Dunnottar Castle is set on a dramatic clifftop overlooking the North Sea near the coastal town of Stonehaven. The 15th-century castle was the home of the Earls Marischal but today it’s open for public viewing as one of Scotland’s top historic attractions.
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Review of Dunnottar Castle
As one of the most recognisable fortresses in Scotland, Dunnottar Castle should be at the top of all visitors ‘must-see’ lists.
As imposing as Edinburgh Castle and as atmospheric as Eilean Donan Castle, Dunnottar beats them hands-down when it comes to dramatic settings thanks to its location on a precarious clifftop that overlooks the pounding waves of the North Sea.
You’ll find this instantly-recognisable landmark by following the A90 or A92 on the north-east coast around 20 miles south of Aberdeen. As soon as you near the old fishing town of Stonehaven you’ll see signs pointing in the direction of Dunnottar Castle which lies at the end of a minor road that’s part of the coastal tourist route, so follow those brown signs and you won’t go far wrong.
Once you get to the car park you’ll see why this location was chosen as the foundation for a nearly impregnable fortress.
The coastline is shielded by nature along the entire length of the seaward side thanks to fifty-metre cliffs that are almost vertical in places. The landward side meanwhile is relatively flat and open and would have offered little protection to anyone foolish enough to mount an attack.
In addition, the 440-million-year-old promontory on which Dunnottar Castle sits is perched slightly out into the sea with just a narrow strip of land joining it to the headland, which means access is only possible by climbing a winding 200-step staircase to the entranceway.
If there’s a better positioned castle in all of Scotland I’ve yet to see it.
There’s a lot of history at Dunnottar Castle and it’s considered one of the most important fortifications in Scotland due to its associations with James VI and William Wallace.
Although it would have been jaw-droppingly impressive three hundred years ago it was eventually abandoned (like most Scottish castles) in the 1700s and was unmanaged until the early 1900s when restoration works began.
What we see today in the remaining castle is a collection of roofless buildings, although some sections like the ‘quadrangle’ have been brought back to life to how they would have looked in the castle’s 18th-century heyday.
There’s also a large tower house that’s surprisingly intact considering how much damage it must have taken from centuries of abuse by the Scottish weather and invading armies, and there are a few (rather creepy) underground vaults that were used as prisons and storerooms.
But it’s the setting that’s the real draw for visitors to this historic attraction. My advice is to visit either early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun is low and golden.
As the light bounces of the red stone of the cliffs and the castle walls they take on a reddish hue that looks spectacular with the deep blue of the sea framing the scene.
Read on to discover exactly what you can do at Dunnottar Castle.
If you’d like to join a tour of Scotland’s best castles take a look at my recommended Get Your Guide castle tours.
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Things to do at Dunnottar Castle
Unlike many Scottish Castles, this one isn’t owned and managed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES). That’s probably why the facilities are a bit lacking – but there are a few advantages that come with not being part of the enormous government-backed trust.
For starters, it has far fewer visitors than similar-sized historic buildings so while you’ll certainly see a few families walking about you’ll not have to fight your way through crowds like you will at Urquhart, Edinburgh and Stirling castles.
It’s also quite a reasonable price to get in (just £8 as of 2021) which is great value considering the size of it will give you a good 1-2 hours of leisurely exploring.
As far as facilities go you’ll find toilets in the castle and a snack van in the car park but that’s about it. There’s no café and no gift shop, but then Dunnottar more than makes up for it with its incredible location.
From the large car park, you’ll make your way down a path towards a viewing area where you’ll get a good overview of the western end of the fortress. From there you can see Old Hall Bay to the right which has a separate path that runs a short distance onto an outcrop that offers fantastic views of the southern side of the castle.
While you’re there keep a close eye on the beaches below as they’re a favourite resting place for seals while the coastline is a favourite spot for dolphins, and if you’re a bird lover take your binoculars because the cliffs around this area are a prime nesting site for seabirds.
Head back to the junction where the path splits and you’ll see it follows the coastline towards Stonehaven a mile or so northwards. I recommend taking the short walk along this path to look at the cliff faces, coves and sea stacks leading to Stonehaven harbour where you’ll find a couple of restaurants and cafés with outside table seating.
First though is the castle, which you’ll reach by following a long stepped path that descends down to the shoreline before rising steeply to the entrance ticket kiosk. From there you can explore the castle at your leisure but there are a couple of highlights you might like to check out first.
The 15-metre high 14th-century tower house is the first part of the fortress that you’ll see on your approach and though it’s an impressive structure it’s also completely in ruin apart from the external walls.
You can wander down into the lower storehouse and blacksmiths forge and there are a few stairs leading up into the adjoining stable block, but the remainder of the building is sadly off-limits.
Next to the tower house are a couple of storerooms and a 16th-century building known as Waterton’s Lodging that was used as a house for the Earl Marischal’s son, next to an open stretch of grass that leads to amazing views looking out over the northern and southern bays.
Opposite the lodging is the main part of the fortress and the only part that has been almost fully restored. The quadrangle was built in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and comprises three main wings set around an open area with a surprisingly large freshwater well set to one side.
While most of these buildings are roofless there are a couple that are still roofed with the silver house (locked and inaccessible during my visit) on the south-east corner and the dining room and great chamber to the north.
