We saw Eilean Donan Castle as we drove through Dornie, Scotland, and we knew right away we’d be coming back. The castle stood on a rock in the water, with a long and winding stone bridge that brought to mind fantasy movies and medieval battles (actually, it did appear in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Along the road, tourists were walking along the shore, looking for a good view. We didn’t even know where we were or what the place was called yet, but we made a mental note to look it up.
We couldn’t stop right then because we were between campsites. We were en route from Dunbar Scotland, where we’d spent the month of July, and now it was time for August on the Isle of Skye. We’d been driving all day in the rain, little Lisa was carsick, and we wanted to pitch our tent before it got dark. At the time, we were one third through our entire Summer of camping in Scotland.
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Photographing Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, Scotland
What a beauty, as far as Dannie and I are concerned, Eilean Donan is right up there with some of the lovely chateaux in the Loire Valley. We actually wound up photographing Eilean Donan twice. Once while we were still camping on Skye. Neither session went exactly as we had planned, but both of them resulted in some pretty good photos.
Touring Eilean Donan Castle
A Day Trip From the Isle of Skye
About halfway through our stay on the Isle of Skye, we got word that some of our Instagram friends had arrived in the region. We and the @beachseakers had been following one another on Instagram for some time, and we discovered that our trips to the Isle of Skye would overlap. They messaged us and asked if we wanted to join them when they visited Eilean Donan Castle on their way north.
Of course, we had gotten caught up in what we were doing and had never gotten around to looking up the name of that beautiful castle we’d passed in the rain. When Dannie saw the message, she did a little searching and I heard her exclaim “ooh, it’s that place we saw!” Naturally, we told them that we’d love to meet there. It was going to be about 45 minutes by car from our campsite on Skye, so we made a day trip out of it.
We left a little earlier than we had to four our 10 o’clock rendezvous. We wanted to get there early so we could take some photos of the surroundings before it got too crowded. We also wanted to leave time for getting lost or another bout of carsickness. We didn’t get lost, but wow did Lisa get carsick. Luckily, we had packed two changes of clothes, and even though she was no longer wearing our first choice of outfits, we still got there in time to take a few photos before we met up with our friends.
Our tour of the Castle was light on history and heavy on pointing. Audio guides were available, but two families with small children know better than to attempt a guided tour with excited little ones. Lisa and the two other girls seemed excited to see each other, even though they had never met in person before. Their age gap was pretty big, but kids who are traveling can get a little lonesome.
It was a good thing we took our pictures outside before entering the premises. A sign near the ticket booth warned that photography was not permitted inside the castle, and sure enough, there was someone there checking bags at the gate. As it turns out, this was for security, not for cameras. You can have them with you, you just aren’t supposed to use them once you are inside the castle itself.
The address of Eilean Donan Castle is Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh IV40 8DX, UK (Google Maps). If you are driving north toward the Isle of Skye, you will definitely see it because it is just a little before the Skye Bridge. Here is a shot of the parking lot entrance on Google Street View, since it’s easy to drive past.
The opening hours for the castle are preposterously complex, and they are described poorly on their website. Here’s my translation (from Scottish 😉 The last admission is always 1 hour before closing time.
February 1st to March 24th:
Every Day 10:00 – 16:00
March 25th to June 30:
Every Day 10:00 – 18:00
July 1st to August 31st:
Every Day 9:00 – 18:00
September 1st to September 30th:
Every Day 9:30 – 18:00
October 1st to October 27th:
Every Day 10:00 – 18:00
October 28th to December 30th:
Every Day 10:00 – 16:00
It is closed in January.
For holiday hours or other information, check out the official Eilean Donan Castle website.
Our Eilean Donan Castle Photo Shoot
After our stay on the Isle of Skye had drawn to a close, we decided to spend a night in Dornie on our way to Glencoe. We packed up our stuff and made sure that the things we’d need for a photoshoot – our camera (Nikon D800, our lenses (24-70mm and 70-200mm), and nice clothes for Dannie and Lisa – were easily accessible.
For a more complete list of the gear we bring with us on a photoshoot, check out our resources page.
