The tower at Dunnottar dates from around 1414, when it was constructed by the Keiths who had obtained a license to build a fortification at Dunnottar around 1380. The Keiths had some trouble when they started to desire a fortification here, as it was considered holy ground due to its use by St Ninian (Who converted the picts to Christianity) as a missionary post. The Archbishop of St Andrews excommunicated the Earl Marishall, and it was only after he applied for dispensation to the Pope that the matter was resolved!
It is an L plan tower, 3 stories high, accessed from the ground floor level. The wall on the inside, facing towards the interior of the castle, is much, much thinner than those on the outward facing sides, and contains a staircase that spirals to the very top of the tower within its width.
The ground level was originally used for storage, with two vaulted cellars and a small room under the stairs that could have been used as a jail cell. A window, now blocked in by neighbouring buildings, supports this idea, as does textual evidence which suggests that several Covenanters were kept in the keep during their 17th century imprisonment at Dunnottar.
The main cellar was later converted into a large kitchen, complete with very large fireplace. This conversion presented the builders with great difficulty, as they had to insert a chimney into an interior wall where there previously had not been one. In a rather ingenious move they resolved this issue by recommissioning a drain once used for the disposal of sewage upstairs for the new purpose of taking smoke out the kitchen.
There are two halls located above, one of which was public and the second a more private space for the family. The original kitchen was located alongside the main hall on the first floor, and the bread oven can still be seen if one steps into the fireplace. It is also evident that the original fireplace would have been much larger than the one that can be seen today due to the difference in the stonework.
The upper hall has since lost its floor though the post-holes for where it was supported can still be seen around the room. Both halls have generous fireplaces, which show some detailing that would have been much more ornate at the time. In the upstairs hall an elaborately shaped cupboard can be seen as well, which appears to be contemporary with the building.
The top of the tower was surmounted by a parapet walk, and attic space that could have housed some of the servants required to staff the building. The machicolations around the top are militarily useless and were probably added at a much later date, for purely aesthetic reasons.
After the building of the much more spacious “palace” complex to the east of the tower it would have fallen out of favour with the Keith family as a residence. It was probably given over to administration, storage and guest accommodation, like so many other towers of this nature. There’s not significant evidence of the additional structure being added to, instead improvements seem to have focused on other area of the rock.
The tower at Dunnottar is therefore rather interesting as an example of an early Tower-house, simply as its location ensures it’s use could have originally been given over entirely to residential and storage needs. The castle was defended the similarly dated curtain wall and gatehouse at Benholms lodging, which protected the only land access to the promontory upon which Dunnottar Stands. As a consequence, the keep was at the top of a cliff, far out of the reach of any possible intruders, well defended from walls and pends far away from the entrance to the tower itself, thus requiring minimal defensive features of its own.