En route to the picturesque Isle of Skye road bridge sits Eilean Donan Castle, considered the most photographed castle in Scotland! From Scotland’s history to the silver screen, Eilean Donan Castle has risen to one of historic that tops the to-do lists of history buffs and holiday-goers alike. And while it may be a journey from major Scottish cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, Eilean Donan Castle is well worth the trip.
This picturesque castle sits at the confluence of three lochs, Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Hourn, atop a small tidal island that overlooks the surrounding mountains. It stands as the gatekeeper to the Outer Hebridean Isle of Skye and contains a rich history involving the MacRae Clan, Robert the Bruce, and more.
Before you plan your trip to Eilean Donan Castle, check out our complete guide to the castle’s history, how to get there, and the top attractions to prepare for.
In This Post
Eilean Donan Castle History
Even before Eilean Donan Castle was built, the tidal island it sits on was a significant location. Vitrified stone from the Iron Age was found on the island, and there’s said to have been a monastic cell dedicated to an Irish Saint who was martyred on Eigg in the first century, according to field archaeology specialists.
As time passed, the picturesque setting of the three sea lochs, beautiful mountains, and route to the Isle of Skye was irresistible to many of Scotland’s most popular clans.
The precursor to the most photographed castle in Scotland was an ugly curtain wall built by Alexander II to keep out the Norse invaders in the 13th century. Eventually, however, the Mackenzies of Kintail built the first castle with Macraes and Maclennens as their garrison. The Mackenzies were originally vassals of William I, Earl of Ross, and stood as protectors of the Mainland against the Norse-controlled Hebridean Islands.
Once King Magnus VI of Norway ceded the Hebrides to Scotland, the Mackenzie Clan repulsed William I from expanding into the islands. Indeed, Clan Mackenzie were the stalwart protectors of the Outer Hebrides.
Although there’s little evidence to support it, Eilean Donan Castle also supposedly was a place of refuge for Robert the Bruce during the winter between 1306 and 1307. This is the only part Eilean Donan Castle played in the War of Scottish Independence. But Clan Mackenzie and Eilean Donan Castle’s tendency as guardians and protectors of the Scottish Highlands led them to war against William III, Earl of Ross.
The Earl apprehended Kenneth Mackenzie and executed them in 1346. Although down on their luck, Mackenzie’s long-time allies, the Macrae, stepped up and began working together correctly with the Mackenzies – even uniting the clans through marriages and kinship.
During the Middle Ages, Clan MacRae supported Clan Mackenzie through multiple clan feuds – especially with Clan MacDonald, who pestered the Mackenzies throughout the 1400s and 1500s. This was a brutal clan feud, with Clan Mackenzie and Clan MacDonald losing many kin. Then, in 1539, Donald Gorm attacked the Mackenzie Clan after learning that the castle was severely under-garrisoned. Duncan Macrae and his father died in the attacks, but not before fatally wounded Gorm with an arrow to the neck.
Clan Macrae and Clan Mackenzie were at this point intertwined together through blood and war, so it’s only natural at one point or another that Clan Macrae gains control over Eilean Donan Castle.
Such a thing happened in the 17th century when Reverand Farquhar Macrae became the constable of the castle and the minister of Kintail.
The Jacobite Rebellions were a period of religious wars in which the Highlands took a minor part. Nevertheless, several updates were made during this time that helped historians decipher what state Eilean Donan Castle was in. Unfortunately, the main sketch created by Lewis Petit shows that the castle was dilapidated and mostly without a roof.
Clan Mackenzie and Macrae took the side of the Jacobites and ended up on the war’s losing side. However, the second Jacobite Rising took place with the support of Spain. Soon, Spanish soldiers mingled with Scottish clans at Eilean Donan. They were also joined by ships as three Royal Navy Frigates sailed into Loch Alsh and anchored outside fearsome portcullis Eilean Donan.
However, these were not enough for victory, and the Second Jacobite Rising was defeated at the Battle of Glen Shiel.
After this point, Eilean Donan’s castle walls and main entrance fell into disuse and were occupied in the early 1900s. John Macrae-Gilstrap rebuilt the castle to restore it to its former glory. Macrae-Gilstrap also introduced the prominent war memorial commemorating the fallen Clan Macrae soldiers of World War I.
Since 1955, the Castle has been open to the public and has become one of Scotland’s most visited Medieval castles (third, in fact). It is currently managed by the Conchra Charitable Trust, which Clan Macrae owns.
How to Get There & Details to Know
Eilean Donan Castle sits on the precipice between the Scottish Mainland and the Isle of Skye, which makes it quite the drive from cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh. That being said, if you’re planning to undertake the wild Highlands or drive along the North Coast 500, then make sure to visit Eilean Donan Castle.
