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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Dunnottar Castle


Dunnottar Castle
Dunnotar Castle ©Scottish Panormamic

IN ancient times; when lance and spear, claymore and dirk were the favourite weapons of war, few Castles could lay claim to greater strength than Dunnottar, in Kincardineshire, not far from Stonehaven. The peninsula on which it stands rises to a considerable height above the sea-level, and the stormy waves of the North Sea break into foam upon three sides of its base. The deep chasm which intervenes betwixt the Castle and the mainland, like some Californian canon, plainly exhibits its volcanic origin. And a very tyro in military affairs may perceive that the only approach to the Castle which is possible from the land might be defended at close quarters, as Thermopylć was of old, by a mere handful of resolute patriots. But against the heavy ordinance of modem times the most elaborate fortifications which are on a lower level than the surrounding country are practically powerless. The long-range guns and rifles of these latter days have done more to demolish chivalrous bravery and hardihood than may be at first supposed. And the magnificent game of war, which once gave scope to the most daring and courageous of heroes, is now reduced to a mere mathematical problem, founded upon distances, paraboles expansive forces, and impenetrability. All these achievements in mechanical warfare put to flight the great deeds of our ancestors, and thus earthly glory passeth away. As students of humanity, then, it is to older times that we must turn if we wish to see the truest examples of personal prowess and endurance, and Dunnottar Castle has preserved for us not a few of these.

The Keiths, Earls Marischal of Scotland, the feudal proprietors of this fortress, have afforded some renowned names to grace the annals of Scottish history. From a very early date they were entrusted with the hereditary office of Marischal at the Court, and were thus the custodians of the regal honours of the kingdom— the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword of State, which once bore sway in Scotland. The first name among the Keiths which is brought prominently into notice is immediately connected with Dunnottar. Despite its inaccessible position, it appears that the site of the Castle was at one time occupied by the Parish Church of the district. But about 1292 Sir William Keith, then Earl Marischal, knowing the disturbed state of the country, and appreciating the importance of the ground on which the church stood for the purposes of defence, built an edifice more easy of access near Stonehaven, and persuaded many of the parishioners to perform their devotions there.

Taking possession of the cliff, he transformed the church into a private chapel, and surrounded it by those buildings necessary to render it at once habitable and defensible. Judging from the ruins which now exist, the erections must have been considerable, for the appearance of the Castle and outworks, even in their present demolished condition, is rather that of a ruined hamlet than a single fortress. The necessity for extensive buildings, even for stores, may be understood when we remember that the only communication by land could be easily cut off, and the Castle placed in a state of close siege by a very small opposing force.

An unlooked for adversary arose to this scheme in the person of the Bishop of the diocese. This ecclesiastic, jealous of any encroachment by the temporal on the spiritual power, took action against Sir William, and solemnly excommunicated him by bell, book and candle for trespassing upon consecrated ground. The Earl, usually brave enough in secular matters, was timorous with those who wielded the power over the soul. Fearful of the doom fulminated against him, he sought the protection and absolution of Pope Benedict XIII., explaining that ere he touched the ancient church he had provided for the spiritual wants of the parish, and insisting that the times demanded that there should be some such fortress as he had erected in that quarter for the preservation of the lives of the parishioners. Benedict XIII., in the spirit of a wily Italian Pope, made capital out of both the blunders of Bishop and warrior Earl, for he decreed that the sentence of excommunication should be taken off the latter, and that upon the payment of a fine to the Church the Earl should be allowed to enjoy the Castle unmolested. And thus Sir William’s yearly ransom enabled him to preserve his body from his foes in this world, and his soul from the Enemy in the next.

This chapel was the scene of a very tragic occurrence a few years later. In 1297 the English had gained possession of Dunnottar, and placed a strong garrison there. But the dauntless Wallace had made his way even into this strong fortress, and spread dismay among the southern soldiers. The greater portion of them sought refuge near the altar, trusting that the superstition of the time would prevent the Scottish hero from violating the sanctity of that holy place. This intrepid leader, however, had advanced too far thus to retire, and he braved the terrors of the spiritual powers by enclosing these fugitives within the church, and setting fire to it. From their dreadful fate no escape was possible. The sacred structure overhung the raging waves of the North Sea, and the only exit by land was guarded by the relentless Wallace and his followers, and thus, by fire, by water, and by the sword, perished four thousand of the English invaders. Ere blaming Wallace too severely for this deed, we should remember the critical period in which he lived, and the great stake of home and fatherland for which he played.

