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Produced by Daniel Mackenzie-Winters

Detailed History of
Eilean Donan Castle

by Daniel Mackenzie-Winters
Part of my Scottish castles site

Eilean Donan photo

For practical information and an online guided tour, please see my main Eilean Donan page

Architects MacGibbon and Ross visited here over 100 years ago and I have reproduced their impressions of the castle including their drawing and plan (before it was restored). Click here to view this short file.


Detailed History of the Castle
(composed using the guidebook and quoting extensively
from information boards displayed at the castle - see note below)

The origins of Eilean Donan stretch way back in time. The remains of a Pictish fort were found in vitrified rock when excavations once took place on the island. Opposite the castle is the sculptured impression of a human foot in a stone. These have been found in other parts of Scotland at the entrance to Iron Age settlements.

The name Eilean Donan is Gaelic for Island of Donan, a 7th century saint who is thought to have lived here as a religious hermit.

Information boards displayed at the castle state that:

The missionary work of Abbot Donan (who was reputedly a contemporary of famous Saint Columba) took him from SW Scotland through Ayrshire northwards and into Sutherland. Presumably he then passed westwards for churches bearing his name exist in Loch Carron, Loch Broom, Kildonan in Skye and at Eilean Donan where a small oratory or cell stood. He then moved to a monastic foundation on Eigg where while celebrating the Holy Eucharist on Sunday 17 April 618 the monastery was raided by a band of marauders and Abbot Donan together with 52 of his companions were beheaded.

"...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."
Extract from the Martyrology of Donegal.

There is another interesting story about the origins of the castle's name. A local legend speaks of the King of Otters who made his home on this islet and was distinguished by his coat of pure silver and white. When the creature died, he was buried on the spot where the castle now stands. Since the Gaelic for otter is 'Cu-Donn' (brown dog) some believe that this is how Eilean Donan got its name. A good story, but unlikely to be true!

Information boards displayed at the castle also recount the following story:

One day a wealthy chief of the race of Mathesons had a son who was given his first drink from a raven's skull. This gave him the power to understand the language of the birds. When the boy was still young, his father asked him what the birds were saying. The boy told him that they said one day his father would wait upon him as a servant. Greatly displeased, his father turned his son out of the house to make his own way in the world. Eventually he landed in France, only to discover that the king was being disturbed by the noisy chirping of the birds. Offering his special talents he was able to discover that the birds were having a dispute which, with the king, he was able to resolve. The king was so pleased that peace and quiet had been restored that he presented the boy with a fully manned ship in which to continue his journey.

On one of the voyages he was invited to dine with the ruler of a distant country, only to discover that the palace was so infested with rats that they even invaded the dining table. The next evening he returned with a cat under his cloak and when the rats gathered around the dining table, he let the cat loose and it killed all the rats. The ruler was so pleased to be rid of the vermin at last, that he gave the boy a barrel of gold.

Eventually after many adventures, a fine ship with a young man aboard anchored off Totaig. The sight of such a royal vessel caused a stir in the district and all wondered who this richly dressed young man might be. The youth was received by the old chief with great courtesy and invited to stay for dinner. Sitting him at the table, the grey haired old man waited upon the young stranger himself thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the birds. The youth then revealed who he was and the father was reconciled to the boy whom he acknowledged as his heir. His son's abilities and knowledge of the world brought him into the favour of Alexander II (1214-1250) who commissioned him to build Eilean Donan and protect his subjects against the Norwegians.

The castle information boards go on to say that:

In 1263 a vast fleet led by King Haakon IV of Norway made its way southwards down Kyle of Lochalsh and past Eilean Donan on its way to do battle with Alexander III of Scotland at Largs. Resoundingly defeated, the broken remnants of the Norwegian fleet limped back home, stopping here only to revictual their vessels. This marked the end of almost four and a half centuries of Scandinavian control for, by the Treaty of Perth in 1266, the northern mainland and the isles passed nominally at least into the hands of the Scottish Crown. 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 castle to Colin Fitzgerald, son of the Earl of Desmond and Kildare (later to become MacKenzies) 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 do not predate 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 wrest it from him.

