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Urquhart Castle

Castle (Medieval), Fort (Early Medieval), Motte And Bailey (Medieval), Vitrified Stone (Period Unknown), Pin(S) (Copper)(9th Century)

Site Name Urquhart Castle

Classification Castle (Medieval), Fort (Early Medieval), Motte And Bailey (Medieval), Vitrified Stone (Period Unknown), Pin(S) (Copper)(9th Century)

Canmore ID 12547

Site Number NH52NW 3

NGR NH 53095 28647

NGR Description Centred on NH 53095 28647

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2024.

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Digital Images

First 100 images shown. See the Collections panel (below) for a link to all digital images.

Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Urquhart And Glenmoriston
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Inverness
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Archaeology Notes

NH52NW 3 Centred on NH 53095 28647

For bronze axes from Urquhart Castle, see NH52NW 7.

(NH 5305 2860) Urquhart Castle (NR) (Ruins) Drawbridge (NR) (Remains of) Fosse (NR)

OS 6" map, Inverness-shire, 2nd ed., (1905)

For full description see DoE guide 'Urquhart Castle'.

W D Simpson 1964

A portion of a penannular brooch of c.9th century date from Urquhart Castle is in the NMAS.

Information from C W Phillips

Urquhart Castle is as described and planned by DoE.

Visited by OS (R L) 11 Feburary 1970.

NH 530 286 An excavation was undertaken during August and September 1999 in the field below the present car park, W of the castle, in advance of the construction of a new car park and visitor centre. The aim was to investigate a possible ditch discovered during an evaluation carried out in 1997 (DES 1997, 52). The ditch turned out to be a large pit, possibly resulting from quarrying. The fill of the pit contained layers consisting of midden deposits containing medieval pottery, animal bone and possible metalworking debris including lead. The upper layers contained large amounts of stones possibly from field clearance. A rubble drain ran into the pit from the SW. To the NW of the pit was a rough cobbled surface which may relate to buildings or workshops. (GUARD 769.2).

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

R Will 1999

NH 530 286 During the major earth-moving operations for the construction of the visitor centre and the car park at Urquhart Castle (NMRS NH52NW 3), the watching brief encountered several previously unknown archaeological remains. A burnt mound lay on the NE slope opposite the castle and was fully excavated. In addition, there were two stone structures on the slope by the former access path to the castle. These were clay-lined and designed to hold water, and appeared to be tanks for water from the natural springs. Both had sluice gates to allow the release of water, and there may have been a connection between these features and a large pit discovered in 1999. Both were fully excavated. Pieces of preserved wood were recovered, including the lining for a channel from one of the structures and a small section of a wooden bowl. (GUARD 769.1).

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

J Duncan 2000

NH 5305 2860 During the construction of the visitor centre at Urquhart Castle, the remains of a timber structure were uncovered. Excavation in May 2000 revealed a timber building measuring 20 x 7m. The building was defined by substantial wall slots, with a central line of posts. Rather than a single large hall, the building appeared to divide into two parts, one substantial and possibly domestic, the other possibly with an open side and used as a workshop. A large number of artefacts and fragments of burnt bone were recovered during the excavation. The artefacts suggest a date between the 13th and 15th centuries, with one pottery sherd indicating a late 15th-century date. (GUARD 769.3).

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

I Banks 2000

NH 5305 2860 The continuation of archaeological monitoring of ground disturbance works during the construction of the visitor centre and the car park at Urquhart Castle (NMRS NH52NW 3) revealed evidence of potentially medieval landscaping immediately to the N of the drawbridge area outside the castle (see DES 2000, 57).

An evaluation demonstrated that large quantities of the material had been moved to create a probable raised access way to the castle. In addition, midden materials were encountered which contained quantities of bone, botanical remains and a number of artefacts. (GUARD 769.1).

Archaeological monitoring was undertaken during the construction of new paths within the castle, and the erection of scaffolding around the drawbridge. No archaeological features or finds were encountered.

Test pitting and trial trenching within the ditch surrounding the castle was undertaken to assess the ditch profile prior to disturbance and alterations caused by the building of stone walls and paths undertaken in the early 20th century. The resultant data was utilised during a phase of landscaping of the ditch to restore the pre-alteration profile.

An evaluation was undertaken to investigate the stone-built kiln situated within the northern area of the large ditch surrounding the landward side of the castle. The external entrance of the arched flue was discovered. (GUARD 769.4, 769.6, 769.7).

Sponsor: Historic Scotland.

