I can’t think of anything more quintessentially Scottish than driving through the Highlands, exploring historic castles and charming towns overlooking scenic lochs. As an American, such were the images I had of Scotland prior to visiting – and I can confidently say reality did not disappoint! One of my favorite castles in all of Scotland, Dunstaffnage Castle, belongs on every Highlands itinerary – just wait until you see the pictures!
Dunstaffnage Castle, a relatively under-visited site in Western Scotland, is home to an impressive, centuries-long history. The castle, which is just a ten minute drive from the lovely town of Oban, dates back to the thirteenth century and is one of Scotland’s oldest stone castles. Remarkably well-preserved given its age, the setting surrounding the castle is similarly quaint and peaceful.
While castles tend to be romanticized in popular American imagination, Dunstaffnage was a military and strategic stronghold, not the stomping ground of princes and princesses; in fact, the prefix Dun- means fort in Gaelic. The land’s strategic value predates the construction of Dunstaffnage Castle. In the 600’s, a stronghold existed on the site that was rumored to have housed the famed Stone of Destiny after it was removed from Ireland.
Built by the powerful MacDougall family, the castle changed hands in the 1400’s when the Campbell clan took possession of the strategically situated structure. Under MacDougall ownership, the castle saw military action during wars with Norway over control of the Hebrides and again at the turn of the fourteenth century during the First War of Scottish Independence from English rule. Centuries of tedious history then plagued the castle: the occupants and/or owners of the castle were friends of the Scottish monarchy and used the castle as a base for the intermittent sparring between clans in the region.
Finally, in 1958, Dunstaffnage Castle entered government care, thus allowing it to be listed as a historical monument open to the public for viewing. To learn more about the castle’s history, please visit the Dunstaffnage Castle’s official website here.
Fun fact: in the mid-1700’s, Flora MacDonald was imprisoned in Dunstaffnage Castle. MacDonald’s charge? Assisting the Jacobite Charles Edward Stuart in his attempt to escape capture at the hands of the Redcoats following defeat at Culloden. MacDonald dressed Charles as a server girl and helped him run away to Skye, where he proceeded to escape. MacDonald, however, was captured and held briefly at Dunstaffnage before she was sent to the Tower of London, from she was released one year later. Given this colorful history, Charles became a sort of folk hero to those who remained sympathetic with the Jacobite cause following its demise.
While Dunstaffnage Castle may have fallen into slight disrepair over the years, the stunning view of Scotland’s highland scenery remains unchanged. The view of rolling green hills and the Ardmucknish Bay is spectacular from the top of the castle’s walls:
Upon visiting, we were told a ghost allegedly haunts Dunstaffnage Castle. Not uncommon in Scottish and Irish legends, tales of ghosts and other spirits accompany a number of castles all across the British Isles. While I’m personally not a believer in the supernatural, the stories are fun and help bring a site’s colorful history to life. But I do know some travel to Scotland expressly seeking out the paranormal – and if this is you, add Dunstaffnage Castle to your itinerary!
About a three minute walk from the main castle sits Dunstaffnage Chapel; like the castle, the chapel is in ruins, but in its heyday it was one of the finest chapels in all of Scotland. Strategically placed windows bathed the alter in sunlight during the summer, and grand carved arches adorned the chancel windows. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Dunstaffnage Chapel did not host burials, meaning the MacDougalls were laid to rest at an island off the coast of nearby Oban. This changed after 1560, when the Campbells took control of Dunstaffnage.
Of course, visitors in the twenty-first century will have to use their imagination to allow for this rich history to come to life:
If you’d like to tour Dunstaffnage Castle, I recommend spending a night in the charming seaside town of Oban, a quick ten-minute drive from the castle. Read more about Oban here!
Kevin touring the castle with his older brother, Sean, and Sean’s fiance. Castles were one of the few attractions I found entertained everyone in our diverse travel group, which included family members ranging in age from fourteen to fifty-nine. Art museums and historical walking tours did not amuse everyone, but castles? Castles were a win all-around, so I highly recommend adding a few to your Scottish itinerary!
For ease, I recommend purchasing your tickets ahead of time as soon as you determine the date of your visit. You can do so here! Unlike a number of other historic sites around Scotland, Dunstaffnage Castle is open to visitors year-round, with slightly more limited hours during the winter. We traveled to Scotland during mid-March, and the weather was phenomenal, as I’m sure you could tell from the photographs. I absolutely recommend off-season travel, particularly to Western and Northern Europe. During our visit to the castle on an unseasonably warm morning, we had the entire castle to ourselves. Needless to say, the experience was a far cry from our visits to Scotland’s more famous offerings: Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle.
Off-season travel + off-the-beaten-path attractions = priceless travel experience. I swear by it.