Origins of Dunnottar Castle

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Following our amazing record year of over 110,000 visitors in the Castle in 2017, I thought I would do a bit of exploring into the often-asked question: “How old is the Castle?”

And the short answer is, very old.  The oldest remaining part of the Castle is the Keep or Towerhouse, which was completed at the end of the 14th Century, around 1392.   However, we know there was a chapel and other fortifications on the site at least 100 years before then, in around 1296. That’s when Scots hero William Wallace killed an entire English Garrison inside the Castle with only a handful of men.

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen

The stones from that destroyed Chapel can still be seen in other buildings such as the stables, and the small arch windows are also from the original chapel. The stone was a precious commodity and so was often recycled.

The site has Christian links that go back even further than that; Saint Ninian, an early Christian missionary, founded a chapel on the site of Dunnottar in the 8th Century.

But the history of Dunnottar, or “Dùn Fhoithear” in Scottish Gaelic (anglicised to “Fother Dun” or “Dun Fother”) as it was originally known, goes back much further, to the origins of Scotland itself.  “Dùn Fhoithear” means “Fort on a shelving slope”.

Dunnottar has been recorded throughout history with various spellings, such as “Dunotter, Dunnotar, Dunnotter” and nearly everything else in between.  The earliest written references to a site at Dunnottar is found in the Annals of Ulster, which record two sieges to the fort in 681 and 684. The Pictish King Brude of Fortriu – an ancient Pictish northern Kingdom – against the Kingdom of Alba.  It is unknown who won this battle, but Alba would later become the dominant Kingdom, and even today “Scotland” in Scottish Gaelic is “Alba”.

Dunnottar remained an important strategic stronghold well into the Dark Ages, as whoever controlled it had power over a vast area along the East Coast of Scotland.  The Vikings understood this and in the year 900, Donald II, King of Scots, was killed by Vikings after a vicious battle at Dunnottar.

King Donald II

This brings us to the timeline we know today, with a church being consecrated on the site in 1272 and the destruction of that church by William Wallace.  These events lead eventually to the Battle of Bannockburn, where after Robert the Bruce’s famous victory, his friend Sir Robert de Keith was granted the lands of Dunnottar and permission to build the Keep.  The Keep was completed in 1392 – and still stands today.

Therefore, the site has been occupied for at least 1,200 years – with the oldest remaining building being around 700 years old.

We hope many of you continue to visit and enjoy this ancient site in the years to come!

Jo-Anna Bean