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Issue 20 - Black pearl

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Black pearl

Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull is well sited as a defensive fortress. Charles Douglas reports

The fortress looms, dark and formidable, a sentinel guarding the waterways between the Hebridean island of Mull, mainland Scotland, and the neck of the Firth of Lorne. Long, long ago, Norse and Viking longships relentlessly raided this coastline, taking no captives.

The location for Duart Castle was well chosen. Strategically sited on a high crag at the end of an island peninsula, Dubh Ard in Gaelic, meaning ‘black point,’ it guards the entrances of both Loch Linnhe and Loch Etive.

The Clan Maclean, whose headquarters this remains, descend from Gilleathan-na-Tuaighe, known in the 11th century as Gillean of the Battle Axe. He was a relative of the ancient kings of Dalriada, and helped to repel the Norse invasion at the Battle of Largs in 1263. The first recorded mention of his descendants being at Duart comes from a papal dispensation of 1367 which permitted one Lachlan Lubanach Maclean to marry Mary Macdonald, the daughter of the Lord of the Isles.

This marriage, it is claimed, was a love match, but only sanctioned by the bride’s father after Lachlan had kidnapped him. During the ensuing skirmish, the chief of the Mackinnons was killed, and, for reasons presumably apparent at the time, the Macleans were granted the Mackinnon lands on Mull as a dowry.

This seems a bit high handed, but the Dominus Insularem of the Isles no doubt had his reasons. And it probably was a love match. Lachlan’s eldest brother, Eachin Reganach, was recognised as MacLaine of Lochbuie, but through tanistry, Lachlan’s line was recognised as the chiefly house, and it was he who built the keep that stands at Duart today, although the great curtain walls which surround it most probably date from the previous century.

Times were tough in that bygone era, and Duart Castle, with its walls varying between three to seven metres in thickness, saw more than its fair share of bloodshed, as is witnessed by the formidable dungeons. Prior to their downfall in 1493, the Clan Donald Lords of the Isles, were allpowerful on Scotland’s West Coast, where they operated a chain of eight castles on each side of the Sound of Mull, all within sight of each other.

When danger approached, a beacon was lit to signal a warning from Mingary Castle on Ardnamurchan Point, opposite Duart, via six other castles, including Duart, to Dunollie Castle, close to the mainland town of Oban.

The influence of Clan Maclean in the Hebrides continued to grow until 1588, when its chief, Sir Lachlan Mor, got a bit above himself and, while owing allegiance to the King of Scots, secretly treated not only with Elizabeth I of England, but also the Spanish.

On the mainland, the power of Clan Campbell was in its ascendancy and, not surprisingly, James VI of Scotland, who later to became King of England, took a dim view of Maclean’s double dealing. Egged on by the Campbells, he decided to sequester Duart to the King’s Commissioners, although he did allow the family to remain in exchange for their pledging their allegiance.

Because of this, no doubt, the Macleans remained loyal to the House of Stuart throughout the ensuing Civil War. It was a heavy price to pay. In 1651, Sir Hector Ruadh Maclean was killed with eight of his foster brothers and 500 of his clansmen at the Battle of Inverkeithing.

And two years thereafter, Oliver Cromwell, who had been declared Lord High Protector by the English parliament, sent ships to destroy Duart. However, when his troops arrived, they found the castle empty, and then, within moments, a great north-westerly gale had blown up. It lasted for 17 hours and sank three of their ships, so the the castle remained unscathed.

In the aftermath of all this, the Macleans, having mortgaged the greater proportion of their lands, fell deeply into debt, their loans being largely bought up by the Campbells. Confrontation between the two great Highland clans continued, and when Sir John Maclean of Duart led his clansmen in support of the Jacobite Cause at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1698, it gave his enemies just the excuse that they were looking for.

Two thousand five hundred soldiers were sent by the government to scatter the Macleans from their homeland. Thereafter, until 1751, Duart Castle was used as a garrison, and then abandoned. Over a century and a half was to pass before Colonel Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief, having been taken to see the ruin as a boy, remarked, “It is going to be my life’s ambition to restore the castle as a family home and the headquarters of the clan.”

He began the restoration work in 1911, at the age of 76, a monumental task, given that by then most of the roof had disappeared and the walls were crumbling. When he reached the age of 100, he received a telegram from the Duke of Argyll suggesting that to mark such an auspicious occasion the feud with the Campbells should be brought to an end. Maclean replied, “Certainly – for my lifetime!”

Today, Duart Castle, austere and magnificently restored to its former glory, is the home of Sir Fitzroy’s grandson, Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart, 28th Chief, a former officer in the Scots Guards. He and his wife Mary, with their two sons and daughter, continue to honour the family traditions, and the castle has become a magnet for the thousands of Macleans who are scattered throughout the world.

Do not expect to see great treasures or fine furniture here, although there are great oak tables, items of weaponry and regimental colours to be seen. Fine furniture is not what such a place is about. Instead, you will find yourself at the very heart of Hebridean history, surrounded by an atmosphere that could never be replicated anywhere else.

Duart Castle and grounds are open from April until October, from 11am – 4.20pm
From 1st May to 2nd October, the castle, tea-room and shop are open daily from 10am – 5.30pm
Adult – £4.50; child – £2.25; concession – £4.00; family ticket - £11.25
Tel: +44 (0)1680 812 309
Fax: +44 (0)1680 812 309
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