On Scotland’s east coast, just a short way south of Aberdeen, there is an unusual spit of land, a high, flat-topped, island-like rock, which is connected to the coast by a low and narrow neck of land. From early times, this rock, defensible by nature, was utilized for a variety of habitations. Engraved stones found on the site indicate an occupation by early Christians, and probably a succession of church structures. St. Ninian, the Apostle of Pictland, is said to have preached at this place, in the beginning of the 4th century. The promontory became famed, however, for events connected with the centuries of ownership by the Keith family.
Donnottar Rock, as it is called, protrudes from the land two miles below the town of Stonehaven. We know that there had been fortifications located here, enclosing a chapel. English troops occupied and defended a stockade on the rock, in 1297, but it was taken by the Scottish hero, Wallace, who burned the church and the English garrison inside. During the time of Robert the Bruce (1330’s), England again captured the rock, and referred to it in communications as “Dunnottar Castle”, which was burned in 1336. Ten years later, David II gave the promontory over to William, Earl of Sutherland, for purposes of building a castle. Whether this was accomplished or not we don’t know. Dunnottar came to possession of the Sir William Keith-Marischal at the end of the 14th century. He soon began construction of a crude castle (a “fortalice”), doubtless the ‘keep” and other early structures that still are apparent. For this, for building a castle on “sacred soil”, William was excommunicated (by the Bishop of St. Andrews) and later reinstated (for a fee).
Over the years, a whole complex of fort, castle habitation and religious edifice evolved Dunnottar into a major Scottish stronghold. King James IV was entertained there, in style, in 1504. Queen Mary visited after the battle of Corrichie (1562), and again in 1564. James VI stayed at the castle on several occasions, and held a Privy Counsil there. King Charles II stayed at Dunnottar several times, during wars with England, and here deposited the regalia of Scotland (crown, sword and scepter) for safe keeping. As it turned out, John Keith, youngest son of the Earl, found himself in charge of these vital items as Cromwell’s English neared the rock. By May of 1652, Dunnottar, under siege, remained the last of Scotland’s strongholds still flying the flag. Before the castle was taken, John Keith used ingenuity, and smuggled the regalia away to safety, and for this service was richly rewarded after King Charles was restored to the throne (see “Earl of Kintore”, in this site).
Less glorious, but equally historical and memorable, Dunnottar was used as a state prison. The more famous instance came in 1685, during the religious persecutions under Charles II, when it housed 167 men and women who were seized and kept in a single gloomy cellar. The cellar, located beneath the Earl’s bedrooms, was later dubbed the “Whig’s Vault”, and it remains in fair condition to this day. This and a memorial to the dead (later erected in the courtyard) is one of the noted tourist attractions. Other prisoners included a James Keith who escaped (in 1629). Accused Jacobites from Aberdeen of the late 1600’s, such as George Liddel, professor of Mathematics from Marischal College, were brought to Dunnottar’s dungeons. It all ended after the Stewart failure in 1716.
When taken away from the Keiths, Dunnottar fell into the hands of the York Buildings Company which did no building at all. Instead, the company stripped the castle and sold its roofs, floors and rich furnishings. The property was returned to the 9th Earl Marischal late in his life, but learning of its deterioration he declined to visit there or to reconstruct. The site was purchased (1766) by Alexander Keith, the noted writer and descendant of the 2nd Earl Marischal, but little was done with the now ruined buildings. It was not until 1925 that some restoration was accomplished, thanks to Lady Cowdray. Today, Dunnottar remains a ruin, though one still of majesty, especially to Keiths who trouble to stroll its historic sod. A flavor of the place is sampled in these two photos by Laura S. Keith. At left is the Dunnottar tower, at right the nearby town of Stonehaven.
I’ve been told that some portions of the grounds were used in filming a movie version of “Hamlet”…the one starring Mel Gibson. A “set”, false fronts and such, was constructed for this film, only a mile or two distant. I am also told, by a number of Keith descendants who have been there, that the sights, sounds and smells, the isolation, and knowledge of its history, combine to provoke a strong, mystical sensation. In all, this is another of those nice places to visit.
For related topics, see the following pages in this web site:
- Keith, Great Marischals of Scotland illustrates those noble arms.
- Succession of the Keiths, a listing and brief discussion of each who served as Great Marischal of Scotland.
- Chief of the Clan, The Earl of Kintore illustrates his arms and origins.
- The Keith Book, for those interested in Keith families in America.