castle site, positioned on a specially constructed bastion that stood on a prominent spur of rock. It was only in the far north of Britain that fortified castles lingered on as military instruments, and if one single action heralded the end of the castle in Britain it arrived on the 10 th May 1719. These northern bastions had played a role in the rising of the Old Pretender in 1715, the third Jacobite Uprising, dealt with swiftly and brutally. Three government frigates, led by HMS Worcester, were sent up to Loch Duich to reduce the great Macrae fortress of Eilean Donan. The Macrae clan had been associated with the site since the 14 th century, when they were allied to and protected the MacKenzie clan chieftains who held the castle at that time. 46 Spanish soldiers who fought bravely on behalf of the Scots defended the fortress, but the ships' cannon clinically reduced Eilean Donan to rubble in a matter of hours. The garrison had no choice but to surrender and the captain of the Worcester had the castle ‘finished-off' by exploding gunpowder stored in its powder magazine.
Thus the island site remained for some 200 years, a ruinous pile of rubble abandoned to the elements. In 1912, the site was eventually purchased by Lt Col. John Macrae-Gilstrap, who had married a maltster heiress, and spent about a million pounds on restoring the former castle and making it habitable. Together with his clerk of works, Farquhar Macrae, the new owner devoted the following 20 years to returning Eilean Donan to its former glory. In point of fact, the refurbishment of the castle still continues, despite the major buildings having been completed many decades ago. Much of the interior of the castle is complete and furnished in the style of a Scottish laird's home and is open to the public, although some rooms are still in the process of decoration. There is a museum on site that partly acts as a clan war memorial, with a collection of Highland relics, pistols and powder horns. The aim of the present owners is to completely restore and maintain the castle, thereby preserving an essential part of Scotland's heritage for the public to enjoy.
The Macrae family became hereditary constables of the island in the medieval period and much of the castle's colourful history revolves around them. Legends include the Macraes displaying the heads of enemies along the battlements and withstanding an attack on the castle when they were outnumbered 400 to 1.
The castle setting is spectacularly romantic: perched on its own remote island, washed by a tidal loch with a stunning backdrop of high-rising wooded hills to one side and gorse and heather strewn clearings on the other, it is little wonder that Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most photographed fortresses in Britain.