The castle is open from March to December, although the summer months are the best time to enjoy Eilean Donan Castle. Throughout the year, Eilean Donan Castle is available via the south wall from 10:00 – 17:00. Entrance fee costs for the castle are £11.00 for adults, £6.50 for children over 5, and £32.00 for an entire family.
These details are subject to change depending on when you’re planning to visit.
How to Get There by Car
Reaching Eilean Donan Castle by car from Glasgow should take around 4 hours, subject to the traffic conditions. Start by travelling North along the M8 until you transfer to the A82 at Old Kilpatrick. From there, take the route to the A87 at Invergarry Castle. From there, reaching the castle grounds is simple.
If you’re planning to leave from Edinburgh (make sure to visit Edinburgh Castle) as well) instead, the travel time should roughly be the same (around 4.5 hours). You’ll want to drive the M90 across Forth Bridge and head northward until you reach Perth, from which you need to transfer to the A9. Travel along the A9 until you get to Dalwhinnie, where you’ll need to travel along the A889 and A86. From there, travel southwest along the A86, the A82, and finally the A87.
How to Get There by Transit
Through a combination of buses and railways, transit is a perfect alternate way to reach Eilean Donan Castle from whichever location you’re coming from.
From Edinburgh, you can take a ScotRail to Inverness (a journey close to 4 hours) and then take a bus ride from Inverness to Portree (you’ll need to stop before you reach the Isle of Skye’s capital).
Those leaving Glasgow are limited to buses if they want to reach Eilean Donan Castle in good time. From Glasgow, the bus takes you to Fort William and, from there, the Loch Ness Youth Hostel. You can take a bus from the Youth Hostel to Portree, stopping off at Eilean Donan Castle from the south east.
Attractions at Eilean Donan Castle
Once you’ve safely travelled northward into the untamed wilds of the Scottish Highlands, the attractions of Eilean Donan await! Here are the top things to do and see when visiting the most photographed castle in Scotland.
Exploring Eilean Donan Castle’s Interior
The star stand-out at Eilean Donan Castle is undoubtedly its interior. The Castle has been built back to resemble the earlier castle, with furnishings and period portraits of the Macrae family. The highlights of the Castle include:
Within Eilean Donan is the Billeting Hall, which contains fascinating artefacts from the Macrae family, the local history of the region, and portraits. As you step in, the domestic architecture will immerse you in the times of heroism and Scottish clans. There are dueling pistols, cannon balls, and sets of Liverpool China.
It’s easy to get lost exploring the Halls’s interior, but there’s more to the castle for you to explore.
The Banqueting Hall is another superb part of Eilean Donan Castle, sporting large timber ceiling beams from British Columbia. These were a gift for the Macraes from Canada and a beautiful addition to the family home after the restoration.
What’s more, you can get married at Eilean Donan Castle in the Banqueting Hall! There’s nothing more beautiful than a ceremony within the romantic reincarnation of this great hall.
Visit the Bright Modern Visitor Centre
Eilean Donan Castle has a thriving visitor centre where you can find all the information you’d ever need about the castle, the region’s history, and the surrounding area’s top attractions.
Check out the Eilean Donan Gift Shop
The Visitor Centre has several unique gifts and souvenirs to pick up and remember your visit. From postcards, Scottish geography books, Scottish music, and pictures of Eilean Donan Castle, you’ll be able to find the perfect item to give to any friends who couldn’t join you.
Eat at the Eilean Donan Restaurant
Need a pick-me-up before you venture out to the Scottish Highlands? Why not enjoy a roasted coffee with a snack or two at the Eilean Donan Restaurant and Cafe? This coffee shop has numerous artisanal goods at great prices to fuel you for your next adventure, including hot paninis, baked potatoes, and hot Scottish dishes made from local ingredients.
There’s no better place to sit down and discuss this Scottish icon’s fascinating history and sights than at the Eilean Donan Visitor Centre.
See the War Memorial
Eilean Donan Castle is home to the Clan Macrae World War I Memorial, which captures the brave soldiers who made up the Roll of Honour during the First World War. Etched in stone, you can read the names of the soldiers of Clan Macrae who lost their lives defending Scotland and Europe – forever remembered by their families and community.
The War Memorial is a sad and touching place near Eilean Donan Castle, covering a piece of its history that is often forgotten compared to its grand past. If you have a moment to spare, the War Memorial is well worth stopping by.
Enjoy Views Out to the Three Sea Loch
The views from the north-east point of the tiny island that Eilean Donan Castle sits on are extraordinary. The entire island is surrounded by still loch waters, with the distant mountains looming and casting the region in a Scottish mysticism.
Early morning and mid-afternoon are the best times to come, enjoy the views, and take a picture of the castle. The courtyard and sea gate offer unrivalled views of Loch Alsh and the Highlands landscape, and the ideal location to take your wedding pictures if you plan to officiate your special day at the Banqueting Hal.