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Dunnottar castle presents one of the iconic images of Scotland: an extensive, picturesque ruin sitting on a rocky headland, its jagged cliffs jutting into into the tumbling sea below.
Peter Irvine's cult(ish) guide ''Scotland The Best'' places Dunnottar high on the list of the 'best ruins' - with a tick (indicating 'among the best of its kind in Scotland'') - and it is, indeed, a spectacular place, worthy of its popularity and well worth visiting.
Located on the east coast of Scotland, 50 miles north of Dundee and 20 miles south of Aberdeen, Dunnottar lies 2km from Stonehaven and is easily accessible by a fairly spectacular walk from town or it's possible to drive directly to the castle. There is a (small) car park off the main road and then a path of about 400, leads to the castle that crowns the superbly-defensive promontory that separates two coves with shingle beaches.
The castle occupies the whole top of what seems like a large rocky islet connected to the mainland by a fairly narrow land bridge. It's crossed by a narrow path mostly consisting of stairs and I can imagine it would be very slippery in wet weather. There is a railing, but sure footing is required and babies need to be in carriers while anybody with mobility problems would really struggle. I suspect that in some kinds of severe weather the castle might becomes inaccessible as the waves might cover the path.
The approach is impressive in itself, offering different views - there is also a path through a stile to the side and across a ravine to a headland opposite the castle which offers a great viewing point and a large area of grass for sitting on and admiring the view. Beaches in both coves are also accessible from the path.
This surely must be one of the most spectacular locations in Scotland, possibly even in Europe. But Dunnottar is more than just a very dramatic ruin, a perfect setting for a Romantic ballad or a knightly epic (incidentally, Zeffirelli's 1990 Hamlet was filmed here). Although most of the current structure dates to the 15th and 16th century, there was a fort here as early as the 7th century, and before that it was a site of one of St Ninian's churches. Destroyed by the Vikings in the 9th century, the castle was rebuilt in the medieval period and the tale has it that William Wallace burned a garrison of English soldiers here in 1296 century. Despite English attempts to reclaim it, Dunnottar was under Scottish control and remained a property of Clan Keith, Earls Marischal of Scotland. Scottish regalia were hidden at Dunnottar during the Civil War, while during the Monmouth Rebellion, 175 Covenanters were imprisoned and tortured here in appalling conditions. The 'Whig Vault' were they spent six weeks 'ankle deep in the mire' is a chilling place, a stark reminder of the harshness of those times. Keiths lost the castle following the Jacobite rebellion and the castle fell into disuse and disrepair for three hundred years, until it was bought in 1925 by the Cowdray family, the owners of the 53,000 acre Dunecht estate, one of the largest in Aberdeenshire.
The castle site is surprisingly extensive and the labyrinth of ruins, battlements, towers and buildings is a joy to explore. Dunnottar is a ruin, but not exactly flattened to the ground and the extent and main structure of most buildings are clearly visible. I have to confess I find such places more attractive and interesting that many restored ones and significantly more appealing that 'stately homes' where you are charged for gawking at the lives of the very privileged. There are stables, smithy, kitchens and dungeons; as well as many defensive structures and living quarters. Large courtyards/greens provide a feeling of space and there are, of course, pretty dramatic views in every direction. There is one room with some historical information about Dunnottar, including the list of Covenanters imprisoned in the Whig Vault, and there is one room (Drawing Room) restored with an attractively decorated wooden ceiling and a few pieces of furniture. Most of it, though, is left as a ruin, and all the better for it.
The castle, being a private property rather than run by a charity or a quango of a National Trust/Scottish Heritage type, seemed to have a sensible - and very welcome - approach to the dreaded health and safety issues. Dangerous spots were marked as such, but if one really wanted to scale them, there was no material barriers to doing so. It's possible to run up stairs that lead to nowhere and peek down sheer cliffs: the whole place is pretty good fun for the children.
The path to the castle is narrow but appeared well maintained and there was a lavatory provided inside the castle structure (I suspect there might be queues there in the busy summer times). There is, however, no gift shop and no café - and again, all the better for it.
The entrance costs a very reasonable 5 GBP per adult, 2 GBP per child and 12 GP per family. I was impressed by the pricing structure that makes it easier for families (who tend to pay from one purse) to visit, though it would be also good to see a student discount (and pensioners are treated as normal adults).
