Before children, my idea of a great way to travel was light — ideally, everything in one backpack — and often – moving from place to place in a peripatetic journey of discovery. After children, my idea of a great way to travel includes things like lots of clean underwear, hot water, comfy beds, and only having to unpack once. On the Isle of Skye, we set up our base for the week at one of the Dunvegan Castle holiday cottages. Since Dunvegan Castle was one of my must-see places on Skye, this was perfect. We visited several times over the week, as our cottage had access to the gardens and included passes to the Castle interior (during open hours). If I sound just a wee bit satisfied, that’s because I was — I love it when a plan actually works.
Dunvegan Castle is the home of the MacLeods. Yes, MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, the Highlander — although the movie isn’t mentioned or even hinted at in any of the materials on display about the family or the castle. It’s the oldest continuously occupied Castle in Scotland. While it’s no Blenheim Palace, it has a hominess and a certain community feeling to it — or maybe that’s the excellent PR work of the more recent Clan chiefs, most notably Flora MacLeod, who in essence resurrected the clan in the 20th century. There’s a lovely painting of her in the castle, and we saw her grave marker in the old St. Mary’s Church near the Castle. She looks like everyone’s favorite Nana. But I digress …
The Castle building itself is a mix of several eras. The oldest part of the castle is the curtain wall and well (above), dating from the 13th century. Seen below, the large bit in the middle-left is the later 13th century castle, the tower to the right is the fairy tower built in the 15th century, and a soldier-of-fortune-turned-General built the tower to the left and added all the pepper-pots. No photography is allowed in the castle, so check out the website for some views. The kids were mightily impressed by the dungeon (just off the drawing room — convenient), and I liked the fairy tower and, of course, found the history of the fairy flag fascinating. Crusader flag? Norwegian mercenary-king standard? Robe of an ancient monk? Or a gift of the fairies? Hmmmmm.
The gardens are not much to compare to many here in the garden of England … then again, it’s a miracle anything is growing besides heather and nettles, so when you think about it, they are amazing.
The round garden was full of tulips, the walled garden picturesque and fun to run through, the water garden sports several waterfalls — a very satisfying place to walk around. Or to run through screaming, pretending to be marauders and/or highland cattle. Whatever makes you happy.
The capping activity at Dunvegan — once you get over dreaming about the fairy flag, tsking over the wretched wife tossed in the dungeon, or wondering at Rory Mor’s horn or the Dunvegan Cup — has to be the seal boat tours. I went out with the kids on a blustery day right after a rain fall. Apparently the Loch is warmer than the rain, so many of the seals had jumped into the water to warm up. We saw them following our boat and peeking their heads up above the water to watch us — they looked like mermaids.
Some ladies were hanging out on the rocks. There is a population of about 300 seals who return to Dunvegan to have their pups every year, and they are completely unafraid of the boats or of people. Pretty amazing.
May or June is a better time to see the pups, but we enjoyed our nearly private tour of the Loch and all the lovely seal mamas who did let us see them.
There is a decent soup-and-sandwhich cafe with good coffee at the Castle, called MacLeod’s Tables. The name refers to the two flat-topped mountains you can see from almost anywhere on this corner of the Isle of Skye — like here, an easy downhill walk down from the Castle, with the village of Dunvegan in the foreground:
The eighth clan chief dragged James V up the taller mountain and gave him dinner at the flat summit, surrounded by hundreds of clansmen lighting up the Highland sky with flaming torches. When they put on a dinner party here, they don’t hold back.
The village has a small grocery, post office, tourist information centre, a few places to eat, an ATM, and villagers who are inspired to do interesting things — like erect this fifteen foot high standing stone on midsummer’s day in the year 2000 … by hand. Did I mention it weighs 5 tons? I think someone should make that story into a movie.
The stone — the Diurnish Stone — is there off to the right at the top of the hill. We’re seeing it here from the churchyard of St. Mary, where ten generations of MacCrimmon pipers are buried:
If you have time to take a walk down from the Castle, the Dunvegan Two Churches walk takes you past stone and church — or if you drive there’s a small place to park off-road and walk up to the churchyard.
You can “do” Dunvegan — Castle, Gardens, village, stone, churches and all — in a day, but why hurry? Stay a bit longer, and you’ll have time to explore ever further a-field, and see unique places like the fairy bridge where the fourth chief’s fairy wife gave him the gift of a fairy flag … but that’s a tale (and photos) for another day.