Archive for March 2011

Clachan Duich & Clan MacRae – Part 2   3 comments

Every five years, the Clan MacRae holds an International Clan Gathering at Eilean Donan to celebrate its history, its ancestors and its heritage. Hundreds of MacRaes gather from all over the world to take part in the celebrations, and the last one was held during Scotland’s Year of Homecoming in 2009.

The event itself normally lasts about 5 days, with a multitude of organised events taking part in the local area. One of the events which is held on a Sunday, is a morning gathering and rememberance service at Clachan Duich, the ancient burial ground of Clan MacRae, which I have already blogged about in September last year. I know how many MacRaes are on the Facebook page who have not yet managed to attend an International gathering and I’m also aware how revered Clachan Duich is to many, so I’m posting up a short montage of video of assorted photographs from the 2009 service, courtesy of Sal Nocitra, who put the whole thing together.

It is accompanied by a wonderful piece of music which is some six hundred years old called “Spaidsearachd MhicRath” or, in English, “March of the MacRaes”. Although it’s played on a keyboard, I really look forward to eventually hearing it played on the pipes by Jimi MacRae, the Clan’s piper who is featured in many of the photos you will see.

To play the video, please click here

Posted March 23, 2011 by eileandonan in Miscellaneous

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Reconstruction Photographs discovery………..   4 comments

Every so often, I stumble across something completely and totally unexpected at Eilean Donan and today I have a real wee gem of a find to share with you all! An exclusive preview that you can have a look at before ANYONE else!

Tucked away in the back of a dusty drawer in the castle we recently discovered a small blue nondescript cardboard wallet with the words ” LIZARS Developing & Printing Services“. Upon opening, we duly discovered around 60 old photographs from what I believe to be approximately the very late 1920’s and early 30s depicting scenes of the castle’s reconstruction!

Although they have started to fade a little, I’ve had them professionally scanned in order to preserve them, and can now share them with the world. The reconstruction took about 20 years in total, partly due to World War I happening right in the middle of it. When you see some of the construction methods that were used back then, you also get a sense of why the project took so long.

There’s also one or two images of Farquar MacRae, the legendary Clerk of Works of the whole project, who lived on the island in a small hut for much of the construction period, but who sadly died only 6 months before its completion. There’s also a glimpse of Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap and his wife Isabella, along with a local shot or two of what is now known as the Loch Duich Hotel. The final 5 photos are from the grand opening day in 1932 when the Lt Col led the Clan MacRae and the local community on a march to the castle.

Anyway, enough from me, here are the photos and I hope you enjoy this little treasure trove!

(If you click once on each image, you’ll get a slightly larger view.)

Posted March 19, 2011 by eileandonan in Historical

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Historical background to Eilean Donan   5 comments

I’ve frequently been asked to provide a little more historical detail on Eilean Donan here on the blog, and whilst I appreciate that some of you may not have a huge amount of interest in the multitude of facts and dates that encompass the castle, I do have to try and provide a little more background for those that are. I hope you find the following abridged detail of some use.

The island upon which the castle stands has been in use by man since prehistoric times. The defensive position, freshwater well, and maritime communication the location offers has appealed to man throughout every age of the islands habitation.  The most ancient of structures to stand on the island was a Pictish Broch or vitrified fort from an Iron Age Britain dominated to the South by the Romans. Brochs were defensive structures and when the Romans abandoned the British Isles the Pictish towers fell into decay. (Some of Scotland’s best preserved Brochs can still be seen today at nearby Glenelg.)

By the 6th century the Broch of Eilean Donan became the monastic cell of an Irish Saint called Donan who was a contemporary of Columba in the time of the fledgling Christian faith in the Inner Hebrides. Bishop Donan has lent his name to the castle for Eilean Donan in the Gaelic tongue simply means “Island of Donan”. However many ancient legends surround the origin of the castle’s name and in Gaelic folklore the fabulous King of the Otters in his silver coat is buried under the castle. The Gaelic name for otter is Cu Don or “brown dog” hence Eilean Donan may be “The Island of Otters” and even to this day otters are seen at the castle.

In the 8th century the Norse Viking swept down from the North to colonise all the islands off the West Coast of Scotland and for four centuries this was a Viking land as many of our local place names yet testify. However Scotland’s monarchy residing in the Clyde basin sought to extent their reach and arrest control of Viking territories such as the Hebrides. In 1220 King Alexander II’s campaign against the Vikings saw Eilean Donan constructed as the most northern sentinel of his empire, stamping royal authority in the strategic confluence of Lochalsh, Loch Duich and Loch Long. Alexander did not live to see the expulsion of the Vikings and his son Alexander III would be left to face the wrath of Viking King Haakon Haakonson.

