Dreaming Stones: Dunvegan and the Fairy Flag

We followed the signs for Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan MacCleod. Even if we wanted to wander a managed castle, we knew it would be long closed by the time we got there, so instead we found ourselves a parking spot overlooking the calm waters of Loch Dunvegan and raided the cooler for our newly acquired sandwiches, yoghurt and honey.

We did drive down to the castle, hoping for a glimpse of medieval splendour, but the place was obscured by trees. Built on a promontory that looks over the loch, Dunvegan has probably been a fortress since the Norsemen settled here. There is no trace of ancient habitation now, though, for the site was chosen by the MacCleods to be their principal seat in the thirteenth century and the castle has evolved since that time.

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle © John Allan at Geograph (CCL3)

The Clan descended from Leod, about whom little is known except that he lived from around 1200 to 1280 and was buried on Iona. The traditional story says he was a son of Olaf the Black, a Norse sea-king who ruled the Isle of Man and parts of the Hebrides. Another strand of the story suggests that his royalty came through the female line, via Helga of the beautiful hair. Be that as it may, two of Leod’s sons founded the twin branches of the Clan MacCleod that still exist…Tormod, from whom the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan are descended and Torquil, the source of the Lewis branch of the family tree.

Image result for clan macleod

One of the things we had noticed on Skye were the fences. They seemed to be saying, ’this far and no further’ to anyone wanting to explore. It wasn’t just the fences either, there was a lack of helpful information …like signposts… and a closing off of tourists from the life of the island. That is understandable when you consider that It is a working island, not a pretty picture, but it had an odd feel to the place… not unwelcoming, but wholly guarded. We laid that at the door of the MacCleods, who still own much of the land and whose influence is still strong. Perhaps it has something to do with their motto, ‘Hold Fast’, that sprang from when Malcolm MacLeod, the third chieftain, wrestled a wild bull encountered in Glenelg in the fourteenth century.

Dunvegan Castle

Dunvegan Castle © John Allan at Geograph (CCL3)

The castle itself is magnificent. Begun when the promontory was enclosed within a curtain wall in the thirteenth century, successive buildings have been added and, in the nineteenth century, the design was homogenised, creating the archetypical medieval castle.  The castle has been lived in by the same family for eight hundred years and you can feel its influence right across Skye.

We don’t tend to go in for visiting castles all that much as most of them were built a few thousand years after the time that really interests us, but, like the churches, their influence upon a land and its people cannot be denied or ignored. On the other hand, there was something within Dunvegan’s walls I would have liked to have seen…the Fairy Flag, which, along with the ancient Dunvegan Cup and Sir Rory Mor’s drinking horn, which all chieftains must drain to prove their worth, are treasures of the MacCleods.

According to the tests run by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the silk of the Fairy Flag, scattered with ‘elf dots’, originated in Syria or Rhodes in the fourth century. It was, they suggested, brought back from the Crusades by Harold Hardrada… the same King Harold famously killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and an early forebear of the Clan MacCleod. When the twenty-seventh chieftain was told of this, he simply said that he knew otherwise…the Flag had been given to his family by the faeries.

File:Dunvegan Cup, Fairy Flag, Rory Mor's Horn (photo, sometime before 1927).jpg

The Dunvegan Cup, the Fairy Flag and Sir Rory Mor’s Horn (image pre-1927 – Wikimedia Commons, credited to Roderick Charles MacLeod.

There are a number of stories about how the Flag came to be given to the Clan. One says that, on his way back from the Crusades in the Holy Land, the MacLeod met a hermit who warned him of a spirit that guarded a dangerous pass through the hills. The spirit was Nein a Phaipen…Daughter of Thunder and, with the aid of a fragment of the Cross, MacCleod was able to subdue her. In exchange for secrets she wished to know, she gave hm her girdle with which to make a banner that would protect the clan three times when it was unfurled.

Another tale tells how a MacCleod married a Faery who could only stay with him for twenty years. The Flag was her parting gift, given at the Fairy Bridge near Dunvegan. Once again, the Flag would protect the Clan three times…though on the third, both the Flag and its bearer would disappear.

Later stories tell of a faery wrapping an infant chieftain in the Flag, or of a faery lullaby sung to quite the child. Whatever the truth of the stories, the Flag was unfurled twice in battle, leading to unexpected victory. Whether or not it has been unfurled a third time is a subject of debate, but we  were not to see the legendary banner on this trip, but we had spotted a couple of things in Dunvegan we did want to get a closer look at….

Dunvegan Castle, Isle Of Skye

Dunvegan Castle © Duncan McNaughtat Geograph (CCL3)

Can I just take a moment to pay tribute to the photographers who share their work via Geograph under a Creative Commons licence. Georaph.org is an online project that aims to create a complete photographic record of every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland. Without their work, there are times I would be unable to share images of the places we have been and they are an invaluable source for researching an area. Thank you to all of them!

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
This entry was posted in adventure, albion, Ancient sites, archaeology, Don and Wen, france and vincent and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Dreaming Stones: Dunvegan and the Fairy Flag

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    I had no idea such a thing as Geograph existed. What an undertaking and how incredible!


  2. I’ve never visited Scotland but you make me want to visit Skye

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alli Templeton says:

    That’s an impressive looking castle, Sue. And I enjoyed reading about it and the legends of the faery flag. I like the sound of Olaf the Black and the Norsemen settlers. What a history. You did have some great adventures up there… 🙂


  4. Widdershins says:

    Now I have another way to follow your adventures, as well as google maps. 😀


  5. What a great thing Georaph.org is. I wish we had an equivalent here!


  6. Deborah Jay says:

    Lovely reminder – I’ve been inside Dunvegan twice (and done the seal boat trip from there once – a tiny dingy with outboard motor and a skipper who looks like Cap’n Birdseye!) and you sent me scurrying to find my photos – which I can’t find anywhere! So annoyed, I had some fabulous images both inside the castle and of the formal gardens. They include one of the fairy flag, which was hanging on a wall when we visited.
    Now I have to go on a search of all my old CDs to find if the pics are there, or if they are gone forever.
    Oh well, that might mean another visit is in order…


  7. I am totally enchanted, and like some of the others, I think that geograph.org is an absolute magnificent organization for capturing what someday will hopefully be available for everyone in every country. Maybe if they have a history of things like this country, they will change their attitudes towards other countries and focus on restoring the great days of their own. The whole story of this amazing place was so truly wonderful. Oh if I ever were to come to your area, I would likely never come back here again to the U.S. I do understand the reality that no country is perfect, but if I had things like this to explore and learn about I would not leave. I can feel the air the the breezes and the mystery that seems to swirl around all of you. My appetite is fully whetted and I can dream of being there in person. My dream alchemy would be to be able to transport myself at times to other places I so want to know more about. Well, we have read of plenty of unique things happening in this world, so who knows? It may be more achievable than we know. Thank you all so much!


  8. Very interesting, Sue. I have taken notes from your post.


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