J Duncan 2001

NH 5305 2860 A watching brief was undertaken in September 2000 during the excavation of two 500mm square exploratory holes for structural engineers at Urquhart Castle. Both holes were against the external (N) face of the 'East Drum' (the NE tower of the gatehouse). The tower proved to have very shallow foundations, based on a thin level of stone and mortar debris, over a thicker deposit of anthropogenic orange clay. No finds were recovered.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewarrt and G Ewart 2001

NH 530 286 Archaeological monitoring was undertaken in May 2003 while work was carried out on a short stretch of footpath. No features or finds were discovered.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: HS

G Ewart 2003


Online Gallery (1306 - 1329)

The year 2014 sees the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, in which the army of Robert I of Scotland defeated that of Edward II of England. The battle marked a major turning point in the long, drawn-out struggle of the Wars of Independence.

The Wars have had a lasting influence upon all the nations of the United Kingdom and upon the national story. Each age has seen fit to commemorate the events in its own way: through the perpetuation of the genuine historical associations of buildings and places and also through the endowment of others with improbable or fanciful traditions. Where past generations allowed its historic buildings to decay and disappear, later generations began to value and actively preserve these for their associations. Where an event lacked a tangible reminder, as at Kinghorn where Alexander III was killed in a riding accident, a commemorative monument would be erected to act as a focus. The Wars of Independence predate the fashion for accurate portraiture: the weathered, generic military effigy of Sir James Douglas is one of the few to survive in Scotland. Later centuries saw a need and supplied it by a crowd of images of its historic heroes, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, each depicted according to contemporary taste and imagination. The opening of the new heritage centre at Bannockburn takes this into a new dimension, through the use of three-dimensional, digital technology.

RCAHMS Collections hold many images of these buildings and locations from battlefields, castles and churches, to the many commemorative monuments erected in later years. This gallery highlights a selection of these, including antiquarian sketches, photographic and drawn surveys, and architectural designs.

Field Visit (12 April 1956)

This site was included within the RCAHMS Marginal Land Survey (1950-1962), an unpublished rescue project. Site descriptions, organised by county, are available to view online - see the searchable PDF in 'Digital Items'. These vary from short notes, to lengthy and full descriptions. Contemporary plane-table surveys and inked drawings, where available, can be viewed online in most cases - see 'Digital Images'. The original typecripts, notebooks and drawings can also be viewed in the RCAHMS search room.

Information from RCAHMS (GFG) 19 July 2013.

Reference (1963)

This site is noted in the ‘List of monuments discovered during the survey of marginal land (1956-8)’, published in Vol. 1 of the RCAHMS Inventory of Stirlingshire. The 26 monuments were listed by their name, classification, parish and county, and the list also includes an indication of whether they had been planned (P), whether they were visible only as a cropmark (C), and whether they were worthy of preservation (*).

Information from RCAHMS (GFG) 30 October 2012.

Publication Account (1995)

This great castle stands on a Iow promontory jutting out into Loch Ness, beside the strategic northeast-southwest route along the Great Glen, a promontory which had been used earlier for a vitrified fort, possibly of dark-age date. As a royal castle, Urquhart played its full part in the power struggles in the area, both in the Wars of Independence and later in the conflicts between the Kings of Scotland and the Lords of the Isles. During these centuries 'Urquhart was continually taken and retaken, pulled down and rebuilt, sacked and replenished'. Since a detailed guidebook may be bought at the site, only a brief survey is given here.

If there was a castle here in the 12th century, nothing of it can be identified; what exists today originated as a great 13th-century fortification, held by Alan Durward from 1229. This castle consisted of a citadel, the stone-walled enclosure on the top of the highest mound with buildings at each end, and an outer walled courtyard or bailey perhaps with other buildings an it. Except for the citadel, most of the buildings we see today are of 14th century or later date, including the gatehouse, the 'massive foundations of domestic buildings 111 the Nether Bailey, and the great tower-house.

The castle was defended to landward by a huge dry ditch, crossed by a stone causeway and, originally, a wooden drawbridge. The gatehouse with tumbled fragments lying round it was blown up, perhaps by royal troops after the accession of William and Mary to prevent the Jacobites making use of the castle. This strong gatehouse may have been built in the 14th century and possibly housed the lodging of the constable or keeper of the castle. The gateway was flanked by two half-round towers and defended by a portcullis and double doors. The buildings against the old curtain wall on the south of the Nether Bailey have immensely massive walls, but only the vaults survive of what was once a substantial structure several storeys high. On the first floor of this range was the great hall and chamber of the 14th-century castle, and perhaps also the lord's private apartment, used on his periodic visits.

