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Urquhart Castle

On the Shores of Loch Ness, 20 Miles Southwest of Inverness

Click here for pictures of Urquhart Castle.

Four of the five most frequented Scottish castles are fully intact. These include Edinburgh, Stirling, Eilean Donan, and Balmoral. The third most frequented castle, after Edinburgh and Stirling, is a ruin. I'm willing to bet that most people reading this have seen a picture, however fleeting, of Urquhart Castle for it stands on a spit of land jutting into the water of Loch Ness. It has been shown in almost every TV show and movie featuring the Loch Ness monster.

The castle's location explains its popularity. Behind Edinburgh and Glasgow, Loch Ness is Scotland's major tourist attraction. Getting to the castle is easy. Just head along the west shore of Loch Ness until you come to the town of Drumnadrochit, and turn east at the Nessie museum. You'll wind around the side of a hill until you come to a large carpark. Below the carpark is a steep slope, levelling into a farmer's field and the shores of the loch. On the shore stands the castle.

This obviously defensible site has been in use for centuries. St. Columba traveled to Glen Urquhart (the valley running perpendicular to the loch, the end of which is guarded by the castle) and converted an elderly Pictish noble named Emchath to Christianity in the 6th century. Evidence suggests that the noble's home was on the site of the castle. A nearby burial cairn dates back as early as 2000 BC, showing that the glen has been occupied for about 4000 years. The earliest record of a castle at Urquhart is in the 13th century.

In 1228 the province of Moray (stretching from north of Inverness to south of Fort William) rebelled against King Alexander II of Scotland. After the rebellion was crushed in 1230, the king gave the lordship of Glen Urquhart to his son-in-law, Alan Durward. Alan was from a wealthy Anglo-Norman family and served the king as his usher or door-ward (hence the surname). As well as laying claim to a huge chunk of Eastern Scotland, he also held the stately castle and lands of Bolsover in the English Midlands. For many years he was the real power behind the throne of the young Alexander III. Before Alan Durward's time there is no mention of a castle at Urquhart, but he would certainly have needed one when he took control of the region and its hostile population.

The site is perfect for a fortress. The land juts out into the loch, surrounding it on three sides by deep water and affording it an incredible view of the lake. The fourth side is only approachable by going down a steep slope and then across a flat farm area. Any attacking army that stayed out of the castle's missile range on the hills would be unable to move siege engines down the slope to the castle. If the army camped on the flat plain, it would be within easy range of the castle's defenders. The only other approach is by water, and boats were even more vulnerable to fire than castles, making this an unpalatable option. In spite of the castle's terrain advantage, it changed hands many times.

Alan Durward died without a male heir in 1275, and his estate was given to John Comyn, lord of Badenoch and Lochaber. Twenty-one years later, Edward I of England (the "Hammer of the Scots") crossed into Scotland and slaughtered the inhabitants of the town of Berwick, starting Scotland's Wars of Independence. Urquhart was one of the castles that fell into English hands. Edward put Sir Williain Fitzwarine in charge of the castle, but it was attacked almost immediately by Andrew Moray. The attack didn't succeed, but among the dead in the garrison was Fitzwarine's son. Edward ordered that the castle be "so strengthened and garrisoned that no damage may in any way occur to it."

This obviously didn't happen since by Edward's second march into Moray in 1303 the castle was in Scottish hands (no information is given about the fate of Fitzwarine). The Scots surrendered after a long, hard fought battle. This time the English constable was Sir Alexander Comyn of Badenoch, a Scot violently opposed to the new patriotic leader, Robert the Bruce. In 1306, Bruce was crowned King of Scots, and by 1308 he had annihilated the Comyns and taken control of Urquhart Castle. Bruce, of course, won the Scots their independence against Edward II in 1314.

