Case Study: Eilean Donan Castle

Cecily Spall

Eilean Donan Castle (MHG45372) is a medieval icon of the Highlands, situated at the confluence of three sea lochs in Wester Ross (Figure 1). Much of the present castle is a reconstruction from the early 20th century, but the castle has a long history. It has been the subject of archaeological research by FAS Heritage since 2007, involving field survey and open excavation.  Richard Oram has reviewed the historical evidence and supports the assertion that a castle existed here in the 13th century. Involvement of Clan MacCoinnich is not supported before the later 15th century and Eilean Donan is now considered to have been developed and held by the earls of Ross. Timothy Pont’s survey describes the castle in terms of folk memory by 1580, remarking that it was a ‘fair dungeon’ set upon a work, with a tower encompassed by a wall, though it was said of old that the castle had seven towers (Pont 121v–122r, available on suggesting the outer ward had contracted by this time. FAS Heritage fieldwork has defined four of the lost towers including the northwest tower and two interval towers, as well as defining the west and north curtain wall and timber buildings inside them.  

Castle on island with mountains in the background.
Figure 1: View of Eilean Donan Castle before extensive 20th century reconstruction ©HES

Radiocarbon-dating of the earliest archaeological deposits show they belong to the 14th century onwards, with an early midden inside a timber building returned a date range of cal AD 1308–1420.

People living at Eilean Donan were largely provisioned with food providing a view of the nature and strategies of the rural hinterland.  Foodstuffs from the 14th century occupation include the normal farmyard animals supplemented by hunted and caught food – venison, ducks and other wild birds.  A wide range of seafood was exploited, recovered along with lead fishing weights and iron hooks.  Crops such as oats and barley indicated in the environmental data must also have been supplied as provisions. Later bone assemblages indicate the skinning of cattle and dogs which returned a date of cal AD 1444–1625.

Personal items include copper-alloy stick pins for fastening clothing, a small ring brooch, decorative strap ends, coins and knives with decorative handles.  Evidence for play and pastimes is common.  As well as diverse evidence for hunting, a small buzz bone or snaring bone, an iron jaw harp and four gaming pieces show us that games, music and play were part of life. 

The most striking artefact recovered to date is undoubtedly the antler gravoir or hair parter.  The gravoir belongs to a small pan-European group of decorative high-status items which includes decorated knife handles; this is the only known example from medieval Scotland with very few examples from Britain.  Made from the tine of a red deer antler, the gravoir would have been used to style a lady’s hair and dates to the 14th century.  The artefact has been examined by Mark Hall who has compared it to the European corpus.  The consumption of high medieval culture was clearly enjoyed in the West Highlands and its Parisian overtones would not have been lost on the owner.

Antler hair parter with a decorative handle depicting a woman holding an object.
Figure 2: Gravoir or hair parter (length 111.5mm width 15.2mm thickness 7.4mm). ©FAS Heritage

Evidence for the working of non-ferrous metals takes the form of over 60 vitrified crucible fragments, recovered primarily from a late medieval midden heap.  Radio-carbon dating of burnt hazelnut-shell returned a date bracket of cal AD 1295–1397. The fragments belong to small capacity crucibles of which we have rim and base fragments in forms which are virtually indistinguishable from the Late Iron Age/Early Historic forms; comparable assemblages of this date have not yet been identified.

Later activity in the outer ward takes a completely different character and is heavily weighted towards craftworking (Figure 3).  Evidence for ironsmithing (Figure 4) has also been encountered on a significant scale, enough for the site of an armoury to be identified within the castle defined by a significant presence of in situ hammerscale mapped across an area of concentration identified as a working floor surface with the position of an anvil implied.  Assemblages which were closely associated with the building include a large amount of very large smithing cakes accompanied by a near-complete large rotary grindstone.  A burnt nutshell from this floor returned a radiocarbon date of cal AD 1450–1640.  Small groups of chainmail from mail garments as well as armour-piercing arrowheads or cross-bow bolts indicate that further military equipment may have been repaired or produced.

Castle with excavation in the foreground and the loch and mountains in the background.
 Figure 3: Eilean Donan Castle north outer ward under excavation looking southwest. ©FAS Heritage
Figure 4: Smithing hearth bottom from Eilean Donan Castle. ©FAS Heritage

Lastly, evidence for boat building and/or repairing has been identified in the assemblages.  Strips of unfinished roves have been recovered and are joined by clench bolts and large spike nails which strongly signal that shipwrights were also working at the castle.

In the broader context of the West Highlands the results from Eilean Donan Castle can claim some rich connections.  The presence of craftworkers was also identified during excavations at the seat of the Lord of the Isles, Finlaggan Castle on Islay, by David Caldwell.  These craftworkers, which at Eilean Donan included swordsmiths and shipwrights, are probably connected to the notable upsurge in evidence for late medieval ironworking evidence such as has also been found at Portmahomack.  The late medieval craftsmen also form a backdrop to the emergence of a professional caste of warrior and the distinctive West Highland art which adorns their funerary monuments (Steer and Bannerman 1977; Caldwell et al 2010).

Further information

Caldwell, D H, McGibbon, F M, Miller, S. and Ruckley, N A 2010 ‘The image of a Celtic society: medieval West Highland Sculpture’, in O’Neill, P (ed) Celts in Legend and Reality. Papers from the Sixth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies, (Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 9), University of Sydney: Sydney, 1–59.

Clark, J, Garner-Lahire, J I, Spall, C A and Toop N J forthcoming ‘Excavations at Eilean Donan Castle’, Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports

Steer, K A and Bannerman, J W M 1977 Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands, RCAHMS: Edinburgh.