A Detailed History of the Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan

Joanne Mackenzie-Winters


Eilean Donan appears to have been built on the remains of a Pictish fort, which were found during castle excavations. The name Eilean Donan is Gaelic for Island of Donan and Donan lived here as a religious hermit. Abbot Donan travelled across Scotland and churches bearing his name still exist in Loch Carron, Loch Broom, Kildonan in Skye and at Eilean Donan where a small oratory or cell stood. He then established a monastic foundation on the Island of Eigg and in 618 the monastery was raided by a band of marauders and Saint Donan together with 52 of his companions was killed.[1]

"...and there came robbers of the sea on a certain time to the island when he was celebrating mass. He requested of them not to kill him until the mass said, and they gave him this respite; and he was afterwards beheaded and 52 of his monks along with him."

The Celtic missionaries suffered almost no violent opposition, nor are any martyrdoms recorded until the Viking and Danish raids began at the end of the ninth century. The pagan Celts accepted the missionaries even if they did not accept their religion and pagan and Christian symbols are found side by side on the great pictish stones. Donan's case above is an almost singular exception. No motive has since been uncovered to explain the massacre.[2]

Alexander II (1214-1250) commissioned construction of Castle Eilean Donan to protect his subjects against the raiding Vikings. In 1263, King Haakon IV of Norway led a fleet southwards down the Kyle of Lochalsh and past Eilean Donan to Largs and a key battle with Alexander III (and our Gerald (Colin) FitzGerald). Defeated, the remnants of the Norwegian fleet limped back home, stopping at Eilean Donan for re-supply. The Battle of Largs and the Treaty of Perth marked the end of almost four and a half centuries of Scandinavian control of northern Scotland and the isles. In return for his assistance during the fighting, the Earl of Ross was granted vast territories in the north including the Isle of Skye and much of the mainland opposite. In 1263, Alexander III gave the position of castellan of the castle to Colin FitzGerald (whose grandson became the first Mackenzie) as a reward for his services in the Battle of Largs. Only excavation can now determine whether 'Scandinavian' defences underlie the stone keep and its outer enclosing wall as none of the visible remains appear to date earlier than the later 13th century at the earliest and most likely from the 14th century. At the close of the 13th century it was firmly in the hands of Kenneth Mackenzie despite attempts by the Earl of Ross to sieze it from him.[3]

In the 14th century the castle probably consisted of the outer defences, which are now only partly visible around the island. When Robert the Bruce was being hunted by the English, he was given refuge in Eilean Donan Castle by John MacKenzie. Scotland was a rough place and later in 1331, King Robert sent his nephew Randolph, Earl of Moray and Warden of Scotland, back to Kintail. Little respect for the law was then being shown by the locals (Mackenzies were being bad?) and Randolph's "Crownare" (crown officer) beheaded 50 local 'miscreants' and displayed their heads around the battlements of Eilean Donan Castle! (Recidivism was not a large problem then.)

Because of its strategic location, the Earls of Ross lusted after this castle and in the 14th century the Earl claimed the castle and threatened to use force; however, a charter of David II in 1362 confirmed the Mackenzies' possession. By then, MacLennans and MacRaes had settled in the district, and the MacRaes had risen to the position of Mackenzie defenders and protectors and were known as their 'Coat of Mail'. What the Rosses could not achieve one way they tried by another. In 1427, Euphemia, Countess of Ross, had already buried two husbands and was now casting around for a third. Her eye fell upon the handsome young Alexander Mackenzie to whom she proposed marriage. On being turned down, Euphemia threw him into prison, and sent his signet ring to lure Duncan MacAuley, then Constable of Eilean Donan, to the Ross stronghold at Dingwall. Duncan was suspicious, discovered Alexander was a prisoner and seized Walter Ross of Balnagown for a hostage exchange. An exchange was agreed, and although Euphemia had garrisoned Eilean Donan, when Duncan arrived he pretended to have come from the Countess to supply grain. Once MacAuley was inside the castle, the Ross men were thrown out, the young Mackenzie chief was released, and Countess Euphemia retired (with no further offers of marriage) to the Abbey of Elcho.

In the 15th century the castle was greatly reduced in area. The old perimeter wall was dismantled and new defences enclosed this reduced area. In a stormy time Eilean Donan changed hands as Hector Roy Mackenzie took it in 1497, but lost it in 1504 to the Earl of Huntly under James IV. The loyal MacRaes formed the bodyguard of the Chief of Kintail and first became Constables of the Castle in 1509. They took control of the area and the Clan was involved in many raids and sieges. By the end of the 15th century, the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles had been greatly reduced. Nevertheless, despite fierce opposition from the Mackenzies and MacLeods in the 1530s, Donald Gorm Mor Macdonald, 7 Baron of Sleat tried to reclaim the position. In 1539 MacDonald sailed to Applecross with 50 galleys and burned Mackenzie lands and then laid siege to Eilean Donan castle, rumoured to be only lightly garrisoned.

