By Vonda Sinclair
Dunstaffnage Castle sits on a rocky promontory where Loch Etive meets the Firth of Lorn in Argyll, not too far from Oban. The name Dunstaffnage comes from the Gaelic dun or 'fort' and two Norse words, stafr 'staff' and nes 'promontory'. Staff may refer to an office-bearer or official. This castle guarded the approach from the sea to the Pass of Brander which leads to the heart of Scotland.
Those who visited the castle found good anchorage in Dunstaffnage Bay. It still serves this purpose and you will usually see yachts anchored in the bay.
Dunstaffnage was built around the year 1220, probably by Duncan MacDougall, grandson of the famous and powerful Somerled. At this time, Argyll was the dividing line between the kingdom of Scotland and Norway. Neither king controlled the area, and by 1150 it was ruled by Somerled, a half-Norse, half-Gaelic warlord. He seized the Kingdom of the Isles from his brother-in-law and ruled until his death. When Somerled died, his kingdom passed to his three sons. Dougall (spelled Dubhgall in Gaelic), the oldest, became Lord of Lorn. Duncan was his son.
|Stone steps of the castle|
Dunstaffnage is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland and it served as residence for lords for over five hundred years. It was only abandoned in 1810.
The curtain wall and three projecting towers survive from the 13th century as does the nearby chapel. As you approach the castle, you will see a strong, forbidding fortification. It's easy to see how it would have intimidated those who might have wanted to attack.
The castle has a long and violent history. It served as a key locale during the 14th century Wars of Independence. Later it served as a stronghold of the Campbells, earls of Argyll. The Campbells earned the king's favor, and therefore power, by policing the region, especially the Western Isles, against uprisings of clans such as the MacDonalds.
Although trees surround the castle now, back when it was a fortified castle, it offered its residents expansive views over the Firth of Lorn and Loch Etive.
|From inside the castle|
The castle sits on high rocky promontory, and the walls rise more than 6 more meters. The original tops of the walls are gone, so it's unknown if they were battlemented or covered in a timber structure. Excavations show that the castle was originally surrounded by an eight meter wide ditch. The only openings in the landward side of the curtain were narrow arrow slits. After 1500 these were blocked up and even smaller gun loops inserted.
|Another view inside the castle|
The original castle had no projecting corner towers, just the massive 11 feet thick walls. The stonework would not have been visible. The walls would've been harled (coated with white lime render.) Harling provides a long-lasting weatherproof shield and was often used on Scottish castles and other buildings. Traces of the harling still survive at Dunstaffnage.
Duncan's son Ewen probably built the three round towers onto the castle, and constructed or enlarged the hall inside.
The building above the entrance, which looks like a house, is the gatehouse. It was rebuilt in the late 1500s. When we were visiting, repairs were being made on it. I didn't take many pictures of the scaffolding and tarps. :) The Captain of Dunstaffnage resided in the gatehouse. The man who filled this role in the 1500s probably had this gatehouse built to replace the poor accommodation of the old donjon. The gatehouse is three floors with one room on each floor. We were not allowed inside nor near it with the repairs to the roof, etc.
The entrance dates from the late 15th century when the Campbells took over the castle. The doorway is within a pointed arch recess. The stone steps leading up to it were built around 1720. Before that, there must have been a drawbridge over the huge ditch. Evidence of a drawbridge pit remains.
The donjon is a dilapidated tower at the north corner. This is the largest of the three towers and was added around 1250. It was built to allow archers a better view of the outer faces of the wall and to furnish the lord with better accommodation. It was probably three stories high. The ground floor was a storage cellar with no stairs leading from it to the upper floors. It had three arrow slits. The upper part held the lord's hall and chamber. There is a spiral stair linking the two and in it a latrine, sometimes called a garderobe.
From the beginning, the castle had a wall-walk around the landward facing walls of the castle. This allowed the garrison to keep an eye out and defend this vulnerable side of the castle. The wall-walk has been repaired so visitors can walk on it. There's a great view from up here.
The area of the castle wall below the wall-walk has several recesses which originally gave access to narrow arrow slits. Later they were altered for guns. There may have been buildings here in early times.
The chapel ruin sits in a woodland behind the castle. It was a family chapel, serving the lord's household, instead of the parish. The remains show that it was once an extraordinary building which shows the wealth and sophistication of its builder, Duncan MacDougall. No other chapel of this date in mainland Scotland can match it for quality. It is 65 feet long and was at one time divided by a timber screen into a nave and chancel. The architecture was inspired by Irish churches but some features are similar to other churches in the area, such as Iona. It likely had elaborate arched doorways. The photo shows one of the paired lancet windows in the chancel. By 1740 the chapel was in ruins.
My Notorious Highlander: Chief Torrin MacLeod vows to possess and wed the spirited lady who stole his heart the previous winter. But Lady Jessie MacKay wants naught to do with the dangerous warrior, no matter how devilishly handsome and charming he is. When Torrin arrives unexpectedly at Jessie's home, along with Gregor MacBain, a man Jessie was formerly handfasted to, she is thrown off-kilter. She never wanted to see either man again, but now they are vying for her hand. Torrin promises to protect her from the devious MacBain, but how can she trust Torrin when she has witnessed how lethal he is?
The more time Torrin spends with the strong and independent Jessie, the more determined he is to win her heart. Once she allows him a kiss, he feels her passion flame as hot as his own. After she knows Torrin better, Jessie finds herself falling for the fearsome Highlander. But the odds are stacked against them. The sinister MacBain is bent on kidnapping Jessie, making her his bride and killing Torrin, while Jessie's conniving younger brother, Haldane, is determined to use Jessie to take over the castle in his older brother's absence. Jessie fears she can never be with the man she loves, while Torrin will do everything in his power to ensure they are together forever. In his heart, she is the only lady for him.
Vonda Sinclair’s favorite indulgent pastime is exploring Scotland, from Edinburgh to the untamed and windblown north coast. She also enjoys creating hot Highland heroes and spirited lasses to drive them mad. Her historical romances have won an EPIC Award and a National Readers' Choice Award. She lives with her amazing and supportive husband in the mountains of North Carolina where she is no doubt creating another Scottish story.