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History of Urquhart Castle

The name ‘Urquhart’ is a mixture of ancient Gaelic and Old Welsh and can be roughly translated to mean ‘by the wood’. Excavations conducted by Professor Alcock in 1983, supported by carbon dating, revealed that the rocky knoll at the south-west corner of the Castle had been the site of an extensive Fort between the 5th and 11th centuries. These excavations led to the belief that Urquhart Castle might have been the residence of a Pictish nobleman called Emchath, in fact this is reflected in the legend which maintains that Saint Columba visited this Castle and converted a Pictish Lord on his deathbed.

Although such evidence of a Fort dating from the Iron Age was found, as well as remains from Pictish times, the earliest written records of the existence of the castle date from the 1200s. In 1228, Alexander II squashed a rebellion in Moray in the north, and he thought it best if he created a buffer against any further rebellions, so he granted the Lordship of Urquhart to his formal ‘Usher’ or ‘Hostarius’, Thomas de Lundin. On his death, the castle passed on to his son and Alexander II’s son-in-law Alan Durward, who probably built the original castle, catering on the motte found on the south-west side, as well as the curtain wall that protects the highest point of the castle. Urquhart was further strengthened by John II of Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who inherited it after Durward’s death around 1275. The Castle was then garrisoned by English troops in 1296, at the outbreak of the Scottish Wars of Independence. The English were driven out in 1297 by Sir Alexander de Forbes, but King Edward I recaptured the castle in 1303 following a siege which weakened the castle’s defenders. Forbes and his followers were slain and King Edward installed as governor Alexander Comyn, John’s brother, whom Robert Bruce murdered in 1306, after which he recaptured Urquhart Castle once more and was crowned King of Scotland. After this time, Urquhart Castle became a Royal Castle, held for the Crown by a series of constables.

Throughout the end of the 1300s and well into the 1400s, Castle Urquhart passed backwards and forwards between Scottish and English forces a number of times. It fell again and again to Clan MacDonald, Lords of the Isles, only to be retaken numerous times by the Scottish Crown. The Lords of the Isles were powerful rulers of a semi-independent kingdom in western Scotland, with a claim to the Earldom of Ross. Urquhart lay on the border of land controlled by the Scottish Crown and the MacDonalds, and from 1437 the MacDonalds attacked on almost an annual basis. For 150 years, the ownership of the castle frequently passed back and forth between the two sides. The Castle was granted to Clan Grant by King James V, in 1509, though conflict with the MacDonalds continued. The Grants maintained ownership until 1512. Following the Battle of Flodden in 1513, Sir Donald The MacDonalds of Lochalsh attempted to claim the Lordship of the Isles and occupy Urquhart Castle. Grant regained the castle before 1517, but not before the MacDonalds had looted it. The MacDonalds and their allies attacked and captured Urquhart Castle again in 1545, after which once more Grant reclaimed the now despoiled Castle again and rebuilt its fortifications.

In 1644, a mob of Presbyterian agitators broke into the castle and looted it. When Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650, Urquhart Castle was discarded in favour of other buildings and forts fell into disrepair. After King James VII was deposed in 1688, Ludovic Grant of Freuchie and William of Orange garrisoned the Castle. A force of 500 Jacobites laid siege to it, but the castle held out until the main force of the Jacobite rebellion was defeated in 1690. When the soldiers left, they blew out the gatehouse to prevent reoccupation of the castle by the Jacobite forces. Grant was compensated by Parliament, but did not undertake any repairs. Subsequently, the locals started plundering and using the stonework and other material for re-use in other buildings, which further reduced the ruins of the castle. Grant Tower partially collapsed in 1715 after a storm, and by 1770 the castle was roofless.

In 1884, Urquhart Castle came under the control of Caroline, Dowager Countess of Seafield, the widow of the 7th Earl of Seafield. She left conditions in her will stating that after her death, the estate was to be entrusted into state care, and in 1913, responsibility of its upkeep was given to the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Works and Public Buildings. In 2003, responsibility passed on to the National Trust for Scotland, and at present, it is Historic Environment Scotland which continues to maintain the castle, which is considered to be a monument of national significance.