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Dunvegan Castle

Known as the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland, Dunvegan Castle is located one mile to the north of the town of Dunvegan on the north-western side of the beautiful Isle of Skye, an island found in the Inner Hebrides Archipelago, off the west coast of Scotland. It occupies the summit of a basalt-rock projecting 50 feet (15 metres) above sea level, measuring 175 feet from north to south, and 110 feet from east to west. On its eastern landward side, one can see a partly natural ditch around 18 feet (5.5 metres) deep.


Dunvegan Castle is to be found in a totally idyllic location. It is primarily known for being the ancestral seat of Clan MacLeod and its Chief for more than 800 consecutive years, from 1270 right up to the present day. The castle itself first started being built in the 13th century, although it was probably a Norse dun (fort) in earlier times, however the current structure dates to around 1266.

The name ‘MacLeod’ is believed to stem from ‘Leod’ born in 1200. He was the son of Olaf the Black, the Norse King of the Isle of Man, and was descended from the Norse King Harald Hardrada. Leod’s marriage to Lady Macarailt, heiress of the Macarailts, the Norse rulers of Skye, was followed by his association with Dunvegan. From his two sons Tormod and Torquil, the MacLeod Clan was born. ‘Mac’ itself means ‘son of’ in Gaelic. The older son Tormond became the First Chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan, Harris and Glenelg. The second son Torquil became the founder of the MacLeods of Lewis.

The MacLeod Clan supported the MacDonald Lord of the Isles, a semi independent King on the west coast. After the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isle in 1493, the MacLeods and MacDonalds began feuding.

The MacLeods played a significant part in many aspects of the wider history of Scotland during these times. They began to pay rent for their lands to the Scottish Crown as of 1498. According to research, a number of MacLeods fled to Ireland in the 16th century, where the surname MacLeod changed to McClure. In 1651, more than 800 MacLeods were killed in support of the losing cause of Charles II at the Battle of Worcester. Often referred to as ‘the Forty-Five’, this uprising was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, to regain the British throne for the exiled House of Stuart and recreate an absolute monarchy in the Kingdom of Great Britain. Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed to Scotland and raised the Jacobite Standard at Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands. The then Chief of Clan MacLeod was not in favour of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, however many individual members of the clan were. The Prince was brought over to the Isle of Skye as a fugitive, and the Chief of the MacLeods was actually one of the men searching to apprehend him.

The way the Highlands and the Islands changed in the aftermath largely destroyed traditional clan systems. Norman MacLeod, 22nd Chief of Dunvegan, became Chief as an infant in 1706, and died in 1772. During his life, the customs, laws, and manners of the Highlands changed dramatically. He lived only occasionally at Dunvegan and pursued a political career, being a Member of Parliament for Inverness-shire for fifteen years. The last Chief to live permanently at Dunvegan Castle in fact had been John MacLeod, the 18th Chief, who died in 1693. Norman MacLeod himself left huge debts after his death. He was succeeded by his grandson, also named Norman MacLeod, who became a soldier. He went to India where he raised the 2nd Battalion; The Black Watch, which later became the 73rd Regiment, and became an important general. Although he acquired a fortune, he spent the bulk of it trying to get elected into Parliament, and in trying to restore Dunvegan Castle to its former glory. The 23rd Chief died in 1801 and was succeeded by his son John Norman MacLeod who sold Glenelg and cleared large areas of land to invest in sheep. The 24th Chief amassed more debts and had to entail the estate. He died in 1835 and was succeeded by his son.

The potato famine struck Scotland in 1850. Although the then Chief of the Clan tried to ease its impact on his people, this impoverished him greatly, and he had to hand over the estate to trustees, while he moved to London to find work as a clerk at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Castle was let to visitors during the summer months. It was not until 1929 that the 27th Chief, Sir Reginald MacLeod, resumed residence at Dunvegan Castle. When he died in 1934, his daughter Flora, who was elected President of the Clan MacLeod Society after her father, became his heir. She went to live in Skye and became a County Councillor. On the death of her father in 1935, Flora inherited Dunvegan Castle and the MacLeod estate, and was recognised as Chief of the Clan. From 1947 onwards she travelled widely around the world. She died in 1976 and her grandson John MacLeod, became the 29th Chief of the Clan. The current Chief is his son, Hugh MacLeod, a film producer who divides his time between living in London and in Dunvegan Castle in the Isle of Skye.

