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Islay, Dunyvaig Castle

Castle (Medieval)

Site Name Islay, Dunyvaig Castle

Classification Castle (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Dunyveg; Dun Naomhaig; Dunivaig Castle

Canmore ID 38002

Site Number NR44NW 24

NGR NR 4059 4549

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kildalton And Oa
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Archaeology Notes

NR44NW 24 4059 4549.

(NR 4060 4547) Dun Naomhaig (NR)

OS 6" map, Argyllshire, 2nd ed., (1900)

Dunyvaig Castle occupies a rocky promontory; on the summit of a high rock at the seaward end stands the remains of a high building, of which the seaward wall only still stands, the rest being reduced to overgrown foundations. SW of this, at a lower level, are the remains of a round bastion. W of the high rock is a small inner court, and a large outer court, 120ft E-W by 70ft within a curtain wall, 12ft thick on E and 7ft thick on W containing the foundations of rectangular buildings of varying sizes and a square well or tank in the NE corner, filled with rubbish. The NE and SW corners of the curtain have exterior foundations of a shape suggesting the former presence of ravelins. The N curtain has a central entrance; to the exterior are foundations of a possible barbican, and there is a 17ft wide sea-gate in the SW.

The masonry of most of the castle is of early West Highland type 13th century (OS 6" map annotated by A L F Rivet undated).

H B Miller and J Kirkhope 1964; Information from plan and photographs from H B Miller 1964.

The NSA (1845) implies that 'Dun Naomhaig or Dunivaig' may occupy the site of an earlier fort.

New Statistical Account 1845.

An anonymous account, written about 1630, describes 'Dunowaig' castle as an "ancient fortress but lately builded with castles and tours be James McDonnald".

W Macfarlane 1906-8.

(All letters refer to published plan in RCAHMS Inventory)

The ruins of this stronghold stand on a coastal promontory on the E side of Lagavulin Bay, guarding the entrance to the

anchorage there and commanding a distant prospect of the coasts of Kintyre and Antrim. The existing remains comprise

an outer courtyard or bannkin of irregular polygonal layout situated on low-lying ground immediately to the N of the

rocky knoll at the tip of the promontory. The summit of this knoll, which stands to a height of about 14m above high-

water mark and is partly composed of epidiorite, is surrounded by vestiges of an enclosure-wall. It is crowned by the SE or seaward side-wall of a substantial building of elongated hall-like proportions which survives to a height of more than two main storeys. The upper and lower levels of the castle are linked by the remains of a stair which ascends

from a small inner courtyard and traverses the site of a bridge built against the W face of the rock outcrop. The walls of the outer enclosure survive to a maximum visible height of 5.6m in the vicinity of a SW sea-gate, and other lengths of courtyard


The surviving fabric of the hall-building on the summit shows clear indications of at least one major phase of

reconstruction, the original building-period probably falling within the early decades of the 16th century, and the

reconstruction within the latter half of the same century. It overlies part of the circuit of a wall which follows a natural

line of defence round the irregular outline of the summit area. This wall has itself undergone some reconstruction,

especially where it underpins the main building, and, to judge from this local sequence of construction, it is probable that some lengths of wall formed part of the 'castrum Dounowak' mentioned by Fordun in the later 14th century. The outer courtyard appears to be substantially of 16th-century construction, and the visible modifications and repairs were probably carried out in the early 17th century The surviving visible portions of the castle thus appear to

date mainly from the period after 1545 when it was regranted to its former owners, the MacDonalds of Dunivaig and the

Glens (Co. Antrim). Deprived by the Crown of their possession of the castle after 1597, the later members of this

family sought to wrest control of it from successive royal agents, and in the early years of the 17th century the castle

was the centre of much military and political activity. The defences sustained a good deal of damage at this time,

especially in the famous siege by royal forces under Sir Oliver Lambert in 1615, and, following a further siege by rebels in 1630, the castle survived a threat of demolition by its then owner, John Campbell ofCawdor. The last recorded episode in the building's military history was the successful siege of its Royalist garrison by General David Leslie in 1647.

Architectural Description.

The walls throughout are constructed of lime-mortared random-rubble masonry comprising slabs and split boulders

of local extraction. The dressings of'bluestone' or epidiorite which make up the slab lintels and jambs of the windows in

the upper range are also of local origin. The windows of this building preserve some rybats of a fine-grained whiteish-

coloured sandstone, and three dressed stones of similar character were recovered from an area of the foreshore SW of

the sea-gate.

