On the rugged Aberdeenshire coast, a small rocky outcrop juts out into the North Sea. Separated from the mainland by a manmade trench, Dunnottar Castle must have been an imposing sight for any would-be invader. Today, its ruined walls and crumbling buildings provide a glimpse into its storied past. But why was its builder cast out from the church? And just who was held captive in its underground vaults? Find out all this and more on a short clifftop walk from Stonehaven.
Read on to find out about the castle’s history, or skip ahead to the walk.
The story of the clifftop stronghold of Dunnottar Castle begins with a church. In the early Fifth Century, St Ninian built a chapel at Dunnottar while working as a missionary among the local Picts. Protected on three sides by steep cliffs leading down to the cold North Sea, Dunnottar became an important defensive location and four hundred years later, the last King of the Picts, Donald II, was killed in battle defending it against viking raiders. Enemies didn’t only come from the sea, however, as in 934 Athelstan, the first King of England, invaded Scotland as far north as Dunnottar.
Situated on the main coastal road around the Grampian mountains, Dunnottar grew in importance — so much so that the Bishop of St Andrews ordered the construction of a stone chapel in 1276. It was in this chapel that 4,000 English soldiers sought sanctuary after they were defeated in battle during the Wars of Scottish Independence. William Wallace, the Guardian of Scotland, showed them no mercy: he trapped them inside the chapel and set fire to it, burning them alive. Those who survived were chased over the cliffs to a watery grave below.
You can still find parts of this chapel today, incorporated into the buildings of the castle. Dunnottar became an important administrative centre, but it wasn’t until the 1390s that the first parts of the current castle were built by Sir William Keith. The Bishop of St Andrews did not take lightly to a castle being built on sacred ground and excommunicated Sir William, preventing his soul from ever entering Heaven. Luckily for Sir William, Pope Benedict XIII later revoked his excommunication and restored his position… provided, of course, that he paid a suitable donation to the church.
Like his ancestors before him, Sir William held the title of Marischal. This was an important position in the royal court, and the title had been held by the Keith family since around the 1150s. The Marischals were expected to protect the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Jewels — a duty they fulfilled in 1651 as Oliver Cromwell’s army ravaged the land.
After the execution of Charles I by Parliament in 1649, his son was declared the King of Scotland and crowned Charles II at Scone, near Perth. This led to the invasion of Scotland by the English, where Cromwell’s forces soundly defeated the Scots and captured Edinburgh. The Honours — the crown, sword, and sceptre used when crowning the King or Queen of Scotland — had been taken from Edinburgh Castle and used to crown Charles, and they eventually found their way to Dunnottar Castle. The English army soon followed.
After a long siege, the castle’s defenders were forced to surrender. However, the English were frustrated to find that the Honours had disappeared during the fighting and in revenge they ransacked the castle.
The Honours had been hidden in a creel of seaweed and smuggled out of the castle by a servant. They were hidden at nearby Kinneff Church, where the brave minister and his wife initially kept them in a box at the end of their bed but would later bury them under the floor of the church. The Honours remained hidden there until Charles was restored to the throne in 1660.
Charles’ father and grandfather had both believed that the Scottish church should adopt episcopacy — church rule by bishops — to become more aligned with the English church. This approach had led to war with those in Scotland who supported Presbyterianism, who were known as Covenanters. Part of the conditions for Charles’ coronation in 1649 was that he had to respect Scottish Presbyterianism. However, after his restoration, he soon turned his back on his former allies.
Anger at Charles’ religious policies led to the assassination of the Archbishop of St Andrews at Magus Muir in Fife in 1679. Charles responded by imprisoning and torturing suspected Covenanters in a period that later became known as The Killing Time.
After his death, his son, James, became the new king. James was a Catholic, which troubled many of the elite in both Scotland and England. The Earl of Argyll led a rebellion against James, and to protect themselves the government ordered their Covenanter prisoners to swear loyalty to James. The prisoners that refused were transported to Dunnottar to stop them from providing any support to the rebels.
In total, 167 prisoners were locked in the castle’s vault, now known as the Whigs’ Vault. Conditions were poor, and prisoners had limited access to food, water, or sanitation. Over the ten weeks they were imprisoned at Dunnottar, 37 prisoners gave in and swore allegiance, ten prisoners escaped, and at least five lost their lives. The remaining prisoners were sent on a penal ship to the West Indies, with as many as 70 dying during the journey.
James would later be overthrown and sent into exile after the Glorious Revolution. At that time the Earl Marischal supported the new Protestant monarchs, but later Earls would have different loyalties. Supporters of the exiled King James became known as Jacobites, and in 1715 they rose in rebellion. They were supported with troops and cannons from Dunnottar, but were ultimately defeated. Due to his part in the rebellion, the 10th Earl Marischal was stripped of his lands, including Dunnottar Castle, and the castle fell into a state of ruin and disrepair.
