Dunvegan Castle is the ancestral seat of the Clan MacLeod of MacLeod. It commands a dramatic position on the northwest coast of the Isle of Skye, on the edge of a sea loch and is the oldest continuously occupied castle in Scotland. The current occupant, Clan Chief Hugh Magnus MacLeod of MacLeod, is the 30th person to hold the hereditary title, the castle, and 42,000 acres of Skye. If you are planning a trip to the Hebrides and the Isle of Skye, Dunvegan is a must-visit. Here's what you need to know before you go.
History of the MacLeods of MacLeod
The MacLeods, one of the most important Highland clans, have roots reaching back into Norse and Viking history. They are descended from Leod, the youngest son of the frightfully named Olaf the Black, the last Norse King of Man and the Isles, who died in 1265. At some point, the family split into two branches, the MacLeods of Dunvegan, Harris, and Dunelg (known as the MacLeods of MacLeod), and the MacLeods of Lewis. It's the MacLeods of MacLeod who have lived in Dunvegan Castle for more than 800 years. If all of this sounds similar to the film"Highlander," that's no accident. Many of the flashback sequences in that cult history/sci-fi film about the immortal Connor MacLeod were filmed at Dunvegan. The castle and estate were also the backdrops for "47 Ronin" with Keanu Reeves and "Macbeth" with Michael Fassbender.
History of Dunvegan Castle
The castle was likely started in about the year 1200, before the Hebrides were part of Scotland. The word "Dun" is a Norse word for a stronghold or fort. In about 1300 it was enclosed in a curtain wall that rises straight up from a massive rocky outcrop beside Dunvegan Loch. At least 10 different architectural styles are represented in the house. It grew as a collection of several different buildings and styles that were added according to the needs of the clan across the centuries. Today, there are five separate buildings enclosed in a Victorian shell that gives the castle a unified appearance. Several of the towers, often called "pepper pots," were added during the Victorian period and are purely decorative.
Things to Do at Dunvegan Castle
Visitors find plenty to do, indoors and out, on a visit to the castle.
- Tour the Castle: Dunvegan, as you see it today, was romantically restored between 1840 and 1850 by the 27th MacLeod of MacLeod (a traditional name for the clan chief). As you tour the castle, you will see the five different buildings within it, each expressing a different period of history. Guided tours leave from the entrance hall throughout the day. They are timed to prevent the castle from becoming overcrowded, so don't be surprised if you're asked to wait before beginning your tour. You can also guide yourself, using the Dunvegan Castle guidebook. It points out the historic paintings and clan legends.
- Look for the Castle Treasures: There are two that are intimately connected with the history and the legends of the MacLeods of MacLeod. The Fairy Flag is a very ancient (and crumbling) silk banner which was probably made in Syria and brought back from the Crusades. Or it may have been a battle banner of the Norse King Harald Hardrada (killed in 1066). On the other hand, the MacLeods like to tell you that the fairies gave it to an ancestor. Another famous treasure is Ruairidh Mor's drinking horn. That's Scot's Gaelic Rory, by the way. According to family tradition, every new clan chief must drain the horn of wine in one gulp as a test of manhood. Originally, the horn contained two imperial pints (1.2 U.S, quarts). Somehow, mysteriously, the horn has been filled in quite a bit over the years, making the feat a bit less fearsome.
- Visit the Gardens: The castle is surrounded by 5 acres of gardens. They were planted in 1978 along the lines of earlier gardens created in the 18th century. The gardens, which include a rose garden, water garden and walled garden are triumphs of gardening skill over climate and are well worth a visit.
- Get up Close to Dunvegan's Seals: From April through September, you can take a 25 minute trip in a traditional clinker-built boat to visit the estate's seal colony. You might also spot nesting herons and sea eagles too. Two-hour fishing trips and loch cruises for up to four people are also available, weather and sea conditions permitting.
How to Get to There
The castle is about a mile from Dunvegan village on the Northwest coast of the Isle of Skye. If you are driving, program your satellite navigation to the Kyle of Lochalsh. From there, cross the Skye Bridge to the island. It's a 45-minute drive to Dunvegan. The scenery along the way is spectacular but some of the roads are pretty hair-raising. You can also take a coach tour:
- Skye Tours include Dunvegan Castle in their Fairy Dust Trail tour from Portree.
- Isle of Skye.com, the official tourism website, also lists several coach and minibus tour operators who visit Dunvegan.
Dunvegan Castle Essentials
- Opening Hours: April 1 to Oct. 15, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
- Facilities: Three shops with Scottish gifts, souvenirs and the MacLeod's own-brand, single malt whisky, special children's castle and garden tours, baby changing facilities,
- Price: Adult price in 2019 is 14 pounds. Child, student, senior, and family tickets are available. Seal trips, fishing trips, and loch cruises cost extra.