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Dunnottar Castle

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Dunnottar Castle, a ruined fortress on the coast of Dunnottar parish, 1½ mile S by E of Stonehaven. It crowns the flat summit, 4½ acres in extent, of a stupendous rock, which, somewhat resembling that of Edinburgh Castle, is all but severed from the mainland by a chasm, and on all other sides rises sheer from the sea to a height of 160 feet. The ancient capital of the Mearns, this natural stronghold figures early in history, for, in 681, we hear of the siege of ' Dunfoithir ' by Bruidhe, King of the Picts, and, in 89 4, of a second siege under Turan, his successor. Then, in 900, Donald, King of Alban, was cut off here and slain by the Danes; and, in 934, Aethelstan, ravaging Scotland with his land forces, penetrated so far as Dunnottar. Of much later date, however, is the present castle, which, from its situation and extent, forms one of the most majestic ruins in the kingdom, and which, prior to the era of artillery, must have been well-nigh impregnable. The only approach to it is by a steep path winding round the body of the rock, which has been scarped and rendered inaccessible by art. The entrance is through a gate, in a wall about 40 feet high; whence, by a long passage, partly arched over, and through another gate pierced with four œilettes or loop-holes, the area of the castle is reached. This passage was formerly strengthened by two iron portcullises. The area is surrounded by an embattled wall, and occupied by buildings of very different ages, which, though dismantled, are, for the most part, tolerably entire, wanting but roofs and floors. The oldest, with the exception of the chapel, is a square tower said to have been built towards the close of the 14th century. A large range of lodging-rooms and offices, with a long gallery of 120 feet, appears to be comparatively modern -not older than the latter end of the 16th century. There are ruins of various other buildings and conveniences necessary or proper for a garrison, such as barracks, a basin or cistern of water 20 feet in diameter, a bowlinggreen, and a forge said to have been used for casting iron bullets. The building now called the chapel was at one time the parish church; for, notwithstanding its difficulty of access, the church, and even the churchyard of the parish, were originally situated on this rock. Sir William Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland, made an excambion of certain lands in the counties of Fife and Stirling with William de Lindsay, Lord of the Byres, for part of the lands of Dunnottar; and the natural strength of its rock led him to build a castle on it as a refuge for himself and his friends during those troublous times. But, to avoid offence, he first built a church for the parish in a more convenient place; notwithstanding which, the Bishop of St Andrews excommunicated him for violation of sacred ground. Sir William, on this, applied to Pope Benedict XIII., setting forth the exigency of the case, and the necessity of such a fortress, with the circumstance of his having built another church; on which his holiness issued a bull, dated 18 July 1394, directing the bishop to take off the excommunication, and to allow Sir William to enjoy the castle at all times, on the payment of a certain recompense to the church; after which it continued in the Keith family till the forfeiture of the last Earl in 1716. Prior to this, however, a castle of Dunnottar is said to have been taken about 1296 by Sir William Wallace, who burned 4000 Englishmen in it. Blind Harry gives the following lively account of this achievement:

' The Englishmen, that durst them bot abide,
Before the host full fear'dly forth they flee
To Dunnotter, a swake within the sea.
No further they might win out of the land.
They 'sembled there while they were four thousand,
Ran to the kirk, ween'd girth to have tane,
The lave remain'd upon the rock of stane.
The bishop there began to treaty ma,
Their lives to get, out of the land to ga;
But they were rude, and durst not well.
wallace in fire gart set all hastily,
Burnt up the krik and all that was therein.
Attour the rock the lave ran with great din;
Some hung on crags, right dolefully to dee,
Some lap, some fell, some fluttered in the sea,
No Southern in life was left in that hold.
And them within they burnt to powder cold.
when this was done. feil fell on their knees down,
At the bishop asked absolution.
When wallace leugh, said, I forgive you all;
Are ye war-men, repent ye for so small ?
They rued not us into the town of Air,
Our true barons when they hanged there! '

