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.
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.
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 gave an odd feel to the place… not unwelcoming, but 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.
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. It has been the home of the same family for eight hundred years and you can feel its influence right across Skye.
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