Nor should we forget the long arrears of crime and oppression which the English had incurred, and which only the most stringent measures could repress. Harshness was not habitual with him, and there are times when leniency is the worst form of mercy. And we may believe that he had to steel his heart against compassion and discard all thoughts of tenderness when he remembered his murdered wife, his slain father and brethren, and his desolate and bleeding country.

"Not few nor slight his burdens are
Who gives himself to stand
Steadfast and sleepless as a star
Watching his fatherland.
Strong must his will be, and serene,
His spirit pure and bright;
His conscience vigilant and keen,
His arm an arm of might."

The Castle, though frequently employed as an asylum for the neighbouring inhabitants during the raids of lawless Highland chieftains, does not appear conspicuously in history until the time of the Civil Wars. The rapid changes in political faith which then took place amongst the nobility rendered their Castles the frequent scenes of retribution for crimes committed within their walls. And thus the dungeons of Dunnottar Castle were tenanted alternately by Covenanters and Episcopalians as either of these parties gained the ascendancy. The traditional policy of the Keith family was distinctly Tory in its tendency, and even when the existing holder of the title in 1645 had declared for the Covenant, it was but a half- hearted support which he gave to the Lords of the Congregation. When, therefore, the Marquess of Montrose, who had been won over to the King was on his way from the North and called upon Dunnottar to surrender in the name of King Charles, it was with much difficulty that the possessor of that fortress was prevented from declaring himself the vassal of His Majesty. The persuasive eloquence of the Presbyterian clergymen, his companions in the Castle, at length overcame his scruples, and he fortified the place against the great Marquess, and put him to defiance. Finding that he had no time to spend upon a formal siege of Dunnottar, and doubting its importance in the guerrilla warfare which he then pursued, Montrose avenged himself by devastating the surrounding country, and supplied the necessities of his army from the produce of the inhabitants.

But "the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges," and so it happened shortly after that the Castle changed hands and found a new master, who was as vigorous a persecutor as its former one had been a saint. Even yet among the ruins is shown the "Whig’s Vault," in which, according to tradition, a number of the hill-folk were confined, and subjected to extreme trials of fortitude and endurance. Torture was freely resorted to, and boots, thumbkins, and racks were called into requisition to provoke an abjuration of Presbyterianism. The rings are yet shown to which prisoners were chained, and the "Martyrs’ Monument," in the ancient churchyard, serves to localise the tradition.

The historical incident, however, which is most distinctly associated with the name of Dunnottar is the preservation of the regalia during the invasion of Cromwell. When the Lord Protector had "crossed the Rubicon" and openly broken with the Presbyterian party in the north, he found that it was necessary for the establishment of his prestige to strike a vigorous and decisive blow at the strength of the Scottish Independents. The English leader was essentially a man of war, so he buckled on his armour, and ere the Lords of the Congregation had finished their stormy deliberations he had entered the country with fire and sword. Here he found himself opposed by both the Tory and Whig parties; yet, as these two would not coalesce against the common foe, the strength of the country was divided, and he marched triumphantly through Scotland, as he did through Ireland, making his name a terror to the people. To General Monck he entrusted the reduction of the Castles of Scotland which still held out against the Parliament, and this victorious leader subdued them, one after the other, meeting with little resistance from the people. Dunnottar was the last of the Castles to be attacked, in 1652, and to its siege a particular interest was attached.

Since the Union of the Crowns in the person of James VI., half a century before this time, the Scottish nation had watched over the regalia of the kingdom with peculiar jealousy. They had not succeeded in retaining the ancient "Stone of Destiny" at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scots from time immemorial had been crowed, and the superstition of the age led them to imagine that the luck of the kingdom would depart if the Crown Jewels and Insignia were removed. After the disastrous battle of Dunbar the Scottish leaders cast about for a suitable place of safety for these precious relics, and the Castle of Dunnottar was selected as the strongest fortress in their possession. The emblems were conveyed thither in secrecy and dispatch, and handed over to Lord Keith.

