The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan
1,500 years of history, mixed with a generous sprinkling of fairy dust, all woven into a scrap of ancient silk… On the shore of a sea loch on the Isle of Skye stands Dunvegan Castle. The hereditary seat of Clan MacLeod, this is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Britain. Beneath the rock on which it stands, otters can sometimes be glimpsed playing in the shallows, and on the pebble-strewn beach oystercatchers keep a watchful eye on their newly hatched chicks. Bold and forbidding, Dunvegan Castle was built to impress – so what sets it apart from so many of Scotland’s other majestic fortresses? Go inside, walk up the stairs from the dark panelled hallway, and step into the drawing room. The answer is hanging on the wall.
The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan at a Glance
At first glance, the Fairy Flag looks like a badly decomposed map, from which all the place names have been erased. But look again, and you’ll see that it’s actually a scrap of fabric, threadbare and yellowed with age, carefully mended by generations of unseen hands; and you’ll also see that small pieces of it have been cut out as keepsakes over the centuries, resulting in an outline that’s just as ragged as the coast on which the castle stands.
But why is it called the Fairy Flag? And where did it come from?
There are so many legends attached to this precious little relic that it’s hard to know which to choose. This is perhaps the most magical of them all…
Iain Ciar, the fourth Chief of Clan MacLeod, was renowned for his good looks; many girls tried to capture his heart, but none of them succeeded. But one day while out hunting, he came across a beautiful fairy princess and they instantly fell in love. The princess appealed to her father for permission to marry the handsome laird, but he refused. Fairy folk, he explained to her, were immortal, while humans must age and die. The princess was heartbroken, and her father relented – on condition that she stayed with the MacLeod chief for only a year and a day. When her time was over, she must return to the spirit realm.
The couple were married and the fairy princess gave birth to a son. They were deeply in love, and the dreaded day of parting came too soon. With the fairy king waiting at the end of the causeway to Dunvegan Castle, the princess bade a tearful farewell to her husband. Before she left, she gave him a silken banner and told him that he could use it three times when the MacLeods were in dire need; it would turn the tide of their fortunes and summon armed men to their side.
In another version of the story, the fairy princess is forced to leave the MacLeod chief but during a party at the Castle she re-appears at her child’s bedside, singing a beautiful lullaby and wrapping him in a sparkling blanket of gold. When she is seen by the child’s nurse, she vanishes, leaving behind the precious cloth.
Incredibly, a ‘fairy lullaby’ has been passed down and sung in Gaelic to generations of MacLeods, even within the last 100 years.
How beautiful! So, what does history say about the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan?
In 1922, experts dated the fabric to somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries AD; there was speculation that it may have been cut from the robe of an early Christian saint. The flag is believed to have come into the hands of the MacLeods through Harald Hardrada, an 11th century Norse king who had brought it back with him from the Middle East. Harald called the flag his ‘Landoda’ or ‘land ravager’, and he believed that it made him invincible in battle.
As for the flag’s magical properties, it was apparently waved in the face of an opposing army in 1580, securing unexpected victory for the MacLeods; and it is also believed to have cured a diseased herd of cattle, thereby saving many local families from starvation. It is said that in the 1940s Dame Flora MacLeod, the 28th Chief, offered to wave the flag from the white cliffs of Dover and bring an end to the Second World War, but in the event this gesture was not put into practice.
No photographs are permitted of the Fairy Flag, although you can see an image on the Dunvegan Castle website. To see it in person, you’ll need to travel to the Isle of Skye…
Getting to Dunvegan Castle
Skye is a large island off the north-west coast of Scotland. No one is going to tell you that travelling there is quick or easy… but if you love history, folklore and beautiful landscapes, it will certainly be worth it!
The nearest international airport is Glasgow, and from there it’s 216 miles to Portree, the largest town on Skye (5-6 hours’ drive). Alternatively, you could take a domestic flight from Glasgow to Inverness, and drive from there (Inverness is 112 miles from Portree). Skye is linked to the mainland by a road bridge, so no ferries are required. Dunvegan lies in the far north-west of Skye, and there is plenty of accommodation nearby in the form of guest houses, bed and breakfast and self-catering cottages.
For more information, visit the official tourist website for Skye.