Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe - (The Castle of the Red Haired Maiden)

Lochavich is a small glen south of Oban, between the sea at Kilmelford and the Campbell power base of Loch Awe. On the small island of Innis Luina, at the western end of Loch Avich, stand the ruins of Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe, The Castle of the Red Haired Maiden. An Ossianic poem describes two friends who 'went to the hall of the chief, where it lifts its gray head, in the midst of trees, in the green isle of Innisluina' and the ruins are much the same today, as can be seen from the photograph.

Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe

Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe

Built of well pinned local random rubble with some sandstone dressings it was originally a three storey tower-house measuring 15.8m (51' 10") by 11.3m (37' 1") with walls some 2.3m (7' 6") thick. It was surrounded by a defensive wall, with a dry-stone two apartment outbuilding. Only the south wall of the tower-house is now almost at full height, standing directly above the loch. The rest has largely fallen, filling the basement to first floor level - to quote a famous lawsuit, 'There is now no castle in any proper sense of the word, but only a considerable extent of ruined masonry'.

There is a basement doorway at ground level, but the main entrance was probably by an exterior stair to the hall at first floor level. In the hall was a large fireplace in the south wall and the second floor was probably split transversely into two apartments. Each was lit by small south-facing windows and served by the surviving latrine chutes to the loch. Possibly there was an attic floor giving access to the parapet walk but no staircases survive. There is no evidence of vaulting to the basement but the upper floors were of timber and the roof was probably thatched. The window jambs were of sandstone, probably from the Bridge of Awe quarry. This much we know from the architectural remains, but who built Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe, and when, for it appears but once in documentary history.

Campbell of Craignish family tradition is that the lands of Lochavich and the castle were acquired through marriage about 1190 by Dugal (Campbell) of Craignish. It is likely that the latter family was initially allied or related to the MacDougalls of Lorn, but seeing which way the wind blew they either switched allegiance to the Campbells or became kinsmen by marriage. Lochavich was probably a MacDougall holding but at the very least it was an interface between MacDougalls in the north and early Campbells in the south.

The Manuscript History of Craignish, compiled about 1700, recounts how Dugal, in about 1190, 'married Brihid or Bridget, Daughter to Dugal MacCaurre, Tossach of Lochavich, by whom he got the Lands commonly call'd the pennies of Lochavich being four in number, or Four merk land, as also the Old Tower and Fortalice in the island of that Loch called Castle Lochavich, but of old Castle nahine ruai (Caisteal na h-Ighinne ruaidh) or the red maids Castle, some say so call'd from an Apparition or familiar Brounie that was said to frequent it in that Shape in those Days of Dark Ignorance, but rather as I imagine from the heiress who might have been a red hair'd or a Ruddie complexion'd lass. Of this Dugal I find no more but that he died about the Year 1220, and was succeeded by his son, also Dugal'.

However, I think the 'Old Tower and Fortalice in the island' was not Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe but the dun at Duninveran. The late 12th century is too early for the building of the castle, but over the centuries of tale telling a turf and timber fort was no doubt transposed into a fine stone-built castle! The Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments for Scotland [RCAHMS] entry for Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe concludes that 'The existing structure is so ruinous that its age is difficult to ascertain, but in size and plan-form the building bears a considerable resemblance to the nearby castle of Fincharn, Loch Awe, which may be as old as the 13th century'.

Fincharn may have been built about 1240, when the barony of Fincharn was awarded to Gillescop MacGilchrist. I have considered whether the MacDougalls built Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe sometime in the 13th century, but have for the time being rejected it – freestone dressings from Bridge of Awe rather than from the usual MacDougall source of Ardtornish quarry would indicate a non-MacDougall builder.

Castle plan

Castle plan

There is also one possible architectural point to query the date. The similar hall-houses of Fincharn, Fraoch Eilean and Aros are all attributed to the 13th century, but there is no evidence of fireplaces in any of them. The fire would have been central, smoke escaping through roof-louvres - other castles of the same age in this area are either too ruinous or too much altered to provide reliable evidence. Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe, however, has a fireplace and splendid lumb on the first floor, which would have warmed the great hall and the chambers above.

However, as Geoffrey Stell of RCAHMS has observed: 'In this case, the fireplace at Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe certainly contrasts with the open hearths of what would be otherwise closely comparable hall-buildings within the region, but the existence of a fireplace in a hall is not a precise dating signature, and is certainly not a matter of architectural 'evolution'. Plenty of 15th-century great halls of high status in lowland Scotland, of which Doune is a classic example, were equipped with central, open hearths'.

