On Friday 14th April the SCA took to the sea, and enjoyed a boat trip "Doon the Watter". Crossing the Firth of Clyde from Wemyss Bay by car ferry to the Isle of Bute, and its main town of Rothesay, where we gathered, prior to the first visit of the day. Our convoy headed south out of Rothesay and, at what seemed like the appropriate point, we turned into a driveway and made our way towards the distant house. Unfortunately, we had entered the wrong drive, and had to return to the main road, consult our maps and seek our destination afresh.
When we finally arrived at ASCOG HOUSE, we saw the house that we had hoped to see but were surprised to find that an additional, later tower stands beside it. The older house is a T-shaped structure with the stair within the centre leg of the T. An unusual feature of Ascog is caused by the slope of the ground from front to back. The door to the foot of the stairwell is on what was the ground floor with that elevation having three storeys and an attic. When viewed from the other side, however, only two floors are visible, with a grand entrance giving access to the second floor. This fine house has been much extended and altered to its current state. The other and much later building on the site takes the form of a tower-house with two floors and an attic. Ascog is owned and (very well!) maintained by The Landmark Trust, through which it is available to let as holiday accommodation.
Leaving Ascog, we drove back through Rothesay to KAMES TOWER. Our hosts welcomed us on our arrival. It was they who had invited their fellow-SCA members to visit Bute during this Argyll trip. Their invitation had two main attractions. The first was the opportunity to examine Kames tower; the second was to be enjoyed later that evening in the comfort of their beautiful home. Kames is a plain, square tower of an early type, standing within a courtyard of lesser, later buildings, which are now used as holiday accommodation. It is maintained in a good, wind and watertight condition. It has been altered in some areas but is not restored. The internal stair rises, within the walls, from the ground-floor doorway. The stair is straight, but narrow and steep with irregular steps, making ascent and descent rather "interesting". Each floor can be entered directly from the stair, with access to the wall-walk being possible from the small cap-house at the stair head.
Across the fields we could see another tower, which was to be our next destination. WESTER KAMES is a small, restored tower-house constructed in a later style than its namesake. The structure dates from a period even later than an observer might deduce from the visible architectural indicators. We had not been granted access to the inside of Wester Kames but were allowed to examine it from all external vantage points. The group found the building to be attractive and well sited.
Driving back into the town of Rothesay we quickly came to the ancient fortress of ROTHESAY CASTLE. This is a castle in the truest sense, and is unusual in Scotland. A massive circular wall of "enceinte" is surrounded by a water-filled moat with four circular towers projecting from the circumference of the wall to improve its defensiveness. A projecting gatehouse structure further strengthens the defences. The gatehouse has been developed into a strong tower-house with the entrance passageway to the castle courtyard passing through the ground floor area that is normally the barrel vault. A drawbridge reaches across the moat from the gatehouse tower. We explored this famous site and enjoyed the audio-visual display provided.
Rothesay MANSIONHOUSE stands beside the more famous castle and is of a much later period. It has great similarities with Ascog House and was likewise fortified and defensive. The Mansionhouse is now used as office accommodation. Entry was not possible but examination of the external features shows a fine old building in a good state of repair. The first day of our tour concluded with a return to Kames. Our hosts of earlier had invited us to enjoy an evening of hospitality, which featured a continuous "whisky-tasting" session. A series of glasses had been filled with samples from bottles of different types and brands. These were intended for initial "nosing", prior to choosing those varieties to be tasted. We returned to our hotels - by taxi! - much later that night. This is a good opportunity to express again our appreciation of the evening and of the kind attentions of our hosts.
