In the Great Glen of the Scottish Highlands, you will find the magnificent Loch Ness – the second largest lake in Scotland. And on the rocky western bank of the loch, stands the ruins of Urquhart Castle – a place with a long and violent history.
Early History of Urquhart Castle, Scotland
In ancient times, the Picts lived in this area and had built a fort where Urquhart Castle stands today.
St Columba visited Loch Ness around 580 AD, on his way to speak to the Pictish King in Inverness. He stopped at Loch Ness to convert a Pictish nobleman named Emchath – and his entire household – to Christianity. It is said that Columba encountered a “great monster” in the loch. This is the first recorded mention of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.
Construction of Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle is sited on Strone Point, a triangular promontory on the north-western shore of Loch Ness, and commands the route along this side of the Great Glen as well as the entrance to Glen Urquhart.
The castle is quite close to water level, though there are low cliffs along the northeast sides of the promontory. The ground rises steeply to the north-west. A dry moat, 30 meters (98 ft) across at its widest, defends the landward approach, possibly excavated in the early Middle Ages. A stone-built causeway provides access, with a drawbridge formerly crossing the gap at the centre. The castle side of the causeway was formerly walled-in, forming an enclosed space similar to a barbican.
Urquhart is one of the largest castles in Scotland in area. The walled portion of the castle is shaped roughly like a figure-8 aligned northeast-southwest along the bank of the loch, around 150 by 46 meters (492 by 151 ft), forming two baileys (enclosures): the Nether Bailey to the north, and the Upper Bailey to the south. The curtain walls of both enclosures date largely to the 14th century, though much augmented by later building, particularly to the north where most of the remaining structures are located.
Urquhart Castle at War
What remains today of Urquhart Castle dates from the 13th to the 16th centuries. It changed hands many times – often under violent circumstances. Urquhart featured prominently in the Scots’ struggle for independence and was repeatedly in the line of fire when the MacDonalds tried to expand their territory.
Again, during the Jacobite Risings, Urquhart Castle played its part in Scottish history. And this was also the beginning of the end for this once-mighty castle. When the last soldiers marched out of the castle in 1692, they blew it up to prevent it from being used by the Jacobites.
The Battle of The Shirts
On an exceptionally hot July day in 1544, an epic Clan battle took place, just north of Loch Lochy. On the one side was Hugh Fraser, Lord of Lovat, backed up by Clan Fraser, Clan Grant (of Urquhart Castle) and Clan Mackintosh. Their opponents were Clan MacDonald, backed up by Clan Cameron.
It was hot and humid in the marshy battlefield. Men on both sides were so hot that they removed their heavy chainmail coats and fought in their shirts – hence the name of the battle.
On the Clan Fraser side, 300 men went into battle. The MacDonalds had 500 men. After a bloody battle, only five from the Fraser side survived, and only eight from the MacDonald side. It was a terrible cost, but the MacDonalds were victorious.
To underscore their victory, the MacDonalds and Camerons raided lands belonging to their opponents. Urquhart Castle was captured in early 1545. They burned everything they couldn’t take away with them and did great damage to the Castle – stripping it of all furniture, cannon and even the gates!
Visiting The Castle
Today, Urquhart Castle is a popular tourist attraction and is managed by Historic Environment Scotland. Visitors can explore the ruins learn about the Castle’s history in the visitor centre and enjoy panoramic views of Loch Ness and the Great Glen from the Castle’s towers.
Historical Sites Nearby
- Castle Leod, seat of Clan MacKenzie, is located 27 miles North, along the A833.
- The Bronze Age Clava Cairns lie 25 miles away.
- The ruins of Beauly Priory are 16 miles North.
- The Culloden Battlefield lies 21 miles away, near Inverness.