Saturday, June 02, 2007

Dunnottar Castle

A wee trip North from Fife across the river Tay to Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a rocky outcrop on the north-east coast of Scotland, about two miles south of Stonehaven. Its recognizable architecture is 13th century, but an earlier castle was built on this site by Caledonian tribes by 84 AD[1]. Dunnotar played a central role in the history of Scotland from the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment, due to its strategic location overlooking the shipping lanes to northern Scotland and also being situated on a fairly narrow coastal terrace that controlled land movements, particularly the land access to the ancient Causey Mounth, the only medieval route from the coastal south via Portlethen Moss to Aberdeen[2]. The site, now owned by private interests but open to the public, is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually.

The ruins of the castle are spread over a three acre area virtually surrounded by sheer cliffs which drop to the North Sea 50 metres below. This L plan castle is accessed via a narrow strip of land joining the mainland and a steep path leading up to the massive gatehouse. The cliffs and headland formations which extend miles to the north and south are home to tens of thousands of pelagic birds, making this stretch of Scottish coast a notable bird sanctuary of northern Europe from the standpoint of total bird populations and diversity of species. The 1990 film Hamlet starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close was shot there.
The Dunnottar site comprises eleven distinct buildings ranging from 13th to 17th century construction. There are two theoretical accesses to Dunnottar Castle. The first was via the well defended main gate set in a cleft in the rock where attackers could be assaulted by defenders from all directions. At this location is the imposing gatehouse with apparent medieval defensive devices lurking for attackers treading up the cobblestone entrance road. The second access is through a rocky cove, the aperture to a marine cave on the north side of the Dunnottar cliffs. From here a steep path leads to the cliff atop which is the well fortified postern gate. The most dominant building viewed from the land approach is the 14th century keep or tower house, somewhat distressed from Cromwell's cannon bombardment. Other principal buildings are the 17th century chapel and an extensive quadrangle structure on the east side, below which is the infamous "Whigs Vault", a barrel vault design, the setting of an 18th century mass imprisonment.
Early in the 16th century the Scots added a new block to the east of the keep. Mary Queen of Scots visited Dunnottar in the years 1562 and 1564. In 1575 a substantial stone gatehouse was constructed, which serves as the imposing present day visitor's entrance. James VI stayed during part of the year 1580. From 1580 to 1650 the Earl Marischals converted a medieval style fortress into an opulent castle, constructing ranges of edifices around a quadrangle on the northeast. These resulted in arguably the most luxurious living quarters in Scotland in that era. Between 1582 and 1584 a west wing to the fortress was erected. Also, during the 16th century, a new chapel was introduced. Then, early in the 17th century two other wings to the chapel were added.

In 1639 the owner of Dunnottar was the Seventh Earl Marischal, who that year joined the Covenanters, a movement opposing the established Episcopal Church and hence Charles I himself. James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, earlier an ally of Mariscal, tried to convert Mariscal back to the Royalist cause; being unsuccessful in that exercise, Montrose turned on his former friend and attacked the fortress, laying waste by fire to expansive grain fields all about. Nonetheless, Mariscal held the fortress, in spite of considerable structural devastation. At about this same time in history Covenanters, who had been opposing the Bishops of Aberdeen, held a conference in nearby Muchalls Castle. Events at Dunnotar and Muchalls Castles were to prove a pivotal turning point in the English Civil War, and to promote willingness of the monarchy to come to terms with the ideals of the Covenanters.

King Charles II was received warmly in a visit to Earl Mariscal in 1650; however as the pendulum swung again, in 1651 the English General Overton began a siege of Dunnottar seeking the prize of Scotland's Regalia, the royal crown, sword and sceptre used in the coronation of Charles II at Scone Palace. The Dunnottar fortress was defended bravely by a small garrison of approximately 70 men. Ultimately the then governor Sir George Olgilvy of Barras surrendered to Overton's predecessor, General Morgan; however, the English were denied the Regalia, which was smuggled out during the siege[5]. The successful smuggler has been identified as four different persons including Anne Lindsay, a relative of Olgilvy's wife.

In 1685, during the rebellion of Argyll and Monmouth, 125 men and 42 women were herded into the dungeon known as the "Whigs Vault" within the Dunnotar fortress. Many of them perished in this dank, crowded and squalid setting. The remainder were deported to the West Indies.

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