Haakon’s fleet crossed the North Sea in the summer of 1263 bound for war with Alexander. A total eclipse of the sun heralds doom for the Vikings and they drop anchor in Broadford Bay. From the watch tower of Eilean Donan, Haakon’s fleet were to be observed sailing through Kyleakin still bearing a Gaelic name meaning “The Straights of King Haakon”. Haakon’s fleet sailed south for battle against King Alexander at the battle of Largs. Dreadful storms win the day for Alexander at Largs and the Western Isles are his with Haakon’s passing.

Alongside King Alexander at Largs is a trusted lieutenant by the name of Calean Fitzgerald whose distinguished service in battle earns him the reward of Constable of Eilean Donan from a grateful King. Calean Fitzgerald consolidates his position of power in Kintail by marrying the local Matheson Chief’s daughter. Their first-born son is Coinneach or Kenneth. In Gaelic the name MacKenzie mean “Sons of Kenneth”.

The MacKenzies grew in power and status, and Eilean Donan became their Western fortress. But they attain many castles and by tradition Eilean Donan was governed by proxy for them by their hereditary bodyguards, the House of MacRae. Thus the MacRaes become known as “The Mackenzies Coat of Mail” and hold Eilean Donan Castle throughout this turbulent mediaeval period.

Eilean Donan is a very typical mediaeval Gaelic Tower House of the time of the great marine warlords of the Gaelic West Highland archipelago known as “The Lords of the Isles”. These kings of a marine empire ruled by Birlinn (a Scottish longboat) and claymore, and Eilean Donan Castle saw its share of conflicts during this time. In 1539 Donald MacDonald of Sleat attacked Eilean Donan Castle with 50 Birlinn challenging the authority of King James V in his quest for the Lordship. Famously his attack is foiled by one Duncan MacRae who is fortunate to mortally wound Donald with his last arrow. The arrow hole from which Duncan shot his last arrow can still be seen today on the wall of the Great Well.

In the mid 17th century even Cromwell’s forces took the castle and held Kintail in a brutal grip. Such were their demands for food and fuel from the MacRaes of Inverinate that the Castle’s garrison incurred the wrath of the clan, and their leader, a Campbell, was cut in half by a claymore wielding MacRae.

The clansmen of Kintail were loyal to King James known as Jacobus in Latin and the King’s supporters were thus known as Jacobites. In 1715 the Jacobite clansmen of Kintail captured Eilean Donan for the King and gathered here before setting off south for Sheriffmuir in support of the Earl of Marr for King James against The Duke of Argyle for King George 1st.  There is a magnificent painting commemorating the event on the walls of the Banqueting Hall. Legend tells that the MacRaes were cut down in the heart of the battle and Kintail would suffer 58 widows after that battle.

Yet support for the exiled House of Stuart remained strong in Kintail and Eilean Donan Castle would yet again be the focus for 1719 Jacobite Uprising. In 1719 Spain and England were at war for the control of global maritime supremacy. Spain saw the Gaelic Highlander and the Jacobites as a potential way to topple George of Hanover from the throne and defeat English plans. Two Spanish forces were sent to illicit Jacobite support. The first small expeditionary force was sent to the Highlands with Earl Marshal Keith and Tullibardine who were to instigate a Jacobite Uprising amongst the Highland clans. Their base was to be Eilean Donan. The second larger force was to invade England. But fate played an indiscriminate hand and a dreadful storm destroyed the main Spanish fleet as the rounded Cape Finistair and entered the Bay of Biscay. With known Spanish allies attacking the Hanoverians to the South the Jacobites were not vulnerable and exposed in the Highlands and sure enough the Hanoverians turned their attentions North.

On the 10th of May three Hanoverian frigates arrived at Lochalsh. The Enterprise, the Flamborough, and the Worcester. They found Eilean Donan Castle garrisoned by about 30 Spanish soldiers and a small band of Jacobites who were not prepared to surrender. The Government warships began to bombard Eilean Donan Castle with cannon. This was the last castle in the British Isles to be so bombarded. The Government had superior numbers and firepower eventually sending boarding parties ashore to force a surrender. With the capture of Eilean Donan Captain Herdman of the Enterprise orders that the repositories of Spanish gunpowder be set afire, and so Eilean Donan Castle was reduced to a ruin in a series of terrible explosions.

A month later at the Pass of Glenshiel the Jacobites and their Spanish allies fought General Wightman’s Redcoats. The battle ended with the Highlanders melting away over the Five Sisters of Kintail and the Spanish surrendering to the Government.

With the destruction of Eilean Donan Castle, and Kintail daunted by the Redcoats the castle became a picturesque ruin over the next century. But after almost 200 years had elapsed the castle saw a most unlikely rebirth…….

Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae had grown up fuelled with his father’s tales of his illustrious MacRae clan ancestors and their home of Eilean Donan. Lieutenant Colonel MacRae had married an English heiress from the Lincolnshire town of Newark. Her name was Isabella Mary Gilstrap known to all as Ella. A condition of her inheritance required Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae to adopt her surname and so they became the MacRae Gilstrap family.

