Urquhart Castle

We didn’t have much time on our first trip to Scotland so we had to prioritize the sites we wanted to see. We all agreed it wouldn’t be a trip to Scotland if we didn’t see castles. We skipped the more touristy ones in favour of Dunnotar and Urquhart. The tourist center at Urquhart castle is cleverly constructed to hide your view of the castle until you’re ready to enter the grounds (though it does also route you through the gift shop).

The Urquhart experience starts with a short film which briefly covers the history of the castle. It ends with an artist’s representation of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday. When the lights fade, the projection screen retracts, revealing the modern ruins of the castle outside. It’s artfully managed (so I’ll forgive being corralled through their gift shop a few times).

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(Our first view post-film.)

Urquhart’s first mention in history stems from around 580 AD, when Saint Columbia travelled to the region to baptize a Pictish king. It is unknown whether he made his residence in Urquhart (which means ‘by the wood or thicket’) or just visited. There was no castle built on the site until 1230 when Alexander II gave the land to the Durward family to assert his royal authority in the highlands. The castle saw a great deal of strife over the years, often changing hands between the English and the Scottish. It was first captured by Edward I in 1296, though it was later regained in 1307 by Robert the Bruce.

Though Urquhart seems to have been of strategic importance, it was rarely the primary residence of its owners, it’s care left in the hands of its stewards instead. Due to both these factors, it was remodelled (or ‘rehabilitated’) in the 1500’s in line with fashions at the time. But by 1647, it had again fallen into disrepair. The castle was occupied several times during the strife between Scotland and England. It’s final occupation was in 1692 by the Jacobite Rising. When they departed, they blew up the gatehouse, leaving the castle impossible to defend.

Though Urquhart does not occupy as fantastic a spot as Dunnotar, it is surrounded on three sides by Loch Ness, giving it an impressive view of its own. It’s hard to say which of the two ruins are larger; Dunnotaur may have more structures, but Urquhart is spread across more land. Urquhart is also easier to reach.

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The most impressive and prominent feature of Urquhart Castle is the Grant Tower, built during the renovations in the 1500s. It is a five story tower, though much of the south wall collapsed in a storm in 1715.

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Aside from that, the ruins have all the same features found in many other castles of the period. You can walk through the remains of a smithy, kitchen, great hall and chapel. The main charm of Urquhart is that it’s spread across the edge of the loch, making it scenic no matter where you stand.

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(The ruins as viewed from above, from the ruins of a nearby fortification.

As usual, after thoroughly exploring the ruins, we took a few moments to enjoy our surroundings before heading to the small exhibition inside, beside the gift shop.

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(Note the distinct lack of fear.)

In this case, the exhibition mainly contained a model of the castle at its various stages, and replicas of objects which were found near the castle. The most interesting was this harp, which was a replica of an artifact I photographed the day before in Edinburgh.

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Though perhaps not as spectacular as Dunnotar, it was a memorable trip none-the-less. Somewhat reluctantly, we filed back into the van to finish our journey through the Scottish countryside.

Next week I’ll be making a big announcement, so be sure to stay tuned!

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