A Travel Guide:
One of the coolest castle locations you'll ever find, Dunnottar Castle sits on a headland jetting out into the North Sea, perched high on a hill and surrounded by rocky shores and beachfront.
Amazingly, it wasn't a castle I had on my list to visit simply because it wasn't in my Historic Scotland guide, but that is because the castle is not owned by the state. Thankfully, I had plenty of people telling me about it and just happened to be in the vicinity. It is only a 30 minute drive north of the Red Castle and pink sand beaches of the Angus Coast.
Getting To Dunnottar Castle
Location: Stonehaven AB39 2TL, UK
This is one of those times when it would be good to have a rental car. The castle hugs the eastern shore of Scotland about 30 minutes south of Aberdeen and 2 hours north of Stirling and Edinburgh. It would be tough to get to by bus or train. It's just off of the A92 which has a convenient exit off of the A90. When you arrive, the drive turns to stones and you'll park in a stone covered parking lot.
Note: This was one of the few times my right side driving instincts didn't serve me well, as it is a small circle parking lot and traffic flows in the opposite direction I'm used to.
The Dunnottar Castle Experience
There is a food vending building to the left of the welcoming information sign and the path to the castle curves to the right. There is a fork in the path and if you go to the right, you'll walk out for a bird's nest view of the castle. I chose to take this walk after my time exploring the castle but you can start with it. I'm standing in that area in my wrap up video below. An incredible view. But then, there aren't any bad views that I could see.
When you take the path to the left towards the castle, look at the waterfall to the right rolling down the side of the hill. As you see the castle ahead be prepared for quite a decent and then a slightly less aggressive 160 foot ascent into the castle. If you're out of shape, you will likely want to take a couple of breaks on this walk - maybe stroll over to the beach and take in the sights.
As you walk up the hill into the fortress, you'll get to duck your head in a room or two for free before you climb the steps and reach the gatehouse pay station. The cost is £7 and your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass won't work here. They will hand you a laminated guide that has a map and history or you can pay £5 for the guide book. You'll need to return the laminated guide as you leave but can keep the guide book as a souvenir. Climb a little more and you'll go through a short tunnel before seeing the Silver House straight ahead. Now you can explore the wide open castle grounds at your leisure.
They have stables here, so I would assume the modern path to the castle was how they got the horses in and out. Step into the stables for a beautiful view of Old Hall Bay to the south. Walk in front of the Silver House over the Bowling Green to get a north side view of the cliff-side shore and beach. Yes, bring your bathing suit (if it is a suitable weather day - it is Scotland after all)!
History of Dunnottar Castle
There is no doubt that a piece of land like this has been used as a defensive position for as long as there has been a need to defend in this area. The region was originally known as Pictland or Pictavia and it's residents the Picts. There are stories and tales that go back as far as the 7th Century. In the 10th Century, King Donald II, referred to as the first king of Alba (Scotland) by the Scottish Chronicle, was brutally murdered here by Vikings.
For Braveheart fans, poet Blind Harry notes that William Wallace took the castle from the English during the Scottish Wars for Independence in 1297 and burned 4,000 English troops alive. I didn't see that part in the movie.
Sir Robert de Keith who fought for Robert the Bruce's forces at the critical Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, lead 500 Scottish cavalry troops in the fight. At that time, the heads of the Clan Keith were well established protectors of the king in Parliament and protector of the royal Honours of Scotland. They did this under the title Earl Marischal. In 1359, William Keith was granted a barony by Robert the Bruce and Clan Keith took official hold of Dunottar Castle.
In 1651, during the advance of Oliver Cromwell, the Earls were called into action as the castle was used as a hiding place for the Honours of Scotland (the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre) to protect them after the crowning of Charles II at Scone Palace in Perth. Cromwell laid siege to the castle. The castle's overseers Sir George Ogilvie and his wife Elizabeth Douglas found a way to smuggle the Honours out of the castle and to Kinneff Church but both were imprisoned in the castle after Cromwell's forces finally took it.
The Clan Keith's claim to the castle ended when the state seized the castle after George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal who had sided with the rebels during the Jacobite Uprising of 1715, fled the country. The York Buildings Company purchased the castle in 1720 and began dismantling it. In 1972 it gained a historic designation and is has been preserved ever since and remains under private ownership.
The first thought I had when I looked at this castle and it's hilltop location was, this must have been used in a lot of movies - definitely Harry Potter. But it wasn't. The biggest movies to be filmed here or inspired by the place were Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Disney Pixar's Brave.
Watch Where You Put That Tower House
This is a lesson in being careful where you build your castle tower. When William Keith, Grand Earl Marischal took over Dunnottar for good in 1392, he innocently began a construction project in an area he rightly considered his land. The Tower House, which still partially stands today, was to be the Clan Keith's home.
However Pope Benedict XIII had other notions. You see, prior to the building of the castle on that spot, it has been considered consecrated ground because a parish church was once located there. This religious faux pas lead to the excommunication of the Earl, who immediately wrote to the Pope explaining that he had rebuilt the church a couple miles down the road near Stonehaven. Lucky for him the Pope issued a Papal Bull in 1395 reintroducing Keith into the faith.
Planning Your Visit
If you get all wrapped up in traveling and forget to eat lunch before visiting, there is an on-site food vendor that serves a variety of lunch items and beverages. There are picnic tables for you to eat at. Don't forget to bring your swimwear and towels if you want to walk out to the beach. And you may see a puffin or two, depending on if they venture out from the North Sea facing cliff-side. The price is £7 for adults and £3 for children. As I mentioned, this is privately held so you won't be able to use your Historic Scotland Explorer Pass.