Dunnottar Castle, the last Royalist stronghold in eastern Scotland, surrendered to Oliver Cromwell’s forces, after an eight month siege, on the 26th of May, 1652.
Dunnottar Castle is now a ruined medieval fortress, located upon a rocky headland on the north-east coast of Scotland, about three kilometres south of Stonehaven. However, throughout the history of Scotland, Dunnottar has played a strategic role; from the Dark Ages through to the Enlightenment. That was because of its location, situated on a narrow coastal terrace, overlooking the shipping lanes to northern Scotland and once controlling land access to the coastal south. Possibly the earliest written reference to the site is to be found in the ‘Annals of Ulster’, which record a siege of Dún Fother, in 681. Dunnottar is also mentioned as the site of a battle between King Donald II and the Vikings, in 900 AD and is where William Wallace is said to have led his Scots to a victory, in 1296. On that occasion, the unforgiving outcome was Wallace’s imprisonment and incineration (yes, you read that correctly) of the defeated English soldiers in the Castle’s Church.
After James Graham, the Marquis (Marquess) of Montrose, was defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale, in April, 1650, it was clear that Charles II had merely used Montrose as a threat to obtain better conditions from the Covenanters. Montrose was executed on the 21st of May, 1650, and Charles II, gave way to the demands of the Covenanters. He signed a draft agreement of the Covenant on the 1st of May, 1650, and was also forced to agree to a number of humiliating concessions, both before and after his return to Scotland. He not only signed both Covenants but agreed to impose Presbyterianism throughout the three kingdoms, when he regained [should he regain] the throne.
The Scottish Royalist army marched into England, made up of many Covenanters, previously his enemies, who now supported the King because he’d signed the Covenant. The Scottish Covenanters’ excursion into England proved to be less than successful and led to the invasion of Scotland by Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. Scotland, which had twice attempted to impose its Presbyterian will on England, subsequently found itself reduced to the position of an English province under martial law. Under the terms of the ‘Tender of Union’, predating the ‘Treaty of Union’ by some fifty-plus years, the Scots were given thirty seats in a united Parliament in London, with General Monck appointed as the Military Governor of Scotland.
In early 1652, a number of Royalist strongholds in Scotland continued to display the standard of Charles II, namely the Bass Rock, Dumbarton Castle, Dunnottar Castle, and Brodick Castle. By April, both Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran and the Bass Rock were defeated, the former by military victory, the latter by negotiation. Thus, by early May, 1652, General Monck had more or less completed his task of mopping up the remnants of Royalist resistance in Scotland. However, by mid-May, there was one Royalist stronghold on the eastern coast of Scotland, which remained under seige – Dunnottar Castle.
The Castle had been under siege by Cromwell’s Roundheads, commanded in turn by Generals Morgan and Overton, for seven months, since late 1651, and things were pretty desperate for those besieged. Overton was not only looking for the surrender of Dunnottar Castle, he was seeking the prize of Scotland’s Regalia; the Crown Jewells that had been used in the coronation of Charles II, at Scone Palace. The Royal Crown that had been made in the time of Robert the Bruce, the Sword of State, and the Sceptre. The fortress outcrop of Dunnottar was defended by a small garrison of sixty-nine men and around forty-two guns. Cromwell’s men had Scotland by the balls.
Oliver Cromwell had a thing about Crown Jewells, having previously destroyed the English Crown Jewels, but the Honours of Scotland were kept from his clutches by the endeavours of a few heroic individuals. The Keeper of the Castle, Sir George Ogilvy of Barras, eventually surrendered, but upon entering Dunnottar the English troops discovered that the cupboard was bare. Some of the King’s papers had been smuggled through the Roundhead lines, hidden in the clothing of a woman, and the Honours had also been spirited away.
Just before the castle fell, the Regalia had been lowered in a basket, down the seaward cliffs to local women pretending to be collecting seaweed along the shore. Those irreplaceable treasures were smuggled away by Anne Lindsay and Christian Grainger, the wife of the Kinneff Minister, and taken to the nearby Parish Church. They remained hidden under the floorboards below the pulpit of the Kirk in Kinneff, until the Restoration in 1660.
The castle never recovered from the damage caused by the seige, which is still visible, although it remained in use as a garrison for troops. The last Earl Marischal was convicted of treason for his part in the ‘Forty-five’ Jacobite rising and his estates, including Dunnottar Castle, were seized by the government. Dunnottar was sold on and stripped of its assets, remaining a neglected ruin until 1925, when a programme of restoration and repairs was instigated.
This date of the 26th of May has a further significance for the Honours of Scotland. On that date in 1819, the Crown Jewels were put on display in Edinburgh Castle. The Scottish Regalia had been deposited for safe keeping within Edinburgh Castle at the Treaty of Union in 1707 and later, there had been disturbing rumours that the artefacts had been quietly removed to London. Eventually however, in 1818, Sir Walter Scott gained authority from the Prince Regent (later George IV) to make a search and he rediscovered the Regalia in a kist in what is now the Crown Room. There is now an installation in that same room in Edinburgh Castle, depicting Scott’s opening of the kist as the Regalia saw the light of day after more than a century.
Today, the ancient symbols of sovereignty are on permanent display at the Palace in Edinburgh Castle, along with the Stone of Scone. It is an appropriate resting place for those revered relics of Scotland’s sovereignty. Nigel Tranter tells the story of the Siege of Dunnottar in his novel, ‘Honours Even’, having as his hero, Jamie Ramsey, later to be knighted for gallantry at the Battle of the Pentland Hills.