Eilean Donan and Dunvegan: Iconic Highland Castles

Two Iconic Scottish Highland Castles

Over the weekend we returned from our latest tour, this one took us up into the Scottish Highlands. We took the three day tour through Timberbush through glens and past lochs until we got to the Isle of Skye, where we spent two nights. I can’t possibly put our entire trip into one blog post; it would be way too long and probably take a week to write. Baby steps! I want to start with our adventures to two gorgeous, yet very different, Scottish Highland castles, Eilean Donan Castle and Dunvegan Castle.

Because if there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I love castles.

These two experiences couldn’t be more different, but they were both highlights of the trip for their own reasons. But to be honest there were a lot of highlights for me. So many that I felt like I was constantly walking around with a grin on my face. Although now that I think about it, my grin could have been caused by the insane amounts of caffeine coursing through my veins. One of the best parts of staying in hostels is when all of your bunk mates snore. There’s nothing like the dulcet tones of snores surrounding you to lull you to sleep! I kid, I kid. It’s actually the worst. But I think these two castles are a great place to start our Highland journey together!

So am I the only one who automatically thinks of castles when I think of the Highlands? Castles, mountains and fields of heather. The imagery gives me chills! When I studied abroad in Edinburgh I didn’t make it past Loch Lomond, even though I always dreamt of roaming through the Highlands. There’s just something so romantic about them. Life isn’t easy there, but it makes the beauty all the more striking. There are plenty of castles to find here, and even though we saw quite a few we only made stops at two.

Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is so quintessentially Scottish, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most visited and well-loved attractions in the Scottish Highlands. I could have stayed and photographed this castle for hours, waiting for the light to change even slightly. Luckily we actually stopped here twice, once for pictures and once to explore the castle. Both days provided dramatic views.

Another shot of Eilean Donan
Eilean Donan Castle, built and rebuilt on this same spot for centuries.

Eilean Donan Castle has been standing in one form or another at this spot for centuries.

The name Eilean Donan means the island of Donan. It was most likely named for the Irish Saint Bishop Donan, who visited the area in the 6th century. Situated on an island, the castle sits in the middle of three great sea lochs: Loch Long, Loch Alsch and Loch Duich. A structure was first built in this spot to protect from the Vikings.  It had the perfect defensive position when the main highway in the area was the sea and many lochs.

Although the area was first inhabited in the 6th century, the first fortified castle was built in the 13th century. You can still see a bit of the original wall out by the flag pole if you look for it. At least four different versions of the castle have been built and re-built here. The medieval castle was the biggest version, with a curtain wall that ran almost to the edge of the island.

During the Jacobite Uprising the castle sustained a good deal of damage and sat in ruins for almost 200 years. Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the lands in 1911. Years of labor later, the castle was officially reopened in 1932; the building you visit now has been rebuilt using materials from earlier ruins.

Above the entrance
Looking above the entrance of Eilean Donan.
Moody Eilean Donan Castle
A look at Eilean Donan Castle from the bridge.
Rainy view of Eilean Donan Castle
A rainy view of Eilean Donan, from the side.
Looking out a window at Loch Long
Peering out a window in Eilean Donan Castle at Loch Long.

It was downright hard to leave this castle behind.

Hands down, this castle was my favorite stop of the tour after Skye. For the cost of the castle, you get so much out of it. You can explore the entire castle, every little nook and cranny. There are plenty of staff on hand to answer any questions you might have. They have really great artifacts on display and a ton of information to read. It’s roughly four hours from Edinburgh, so I suggest you go when you can have quite a few hours there; we only had a bit over an hour and I was desperate for more.

After walking through the castle I felt like I actually understood all that happened there since its beginning. The MacRae family gives you a rather impressive glimpse into their family and life in the castle. I appreciated the ability to roam relatively freely around the property and linger in places that struck my fancy. After reading many books set in the Highlands and castles in general, it was really cool to put myself in those stories. There were people all around, but I didn’t even notice them.

If you can’t get to Eilean Donan in the near future, you can enjoy it in films such as Highlander (1986), Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and James Bond: The World is Not Enough (1999). But I think you should probably get there and see it for yourself. Trust me.

Looking at Loch Duich
Typical Scottish weather. I loved it!! This is the view looking out at Loch Duich.
Bagpiper in front of Eilean Donan Castle
He was such a good bagpiper!
Atmospheric Eilean Donan
No matter the weather, this castle is stunning.

Opening times vary, check here for details, as times vary. Adult tickets are £7.00, concession £6.00.
Eilean Donan Castle Dornie, by Kyle of Lochalsh, IV40 8DX Scotland

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle sits a little north of Dunvegan village on the Isle of Skye. This classic Hebridean castle is well known for being the only castle continuously inhabited by the same clan, Clan MacLeod. They have called Dunvegan home for over 800 years! The castle is still home to MacLeods and visitors can have a small sneak peek into the castle and roam freely among the gorgeous and expansive gardens.

Another view of Dunvegan Castle
Dunvegan Castle, home to the Clan MacLeod for 800 years!
Dunvegan Castle
Dunvegan Castle sits on a loch sharing the same name.

The history behind this castle is fascinating.

