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Field Visit

Date May 1989

Event ID 1082670

Category Recording

Type Field Visit


The castle is situated on the N summit of a low rocky ridge on the E shore of Loch Sween, about 3km from the mouth of the loch. A level valley-bottom some 150m in width separates it from rising ground to the E, and it commands an extensive prospect of Loch Sween itself and, to the W, Jura.

Immediately NW of the castle a small inlet has been cleared of rocks to provide a boat-landing, while 160m to the SSW there is a gently shelving sandy beach. A more secure anchorage was available in the inner recesses of Loch Sween, in the Tayvallich area.

The rocks of the ridge on which the castle stands are bedded almost vertically, forming a series of rocky bosses interspersed with turf. Within the building, outcropping is visible in the E part of the courtyard and in the NE and W towers, while in the curtain-walls occasional tongues of rock project above the level of the foundations, which for the most part accommodate themselves to the irregularities of the underlying surface. Whereas the original quadrangular enclosure is founded on a fairly level platform, except at the SW angle, the addition of the NE tower required a considerable amount of underbuilding, and the NW round tower extends 7m below the level of the courtyard. The enlargement of the W range involved building upon a shattered mass of rock with a rounded upper surface, penetrated on the W by a gully and underlain at the SW angle by a small cave. Underpinning was provided by roofing the249 gully with three courses of mortared chlorite-schist voussoirs carrying the footing-course of the W wall of the range. The E wall of the cave has been lined with masonry arranged in ‘herring-bone' fashion. To arrest continued movement of the rock in this area, a concrete support-pier was inserted in the cave in 1983.

About 11m S of the S angle of the castle, a few courses of drystone masonry fill a gully in an otherwise uniform E facing rock-face some 3m in average height. About 10m further S the outcrop is interrupted by a trough, 7m in width, which may have been enlarged by quarrying and probably formed the main landward approach. Several large tumbled boulders at the S edge of this trough may have fallen from a wall above, but there are no other identifiable remains of outer defences.


The earliest part of the castle, a quadrangular enclosure, was probably begun by Suibhne, ancestor of the MacSween family, about the end of the 12th century. Some recent scholars, following Simpson, have interpreted this as the lower part of an intended keep (en.1), but its irregular layout, comparatively limited wall-thickness and absence of windows all militate against this theory (en.2). It is probable that the later arrangement of a small courtyard flanked by ranges was planned from the first, but the upper parts of the curtainwalls, containing chases for the roofs of these buildings, are constructed of different materials and belong to a second phase, probably in the early 13th century. This work no doubt followed the original intention in height and layout, but that some changes were made is demonstrated by the blocking of a garderobe-chute at the SE angle. Probably at the same period, a small single-storeyed wing with attached garderobe was built on a terrace outside the W curtain-wall and at right angles to it. The earliest identifiable range to be completed in the courtyard was attached to the E half of the N curtainwall, but since the masonry of the surviving E gable differs from that of the early 13th-century wall-head on which it was set it cannot be closely dated.

During the second half of the 13th century the MacSweens were replaced as Lords of Knapdale by the Stewart Earls of Menteith, and although an expedition about 1300 by John MacSween to regain the castle is the subject of one of the earliest Scottish Gaelic poems, it remained in the hands of the Menteith family for at least a century. At about the beginning of the 14th century, when Sir John Menteith played an important role as the owner or constable of several castles in the Clyde estuary, the small W wing was incorporated into a three-storeyed tower with an attached circular garderobe tower of impressive height, lit by crosslet-slits. There construction of a mural garderobe at the NW angle of the courtyard probably belongs to the same period.

The final addition to the courtyard was the rectangular tower added to the NE angle, which contained a kitchen on the ground floor and a spacious chamber above. Although this has frequently been ascribed to the 13th century, partly because of two lancet window-heads which may be in re-use, it more probably belongs to the 15th century, when the MacNeill family of Gigha or their MacMillan kinsmen were constables on behalf of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. The tower was associated with a two- or three-storeyed range filling the E part of the courtyard, which presumably contained the great hall, and the continuity of the wall-walk was interrupted by the N gable of this range. A parallel W range, leaving a narrow central corridor, was probably built about the same time.

From the late 15th century the keepership of the castle was held by the Campbell Earls of Argyll, but the only building works that can be assigned to this period were the intended insertion of vaults in the kitchen-tower and E range, perhaps in the late 16th century. The castle was garrisoned in the1640s, but thereafter became ruinous. It was transferred to the guardianship of the Office of Works, now the Scottish Development Department, in 1933. The present survey was carried out in advance of a major consolidation of the masonry in 1985-8, but has been revised to take account of information revealed by that work and by the excavation of part of the courtyard in 1989 (en.3*).

RCAHMS 1992, visited May 1989

[A full architectural description and historical note is provided in RCAHMS 1992, 245-259]

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