Dunscaith Castle

Dunscaith Castle, Isle of Skye


Tarskavaig, Sleat


B-road off A851


Nr. IV44 8QL

The Castle of Dunscaith, or to use its more accurate name Dun Sgathaich, the Dun of the Shadow, was the original seat of the MacDonalds in Skye, although not originally built by them. It is situated on an isolated rock in the north corner of Ob (bay) Gauscavaig on the south shore of the mouth of Loch Eishort, on the west side of the Sleat peninsula. The rock is entirely precipitous and extends to forty feet above the sea by which it is surrounded except on the mainland side from which it is separated by a steep gully, twenty feet wide and fifteen feet deep, hewn out of natural rock. This gully is crossed by walled arches, six feet apart, which once enclosed a wooden drawbridge, eight feet long. A strong wooden door, long gone, leads to a flight of stone steps rising a further 14 feet to an enclosed courtyard with walls five feet thick. A deep well provided water in times of siege and beyond this the remains of a stairwell that led to the tower. In its day the castle was almost impregnable to attack. According to a twelfth century manuscript, the castle was built by a witch in a single night.

~ Legend ~

Cu Chulainn, the legendary Ulster Warrior journeyed to Skye to complete his training in arms with the warrior-queen Sgathaich who trained her men in the art of fighting. Cu Chulann's journey was long and fraught with dangers but each was overcome in turn. At last he reached the castle, separated from the mainland by a wide chasm and linked only by a perilous bridge that threw off all who failed to get across in two strides. Twice he tried to cross without success, but the third time he succeeded. After knocking on the door so hard his spear shaft pierced the timbers, he was finally admitted by Uathach, the daughter of Scathaich.

His training was long and difficult and while staying at Dun Sgathaich many adventures befell him.

A conflict arose between Sgathaich and a neighbouring princess, Aife. To ensure his safety during the hostilities Sgathaich gave Cu Chulainn a sleeping potion to bind him for 24 hours. However, he awoke after only an hour and appeared on the field of battle to champion the queen against Aife. The combat between the two was fearsome but eventually Cu Chulainn's sword was splintered by a heavy blow amd it seemed as if he was lost. Quickly he caused a distraction by shouting that Aide's favourite chariot and horse were in danger. Thus distracted the queen was slung over Cu Chulainn's shoulder and carried off the field of battle. In addition to extracting a promise from Aife that she would never again fight with Queen Sgathaich, Aife bore him a son, Conlai. In the fullness of time Conlai journeyed to Ireland to see his father.

~ History ~

1300's - Originally, the fortress was in the possession of the Norse Kings of Man, and securing Dunscaith were a race of savage Norse warriors known as the McAskills. The hereditary keeper of Dunscaith was Black Donald, the head of the McAskills, who along with his family kept watch on the seas from the tower.

It came to pass, that the McAskill's loyalty was given to the Clan MacLeod, a prominent family in the Hebrides. In exchange for their military service, the MacLeods granted the McAskill lands. Along with the honour of being associated with the MacLeods, the McAskills had to also take on the burden of the many MacLeod enemies. The most menacing of which were the MacDonalds, who owned much of the land in Sleat and it was only a matter of time before they set their sites on the noble fortress of Dunscaith.

As Lords of the Isles the MacDonalds long coveted gaining a foothold in Skye.

The McAskills were feared and the MacDonald's knowing of the legends surrounding the family, planned very carefully their raid. Not daring to confront the Black Donald in an open battle, they descended upon the castle under the cloak of night and fell upon the McAskills as they slept. When the sun rose the next morning, Dunscaith was in the hands of the MacDonalds and the Black Donald was dead. The skirmish had been a bloody and terrifying affair, with the McAskill children running from the castle into the dark Woods of Torkavaig, their screams echoing in the cold night air as they were ridden down by MacDonald clansmen. One of the few survivors, was Black Donald's youngest daughter, Mary McAskill, only thirteen at the time of the attack. But, old enough to know of the horror of clan rivalry, and of revenge. Mary hid in a rotted out log in the woods for three days and nights before gaining the courage to join the rest of the surviving family. Three years later she journeyed back to Dunscaith, back through the woods of Torkavaig, back to the place where her father had been stabbed repeatedly in his sleep, three years earlier. Knocking at the door of the castle, Mary advised she was there to apply for the position of housekeeper which the MacDonalds had advertised. Before long, Mary had so gained their trust that she was promoted to work in the nursery, as nanny to the MacDonald children. One day, the MacDonalds being in the thralls of yet another land dispute, gathered all the Clan to fight in a nearby battle with the MacLeods. Mary was left alone in the castle with only a few guards and the seven MacDonald children. As an encroaching storm gathered over the Isle and the sea began to churn under a cold wind, Mary awoke the children and escorted them to the tower, advising the guard that she was uneasy and felt they would be safer there. Softly, as not to wake them she walked to the east window, opened it and tossed the baby out of the window onto the rocks below. Slowly, she picked up the sleeping children one by one and threw them from the tower into the storm to their inevitable demise. Not one of them so much as let out a sound, completely trusting the arms of their beloved nanny. When the deed was done, Mary, walked out of the tower, passed the guards and out of the castle. One guard, curious that she should go out in such a storm followed her and watched as she walked barefoot into the woods and disappeared. When word spread through Skye of the horrible crime, the countryside were mortified. The McAskills, who were never known for being squeamish, were the most shocked. How could any woman care and love children as her own for years, feed them and dress them only to murder them!? This was an evil even they could not comprehend. Ever since both clans have been careful not to christen any children Mary for fear evil deeds would return.

