Newest Review: ... in some kinds of severe weather the castle might becomes inaccessible as the waves might cover the path. The approach is impressive in... more
Better than pictures
Dunnottar Castle (Stonehaven)
Member Name: MagdaDH
Dunnottar Castle (Stonehaven)
Advantages: spectacular, dramatic, interesting
Disadvantages: none unless you are disabled
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.
Summary: it's better than pictures