An early start was required to drive to the north end of the Isle of Bute, and to catch the car ferry to Colintraive on the Argyll mainland. Our first meeting point of the day was Inveraray and the castle there. On the way, however, the "castle-spotters" in the group diverted via old CASTLE LACHLAN. The beautiful weather and wonderful scenery made it an ideal morning for a few more photographs for our collections. Similar stopping off was the order of the day for some of us as we passed by Dundarave. Unfortunately our planned, "official" visit to this beautiful tower-house (Castle Doom in the novel by Neil Munro) had been postponed. Telephoto lenses were tested to their limits from roadside viewpoints on the opposite side of Loch Fyne.
We had booked a guided tour of INVERARAY CASTLE, the home of the Duke of Argyll and the headquarters of Clan Campbell. The tour guide struggled with the dilemma that we had given him to maintain our schedule, the normal one-hour tour had to be reduced to thirty minutes. After forty-five minutes, we recognised that we were to be treated to the full hour long tour! Many wonderful artefacts and stories were presented to us and we thoroughly enjoyed the visit. However as we departed after rather more than one hour, our schedule for the rest of the day was under pressure.
We next arrived at the north end of Loch Awe, and boarded the cruise launch that had been organised to take us to KILCHURN CASTLE, it being felt that this was an appropriate way in which to approach the castle, as in previous times its rocky peninsula had been an island. Kilchurn has not altered visibly since the recent change of ownership. Open public access from the landward side remains available at the end of a pleasant walk (which involves crossing a railway line) from the roadside car park. We spent some time discussing and exploring this much-photographed castle. An interesting feature here is the sight of an upturned bartizan, which has toppled from its original position high on the tower wall. The stonework of the fallen bartizan is intact and allows the viewer to see the normally-hidden underside and the method of construction. Kilchurn was being visited that day by a group of people in brightly-coloured wet suits and life jackets. Enquiries revealed they were from a another SCA, the Scottish Canoe Association! Later, as we returned to the cruise launch, we saw the canoeists making their way down the loch.
We had a lengthy drive to our next destination, BARCALDINE CASTLE (sometimes called the Black Castle of Barcaldine). As we arrived and prepared to open the driveway gates to allow our cars to leave the single track roadway, a couple arrived by car from the opposite direction and also made to open the gates. For a moment each group looked at the other in puzzlement. We broke the stand-off by explaining that we had written to the owner seeking permission to visit. The owner had advised that, although he and his family would not be at home at the time of our visit, he was delighted to have us look around the exterior and photograph whatever we wanted from the garden.
We were shocked to hear that this could not be accurate, as the gentleman standing before us was, in fact, the owner and he had no knowledge of our visit. Fortunately, all became clear when we realised that the normal occupant of the castle was the son of the owner. Our amused host directed us into the driveway of the castle. He apologised for not knowing of our visit, and explained that he had simply happened by, to check for deliveries of mail or parcels which might have been left by the door. He was delighted to guide us around the exterior and gardens. We explored some of the stories of Barcaldine. One of which tells of how, in 1691, McIain, the head of the Glen Coe MacDonalds, was required to swear and sign allegiance to the Crown by 1st January 1692. While making his reluctant way through Campbell country to Inveraray, he was "detained" at Barcaldine by the Campbell laird. His detention there contributed to the late (and reluctant) oath-taking which presented the Crown and Government of the day with the opportunity to make an example of one of Scotland's unruly clans, resulting in the "Massacre of Glen Coe" on 13th February 1692. Another famous event associated with Barcaldine is the shooting and murder of Colin Campbell (the "Red Fox") at Ballachulish in 1752. It was decided that someone would be hung for the killing and that a Stewart would suffice. The authorities arrested James Stewart of the Glens and tried him at Inveraray, where, with the judge and 12 of the 15 jurors being Campbells, the "guilty" verdict and subsequent hanging were a foregone conclusion. (The story of James of the Glens is used as a theme within R.L.Stevensons "Kidnapped" and in Neil Munroes "Castle Doom").
