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 there as a religious hermit.
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 April 17, 618, the monastery was raided by a band of marauders and Abbot Donan together with 52 of his companions were beheaded. Extract from the Martyrology of Donegal... 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 was said, and they gave him this respite; and he was afterwards beheaded and 52 of his monks along with him.
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.
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. 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 on 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, her 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.
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 realized 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.
After the castellan John Dubh 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 Dubh as Castellan of Island Donan Castle, he being a stranger in the country. 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 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.
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.
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 Loch Duich, 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. The tall memorial, surrounded by heather, overlooks Lochalsh. The inscription reads:
To the memory of Donald Murchison
It was erected by his great-grand-nephew Sir Roderick Murchison 1863, and restored by his grand-nephew Kenneth 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 not to 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 information about this is given in an interview with Marigold MacRae, head of the clan.
Excerpts from an article written by Joanne Mackenzie-Winter with information taken from the castle's guidebooks.
Eilean Donan stands on a rocky island at the junction of three lochs - Loch Alsh, Loch Long, and Loch Duich.