The Legend of Castle Eilean Donan, a Scottish Icon

800px-Eilean_Donan_Castle,_Scotland_-_Jan_2011In the earlier thirteenth century, during the reign of Alexander II  (ruled 1214–1249), a large curtain-wall castle (wall of enciente) was constructed, enclosing much of the island. At this time the area was at the boundary of the Norse-Celtic Lordship of the Isles and the Earldom of Ross: Eilean Donan provided a strong defensive position against Norse expeditions.

Eilean Donan Castle is likely the most icon image of Scotland beloved castles. It is situated on the islet at the point where three sea lochs meet. The castle was built in the mid 13th Century, during the reign of Alexander II (1215-1250) to serve as a stronghold against Norway.


Eilean Donan (Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Donnain) is a small island in Loch Duich in the western Highland of Scotland. It lies about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from the village of Dornie. Eilean Donan is part of the Kintail National Scenic Area. In 2001, the island had a recorded population of just one person.

Eilean Donan (which means simply “island of Donnán”) is named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in 617. Donnán is said to have established a church on the island, though no trace of this remains. The castle was founded in the thirteenth century, and became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan Macrae.


The Macraes became Constables of the Castle in 1599, which they defended for over 200 years. In the early eighteenth century the Mackenzies were involved in the Jacobite rebellions, which led to the castle’s destruction by government ships in 1719. The Jacobites supported James VII, the Old Pretender, and Spanish supporters of the Jacobite cause were quartered in Eilean Donan. The English sent a small fleet to bring the rebellion under control. Outnumbered by the English troops, the Spaniards surrendered, and the building was left in ruins thanks to the English artillery rounds.

The present buildings are the result of twentieth-century reconstruction of the ruins by Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap.

A founding legend relates that the son of a chief of the Mathesons acquired the power of communicating with the birds. As a result, and after many adventures overseas, he gained wealth, power, and the respect of Alexander II, who asked him to build the castle to defend his realm.

A chief of Kintail reportedly dismissed the lower classes as superstitious fools. To show himself as superior, he set out to prove the ancient legend that said if a child drank its first drink from a skull of a raven, the child would develop powers beyond those of normal humans. From the beginning, the chief’s young son came to understand the language of birds and conversed with them.

The boy’s relationship with his self-imposing father suffered when the child grew into adulthood. The father asked his son what the starlings chattered of outside the chief’s window. However, when the young man said the starlings spoke of a day when the chief would wait upon the son, the vain chief drove his son from the family lands.

The chief’s son eventually arrived in France. The King’s peace had been greatly disturbed by a flock of sparrows. The young man offered his services to the King. The man discovered there was a feud between several species. He negotiated a peace, which silenced the angry screeching the King had experience and replaced the screeches with melodic chirruping. The King gave the young man a ship and crew.

The young man continued his journeys and was rewarded time and time again for his ability to speak to the birds. He collected gifts most wondrous. Finally, the young man arrives in a kingdom plagued by rats. The birds could not solve the kingdom’s problems, but a gift of a cat set the palace aright. The king reward the young man with a casket of gold.

Finally, the young man sets a course for Scotland and his home. He sailed into Loch Alsh with a cargo of riches. The pompous older chief offered hospitality to what he thought was a rich lord from another land. And as the starlings had prophesied years prior, the chief served his own son at table. When the young man revealed his true identity, the chief was almost struck dumb with shock.

The chief’s son had learned much in his travelers. He could speak different languages and knew the intricacies of foreign cultures. He was recognized as a great man by one and all. As such, King Alexander gave the chief’s son the honor of being the one to oversee the building of Eilean Donan’s castle, a castle to defend Kintail lands beyond from Norse attack.

aerial view

aerial view

At a later date it became a stronghold of the Mackenzies  of Kintail, originally vassals of Uilleam, Earl of Ross.  At this early stage, the castle is said to have been garrisoned by Macraes and Maclennans, both clans which were later closely associated with the Mackenzies. Traditional Mackenzie clan histories relate that Earl William sought advantage from the Treaty of Perth of 1266, by which King Magnus VI of Norway ceded the Hebrides to Scotland, and demanded that his kinsman Kenneth Mackenzie return the castle to allow his expansion into the islands; Mackenzie refused, and Earl William led an assault against Eilean Donan which was repulsed by the Mackenzies and their allies.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to The Legend of Castle Eilean Donan, a Scottish Icon

  1. Well written, thank you! I’m going to share on my blog too!

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