Eilean Donan is a small island at the junction of three lochs in the western Highlands of Scotland. It is one of the most recognized of all Scottish castles. Not only is it one of the most photographed fortresses in Scotland but it has also been featured in several popular movies and television series.
How to Get to Eilean Donan
To visit Eilean Donan you will need to put aside a couple of days. There are day tours from Edinburgh and Glasgow but it's a long drive/train ride so there isn't much time available to spend at the castle. The nearest train station is Kyle of Lochalsh, an approximate 15-minute drive from the Castle. The public bus service, Citylink, offers routes between Inverness (2 hrs), Glasgow (5-6 hrs) and Edinburgh (7-8 hrs) to the nearby village of Dornie. From Dornie, it is a short walk to Eilean Donan. I would recommend seeing the Castle as part of a multi-day visit or as a stopover on a self-drive road trip through the Highlands.
Where to Stay Near Eilean Donan
There are several choices for nearby, including accommodations hosted by the castle. A cottage is available for weekly rentals (Saturday to Saturday). This is an expensive choice so it wasn't even a passing consideration for this budget traveller. The castle also has some modern self-catering apartments in the nearby village of Dornie with a minimum 2 night stay. At the mid-range level, Dornie has multiple guesthouses, bed & breakfasts, and the charming Dornie Hotel. Other charming and affordable choices are available in nearby small villages like Kyle of Lochalsh.
We had our trusty campervan and stayed at a lovely campground, the Ardelve Caravan and Camping Park. There are full amenities including hook-ups and coin showers. The campsite is a short 10 minute walk to the village and then another few minutes to the stone bridge to the island.
The name Eilean Donan (Ay-leen Doh-nan) means Island of Donan, most likely named after a 6th century Irish Saint who came to Scotland near the end of the 6th century.
The first structure on the island was built in the 13th century as a defensive measure against Viking invaders. The castle also played a role in the Jacobite Rising of the 17th and 18th centuries, that eventually destroyed the castle.
In 1719, the English government learned that a group of Jacobites were stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Three heavily-armed frigates were ordered to quell the uprising. The castle was bombarded for three days, making little progress due to the thick castle walls. Eventually, the English captain ordered his crews to take the castle from the shore. This attempt was successful. When the magazine of over 300 barrels of gunpowder was discovered, it was used to blow up the remains.
For about 200 years, the castle remained abandoned and neglected, becoming further and further degraded by the elements. In 1911, Lt. Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap bought the island and dedicated himself to the reconstruction of the Castle based upon surviving plans of the original fortress. The work was completed in 1932.
Part of the restoration was the construction of the arched bridge, and a war memorial dedicated to the MacRae men who died in the First World War. The memorial includes the words from John MacRae's famous poem, In Flanders Fields.
Eilean Donan was opened to the public in 1955 and has become the third most-visited Scottish castle. In 1983 the MacRae family transferred ownership to the Conchra Charitable Trust. The Conchra Charitable Trust was established by the MacRae family to maintain and restore the castle. All the trustees have personal and family connections to the castle. Currently, Marigold MacRae is the matriarch of the Clan MacRae and steward of the estate. Mrs. MacRae still keeps an apartment in the castle, but spends most of the year living in the seaside town of Nairn, about 70 kilometres away.
Over the centuries, Eilean Donan Castle has expanded and contracted in size, with at least four different versions built and rebuilt. At its largest, the towers and curtain wall took up the entire island. Around the end of the 14th century the castle was at its smallest size. A couple of hundred years later a bastion, or hornwork, was added to the east wall as a firing platform for cannons.
The rooms within the castle are packed with information on the history of the site, including an extensive collection of items that once belonged to the different occupants of the castle including many family photos.
The visitor center not only includes the required gift shop but also a little coffee shop with a good selection of goodies. In 2022 a new exhibit called the Eilean Donan Tale Trail was opened. Sign posts inside and around the castle tell the stories of the castle, its history, local wildlife, and the myths and legends associated with the area.
Village of Dornie
On the opposite side of Hwy A87 is the tiny former fishing hamlet of Dornie. Quaint and colourful cottages line the rocky shores of Long Loch. Closest to the A87 bridge is a small harbour with a park and picnic area. This is where some of the most charming gardens could be seen.
At the heart of the village is the Dornie Hotel and Restaurant where we enjoyed a lovely meal, a tasting flight of whiskey, and a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Nearby is the Clachan pub with the word "PUB" printed on the roof which can be seen by travellers when coming from the highlands. Dornie also has a shop, post office, gallery, and multiple guesthouses.
The campsite is right at the water's edge across from the Castle and nighttime provides beautiful views of the illuminated castle. In the morning, we were delighted to see otters playing on the shore with the castle peeking out from the morning mist.
The castle is fascinating and beautiful. The village was warm and welcoming. The campsite was well-equipped and perfectly situated. For most visitors, a couple of hours while travelling to or from the Isle of Skye is plenty of time. For those looking for an overnight stop in a charming location, Dornie is perfect. For outdoor and hiking enthusiasts, even more time might be required to explore the surrounding hills and trails.
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