Once seen, never forgotten – no phrase’s more appropriate to describe the monumental Dunnottar Castle. This medieval fortress is not only a history lover’s dream but a sight to behold, sitting atop a large protruding rocky outcrop that dares the North Sea to crash against its walls. A visit to Dunnottar Castle is necessary for any holiday exploring Aberdeenshire, especially for history buffs who want to immerse themselves in this romantic and haunting ruin.
If you plan to visit this Scottish Castle, home to the Earls Marischal, during your holiday in the northeast corner of Scotland, you’ll want to make the most of this iconic tourist destination. We’ll be covering the fascinating history behind Dunnottar Castle, how to get there, and attractions you can’t miss.
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History of Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle’s history started in the 5th century, but the site started as a castle later. Instead, a chapel stood on the cliffs at Dunnottar, founded by St Ninian. Dunnottar Castle’s early history is mysterious, with fledgling reports describing a fortification and several sieges but without certainty that this references Dunnottar Castle.
Thankfully, during the late Middle Ages, the Castle’s history became more apparent during the reign of King William the Lion. Dunnottar served as an essential home and political point for the Mearns, named after a 13th-century Arthurian romance where the Castle was the location of a powerful magical shield. As Dunnottar Castle grew in prominence, it was consecrated by the Bishop of St Andrews.
Dunnottar Castle also encountered the famed William Wallace, who captured Dunnottar Castle in 1297, imprisoned 4,000 soldiers in the church and burnt them. This War of Scottish Independence was rough on Dunnottar Castle and began its cyclical history of turning to ruin before being rebuilt once more. Dunnottar Castle was renewed, expanded upon and given to the Early of Sutherland during the 14th century, who passed it to William Keith, Baron of Dunnottar.
The 16th century boasted a wealth of visits from notable Scottish royals, including James IV, James V in 1531, and James VI in 1580. Mary, Queen of Scots, also graced Dunnottar Castle with her royal presence in 1562 after the battle of Corrichie and then again in 1562. During this time, Dunnottar was flush with luxurious living quarters and amenities as it received visitors from the most powerful families in Scotland.
One of the most famous stories involving Dunnottar Castle was the Honours of Scotland. The Honours (which consisted of the Scottish crown jewels, sceptre, and sword) were smuggled into Dunnottar Castle to stop Oliver Cromwell and his forces in the Lothians from seizing them. Cromwell became aware of this and laid siege to the Castle but found that the Honours of Scotland were not there once it was surrendered. A woman, Christian Fletcher, had smuggled the symbols of King Charles II and the king’s papers in her clothing throughout the siege and buried them under a kirk.
Once the Restoration of King Charles II had taken place, the Honours were returned to the king, and Charles II stayed at Dunnottar to reward Fletcher and those who had secured the Honours against Cromwell. Today, the king’s bedroom, where Charles II overnighted, is in ruins but is still well worth the visit.
Scotland’s colourful past is etched into every stone that makes up the castle walls and corridors of Dunnottar, but who knows how much more of Scottish history and its many rich secrets still lay undiscovered. Unsurprisingly, Dunnottar Castle is a trendy tourist destination for visitors, with evocative cliff-top ruins and picturesque views of the North Sea.
How to Get There & Details to Know
Those looking to visit the once-impregnable fortress Dunnottar Castle are in luck, as the Castle is easy to reach from major destinations in the Scottish Highlands.
Dunnottar Castle is open all year round, and the opening times are from 9:00 – 18:00 during the summer months and 10:00 – sunset during the winter months. The last entry is 60 minutes before closing time.
Entrance fees are £9.50 per adult, £4.50 per child, and £23.50 for a family ticket.
Travelling by Car
Dunnottar Castle sits only a few minutes from Stonehaven harbour – a 5-minute drive from the town. A car park with free parking is available, and a burger van that sells delicious meals if you’re feeling peckish before the steep path up to Dunnottar.
Aberdeen is the closest city to Dunnottar Castle, meaning you can reach the Castle with time to spare within an hour’s drive. From Aberdeen, take the A92 along the east coastal path until you get to the New Mains of Ury, where you’ll need to transition to the A90 and then back onto the A92 just before Dunnottar Woods. From there you can follow the signs to the car park.
Travelling by Public Transport
The X7 Bus from Stonehaven is a frequent and popular bus route to reach Dunnottar and leaves every 20 minutes, with the Castle only a short walk from the stop.
Public transport from Aberdeen is also available, and a 50-minute bus route takes you from the bustling city to Stonehaven’s Barclay Street. Unfortunately, that’s as close to the Castle as these bus routes take you in one go. You can take the X7 Bus mentioned before or a 40-minute walk from Barclay Street to Dunnottar Castle.
Attractions at Dunnottar Castle
Adding Dunnottar Castle to your list of things to do is a must for history buffs who want to experience one of Scotland’s most interesting castles in the country’s north east corner. Here are some attractions to create your own unforgettable experience.
Take Dramatic Photographs
Certain castles and ruins have an inherent photogenic quality, and Dunnottar Castle is a photographer’s paradise. Not only does the Castle sit on an outstanding rocky outcrop, with views out to the expansive North Sea beyond it, but the ominous ruins create an atmosphere just begging for dramatic shots.