We had an enjoyable lunch of soup and sandwiches at the Pier Inn in Port Appin, after which we made our way towards Portnacroish on the shore of Loch Linnhe, the embarkation point for our next visit, to CASTLE STALKER. We were met by our hosts, who helped us in turn to clamber into the little open boat, with outboard motor, that was to ferry groups of five or six people to the small rocky island on which Castle Stalker stands. The water crossing was smooth and uneventful but took some time, in view of our number. Prior to our arrival, we had understood that this visit would involve viewing the island and the outside of the castle only. While being assisted from the boat, however, we were delighted to be instructed to make our way up to the castle and to enter at will. This was a magic moment, as most of us had long admired this tower on its isolated island, but had never expected to have the opportunity to enter. Each boatload photographed the externals prior to congregating in the great hall. As we awaited the arrival of our hosts, we had ample time to admire the restoration work that has been carried out. Soon we were given an introduction to Castle Stalker, its history and its restoration. Our host then invited us to follow him up through the tower, visiting each room in turn. Finally we came out onto the wall-walk and were able to see at close hand the complex roofline and the amazing views to the mainland and out over the Firth of Lorne. On that beautiful day we could only imagine the extremes of weather that Stalker has endured over the centuries. On returning to the great hall we were treated to a glass of whisky, then coffee, tea and shortbread. Our return to the mainland was completed safely and without complication, although by this time the sky had darkened, the wind had risen, and the sea was a little less calm than before. Again we should thank our hosts for their hospitality, time and inconvenience. This is particularly apt on this occasion, as one of our hosts spent most of the afternoon up to her knees in sea water helping us to and from the little boat, while the other spent a similar time shuttling us back and forth.
Upon completing the crossing from Castle Stalker, we set off down the coast towards Oban, and our final castle of the day, DUNSTAFFNAGE CASTLE. This is a castle of enceinte that has been modified through the centuries. It sits spectacularly on top of a huge outcrop of rock. The curtain walls follow the shape and contours of the outcrop and seem to rise out of the rock itself. The well-defended entrance is at the top of a steep ramp/stair, with a drawbridge giving final access to the door and entrance passageway. A tower-house and some additional structures have been constructed within the walls of enceinte. The parapet walk provides a commanding view of the surrounding area.
Bright sunshine welcomed us as we emerged from our hotel, and made our way to nearby DUNOLLIE CASTLE. A clamber up from the roadside brought us to the ruined keep, standing within the remains of its barmkin wall. We spent some time within this lofty ruin examining the remaining features and piecing together a picture of its internal arrangements. We discussed some of the materials that have been used and marvelled at the construction methods necessary to build such a place. The views from Dunollie were beautiful, the most spectacular being out across the wide Firth of Lorne to the island of Mull, upon which we were able to pick out Duart castle, standing on its rocky headland.
Driving south from Oban, we made our way to CARNASSERIE CASTLE at the north end of Kilmartin glen. This is a large and complex castle. built as a single entity but intended to give the appearance of a structure that had been developed over several different periods. The builder of this place was the same individual who had held Kilmartin Castle that we were to visit later. He is known to have been an important representative of the pre-reformation church in the highlands. During and after the reformation he maintained his position of importance, sometimes for the reformed church, at other times for the unreformed church, and, sometimes for both factions simultaneously – the ultimate politician, it would appear! Many fine architectural details can be seen at Carnasserie. Its commanding position overlooking the narrowing of Kilmartin glen is well worth the gentle climb and walk from the carpark.
After visiting Carnasserie we backtracked a little to visit FINCHARN CASTLE on the side of Loch Awe. Prior permission from the farmer, to park some cars at the farm and the remainder in a field by the road, resolved the parking problem on this narrow single-track road. This ancient stronghold is entirely ruinous and stands on top of a rocky outcrop by the edge of the loch. Its location is isolated but commands an area of good farming land. We climbed up and into the area that had been occupied and discussed the visible remains. The reference books suggest that this was a hall-house; if so then it had at least two floors and was of no great length. Few recognisable features remain, but we could identify floor support beam location holes and some edges that suggest window positions.By now ready for our lunch, we made our way back down into Kilmartin village and to the hotel. Some of our party took the opportunity to visit the village museum, and the ancient carved stones that are preserved in the adjacent churchyard. The stones provide a forceful reminder that Kilmartin glen is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Scotland.
