Welcome to Stonehaven

Few towns have a more dramatic setting than Stonehaven. Nestling in Stonehaven Bay on Scotland’s east coast 15 miles south of Aberdeen, Stonehaven is contained by towering cliffs of ‘pudding stone’ north and south which offer great views of the town. This dramatic coastline is the reason for the town’s existence; Stonehaven Bay provides the most sheltered harbour in the area and the only shelter on the east coast when the wind blows from certain directions. One nearby rocky promontory, with sheer sea cliffs on three sides, provided the ideal location for the construction of a medieval keep around which much of the early life of the town was to revolve: Dunnottar Castle, less than two miles south of Stonehaven, is one of Scotland’s gems and one of the most dramatically set fortresses in the world. The cliffs of Stonehaven are also a haven for wildlife; just south of the town is the largest bird sanctuary on the British mainland.


Dunnotar Castle, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire

While people have lived on Scotland’s east coast for millennia and may have used the bay at Stonehaven or the promontory on which Dunnottar Castle now lies from as early as the Mesolithic period, little has survived as testament of early settlement. As far historical evidence permits, the first substantial building on the promontory was a church rather than a fortress, founded by St Ninian around 400 AD. Over the coming centuries the church was to be but one building in a fortress complex controlled by the Picts. When William Wallace besieged the castle in 1297, then occupied by English invaders, a church dedicated to the saint was still part of the complex. However, the siege culminated in the burning of stronghold. When the English took refuge in the chapel it too was burned. Nonetheless, being made of stone much of it has survived to this day.

After the wars the castle was rebuilt and became the seat of the Earls Marischal, one of the most powerful families in Scotland. The earls were given the duty of overseeing court ceremonies such as coronations. As a result they also had the responsibility of guarding the crown jewels. The ‘Honours of Scotland’ were therefore kept at Dunnottar Castle. Dunnottar’s fortifications and ability to protect the crown jewels were to be tested to the full in 1649 when Oliver Crowell’s forces launched an invasion of Scotland. As Crowell had already destroyed the English crown jewels, Earl Marischal was given orders by Charles II to secure the Honours of Scotland at all costs. At Dunnottar a garrison of just 70 men held off a siege by Cromwell’s forces, camped on the Black Hill, for over 8 months, before heavy artillery arrived on the scene and began to blast chunks out of the fort. At this point the sceptre, crown, and sword were lowered on ropes down the seaward side of the cliffs, out of sight of the Cromwellians, from where they were taken south to Kinneff Church for safekeeping. Meanwhile the castle suffered great damage from which it would never fully recover. In 1715 it was seized by the government from the Earl Mairschal for his involvement in Jacobite uprisings, after which it was allowed to fall into ruins. In 1925 it was purchased privately and has been partly restored. It has since been used as a setting for a screen adaptation of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson.

The oldest building in Stonehaven itself is the Tollbooth, constructed as a store house during the reconstruction of Dunnottar Castle after its burning by Wallace and his men. This reflects how important the presence of Dunnottar Castle was to the development of the town. The Tollbooth is now a museum.

Another spur to Stonehaven’s development was the fishing trade. This reached its peak in the 1800s with the boom in the herring trade. In the mid 19th century boats from France, England and Scotland landed around 3 million barrels of herring to be cured in Stonehaven. Alas, the fishing industry is now largely gone as a result of overfishing and advances in shipping technology which allowed foreign vessels to take their catches home. The industry was also severely damaged by WW II when the waters off the east coast of Britain were declared too dangerous due to mines laid to prevent German seaborne invasion. At this time much of the industry moved to the west coast.

Nonetheless, there is much for the people of Stonehaven to be optimistic about. Its position on the major north-south routes of both rail and road make it accessible and occasionally bustling; its proximity to Aberdeen has allowed it to share in the boom caused by the discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1970s; the harbour is alive, still providing shelter for many vessels, albeit predominantly on pleasure craft; and tourism provides additional revenue to the local economy. In this case, Stonehaven benefits from its spectacular old ruined fortress, its interesting old and new towns, and a breathtaking coastline.