Eilean Donan is a small tidal island where three sea lochs meet, Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh, in the western Highlands of Scotland. A picturesque castle that frequently appears in photographs, film and television dominates the island, which lies about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from the village of Dornie. Since the castle’s restoration in the early 20th century a footbridge has connected the island to the mainland. Eilean Donan is part of the Kintail National Scenic Area, one of 40 in Scotland. In 2001, the island had a recorded population of just one person, but there were no “usual residents” at the time of the 2011 census. Eilean Donan, which means simply “island of Donnán”, is named after Donnán of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in 617. Donnán is said to have established a church on the island, though no trace of this remains.
The castle was founded in the thirteenth century, and became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan MacRae. In the early eighteenth century, the Mackenzies’ involvement in the Jacobite rebellions led in 1719 to the castle’s destruction by government ships. Lieutenant-Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap’s twentieth-century reconstruction of the ruins produced the present buildings.
In the earlier thirteenth century, during the reign of Alexander II (ruled 1214–1249), a large curtain-wall castle (wall of enceinte) was constructed that enclosed much of the island. At this time the area was at the boundary of the Norse-Celtic Lordship of the Isles and the Earldom of Ross: Eilean Donan provided a strong defensive position against Norse expeditions. A founding legend relates that the son of a chief of the Mathesons acquired the power of communicating with the birds. As a result, and after many adventures overseas, he gained wealth, power, and the respect of Alexander II, who asked him to build the castle to defend his realm.
At a later date, the island became a stronghold of the Mackenzies of Kintail, originally vassals of William I, Earl of Ross. At this early stage, the castle is said to have been garrisoned by Macraes and Maclennans, both clans that were later closely associated with the Mackenzies.Traditional Mackenzie clan histories relate that Earl William sought advantage from the Treaty of Perth of 1266, by which King Magnus VI of Norway ceded the Hebrides to Scotland, and demanded that his kinsman Kenneth Mackenzie return the castle to allow his expansion into the islands. Mackenzie refused, and Earl William led an assault against Eilean Donan that the Mackenzies and their allies repulsed.
The Mackenzie clan histories also claim (with little, if any, supporting contemporary evidence), that Robert the Bruce sheltered at Eilean Donan during the winter of 1306 to 1307; the castle escaped any other involvement in the Wars of Scottish Independence. In 1331 Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, sent an officer to Eilean Donan to warn the occupants of his forthcoming visit. In preparation 50 wrongdoers were rounded up and executed, their heads being displayed on the castle walls to Moray’s approval. By the middle of the 14th century the Mackenzies are said to have been on the losing side in the ongoing feuding with the Earls of Ross. William III, Earl of Ross granted Kintail to Raghnall Mac Ruaidhrí in 1342. With the assistance of Leod Macgilleandrais, the Earl allegedly apprehended Kenneth Mackenzie, 3rd of Kintail, and had him executed in 1346 at Inverness. Through this period Eilean Donan is said to have been held by Duncan Macaulay for the Mackenzies, against the Earl and his allies. Kenneth’s young son Murdo Mackenzie supposedly evaded the Earl’s attempts to eliminate him, and on the return of David II from exile Murdo Mackenzie was allegedly confirmed in the lands of Kintail and Eilean Donan by a charter of 1362 (of which, however, no trace survives to the present day). At some point in the earlier 14th century it is thought that the Clan Macrae began to settle in Kintail as a body, having migrated from the Beauly Firth, and there gained the trust of the Mackenzie lairds through possible kinship and an advantageous marriage. The Macraes began to act as Mackenzie’s bodyguards, acquiring the soubriquet “Mackenzie’s shirt of mail”.
Between 1919 and 1932, the castle was rebuilt by Lt. Col. John MacRae-Gilstrap. The restoration included the construction of an arched bridge to give easier access to the island. Macrae-Gilstrap also established a war memorial dedicated to the men of the MacRae clan who died in the First World War. The memorial is adorned with lines from John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”, and is flanked by grey field guns from the war. Eilean Donan was opened to the public in 1955, and has since become a popular attraction: over 314,000 people visited in 2009, making it the third-most-visited castle in Scotland. In 1983 ownership of the castle was transferred to the Conchra Charitable Trust, established by the Macrae family to maintain and restore the castle, and a purpose-built visitor centre was opened on the landward side of the bridge in 1998.
The castle is regularly described as one of the most photographed monuments in Scotland, and is a recognised Scottish icon, frequently appearing on packaging and advertising for shortbread, whisky and other products. Eilean Donan has made several appearances in films, beginning with Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1948 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1953. The castle was the setting for the 1980 short film Black Angel, filmed to accompany screenings of The Empire Strikes Back in cinemas. It featured prominently in Highlander (1986) as the home of Clan MacLeod, was backdrop to a dance scene in the Bollywood movie Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998, and served as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough in 1999. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age Eilean Donan stood in for Fotheringhay Castle in England. In the movie Made of Honor Eilean Donan can be seen as home of the groom’s family.
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