My wife and I blundered upon this lovely little castle pretty much by chance. This was our longest driving day of our trip, and we had to make a long haul and on time – from Fort William, just south of the Loch country, all the way down to Kennacraig to catch the six-o’clock ferry to Islay. Not so many miles, you say, but look at those roads! Single lane each way and sinuous as a hibernating ball of earthworms. So we were careful not to dally too much anywhere along the way. We got out of Ft. William at a decent time, planning to be in Oban for lunch. Dunstaffnage at that point was merely a note in my list of things to see in nearby Oban, and the photos we found online did not impress. Just a little pocket castle.
However, after driving over an hour I needed a stretch. We were passing through the hamlet of Dunbeg when I saw the sign for Dunstaffnage castle so I hit the brakes and dived off the A85. We wound around the landscape on a tiny road and found ourselves in the midst of a campus, The Scottish Association for Marine Science.* I was certain we were lost and almost turned back. But just beyond we found the car park for the castle and walked through a desultory mist up a gentle slope, the castle rising** at the top.
We checked in at the visitor’s center, where entrance was free thanks to our Historic Scotland Explorer’s pass (highly recommended). We crossed a lovely field of wildflowers, climbed the steps and up through the 17th century gatehouse (seen projecting above the ramparts in the photo above). The gatehouse approach and interior has been reconstructed, but the rest of the castle is original and pretty good shape. Placards distributed around the walls recount the history of the fort.
From the upper level of the gatehouse we walked out onto the ramparts (right) where the weather became more blustery and wet (the photos of the exterior are from about fifteen minutes later, by which time the sun was out). You really get the feel of a close-knit community which would have existing in such a pocket-sized fortification. The main yard is tiny compared to the great castles and you can imagine sentries hollering across from one wall to the other. The northwest tower is but a ruin, though an impressive one. You can stand at the bottom of the west range (main hall) and trace the fittings and note from the fireplaces the likely floor plan.
There is a beach nearby and tracks through the forest for wandering. We had an altogether restorative visit at Dunstaffnage. In the hour we spent there we saw maybe eight other visitors — and this in high season, August. Without the crowds of the big famous castles, you can really slow down and imagine what it was like when James II ruled, for example.
Yes, it is but a pocket castle, but with a lively history and in a spot that encourages relaxation and reflection. Even if you are in a hurry on a long trip, consider a stop for a picnic or a walk. Be sure not to miss the very detailed model in the upstairs section of the visitor’s center.
* They have a free science/visitor’s center, the Ocean Explorer Centre.
** There actually is a Castle Rising, located in Norfolk, England.