DUNSCAITH CASTLE

The Castle of Dunscaith, or more correctly "Dun Sgathaich", i.e. the Dun of the Shadow, was the original seat of the MacDonalds in Skye, although not originally built by them. The Isle of Skye formed part of the Earldom of Ross and therefore did not come into the possession of the Family of the Isles until the inheritance of that earldom by Alexander, third Lord of the Isles through his mother, Lady Mary Leslie, daughter and heiress of Euphemia, Countess of Ross, during the second decade of the 15th century.

Efforts had been made by Alexander's father, Donald, second Lord of the Isles, to obtain the earldom in right of his wife's claim but in spite of a vigorous military campaign which climaxed in the famous Battle of Harlaw, in 1411, had been thwarted by the Regent Albany, who had the design of acquiring the title and estates for his own family. Donald's efforts included making inroads into the Isle of Skye, which were successfully resisted by the inhabitants, i.e. the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan.

Dunscaith occupies the whole of the top of an isolated rock at the north corner of Ob (bay) Gauscavaig on the south shore of the mouth of Loch Eishort, about a mile west of Tokavaig, on the west side of the Sleat peninsula. The rock is entirely precipitous and extends to approximately 30 to 40 feet above the sea by which it is surrounded except on the side facing the mainland from which it is separated by a steep gully, or trench approximately 20 feet wide and 15 or 16 feet deep, hewn out of the natural rock and filled with boulders. This gully is traversed by two arched walls, 6 feet apart, enclosing a space for a wooden drawbridge, 8 feet long. The arches spring from a wall and the natural rock on the mainland, the crowns rising to a height of 13 or 14 feet above the bottom of the trench.

At the inner extremity of the gap are the holes for the pivot upon which the drawbridge operated. Immediately beyond are the projecting checks for a wooden door, which opened to a flight of stone steps turning left and rising 13 to 14 feet to the top. The whole summit of the rock measuring approximately 30 by 22 yards was originally enclosed by walls, of which portions still cling to the cliff edge. Where complete the surrounding wall averages 5 feet thick. The whole internal area is grass grown. An oblong building, 38 by 16 feet with 43.5 feet walls, occupied the extreme western section. There is a well in the courtyard, now filled with debris. The south face included a sea~gate.

In Gaelic tradition, the original dun was occupied by Sgathach, the mythical Amazon queen, who instructed young Fingalian heroes, particularly Cuchullin, in the martial arts. The castle was probably built by the MacLeods for whom it is said to have been held, as constables, by the MacAskills of Rhu an Dunan, by whom it was valiantly defended during several sieges. In 1449 John, fourth Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross granted the 28 merk lands of Sleat to his brother Hugh and to his heirs male by Fyovola Maclain of Ardnamurchan, with remainder to Hugh's heirs male by any other wife chosen after the death of Fynvola, with the advice of John, his kinsmen Donald Balloch of Dunnyvaig and the Glens, Celestine of Lochalsh,

Lachlan MacLean of Duart and Alexander Maclain of Ardnamurchan, or, failing them, with the advice of the heirs themselves. In 1495, King James IV confirmed the grant of 1449. Hugh of Sleat, from whom are descended the Clan Uisdean, or Hugh, otherwise known as the MacDonalds of Sleat and sometimes as the Clan Donald North, to distinguish them from the MacDonalds of Dunnyvaig and the Glens, who were also known as the Clan Donald South, was dead in 1498, in which year his son and successor John Hucheonson (ie. Son of Hugh) of Sleat appears in record and in 1505, this John, having quarrelled with his nearest kinsmen, resigned the lands of Sleat with the Castle of Dunscaith, into the hands of King James IV who then granted them to Ranaldo Alansoun of Yland-Bagrim (Eilean Beagram), ie. Ranald Ban, 5th of Clanranald.

The lands of Sleat, and the Castle of Dunscaith, however, remained in the possession of Donald Gallach, the brother of John Hucheonson. In 1515, John, Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland, granted to Lachlan MacLean of Duart and Alexander MacLeod (Alasdair Crotach) of Dunvegan and their followers, a remission, for all past crimes and in particular for besieging and taking the castles of Carneborg (in Mull) and Dunskaich and holding them against the Regent, and for assisting Sir Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh and his accomplices, in an attempt to re-establish the Lordship of the Isles in his person. In 1521, a bond of manrent was signed by Donald Gruamach, son of Donald Gallach, as Donald of Dunscagth, indicating his residence in the castle and ten years later, in 1531, as Donald Gromach Mac Donald Gallich of Dunskawich, was one of a number of Highland chiefs cited to appear before the Scottish Parliament.

In 1549, Dunscaith is mentioned by Archdeacon Sir Donald Monro, as belonging to Donald Gormesone and an obligation by this chief to the Bishop of the Isles, in January 1573, then styled Donald McDonili gorme, is dated at Dounsceiche. In the Description ofthe Isles of Scotland, circa 1577-95, appended to Skene's Celtic Scotland, it is stated: 'There is twa strenthie castells in Slait, the ane callit Castell Chammes [Camus], the uther Dunskeith,' implying that both these castles were then still occupied The date when Dunscaith was abandoned as the principal seat of the Sleat family is uncertain but may have been around the year 1618, when Sir Donald, 8th Chief and 1st Baronet of Sleat received a Royal Charter of the lands of Trotternish, in the north of Skye, by the terms of which he was obliged to make Duntulm Castle, his principal residence. It is probable that the castle was gradually thereafter allowed to decay. It is worthy of note that in the Letters Patent of the late Lord Macdonald, dated 1st May 1947, relating to his matriculation of the Ensigns Armorial as Chief of the Name and Arms of MacDonald in the Lyon Register, the caput of the lands and Barony of MacDonald is stated to be 'the ancestral castle of Dunscaith.'

Sources include: The Castles of Scotland, M. Coventry; Castles of Skye, J. Macintyre; Celtic Scotland, D.F. Skene; Collectanea de Hebus Albanicis, D. Gregory & W.F Skene; Geographical Collections, W. MacFarlane; History of Skye, A. Nicolson; History of the Western Highlands and Isles, D. Gregory; Originales Parochiales Scotiae, C. Innes; The Clan Donald, A. & A. MacDonald; The MacLeods of Dunvegan, R.C. MacLeod; The Medieval Castles of Skye & Lochalsh, R. Miket & D.L. Roberts; The Outer Hebrides, Skye and the SmaD Isles, R.C.A.H.M.S., 9th Report. [N.H.M.]

nformation taken from Newsletter of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh, and written by Norman H.MacDonald