Dunvegan Castle is probably the oldest inhabited castle in the north of Scotland. It has been occupied continuously by the Chiefs of the Clan MacLeod for more than 750 years. The present - and 30th - clan chief is Hugh Magnus MacLeod.
The castle is in a wonderful setting on the shore of Loch Dunvegan at NG247491. There is plenty of space for parking, toilet facilities, a gift shop and a decent coffee shop/snack bar called The MacLeods Table Cafe. It’s basic, but fine for family lunch.
The gardens are well worth exploring, with plenty to interest the enthusiast, especially in the walled garden area. For the rest of us, it is still a good place for a pleasant stroll among waterfalls, woodland and some pretty plants. The rhododendrons are stunning, and the Gulf Stream allows a surprising variety of species of plant and tree to grow here. Less mobile visitors should note that many of the paths are steep and roughly surfaced.
From the car park to the castle itself is an easy walk on a metalled road. There are room-by-room information sheets in several languages to help you get the most out of your visit, so I’ll not try to duplicate the detail. Here are just a few personal pointers to what I think are the best bits:
- Rory Mor’s Horn. There is a choice of at least three legends of the origin of the horn. The one I prefer is a legend about Malcolm, the third chief of the clan. Returning one night from a somewhat naughty get together with someone else’s wife, Malcolm came across a mad bull. He killed the beast with his dirk and, as a souvenir of his prowess, he brought home one of the bull’s horns. Today it is on display in the castle, and each male heir, before becoming chief, has to prove his manhood by successfully draining this horn filled with claret. The horn is huge – as must be the hangover!
- The Jacobite memorabilia. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s waistcoat, a lock of his hair, Flora MacDonald’s stays and pin cushion are all there to be seen. Stand close and feel yourself connecting to the legends and the truth of the ’45 rebellion.
- The dungeons. This is perhaps the best bit for children (of all ages!). Most days there are still captured MacDonalds down there, moaning in their chains. Cruelly, the tempting smells from the castle kitchens are channeled into the dungeons to torture these poor creatures further.
- The St Kilda photographs. On the wall of the kitchen corridor is a small collection of photographs of St Kilda and its inhabitants. Nothing to do with Skye, but very evocative stuff.
- The Fairy Flag, or Bratach Sith in Gaelic, must be the most important relic in the castle. It is probably made of yellow silk from the Middle East. It has been dated between the 4th and 7th centuries AD. Such facts however, only try to hide the truth. In reality it was given to the Clan by the fairies of Skye. It has magical powers that will save the Clan in times of extreme danger. However, the flag can only be used three times. To date, it has been used twice: first to help the MacLeods to unlikely victory against their enemies the MacDonalds, and then again to save the clan from certain starvation and plague. The flag is now tattered and worn thin. With just one shot of magic remaining, it is displayed securely behind glass.
Do remember that Skye is a magical place, and is home to many real fairies. It is best to be a believer when you visit – terrible things have been know to happen to those who doubt the existence of the fairies.............
Dunvegan Castle and Gardens opening times are:
From April to mid October: 10.00am - 5.30pm (last entry 5pm)
From mid October to March - Open by appointment, Monday to Friday.