The history of one of the most spectacular landmarks on Scotland’s east coast dates back to the 5th century and includes some of the most colorful characters.
When my husband Gary and I visit Scotland we split our time between two beautiful east coast cities; Dundee, where my parents grew up and Aberdeen, where we now have family. The commute between these two great cities is one of the most scenic on a road that take you along the coast past several quaint fishing villages on the North Sea.
Our favourite of these seaside villages is Stonehaven, a town of 11,000 people just 24 km south of Aberdeen that sits below the ruined medieval fortress, Dunnottar, that looms above the town on the rocky headland about three km south.
The surviving ruins of Dunnottar Castle are spread over three acres and sit above steep cliffs that drop more than 50 meters to the North Sea below. While most of the remaining sections of the impenetrable castle date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, there are stories told of the strategic role the great fortress played as long ago as the 5th century and these tales host such characters as William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and King Charles II. Dunnottar Castle was also the stronghold for a small garrison that were able to protect the Scottish Crown Jewels by holding out there for eight months against the might of Oliver Cromwell’s army.My favorite of these great stories that include Dunnottar Castle is also one of the most important battles of the Dark Ages, and maybe the first ever battle between the two nations we now know as the Scots and the English. Scotland, as we know it now was ruled by Constantine II who survived a month-long siege at Dunnottar to defy his capture by Aethelstan, Anglo Saxon King of Wessex.
The story of Constantine II begins two generations earlier with his grandfather Kenneth MacAlpin who was born around 800AD in the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riata (Gaels) which was dominated by its powerful Pictish neighbour (Picts) of Pictland. In a time when the Pictish kingship was almost completely destroyed by the far too often and ferocious Viking raids, bloodlines showed that MacAlpin’s mother was a Pictish princess and this connection to the royal line saw MacAlpin become King of Picts. MacAlpin’s death lead to his son Áed becoming king but his short term also ended when he was slain by Giric of Scotland, also known as Gregory the Great, who conspired with Aed’s own nephew, Eochaid for the throne. Afraid for their safety and to protect the bloodline, Áed’s son, Constantine II and his cousin Donald spent the early years of their lives in exile in Ireland in the Gaelic culture of the monks. Later, as young men, Constantine II and Donald returned to take revenge on Giric and depose Eochaid. Donald became king but his reign was short and his death left his throne to Constantine II. The 20-year-old’s coronation on the Stone of Destiny established a new practice that became a ritual for all future kings.
There was a continuing theme in those days of Kings fighting brutal battles to defend their kingdom against the brutality of the Vikings and Constantine II was no exception; however he was a very amiable character and had a way with people which allowed him, for the first time, to unit Picts of Pictland and the Gaels of Dál Riata to unite to defeated their land in a brutal turning point battle against the Viking army in 904AD. With this victory Constantine II rebuilt the church along Gaelic lines with a system of earls and was able to defend his kingdom more efficiently. He also renamed the territory to Alba, meaning “Britain” in Gaelic and the Scottish nation was born.
The fading power of the Vikings in the early 10th century was providing Aethelstan, the Angle-Saxon King with more land and as he got stronger he planned to take the whole island, including Constantine II’s Alba, and in 934 AD he marched north. Alba had never seen so vast an army and Constantine II was forced into retreat to Dunnottar Castle. He made his month long stand at the rock fortress which proved to be too strong for Aethelstan’s army and they left Constantine II there to make one more attempt at a comeback.
Constantine II arranged the marriage of his daughter to Olaf Guthfrithsson, the pagan king of Viking Dublin and this strong union between the two kings created an army that invaded Aethelstan’s England in one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Dark Ages, the Battle of Brunanburh in 937AD. The war took a toll on Aethelstan and his grand schemes lay in ruins.
In 943 AD, after ruling for 43 years, Constantine II retired from the kingship and for the final nine years of his life became a monk at St Andrews.
The Dunnottar Castle site is currently owned by private interests and is open to the public and visited annually by hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to be awed by the cliff and headland formations, which extend to the north and south and is a sanctuary for a variety of ocean birds.