It is believed that the site of Dunnottar Castle has been occupied since prehistory, but the earliest recorded mention of human settlement dates back to the 5th Century, when St. Ninian is said to have established a church on the rock. It is likely that some sort of fortification existed in 681AD, since a siege is recorded in the Annals of Ulster that is believed to have taken place at Dunnottar.
In another early mention, The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba records that in the late 9th century, King Donald II defended the Dunnottar unsuccessfully against a Viking invasion and was killed during the battle. The next significant mention is when Symeon of Durham records that King Æthelstan of Wessex led a force into Scotland in 934AD, raiding as far north as Dunnottar, resulting in a month-long siege.
During the latter part of the 12th Century, William the Lion adopted Dunnottar as an administrative centre for the north east of Scotland. In 1276AD, a stone church was founded at Dunnottar, allegedly on the site of St. Ninian's original chapel. It is possible that the earliest stone fortifications date to this period. However, in 1296AD, Edward I conquered Dunnottar for the English, and when William Wallace recaptured it in 1297AD, he burned the church to the ground - with 4,000 captured English soldiers locked inside.
In 1336AD, Edward III refortified the site of Dunnottar as a supply base for his northern campaign. His efforts were quickly rebuffed, when the Scottish Regent Sir Andrew Murray recaptured the site later that year. Shortly afterwards, Dunnottar was granted to William de Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland, and in 1346AD a licence to crenelate was issued by David II.
Around 1359AD, Dunnottar Castle passed into the hands of William Keith. William married the niece of Robert the Bruce, and was granted the barony of Dunnottar. He was responsible for building the tower house that survives amongst the present-day remains.
In 1581AD, George Keith began to rebuild and expand upon much of the medieval fortress. He built the palatial residence that survives on the north of the outcrop. This contained a gallery, dining room, drawing room and accommodation. The 13th Century chapel was restored, flanking the south of the courtyard formed by the new buildings. A gatehouse and gun placements were also built, protecting the landward approach.
In 1639AD, the Marquis of Montrose burned Dunnottar Castle to the ground during the Covenanter's rebellion against the English crown. During the English Civil War, Dunnottar was the last Scottish castle to hold out against Cromwell's army. General George Monck held out in an eight month siege during the years of 1651-1652AD.
In 1685AD, 167 Covenanter prisoners (including 45 women) were crammed into a cellar below the residential block (The Whig's Vault), and kept with no food or sanitation for two months. Five of the prisoners died of disease or starvation, a number agreed to swear allegiance to the crown, and the remainder were deported to the West Indies.
Dunnottar Castle's active history finally drew to a close in 1715AD when George Keith, the tenth Earl Marischal of Dunnottar, participated in a Jacobite uprising. The Jacobites lost, and George was condemned for treason. Dunnottar Castle was sold, stripped, dismantled, and abandoned to fall into decay.
Today, the ruins of Dunnottar Castle enjoy one of the most dramatic settings in the British Isles. Perched atop a rocky outcrop, separated from the mainland by a low land bridge, they are approached via narrow steps that climb steeply towards a tight gate set into a wall which is itself wedged into the surrounding rock face. It is immediately obvious how defensible this location would have been.
Flanking the gatehouse to the right is the Benholm's Lodging. The base of this five-storey building contains three layers of gun ports facing the approach, although it is considered likely that these were ornamental rather than practical in nature. The upper section of the lodging now houses a small museum.
Once through the gatehouse, any attacker would have been faced by four large gun ports set in the wall directly ahead - and these really do look quite lethal, and it is likely that they were intended to be used. Having navigated that obstacle, the inner castle is approached via a narrow, open-topped corridor, that climbs up towards the next gate.
Emerging into the open area on top of the rock, the ruins of the castle buildings are scattered across the entire platform - and they are both extensive and impressive. The chapel, stables, smithy, the early keep, barracks, and the earl's hall all survive in varying states of repair. The drawing room has been restored within the earl's hall, and The Whig's Vault remains in tact - an eerie place to stand given the events that unfolded within.
On a sunny day, the open space and the fresh winds blowing in off the sea make Dunnottar Castle a beautiful and relaxing place to visit. There's a lot to explore, and the location is breathtaking. The views from the cliffs overlooking the castle are outstanding. This is definitely one of Scotland's finest ruins.