Welcome to Doune Castle, the first castle on my 2019 Scotland Castles and Drams (Scotch Whisky) Tour. After a day tooling around Glasgow, I was excited to head north and dive deep into castle hunting. And Doune was one at the top of my list to see.
A Travel Guide:
For those that weren't aware, Doune Castle was used not only in the Starz television series Outlander, and as part of the city of Winterfell in the HBO series Game of Thrones, but it was also the primary castle used throughout the classic comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Flying Cows? No. Flying Scaffolding? Thankfully, No.
The only drawback to arriving in late-April was the obvious construction work being done on the castle. The side I most wanted to photograph - the side where you see the French taunters from the Python film and where the cows and Trojan Rabbit are jettisoned - was completely covered in scaffolding. Ahh, the drawbacks of visiting a place in Europe just before the Summer holidays. But hey, I had less crowds and no tour groups to navigate around. Win!
The castle is not far from the town of Doune (pronounced like a sand "dune") and only about 15 minutes from Stirling, but it feels a world away when you look out the tower windows.
Getting To Doune Castle
Location: Castle Hill, Doune, Scotland
While it does appear bus 59 from Stirling does head toward Doune (taking the Bank Street stop leaves you a 10 minute walk to the castle), you will most likely find reaching the castle by rental car as the optimal way to see the castle. If you're coming from Stirling, a 15 minute drive up the A84 should get you here with no problem.
The Hairpin Entrance
Watch the hairpin turn coming into and out of the castle. Coming from Stirling, you'll take a sharp hairpin curve to the left. This is not easy, as the single track driveway slopes down at a strong grade and angle. It would be easier to approach from Doune, but you can do it (remember, you're driving on the left, so that turn is extra sharp). When you're leaving, honestly, it is better just to turn left and let your GPS take you through town and then back to Stirling. It's a pretty bad blind corner for right turns.
Single Track Driveway and Limited Parking
The driveway itself features a stone wall to the side and is a narrow single track. During busy season you'll probably need to use the passing place to let vehicles by. There isn't a ton of parking either, so you may have to get creative on a busy day or visit early when other visitor's are still enjoying their morning coffee in Stirling and preparing for the day. The castle opens at 9:30 AM.
The Doune Castle Experience
After an assist from a helpful employee showing where to park your car, you walk into the front entrance of the castle, the spot where Monty Python's Sir Lancelot rapidly overcomes the two guards in one of my favorite scenes from the movie.
Immediately turn to the left and you can either pay your admission or show your Explorer Pass (more on that incredible tool in a bit). There was the option of a 1.50£ cup of hot coffee, which was a nice option on this cool, but sunny day.
Next, turn to the right, grab a set of headphones from the attendant and enter the courtyard that doubled for many Game of Thrones scenes shot as Winterfell.
While the audio tour does give you the history, this tour will have a different tone than most historic castle audio tours. The Terry Jones commentary is fun and he spins his own brand of humor along with some Pythonesque sound effects, telling you about the odd behavior and habits of some of the residents of the castle. You'll also get the option to listen to some bonus material that tells of the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For Outlander fans, there is also the ability to hear specifics about the filming of that series, where this castle was prominantly featured as Castle Leoch.
As you look to the stone stairwell, you'll immediately recognize this as the spot where the Python version of Sir Lancelot (played by John Cleese) charges recklessly through the wedding guests, upending tables, charging the stairs, tossing the stiffest man alive over some barrels, and making his way up to the maiden's room, er, well, on-second thought...
Next, climb the stairs and make your way through the doorway into the main part of the castle. The first big area to the left is the kitchen area that doubled in the Python movie as Castle Anthrax. You'll find signs around with numbers that will help lock in on the audio clip that you need for the particular room you're in. I found myself listening to the Outlander audio at times, thinking I'll watch it someday and maybe it will come in handy. I'm not sure if a tour guide would be able to give you as much information as you get from the audio - and it is nice to take things at your own pace.
The Great Hall
This room also doubled as Camelot in the Holy Grail. Even though there was plenty of singing and dancing around the round table - King Arthur inevitably abandon the place because it "twas a silly place."
The Lord's Hall looks a bit more modern than the rest of the castle. In fact, this room, sitting at the base of a tower accessible by a spiral staircase, was renovated in the 19th Century. It features a double fireplace, minstrel's gallery, and what it thought to be a murder hole (where you stand above the entrance pouring hot tar and shooting arrows at intruders - 14th Century Scottish to English hospitality).
And below is Duchess Hall, where Python's Sir Lancelot discusses the state of the wedding guests and tries to avoid the attention of his once thought maiden who actually is a prince.
The History of Doune Castle
Built during a very active castle building period in the 14th century, this was the home of Robert Stewart, son of King Robert II of Scotland (great grandson of Robert The Bruce of Braveheart fame), brother of King Robert III, and regent to 3 kings of Scotland, the last time under the his earned title of Lord Albany. There is a chance this castle was used quite frequently during those years as a center for political gatherings. Lord Albany's son took over as regent after his father's death, but didn't have the same luck as his father. Upon King James I return to the throne (he had been ransomed years before during Lord Albany's regency) the son of Robert Stewart was put to death for treason.
After that, the castle became a royal possession and entertained visitors like Mary Queen of Scots, who stayed in the chambers above the kitchen, as well as King James VI.
Unfortunately, it fell into disrepair and ruin during the 18th and 19th Century not long after the Jacobite uprisings. It wasn't until that George Stuart, 14th Earl of Moray put a timber roof on it and began a restoration project.
A Story from Doune Castle
During a Jacobite Uprising in the mid-18th Century, Charles Edward Stuart (also known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie") used Doune Castle as a prison for government officials captured during the Battle of Falkirk. Some prisoners got the bright idea of escaping by winding up bed sheets and using them as ropes to repel out the window to freedom. I don't know if the writers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail knew this when they had the young prince escaping in front of his father and Sir Lancelot by tying bed sheets together to try the same escape plan. Things didn't work out so well for the prince.
By the way, Charles Stuart's nickname "Bonnie" was a term of endearment in that day. Some may have used it sarcastically though, as his other nickname was "The Young Pretender." I guess it depended on which side of the argument you were on.
Monty Python Extra
Above you see the spot where the French lob-est the cows and rabbit down upon the silly English Kah-nig-its. But did you know the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail might not have been if it weren't for an over aggressive tax? Apparently England's income tax rate was so exorbitantly high, bands like Led Zeppelin, Genesis, and Pink Floyd, hearing they were having trouble funding the film, wrote checks for $20,000 each as a tax write off, to get the film completed.
Planning Your Visit
I can't emphasize enough, if you are planning on seeing several castles and historic sites in Scotland, get the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass. Not only will one flat fee (5 day or 14 day passes available) get you into a ton of the best castles in Scotland, but you'll also get discounted or free Audio Tour headsets and players. Otherwise, the charge was 9£ for adult entry.
Stirling is the best town to jump off from. There is plenty to do, Stirling Castle, Stirling Bridge, a hillside town with wonderful views and architecture, food choices and more. (Watch for my blog post on Stirling for more). And later in my journey, we'll visit another Monty Python and the Holy Grail castle. The one from the end of the film. The Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh. One castle down, 14 to go! I'm going to get a lot of use out of that pass!