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The beautiful Eilean Donan castle dates from the 13th century and is located on an island where 3 lochs meet in the Kintail National Scenic Area. The castle is a popular stopping-off point for tourists on their way to the Isle of Skye which lies just 10 miles to the west.

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Review of Eilean Donan Castle

As picturesque as Dunrobin Castle, Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most photographed tourist attractions in Scotland.

The castle is located on a small tidal island at the point where three sea lochs meet and it offers one of the loveliest views in Scotland that’s instantly recognisable from a thousand shortbread tins and travel websites.

The lochs of Duich, Long and Alsh provide the stunning foreground to a panorama where the eastern-most tip of the Isle of Skye fills the horizon while the hills of the Kintail National Scenic Area surround it in all directions.

It’s a truly beautiful sight and one that has to be seen by every visitor to this country.

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But there’s more to Eilean Donan castle than picture-perfect photos, and its long and turbulent history is worth investigating just as much as the gorgeous lochs and Highland landscape that surround it.

There’s an array of historic artefacts to view during your visit showcased in rooms that look like they’ve come straight of an Outlander novel and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll end your day having learned more about the history of Scotland than you were expecting.

Eilean Donan is one of Scotland’s most-visited historic attractions and it’s popular with tourists from all over the world who come not only to admire the views but also to explore the battlements, secret spy holes and maze of rooms that make the castle such an extraordinary ancestral home.

To my mind, it’s an iconic castle that you absolutely have to put at the top of your Scotland sightseeing itinerary.

Things to do at Eilean Donan Castle

As you walk through each room you can’t fail to be impressed by the traces of clan history dotted about in every nook and cranny, and it’s easy to forget that these buildings were only reconstructed from a pile of ruins a hundred years ago.

You’re free to wander around the castle at your own pace (there’s no obligatory tour, thankfully) and while it’s not exactly the biggest attraction in Scotland I’d plan at least two to three hours for your visit.

There’s a sensation you get in every room that you’re experiencing something special, and it’s a sensation that becomes overwhelming once you step outside and see the three lochs merging into each other against the spectacular Highlands scenery.

If you have the time during your visit you should wait until dusk and watch the colours of the setting sun bounce off the loch as it fades into the landscape. It’s spine-tingling stuff.

Tourists are well catered for during their visit with a  bright and modern visitor centre on the far side of the entrance bridge which also houses an excellent restaurant (the yummy home-made shortbread is recommended), and there’s a well-stocked gift shop where you can pick up some decent souvenirs and MacRae clan memorabilia.

If you really fall in love with Eilean Donan then you can even hold your wedding there for the ultimate romantic day, and there are self-catering apartments just a couple of minutes away if you fancy staying nearby for a relaxing break.

All in all, Eilean Donan Castle encapsulates everything that’s great about Scottish historic attractions and I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy your visit, whatever your age or interests.

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The history of Eilean Donan Castle

The first known inhabitants on the island were a Christian order who dedicated a church to the 7th-century Saint Donnan of Eigg, but it wasn’t until the 13th-century that the island changed from a site of religious worship to a fortified castle.

Around this time Scotland was under frequent attacks from Norse expeditions that were moving in from the Western Isles, so the Scots ruler Alexander II decreed that a castle was necessary at the point where the three great lochs meet in order to defend his realm.

Shortly thereafter the first incarnation of Eilean Donan Castle was created, a huge fortification of seven towers connected by massive curtain walls that ran around the entire perimeter of the island.

Over the years Eilean Donan Castle was used primarily by clans Mackenzie and MacRae as a stronghold, but it was the early 18th-century Jacobite uprising which eventually led to its downfall.

At this time the castle was inhabited by several Jacobite commanders accompanied by a garrison of sympathetic Spanish soldiers, and it was rumoured that an enormous stockpile of gunpowder was secreted away inside the castle walls.

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On hearing this the British government sent three Royal Navy frigates to bring the Jacobites under control, and through a combination of cannon bombardments and ground-based attacks the Jacobites and Spanish were forced to retreat.

As the English troops moved in a search was ordered to discover if the supposed stockpile of gunpowder actually existed – which it did – and more than 300 barrels of the explosive were uncovered.

The commanding officer of the British forces gave the order to blow the castle up (which was achieved with devastating effect) and the fortification was completely destroyed in the process.

It was to be nearly two hundred years before Eilean Donan Castle was resurrected into the structure that we see today, thanks to the efforts of Lt Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap (a descendant of the MacRae clan) who had the buildings completely rebuilt as a family home using the stones from the original fortification.

As the castle was rebuilt the iconic bridge was also added and a central keep was constructed to serve as the MacRae clan family home, all of which you can explore during your visit.

Discover more Scottish fortifications in my Guide to the Best Castles to Visit in Scotland.

The highlights

  • The view across the meeting point of the three lochs is beautiful.
  • The castle is fascinating to explore. There’s plenty to see inside and the guides are very helpful if you’ve got any questions.
  • I loved the café – great food at a reasonable price (check out the home-baked cakes before you leave).

Visiting tips

  • Take a walk along the shores of Loch Duich and Loch Long to see gorgeous scenery.
  • If you’re on a sightseeing tour in the area you might like to visit Ullapool which is a quaint wee village located in one of the most picturesque regions of Scotland.
  • This castle seems to be on the itinerary of every coach tour in Scotland. Get there early or prepare to be swarmed by crowds.

Directions

Dornie,
Kyle of Lochalsh,
IV40 8DX

Click map for directions


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Things to do near Eilean Donan Castle

  • Loch Duich Viewpoint. Kyle IV40 8HA. 6-minute drive. An elevated single-track road that overlooks Eilean Donan Castle and Loch Duich. The road runs alongside the A87 for several miles and offers some of the best views in the region. Suitable for walking as there are grass verges to avoid passing cars.
  • Balmacara Estate. Kyle IV40 8DN. 9-minute drive. A Highland crofting estate with over 17 miles of walking trails. The estate is rich with moorland, heather-covered hills, lochs and woodland. Balmacara village has a selection of local shops and a café.
  • Kyle of Lochalsh. 12-minute drive. A historic village on the Lochalsh Peninsula close to the Skye Bridge that joins the mainland to the Isle of Skye. The village is easily accessed via the A87. It is also the starting point for the Kyle Line which is one of the highest-rated railway journeys in the world.
  • Loch Long. 2-minute walk. A sheltered relatively shallow sea loch that extends from the village of Dornie into the heart of the Highlands. A popular way to explore the loch is by following a single-track road that runs alongside it. The road is accessed from the A87 a few miles west of Eilean Donan.
  • Loch Duich. 2-minute walk. Loch Duich is a Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area that extends east from Eilean Donan. The loch is easily visited from several points off the A87 on its northern side while the southern side has a much quieter single-track road that closely follows the shoreline its entire length. Look for the Old Military Road where the A87 crosses the River Shiel at the far eastern edge of the loch.

More places to visit in The Highlands

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Scotland travel writer and specialist 360° photographer. Founder of the Out About Scotland travel website and Vartour virtual tours. Follow on Pinterest, Facebook, and YouTube.