The MacRae Gilstrap family thus bought the ruin of Eilean Donan in 1911 and there they raised the clan MacRae banner for the first time in centuries. Now by serendipitous good fortune Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae Gilstrap and Ella met a local stonemason and wood carver called Farquhar MacRae who was hired to consolidate the remains of the castle. However the decision was taken to restore the castle and the MacRae Gilstrap family hired an Edinburgh firm of architects to draw up construction plans, and for Farquhar to be made Clerk of Works. Farquhar laboured over the next 20 years on the castle eventually earning the Gaelic nickname Fearachar a’ Chastiall or Farquhar of the Castle. Sadly,  he died in 1932 a mere six months before the castle was completed and never saw the completed article. A bronze plaque in the courtyard with the MacRae badge of Fir Club Moss and the legend Fearachar a’ Chastiall 1912 –1932 commemorates his life. However the castle returned to her former glory and is a fitting tribute to his dedication and skill.

The MacRae Gilstrap family had a grand opening and march of the clan to the castle in 1932. It became their regular summer home before the war. Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae Gilstrap died in 1936 and Ella survived him until 1949. Eilean Donan Castle then passed to their son Duncan, who became the new constable of the castle. In the 1950s Eilean Donan was perhaps only known to a few intrepid adventurers to the West Highland coast. However a spate of Hollywood movies in the 50s featuring the castle such as Bonnie Price Charlie, Prince Valiant, and most importantly The Master of Ballentrae made Eilean Donan a familiar image.

Its reputation as an idyllic and picturesque castle grows, as it perhaps typified the popular image of a Gaelic West Highland Tower House, and television helps to spread the image too. In 1966 Duncan MacRae dies and the Castle passes to the late Johnny MacRae, father of the current head of the Trust, Baroness Miranda Van Lynden.

By the end of the 1960s the new road network made Eilean Donan much more accessible and the numbers of visitors increased geometrically. Eilean Donan Castle is now one of the most famous castles in the world and it is the iconic shorthand image for Scotland itself, attracting over 300,000 visitors per annum.

Yet the castle is more than a tourist Mecca for it remains the private family home of the MacRaes who are the direct descendants of John and Ella. It is also the home of the Clan MacRae Society and a regular venue for clan events.

Posted March 18, 2011 by eileandonan in Historical

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Welcome to a new season!   3 comments

As of today, the Visitor Centre is officially open for the 2011 season so it’s clearly time for me to get back into the blogging habit after a rather strange winter!

We woke up to a rather surprising fall of  snow this morning, so winter has clearly decided to drag it’s heals as usual.  Our newly sprung daffodils are none too happy, but it does however make the place look clean and fresh. Huge flakes are falling even as I type.  The whole team seem really pleased to be back to work after their 3 month sabbatical, and have been enjoying some of the changes we’ve been making.

One of the most significant and important changes to the operation has taken place in our ever popular Coffee Shop. After 14 years of service, I decided that the time had come to modernise the whole operation with a new servery which has been specifically designed to better cope with the demands of 320,000 visitors per annum. As regular visitors will know, there are times when a dozen tour buses or more can be parked up in our bus lanes, and as visitor numbers have steadily increased over the years, our previous servery, at times, struggled to cope with the sheer volume of visitors. As much as it was quite poignant watching the old carcass being stripped out, it was fascinating watching the new installation take shape. The whole catering operation has been designed and changed to both raise quality whilst being able to serve people faster and significantly reduce waiting times.

We’ve also brought in new tables, and overall, the old place is simply gleaming. Our first customers are already in and enjoying Cappuccinos and freshly baked scones, and I can smell the first wafts of freshly made Leek & Tattie soup drifting through the place. A strengthened kitchen team also offers us the opportunity to continue to develop the whole operation. To give you a wee glimpse, here’s a few photos.




Some of the Coffee Shop team, raring to go!

We’ve also got a few new faces joining the team this year after various retirements and an expanding workforce to help cope with the ever-increasing visitor numbers. Advanced tour bookings for 2011 look very healthy, and we look set to host over 80 weddings this year, a new record. I always breathe a bit of a sigh of relief when we re-open for a new season, as I tend to be working to this deadline with a variety of different projects to complete. Bizarrely, I’ve already started planning next winters projects, with a new roof installation to go on the southern side of the castle, and a complete refurbishment, upgrade and extension planned for our holiday cottage. 2011 will also see the launch of our new on-line shop and hopefully the launch of a new electronic guide application for smartphones, which will be downloadable for visitors before they get here.

On a retail front, after a hugely successful buying trip, we’ve managed to procure some great new products for our Gift Shop, avoiding what I often refer to as the predictable “tartan tat” that seems to fill so many of our country’s gift shop shelves!

All told, we’re absolutely ready for the new season, and myself and the rest of the team look forward to welcoming you all back to Eilean Donan. Make sure to pack some sunshine for when you come!

Posted March 9, 2011 by eileandonan in News

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