By Leah Parker, MAED, Barclay Genealogy Researcher
Dunnottar Castle is another beautiful place in Scotland with ties to Clan Barclay. I find it to be utterly enchanting, and it is one of my favorite castles on the planet. Dunnottar was the seat of Clan Keith and now stands in ruins perched on a cliff on the northeastern coast of Scotland, about 2 miles or 3.2 km south of Stonehaven. The name Dunnottar is Scottish Gaelic: Dùn Fhoithear, meaning "fort on the shelving slope." The buildings we see today are mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries, but the site is believed to have been fortified in the Early Middle Ages. Dunnottar has played a prominent role in the history of Scotland even through the Jacobite risings of the 1700s because of its strategic location and defensive strength. Dunnottar is best known as the place where the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish crown jewels, were hidden from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century. The property of Clan Keith from the 14th century, and the seat of the Earl Marischal, Dunnottar declined after the last Earl forfeited his titles by taking part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. The castle was saved from ruin in 1925 and is now open to the public.
If you are unfamiliar with the title Earl Marischal, this is a good explanation:
The title of Earl Marischal was created in the peerage of Scotland for William Keith, the Great Marischal of Scotland.
The office of "Marischal of Scotland" (or Marascallus Scotie) had been hereditary, held by the senior member of the Keith family, since Hervey (Herveus) de Keith, who held the office of Marischal under Malcolm IV and William I. The descendant of Herveus, Sir Robert de Keith (d.1332), was confirmed in the office of "Great Marischal of Scotland" by King Robert the Bruce around 1324.
Robert de Keith's great-grandson, William, was raised to the peerage as Earl Marischal by James II in about 1458. The peerage died out when George Keith, the 9th earl, forfeited it by joining the Jacobite Rising of 1715.
The role of the Marischal was to serve as custodian of the Royal Regalia [Honours] of Scotland, and to protect the king's person when attending parliament. The former duty was fulfilled by the 7th earl during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, who hid them at Dunnottar Castle. The role of regulation of heraldry carried out by the English Earl Marshal is carried out in Scotland by the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
Clan Keith and Clan Barclay were friends, neighbors, and kin to each other. Colonel David Barclay purchased the Urie Estate in the late 1660s from the Earl Marischal, Laird of Dunnottar. (The Urie Estate was about 2.5 miles or 4 km from Dunnottar, but more on Urie in a future blog.) The ties of friendship and kinship were so strong that William Keith, the 7th Earl Marischal of Scotland and Laird of Dunnottar Castle, invited Colonel David Barclay (among a small group of trusted friends) to view the Honours of Scotland when they were hidden in a vault in the castle from Cromwell’s invading army. A History of the Barclay Family, Part III tells the story on pages 50-52:
A strong personal friendship as well as the tie of kinship had existed for generations between the two families, and in the Fraser Papers two anecdotes are related which show the pleasant and familiar terms they were on. During the interregnum the care and concealment of the Regalia of Scotland had fallen to the Earl Marishal by right of his hereditary office, and the secret of their whereabouts was only divulged to a very few of his most intimate friends. They were called “The Honours of Scotland,” and consisted of the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword. In the Fraser letters there is an account of how David Barclay was privileged to see them. “David Barclay, along with several others, accompanied from Fetteroso, the Earl Marshall with his visitor Earls, Seaforth and Sunderland, to see the Regalia (called The Honours of Scotland) which were kept in a Vault in the Tower of Dunottar Castle, cut out of the solid rock, and cased or lined with lead, and also mahogany, in which they were kept on a table covered with fine linen, and hung with tapestry. “ The Governor of the Castle first opened two locks, and the Earl Marischal a third, with a key taken from a bag hung from his neck by a silver tripet, on which the door of the Regalia was opened, and the Earls kneeled on cushions to view it, after which the attendants got leave by sixes to go and do the same, when the door was locked, and a salute fired from the Castle.” When the Committee of Estates was seized at Alyth in 1651 the Earl Marischal was in possession of this important key, which he wore in the bag round his neck, and must have been extremely anxious lest it should fall into the wrong hands. In the confusion consequent upon the arrest and transhipment of so large a number of people, he was able secretly to send the key to his wife, by a trusty messenger. She managed to save the Honours, and only just in time, as the castle was already surrounded, and was taken by Cromwell a few months later. The Countess Marischal arranged with the wife of the Rev. James Grainger, minister of Kinneff, a small parish church within a few miles of the castle, to remove these precious relics. Mrs. Grainger had been obliged to leave her horse in the besieging camp when she was permitted to enter the castle, approach being only possible on foot. On her return she carried the crown, rolled up in some linen, and must have had an anxious moment when the English General in charge of the blockading Army courteously helped her to mount [her horse], and she took the crown in her lap. Her maid followed her on foot, bearing the sword and sceptre concealed in bundles of lint, which Mrs. Grainger pretended were to be spun into thread. They passed safely through the English army, and arrived at Kinneff, when her husband took charge of them, and wrote to the Countess: “I, Mr. James Grainger, minister of Kinneff, grant me to have in my custody the Honours of the kingdom, viz., the Crown, Sceptre and Sword. For the Crown, and Sceptre, I raised the pavement stone just before the pulpit (in the church of Kinneff) in the night tyme, and digged under it ane hole, and layed down the stone just as it was before, and removed the mould that remained, that none would have discerned the stone to have been raised at all, the Sword again at the west end of the church amongst some common seits that stand there. . . . and if it shall please God to call me by death before they be called for, your Ladyship will find them in that place.” Here they remained till the Restoration, safe in their obscure place of concealment, and visited from time to time by the faithful Graingers to renew the cloths in which they were wrapt.
One more item of interest: If you watch Dinsey Pixar's animated movie Brave, you may notice some similarities between the film’s castle DunBroch and Dunnottar Castle. According to The Pixar Times, the creative team behind the movie “wanted a castle in the story, but not a Germanic castle that was Cinderella-like, according to story artist Louis Gonzales. The artists working on the story wanted the castle to be ‘earthy,’ grittier than the pristine ones often seen in animated films. They visited the Eilean Donan and Dunnottar Castles.” So be sure to watch Brave after your next visit to Dunnottar and see if you catch the resemblance.
This is one of my favorite castles that I have visited in Scotland, and I highly recommend a visit. If you go, I suggest that you arrive in the morning, as it will be less crowded. (We nearly had the whole place to ourselves when we visited at opening time in September 2016.) The small parking lot can be completely filled by noon. Also, sometimes the winds whip up in the afternoon, making the cliffs dangerous and causing the castle to close to visitors. By the way, the Honours of Scotland are now housed in Edinburgh Castle, which is another great castle to visit. As with Dunnottar, to avoid the most crowded part of the day, I recommend arriving in the morning. Be sure to join one of the free tours once you are in the castle, but go see the Honours first, as the line gets longer as the day goes on.
My name is Leah, and I am the daughter of a Barclay. As an historian and genealogy researcher, I am proud of my Barclay roots and want to preserve and share our stories.
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