Some Scottish castles have a unique appeal for visitors, who are drawn to them for sometimes quite specific reasons. Eilean Donan, for example, is the most photographed castle in the UK, representing a definitive vision of Scottish-castle-ness... Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness has the merit of actually existing and being visible, unlike the other attraction of that loch... And Doune Castle is still best known (probably) for being where Monty Python filmed scenes from their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Located just a few miles beyond Stirling Castle, Doune is a great example of a ruined castle with enough sense of place and space to warrant a visit, and can be incorporated into the itinerary of a day trip from Edinburgh without too much difficulty.
Here's my introduction to this historic (and cinematic) place.
Although there probably a fortress on this site from sometime in the twelfth century (and a nearby Roman settlement from the first century) the current castle dates from around 1400CE, built around a central fortified courtyard with apartments and functional spaces on the northern range of the structure.
The castle was built was Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany (1340 - 1420), son of King Robert II. As an uncle to James I of Scotland, Albany ruled Scotland as regent during the years when James was held prisoner by the English. Later Doune became a royal residence and was visited by both Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, James VI.
Originally the courtyard is believed to have smaller structures built around its internal walls - places for keeping animals, store rooms, and workshop spaces, perhaps - and a series of large windows on the southern wall suggest a planned expansion with grand private chambers which never got built.
The castle was significantly restored in the 1880s, having become a roofless ruin, so the bulk of the physical interior of the space is Victorian - but giving a great sense of what Doune might have been like at the height of its status as a grand residential property.
The audio tour included in Doune castle's entry price is narrated by Terry Jones, one of the aforementioned Pythons and a bona fide historian with several serious history books to his name. His commentary as you explore the castle provides a level of detail about what life at Doune would have been like, as well as the background to some of the historical figures and families associated with the place. Optional extra content periodically reflects on the experience of filming Holy Grail, with audio excerpts from the film.
Doune was also used as a filming location for Castle Leoch scenes from Outlander (optional audio content narrated by Sam Heughan is available) and featured in a variety of other screen outings, including Ivanhoe with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1952, the 2018 film Outlaw King, about King Robert the Bruce, and served as Winterfell Castle in the Game of Thrones TV adaption.
The kitchen area is a cavernous space where meals would have been prepared - check out the enormous fire pit where meats would have been roasted.
In the walls of the room you can still see the marks made by the kitchen staff who would have been sharpening their blades against the stone - a fascinating detail that really shows how history leaves its mark...
Meals would have been served in the Great Hall, which is one of the rooms which was restored in the nineteenth century. A large brazier in the middle of the room shows where heat would have been generated originally (note there are no fireplaces in the space).
A raised area at the eastern end of the room would have been where the high table was located, where the lord of the castle and high statues visitors would have sat to eat. One of the benefits of this space was a private garderobe or toilet!
This hall was used for the Camelot song and dance sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Upstairs you can still see the private chambers, including a smaller hall that would have been used for smaller gatherings and private meetings. One of the alcoves in the room, overlooking the castle's inner courtyard, would have served as a small chapel for private religious observation.
This is the brightest room in the castle, with large windows on three sides of the space, and the remnants of stone supports in the walls indicate that there would have been another level above it originally.
Standing in the private bedrooms - one with its own private bathroom space! - gives a remarkable sense of connection to the past, and although the Lord's Hall is distinctly Victorian in its style and decoration it's not hard to imagine the high status quality of life for the figures who spent time here.
This room has two large fireplaces right alongside each other - an unusual configuration, and possibly arranged in such a way for either one or both to be lit to provide varying amounts of heat to the room as required.
Although a relatively modestly sized site for visitors to explore today - allow an hour to 90 minutes for a visit - Doune castle retains much of its imposing fortress structure and offers an opportunity to use your imagination to imagine what life would have been like back in the late Middle Ages. And if that's not your thing, stick Monty Python on and immerse yourself in a much sillier medieval world!
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