The castle at this time may well be that whose outer defences are now only faintly visible in part around the island well beyond the contracted defences of its successor. Traditionally, it is believed that in the early part of the 14th century, Robert the Bruce, out of favour with many of the clan chiefs as well as being hunted by the English, was given refuge in Eilean Donan Castle by John MacKenzie, Second of Kintail. Later in 1331 the fortunes of Robert the Bruce had changed. He had defeated his enemies and established his position as King of Scotland. He sent his nephew Randolph, Earl of Moray and Warden of Scotland, to Kintail.

The guidebook tells us that at this time little respect for the law was being shown by the local populace and it was here that Randolph's "Crownare" - crown officer - beheaded 50 local 'miscreants' and displayed their heads around the battlements of Eilean Donan Castle.

The information boards at the castle continue with the story:

During the 14th century, Eilean Donan was the subject of a dispute between the Mackenzies and the Earldom of Ross. The Earldom laid claim to the castle and threatened to back the claim with force. However a charter of David II in 1362 confirmed the Mackenzies' possession. By this time, MacLennans and MacRaes had settled in the district, the latter quickly rising to the position of defenders and protectors of the Mackenzies and known as their 'Coat of Mail'.

What the Earldom could not achieve by one means it 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 lost no time in proposing marriage. On being turned down, Euphemia promptly had him thrown into prison, and, taking his signet ring, used this to lure Duncan MacAuley, Constable of Eilean Donan, to Dingwall where she might by this means gain possession of the castle. Duncan proved suspicious and discovering his master to be the prisoner of the Countess, reciprocated by seizing her kinsman Walter Ross of Balnagown to exchange. By this time, Euphemia had managed to put a garrison into Eilean Donan but in arriving at the castle with their hostage Duncan pretended that they had come from the Countess to supply her garrison with grain. Once inside the castle, the Countess's men were thrown out. In time, the Countess agreed to the exchange and the young chief was released with the Countess subsequently retiring to the Abbey of Elcho.

At some time, possibly in the later 15th century the castle was greatly reduced in area. The old perimeter wall was dismantled and new defences enclosing this reduced area were built.

I have read that Eilean Donan was taken over by Hector Roy Mackenzie in 1497 and then captured in 1504 by the Earl of Huntly under James IV, although this isn't mentioned on the information boards at the castle which continue as follows:

The MacRaes who formed the bodyguard of the Chief of Kintail 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 Lordship of the Isles had effectively been extinguished as a political force in the west. Nevertheless, despite fierce opposition from the Mackenzies and MacLeods in the 1530s, Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat foolishly attempted to revive the position and lay claim to it himself. In 1539 Donald sailed to Applecross with 50 galleys to lay waste in the Mackenzie lands there before heading south to lay 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 against Donald's forces. A young MacRae who was passing the castle at the time saw realised that they were in danger and managed to join them. The besiegers resorted to firing arrows at the windows. Unfortunately the constable was hit, which left only the watchman and the young MacRae to defend the castle. Soon they found themselves running short of ammunition. 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, Donald Gorm called for a battering ram and approached the castle walls to see where it might be most effectively used. Duncan shot his final arrow at Donald Gorm and hit him in the foot. Too impatient to wait for a physician, Donald pulled it out himself and in so doing severed an artery on one of the arrow's barbs. Blood poured out and couldn't be made to stop. His men carried him to a little island near Ardintoul and it was there that he died. Desperate for revenge, the MacDonalds tried unsuccessfully to burn down the castle and then withdrew with the body of their chief.

Below is an excerpt from a document called the Dornie Manuscript ("Manuscript History of the MacKenzie transcribed by Colin MacKenizie of Newburnside 1760"):

"On the banks of the river Lochy in Lochaber resided a Sept of the celtic race named Clann Chalamain or MacCalmans of whom Murcadhdubh or black Murdoch who occupied the farm of Sroinnaba A.D. 1520 was not the least considerable of the branch.