Following Bruce's death in 1329, Edward III attempted to conquer Scotland in a bitter struggle that would last until 1357. He defeated David II, Bruce's heir, at the battle of Halidon, near Berwick, in 1333. Only five castles remained loyal to Bruce's heir, Dumbarton, Loch Doon, Lochleven, Kildrummy, and Urquhart. In 1357, David returned from captivity and a fragile peace was instated between the two countries.

John, 3rd earl of Moray and lord of Urquhart, died in 1346. The castle reverted to the crown which kept it in good repair. In the 1390s, the Macdonalds, Lords of the Isles sought to extend their land claims by taking the earldom of Ross — an area encompassing the Glen Mor, the Great Glen that runs the whole length of Loch Ness. The Lords of the Isles were forcibly incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland in 1263, but they continued to remain independent. Glen Urquhart, by coincidence, is a major route westward from the Great Glen. Glen Urquhart was seized by the Macdonalds in 1395 along with the castle. For the next 150 years the castle and surrounding lands passed back and forth between the Crown and the Lords of the Isles like a piece of meat fought over by two starving dogs. In 1479 the glen was reported to be so devastated that no rents were collected.

The Lord of the Isles was defeated in 1476, forcing him to give up the earldom of Ross and withdraw to the west. The king still needed someone in the area to restore order, so he entrusted the task of finding someone to George Gordon, 2nd earl of Huntly. Huntly leased the lands to Sir Duncan Grant of Freuchie. In 1509 Duncan's grandson was directed by King James V "to repair or build at the castle a tower, with an outwork or rampart of stone and lime, for protecting the lands of the people from the inroads of thieves and malefactors; to construct within the castle a hall, chamber, kitchen, with all the requisite offices, such as a pantry, bakehouse, brewhouse, oxhouse, kiln, cot, dovegrove, and orchard, with necessary wooden fences."

This didn't get far as the king died at the battle of Flodden in 1513 (a bombard blew up near him). The new Lord of the Isles took this opportunity to pour into Glen Urquhart, staying three years and stripping the inhabitants of all they owned. The War of the "Rough Wooing" (in which Henry VIII of England attempted, by force, to have his son and heir, the future Edward VI, married to the infant Mary Queen of Scots) distracted the Scots in 1545, encouraging the Macdonalds and their allies, the Camerons of Lochiel, to besiege and take the castle. Once more, the tenants of the area were plundered and once again the Macdonalds left, but they were never to return. The Grants carried out major renovations to the castle, which progressed into the 17th century.

By 1600, castles were becoming less and less used as noble residences, their owners moving to better accommodations in more acceptable locations. By the middle of the 1600s, the castle was probably given over to the people of the glen. The English Civil War mostly bypassed the castle. A report in 1647 reported that the "mansione and maner place of Wrquhart" was plundered of all its "pleneishing, goodis and geir." In the 1650s, Cromwell's troops built great forts at either end of the loch, one at Inverlochy (now Fort William) and one at Inverness. A ship (called a "statly friggott") was used to patrol the loch, and the castle lost almost all of its importance as a strategic site.

The Revolution of 1689, which saw the flight of James VII of Scotland and II of England, and his replacement by the Protestant William and Mary, resulted in the castle being garrisoned for the last time. Two hundred officers and men under Captain James Grant held the castle against a Jacobite force of about 600. The latter were beaten off, but when the garrison left in 1692, they blew up some of the buildings and left the castle unusable. The laird of Grant complained to the government and demanded an outlandish compensation of 44,000. The Scottish Parliament agreed to it in 1695, probably because they new it would never be paid as Scotland was in the grip of a severe economic depression.

The buildings fell into decay. The folk of the glen took the best stonework, lead from the roofs, and interior wood. On February 19, 1715, a storm blew out a gaping hole on one side of the tower house, leaving the fortification in its current state of disrepair.

