Dunnottar Castle

In the 14th century, Dunnottar was granted to William de Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland (d.1370). Around 1359 William Keith, Great Marischal, married Margaret Fraser, niece of Robert the Bruce, and was granted the barony of Dunnottar. Keith gave the lands of Dunnottar to his daughter Christian and son-in-law William Lindsay of Byres, but in 1392 an excambion (exchange) was agreed whereby Keith regained Dunnottar and Lindsay took lands in Fife. William Keith completed construction of the tower house at Dunnottar, the Earls Marischal Dunnottar until the 18th century.

Through the 16th century, the Keiths improved and expanded their principal seats: at Dunnottar and also at Keith Marischal in East Lothian. James IV visited Dunnottar in 1504, and in 1531 James V exempted the Earl’s men from military service on the grounds that Dunnottar was one of the “principall strenthis of our realme”. Mary, Queen of Scots, visited in 1562 after the Battle of Corrichie, and returned in 1564. James VI stayed for 10 days in 1580, as part of his progress through Fife and Angus, during which a meeting of the Privy Council was convened at Dunnottar. King James came again on 17 April 1589 and spent the night at Cowie watching for the Catholic rebel earls of Huntly and Erroll. During the rebellion of Catholic nobles in 1592, Dunnottar was captured by Captain Carr on behalf of the Earl of Huntly, but was restored to Lord Marischal just a few weeks later.

In 1581 George Keith 5th Earl Marischal, and began a large-scale reconstruction that saw the medieval fortress converted into a more comfortable home. As the founder of Marischal College in Aberdeen, the 5th Earl valued Dunnottar as much for its dramatic situation as for its security. A “palace” comprising a series of ranges around a quadrangle was built on the north-eastern cliffs, creating luxurious living quarters with sea views. The 13th-century chapel was restored and incorporated into the quadrangle. An impressive stone gatehouse was constructed, now known as Benholm’s Lodging, featuring numerous gun ports facing the approach. Although impressive, these are likely to have been fashionable embellishments rather than genuine defensive features. The earl had a suite of ‘Samson’ tapestries which may have represented his religious outlook.

In 1639 William Keith, 7th Earl Marischal, came out in support of the Covenanters, a Presbyterian movement who opposed the established Episcopal Church and the changes which Charles I was attempting to impose. With James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, he marched against the Catholic James Gordon, 2nd Viscount Aboyne, Earl of Huntly, and defeated an attempt by the Royalists to seize Stonehaven. However, when Montrose changed sides to the Royalists and marched north, Marischal remained in Dunnottar, even when given command of the area by Parliament, and even when Montrose burned Stonehaven. Marischal then joined with the Engager faction, who had made a deal with the king, and led a troop of horse to the Battle of Preston (1648) in support of the royalists.[27] Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Engagers gave their allegiance to his son and heir. Charles II was proclaimed king, arriving in Scotland in June 1650. He visited Dunnottar in July 1650, but his presence in Scotland prompted Oliver Cromwell to lead a force into Scotland, defeating the Scots at Dunbar in September 1650.
Charles II was crowned at Scone Palace on 1 January 1651, at which the Honours of Scotland (the regalia of crown, sword and sceptre) were used. However, with Cromwell’s troops in Lothian, the honours could not be returned to Edinburgh. The Earl Marischal, as Marischal of Scotland, had formal responsibility for the honours, and in June the Privy Council duly decided to place them at Dunnottar. They were brought to the castle by Katherine Drummond, hidden in sacks of wool. Sir George Ogilvie (or Ogilvy) of Barras was appointed lieutenant-governor of the castle, and given responsibility for its defence.

Meanwhile, by May 1652 the commander of the blockade, Colonel Thomas Morgan, had taken delivery of the artillery necessary for the reduction of Dunnottar. Ogilvie surrendered on 24 May, on condition that the garrison could go free. Finding the honours gone, the Cromwellians imprisoned Ogilvie and his wife in the castle until the following year, when a false story was put about suggesting that the honours had been taken overseas. Much of the castle property was removed, including twenty-one brass cannons, and Marischal was required to sell further lands and possessions to pay fines imposed by Cromwell’s government.

At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the honours were removed from Kinneff Church and returned to the king. Ogilvie quarrelled with Marischal’s mother over who would take credit for saving the honours, though he was eventually rewarded with a baronetcy.

Religious and political conflicts continued to be played out at Dunnottar through the 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1685, during the rebellion of the Earl of Argyll against the new king James VII, 167 Covenanters were seized and held in a cellar at Dunnottar. The prisoners included 122 men and 45 women associated with the Whigs, an anti-Royalist group within the Covenanter movement, and had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new king. The Whigs were imprisoned from May 24 until late July. The cellar, located beneath the “King’s Bedroom” in the 16th-century castle buildings, has since become known as the “Whigs’ Vault”.
Both the Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuarts) and the Hanoverians (supporters of George I and his descendants) used Dunnottar Castle. In 1689 during Viscount Dundee’s campaign in support of the deposed James VII, the castle was garrisoned for William III and Mary II with Lord Marischal appointed captain. Seventeen suspected Jacobites from Aberdeen were seized and held in the fortress for around three weeks, including George Liddell, professor of mathematics at Marischal College. In the Jacobite Rising of 1715 George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal, took an active role, leading cavalry at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. After the subsequent abandonment of the rising Lord Marischal fled to the Continent, eventually becoming French ambassador for Frederick the Great of Prussia. Meanwhile, in 1716, his titles and estates including Dunnottar were declared forfeit to the Crown.

The seized estates of the Earl Marischal were purchased in 1720 for £41,172, by the York Buildings Company who dismantled much of the castle. In 1761 the Earl briefly returned to Scotland and bought back Dunnottar only to sell it five years later to Alexander Keith (1736–1819), an Edinburgh lawyer who served as Knight Marischal of Scotland. Dunnottar was held by Alexander Keith then his son, Sir Alexander Keith (1768–1832) before being inherited in 1852 by Sir Patrick Keith-Murray of Ochtertyre, who in turn sold it in July 1873 to Major Alexander Innes of Cowie and Raemoir for about £80,000. It was purchased by Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray, in 1925, after which his wife embarked on a programme of repairs. Since that time the castle has remained in the family, and has been open to the public.

Dunnottar Castle, and the headland on which is stands, was designated as a Scheduled monument in 1970. In 1972 twelve of the structures at Dunnottar were listed. Three buildings were listed at category A as being of “national importance”: the keep; the entrance gateway; and Benholm’s Lodging. The remaining listings were at category B as being of “regional importance”.

The Hon. Charles Anthony Pearson, the younger son of the 3rd Viscount Cowdray, currently owns and runs Dunnottar Castle which is part of the 210-square-kilometre (81 sq mi) Dunecht Estates.