Aberdeenshire HER - NO88SE0007 - DUNNOTTAR CASTLE

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Main Details

Primary ReferenceNO88SE0007
NRHE Card No.NO88SE11
NRHE Numlink 36992
HES SM No. 986
Site Form Standing Structure
Site Condition Incomplete
Details Remains of a castle, which probably occupies the site of a prehistoric fort. St Ninian established a church here about the beginning of the 5th century. It may also be the 'Dunfoithir' besieged in 681. In the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214) 'Dunnottar' was the place where warrants were returnable for the Mearns, and 'le castiel de Dunostre' is mentioned at the beginning of the 13th century. Another castle was erected at the end of the 14th century. In its final form the castle was forfeited in 1716 and the roofs and floors removed and sold. In 1925 the systematic repair and excavation of the ruins was begun. In its present form the extensive remains date from various periods. The oldest portion is the early 15th century keep with a range of buildings extending to the east containing stables and storehouses. The gatehouse is approached by a steep path and defended by three tiers of splayed gun-loops. The arched entrance is the only opening on a solid wall of masonry set into a cleft in the rock, and forms a very impressive and dominating entrance. The buildings to the northwest grouped round a courtyard date from the late 16th or early 17th century, including a chapel. A huge water system lies within the courtyard. There is also a bowling green to the west of this later range. The Scottish Crown jewels (The Honours of Scotland) were hidden here in 1651 as it was considered one of the strongest places in the kingdom. In 1685, 167 Covenanters were packed into a small vault (the Whigs Vault) where nine died due to the terrible conditions. An oval motte was noted in 1970. A watching Brief was carried out in 2005 during excavations for a new safety fence along the cliff top, but no significant archaeological features were found. Further watching brief undertaken during hand-excavation of post-holes along east edge of castle. Only a pit contained any structural evidence, in the form of a flat sandstone block which may have been a base for artillery behind the adjoining bank. In one posthole, near the chapel, fragments of human skull were discovered. Elsewhere there was evidence of domestic refuse in the form of animal bones. Watching brief undertaken by MAS in April 2009 over the excavation of postholes associated with the erection of a new safety barrier. In total, 39 postholes were hand excavated and recorded. All the postholes excavated produced similar fill and indicate that this pathway giving access to the castle was made up ground renewed and resurfaced at various stages. No archaeological features or finds were evident. A watching brief was carried out in March 2011 by MAS over the installation of a new composter. The composter required the digging of 14 postholes, centred on NO 88095 83903. No finds or features of archaeological significance were revealed. In January 2013 a watching brief was maintained by MAS on hand digging of postholes for two new stretches of safety fence, one beside the steps approaching the castle entrance, the other extending the west end of the existing fence. The posthole closest to the castle wall revealed two possible foundation stones of the castle wall, but no other archaeological features were observed. A watching brief was carried out by MAS in May 2015 on remedial works in three areas of the castle. No features were observed during works south of Benholm's Lodging and at the steps leading from the graveyard to the guardhouse. Cutting back of the bank between the smithy and the store to enable construction of a retaining wall yielded a single sherd of internally green glazed pottery of probable 16th century date, and pieces of clay tobacco pipe of probable 17th and 18th-19th century date. A watching brief was carried out by MAS in October 2018 during drainage groundworks for the walkway east of the Pends. The only finds were two fragments of decayed animal bone and a single fragment of roof tile in the topsoil. A watching brief was carried out by MAS in October 2018 during groundworks for shallow sumps in two rooms of the west range. No evidence of earlier floors was observed and there were no finds in the fill removed. A watching brief was carried out by MAS in January 2019 during creation of a path to North Bay, but no archaeological features or artefacts were observed. As part of a programme of geological examination of the cliff stability, an archaeological evaluation was carried out by MAS in September 2019 on traces of three structures on the cliffs on the north side of the castle. Two of the structures can be visually documented back to the late 17th century and appear to be associated with the access (and its protection) between the late 16th-17th century water gate in the north range and the sea. The third structure may have been part of a late attempt to shore up or protect vulnerable areas of cliff, there is little evidence to suggest they were part of a wall encircling the summit. A watching brief was carried out by MAS in December 2019 on a test pit and drainage works to address subsidence in the floor of the dining room. The results suggested that the original floor make-up here was a compact mortar/stony layer observed in the test pit. The present, upper, surface was probably laid during the 1920s restoration. A Roman distance sculpture, the Auchendavy sculpture, one of 21 sandstone relief sculptures from the Antonine Wall, had been installed at various times in prominent positions at Dunnottar Castle, by the Earls Marischal in the sixteenth century. It remained visible there in 1642, prior to being moved to the Marischal Museum in Aberdeen and its eventual donation by George Keith, the Tenth Earl Marischal to the Hunterian Museum in 1761.
Last Update20/02/2024
Updated Bycsimpson
Date of Compilation 

Google Map for NO88SE0007

National Grid Reference: NO 8811 8387

Event Details

Event DateEvent TypeOASIS ID
1925 Excavation
1985 Excavation
2009 Watching-Brief
2005 Watching-Brief
2007 Watching-Brief
2011 Watching-Brief
2013 Watching-Brief mas1-145739
2015 Watching-Brief mas1-220468
2018 Watching-Brief mas1-335184
2018 Watching-Brief mas1-335168
2019 Watching-Brief mas1-341527
2019 Evaluation mas1-372042
2019 Watching-Brief mas1-372075
2019 Watching-Brief mas1-410813

Excavations and Surveys

Date MDate YTypeDurationDirector / OrganisationAuspicesFundExtent
92019 Excavation  MAS   

Artefact and Ecofact

Date MDate YArtefact TypeFinderRecovery MethodConditionStorage LocationAccess No.
   STONE VESSEL Stray Find National Museum of Scotland  
91984 MEDIEVAL POTTERY Excavation  
 1761 SCULPTURED STONE Hunterian Museum, Glasgow GLAHM.F1


Ecofact Notes

Monument Types

Monument Type 1Monument Type 2Monument Type 3OrderProbability