The only record of Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe is a charter at Inveraray Castle dated 4th June 1414 from Sir Duncan Campbell, Knight of Lochow, to Reginald of Craignish granting certain lands. '.. and if Reginald or his heirs, or we or our heirs, jointly or separately, should erect or build [up] the castles of Lochaffy and of Cragynse, or either of them, we grant the office of constable of that castle, built, constructed and erected, to him and his heirs'.

Sadly for us, but in common with charters of that time, there are ambiguities - quite how much building work was required is unclear, or to which castle. There is evidence that Craignish Castle was only built to the first floor in mid to late 13th century but not completed until 1560. But why was such a strategically important castle – both to landward and seaward - not finished, given the turbulent times of the 13th and 14th centuries. Did the Campbells of Craignish start building Craignish, then run out of money? And would they not have completed a strategic and prestigious castle at the heart of their lands before starting an outlying one at Lochavich? However, if Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe was already built by the mid-13th century, as I contend, both questions would be answered.

In 1308 King Robert Bruce defeated John MacDougall of Lorn, with the subsequent forfeiture of his lands. Many were awarded to Sir Colin Campbell in 1316, including the lands of Lochawe (and Lochavich) in free barony. Not until after that date was Sir Colin sufficiently powerful and rich enough to indulge in castle building. On 10th February 1316 King Robert addressed his 'beloved and faithful Colin, son of Niel Cambel, Knight' confirming to him 'the whole land of Lochow, in one free Barony, by all its righteous metes and marches, in wood and plain, meadows and pastures, muirs and marshes, petaries, ways, paths and waters, stanks, fish-ponds and mills, and with the patronage of the churches, in huntings and hawkings, and in all its other liberties, privileges and just pertinents, as well named as not named'.

North East wall by David Norden Angus

North East wall by David Norden Angus

However, less than a decade earlier Edward I had controlled much of Scotland and Bruce's future had been highly uncertain. Although Bruce now appeared secure after Bannockburn, a wise man would protect his landholdings as best he could, and I contend that this is exactly what Sir Colin Campbell did at Lochavich. His barony lands extended from Loch Crinan in the south to the head of Loch Awe; various kinsmen controlled lands in the west as far north as Benderloch, and, on his behalf, the major fortress of Dunstaffnage Castle. And although the walls at Duntrune were not erected until the 15th century it is certain that an earlier fortification occupied the promontory. At Craignish Sir Colin had at the very least a defensible ground and partly built first floor of a castle; at Arduaine his kinsmen, the MacIvers, had Dun an Garbh-sroine. And although the hall-house and bailey on the Island of Torsa date from the 15th century, I cannot believe a skilled warrior would not build some sort of fortification to protect the vitally important inner leads north to Dunstaffnage Castle.

On Loch Awe Sir Colin controlled the castles at Fraoch Eilean, Fincharn and Innis Chonnel, his main base, newly acquired from the MacDougalls. His one weak link was the – then - very important route from Loch Awe through Lochavich and Glen Doin to the sea at Craignish, linking Campbell lands on Loch Awe and at Craignish. His grandfather, Cailean Mor, had been killed by the Mac- Dougalls not two miles north of Loch Avich; what if fortunes were reversed and the MacDougalls made a comeback? John of Lorn was actively working for Edward II, so better for Sir Colin to fortify his weak flank and prepare for all eventualities. A logical site was the old fort at Duninveran, at the eastern end of the glen and controlling the strategic route from Innis Chonnel over the String of Lorn north to Dunstaffnage; but here there was no water. Innis Luana, however, had water in plenty and it also controlled the western approaches to Loch Awe.

Thus I propose that Caisteal na Nighinn Ruaidhe was built by Sir Colin Campbell shortly after 1316. Indeed, if Sir Colin did think along these lines, he was absolutely correct. In 1343, John of Lorn's grandson – no doubt helped by his marriage to Joanna Isaac, granddaughter of Robert the Bruce - was restored to the MacDougall former Lorn estates, although not to their former power.

Article by Tony Dalton, Maolachy House, Argyll

Added: 07 Jan 2011 Updated: 29 Mar 2018
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