Eilean Donan Castle in Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland

As we wound our way through the Western Highlands, clouds whispered over mountain peaks, quietly cloaking the sleeping giants. We were in Kyle of Lochalsh, and Eilean Donan was our first stop of the day before we crossed over the bridge to Skye. The Castle seemed to appear out of the mist as we rounded one of the of the many curves that bent around the contours of Loch Duich. It was 10:30 a.m., and crowds of people had already descended upon the self proclaimed “most beautiful castle in Scotland.” I had only been to one castle (Cawdor Castle was lovely, but the gardens were the most breathtaking part) at that point in our travels, and I agreed that I had never seen a castle exude as much beauty and history and mystery in one look. Eilean Donan is no stranger to the spotlight for this very ability to evoke the feeling of being in Scotland, and so you’ve definitely seen her if you’ve seen “Highlander”, “Rob Roy”, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and even Pixar’s “Brave”.

The lack of parking jolted me back to reality – the lot was full! What were we to do? “More parking is that way,” the attended directed. Which way? Would we even be able to get close to the castle at this point without changing our schedule for the day? Why weren’t there signs to this more parking? We turned onto a little road, took a left toward some shops, and found about 20 open spaces without any “no parking” signs. Living in the states, especially a densely populated area of New Jersey had me nervous. Would we return to a boot on the wheel? A ticket in the window? Nah. These shops were completely fine with us parking and walking on the foot path leading to the castle. It was one more example of the generous hospitality of the Scots. 

As we crossed the arched stone bridge we were transported back in time to what felt like medieval Scotland. In reality, this castle was completely rebuilt between 1912 and 1932 in a renovation by Lt. Col. John MacRea-Gilstrap, his wife Ella, and local stonemason Farquhar MacRae. 

The first thing we passed was the only remaining part of the castle as it stood in the 1500s. Called Hornwork, this structure was built for holding and positioning heavy canons to defend the castle from almost all sides. The island is situated where three lochs meet, making it a highway of its time in this part of the world. A MacRae is said to have fired an arrow shot to kill a rival MacDonald during a battle on this very spot. We made our way to the right of the castle where a World War I Memorial lists all of the MacRae’s who died in battle. Below the names is a line from “In Flanders Fields,” which was written by John MacRae (1872-1918).

As we walked around to the other side of the castle, the true front of the building, we encountered a beautiful stone staircase which I later learned was also part of the 20th century rebuild, as the original stairs were probably made of wood.

The working portcullis, which is still raised most days and lowered most nights, stood before us as we came to the entryway to the castle. The carved Gaelic words on the stone panels above the entrance gave me chills when I learned the English translation:

Cho fad’s a bhios MacRath a stigh cha bhi Friselach a muigh


As long as there is a MacRae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside.

To learn the MacRae’s, Frasers, and Mackenzie’s had this true allegiance to each other made me feel like I was walking in Diana Gabaldon’s footsteps as she completed her research for her books. I soon found out I was not the only Outlander fan here as we ducked into a small arched section to view the original bedrock of the island. Look what I found! “Feuer und Stein” is the German title of Gabaldon’s first book (Outlander) in the series. Eilean Donan was in the limelight again!

The first room in the Castle was overflowing with historical facts. Eilean Donan was inhabited as early as 700 BC in the midst of the iron age by St. Donnan who came from Ireland to teach the lessons of Christianity. He and fifty followers met their demise when they were beheaded by raiders from the sea. Then when Norway ceded the crown back to Scotland in the mid 13th century, the first castle structure was built on the island. Since the early 1500s, when Charrich MacRae was appointed constable of the Castle, the name MacRae has been connected to Eilean Donan. The castle was destroyed by canon fire during the Jacobite uprising of 1719. It wasn’t until John MacRae-Gilstrap purchased the land in 1911 that the Castle was back in the MacRae name.

One of my favorite rooms was the banquet hall where Mackenzie and Fraser coats of arms were displayed alongside MacRae and other clan allies. There was a glass case containing artefacts from Bonnie Prince Charlie, including pieces of his tartan, a lock of his hair, and a letter dated August 1745 to the clan chiefs asking for support in the Jacobite cause.

The second floor was occupied up until the 1950s as family apartments. The rooms appeared to have frozen in time and a framed letter from a young Queen Elizabeth II seemed as if it could have been written just yesterday. The family still returns to Eilean Donan for holidays and their private apartments are tucked away somewhere on the first floor.

Eilean Donan is a special place, with rich Highland culture woven together like a tapestry of family, blood, bravery, and loyalty in the dramatic colors of Scottish history.

References: Eilean Donan Official Guide, Jarrold Publishing, 2015