It took us about two hours to explore the castle, and you can easily make it a day if you spend some time on the beach or walk from/to Stonehaven. Bring water and maybe snacks, especially if coming with children.
Stonehaven is a town situated on the North East coast of Scotland, around 13 miles south of Aberdeen. Traditionally, Stonehaven was a fishing town. It grew from a small village into the town it is today. The oldest part of the town, the "auld toon", is therefore the area around the harbour. Stonehaven has, however, played its part in Scottish history throughout the ages.
One of Stonehaven's main tourist attractions is Dunnottar Castle, famous throughout history for a number of reasons. The Scottish Crown Jewels were hidden here for many years, and as Cromwell came to find and destroy them, some local fisherwives snuck them out in a small boat and took them down the coast to Kinneff, where they remained hidden. This is a famous local story, and one that every child hears - our town has played its part in history! Even the famous William Wallace was at Dunnottar Castle, when he reclaimed it from the English in the thirteenth century. And another Wallace connection is that the Castle was used in the 1990 film Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson. In addition to all this, the Castle played its part in the Jacobite rebellions of the eighteenth century, and played host to Scotland's most famous monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, in the sixteenth century.
The car park for the Castle is located off the A92, which can be reach from either north or southbound on the A90 (A92 is signposted Arbroath). The Castle is signposted on the A92. It can also be reached by walking a coastal path (2-3 miles) which can be accessed from the auld toon of Stonehaven - it is signposted. Local buses also stop near the Castle car park, and these can be caught from the main bus stop near the Market Square (outside Farmfoods).
The Castle is well worth a visit. It is not easily accessible, and cannot be reached by wheelchair users or those with impaired mobility. There is a lengthy walk from the car park, and then a steep descent down some stairs, and then an ascent to the Castle entrance, as the Castle is strategically positioned on an outcrop. Between the descent and the ascent, there is a nice little cove with rock pools, but take care as it is very slippy and the tide can be dangerous.
Even if you cannot reach the castle, the view from the road or from the top of the cliffs if you have walked from the car park is incredible. The Castle is in ruins now, but even so is very imposing. For me and others from the area, the image and shape of Dunnottar Castle is iconic and instantly recognisable.
The interior of the castle (what remains) is fascinating. The rooms are marked so you can see what happened where within the castle. There is a memorial to the Covenanters who were imprisoned there in the seventeenth century, and information available about each room. Only the stone remains, and much of the castle is open to the elements, so be prepared to get wet and be blown about - even on a glorious summers day the wind out there can be very strong.
For me, two areas of the Castle always spring to mind when I think of it. One is the dungeon, which even now, in ruins, is chilling. So many people died there over the centuries, not least the imprisoned Covenanters who refused to give up their beliefs, and it is hard to forget that. The other area is the Lion's Den, which always fascinated me as a child - this is where the owners of the Castle in past times kept lions and other exotic creatures.
Opening of the Castle is seasonal. It is open 9am-6pm every day June to September, but has reduced hours on a Sunday in April, May and October, and closes November to March (due to its exposed location, it wouldn't be very nice to visit then anyway!). The Castle is privately owned, and admission for the 2009 season is only £5 for adults, and £1 for children under 16 (cash only). This to me is a fantastic bargain - how many other historical sites can you visit for that price these days? And not only do you get the Castle, but you get views that money can't buy.
Dunnottar Castle is a fabulous ruined clifftop castle, near Stonehaven (near Aberdeen). We drove up the Angus coastal route, which is stunning itself. When you get to the castle, there is a small area to park your car - in the summer, you will probably end up parking on the verge of the road, as it can get quite busy. From the car park, you can see the castle on the clifftop, it's stunning. You will walk about a mile to the castle, past some fields and down some cliff steps, before reaching the base of the cliff that the castle is built on. Then it's up some more steps to the castle itself. It is a ruined castel, so there's not a huge amount to see, although quite a bit of it is still intact, and the owners have provided quite a bit of information about the castle and its history. Make sure to give yourself enough time not only to visit the castle, but to explore the surrounding clifftops, and rocky beaches, as the scenery, and views are breathtaking. Well worth a visit, although, if you go in winter, make sure you call ahead to see if the castle will be open that day - we didn't one of the times we visited, and it was shut, despite the tousrist information saying differently. We still had a great time, with a nice walk on the cliffs, but it would have been better to actually get into the castle!
William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II, all graced the Castle with their presence.