No journey to the Isle of Skye would be complete without a visit to Dunvegan Castle, the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. The MacLeod (pronounced “mac cloud”) Clan has ruled the roost for some 800 years and welcomes travelers to their home today.
Oldest relic and its importance
While there are many historic relics in the castle, few rival the “Fairy Flag,” a piece of yellow silk (that originated in Syria or Rhodes), which pre-dates the Crusades by nearly 400 years, and whose origin may date as far back as 400 AD. Speculation is that it may have belonged to an early Christian saint or to one of the Viking kings from Norway.
Many believe that the flag belonged to Harald Hadrade (nee Harald Sigurdsson), the king of Norway from 1047 to 1066. This early ancestor of Leod, Harald was a famous general, who is said to have brought the flag (the famous banner of Landoda) back from Byzantium. The flag was ascribed special powers in battle, by both Harald and later MacLeods, who claimed it assured their victories at Glendale (late 15th century) and Trumpan (1578).
Some of the earliest history of Dunvegan begins with Leod, the son of the king of the Isle of Man. Leod was given the land in 1237, and it has remained in the hands of the MacLeod (“son of Leod”) Clan ever since. Before he died in 1280, Leod built the first fortification, which possessed only a sea gate by which to enter the castle. This prevented any entrance via land, thus safeguarding the residents of Dunvegan from land attack.
Changes to the castle were made by Malcolm, the third MacLeod chief, who ruled from 1296 to 1370. Later, a “Fairy Tower” was built (early 16th century), with alterations dating to as late as 1700.
Malcolm was also famous for giving the MacLeod Clan its motto, “Hold Fast,” which can be seen on the clan crest. One day upon his return from a secret visit to a mistress, Malcolm was attacked by a wild bull. With only his dirk (a small dagger), he was able to kill the bull and bring one of its horns home as s symbol of victory. From the time of Malcolm until the present, this horn has been used as a drinking vessel, to initiate each MacLeod male heir upon reaching manhood.
Bonnie Prince Charlie and Dunvegan
While the leader of the MacLeod Clan was not a Jacobite, or seeking the overthrow of the British government and the reinstitution of the Stuarts, Bonnie Prince Charlie did find a hiding spot on the Isle of Skye. Later the daughter of Flora MacDonald, a Jacobite heroine, became a tutor to a young MacLeod and ended up living in the castle. Flora herself later lived in the castle for some years, and Jacobite relics remain from her visit, including a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair and a portrait of him.
The 18th century is also the time that the Dunvegan Castle Gardens (now an important attraction) were designed and created. In the first part of the 19th century, a walled vegetable (or kitchen) garden was created, and later a round garden was added, with undulating paths and gates in the French style.
The Potato Famine and departure of the MacLeods
The famine of 1847-1851 nearly led to the financial ruin of the MacLeod family, whose ruling clan chief was forced to relocate to London to find work. Some 80 years later, the family returned to Dunvegan (1929) and has been in residence ever since. In 1933, the 27th chief of the clan allowed the castle to be shared with visitors for the first time, as part of its charity work. Since then, thousands have experienced the castle and continue to this day.
In modern times, the castle (in addition to remaining the home of the MacLeods and open to tourists) has also been the site of many movie productions, including “Highlander” and “Made of Honor.”