Visiting historic buildings rarely comes more spectacular (in a rugged grandeur kind of way) than a visit to Eilean Donan Castle This 13th century icon of Scottish medieval architecture sits on a tidal island in Loch Duich near the Isle of Skye and is the home of the McRae family and administered by them through the Conchra Charitable Trust. Bought by Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap in 1911 as a ruin over the following 20 years it was renovated and re-built with an ethos heavily influenced by arts and crafts ideas of individual labour and crafted detail. The castle has a visitor centre on the landward side of the bridge which connects it to the mainland. This mainly provides retail and a tea and buns opportunity, the main interest of course is in the castle itself where a small entrance chamber has been given over to a modest exhibition which includes a projection mapping table and some physical models. The castle was originally the stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan Macrae, and the projection mapping table very usefully illustrates the evolution of the building complex in a series of phases over the intervening seven hundred years during their ownership (see Wikipedia for a synopsis and site plans)
The castle was destroyed in 1719 by British naval ships during the Jacobite Rebellion of the “Old Pretender” . Led by the Earl of Mar, it was an attempt to restore the exiled James Stuart, the “Old Pretender”, to the throne. The vessels HMS Worcester, HMS Flamborough, and HMS Enterprise bombarded the castle on 10-11th May 1715, succeed in capturing it from the mixed Spanish and Scottish defenders and then used 27 barrels of captured gunpowder to demolish it, or at least render it beyond military use. This historical narrative is colourfully played out at a modest level in the entrance exhibition and is sufficient to give the visitor a reasonably clear understanding of the timeline of the building and the people associated with it. The sequence of architectural development is complex and not entirely understood so presents a challenge to the visitor but in brief the building starts as a curtained walled structure in the 13th century, then contracts into a more compact plan of connected buildings in the 15th century and then develops a “horn-work” or projecting bastion to the east in the 16th century. A number of small physical models are presented, scattered through the building showing it at various stages of these evolutions and one wonders whether more could not have been made of these to make the evolutionary sequence more apparent.
The early twentieth century rebuilding after the castle had lain ruined for two hundred years owes more to the romantic sensibilities of late Victorian and early Edwardian architects drawing on interpretations such as those of MacGibbon and Ross in their “Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland” in the late 19th century than on archaeological authenticity. The interior of the principal apartments (where no photography is allowed) is entirely a stage set of baronial pretension, random rubble walls, well-formed oak beams resting on corbels, a plethora of window seats and sitting places concealed in the massively deep window reveals and tortuous winding stairs and passages. The latter are of interest in that on the piano nobile (if one can describe the upper floor with the family rooms as such here) there is a clever attempt at separating servant access from family access, all the more so because of the very tight planning and spatial constraints.
Externally the complex interpenetrating massing creates a series of interlinked external spaces which appear to be designed to take full advantage of the southern aspect of the site, looking over Kyle Rhea. Even on a chilly autumn day the sun-traps created invite the visitor to linger and reflect both outwards towards the seascape and inwards towards the buildings and this is perhaps the most memorable and persuasive aspect of the visit, the building itself in its seascape.