Castle Today

Dunvegan Castle is surrounded by five acres of formal gardens. This is in stark contrast to the barren moorland and mountains which dominate Skye’s landscape. The gardens feature an eclectic mix of plants and wooden glades, shimmering pools fed by waterfalls and stream and also a pretty water garden with ornate bridges and water plants. In what was formerly the castle’s vegetable garden, the walled garden now features a diverse range of plants and flowers that complement the attractive water lily pond, the Glass House, a Memorial Gazebo dedicated in 2014 to the late 29th Chief John MacLeod, and a large pergola. A considerable amount of care and replanting, not to mention landscaping, has taken place over the last thirty years, to restore the gardens to their former glory. The site itself was originally encircled by a curtain wall that completely protected the promontory on which the castle stands. The only entrance through the wall, until 1748, was through a sea gate, which still stands. Unfortunately, almost all other trace of the curtain wall has disappeared.

Inside the curtain wall, one could find a feasting hall with several outbuildings. In the mid-14th century, a four-story tower house was added on the northern side of the rocky site, combining defensive features with comfortable family quarters. Around 1500, a second tower was added by the 8th Chief, Alasdair Crotach. This tower, was later dubbed the ‘Fairy Tower’, and was originally intended as an accommodation for guests. In 1623, the 15th Chief, Ruairidh Mor, replaced the old medieval feasting hall with a range of state apartments above storage cellars. His grandson later added a Piper’s Gallery in 1664, and a south wing two decades later.

In 1790, the old tower was re-roofed and converted to become a comfortable drawing room by the 23rd Chief. A barrack block was also added to the castle at that time.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the authentic medieval underpinnings of the castle were gradually hidden beneath an elegant array of mock battlements by the 24th Chief, John Norman. This ‘make-over’ left Dunvegan Castle pretty featureless from the outside, giving it a homogenous outside appearance. This is deceiving as the castle is actually an amalgamation of buildings that were built in six different stages from the 1300s through to the mid-1800s. Internally the castle is much more luxuriously decorated than you might expect, and it has obviously been modified throughout the years to make it into a more comfortable country home, rather than a defensive stronghold.

When visiting the castle, one usually starts by ascending from the main entrance to the first floor, where one can see the bedroom in the ‘Fairy Tower’, and then the main reception room of the castle. The library is also to be found on the first floor, as is the trophy room, which houses a collection of memorabilia, including some items belonging to Flora MacDonald and the Great Sword of Dunvegan which belonged to the so-called William Long Sword, the 7th Chief, who was killed in 1480. Another artefact is a lock of hair said to belong to Bonnie Prince Charlie, as well as the MacCrimmon Pipes – a set of bagpipes belonging to the MacLeod Chief for thirteen generations. One can also admire the elegant dining room, near which there is a short corridor leading to the pit dungeon, which is a small 13-foot deep cavern gouged into the rock, also known as an oubliette. One then descends to the lower quarters, where there is a range of small displays in the rooms that would previously have been working areas for the castle servants. Since Dunvegan Castle is still an occupied home, though most of the apartments are open to the public, some rooms on the top floor are kept private.

Over time, the castle has hosted a number of well-known personages, including the writer Samuel Johnson, the novelist Sir Walter Scott and Queen Elizabeth II. Some letters and other memorabilia pertaining to these and more travellers are to be found on exhibition in the castle.

On display amongst the oil-paintings and other medieval treasures, is what is known as the ‘Fairy Flag’, which is surely the most well-known artefact found at Dunvegan Castle, and after which the eponymous tower is called. This scrap of parchment-coloured silk, ragged, ancient and very worn, is to be found in the Drawing Room of the castle. It is a very precious talisman for Clan MacLeod, being at least 1,500 years old, and if legends are to be believed, having changed the course of history at least twice. The ‘flag’ measures approximately 18 inches in height by 12 metres across, and it is believed to have been, before the ravages of time got to it, either yellow or green. Today its colour is a faded red ochre with intriguing random dots of very worn red embroidery. In 1992, experts from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum dated the fabric to somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. The silk is believed to originate from either Syria or Rhodes.

