Otter Lodge Blog: A family visit to Dunvegan Castle

By Darach and Martin Hynd

Dunvegan Castle Gardens

We recently decided that we have been living on Skye for long enough and a trip to Dunvegan Castle was overdue. A visit from Vanessa’s mum presented us the perfect opportunity; so we all made some pieces (lunch), piled into the car and headed north.

Dunvegan Castle, which stands about a mile north of the village of Dunvegan, is the mighty Hebridean stronghold of the Clan MacLeod and has dominated this part of northern Skye  for some eight centuries.  Most of the exterior is the result of an 1840s makeover by the 25th chief, Norman. Before that time it was a mish-mash of different buildings dating from various times, some reputedly from the thirteenth century

As Vanessa’s mum is a keen horticulturalist we were encouraged to visit the gardens first. They are quite extensive; spanning over five acres and consisting of woodland, a water garden and more formal beds. Frost is rare due to the influence of the Gulf Stream and this milder climate allows more tender plants to grow.

Dunvegan Castle water gardens

Like the castle, the gardens have an interesting history. The first planting of the formal garden was in the eighteenth century and it developed as a typical pleasure garden of the era until the mid-nineteen century, when it was given over to vegetable production at the time of the great potato famine. It seems it must have laid abandoned  for an extended period after this, prior to its restoration in modern times.

Daffodils at Dunvegan Castle, Skye

There has been a lot of work to the garden in recent years, making it well worth a visit. We went in early spring, when the daffodils were blooming. In fact, a surprising number of plants were blooming  – a cheerful sight after a long winter on Skye.

Bumble bees and blooms at Dunvegan Castle, Skye

There’s large glass house which is equally welcome when a cool wind starts blowing down the Loch (highland bumblebees appreciate it, too!). Our youngest lad, Ewan’s favourite part was the water garden, with its fine waterfalls and little bridges to whizz across; whilst Vanessa’s mum spent lots of time nodding in approval at all the plant labelling.

Then it was on to the castle; it doesn’t look the most interesting of buildings but inside it has many hidden gems.

Dunvegan Castle, Skye

Most of the interior is quite Victorian in style with rooms often painted bright colours and lots of portraits, some quite fine and painted by well-known Scottish artists, Alan Ramsay and Henry Raeburn. Probably the best known artefact in the castle is the Fairy Flag.

Dunvegan Castle from the groundsThe flag is said to have originated as a gift from the fairies to an infant chieftain and has magical powers including bringing victory in military circumstances and healing in times of plague and petulance. Legend states that it can only be used three times to save the Clan Macleod. Now it sits in its frame ready for its final use (hopefully not any time soon!).  In the small museum there are some other artefacts important to the clan including an ancient ceremonial cup and  a claymore (two handed sword) made from Scottish iron.

Compared to some other Scottish castles there is, perhaps, not a huge amount to see. To be fair, this is because a good part of the building is still used as a family home. Even so, there are a few little surprises – check out the dungeon and the rooms ‘below stairs’. The castle is great for families: useful if the weather is a bit iffy and with some truly beautiful grounds to venture into when the sun comes out. And you have to admire the skill and determination of anyone who decides to create a garden of this scale on Skye.  

Waterfall at Dunvegan Castle, Skye

Early spring flowers at Dunvegan Castle