Ardtornish Castle by Iain Thornber.

The ruins of Ardtornish Castle lie a little more than 1km southeast of the village of Lochaline crowning a low basalt promontory which juts into the sea commanding a fine uninterrupted outlook over the narrow entrance to the Sound of Mull. Of all the strongholds and bastions of the Lords of the Isles few are so often referred to, but few left such unimposing remains.

Architectural Description.

The building is very ruinous. It is constructed of dressed basalt blocks, oblong on plan and measures 23.17m from east to west by 14.33m transversely over walls some 2.13m in thickness with an average height of 3.66m. The south wall contains an arched window, a spurious feature added during a minor restoration programme carried out in the first quarter of the 20th century, which should be ignored.

Although Ardtornish starts to appear in charters and other records only from the mid 14th century, its architecture suggests it is at least a hundred years older. It is a structure of the type generally described in Scotland as a ‘hall house’ which was probably only two storeys high with the principal apartment on the upper floor similar to Castle Coeffin (Lismore) and Fraoch (Loch Awe), it was therefore a fortified residence gaining most of its strength from the rocky site. The ground floor containing the entrance in its east gable was lit three narrow slit windows in the south wall. These are now blocked but their white sandstone sills are still visible from the outside and their internal openings would only be found by excavating a layer of debris several metres thick. The only other authentic feature at ground level is a passage leading to a small latrine tower at the northwest angle.

Access to the first floor was gained by a flight of stairs going up in the thickness of the east wall where the 1.14m wide sandstone treads are still visible under the turf. Unfortunately so much re-facing was done to the south wall at this level it is impossible to say how the windows here were originally arranged. The internal dimensions of Castle Coeffin, from which a close parallel can be drawn, are approximately similar to those of Ardtornish. So great was the width there that a huge axial beam was required to support the weight of the first floor. Also at Coeffin there was a fireplace in the gable opposite the entrance and traces of a wall-walk with a parapet above. Ardtornish may well have had all these features along with the slightly more elaborate addition of a projecting guarderobe at the high table end. The building most probably had a double-pitched roof, perhaps thatched at first then slated. A quantity of slates are to be seen on the site but the majority of those along with the finest of the basalt blocks were very likely removed in 1755 and used in the construction of Ardtornish House, now demolished.

In 1873 the owners of Ardtornish Estate on which the castle stands had various sections of the building re-pointed. In 1890, nearby Kinlochaline Castle had been extensively repaired by the architect / antiquarians, Ross and MacBeth of Inverness. A major restoration programme was planned at Ardtornish the following year but fortun­ately never executed, instead the estate masons continued to re-point and in 1900 added the false window and the fragment of stairway in the south wall.

There are a number of other buildings closely associated with the castle, more especially to the north-east, the foundation of a large hall, 20.42m long by 8.42m wide with walls 1.07m m thickness, and to the south-east a combined barn and corn drying kiln as well as boat shelters etc. It is almost impossible to date these closely without excavation but they are probably not later than the 16th century and may belong to the period of the Lords of the Isles.

Historical Note.

On the forfeiture of the Lord of Lorn and his heir in 1309, King Robert the Bruce granted to one of his adherents, Angus Og of Islay, extensive property including Morvern, once known as Kenalbane. Angus was succeeded by his son John who in 1354 assumed the style Dominus Insularum, Lord of the Isles, and married secondly, Lady Margaret daughter of Robert, High Steward of Scotland. Of a peaceful nature, he became known as ‘Good John of Islay’. He died in 1380 at Ardtornish and was buried in Iona with great pomp. His heir Donald, eldest son of the second marriage dated charters from Ard­tornish in 1390 and 1409, here it is said he mustered his massive fleet for the expedition of 1411, when the famous battle of Harlaw was fought with the Duke of Albany. ‘Donald of Harlaw’ was succeeded by his son Alexander who for a brief period enjoyed the favour of King James I. He died in 1449.

Alexander’s son and heir, John 4th and last Lord of the Isles became involved in the Wars of the Roses where he supported James II. After the death of King James and the capture of Roxburgh Castle, John was drawn into league with Edward IV of England who at that time sought powerful Scottish allies. Here thought John was a fine opportunity to increase his power and authority and perhaps he even gave the crown of Scotland a side long glance. Consequently on the 19th October 1481 he issued from Ardtornish, a commission appointing his cousins, Donald Balloch and Duncan, Archdeacon of the Isles, to treat with Edward of England. The document is drawn up in Latin granted ‘by the advice of his principal vassals and kinsmen assembled in Council at his castle or Ardtornish.’

The Highland representatives met Edward in London, a treaty was signed on February 13th, sanctioned at Westminster on March 17th 1462 and the document which still exists became known as the ‘Treaty of Westminster / Ardtornish’. Its terms were remarkable and amounted to nothing less than the conquest of the whole of Scotland by John and his vassals with unlimited aid from Edward of England. There were four main clauses.

1.                  John, Lord of the Isles, Donald Balloch and Donald’s son John and their heirs with all their subjects and followers were from the coming Whitsuntide to become for ever the sworn vassals of England.

2.                  The three leaders were to be ready to serve Edward and his successors in such wars as they may raise in Scotland or against the Scots or other of the King’s enemies in Ireland.

3.                  John was to have ‘for fee and wages’ £200 sterling annually, in time of war and one hundred English marks in time of peace, Donald £40 in war and £20 in peace and his son John £20 and £10.

4.                  In the event of Scotland being conquered with the aid of John, Donald and James Earl of Douglas, their wages were to cease and they were to have instead one third each of the kingdom.

