Day Trip to Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

September 2022 — Our first day in Scotland we unpacked (a little) and then wandered around Aberdeen city, getting a feel for the place that’ll be our home for the next month. Our second day in Scotland we’d thought to stay in and get some work done, but scrapped those plans immediately when it dawned warm and sunny. Gotta take advantage of the nice days while we have ’em!

Instead, we all hopped in the car and drove (on the left!) 1/2 hour down the coast to the village of Stonehaven for a walk along the Cliffs Trail to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle. Following advice gleaned from Atlas Obscura and Google Maps, we parked along a beach-side street at the north end of town and walked through the village to pick up the Dunnottar Cliffs Trail at its south end. The village walk along the beach was lovely, with the natural views of the sea on one side and art installations inspired by the sea on the other.

Then we climbed up above Stonehaven and that’s when lovely turned into amazing. With a little height (it really wasn’t that bad a climb) you can see the east coast of Scotland stretch out both to the north and to the south for what feels like miles. Blue sky, bluer ocean; white cliffs, green pastures. Oh yeah, and the ruins of a giant castle complex too!

At the top of the trail, Stonehaven’s war memorial looks out over the town. It’s an iconic piece of architecture viewable all along the walk. I completely forgot to clock the distance; the trail along the cliffs between war memorial and castle is so beautiful distance was irrelevant! Turbo particularly liked the part with the cows.

The castle itself sits on a promontory — you reach it after a long downhill stairway (which you will need to climb back up on your way out) and short climb back up about halfway. You actually enter the ruin through a house-like structure built into the side of the cliff, which would have made it pretty damn difficult for any medieval marauders to take this castle by surprise!

We researched the history of Dunnottar Castle before our visit, but it wasn’t really necessary as signage posted around the property is excellent. Inhabited since Pictish times (no exact date, but likely pre-Roman), the first castle on the site was destroyed by Viking invaders in the ninth century. The first chapel, consecrated in 1276, was alleged by the 15th-century poet Blind Harry to have been set afire by William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) while housing a garrison of English soldiers. During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Robert the Bruce granted the lands to his friend Sir Robert Keith and created him Great Marischal of Scotland, one of the three high offices of state. Robert Keith’s grandson built the keep at the site, the ruins of which we see today. This rebuilt castle became home to the (now elevated to) Earls Marischal. As one of the most important families in Scotland, the Earls hosted several monarchs at Dunnottar during their centuries-long residency, including Mary Queen of Scots.

We’ve only been here a few days, but we’re discovering that the Scots really like their ghosts, and there are several ghost stories associated with Dunnottar. One is of a “green lady”, a Pict woman wearing a green plaid dress who apparently wanders from the bakery to the brewery, looking for her “lost children” (rumored to be “lost” because they converted to Christianity).

Brewery, minus the Green Lady

The green lady story is a bit of a stretch for me (too existential), but I have no trouble imagining a few ghosts from the Whig’s Vault era wandering around! According to the signage, in 1685 a group of 200 Presbyterian prisoners were moved from Edinburgh to Dunnottar. Of the original 200, 122 men and 45 women survived the journey (for those keeping score, aka me, that means 33 DOA). The remaining prisoners were thrown in a cellar for six weeks, living in their own excrement and required to purchase food and water from their jailors. During this time, 25 men escaped. Two of these men fell to their deaths, 15 were recaptured and tortured. (Two dead escapees brings us to 35 deaths. Of the 15 recaptured, I think we can safely assume they were also likely executed during torture, which brings us up to 50 deaths. But we’re not finished yet!) Those surviving their six-week incarceration at Dunnottar (142 if my math is correct, accounting for the 8 who lived through their escape) were put on a ship bound for New England via the West Indies; 70 of them died during the journey. All told, this means that 120 out of 200 prisoners died during this exchange. Yes, I can definitely imagine one or two of them still haunting the place!

(As a side note, wouldn’t it be interesting to track down the names of those who made it to New England … maybe I’ll find a long-lost relative!)

The castle closes at 6 pm and unfortunately we had to leave before we’d finished exploring. It really is a giant place and we just couldn’t do it justice in the time we had available. We will definitely need to go back! Leaving you here with a few photos of our walk back along the cliffs to the car. Overall gorgeous day and a gorgeous walk. Scotland is so far meeting and exceeding all expectations. Loving it here!!

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