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Issue 11 - Covert Castles on the coast

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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Covert Castles on the coast

John Hannavy discovers some lesser-known gems

Probably no more than five per cent of Scotland is well visited and well known, and no more than five per cent of Scottish castles are instantly recognisable.

It follows therefore that 95 per cent of Scotland must be little known or unknown to most people, and the same must go for the castles strewn across that wild expanse of land.

Everyone recognises Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Balmoral, Glamis, Eilean Donan – but what about Castle Coeffin, Castle Moll, Aros Castle and hundreds of others?

That’s what makes exploration so exciting, and that is what can make turning a corner in a remote part of the country – or more especially one of the western islands – in to such a romantic experience.

Some of the castles might have seen much better days and now they may be no more than fragmentary ruins perched on top of a small hillock – but what they bring to the landscape is fantastic and what they have contributed to the rich history of Scotland is immeasurable.

All the castles on these pages have one thing in common – they stand on islands off the west coast. Some of the most dramatic castles stand on tiny islands – such as the small rocky outcrop on which stands Castle Stalker – while others can be found on the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Skye, and on the beautiful island of Lismore at the meeting of Loch Linnhe and the Firth of Lorne.

Castle Stalker, which is still a private residence, sits tantalisingly just beyond reach off the west coast near Portnacroisch, but it does offer the visitor the opportunity to take some dramatic photographs.

Built in the 1540s by the Stewarts of Appin, the castle was occupied continuously until the middle of the 18th century, after which time it was abandoned.

For the entire 19th century and half of the 20th, it stood a gaunt roofless ruin on its rocky islet, and amazingly, restoration only started as recently
as the 1960s.

The 13th century Aros Castle dominates a small but strategic hill near Salen on the Isle of Mull, overlooking the Sound of Mull and the estuary of the Aros river.

Its position was of such importance that it was frequently fought over, and changed hands many times before being abandoned in the 18th century.

What remains today is a mere fragment. But the stark ruin underlines the often turbulent history of the beautiful island.

Castle Coeffin is not reached easily! But the end of a short but sometimes challenging trek from the village of Clachan about three-quarters of a mile away is well worth the effort. The ruins stand on the shore of the island of Lismore, overlooking the Lynn of Morvern and the south end of Loch Linnhe.

Built in the late 13th century by the MacDougalls of Lorn, the castle occupied an imposing and strategically important position at the water’s edge. Little is known of the castle’s history, but the extremely ruinous condition of the buildings today might suggest a turbulent past.

Caisteal Maol, or Castle Moil was, until the recent past, one of the first buildings on Skye which the visitor saw as the little ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh approached Kyleakin. Now, with the Skye Bridge crossing the divide between mainland and island some distance away, the castle may not be seen by many visitors to Skye at all.

The original castle on this site may have been built as early as the 14th Century, although experts believe that what survives today is a century later.

Mull may have more than its fair share of ruined castles but it also has a very fine restored example – Duart Castle, now home to the MacLeans.

Duart was built in the 13th Century by the Clan MacDougall, passing first to the Macdonalds, then to the MacLeans and the Campbells.

It was a ruin by the 18th century, and remained as such until the early 20th century restoration, which resulted in the fine castle we can visit today.

Only a fragment remains of the once-important Duntulm Castle, built by the MacLeods of Dunvegan on a rocky promontory at almost the most northerly point of the Isle of Skye in the late 14th century.

It is a bleak location, but one which, in these turbulent days, was strategically important.

It was still inhabited into the 18th century but time, neglect and stone robbers have taken a heavy toll on its buildings.