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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5 responses to “Historical background to Eilean Donan

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  1. We host the Clan MacRae tents at several gatherings here in Northern California and hang a beautiful photo of the castle. Many inquiries are fielded about Eilean Donan and this is just the kind of historical information we like to share. Thanks so much for compiling this!

  2. Thanks Mary. I’ve got lots more material which I’ll put up over time, so as not to bombard people too much!

  3. Useful for me!!! I’m an illustrator and Eilean Donan Castle is my next goal… history of this place gave me better inspiration and ideas;)

  4. I would love to visit Eilean Donan one day as I am a very distant descendant of the MacKenzie’s

  5. That is so interesting to know. I am just in the throes of researching my family tree as a McCreath I believe we are linked to clan MacRae.

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