Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle sits on a rocky promontory where Loch Etive meets the Firth of Lorn in Argyll, not too far from Oban.  The name Dunstaffnage comes from the Gaelic  dun or 'fort' and two Norse words, stafr 'staff' and nes 'promontory'. Staff may refer to an office-bearer or official. This castle guarded the approach from the sea to the Pass of Brander which leads to the heart of Scotland. 

Dunstaffnage Castle
 Dunstaffnage was built around the year 1220, probably by Duncan MacDougall, grandson of the famous and powerful Somerled. At this time, Argyll was the dividing line between the kingdom of Scotland and Norway. Neither king controlled the area, and by 1150 it was ruled by Somerled, a half-Norse, half-Gaelic warlord. He seized the Kingdom of the Isles from his brother-in-law and ruled until his death. When Somerled died, his kingdom passed to his three sons. Dougall (spelled Dubhgall in Gaelic), the oldest, became Lord of Lorn. Duncan was his son.

Those who visited the castle found good anchorage in Dunstaffnage Bay. It still serves this purpose and you will usually see yachts anchored in the bay.

Dunstaffnage Bay viewed from the Castle's wall walk

Dunstaffnage is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland and it served as residence for lords for over five hundred years. It was only abandoned in 1810.

The curtain wall and three projecting towers survive from the 13th century as does the nearby chapel. As you approach the castle, you will see a strong, forbidding fortification. It's easy to see how it would have intimidated those who might have wanted to attack. 

The castle has a long and violent history. It served as a key locale during the 14th century Wars of Independence. Later it served as a stronghold of the Campbells, earls of Argyll. The Campbells earned the king's favor, and therefore power, by policing the region, especially the Western Isles, against uprisings of clans such as the MacDonalds.

Although trees surround the castle now, back when it was a fortified castle, it offered its residents expansive views over the Firth of Lorn and Loch Etive.

The castle sits on high rocky promontory, and the walls rise more than 6 more meters. The original tops of the walls are gone, so it's unknown if they were battlemented or covered in a timber structure. Excavations show that the castle was originally surrounded by an eight meter wide ditch. The only openings in the landward side of the curtain were narrow arrow slits. After 1500 these were blocked up and even smaller gun loops inserted.

The original castle had no projecting corner towers, just the massive 11 feet thick walls. The stonework would not have been visible. The walls would've been harled (coated with white lime render.) Harling provides a long-lasting weatherproof shield and was often used on Scottish castles and other buildings. Traces of the harling still survive at Dunstaffnage.

Duncan's son Ewen probably built the three round towers onto the castle, and constructed or enlarged the hall inside.

Dunstaffnage Castle Gatehouse being repaired

The building above the entrance, which looks like a house, is the gatehouse. It was rebuilt in the late 1500s. When we were visiting, repairs were being made on it. The Captain of Dunstaffnage resided in the gatehouse. The man who filled this role in the 1500s probably had this gatehouse built to replace the poor accommodation of the old donjon. The gatehouse is three floors with one room on each floor. We were not allowed inside nor near it with the repairs to the roof, etc.

entrance door

The entrance dates from the late 15th century when the Campbells took over the castle. The doorway is within a pointed arch recess. The stone steps leading up to it were built around 1720. Before that, there must have been a drawbridge over the huge ditch. Evidence of a drawbridge pit remains.


The donjon is a dilapidated tower at the north corner. This is the largest of the three towers and was added around 1250. It was built to allow archers a better view of the outer faces of the wall and to furnish the lord with better accommodation. It was probably three stories high. The ground floor was a storage cellar with no stairs leading from it to the upper floors. It had three arrow slits. The upper part held the lord's hall and chamber. There is a spiral stair linking the two and in it a latrine, sometimes called a garderobe.

Dunstaffnage Castle, interior
 The area of the castle wall below the wall-walk has several recesses which originally gave access to narrow arrow slits. Later they were altered for guns. There may have been buildings here in early times.

From the beginning, the castle had a wall-walk around the landward facing walls of the castle. This allowed the garrison to keep an eye out and defend this vulnerable side of the castle. The wall-walk has been repaired so visitors can walk on it. There's a great view from up here over Dunstaffnage Bay.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to Dunstaffnage. Next time, I'll talk about the chapel.

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Collette Cameron said...

This was absolutely wonderful!

sandy mcvicar said...

Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I enjoy reading your blogs. Looking forward to more.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Yummy post, Vonda. I love this castle and wish we could have seen it. Maybe next time. :)

Unknown said...

Beautiful Pictures Vonda! Thanks for sharing!

Beppie Harrison said...

Ahhhh--love these mini-trips. Looks as if the weather was wonderful here.The pictures are beautiful and the history fascinating

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog. Thanks so much Vonna.
Cathleen Ross

Unknown said...

Love this! I went years ago and the weather was not nice during my visit, but I it gave a melancholic feel to the whole area and I really enjoyed my time there. Can't wait for your next post about the chapel since THAT was the highlight of my visit. :D
Annie (aka Kelly Ann Scott)

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks so much, everyone!! So glad you liked it! It's a wonderful and interesting castle to visit. They have a room in another building with detailed history and displays. I'm glad the weather was nice that day. I also loved visiting the chapel.

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

What a great post. I love the harbor, and the castle. I hope they can renovate the whole thing. Tweeted.

Gerri Bowen said...

You take such wonderful photos, Vonda. Almost as good as being there.

BBT said...

Very interesting information and beautiful photos. Thanks for the virtual tour. You need to teach a class on Scottish castles. You have a wealth of information and pics. Congratulations on the sale and rankings of your Scottish romance. I have read the novel, and loved it.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Thanks so much, ladies!! I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :) That is an interesting idea, Brenda and it sounds like fun too! Thanks so much for the major compliment!! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the book! :)