The Out About Scotland complete guide to Dunstaffnage Castle
What’s this attraction all about?
Dunstaffnage Castle is located just a few miles north of Oban on a promontory that looks out across Ardmucknish Bay and the Western Isles. It was here that the King of the Isles, Duncan MacDougall, built his formidable stronghold in the early 1200’s as a defence against invading Norwegian armies who were looking to take control of the Hebrides, and the imposing fortifications of Dunstaffnage Castle remain an impressive sight to behold to this day.
The castle consists of a curtain wall which protects the residential buildings inside (now mostly in ruin), with two projecting round towers and a gatehouse.
Surrounding the castle is a beautiful woodland with several paths leading both through it and down towards the bay, and the remains of a medieval chapel can be found hidden away nearby. This truly is one historic site that’s worth visiting not just for its history, but also for the beautiful location in which it sits.Read more...
What can you do there?
As is usual with Scottish castle’s there’s a surprising amount of history to discover at Dunstaffnage, and you might be surprised to learn a few new facts about Scotland’s history that you didn’t previously know.
I was personally fascinated by the story of Flora MacDonald and her involvement with the Jacobite cause after the Battle of Culloden, and was pleased to see so many information panels about her story and the history of the castle that have been installed by Historic Environment Scotland. There are also several displays that depict the history of the MacDougall clan and the part the castle played in the history of Scotland’s Western Isles. It’s genuinely interesting stuff, even if you’re not a history buff.
Although it was built in the 1220’s, Dunstaffnage Castle is still an impressive structure to view from the outside thanks to its enormous curtain walls, but there are plenty of other things to look at inside the walls as well. Walking up the steep steps into the main entrance leads visitors through the fortified buildings and out into the main courtyard where there are enough ruined walls and deep cellars to keep the kids entertained for a good hour, and the stunning views of the bay from the ramparts will keep adults happy too.
Leaving the castle you can head out into the well-maintained grounds where there are lots of paths leading into the surrounding woodland, and it’s here where you’ll find the remains of the 13th-century Dunstaffnage Chapel which although small offers an interesting collection of ruins to explore.
The woods themselves are beautiful and I loved the fact that they’re so well maintained, and the local wildlife seems to love them as well because Dunstaffnage is one of the few places in Scotland where pipistrelle bats choose to roost (I actually saw them on a later return visit in the evening, so if you’re a nature-lover I’d recommend coming back at dusk with your camera).
But for me, the highlight of my visit was sitting in the sun in the expansive grounds outside the castle walls and looking out across the beautiful bay with its little sailing yachts bobbing about, surrounded by the incredibly peaceful woodland.
Obviously, it’s not going to be quite so nice in the colder months, but if you’re looking for somewhere to grab lunch during your visit you can always head to the cafe on the exit road (there’s no on-site cafe at Dunstaffnage), and as Oban is only a 10 minute drive away you can easily combine a visit to Dunstaffnage Castle with the pretty Gateway to the Isles.
The history of the attraction
The beginning of Dunstaffnage Castle starts with the conflict between two great nations – the Scots and the Norwegians – who were constantly battling for ownership of the Hebrides in Medieval times.
As a location to defend both the heart of Scotland and the seawards passage to the Western Isles, the site on which the castle sits would have been incredibly important for Scotland, with the Isle of Mull a short distance away to the west and the isles of Jura and Islay lying not much further south.
The castle was built under the orders of Duncan MacDougall in the early 1200’s, and he made good use of the raised promontory looking out over Ardmucknish Bay by constructing an enormous stone curtain wall on top of a mighty rock pinnacle that offers superb views across to the Western Isles.
Duncan’s son, Ewen, later improved on the defences of the castle by adding three almost impenetrable round towers, with one of the towers being later converted into the imposing tower house that you can still see today.
As we know, the Scots eventually won control of the Hebrides in 1266, but that didn’t mean the conflicts were over for this formidable castle as it was successfully besieged by King Robert the Bruce in the early 1300’s after his victory over the MacDougalls at the Pass of Brander.
Dunstaffnage Castle remained a royal stronghold for the next 150 years until it passed into the ownership of the Campbell Earls of Argyll, at which time it sealed its place in Scotland’s history with the incredible story of Flora MacDonald.
In 1746, after the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Flora MacDonald was imprisoned at Dunstaffnage Castle for the role she played in helping Bonnie Prince Charlie evade capture by the victorious English forces. While visiting her brother on the Isle of Uist, Flora met the young prince who was fleeing from the English and agreed to help him on his journey to safety in France.
By disguising the prince as her serving girl, Flora transported the defeated royal across the sea to the Isle of Skye from where he made his eventual escape, although she was later captured herself by a pursuing company of English Redcoats.
After her incarceration at Dunstaffnage, Flora was eventually moved to the Tower of London, although she was later released and returned to Scotland. The story of the fleeing prince was eventually immortalized in the 1892 poem by Robert Louis Stevenson – Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone, perhaps better known in recent times as the theme tune to the cult hit TV show, Outlander.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s only 4 miles from Oban. Perfect for killing time before catching a ferry
- The views across the Firth of Lorn are lovely
- It’s an impressive castle with a fascinating history
What I didn’t like about this attraction
- It won’t take you long to see everything as it’s fairly small (as castle’s go)
- There’s no disabled access into the castle
- Telephone: 01631 562 465
- email: NA
- Website: Historic Environment Scotland
Prices and opening times
- HES Member/Explorer Pass holder: Free
- Adult: £6.00
- Child aged 5–15: £3.60
- Child under 5: Free
- Concession: £4.80
- 1 Apr to 30 Sept: Daily, 9.30am to 5.30pm. Last entry 5pm
- 1 Oct to 31 Mar: Daily except Thurs and Fri, 10am to 4pm. Last entry 3.30pm