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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

CENTRAL SCOTLAND

Great Castles of Britain

Doune  Castle

 

MONTY PYTHON'S

SIEGE CASTLE in 

'THE HOLY GRAIL'

Photo © Home At First                                                                                              Fifth of a series

        Have you ever explored a real castle? At Doune Castle you are free to wander the grounds, climb the ramparts, explore the dungeons and scullery, and imagine attending a great banquet in one of the most impressive medieval great halls anywhere. Sadly, Doune is largely unfurnished. But its authentic medieval shell invites imaginations to become active. Come along for the adventure!

This article first appeared in MAY, 2005.                                                                               LATEST UPDATE: 2014.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT...

          Doune Castle is a relic reminder of the chaos of the dimly distant past. Doune Castle is a rollicking reminder of the chaos of the dim-witted present. Doune — often considered Scotland’s best-preserved medieval castle — also ranks highly as one of its most entertaining, most historic, and, because of its central location, one of its most accessible.
          The castle lies almost unnoticeable among the forested hills in a little river valley just outside of the former mill town of Doune about 20 minutes drive southeast of Callander and about 10 minutes drive northwest of Stirling. These are the foothills of the Highlands, rising just north of Scotland’s prosperous and populated midlands belt, a no-man’s land with a history of conflict that made the careers of national heroes
Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. History at Doune doesn’t end with the castle’s partial destruction by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the 17th century English Civil War, or the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. Quite a bit of history has been made here in the last 30 years. Monty Python is to blame.

Doune Castle, Central Scotland. Photo © Home at First.

Doune Castle — what mary queen of scots
AND JOHN CLEESE HAVE IN COMMON.
Photo © Home At First

   

GREAT SCOTS — THE STEWARTS
          Mind you, Doune’s first 600 years saw plenty of action, and some pretty odd — and pretty gruesome — characters were seen between its 6-foot-thick stone walls. Castle Doune was built 100 years after William Wallace (
"Braveheart") wrenched Scotland away from English control at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, less than ten miles from Doune (see Stirling Castle).
          The
Duke of Albany, powerful brother of Scotland’s King Robert III, built the medium-sized, hulking fortress in the late 14th century. Albany became Scotland’s regent governor when his brother the king could no longer rule and his nephew the crown prince — while in the care of Albany — died mysteriously. The duke effectively reigned over Scotland until his death in 1420, when the power — and Doune Castle — passed to Murdoch, his son. When the true Stewart heir, James I, was restored to Scotland’s throne four years later, poor Murdoch was promptly declared a traitor and

 

dispatched. His castle was taken by the Scottish Crown and used

Death mask of Mary, Queen of Scots. A. Killen photo. Used with permission.

DEATH MASK OF
MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS

as a vacation house and hunting lodge.
        Despite numerous intrigues over the next 180 years, the Stewarts maintained their hold on Scotland. By the end of the 16th century,
James VI, the son of the fabled Mary, Queen of Scots — who had visited Doune Castle — was poised to become King James I, monarch of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, as the Stewart dynasty would replace the Tudors. The Stewarts would hold the unified throne for 100 years, more or less. It was a century of great expansion of the British Empire, but plagued by intrigue, civil war and, ultimately, with the royal replacement of the Scottish Stewarts by the Dutch House of Orange, then the German Hanovers.

   

JACOBITES!
          Many Scots — and many Stewart sympathizers in England, Wales, Ireland, and France — felt foreign usurpers were wearing the rightful Stewart Crown. Over almost 60 years (1689-1746) these
"Jacobites" (from "James", traditional name of Stewart kings) attempted to restore various "legitimate" or "pretender" Stewart princes to the British throne. Several of these attempts — "uprisings" — were noteworthy for their violent, open warfare. All came to a head with the Uprising of 1745, as a Jacobite army assembled under the "Young Pretender", Bonnie Prince Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stewart), was slaughtered by combined British forces (yes — including non-Jacobite Scots) at Culloden near Inverness.
          It wasn’t all bad news for Bonny Prince Charlie during "the ‘45". During their siege of the English-held Stirling Castle 10 miles east of Doune, the Jacobite army surprised a English relief force coming to Stirling from
Edinburgh late in the day of January 17, 1746. The Scots held the high ground at Falkirk Moor in the darkness and steady rain that January day. The English artillery was immobilized by mud at the bottom of the hill, and their troops were cut down by Highland volleys from above.