Of all the ruined castles I visited, Urquhart has the least percentage of the original structure remaining. That it's still an interesting place to visit is testimony to its original grandeur and its location. Farm land leads down from the slope of the hill to a deep ditch in front of the gate. The woodwork on the bridge is gone, but the stonework remains. The avenue leading from the bridge to the gatehouse was protected by high walls on either side, but only a bare hint of the walls can now be seen. The gatehouse was protected in front by two towers, requiring anyone entering the castle to go between the two towers in order to pass through the gate (this was a common feature, seen also at Caerlaverock and Tantallon Castles). Unfortunately, all that remains of the towers are the bases, standing only two metres high.

The castle layout is roughly oval in shape, with the gatehouse in the west wall and the tower house to the north. The only buildings to survive higher than a bare foundation are the tower house and the gatehouse. The north portion of the gatehouse is still roofed, and is now used as a gift shop. Inside the gift shop, in the north west corner, is an access to the prisoner cell. The cell is tiny, and foreboding in the dim light. The south portion of the gatehouse is mostly intact, and also retains its roof. This small room was used as a pottery kiln.

The ground that the castle was built upon is anything but flat. The lowest elevation in the castle is in the middle, just beyond the gatehouse. The ground slopes to the north to produce the nether bailey, and slopes even higher to the south to produce the upper bailey.

To the east of the gatehouse are the remains of the great hall, chambers and kitchen. There is nothing left but foundation stone, sometimes five metres in height but usually much less. Directly opposite the gatehouse is the path down to the misnamed "sea gate", a small landing area that was used by boats visiting the castle. The kitchen abuts the eastern curtain wall and is connected to the private chambers, which also abuts the curtain wall. North of the kitchen and the chambers, but still connected to the curtain wall, was the great hall. The rooms in these buildings must have been impressive, but sadly all that remains are the basements, which tend to be plain and unadorned stone constructions. None of the original flooring remains, having been replaced by a carpet of grass.

In the middle of the nether bailey is a high mound with a rectangular outline of stone that may have once been the castle's chapel. North of the chapel is the castle's most impressive building, the ruined tower house, a square tower that looks out northward along the loch. The rooms in the tower are almost completely barren of detail, except for the occasional unimpressive fireplace. About three of the original four floors partially remain. The eastern side of the tower has most of these floors still intact, but the west is almost completely gone. The stone spiral staircase takes you up four stories to a modern wooden flooring on the north portion of the tower. From this open position you are at the castle's highest point, allowing a view down through the ruined tower and out along the loch. The view is spectacular.

The upper bailey at the southern end of the castle is in the worst state. The foundations of three buildings and the curtain wall that surrounds the castle are all that remain. The slope towards the upper bailey is steep. The most southern portion of the curtain wall is actually higher in elevation than the top of the tower. The remains of the smithy can be seen, and a good view along the curtain wall remains, but most of what's left is featureless ruin of foundation stones.

You'd think that with this description the castle would be a bit of a yawn. This is by no means true. Urquhart castle is badly ruined but it's in a beautiful location. Loch Ness is a very narrow, deep loch, and the surrounding countryside compliments it. The highlands rise up on either side of the lake, covered in shrubs and trees. The view from the main tower is particularly splendid, and worth the visit on its own. Although the castle would be improved if it had been reconstructed like Eilean Donan Castle, it is naturally situated in one of the most atmospheric locations in the country. It's well worth the visit.

Of course, no mention of Urquhart Castle would be complete without tying in the Loch Ness Monster. The first documented encounter of the monster comes from St. Columba. As mentioned above, he converted the elderly Pict who lived on the site of Urquhart Castle. After the conversion, Columba crossed the lake. On the far shore he saw a man being buried, the victim of the loch's water beast (recorded as aquatalis bestia). One of Columba's companions swam into the lake to recover a boat. This supposedly disturbed the creature and he became the second victim. Columba, however, raised his hand, drew the sign of the cross, and ordered the creature to turn back. It did so, in apparent fear. Myth? Tall tale? Almost certainly, but you can't help but stare into the water wishing for something strange to rise up and declare itself. This, too, adds to the atmosphere of Urquhart Castle.