Crude facts aside, the legend surrounding this piece of fabric is much more interesting. There are, of course, several versions of it. What all these version agree on however, is that this sacred banner has miraculous powers, and that when unfurled in battle, clan MacLeod would invariably defeat their enemies.

One particular version of the legend maintains that a Chief of Clan MacLeod fell in love with a fairy princess. The princess’ father was against their union, but his daughter pleaded incessantly with her father to be allowed to marry the Chief until he at last agreed to a period of hand fasting, which would last one year and a day. At the end of the hand fasting period, the princess was to return to the fairy realms and bring with her nothing from the human world. The couple lived happily at Dunvegan for a year, during which a son was born to them, but at the end of the established period, the princess had to leave her husband. As she did so, she made him promise that the baby would never cry. The father promised. However this was not an easy promise to keep, and eventually the baby did cry. Far away in the fairy realms, his mother heard him crying, appeared by his cradle, wrapped him in her shawl and sang a lullaby in order for him to go back to sleep. No one saw her come and leave, though they found the child wrapped in her fairy shawl. When the child grew up, his father told him this strange tale. He also told him that the shawl was a fairy talisman, and that if the Clan was ever in danger, they should wave the shawl three times, and the armies of the fairy realm would come to their aid. The fairy flag could only be used three times however, and then it would disappear forever, taking with it the one who had waved it last. Strangely enough, a ‘fairy lullaby’ in Gaelic was passed down through the generations of MacLeods and is reported to have been sung to newborn sons of the clan at least within the last 100 years.

The Fairy flag is said to have been used twice: once when the clan was in battle against their enemies from Clan MacDonald, and the second time when the MacLeod cattle were stricken with the plague and there was a huge famine. In this case, the fairy flag was waved three times, after which the fairies returned the cattle to health. Tradition says that only the eldest male child of the family was ever allowed to unfurl the flag.

Another part of the legend, perhaps one closer to the truth, relates to the 11th century Norse king Harald Hardrada. Harald fought in the Byzantine Empire and he is said to have brought a flag of yellow silk back home with him from the Middle East, which he believed possessed magical properties. In 1066, when Harald’s army was engaged in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in northern England, the fairy flag failed to save him from being killed by an arrow, however according to some accounts, this was because the Norwegian men in his army were taken by surprise before they actually unfurled the flag, which is why the arrow struck the king in the throat.

During World War II, many MacLeod servicemen carried a photo of the Fairy Flag in their wallets, and it is claimed that no pilot who carried the photo was lost. The chief of Clan MacLeod famously offered to bring the flag to Dover and wave it at the Germans should they invade Britain, however thankfully his intervention was not needed, and the Fairy Flag is still awaiting its third and final use. In the meanwhile, it is to be found displayed in a glass case at Dunvegan Castle.

Dunvegan Castle is the main sponsor of the ‘Dunvegan Castle 10k’, a 6.2-mile road race based in Dunvegan. It is a mixed terrain surface of main road and good off-trail, perfectly stunning in the unique setting of the Isle of Skye. The race is organised by Skye Events, a new organisation for promoting sports events on the Isle of Skye. It starts at Dunvegan Castle leading towards an off road trail ascending upwards to the summit of the first hill. Once at the trail, the race drops down again until it joins the main road from where it is a fast downhill 5k ending through Dunvegan Village and back to the Castle car park.

Dunvegan Castle is often used as a location for weddings and other official ceremonies, as well corporate and private events.

The Castle also provides a unique venue for the movie industry. Some popular movies were filmed here, including the 1986 cult classic ‘Highlander’, ‘Made of Honour’, ’47 Ronin’, and most recently ‘Macbeth’.

Opening Hours of Dunvegan Castle and Gardens:

Dunvegan Castle and grounds are open every day from the 1st of April until the 15th of October from 10.00am till 5.30pm (last entry is at 5pm).
From the 16th of October to the 31st of March, Dunvegan Castle and Gardens are generally closed to the public.