The Isle of Skye is stunningly beautiful and every visitor absolutely must visit the grand Dunvegan castle, famous for being continuously occupied for over 800 years by over 3o generations of the McLeod Clan. The 30th Chief still uses this castle as his main residence, although he also has a flat in London.
We were on a UK roadtrip that started in Dublin and would end in London. We had rented a campervan and arrived on the Isle of Skye via the Skye Bridge. This is a beautiful arched bridge that offers stunning views while crossing Loch Alsh. Be aware that it closes during high winds.
Dunvegan Castle is located on the western part of the Isle of Skye. From the bridge, it's a lovely 40 minute drive, mainly along the coast to the village of Portree. 40-minuteFor those using public transportation, there is a daily bus service from Inverness and Glasgow, as well as on-island bus routes.
Portree The village of Portree, on the eastern coast of Skye, is the capital of the island. It is surrounded by hills and overlooks a sheltered bay, We made a brief stop here to have a coffee and pick up some supplies.
From Portree, it is another half hour's drive to Dunvegan. There is also a public bus route between Portree to the castle.
One of the reasons this castle is considered important is that its current look is the result of at least ten different building periods from the 13th to the mid-19th centuries. The most recent renovation was the addition of Victorian pepper-pots and battlements done by the 25th Chief which gave the castle a more unified appearance, in spite of it actually being five distinct buildings.
The MacLeod history goes back to the Norse King, Olaf the Black. The family has survived many clan conflicts over the centuries and played a significant role in the battles for Scottish independence.
A project in more recent years has been to reunite the world-wide MacLeod Clan. Members of the clan are invited to the Clan MacLeod Parliament which is held every four years at the castle.
The mother of the 23rd Chief declared that no garden could possibly survive on Dunvegan's grounds but future generations have proven her to be very wrong. The castle now has very highly regarded gardens divided into three main areas and surrounded by woodland trails.
The Water Garden includes two waterfalls, beautiful bridges and little islands full of colourful plants. The soothing sounds of flowing water and native birds are heard throughout.
The Round Garden is much more formal and elegant. It is named the Round Garden because of the circular shape of the garden bed.
The Walled Garden is the former kitchen vegetable garden but now is beautifully planted with many different varieties of plants . This garden also includes interesting garden features such as a lily pond, a sundial, a glass house and a fascinating rotating marble sculpture called the Dunvegan Pebble.
As much as we enjoyed the formal gardens, we also enjoyed walking along the woodland trails. One of which led us down to the loch area where we were able to see the castle from the loch view.
The castle is in remarkable condition and is obviously lovingly maintained. It is beautifully decorated. In spite of its grand size, it felt very much like a family home with portraits, photos, and family treasures throughout.
I enjoyed reading letters received by the family over the years. I especially enjoyed reading the thank-you letters from author Sir Walter Scott, the late Queen Elizabeth, and the inventor of the dictionary, Dr. Samuel Johnson. There are many public rooms to visit and to enjoy beautiful art, and architectural details along with beautifully upholstered furniture and intriguing knick-knacks. The discreet information signs were detailed and interesting. The staff were very friendly and happy to share additional information and answer all questions. We enjoyed the library with its impressive collection of old books including original printings of works by Shakespeare and several cozy seating areas perfect for curling up with a good book in front of the fireplace.
The basement dungeon was a fascinating look at a darker side of the MacLeod clan. This is the oldest part of the castle and it's dark and medieval. The entrance is in the old kitchen through a hole in the stairwell. It occurred to me that this was another level of cruelty as the cooking smells would have filled the prisoner's senses.
Fairy Flag and McLeod Motto
The motto of Clan MacLeod is Hold Fast which is emblazoned on the MacLeod crest, above the head of a bull. According to clan history, the 3rd Chief, Malcolm was attacked by a wild bull while returning home from a secret meeting. "Hold Fast, MacLeod!", shouted his clansmen and he defeated the bull with his dirk.
Displayed prominently in the castle is the clan's most treasured possession -- the MacLeod Fairy Flag. The favourite origin legend is that this flag was gifted to the family and is imbued with magical powers. It is said that if the flag is flown during battle, the clan will emerge victorious but it can only be used three times. It has already been used twice. I recommend checking out the Castle website where you can read four different versions telling the origins of the Fairy Flag.
Accommodations At The Castle
For travellers who want to linger and enjoy a longer visit, the castle has five self-catering cottages located within the castle grounds or just outside. The cottages are available for weekly rentals (at a significant price). Rentals include admission to the castle and discounts in the gifts shops and cafés.
There is also an award-winning campground called Glenbrittle Campsite & Cafe with 120 grassy sites next to Loch Brittle Beach. The campground includes free showers, and laundry, electrical hook-ups and a sanitation dump for additional fees.
Their campsite cafe has coffee, fresh baked goods, and tasty small meals. The campsite shop sells gifts as well as camping and climbing equipment.
Other Amenities and Activities
The castle cafe, the MacLeod Tables Cafe, is in the parking lot. They serve a good selection of soups, sandwiches, baked goods, and small meals. Everything is home-made and uses ingredients grown in the castle garden, whenever possible. The prices are reasonabe but visitors are also welcome to bring their own picnic lunches.
Another couple of fun activities available at the castle include a half-hour boat ride on Loch Dunvegan to see the local seal colony. Trips on traditional clinker boats run daily as weather and conditions allow and cost €12. The two-hour chartered fishing trips (must book in advance) are very highly-rated. It will cost €95 based on double occupancy, plus you will need to pay €25 for a fishing permit.
Dunvegan Castle is open daily from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm with the last entry being 5:00 pm. Both the castle and gardens are closed during the winter. Regular admission for the castle and gardens is €16. For €2 less, you can get a ticket for the gardens only. Tickets can be purchased online or at the castle. After several weeks of visiting ruined castles, we truly enjoyed seeing a castle home and touring the beautiful intact gardens. Dunvegan Castle and Gardens are a must-see when visiting the Isle of Skye.
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