To these conditions John surprisingly agreed and more or less at once rose in rebellion against James III. His son Angus took the castle of Inverness and issued proclamations assuming the powers of an independent sovereign demanding obedience and taxes from the King’s subjects throughout the North. For some unknown reason Edward never supported this uprising and in 1474 a truce was formed between Scotland and England. Up until 1475 James III appears to have ignored the treachery of the Lord of the Isles but in December of that year John was summoned before the Scottish Parliament to answer charges of treason and other misdemeanours. Sitting comfortably in his great hall of Ardtornish he ignored the summons and was immediately declared forfeited. Eventually, however, he was pardoned and although stripped of the Earldom of Ross and lands in Kintyre and Knapdale, he retained his insular possessions; he was even made a peer and recreated Lord of the Isles. Highland sovereigns even although self-appointed were never easily tamed and soon trouble in the Isles flared up. How deeply John himself was involved will never be known, but it was decided by the Scottish Parliament that in 1493 the Lordship must finally and for all times be extinguished. In January 1494 John humbly appeared in Edinburgh and officially surrendered his titles. He received a pension from James IV and retired to the Monastery of Paisley where he died in 1498.

Throughout the 14th century the Macleans of Duart were merely vassals of the great Macdonald dynasty but when the Lords of the Isles were forfeited in 1493 they did a complete take over with Royal approval. Cadet branches of the Macleans occupied Ardtornish, Kin­lochaline and Drimnin but with the exception of the latter these properties were lost to the Earl of Argyll in the late 1600s. There are no records of a seige or an attack on the castle of Ardtornish during the Maclean ownership. It may simply have been abandoned in favour of the more defensible tower house at Kinlochaline, although its loss as a position of considerable strategic importance with regard to sea-borne traffic must have been a bitter one.

Traditional History.

To the northeast of the headland on which the castle rests is an impressive line of fragmented basalt cliffs where numerous small water­falls known as the ‘Morvern Witches’ lose themselves in mid stream and in a stiff southerly breeze are hurled upwards instead of cascading on the beech woods below. On the very highest point of the cliff face and not far from a sheep fank there is a large flat rock known locally as Creag nan Corp, ‘the rock of the corpses’ from which the bodies of those condemned by the chiefs of Ardtornish were thrown over onto the rocks below.

About 4Km inland from the head of Lochaline lies Loch Tearnait and on it an island which was once a sanctuary of secular origin, intimately associated with Ardtornish Castle. In common with other great chiefs the Macdonalds had the power to imprison and to hang. To these existing privileges the Lord of the Isles added the rights of sanctuary to men of the surrounding district accused of crimes. Conditional upon their first obtaining permission from the menage at Ardtornish in which event they might seek refuge on the island in Loch Tearnait, hence Tearnadh Ionaid, ‘place of escaping’ or ‘refuge’. The general route taken by the sanctuary-seekers after leaving Ardtornish was by way of the present footpath which follows more or less the course of the Rannoch River; sometimes however they were headed off and had to turn and take the eastward way over the Garbh Shlios by Eignaig, supposed to be derived from Aite eigin, ‘place of hardship and ill luck’. If the fugitives were caught before they could reach the island, they were taken to Cnoc nan Tighearnan, ‘hillock of the chiefs’ in sight of the loch where they were tried. If found to be guilty they were dragged down to Savary on the coast west of Lochaline and executed on Tom-na-Croich, ‘the knoll of hanging’.

The island is of artificial construction and is possibly a crannog or early lake dwelling. It is almost circular and measures 21.34m in diameter and about 1.52m in height. On a probable timber foundation of oak logs, stones of two types, Granite and Moine schist from opposite sides of the loch have been piled, each stone is no heavier than one man could handle. At one time there is said to have been a retaining wall with two places where a boat might be drawn up, also the remains of a rough shelter, both have now gone. On either side of the loch are causeways, one certainly is said to be linked to the island, the other may well be a modern fishing pier.

Having gained asylum on the island the fugitives had to remain there for the stipulated 48 hours. During that period they were nourished with fresh milk and cream from a few cows herded on a green sward to the north still known as Roinn na Banaraich, ‘the point of the dairymaid’. Standing on the hillside a little way above the loch is a cottage which has the reputation of being haunted, perhaps by an unfortunate escapee who swung on Tom-na-Croich!

Author’s Footnote:

Since submitting my paper on Ardtornish Castle I have had access to a small collection of historical notes from which has emerged the following which I consider to be of some relevance.

In the early part of 1915 it was reported in The Oban Times that workmen carrying out repair work on the building for Mr Craig Sellar, proprietor of the Ardtornish Estate, came upon a landing and sloped passage in the thickness of the wall in the north-west corner which seemed to indicate the existence of a west wing to the keep. It was also discovered that the interior face of the south wall, instead of being straight, was in the shape of two flat curves, the window being between the two.

In the summer of 1800 the Hon. Mrs Murray of Kensington, a travelling journalist, paid a short visit to Ardtornish where she stayed with the proprietor John Gregorson. In her journal she records an interesting find:

Within a few years, I forget how many, 3 workmen were digging near the ruins and found an enormous key the length of which was at least a yard, and the breadth of the wards more than a foot. In short, it was a wonderfully large key and so heavy that one man could but just carry it. This surely must have been the master key of the Castle buried underground for ages. The key was carried to the house, but unfortunately at that time Mr Gregorson was from home. His lady saw it and concluded the workman would deposit it safely till her husband returned. Alas! It was not so but he carried it directly to the smith’s shop and had it melted-down. When the key was called for the workman answered he though it a great pity such fine iron should remain useless he therefore had made tools of it!”

These references to a passage and west wing in addition to the probable existence of a massive entrance door both now completely obliterated are a clear indication that the present day structure is, alas, not much more than a grandiose Edwardian “folly”. -I.T.

© Copyright reserved by Iain Thornber, Ardtornish, Morvern, via Oran, Argyll. Author of “Castles of Morvern.”