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History of Dunnottar Castle

The word ‘Dunnottar’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic ‘Dùn Fhoithear’, meaning ‘fort on the shelving slope’. The red rock the Castle sits upon was forced to the surface 440 million years ago during the Silurian period and is particular in that it is a conglomerate with boulders up to one metre across known as Pudding Stone and incredibly durable.

Due to its location and defensive qualities, Dunnottar played a very important role throughout history, especially during the middle ages. This is because 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. Its historical importance however, has much more ancient origins, in fact, evidence of Picts living on the sea stack of Dunnicaer, just north of where the castle is situated today, has been found by archaeologists. Carbon dating shows this to be the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered, in fact the name ‘dun’ is Pictish for ‘fort’. Although it is not exactly known how long ago the site was originally inhabited, it is believed that the Picts established it between 5000BC and 700AD. In the 5th century, Saint Ninian came to Dunnotar converting the Picts to Christianity and funding a chapel to be built on location.

Possibly the earliest written references to Dunnottar is to be found in the Annals of Ulster, which record two sieges at ‘Dùn Fhoithear’ in 681 and 694. The earlier siege could be interpreted as an attack by the Pictish King Brude of Fortriu who was attempting to unite the Picts by force. Scottish Chronicles record the death of King Domnall II, the first ruler and King of Alba, during a Viking attack at this location in the 9th century. King Domnall was killed during the fighting and the Vikings destroyed the castle. This must have been rebuilt later. According to the account of Symeon of Durham, King Aethelstanof Wessex led a force into Scotland in 934 and raided as far north as Dunnottar. This could be looked upon as the first great battle between the Scots and the English, as the British Isles started to split into two major power blocks. In this instance, Constantine II defied the conquest of the King of Wessex by surviving a month-long siege at Dunnottar.

Dunnottar Castle was a centre of local administration under the rule of King William, the Lion, who ruled between 1165 and 1214. In the 1276 William Wishart, the Bishop of Saint Andrews, consecrated a new stone church in the Norman style atop the outcrop, probably on the same site of Saint Ninian’s original chapel. This is currently the oldest part of the present castle. During the Wars of Independence, the castle was garrisoned by King Edward I of England, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, who, after capturing Wales, set his sights on Scotland in order to further consolidate his hold upon the British Isles. His victories, lead by the charismatic William Wallace, stirred up nationalist resistance. In 1297, a force under William Wallace laid siege to Dunnottar, capturing it and burning down its wooden walls with the English garrison inside. 4,000 soldiers are said to have been imprisoned in the church and burned alive. Needless be said, the castle itself became a ruin.

In 1336, King Edward III of England ordered the 8th Baron of Roslin, William Sinclair, to rebuild and fortify the site once more in order for it to be converted into a resupply base for his northern campaign. These efforts were undone before the end of the year, when the Scottish Regent Sir Andrew Murrey led a force that captured and again destroyed the defences of Dunnottar. In the 14th century Dunnottar was granted to William of Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland, however around 1359 William Keith, the Great Marischal of Scotland, married Robert the Bruce’s niece Margaret Fraser and was granted the barony of Dunnottar by King James V. In the late 1300s, Sir William Keith, replaced earlier fortifications which had probably been made of wood with stone defences. He built the curtain wall surrounding the cliff-top site, as well as the Tower House, also known as the Keep, which still stands proudly to this day. William Keith’s descendants were created Earl Marischal in the mid 15th century, and held Dunnottar until the 18th century. King James IV visited Dunnottar in 1503, Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1562 and 1564, and King James VI stayed there in 1580. In 1595 a man called John Crichton was sentenced to death on the charges of witchcraft and burned at Dunnottar.

The 7th Earl Marischal joined the cause of the Covenanters in 1639 and fought with the army of the Marquis of Montrose in the taking of Aberdeen. In 1645 Montrose switched sides and reappeared at the head of a royalist army, however the Earl refused to negotiate with his former ally. The royalists burned the castle and laid waste to the region. Marischal joined with the Enganger faction, which had made a deal with the king, and led a troop of horse to the Battle of Preston in 1648. Following the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the Engagers gave their allegiance to his son and heir Charles II, who was proclaimed king in 1650. Later that year he also visited Dunnottar. Crowmell at this point lead a force into Scotland and since his troops were stationed in Lothian, the Honours or Jewels of Scotland, that is, the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre, could not be returned to Edinburgh after they were used for the ceremony to crown the new king. The Earl Marishchal, as Marischal of Scotland, had formal responsibility of the Honours, and the Privy Council decided to place these temporary at Dunnottar Castle.

In 1651, Cromwell’s troops, lead by General Overton, blockaded and laid siege to Dunnottar Castle, which was at the time manned by the lieutenant-governor Sir George Ogilvie. During this time, the Honours were smuggled out of the Castle, some say by the pregnant wife of James Granger, the minister of Kinneff Parish Church, who carried them away hidden among sacks of goods. Others maintain that the Honours were lowered from the castle onto the beach with a rope, and collected there by Fletcher’s servant, who carried them off in a basket of seaweed, after which the minister buried them under the floor of the Old Kirk of Kinneff.

Ogilvie surrendered in May on condition that the garrison would be freed. When they found out that the Honours had disappeared, the Cromwellians imprisoned Oglivie and his wife in the castle until the following year, they destroyed the chapel and wrecked havoc in the Castle. Mrs Ogilvie died from ill-treatment. The Marishal was forced to sell large parts of his land and belongings to pay fines imposed by Cromwell’s government. When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the Honours were removed from Kinneff Church and returned to the Crown. Sir Oglivie was rewarded with a baronetcy.

Although most of the Castle was destroyed, it could still be used as a barracks. In 1685, 167 radical Presbyterians, or Convenanters, from the south and west of Scotland who had been apprehended during the reign of King Charles II for attending open-air religious services, were transferred from Edinburgh to Dunnottar Castle. They were an anti-Royalist group who had refused to sign an Oath of Abjuration and swear allegiance to the new King, which was why they were confined in what is now known as the Whigs Vault. During their time of confinement some died of disease and starvation, while others attempted to escape and were tortured. 37 were released after taking the Oath of Allegiance. The remaining prisoners were transported to America as slaves, as part of a colonisation scheme.

In the Jacobite rising of 1715, the 10th Earl Marischal Goerge Keith picked the losing side and took an active role aiding the rebels in favour of James VII and James II, and led a cavalry charge at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. The rising was doomed and he later fled to the Continent. He was condemned for treason and in 1716, all his titles and estates, including Dunnottar, were seized by the Crown. Dunnottar Castle was sold to the York Building Company, which dismantled and removed everything that was transportable and usable. When George Keith, the 10th Earl, died he left no heirs and so took the title of Earl Marischal with him. Many years later, the Keiths regained Dunnottar, but it was not until 1925, after it was bought by the Pearson family, that any serious effort was made to save the building from its slow decay by the 1st Viscountess Lady Cowdray, who began a program of restoration and later opened the Castle to the general public. Currently, the Castle is owned by the Hon. Charles Anthony Pearson, the younger son of the 3rd Viscount of Cowdray.