It’s as difficult to find as it is to spell, but its location made it an ideal prison for the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald.
Flora helped the incompetent halfwit Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee back to France where he came from after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Disguised as Flora’s maid, “Betty Burke,” the Young Pretender managed to escape, but because he was so lousy at his disguise (lifting his skirt high enough to expose his gender when crossing a river, etc), Flora was arrested on her way back home. Her imprisonment in Dunstaffnage defines its role in Scottish history. It’s a place associated with Scottish royalty, who were always either at war with the English or with other Scottish nobles.
Situated on a platform of conglomerate rock and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland (dating back to the 13th century), and it’s unique because it has a history of being run and occupied almost exclusively by middle management.
The first clue that the castle’s owners are not the “hands-on” type of boss is its half-arsed welcome sign, located near a nondescript parking lot that leads to a path which takes you to the castle.
It’s a historically strategic spot, but it hasn’t been a family’s principal seat since Robert the Bruce took it from the clan MacDougall during the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308, so ownership of the castle went to the crown during the Wars of Scottish Independence. A hereditary Keeper (from clan Macarthur) was left in charge of it, a post which must not have been easy, because during this tumultuous time the crown had an on-again-off-again relationship with England, made complicated by a third party called “Other Scottish Nobles,” who regularly flirted with both Scottish and English Monarchy.
As a royal stronghold, this ever-changing relationship status with England must have been hell for the castle staff. They never knew whether they were going to be served Spotted Dick or Haggis at meal times. And then the hereditary Keeper ran out of male heirs, and control of the castle passed on to that Keeper’s daughters, both of whom married into the Stewarts of Lorn. To add anxiety to the staff’s confusion, the MacDougalls never ceased trying to regain their stronghold. At one point they attacked a Stewart Keeper, John, while he was on his way to marry his pregnant mistress to make the child legitimate. He managed to make it to Dunstaffnage chapel, living just long enough to recite his wedding vows. John had a younger brother, Walter, but with the child’s legitimacy in question, no one knew who was in charge. The child had the locals’ support, and the disputes lasted six years, until Walter decided to bail.
No wonder the whole thing’s now a ruins.
In 1470, ownership went to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, who was married to a daughter of the last Stewart Keeper, the murdered John. Colin never stayed here, but he appointed a cousin as hereditary Captain to oversee the castle as it was used as a base for government expeditions.
It stayed in the Campbell family until 1958, when it was handed over to Historic Scotland, who tries its best to recreate the castle inhabitants’ pervading sense of bewilderment by hiring people who go on extended lunch breaks, leaving visitors with no one who could accept their entrance fee payment.
If you’re lucky (like us), you could end up going there for free, and you will leave feeling like you had the authentic “castle history experience” , when you go back to your car with a sense that you were part of something that occurred that just wasn’t right.