On MacLeod nine?

Eleanor Mills, 19.07.2017
A visit to Dunvegan Castle, run by the MacLeod Estate, on the Isle of Skye
With adult entry at a dear £13, I was surprised to see how busy Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye was on a rainy Thursday lunchtime – it’s not exactly the easiest place to get to.

The MacLeod Estate runs the picturesque Dunvegan Castle in the north of the Isle of Skye in the Hebridean islands. The site has a core offer of castle and grounds included in the ticket price. The castle has an 800-year history, and has historically been the fortress for Clan MacLeod, who dominated the north of Skye, with Clan Donald controlling the south.

The Clan Donald Lands Trust runs the other museum of note on Skye,the Museum of the Isles in Armadale on the south coast. The site comprises a museum, gardens, and the historic seat of the MacDonalds, Armadale Castle, which was left to the elements when the family moved out in 1925.

Unlike Dunvegan Castle, Armadale is now unoccupied, but the museum is kept in good nick and charges a mere £8.50 for an adult. (For reference, Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales, which has a very similar offer to Dunvegan, only costs £8.25 an adult.) More of a traditional museum experience than the Dunvegan heritage property offer, Armadale tells the story of 1,500 years of the Highlands and Clan Donald.

Dunvegan Castle I can’t help but feel is a bit of a swindle at the ticket price it charges. All pomp and not much circumstance, the castle interpretation refers a lot to royal connections, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat after that. It’s the gritty history that captures the imagination – there aren’t any gruesome stories about the dungeon told at all.

The interpretation could be a lot better too, the only child-friendly aspect being a half-baked treasure hunt where children spot keys hanging from objects throughout the sequence of rooms. There is no visible literature or child-height board in the rooms – I just overheard one of the gallery attendants saying that visitors need to count how many keys the kids see and tell the shop assistant at the end for a prize. There seemed to be no competitive element to it, neither a card to stamp. Accessibility for disabled visitors is not good either.

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed with the whole experience. Yes, there are extensive renovation works going on, and a section devoted to explaining them on the website, and hoardings at the castle saying so too. However, there is nothing describing what the work they’re doing is, so it’s impossible to know what we’re missing, or what we have to look forward to.

Dunvegan is still the seat of the MacLeods and where the current clan chief lives. It bills itself as the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland that does everything it can “to maintain this atmosphere of a family home”, but this really doesn’t cut the mustard as a 21st-century museum experience. For instance, the friend I visited with is a keen cook, and although it does show what a servant’s life there might have been like, there’s no reconstructed kitchen.

Most obviously though, the interpretation is purely revolved around laminated sheets of A4 about the castle’s history in different languages. I honestly don’t know how this approach afforded the site a 5* Visitor Attraction award from VisitScotland.

The collection is impressive, but poorly displayed. Visitors often have to peer across a roped-off room to view a painting on the opposite wall, and if you are interested in a specific item there’s no way to identify it quickly on the laminated A4 sheets. It would be better to show relevant objects in more appropriate rooms with anecdotal stories, rather than shown tucked away in crowded cases in the drawing room.

For instance, the castle’s Fairy Flag – one of the venue’s showpieces, a 4th-century silk banner that has mysteriously brought the clan victory from the jaws of defeat when unfurled in various battles – is hung quite high up at the side of one room where visitors bottleneck to see it, but also need to walk through to the next space. It would be better displayed in a bedroom where it was supposed to have been found, or with the display of heraldic weaponry, with a story about a miraculous clan victory.

The historic drinking horn too. Each clan chief must down 1.5 litres of wine from it as their inauguration. Why not show this in the dining room where it might actually have been used, rather than tucked away in a case?

There are lots of royal visitors referred to in the upstairs rooms, and a handwritten letter from Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame about the hospitality he was shown by Clan MacLeod on his visit, but it would be nice to know why they were so surprised. Was there ungainly history the family was trying to disprove, or did they need to gain favour with the royals for a reason? What about the chequered history of Norman MacLeod, nicknamed the Wicked Man? Did the MacLeod’s have to make good their name?

Dunvegan came 17th out of the top 20 paid-for visitor attractions in 2016 according to tourism experts at Glasgow Caledonian University’s Moffat Centre, and it was nominated as Best Visitor Attraction at the Highlands and Islands Tourism Awards 2016.

As a venue it boasts a lot but, in my humble opinion, does not deliver enough. Maybe its ambitious restoration programme will set things straight with better interpretation, audioguides and accessibility.

Never mind the Fairy Flag, the MacLeod's site seems a bit away with the fairies.

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United Kingdom, Scotland