1395 - The MacDonalds under Donald of Harlaw, 2nd Lord of the Isles, invade Skye, but his forces are severely beaten by a large MacLeod force who afterwards collect the heads of the slain, and despatch them to Dunvegan Castle as trophies.

1401 ~ The MacDonalds return and again attack the castle but are once more beaten off, forcing them to abandon the attempted capture of the castle.

1409 - The premature death of William, 4th Chief of the MacLeods, offers the MacDonalds a further opportunity to establishing the foothold they have long coverted at Dunscaith. William's son is a minor and under the poor regent appointed, Ian the Truculent, the MacLeods splinter into factions weakening their defences against outside hostile forces. Seizing the moment, the MacDonalds again raid the Island, seizing both Caisteal Camus and Dunscaith Castles. Yet again the MacLeods draw together and successfully repeal their invaders.

1431 - King James I royal forces capture both Caisteal Camus and Dunscaith in response to a rebellion against the Crown, headed by Donald Balloch, cousin of the Lord of the Isles, who at that time is prisoner of the King at Tantallon Castle. Both castles are later returned once the rebellion had been crushed.

1469 - Hugh, brother of John MacDonald, 10th Lord of the Isles, is granted much of Sleat, with Dunscaith as his chief seat.

1494 - John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, is forced to surrender of Lordship of the Isles to the King and forfeit all lands and claims.

1495 - A royal charter confirms 'Hugh of Sleat' as rightful lord of Dunscaith.

1498 - Hugh dies and is succeeded by his eldest son John. Having no heirs of his own and determined that the estate should not fall into the hands of his half-brothers, John sets about disposing of parts of the estate, including Dunscaith to Ranaldo Alansoun.

1505 - With the death of John his half-brother, Donald Gallach, succeeds to the sadly reduced estate and takes back both Dunscaith and lays claim to the former estate lands. He is soon embroiled in years of vicious in family fighting, led primarily by Gillespic Dubh, a half-brother who felt that he was being overlooked by his chief. Gillespic first arranges the death of one of his half-brothers Donald Herrach, by an ingenious trick: a competition to see who could leap highest and touch a rope-noose with his nose. When Donald leapt the noose is dropped around his neck and hot irons thrust through his bowels. Gillespic then hastens to Dunscaith before the news of the deed reaches his chief. He is made welcome and taken to inspect a galley which this chief is building. Drawing Donald's attention to an imaginary defect, Gillespic takes the opportunity and stabs him. Mortally wounded, Donald implores Gillespic to spare his son. The murderer is so stricken with remorse of his evil actions he takes his nephew under his protection.

1508 - Gillespic receives a crown pardon for 'ye slaughter of Donald Hutchonsoun of his Olis'.

1513 - Following the death of King James IV at Flodden Field the opportunity to re-establish the Lordship of the Isles. At a gathering at Caisteal Maol many of the chiefs give their support to Sir Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh.

Donald Gruamach, son of the murdered Donald Gallach and future chief of the MacDonalds of Sleat, is still a minor under his uncle Gillespic's protection, staying in a safe house of the Earl of Moray. His uncle remains in residence at Dunscaith.

The castle is forfeited to the Crown and is soon besieged by the rebellious chiefs led by the MacLeods of Dunvegan and Harris. Support for Sir Donald is short-lives as the Crown flexes its considerable political and military muscle.

1515 - Those involved in 'the tresonable segeing and taking of the kings castillis and house of Dunskaith' are pardoned.

1518 - The young Donald Gallach now assumes the leadership of his clan, having first avenged the murder of his father by stabbing his uncle, Gillespic Dubh, while he slept. He takes residence at Dunscaith with his wife Catherine.

1521 - Donald is visited at the castle by his cousin and close friend Ranald Herrach. Both men are closely bonded through the murder of their fathers at the hands of their uncle Gillespic. Whilst Ranald is pleased to see his cousin, he is far from pleased with the releatives of the chief's wife. It appears to Ranald that their haughty manner and utter lack of deference to their host required immediate action. Under the cloak of nigh Ranald creeps by each bed in turn, murdering its occupant until twelve of the chief's wife's kin folk lay dead. The bodies are thrown out of the window onto the rocks below. At first light Ranald prepares to leave the castle. His chief urges him to stay, or at least delay, until his wife came down. To this Ranald replies that he must leave instantly 'for she will not bless me when she looks out her window and views my mornings work'. Upon discovering the bodies of her kin folk, the wife despatches a hired assassin to avenge their deaths. The assassin catches up with Ranald and murders him.

1531 - Donald is ordered to appear before the King in Edinburgh.

1534 - Donald is succeeded by his son Donald Gorm.

1618 - The main MacDonald seat moves from Dunscaith to Duntulm and begins the slow decline of the castle.