Dunkeld Castle once stood in the vicinity of Dunkeld Cathedral, but its exact location is no longer known.
Dunkeld was an early population centre, occupying a strategically important site close to the geographical centre of Scotland, and its roots go back to at least the 9th century and probably earlier. Kenneth MacAlpin built an abbey here, dedicated to St Columba, in 848 and by the early 12th century Dunkeld was one of the largest and most important of Scotland’s medieval bishoprics. William the Lion apparently enjoyed deer hunting in the surrounding countryside.
When the first castle was built is not known, however given Dunkeld’s importance it seems likely that it would have occurred during the 11th or 12th centuries. This early castle, not to be confused with its successors the Bishop’s Palace at Dunkeld and Dunkeld House, was probably originally a timber construction standing on a motte. Indeed there were references made in 1595 and 1616 to a “muthill” standing close to the Bishop’s Palace.
Three possible sites have been proposed for Dunkeld Castle. One is the aforementioned “muthill” which was described as standing close to the Bishop’s Palace, possibly to the south or south-west of Dunkeld Cathedral. This location, right on the banks of the River Tay, has the benefit of being defended on one side by the river, but it is low-lying ground and is overlooked by Bishop’s Hill to the west. There is no longer any evidence of a mound in this location.
Another suggested location is Stanley Hill, to the north-east of the cathedral. The hill is thought to be largely artificial and could contain the original motte at its core. It certainly occupies a better defensive position than the location on the river bank. However Dunkeld originally ran east and west from the cathedral, the northern spur towards Stanley Hill being a later development following the burning of the town by the Jacobites in 1689. This would mean that the castle was some distance from the main settlement, which is unusual for early castles associated with towns.
Stanley Hill was heightened in 1730 by James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, and has undergone many landscaping changes over the centuries as part of the gardens of the 17th century Dunkeld House and its 19th century replacement. Any traces of an early castle are therefore likely to have been destroyed. John Wood’s Plan of Dunkeld, published in 1823, shows the hill prior to some of its later landscaping.
However perhaps the most likely location for Dunkeld Castle is on Bishop’s Hill to the west of the cathedral. Consisting of two connected small summits forming a low ridge set back from the bank of the Tay it certainly offers good natural defences. It’s position also places it at the west end of the original town of Dunkeld, prior to its rebuilding in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The easternmost of the two summits is trapezoidal in shape and measures approximately 40m south-west to north-east by 27m across. Several rectangular foundations are visible, including one that measures around 17m by 6m with second similar footings parallel to the first at a distance of 5m. A low oval mound measuring around 12m by 6m can be seen off-centre within the summit.
On the westernmost summit are further foundations, and the whole of this summit appears to have enclosed by a double wall measuring around 35m by 23m. At the south end of the summit are parallel rubble walls, separated by a distance of around 3m and each measuring around 3 to 4m across. The walls seem to merge as they approach the north end of the summit.
This second summit has been suggested as the site of the windmill shown on John Slezer’s drawing of Dunkeld published in 1693, along with the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace tower house just to its right behind the trees and Dunkeld House on the extreme right.
As far as I’m aware this site hasn’t been fully excavated, but it’s very tempting to see castle-like features in the massively thick wall footings across the two summits and the whole site is reminiscent of a motte and bailey construction.
In 1408 the Bishop of Dunkeld, Robert de Cardeny, built a tower house associated with the Bishop’s Palace, and it may be that Dunkeld Castle fell out of use some time after this.