Photographers looking for a moody and ruined aesthetic for their shoot will find all that and more when visiting Dunnottar Castle. But those planning to film or take photographs in or near Dunnottar Castle must fill in a request form at Dunnottar Castle’s website.
Follow in the footsteps of films like Disney’s Brave and Hamlet featuring Mel Gibson and make Dunnottar Castle the stage for your art. Whether to capture the rising sun over Dunnottar Castle or film the moody North Sea, the Castle awaits photographers and filmmakers with a dream.
Explore Dunnottar Castle’s Ruins
Dunnottar Castle is filled with fascinating history and rich secrets, making exploring its ruins an unforgettable experience. Before you reach the curtain wall of the Castle, visitors will need to ascend the steep cliffs to the top of Fiddlehead. The natural pathways up the mountain were hacked away to funnel attackers through a narrow entrance route instead.
Once you reach the flat-topped rock, an entire castle awaits!
Waterton’s Lodgings is a Dunnottar Castle region directly connected to the tower house and near the chapel. These lodgings were likely where William Keith, son of the 4th Earl Marischal and are named after Thomas Forbes, the 7th attendant of the Earl.
Waterton’s Lodgings are also occasionally called the Priest’s House for when the chapel priests would board here.
Dunnottar Castle not only has ruined buildings but a bowling green as well! You can find the green on the west range of the historic site, and the large open area is a breath of fresh air from which you can see beautiful views of Stonehaven and the North Sea.
It’s easy to imagine Scottish royals taking to the green while perched atop Fiddlehead’s impregnable fortress, a piece of history often less appreciated than the dramatic moments surrounding Dunnottar.
As you reach the main gate of Dunnottar Castle, you’ll be presented with Benholm’s Lodgings as well – an impressive prison used as accommodation and a tertiary defence against attackers. You can still see the gun ports, which may have been crucial to defending the Castle from surging armies that climbed the steep and narrow path.
History buffs who visit Dunnottar Castle will find Whig’s vault an incredible hot spot. Named after Whigs, an anti-Royalist group prominent during the Covenanter Movement, Whig’s Vault is the prison where 122 men and 45 women were kept.
Those who didn’t escape were eventually transported to Perth, Australia, but the infamous part of the Castle has been referred to as the Whig’s Vault ever since.
Walk along Dunnottar’s Steep Cliffs
The sheer cliffs of Dunnottar Castle are one of the most prominent features of the attraction, so walking along its edge and the cliffs that follow the north range up to Stonehaven are a fantastic way to soak in the wild Highlands. Take care when the weather turns, as bad weather can spoil your trip with solid winds, heavy rains, and slippery terrain – the last thing you need when visiting historic sites like Dunnottar.
The Dunnottar Trail is undoubtedly the most popular way to survey the stark cliff face while appreciating the views of the North Sea and beyond.
Enjoy Stonehaven Harbour
We’ve spoken at length about the beautiful history that Dunnottar Castle has, but the surrounding region is also packed full of hidden gems that visitors can look forward to. Stonehaven is one of the most popular stops for those passing to see Dunnottar, with splendid attractions that tie into the rich history of the Castle.
For example, the Stonehaven War Memorial commemorates the losses of life during World War I and is located en route to Dunnottar if you’re walking from Stonehaven harbour. The beautiful memorial has a slightly sombre atmosphere and is placed majestically amongst the way to the fort.
The Tolbooth Museum in Stonehaven is the town’s highlight, providing guests with an intimate knowledge about Stonehaven’s history and Dunnottar Castle. You can find enthusiastic locals sharing their family history and the many rich secrets of Stonehaven – their passion is truly contagious.
Stonehaven harbour is filled with fun things to do, including lounging on the beach during a hot summer’s day and investigating the many curiosities and food shops along the promenade.
Savour the Views of the North Sea
Beyond Dunnottar Castle sits the moody North Sea, the perfect backdrop for a photograph or visit to this historic site. During obvious days, it’s possible to see down the coast to Stonehaven and Dunnottar Woods.
One of the best ways to spend an afternoon is with a picnic with foods from the local deli and views out to this expansive sea – if you head along the Dunnottar trial, you’ll find plenty of great spots to lay out a picnic blanket and tuck in. Whether it’s with friends, family, or that special someone in your life, don’t pass up an opportunity to savour some of the best views Aberdeenshire offers.
Get Married at Dunnottar Castle
You heard us right: Dunnottar Castle can be where you tie the knot with your special someone! There’s no better place for a history-infused wedding amidst the memorable castle walls.
Ceremonies at Dunnottar Castle can accommodate up to 25 guests, and communication and booking with Timeless White are essential to securing this stunning backdrop for your special day. And there are many reasons why Dunnottar Castle should be the location to commemorate the event – the romantic and haunting ruin set alongside the clifftop views are an unmatched setpiece.
The chapel, picturesque bowling green, and curved archway are perfect for wedding photos and the memories you’ll be safe keeping of the day.