In 1336, too, we hear of the castle of Dunnottar being refortified by Edward III. in his progress through Scotland; but scarce had he quitted the kingdom when it was retaken by Sir Andrew Moray, the Regent of Scotland. No further event of historic interest occurred for many centuries afterwards, during which it was the chief seat of the Marischal family. But, in the time of the Great Rebellion it was besieged by the Marquis of Montrose, the Earl Marischal of that day being a stanch Covenanter. The Earl had immured himself in his castle, along with many of his partisans, including 16 Covenanting clergymen who had here sought refuge from Montrose. The Earl would have come to terms but for this ministerial party, and the Marquis at once subjected his property to military execution. Stonehaven and Cowie, which belonged to the vassals of the Earl Marischal, were burned; the woods of Fetteresso shared the same fate; and the whole of the lands in the vicinity were ravaged. The Earl is said to have deeply regretted his rejection of Montrose's terms, when he beheld the smoke ascending from his property; ' but the famous Andrew Cant, who was among the number of his ghostly company, edified his resolution at once to its original pitch of firmness, by assuring him that that reek would be a sweet-smelling incense in the nostrils of the Lord, rising, as it did, from property which had been sacrificed to the holy cause of the Covenant. '

At Dunnottar Castle, in 1650, William, seventh Earl Marischal, entertained Charles II.; and in the following year it was selected by the Scots Estates and Privy Council as the strongest place in the kingdom for the preservation of the regalia from the English army, which then overran the country. These being here deposited, the Earl obtained a garrison, with an order for suitable ammunition and provisions. Cromwell's troops, under command of Lambert, besieged the castle, which was put under command of George Ogilvy of Barras, in the parish of Dunnottar, as lieutenant-governor; the Earl himself having joined the king's forces in England. Ogilvy did not surrender until the siege had been converted into a blockade, when he was reduced by famine and a consequent mutiny in the garrison. He had previously, however, removed the regalia by a stratagem on account of which he was long imprisoned in England. Mrs Granger, wife of the minister of Kinneff, had requested permission of Major-General Morgan, who then commanded the besieging army, to visit Mrs Ogilvy, the lady of the Lieutenant-Governor. Having gained admission, she packed up the crown among some clothes, and carried it out of the castle in her lap, whilst the sword and sceptre seemed to have formed a sort of distaff for a mass of lint which, like a thrifty Scots matron, she was busily spinning into thread. The English general very politely assisted the lady to mount her horse; and her husband that night buried the regalia under the flags of his church, where they remained till the Restoration, in 1660, when they were delivered to Mr George Ogilvy, who presented them to Charles II. For this good service, with his long imprisonment and loss of property, Ogilvy received no farther mark of royal favour or re ward than the title of Baronet and a new coat-of-arms. Sir John Keith, brother to the Earl Marischal, was created Earl of Kintore; but honest Mr Granger and his wife had neither honour nor reward. Dunnottar was used, in the year 1685, from early in May till towards the end of July, as a state prison for 167 Covenanters, men and women, who had been seized at different times in the W of Scotland, during the persecution under Charles II. In the warmest season of the year they were all barbarously thrust into a vault, still called ' The Whigs' Vault, ' where 9 of them died. About 25, in a state of desperation, crept one night from the window, along the face of the awful precipice, in the hope of escaping; but two of these perished in the attempt, and most of the others were captured, and subjected to horrible tortures. In 1720 the dilapidated estate of George, tenth Earl, was sold to the York Building Company for £41,172, and Dunnottar Castle dismantled; but in 1761 the Earl repurchased it, to sell it, however, in 1766, to Alexander Keith, writer in Edinburgh, who, as exercising the office of Knight-Marischal of Scotland in 1822, was created a Baronet by George IV. Dunnottar went to his daughter, and, at her death in 1852, to her son, Sir Patrick Keith-Murray of Ochtertyre, with whom it remained till 1875, when it was purchased by Alexander Innes, Esq. of Raemoir and Cowie. See James Napier's Stonehaven and its Historical Associations, being a Guide to Dunnottar Castle, etc. (Stoneh. 1870).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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