This Murdochdubh brought up his eldest son John to be a priest of the Episcopalian persuasion who got his first charge in Lochalsh. He built a chapel of unhewen stones on a prominent hill above Ardelve and the ruins of the edifice can be seen at this day. Here John MacChalmain took his father's Christian name as his surname which is in English Murchison i.e. Murdock Son.

In the harvest of 1537 Donald Gorm MacDonald fifth Baron of Sleat came with a strong party to Kintail hearing that lslandonnan Castle was but weakly garrisoned and a conflict ensued between the assailants and defenders in which John Dubh Matheson the Castellan was killed. At this time there was none in the castle saving the crier and Duncan MacIllechriest MacRae who knew Donald Gorm by his garb and main among some other gentlemen of his party looking where they might easiest make a breach so as to take possession of the castle. Duncan MacIllechriost took the opportunity of shooting the only arrow he had left, which happened to be a barbed one, which lighted in and cut an artery of MacDonald's foot, who being impatient of the pain plucked it out, on which the blood gushed out so vehemantly that it could not be staunched; seeing this, his followers carried him to one of his boats, as he was evidently dying fast; they landed him on a sea bank near Avernish, where he died. The bank is called Larachtaigh Mhic-Dhomhnuill, i.e. The site of MacDonald's house.

But to return to John MacMhurchaidh duibh MacCalman --- after the castellan John duibh Matheson was killed, a dispute arose between MacRaes and MacLennans of Kintail who should have charge of Island Donan Castle. To compromise the debate of these two clans, whom the Laird MacKenzie found Irreconcilable, fearing they should kill one another, the laird of Faiburn 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.

Back to the text of the castle's information boards we learn that:

Gunpowder radically altered late medieval warfare and profoundly affected military engineering and architecture. Special bastions were built to accommodate them and it seem likely that this might have been part of the purpose of the hornwork added to the south-east angle of Eilean Donan probably sometime in the 15th century. Indeed, in clearing out the 'reservoir' at the base of this tower in the late 19th century, two brass handguns of the period were dredged to the surface.

Murdo Murchison, vicar of Kintail died in 1618. His successor, Mr. Farquhar believed it was the duty of a vicar to enjoy to the full the gifts willingly given by his flock. Consequently for many years, he oversaw his charges from a residence within the castle where he lived 'in an opulent and flourishing condition, much given to hospitality and charity'. When Colin, Earl of Seaforth, visited with his retinue of 'never less than three and sometimes five hundred men', Mr. Farquhar provided the first two meals himself.

After Colin's death in 1633, Mr. Farquhar was confirmed in his position and even entrusted with the tutelage of the new earl's son, George. Nevertheless his wealth accumulated under the patrimony of the Seaforths and his obvious personal influence with them rankled with others in the earl's immediate circle, not least Simon Mackenzie of Lochslin, the earl's brother. On the eve of an expedition to lend support to Charles II, Lochslin who was leading the group refused to set out until Farquhar was removed from Eilean Donan. The latter refused to leave 'without violence, lest his going might be interpreted as an abdication of his right'. Accordingly, a furious argument developed which led to Farquhar being 'escorted' to the gate and physically ejected from the castle. Here, he petulantly turned on his tormentors claiming he was 'well pleased to be rid of the island because it was a bad habitation for a man of his age and corpulence'.

In 1661 the Presbytery in Dingwall sat to hear the question of Mr. Farquhar's expulsion, however wider political issues, namely the collapse of the Royalist forces at Worcester confounded his hopes for redress.

In 1714 and in the light of the threatened rising of the clans, Brigadier General Lewis Des Etans (1665-1720) was sent north by the Government to provide information about the strength of defences in the Highlands. Among the sketches he made of the castle is an exceptionally detailed view showing Eilean Donan much as it must have appeared to Mr. Farquhar, and some five years before it was blown up by Government troops.