The place of their seclusion, however, was soon discovered, and, as the cupidity of the English had been excited by extravagant accounts of the value of the jewels, these became a special object of interest to them. They laid close siege to the Castle, and prepared for a long campaign. Sir George Ogilvy of Barras, then Governor, at once put Dunnottar in a state of defence, and endeavoured to establish communications with the land by the seaward side of the Castle. In this attempt he was foiled, and the English Army, trusting to conquer by protracting their blockade, resolutely encamped before the fortress. Even so extensive a storehouse as Dunnottar must ultimately fail if sufficient time be spent upon it, and when the stores at length gave token of reaching a speedy termination, it became necessary to provide for the safe keeping of the national honours. A very bold and daring scheme was conceived and executed by the Governor, with the assistance of the Rev. Mr. Grainger, minister of Kinneff, and his wife, then confined to the Castle. For the purpose of putting the besiegers off their guard, a report was circulated that the regalia had been sent to the Continent in the charge of Sir John Keith, a brother of the Earl’s. So industriously was this report spread that the vigour of the siege was relaxed, and a fuller communication with the land permitted.

In these circumstances the courageous Mrs. Grainger applied to General Mouck for permission to remove some bundles of lint from the Castle, to which she made claim, and, as he was more noted for gallantry than any other of the Parliamentary generals, her request was readily granted. With the sword and the sceptre enclosed in the bundles which her servant carried, and with the crown secreted about her own person, she boldly made her way through the English camp, receiving, it is said, special attention from the general himself, and, taking the road to Kinneff Church, where her husband awaited her, she finally deposited her charge there. Mr. Grainger removed some of the flagstones in the floor of the church, and, wrapping the precious articles in fine linen, he deposited them there, where they lay unmolested until after the Restoration of Charles II.

Meanwhile the Castle of Dunnottar, after a brave defence, was compelled to surrender, and great was the disappointment of the English when they found themselves checkmated. The unfortunate Governor was subjected to close examination, and even, it is alleged, to the torture, but he held his secret unflinchingly. The minister and his wife were likewise ill-treated, but they steadfastly refused to betray the hiding-place wherein they had disposed the valuable honours. And thus the siege of Dunnottar, from which the Parliamentarian Army had expected to reap such glorious spoils, became nothing but a barren victory, and the sagacious leaders had to confess themselves outwitted by a woman.

The end of the history of Dunnottar Castle came in the year 1715, a date ever memorable in Scottish annals. The tenth Earl Marischal, who then held sway there, was sufficiently ill-advised to join the rash noblemen who took the field at that time in support of the Chevalier de St George (James VIII.). Ever noted for their devotion to the House of Stuart, the Keiths were easily led into the Jacobite Rising, and George, Earl Marischal, remained faithful to his troth until the end. After the collapse of that unfortunate expedition the Earl was attainted of treason, tried, and condemned, and as he was then upon the Continent, and could not conveniently suffer beheading, it was decided that Dunnottar Castle should be dismantled. And thus this ancient fortress, which had for more than four hundred years maintained a bold front against invasion and rebellion, was taken when defence-less by the soldiers of the new dynasty, the fortifications razed to the dust, and its halls left roofless and uninhabitable. The ruthless spirit of oppression stimulated by fear, which characterized the government of that time, could not suller so venerable a stronghold of the Stuart family to remain unmolested. And it was the consideration of such revengeful demolitions of ancient landmarks which prompted the old Jacobite ballad which runs thus:-

"Our ancient Crown’s fa’en in the dust;
De’il blin’ them in the stour o’t,
An’ write their names in his black book.
Wha ga’e the Whigs the pow’r o’t.

Our sad decay in Kirk and State
Surpasses my descrivin’;
The Whigs cam’ ower us for a curse,
An’ we ha’e dune wi’ thrivin’."

See Burke's Peerage & Gentry for additional information


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