Although the castle was held by only two men: John Dubh Matheson (the constable) and a watchman, they bravely shut the gate. A young MacRae who was passing the castle at the time realised the danger and joined them. The MacDonalds shot arrows through the windows and killed the constable, which left only the watchman and MacRae to defend the castle, and they were running short of arrows. Duncan MacRae had only one arrow left and decided to keep it until he could use it to the best possible advantage. Believing that victory was close, MacDonald called for a battering ram and approached the castle; now MacRae shot his last arrow at MacDonald and hit him in the foot. Too impatient to wait for a doctor, MacDonald pulled out the arrow and cut an artery on one of the arrow's barbs. Blood poured out of the wound and wouldn't stop. The MacDonalds carried their chief away and he died. Desperate for revenge, the MacDonalds tried unsuccessfully to burn down the castle and then finally withdrew with the dead body.

After the castellan John duibh Matheson was killed, a dispute arose between the MacRaes and the MacLennans of Kintail who should have charge of Island Donan Castle. The laird of Fairburn advised Sir Kenneth who was the eleventh laird of Kintail to appoint John MacMhurchaidh duibh as Castellan of Island Donan Castle, he being a stranger in the country. The charge he faithfully discharged. John remained Governor of Eilean Donan for the rest of his life and John's son Murdoch "Maighister Mor" Murchison followed him as Governor of the castle.

Gunpowder radically altered late mediaeval warfare and profoundly affected military engineering and architecture and bastions were built to accommodate the changes. Eilean Donan's south-east angle hornwork was probably added sometime in the 15th century and later two brass handguns of the period were dredged out of the cistern.

Towards the end of 1718 a plot was hatched to try and recover the disgrace of 1715 Jacobite Rising. The plan was to land a strong force of Spaniards in England, with a smaller force of Jacobites and Spaniards in the West Highlands. The ships intended to land in England were badly crippled in a storm and returned home. The smaller contingent made it to Kintail and some 300 Spanish troops were landed near to the castle; they were intended to meet a Highland force and march on Inverness. However, a Government force set out from Inverness under the command of General Wightman to intercept the Jacobite force. On 10th May 1719, three Government ships sailed into Kintail and laid siege to the castle. After a short bombardment, they captured its garrison of less than 50 Spaniards. As for the castle's destruction, there are several versions. One is that the troops from the English ships entered the castle, discovered the gun powder and damaged the building to render it unusable. However the Dornie Manuscript contains a different account of the destruction of Eilean Donan Castle:

"At this Juncture Colonel Donald Murchison and Christopher MacRae son of Inverinate were busily engaged in fortifying the stronghold of Donan Castle and shortly thereafter a Government ship of war went into Lochduich, and opened a brisk fire on the Castle which the defenders found to be irresistible. Colonel Donald Murchison with his customary intrepid and vivid conceptions came to the conclusion that if Government got possession of the castle, a garrison would be planted there; that it would then become impossible to defend the country from the depredation of the Red Coats, and that they (the Sasanachs) would become a source of great annoyance to the Earl of Seaforth and his faithful adherants; therefore he concluded in the dilemma that their safest course would be to blow up the castle by setting a match to the powder magazine in the Fort, which proposition was at once complied with, so that it was laid in ruins. Tradition says that all the silver plate and other valuables in the Castle were thrown into the Fort."

Donald Murchison is commemorated by the Murchison Memorial which stands a few miles from the castle and is signposted from the main Dornie to Kyle of Lochalsh road. There is a convenient layby where you can park your car. Then take the path leading into the undergrowth. You will emerge at the tall memorial which is surrounded by heather and overlooks Loch Alsh. The inscription reads:

"Tulloch Ard"

To the memory of Donald Murchison
Colonel in the Highland Army of 1715
He successfully defended and faithfully preserved the lands of Kintail and Lochalsh from 1715 to 1722 for his chief, William Dubh Mackenzie, the exiled Earl of Seaforth

Errected by his great-grand-nephew
Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, KCB 1863
Restored by his grand-nephew
Kenneth Murchison Massie Cox Murchison 1928


The architects MacGibbon and Ross visited here over 100 years ago and Joanne Mackenzie-Winters reproduced their impressions of the castle including their drawing and plan (before it was restored).