A castle with such a dramatic history couldn’t simply vanish into the history books. In the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, visiting ruined castles became a popular activity. As travelling became easier, the number of tourists increased and by the turn of the century the castle’s visitors’ book shows visitors from far-off locations such as London, Canada and even Brazil.
After all that history, it would be a shame not follow in their footsteps and take this walk along the cliffs from Stonehaven.
Distance: 5.5 km ( 3 ½ miles)
Start and Finish: Market Square, Stonehaven (NO 87405 85885)
Facilities: Good facilities at Stonehaven, toilets and limited refreshments are available at Dunnottar Castle.
Terrain: Rough coastal path and level pavement. There is a steep climb out of Stonehaven harbour, and 180 steps if you wish to access Dunnottar Castle.
Access: Parking is available at the start of the walk at Market Square, and at the entrance to the castle. Trains between Aberdeen and Montrose stop at Stonehaven, leaving around 1km to the start of the walk.
If you’ve arrived at Stonehaven by train, follow Arduthie Road until you reach a junction with Evan Street. Turn left and follow the road gently downhill to reach the town centre at the Market Square.
From the Market Square (NO 87405 85885), enter Market Lane to reach the seafront at Stonehaven bay. Turn right and follow the promenade.
Did you know: As you make your way along the bay, look out for a different type of boat — boats made of scrap metal. These sculptures began to appear around the bay in 2006, and earned their sculptor the nickname “the Stonehaven Banksy”. Look out for fishing boats, viking longboats, and even Spongebob Squarepants.
Turn right onto a narrow lane to reach Stonehaven harbour (NO 87695 85410). Stonehaven has long been a safe haven on the rugged Aberdeenshire coast, but the current harbour dates to the 17th Century. It was once a thriving fishing port, with over 15 million fish passing through the harbour in 1894, but it was soon eclipsed by the bigger harbours at Aberdeen and Peterhead and today it’s mostly used for recreational boats.
Continue along the harbour, then turn right into Wallace Wynd. Bear left and you’ll soon reach a set of stone steps that climbs steeply up to the clifftop. The path here can be loose underfoot and can be narrow if you meet someone coming downhill. At the top of the hill you’ll meet a road at an area known as Bervie Braes (NO 87680 85240).
Turn left and follow the road until it bends sharply to the right, where you can join a path that runs between two fences (NO 87795 85120). The path climbs gently, and as it levels out you’ll be presented with your first view of today’s destination: Dunnottar Castle.
A gate on your right (NO 87845 84960) leads away from the path for a short distance to reach the summit of Black Hill and its classical War Memorial (NO 87769 84875).
Work on the war memorial began in 1921. Its design mimics a Greek temple, and its ruined appearance reflects the lives cut short by the tragedy of war. The names of over 200 men from Stonehaven who lost their lives in the First World War are inscribed on a stone memorial, with additional memorials added later to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Second World War.
When you’re finished at the memorial, return to the main path and follow it along the cliffs high above Strathlethan bay. It’s hard to get lost, as Dunnottar Castle looms large ahead of you. At the end of the bay, the path leaves the cliff edge to cut across Bowdun Head (NO 87895 84600).
Did you know: A small sea stack to the north of Bowdun Head is known as Dunnicaer (NO 88210 84640). In 1832, a collection of Pictish symbol stones was found at Dunnicaer and modern satellite imagery suggests that it was once the site of a Pictish fort. Was this settlement one of the reasons St Ninian built his chapel at Dunnottar?
From Bowdun Head, the path continues above Castle Haven and you’ll soon arrive at Dunnottar Castle (NO 88128 83843). The castle is open to the public, subject to an entrance charge — and braving the 180 steps to the entrance! For information on prices and opening times, please visit the Dunnottar Castle website.
Did you know: Dunnottar Castle is said to be haunted by three ghosts — a deer hound ready to hunt, a tall Scandinavian warrior dressed for battle, and a Pictish woman searching for her children. Take care if you find yourself wandering the cliffs late at night!
From the castle, the path bends to the right to pass the castle’s car park and reach a road (). Turn right and follow the pavement, where you can enjoy views of the castle to your right and the war memorial ahead of you. After 1.5km, you’ll arrive back at the point where you joined the clifftop path at Bervie Braes (NO 87680 85240). Retrace your steps from here to return to Stonehaven Harbour — feel free to explore a little before returning to the Market Square and the end of the walk.
The Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail is a 165-mile driving route taking in the sights of the stunning Aberdeenshire coast, including both Stonehaven and Dunnottar.
The route along the clifftops follows the course of the North Sea Trail, an initiative to create an international long-distance walking route around the North Sea coast. Although the route was never fully completed, you might see its logo on signposts around this walk.