A more or less self-contained tower-house stands at the end of the promontory, thought to have been built for the Grants to whom James IV gave the lordship of Urquhart in 1509. This tower stands on an earlier basement, and its upper works were repaired in 1623. Although the south wall has fallen, the visitor can sti ll climb to the wallwalk by the original spiral stair. At the top of the tower were four square gabled corner turrets, each containing a small room with a fireplace, a tiny window with gun-loop below, and a privy. Over the main door, and again over the postern on the other side, platforms were corbelled out from the parapet from which missiles could be dropped on any enemy below.

From the later 17th century the castle decayed, and was plundered for its stone, lead, timber and other building materials. Finally in 1912 it was put in the custody of the then Office of Works, and today it is once again maintained by the State.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: The Highlands’, (1995).

Project (6 October 1997 - 17 October 1997)

NH 530 286 An archaeological evaluation comprising geophysical survey and trial trenching was undertaken by Headland Archaeology Ltd between the moat and the A82 at Urquhart Castle. The evaluation was designed to investigate the impact of a proposed new visitor centre and car park on any preserved archaeological deposits. The geophysical surveys were undertaken by Archaeological Services WYAS.

The resistivity survey identified a large low resistance linear anomaly running E-W for c 35m and ending abruptly 140m W of the castle moat. A trench was cut across the anomaly and a large medieval clay-lined ditch was identified which measured 9m wide and 2.5m deep. Fragments of pottery dating from between the 13th and 15th centuries were found in the secondary fill, together with a number of medieval iron objects, a circular sharpening stone, a crucible fragment and burnt animal bone. An Early Modern bayonet was also recovered adjacent to the ditch although this is not believed to be associated with the feature. With the exception of one modern ditch no further archaeological features were identified in trial trenches.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

C Moloney 1997

Resistivity (6 October 1997 - 17 October 1997)

NH 530 286 Resistivity survey.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

C Moloney 1997

Watching Brief (12 September 2000)

Under its call-off contract with Historic Scotland, Kirkdale Archaeology was required to monitor the excavation of an exploratory pit against the foundations of the East Drum (the NE tower of a pair of half-round towers flanking the gatehouse). It is likely that the gatehouse was built in the 14th century (Close-Brooks 1995, 109), guarding the main entry into the castle and providing accommodation on the upper floors (Tabraham & Stewart 1991, 4). On the NE side of the East Drum (or North Lodge) is a rectangular prison cell (op. cit., 3-4). The gatehouse was blown up and left to fall into ruin in the late 17th century (op. cit., 18).

The first hole was located 1.15 m NE of the line of the ruined barbican, against the approximate centre of the external face of the drum tower. A second was dug to check that the first was not atypical. This was located in the angle between the NE side of the tower and the external wall-face of the prison. The fieldwork was carried out on 12th September 2000. No finds were retrieved.

It is clear that sensitive levels outside the East Drum lay directly below the turf and topsoil. It seems likely that this is partly the result of works at the castle after it was taken into State care in 1912 (Close-Brooks 1995, 110). The shallow nature of the wall foundations should also be noted. If further operations are undertaken in order to heighten the walls, any below ground work will intrude into deposits dating to the 14th century or earlier.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

G Ewart and D Stewart 2000

Kirkdale Archaeology

Watching Brief (14 May 2003)

Under the terms of its call-off contract with Historic Scotland, Kirkdale Archaeology was asked to undertake a short period of archaeological monitoring at Urquhart Castle while MCU personnel undertook the partial demolition and reconstruction of a short stretch of footpath. The path in question consisted of a grit-surfaced construction running E from the castle entrance and terminating against the postern gate in the E side of the tower. The stretch of path needing repairs comprised a 6m length of revetted construction situated along the base of the N side of the tower at its NW corner.

The castle is positioned on a rocky outcrop protruding into Loch Ness with the castle tower on the NE extremity. The siting of the tower approximately 6m above the loch side right against the edge of the outcrop makes the construction of a path along its N side problematic with stretches of masonry revetting needed to support the walkway. The site of the present works consists of a full section of masonry and timber revetting of several metres height presently heavily overgrown with grass and shrubs and understood to be in danger of collapse.

This revetted path is a late structure of no particular archaeological significance. The observation that it is in danger of collapse is related to the rotten nature of a late period wooden cladding and railing which masked the relatively solid nature of the structure.

G Ewart 2003

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

Kirkdale Archaeology

Watching Brief (December 2008 - October 2009)

A watching brief and small excavation were carried out December 2008 in a sheet-piled cofferdam, prior to the insertion of a concrete base for a temporary jetty, on the shoreline to the W of Urquhart Castle (NH 5302 2870).

An area of slippage at the base of the slope E of the Water Gate (NH 5308 2856) was also recorded prior to remedial work. There were no finds or features of archaeological significance.