The great chamber is accessed via a winding staircase and it’s the only room that has been completely restored. It’s actually pretty impressive with its polished wooden ceiling and ornamental carvings so it gives you a good impression of how grand these lodgings would have looked back in the day.
Beneath these rooms is a dimly-lit stone corridor that has underground vaults and storerooms leading off it (there’s definitely a weird creepy atmosphere down there) and at the other end is a doorway that leads onto a path that rings the entire quadrangle.
Those underground rooms have got a fair amount of history associated with them and they’re supposedly the place where the Honours of Scotland were hidden when Cromwell tried to destroy the monarchy in the 1600s. They also served as a prison for Whigs – an anti-royalist movement – who were kept at Dunnottar before being sent to the colonies in America.
You can explore all these areas as you like which makes the castle a great place to take children and I guarantee they’ll have a blast running around and poking their heads into every nook and cranny.
After you’ve visited the ‘palace’ (so-called because it was one of the finest lodgings in Scotland) there’s still the courtyard with its huge circular pool and a chapel at the southern corner to look at while the bowling green to the west is the final part of the castle.
I’d give yourself at least two hours for your visit and you can easily double that if you follow the path to Stonehaven and back (more if you stop off at one of the cafés for a bite to eat), but if you’ve still got a few hours in your day you might consider driving 3 miles south down the A92 and heading to the RSPB Fowlsheugh nature reserve which features spectacular cliffs and more than 130,000 breeding seabirds.
If you’d like to explore more Scottish castles read my Guide to the Best Castles to Visit in Scotland.
- The location is stunning, especially in the setting sun when the castle walls come alive in a blaze of colour. It’s a decent size too so you’ll be getting more than your money’s worth on a visit.
- The quadrangle, palace and tower house have lots of rooms to explore and the vaults under the palace are genuinely fascinating. Don’t forget to look in the creepy Whigs Vault.
- The section of the Aberdeenshire coastline is renowned for its marine wildlife and there’s every possibility you’ll see seals and dolphins during your visit.
- If you don’t want to walk all the way to Stonehaven there’s a war memorial halfway that makes a good stopping off point. Opposite the memorial is Strathlethan Bay which often has dolphins in it. Also look for the Dunnicaer sea stack on the southern edge of the bay which is an impressive rock formation that is a favourite nesting site for seabirds.
- It’s an easy walk to Stonehaven from Dunnottar. The coastal path shouldn’t take much more than 90 minutes to complete on a return journey but Stonehaven has a nice wee harbour that deserves a good look as well.
- If you’re driving south on a road trip I suggest avoiding the A90 and taking the A92 instead which is designated as a coastal tourist route. This road is much slower but much more scenic and offers superb views of the coastline and countryside.
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Things to do near Dunnottar Castle
- Stonehaven War Memorial. Stonehaven AB39 2TJ. 25-minute walk. Large war memorial in a raised position overlooking Stonehaven Bay. The memorial is open to the public and can be accessed on a gravel path from either Stonehaven or Dunnottar Castle.
- Dunnicaer Sea Stack and Strathlethan Bay. Stonehaven AB39 2TJ. 16-minute walk. A sweeping bay that looks across the North Sea and is often visited by bird-spotters thanks to the numerous seabirds that hunt for fish in the surrounding waters. The sea stacks are impressive but are not easily accessed from the Dunnottar to Stonehaven path.
- RSPB Fowlsheugh. Crawton, Stonehaven AB39 2TP. 5-minute drive. One of Scotland’s top wildlife-spotting sites. Home to guillemots, razorbills, puffins and fulmars. Pleasant walks can be accessed along the clifftops where you will often see grey seals and dolphins in the water below.
- Stonehaven and Stonehaven Bay. Stonehaven AB39 2BD. 40-minute walk. Stonehaven is a quiet fishing town that is better known for its shingle beachfront and windswept bay that offers picturesque walks along the seafront. The town has a selection of eateries within walking distance of the beach.
- Dunnottar Woods. Dunnottar Church, Stonehaven AB39 3UJ. 3-minute drive. A small woodland that is the location of Lady Kennedy’s Bath – a historic landmark that is a stone-built bath set in the bed of the Glaslaw Burn. Often used as the starting point for the Dunnottar Red Trail which is a 1 1/2 mile woodland walk.
More places to visit in Grampian
- Aberdeen Travel Information – Complete GuideAlthough the city is best known for its links to the oil and gas industry it also has a vibrant nightlife and extensive shopping areas, as well as some fascinating history in the old part of the town like Aberdeen University which dates back to 1495.
- The Speyside Malt Whisky TrailSpeyside is famous within whisky-drinking circles for having the largest number of operational distilleries out of all six whisky-producing regions, with two of the most-consumed brands in the world originating from the area.
- The Complete Guide to Free Attractions in Aberdeenshire and MorayFind a great selection of free attractions with my list of the best free attractions in Aberdeenshire and Moray
- The Banff Heritage Trail – Aberdeenshire: Complete Visitor GuideThere’s a huge amount of history in this little town including a pre-reformation market cross, a tollbooth, the gorgeous 18th-century Duff House, and of course the lovely harbour which now mainly serves leisure craft.