          A garrison of Jacobites led by Rob Roy MacGregor’s nephew, Gregor MacGregor, billeted some English prisoners, including some suspected spies, at nearby Doune Castle. Among these was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and scholar from Edinburgh, the Rev. John Witherspoon, who had been taken under suspicion at Falkirk. From their communal cells in the top of one of Doune’s towers, several of the captives plotted their escape by lowering themselves by bed sheets and blankets from the adjacent battlements 70 feet above ground level. The 24-year-old Dr. Witherspoon did not join the dangerous escape, which cost at least one man his life. Deemed no threat to the Jacobites, Witherspoon was released from Doune. Twenty-two years later, the now middle-aged Scottish minister/scholar agreed to accept appointment as

John Witherspoon, former inmate at Doune Castle, later 6th president of Princeton University, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence.
JOHN WITHERSPOON

president of the College of New Jersey — since 1896 called Princeton University — and emigrated to the United States. During his tenure, he promoted anti-British sentiment, became a delegate to the Continental Congress for New Jersey, and signed the Declaration of Independence. Evidently, Witherspoon had been wrongly imprisoned at Doune Castle as a possible pro-English spy.

 

INVASION OF THE PYTHONS
          Doune Castle remained a respected relic — it got a much-needed facelift in the late 19th century — but a little-visited one until going Hollywood in 1974. Fresh from their successful TV excesses on the BBC called Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the 

 

English comedy collective called Monty Python

Monty Python's King Arthur and his knights invade Doune Castle looking for the Holy Grail.
MONTY PYTHON'S KING ARTHUR
AND HIS KNIGHTS INVADE DOUNE.

(John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle) made their second film feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, using Doune Castle as a primary location. The film uses absurdly irreverent tales of King Arthur and Camelot as vehicles for some of the Pythons’ silliest sketch comedy. Doune Castle is shown in the possession of sniveling, taunting French invaders being besieged by Arthur’s knights, horseless but with half-coconut shells for simulated clip-clopping of chargers that aren’t there. The film was a great hit in Britain and in the US, where it continues to enjoy cult status and is frequently listed among the funniest movies

 

ever made.

            Doune Castle capitalized on the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Python pilgrims from the UK, America, and elsewhere continue to flock to the hulking castle in hopes of expressing their irreverence. Some video themselves acting out short-but-famous scenes from the film. Others cannot resist crying out silly quotes ("Bring out your dead!" or "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!") when they arrive. Historic Scotland — who manages the castle on a 999-year lease — reckons that visitors to Doune have increased more than 40% (they receive about 25,000 visitors a year) since the Pythons searched it for the Holy Grail.

 

THE CASTLE TODAY
          While Doune Castle is a partial ruin and neither an occupied residence nor lavishly furnished, many think Doune's authenticity make it a candidate for Scotland's best preserved medieval castle. Doune is a fairly large courtyard-type fortress castle with most of its architecture dating from the 14th and early 15th centuries. Its most prominent features are two great keeps about 6 stories high. There is an imposing 40-foot-high curtain wall and parapet. Among the many room’s, the great Lord’s Hall with its musicians’ gallery, double fireplace and carved oak screen are the most memorable. Doune Castle provides a living, working castle with a labyrinth of rooms, interconnecting passageways and staircases. Doune is a hands-on castle, open (some visitors think it too open) for exploration of its rooms and vertiginous spaces. If you go, plan to be careful of its unfenced open heights while you imagine the historic sieges, imprisonments, and intrigues, and the cinematic foolishness that have occurred here.


 

IF YOU GO –

TO DOUNE CASTLE

Getting There:
         Doune Castle is easily reached from HOME AT FIRST’s lodgings in CENTRAL SCOTLAND:

• By Car from Central Scotland cottages: drive the A84 south twenty minutes past Callander (direction Stirling). Before crossing the landmark bridge in Doune, turn left into town, on the A820 east — direction Dunblane. Watch carefully for the castle driveway on the right side of the A820 about ¼ miles after leaving the town of Doune. The entrance driveway is one-lane wide with blind turns — go slowly!

• Doune Castle is Open:
    • April through September: 9:30AM-5:30PM daily
    • October through March: 9:30AM-4:30PM Sat-Weds.
    • Closed December 25-26 & January 1-2.

• Admission: £5.50/adults; £4.40/seniors 60+ & students 16+;
      
£3.30/children 5-15; children under 5 free.
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SPECIAL NOTES:
• Parking: free, but 300 yards from the castle entrance.
• A unique audio guide available, narrated by Python's Terry
   Jones and featuring the castle's real and fictional histories.
• Access to portions of the castle unsuitable for wheelchairs:
    Access: The castle courtyard and cellar, including display, is accessible via a
   steep, cobbled (but partially timbered) tunnel. Assisted access is possible for
   the determined, but is difficult. There are 24 steps to the great hall and
   kitchens and 14 steps to the Baron’s Hall.

    Safety:
American guests will be surprised at the openness of the high
   walkways and stairwells, which would probably be closed to the public in the
   U.S. for safety (lawsuit) concerns. Keep an eye on your children. All that
   openness is a great temptation to unsupervised kids with vivid imaginations.

• Nature trail and picnic tables on the castle grounds.
• Gift shop.

 


 

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