The wind is always strong here, this ancient pathway to the ruined castle. It whips our hair around, obscuring our vision, as we make our way down the wet, well-trodden dirt to its end. The wind similarly whips through the tall wild grasses, creating an eerie whispering hush. We’re visiting Dunnottar Castle, and its fortifications, high on a sheer clifftop, overseeing the cold North Sea.
Dunnottar Castle is isolated. There is little else here besides it, the wild grasses, rocky beach below, and our thoughts. This northeastern part of Scotland always seems to have a chill in the air, and it often rains even in the summer. Travelers, like us, are well-advised to take raincoats along for our visit, and good shoes to walk down the long, winding dirt pathway to the castle. Seagulls spin wide circles around us, screaming their lonely calls as they have for thousands of years. The wind picks up as we approach Dunnottar’s rocky headland, and a few raindrops fly sideways to hit our faces. In a crevasse a spiderweb gets blown apart, and the spider spins her web.
We reach the first stone step of this castle, and step in. Many of the ceilings have long been missing, having been ruined in a sack centuries ago. But a slight gloom falls upon us regardless, as we walk through and sense the history of the place. A chamber is dark, an ancient dungeon is black and cold. We hear the quiet here, between slow drips of water. Steps are uneven and some rooms are low and squat. There are only three or four other visitors, and the silence covers us like a fog.
Picts lived on this site circa 5000 BC to 700 AD, before Dunnottar Castle was built. Its name, in fact, is derived from a Pictish word — dun —meaning place of strength (or, literally, a fort on a hill). Later, during the 9th century, Scottish king Donald II tried to defend Dunnottar Castle from Vikings, and lost his life here. Its first stone chapel was consecrated in 1276.
Much of Dunnottar Castle’s history is wrapped up in Scotland’s battles against the English army. The castle, being so well defended, was the site of a battle led by William Wallace. English troops under the orders of Edward I (King of England 1272-1307), captured the castle in 1296. In 1297, William Wallace led a siege on Dunnottar Castle in an attempt to free it from the English army. The story goes that William Wallace’s men were so fearsome that several thousand English soldiers hid in the chapel, believing that hiding in the stone church would protect them. Instead, William Wallace’s troops burned the church and those inside. Those who managed to escape had to jump from the rocky bluff into the wild North Sea. We learn that a 15th century poet named “Blind Harry” wrote a poem about this. In part:
Out o’er the rock the rest rush’d great noise;
Some hung on craigs, and loath were to die.
Some lap, some fell, some flutter’d in the sea;
And perish’d all, not one remain’d alive.
The lengthy poem “The Wallace” recounts William Wallace’s life and was inspiration for the movie “Braveheart.” My children were pleased to have seen this movie, hence felt connected while visiting Dunnottar Castle.
Another historic point of interest at Dunnottar Castle happened centuries later, but the Scots were still fighting for their rights. In the 1650’s, the Scottish crown jewels were taken from Edinburgh and hidden here, because the bleak isolated locale was considered a safe hiding spot for them. Much of what was held in high value was hidden away in Dunnottar Castle: the Scottish crown jewels include a scepter and sword of state and the ceremonial crown. Oliver Cromwell’s troops stormed the castle and laid siege to it in the attempt to capture this full Scottish Regalia. The Scottish army inside were heavily outnumbered — accounts tell of just 70 men inside, with even fewer weapons — but grimly held out for eight months. Knowing how important it was to keep the Scottish crown jewels in Scotland, a nearby reverend and his wife (Reverend and Christine Grainger) created a plan. Christine Grainger was obviously pregnant at the time, and she approached the English army and beseeched them to let her in and visit a friend trapped in the castle. The general let her pass, and she proceeded to wrap the crown jewels up in her skirts! Naturally she smuggled them out to the parish, and there, she and her husband buried the crown, scepter and sword in the pulpit of their church. It wasn’t until ten years later that the crown jewels of Scotland were recovered.
Oliver Cromwell’s army thoroughly bombarded the castle and it never, ever recovered from this assault. Just a few decades later in 1685, 122 men and 45 women who refused to agree to the English king’s supremacy were locked up in the dark, gloomy cellar for months, until some escaped and others died.
Today, as we walk through the castle’s garrison, to the Tower House, to its bakery and kitchen, we can almost feel the ghosts of lives lost to wars, around us. Kings, militiamen, bakers, the intrepid wife of a clergyman…they were all here, once, living their lives and fighting for their beliefs.
Most of those ancient people’s names are lost to time, their experiences carried off in the wind. Throughout their battles and their loves won and lost, those seagulls swept across the cliffs of the North Sea here, calling their lonely cries. Spiders spun their webs in stubborn insistency against that wind. Today, as we slowly move away from Dunnottar Castle, we may wonder how our own lives will some day be our children’s memories, and some day, those memories will disappear. And those seagulls still fly their lazy circles. And the spider spins her web.