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The Oldest Occupied Castle – Dunvegan Castle

Although the Isle of Skye is absolutely beautiful, no visit is complete without a visit to this grand and illustrious castle. It offers a wealth of history and the Dunvegan Castle and Gardens is something you definitely don’t want to miss. It is supposed to be the oldest ever castle to be occupied in northern Scotland, and it sits overlooking the ever so beautiful Loch Dunvegan as it has done for over 800 years.

Dunvegan Castle’s history

Throughout 7 centuries and 30 generations, Dunvegan Castle was inhabited by the chiefs of Clan MacLeod in an unbroken line. To this day, it is still partly occupied by the same line. It is located roughly 1 mile north of Dunvegan and is said to likely be a fortified site from very early times. With over 800 years of history, this castle has a grand history that you will most definitely want to know about.

Continue reading to learn about the oldest occupied castle in northern Scotland, the gorgeous Dunvegan Castle.

Dunvegan Castle sits upon a natural rock formation
Dunvegan Castle is currently inhabited by the MacLeod family. Source: Flickr.

The early history

File:Clan member crest badge - Clan Macleod.svg
MacLeod family crest. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The castle sits within a naturally sheltered harbour at the very head of Loch Dunvegan. Its gently sloping foreshore is what made it incredibly ideal for beaching smaller vessels that were used before, and during, the medieval period. This means that Dunvegan was fortified no later than the very early 13th century when an enclosure castle was built overlooking the harbour. This particular structure was completed by none other than Leod, the founder of the MacLeod clan. Because of this, it is often referred to as MacLeod Castle.

During this time, the MacLeod clan dominated Lewis and Dunvegan Castle was a massive part of their effort to take control over the Isle of Skye. The early castle consisted of a huge curtain wall that basically enveloped the summit of rock it was built on. A rock-cut ditch severed any access to land into the fortification. Around the year 1350, a large keep was built in the far northeast corner of the already complete curtain wall. This was completed by Malcolm, the 3rd MacLeod clan chief. It is said that he built it to show off the clan’s status and offer secure accommodation in luxury.

Modifications

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dunvegan Castle underwent significant modifications. In the southeast corner of the large curtain wall, the Fairy Tower was added. This was sometime in the year 1500. The main reason for its completion was to enhance the already luxurious accommodation facilities. Then, in the year 1623, a new range that consisted of state apartments was built between the Fairy Tower and the keep by Ruairidh Mor, who at the time, was the MacLeod clan chief.

On top of that, another wing was added that was constructed sometime between 1684 and 1690. This seemed to render the keep completely unnecessary and it was then abandoned.

The 18th and 19th centuries

By the time the 18th century rolled around, the requirement for Dunvegan Castle to have a defensive function completely receded. In 1748, a new entrance was added which meant that for the first time since the site was fortified, there was land access to the structure. Following on from this, a substantial restyling happened, and the castle was transformed into a Georgian style in the year 1790.

Panoramic shot of Dunvegan Castle
Dunvegan is a grand castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This was done under the watchful eye of Walter Boak. The keep was also restored and converted into an inspiring drawing-room. Despite the castle’s defences being reduced, a barrack block was added to the site. When the 19th century came, the castle once again underwent extensive rebuilding. In 1814, a new Portico entrance was built by the established John Norman. His son, Norman, then went forth and completely restyled the castle between the years of 1840 and 1850.

The design was then devised by Robert Brown who was an Edinburgh based architect. The cost was in excess of £8,000.

The present day

Due to the modifications the castle underwent in the 18th and 19th century, the castle has been able to transform into a stately and comfortable home very easily. What you see today mostly dates back from that period, however, you can see some hints at the earlier fortification. When you step inside Dunvegan Castle, it is quite easy to imagine what it would have been like in earlier times with a modern twist.

You may enjoy reading about other Scottish Castles such as Kelburn Castle.

Guided tours are available at the castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dunvegan Castle Timeline

  • Early 13th century- Dunvegan is fortified
  • 1350- A keep is built in the northeast corner
  • 1500- A Fairy Tower is built in the southeast corner of the curtain wall
  • 1623- A new range, consisting of state apartments is built
  • 1684 to 1690- further wing, on the south-west, is constructed
  • 1748- A new entrance is added to the castle
  • 1790- The castle is substantially restyled in a Georgian style
  • 1814- The Portico entrance is built
  • 1840 to 1850- The castle is, once again, completely restyled

Claim to fame

 Dunvegan Castle is fairly famous due to the fact that over 30 generations of the same clan have lived in and owned the castle. Those 30 generations spanned over 800 years which is obviously very impressive. It is also well-known due to the fact that it has seen so much architectural change with the same clan. It is no doubt that it is impressive.

Facts about Dunvegan Castle

  • The MacLeod family endured a lot within the walls of this castle including fighting and famine
  • Many people on the Isle of Skye say that Dunvegan Castle, as well as the Isle of Skye itself, has a lot of supernatural phenomenona happen
  • The Dunvegan Estate lies across 42,000 acres
  • Several Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest exist across the land, including the Black Cuillin mountains and the head of Loch Dunvegan
  • The Estate has very close historical links with the island of St Kilda

Featured in TV and Film

  • St Kilda: Britain’s Loneliest Isle (1928)
  • Speaking Our Language (1993)
  • Made of Honour (2008)

Books on Dunvegan Castle

  • Building Dunvegan Castle by Ruairidh H. MacLeod (1993)
  • An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legend by Theresa Breslin (2019)
  • The MacLeods: The Genealogy of a Clan by Alick Morrison and Donald MacKinnon (date unknown)

Who owns Dunvegan Castle?

As said during this piece, Dunvegan has been owned by the same clan for 800 years and over 30 generations. At the present time, Dunvegan Castle is owned by the current clan chief Hugh Magnus MacLeod. He is based in London which means he only inhabits the castle part-time.

Tourism

The castle has risen from only a small number of visitors to hundreds of thousands in no time at all. When you visit the castle, you are helping to preserve, develop, and share this beautiful part of Scotland and its history. You can enjoy lovely tours and if you enjoy the spot enough, you can even have your own Dunvegan Castle wedding! It is the perfect venue to clarify and immortalize your love.

There are plenty of lovely beaches nearby as well as tourist attractions such as the Giant Angus MacAskill Museum. You can also stay at the Dunvegan campground if you want to spend more time in the area. It is the perfect place to enjoy your stay. You can book tickets to visit the castle and gardens here. Adult tickets go for £14.00. Enjoy all that gorgeous castle offers by planning your visit today.

More Images

  • Dunvegan Castle sits on a natural rock formation

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