The Clan MacLeod can trace itself to 1200 and Leod Olafson; MacLeod translated means Family of the Son of Leod. Leod’s father was Olaf the Black, Norse King of the Isle of Man. Already claiming a part of Skye through his father, Leod married into another strong Norse ruling family on Skye and gained Dunvegan in the match. The MacLeod clan went on to become the strongest clan on the Isle of Skye.

The keep was the first building erected on site by Malcolm, 3rd Chief, in 1350. Around 1500, the Fairy Tower was added. The area between the two buildings was filled by Rory Mor’s House in 1623. Further additions were made in the 1660s and 1680s by the 18th Chief. In 1790 the 23rd Chief Norman increased the size of the castle when he added new wings (originally built to house troops). His son added an eastern doorway as well as the bridge that spans the mostly filled moat on the side of the castle.

Entrance to Dunvegan Castle
The entrance to Dunvegan Castle.

The gardens are the highlight of Dunvegan Castle.

Throughout the years the garden has also been expanded. There are photos of Skye from the 1650s that show the island was covered by woodlands. It’s believed that the woods hid bands of robbers, so people cut them all down. The gardens were started by the 24th Chief, John Norman when he started planting trees before creating gardens. Throughout the years more gardens were added. In 1978 the 29th Chief, also named John, began a serious replanting and investment effort in the gardens, creating the lush space you can explore today.

Dunvegan Castle Grounds
Pretty flowers found in the Dunvegan Castle grounds.
Dunvegan Castle Round Garden
The Round Garden at Dunvegan.
Dunvegan Castle gardens
I could have walked around all day!

When your family has a motto, you better make it good.

The Clan MacLeod has a motto: Hold Fast. The story behind it is actually quite cool. As he was coming home from a meeting in Glenelg, the 3rd Chief, Malcolm MacLeod was confronted by a wild bull. As he was wrestling this bull, his nearby clansmen cheered him on,  yelling “hold fast, MacLeod” and it stuck fast. I’m currently accepting submissions for my own family motto. I’m thinking something like, “steal all the sheep, McNulty” is a fine place to start.

But the experience of visiting this castle wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.

Looking up at Dunvegan Castle
Looking up at Dunvegan from the base of the castle.
Loch Dunvegan
Loch Dunvegan on a gorgeous afternoon.

I’m going to be real with you: this castle left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. When I learned we would be going to the castle inhabited by the MacLeods I was so excited, but when we got there I was let down. Sure, it was gorgeous, but I just felt like I wanted more.

The price of entry was a bit much for the area you were able to explore. In the castle itself you could really only see one floor of the main building as well as a few rooms in the basement (think upstairs-downstairs). I actually enjoyed the grounds much more than the actual castle; the gardens were seriously beautiful. I could have spent all day out there.

There were also boat trips to the seal colony in Loch Dunvegan, but we didn’t have enough time to take a trip. I also didn’t have any Dramamine and no one needs a seasick me sitting next to them on a coach for hours.

But it’s worth noting that the Fairy Flag is on display in Dunvegan Castle. This magical, sacred banner was used by Clan MacLeod in battle. It allowed the MacLeods to defeat any enemy who came against them. That was the coolest part of the castle.

By far the worst part were the mannequins. Creepy mannequins in dungeons and on back staircases. Backlit with red lights. Because who doesn’t love a demonic looking mannequin when they least expect it? That alone ruined the experience for me.

I’m kidding of course, but they should still remove them.

Check here for opening times. Adult tickets are £12.00, child tickets are £9.00.
MacLeod Estate, Dunvegan House, Dunvegan, Isle of Skye IV55 8WF

I’m still dreaming of these castles.

Actually, I’m still dreaming of every part of the Highlands. Ryan is lucky I came home. Our tour guide kept joking about letting people behind, but he had no idea how close he came to losing one member of his group for real.

Stay tuned for more posts on the way about our trip to the Highlands. I can’t wait to share Skye with you in full; I fell absolutely in love with this island and had a hard time leaving. You have to see Glencoe, a place of great beauty and great sadness. We’re actually heading back up there this weekend to go hiking (don’t take me near a mountain and then not let me climb it). And the lochs of the Highlands deserve their own post. There are so many to explore! I also want to take a closer look at touring in general; how you can pick a good one, what to realistically expect, and how you can help turn them around when they go south.

Can you believe it’s almost September?? Holy crap where did the last two months go? We are officially down to less than four weeks in Edinburgh, and I’m starting to get incredibly emotional thinking about it. In fact as I was writing that last sentence my stomach dropped and I started to tear up. I’ve gotta get out and make the most of these last precious weeks here.

Enjoy these last two days of August! I hope you all have fabulous weather, wherever you find yourself!


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  1. Beautiful!

    But, girl, you said it for me- I love castles! The size, the architecture, the time period,ruins…all of it!

    I can totally see you wearing a field jacket upon your return to the States…if you ever come back. Won’t blame you if you don’t. Check LL Bean, won’t you?😊


    1. Shhh!!! Don’t tell anyone I’m not coming back 😉

      I had to Google field jackets, and I have to say I think I’d look pretty cool in one. I’ll send you a picture when I get mine!


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