KILMARTIN CASTLE stands on a platform above Kilmartin village. It is a rectangular building with two floors above the vaulted ground floor rooms. It has two round, conical-roofed turrets, sited on diagonally-opposite corners. The corner towers enhance the defensive nature of the building, as these provided the opportunity for covering fire across all four walls. Kilmartin is owned, and has been restored, by a couple who have been members of our association since its beginning. Some of us have been tracking the progress of the restoration here for several years, and were delighted to see that the bulk of the work is almost complete. When we entered the building we found that a tasteful and appropriate home has been created from what was previously a roofless shell. Our congratulations to the owners, who have demonstrated, in a very practical way and mostly with their own hands, that tasteful and careful restoration does indeed "Preserve the Past for the Future".
Passing south and out of Kilmartin glen we made our way onto the flood plain above the west entrance to the Crinan canal. On a distant headland we could see our destination. DUNTRUNE CASTLE is another castle of enceinte where the original perimeter curtain wall now contains a tower-house. This, much photographed, castle was originally positioned to guard the estuary and coastline. This same positioning now rewards those who live here with the most spectacular views. We had been given permission to wander around the outside of the walls and to photograph this private home as we pleased. On welcoming us, however, the owner suggested that, if we could split our group into two, then he would give each party a guided tour of his home, while the other explored the beautiful gardens. During the tour we stopped to look out through an upstairs window. When we commented on the view, our host explained that, at the height of winter storms, seawater is blown vertically up the outside of the castle walls and in through the window frames. Permission to resolve this problem, by replacing the windows, with some that would seal more effectively, has been refused. This reminded us that castle-dwelling does have some drawbacks.
We drove inland, and across the flood plain, from Duntrune and soon arrived at DUNADD, the ancient fortified hilltop which Irish records show the Picts as having besieged in 683 AD and 736 AD. Little of the original fortifications survive, but the zigzag climb up through the natural rock ramparts gives some impression of the strength of the site. We congregated at the summit, enjoying the views and regaining our breath. We discussed the carvings in the summit rock, which include a cut-out in the shape of a footprint, a shallow basin, and a carving of a wild boar, about which there has been much speculation as to their age and significance. Standing on this isolated peak, with the flood plain stretching out below us, and with the little river Add meandering towards the sea, it was easy to imagine the presence of the previous generations that occupied the site.
Our final visit of the day, and of this most enjoyable tour, took us down the East side of Kintyre to the little town of Tarbert. This sheltered port is dominated by TARBERT CASTLE, which stands on a ridge above the town. While we could see the castle clearly, we had some difficulty finding the roadway and path to it, but some locals resolved the problem by providing directions. When we finally arrived, we could see the remains of a large keep or tower. Closer inspection soon revealed the low, overgrown remnants of walls of enclosure which seemed to date from different periods and enclosed a huge area. This large area was probably an outer court, while the remnants of wall defining a smaller, inner area may represent the inner defensive structure, a tower- or hall-house. The castle has strong associations with King Robert the Bruce. The ruined tower has been large and retains some identifiable features, close examination showing that the visible ground floor surface was in fact the top surface of the barrel vaults, and probably represented first floor level. Further exploration revealed a collapsed area of floor, which gave access to the original ground level vaults. These could be entered with some difficulty but the total darkness revealed nothing. Flash photographs later showed that much of the vaulting remains, with some interesting features showing above the build-up of collapsed and silted-up material.
Our tour of Argyll was now over. A few of the group had decided to stop in the area overnight and to continue their castle spotting next day. The others had to say goodbye and to start on their various homeward journeys, worn-out but well content.
THANKS TO OUR HOSTS