EIlan donan Castle drawing from the north before restoration


This is the 'Ellandonan Castle' (sic) entry in
The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (1887-1892)
by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross
who travelled around compiling drawings and descriptions of nearly every castle, tower house and mansion in the country.[4]

This beautifully situated ruin occupies the summit of a small rocky island at the junction of three lochs, being at the eastern extremity of Loch Alsh, where it branches into Loch Duich and Loch Long.

'The situation is naturally strong and commanding, and was likely to be selected at an early period for a fortress. It is supposed to have been originally occupied by a vitrified fort, which was replaced in the 13th century by a castle consisting of a great wall of enceinte. Colin [Gerald] FitzGerald, son of the Earl of Desmond, was appointed its constable after the battle of Largs.[5] In the 14th century it was in the hands of Randolph, Earl of Moray, who, in 1331, adorned its walls with the heads of 50 victims, as a warning to the inhabitants of the district. During the 15th and 16th centuries Ellandonan was a chief strength of the Mackenzies of Kintail, and many stories are told regarding it.

In 1504 there was a great insurrection in the Highlands, which it took the king's forces two years to quell. The castle was then taken by Huntly. In 1539 it was attacked by Donald Gorm of Lewis, a great foe of the clan Kenzie, and although feebly garrisoned, the assailants withdrew in consequence of the death of their leader, who was shot by an arrow from the castle. In 1719, after the defeat of the insurrection of 1715, the castle was held by a body of Spaniards under William Dubh Mackenzie, Earl of Seaforth, when it was battered and ruined by three English men-of-war. (See above for a different tradition.)

The situation of the castle is very fine but unfortunately its architectural features are almost entirely destroyed. The outline of the enceinte, which has been of a quadrilateral form can however still be traced, and some portions of the enclosing wall are yet standing. At the west side a narrow passage between two walls seems to have formed the entrance from the lake. It then, doubtless, contained a steep staircase leading from the landing-place to the courtyard above, but it is now only a slope of loose stones.

Eilean Donan before the 1912 restoration


The keep occupied the north-east angle of the enclosure. Like the keeps of several of the other Western castles it was probably erected in the 14th century; its north and east walls seem to have been raised upon the older wall of enceinte. It was a rectangular structure 57 feet long by 43 feet wide, with walls about 10 feet in thickness. The foundations exist all round, and fragments of the north and south walls are standing of considerable height, but almost entirely devoid of architectural features.

The entrance door was at the south-east angle - one jamb, with the bar-hole, being still preserved. The staircase was probably carried up in the adjoining angle of the wall, but of this there is now no trace. A narrow loop occurs in the south wall, not far from the doorway, and the remains of a wall-chamber are traceable in the west wall.

A remarkable structure still survives on the east side of the castle. This consists of a heptagonal tower 20 feet in diameter internally, placed at a considerably lower level than the courtyard of the castle. This enclosure, which was always open to the sky, seems to have been a water tank. It still contains water, but it is of a very stagnant and unwholesome appearance. There is possibly a spring in it, as in the similar rock on which stands Kismull in Barra, and the tower has been erected to secure it for the use of the garrison. The castle is connected with the water tower by means of a long sloping passage in court, with walls of considerable size and strength, being about 5 feet in thickness, and probably when complete about 15 feet in height.'

The castle ruins remained neglected for 200 years until 1912 when Lt.-Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap, grandfather of the present Constable of Eilean Donan (?), decided it was time to restore the family fortress. He was helped by Farquhar MacRae who had a dream which told him exactly what the original structure had looked like. This was later confirmed by old plans kept in Edinburgh Castle. The rebuilt castle was completed in 1932 at a cost of a quarter of a million pounds.[6]


1             Joanne Mackenzie-Winters, The Internet Guide to Scotland, http://www.castles.org/Chatelaine/EDC/edc-history.htm.

2             Extract from the Martyrology of Donegal.

3             Premised on guidebook and public displays at the castle.

4             The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (1887-1892), by David MacGibbon and Thomas Ross.

5             Since this is a quote I have left the text, however, my information is that the pedigree given for Colin Fitzgerald is not accurate. The first earl of Desmond was Maurice FitzThomas FitzGerald, who was created earl in 1329. Obviously his son (who was called Gerald) could not have been at Largs in 1263.

6             More info about the castle is given in an interview with Marigold MacRae, head of the clan. The information about the restoration is an article from the Australian 'SCOTS' magazine which is reproduced online on the Rampant Scotland web site.

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