Towards the end of 1718 a plot was hatched to try and recover the disgrace of 1715. The plan was to land a strong force of Spaniards in England, with a smaller force of Jacobites and Spaniards in the West Highlands there to meet with the Highland contingent. The venture was fated from the start for this latter day 'armada' destined to land in the west of England were badly crippled in a storm and had to limp home. The smaller contingent heading for the west coast made to Stornoway and then on to Kintail where some 300 Spanish troops were landed near to the castle. Here they were to meet with a Highland force and march on Inverness.

The Government had by this time taken steps to block the entreprise. A force set out from Inverness under the command of General Wightman to intercept the Jacobite force. On 10th May 1719, three Government ships, the Enterprise, the Worcester and the Flamborough under the command of Captain Boyle sailed into Kintail and laid siege to the castle. After a short bombardment, they captured its garrison of less than 50 Spaniards (commanded by a Captain and Lieutenant) who had been left there to guard one of two ammunition stores. Taken aboard the frigates, the Spanish soldiers were shipped back to Leith and imprisoned there. The ships' logs containing details of these events are given on the Clan MacRae UK web site.

The Clan MacRae had a special gathering in August 2000 and events included a re-enactment of the bombardment of the castle by the Royal Navy in 1719.

There is a story that the building is haunted by the ghost of a Spanish soldier killed in the battle, possibly in the castle itself.

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 enough of the building to render it unusable - leaving it open to the ravages of time and the weather (by which it subsequently fell into complete ruin). 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, the exiled Earl of Seaforth

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

The monument was commissioned by Sir Roderick Impy Murchison, Scotland's famous geologist. Apparently it was later struck by lightning and damaged, whereupon Sir Kenneth Murchison was contacted and asked what should be done about repairing it. The story relates that he sent the money for repairs with the admonition 'don't let it happen again'.

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 according to the guidebook.

More on the MacRaes can be found via Clan MacRae UK web site and Clan MacRae Society of Canada.

More of the Dornie Manuscript featuring the Murchison and Mackenzie histories is provided online by the Clan MacRae Society of Canada.

Mackenzies may be interested in the web site by the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK.

For details of tours, transport, accommodation, etc. don't forget to visit my main Eilean Donan page for more information if you haven't already done so!

All my photos of the Castle:
external views -- courtyard scenes -- the bridge

Link to the Official web site for Eilean Donan Castle



I would like to thank Art Murchison for his help in preparing this web page particularly by sending me the extracts of the Dornie Manuscript (the origin of which is not known to either of us). He is a direct descendant of John Murchison (born in 1510) who was minister and governor of Eilean Donan Castle in the service of the clan chief of the MacKenzies. My grandmother was a MacKenzie, so it is possible that the two of us are related in some way. After all these centuries we have been reunited by email! We would both be very happy to hear from anyone who has more information about the castle.

I would like to make it perfectly clear that much of the above Detailed History section is taken from the information boards displayed at the castle. Unfortunately I do not know who compiled them but I hope that whoever it is does not mind me quoting his text. It is not meant to infringe his copyright in any way shape or form. Nor would I want to mislead any readers of this page into believing that any of his text is mine. I have reworded some of his paragraphs and quoted others intact.

In compiling these pages I have used the castle's guidebooks: the new one (published in 1999, cost 2 pounds) and the old one (cost 1.50 pounds) which was written by John MacRae and published by J. Arthur Dixon in 1978. These small booklets may be purchased from the castle gift shop - contact:
Eilean Donan Castle & Visitor Centre
Dornie, by Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX
Telephone: +44 (0)1599 555 202 / Fax: +44 (0)1599 555 262
I am not sure if they sell by mail order but you can certainly make purchases when you visit. I know of no other book which has been written exclusively about the castle. If anyone knows of such a book, I would be most grateful for any information.

Roger Miket's excellent historical book The Mediaeval Castles of Skye and Lochalsh was re-issued in 2007 and includes a whole chapter on Eilean Donan.

Architects MacGibbon and Ross visited here over 100 years ago and I have reproduced their impressions of the castle including their drawing and plan (before it was restored). Click here to view this short file.

This web guide is produced by Daniel Mackenzie-Winters

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