Finding a Room in Dornie
Our first task was finding a place to spend the night. We got to Dornie in the morning, and though we had been looking around online, we weren’t seeing a lot of stuff available. We tried both Airbnb and Booking.com, but neither site was producing much for us. Unfortunately, we had waited until the last minute. Eventually, we tried something we’d never done before. We saw a sign advertising more rooms for rent on a bulletin board outside a local inn. We gave the number a call and were eventually able to track down the woman who owned it.
The owner said all of her inns were full, but we got lucky. It turned out that her parents were away and had given her the go ahead to rent out their cottage in their absence. If this hadn’t been the case, we probably would have had to move on to another town. As an added bonus, the cottage was really nice. The bed was comfy, the decor was lovely, and everything was spotlessly clean. As it happened, the owner of the cottage also owned a local pub – The Clachan – which we decided to patronize that evening. We were assured that it was the better of what appeared to be two dining establishments in town. The vegetarian selection was pretty limited, but we enjoyed what we had.
Scouting Eilean Donan Castle
That evening, we had to find something out. What was the Eilean Donan Castle like after hours. We knew we couldn’t go inside when it was closed, but we wanted to know exactly how much access we would have. So after closing, but before dark, we headed over there and pulled into the parking lot. The entrance to the main grounds was closed, but the parking lot was wide open, which provided a pretty decent view. We also knew we could make use of of the boat launch across the water (Google Maps) where we had taken some photos during our first trip. That link is actually for the address of All The Goodness Coffee and Bakeshop, where we got coffee and snacks while we were scouting. You’ll probably use their parking lot while taking photos, so be nice and buy something yummy.
Our Early Morning Photoshoot at Eilean Donan Castle
First Location: Boat Launch
The first place we went was to the boat launch (Google Maps) because on the off chance that there was a clear sky in Scotland, that would be the best place for a sunrise. We were the only ones there early in the morning, and we had plenty of time to shoot the castle without interruption. An additional benefit of early morning photography is that mornings are usually less windy that afternoons and evenings, which makes them the ideal time to capture reflections on the water.
We wanted to add a little something to the shoot that would enhance the overall mood, so we decided to bring a lantern we had bought from IKEA for just such an occasion. It was filled with with Christmas lights, which was enough to make the lantern look like it was glowing, but not quite enough to illuminate Dannie and Lisa’s faces. To help light them in the early morning, I set up a speed light on the ramp.
The only problem was that it happened to be low tide at the moment, which reduced the amount of attractive water at our disposal. I was hoping to get Dannie and Lisa’s reflection in the loch, but that simply wasn’t going to happen. To get the angle you see in these photos, Dannie and Lisa stood on the boat launch, and I walked through the bushes to stand on higher ground farther up the parking lot.
Second Location: Eilean Donan Parking Lot
The parking lot (Google Maps) actually has a lot of really nice views. At high tide, if there is no wind, you can get a really nice reflection of the castle there. Even if you find a parking space close to the entrance, it’s worth exploring up and down the water.
We did two angles near the parking lot. For one, Dannie walked right on the rocks and I stayed close using our wide angle lens. For the other she stood almost in the parking lot and I cropped it out using our zoom lens while I shot from the big bluff on the other side of the parking lot. (Read my tips on using a zoom lens for creative travel photography.)
Third Location: The Stone Bridge
The night before, the main entrance to the facility had been closed off with a gate between the parking lot and the courtyard. This morning it was wide open. We poked our heads inside and called out to ask if the park was open. Nobody answered. We decided to just walk in a little bit. To our surprise, the gate to the stone bridge was open too. So much for all that security during our first trip. That bridge is normal covered with tourists taking pictures, forcing you to do an awkward crop if you want a solo shot. We couldn’t pass this opportunity up.
I got my camera ready and climbed onto a picnic table, and Dannie and Lisa walked out onto the bridge. We got a quick photo with an amazing composition, and headed back to the car. We never saw anyone the whole time we were there.
By the way, if you are planning on doing a lot of photography in Dornie or elsewhere in Scotland, it couldn’t hurt to hone your photography skills first. If you still have your camera set to “automatic,” you might benefit from my book, Easy Manual Mode Photography, which will help you make sure you’re never leaving your best shots up to luck.
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