A minor excavation was carried out at Urquhart Castle in February 2009 prior to the replacement of a wooden stair leading to the upper level of the motte (NH 5302 2856). The work aimed to ascertain the depth of bedrock and to check for archaeological deposits. No finds or features of archaeological significance were encountered and bedrock was found in all but one trench. This trench contained the concrete base of the existing steps. The area appears to have been heavily disturbed, probably during previous archaeological excavations and during the installation of the original wooden steps.

In February 2009 a further visit was made to monitor the taking of core samples in the area of the proposed new jetty (NH 5300 2870). There were no finds or features of archaeological significance.

In September 2009 a small area in the ditch abutting the W façade of the Grant Tower was excavated, to uncover the earthing mesh of a lightning conductor running down from the SW parapet (NH 5309 2866). An area of 5m was cleared to a depth of 0.3m but nothing of archaeological interest was recorded.

Further to an initial assessment in February 2009, a watching brief was maintained in October 2009, during the excavation of nine small trenches to provide concrete footings for a stair. The new trenches revealed nothing of archaeological significance.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

Paul Fox, Andrew Hollinrake and David Murray – Kirkdale Archaeology

OASIS Id: kirkdale1-249710

Watching Brief (14 November 2011)

NH 5306 2858 (centred on) A watching brief was carried out on 14 November 2011 during the excavation of 16 small trenches for a series of permanent survey markers. Some of the locations involved drilling pins into bedrock or masonry, and these were not monitored. All the trenches measured c300 x 300mm and were 150mm deep. Some of the small holes revealed structural remains, but most disturbed only soil.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

David Murray, Kirkdale Archaeology, 2012

(Source: DES)

OASIS Id: kirkdale1-310896

Note (5 March 2015 - 31 May 2016)

Castle Urquhart, which since at least the 13th century has been a major stone castle enclosing a series of low eminences at the tip of Strone Point, occupies the site of an earlier fortification. The principle evidence for this structure comes from the rocky boss that is the highest of these eminences that was probably the core of the earliest castle and forms the SW bulwark of the medieval complex. Here pieces of vitrifaction were recovered along its eastern flank during clearance work to display the castle in the 1920s (Simpson 1929, 3), and in subsequent excavations Leslie Alcock uncovered stratified cobble and paved floors and hearths beneath a layer of burning dating from the early medieval period (1992, 242-56), though the stones that he postulated as the basal course of the rear revetment of a defensive wall are unconvincing in that role. Thus, while we can be confident that this was the site of a fortification, no stratified remains of the defences have been recorded and its plan is unknown, though the summit of the boss measures a maximum of 40m from NNE to SSW by 15m transversely and the enclosed area cannot have extended much beyond 0.05ha. In accordance with his concept of ealy medieval fortifications, however, Alcock suggested that this was the citadel of a larger enclosure that probably took in much the same area as the later medieval castle (1992, 257), identifying a line of stones extending along the inner lip of the castle ditch to the NE of the gatehouse as possibly the back of a collapsed drystone wall; this remains untested by excavation, but implies an enclosed area measuring up to 140m from NE to SW by 50m transversely (0.5ha).

Information from An Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland – 31 May 2016. Atlas of Hillforts SC2879

Field Visit (13 February 2018)

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) were contacted by Mr Keith Coghill regarding a drystone structure on his land at Strone, around 310m to the North-West of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, Inverness-shire. CFA Archaeology Ltd (CFA) were then requested by HES to undertake the recording of this site during a planned programme of fieldwork at Urquhart Castle. The work took place on 13 February 2018.

The work has recorded what may be a natural bedrock knoll which has been levelled and enhanced by the addition of revetting walls to create a platform. A number of paths, tracks and land boundaries are present nearby.

The function of the platform is unknown as no finds were recovered and neither the form, nor the structure are dateable. Despite it appearing on maps between 1875 and 1905, there is a possibility that this could be a cannon stance, perhaps used in the 1689 attack on the castle.

Information from CFA Archaeology Ltd

Watching Brief (February 2018 - March 2018)

NH 53095 28647 A watching brief, hand excavation and photographic survey were carried out, February – March 2018, at Urquhart Castle, prior to visitor safety works as part of the Minor Archaeological Services Call-Off Contract. Along the desired line for a new beach access path, only the turf/topsoil layer was excavated. Hand excavation to 300mm for the new foundation of a telescope revealed mixed rubble underlying overburden. Finds of bone fragments were recovered from a rubble deposit within the foundation trench.

Archive: NRHE (intended). Report: Highland HER

Funder: Historic Environment Scotland

Oliver Rusk – CFA Archaeology Ltd

(Source: DES Volume 19)


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