Outer Courtyard.

This irregular seven-sided enclosure occupies the full width of the promontory, and the flanking E and W curtain-walls, which possess angled salients, rise directly above the boulder-strewn foreshore on each side.

The courtyard measures 37m in maximum internal length by 23m transversely, and the thickness of the curtain-wall varies from slightly more than 2m to 3m at the E flank and turf-covered N front. The W curtain-wall has a pronounced

external batter, whilst the surviving facework of the E curtain and N front-wall is battered only at base. At the NW and NE angles there are foundations of a pair of angle-turrets or bastions which were laid out but probably never completed,

that at the NE angle being backed by a blocked-up loop in the main curtain.

The principal gateway is placed near the centre of the landward or N curtain-wall. A detailed account of the siege of

1615 referred to the battering of a tower in which the rebelles held a gaurd over the porte that entereth the outeward bawne',3 implying that the entry, if not actually towered itself, was certainly protected by a tower. The vestigial traces

of the gateway suggest an opening about 1.8m in width, and there are footings of a gatehouse extension or barbican

immediately to the N. The gateway is flanked on the E by what appears to have been an intramural passage and a stair giving access to a parapet-walk. Within the thickness of the curtain-wall to the W of the entry is the upper part of a small partly circular and dome-vaulted chamber, reached apparently from one of the courtyard buildings (C), and now almost completely infilled. The original height and character of this chamber cannot be ascertained without excavation, but it may have been an oven. This may have been the feature that led an earlier commentator to identify one of the courtyard buildings, presumably C, as 'a baker's house'.

Within the courtyard and for the most part abutting the inner face of the N curtain there are the low turf-covered

remains of four rectangular buildings (A-D) and what appears to be an open-ended shed (E). The buildings are aligned roughly NE-SW, and the visible portions of the walls are of drystone construction varying between about 0.6m

and 1m in thickness. The two larger structures (A, B) occupy the E half of the courtyard and are grouped around an oblong drystone shaft, possibly a well, in the NE corner. The shaft measures 1.6m by 1.3m across the mouth and about 1.5m in visible depth. Building A, the eastern most of the group, measures 10.3m by 4.3m internally and has an entrance near the centre of the NW side-wall. Building B, which flanks the main entrance, measures 11.6m by 3.9m, and there are possible entrances in both the W and S walls; the SW angle is noticeably rounded. On the opposite side of the entrance-passage there is the comparatively well-preserved building C that incorporates the mural vault noted above. Internally it measures 6.5m in length by 3.75m trransversely and there is an entrance at the S end of the E side-wall. Building D is of similar dimensions, and was entered through a doorway in the S end-wall. The adjacent structure (E) is of indeterminate character, measuring 3.4m across the open SW end by 2.9m in maximum internal length.

At the SW angle of the courtyard there are the remains of a sea-gate which is fronted by a boat-landing formed partly

between roughly parallel lines of boulders on the foreshore. This gateway, which has splayed ingoings, measures almost 6 m in width internally and can probably be identified as 'the arche, oute of which there [the rebels'] boate was launched into the sea' in 1615. The actual portal and its external surround no longer survive, and between the existing gatepiers there are fragmentary wall-foundations; this suggests the possibility that the gate is an enlargement of an earlier and narrower opening in the same position. At the extreme W angle of the courtyard there is evidence of another gateway, now blocked up, incorporating outward-splayed jambs and a stepped external approach leading directly from the foreshore. The two-phase blocking has the appearance of a makeshift repair, and probably dates from one of the military episodes in the early 17th century. In the W curtain-wall there are the lintelled embrasures of two slits or loops, one in each flank of the angled salient. They possess both curved and straight ingoings but their external surrounds no longer survive. Vestiges of a blocked-up embrasure apparently of similar character can also be seen at the NE angle.

Inner Courtyard and Stair.

The mutilated and partly infilled remains of a gateway giving access to the upper levels of the castle are located in the S wall of the outer courtyard. Its inner face has splayed ingoings and is ceiled by a segmental rubble vault, while a pair of mural sockets in the ingoings was probably designed to receive the timber head of an associated door-surround. The gateway opens into a roughly triangular enclosure situated immediately beneath the main crag, an area that probably corresponds with 'the inward bawne' to which Lambert alluded in 1615. His report implies that the castle well also lay in this vicinity, but his own artillery bombardment 'yillded such aboundance of rewins and rubbidge' that the inner bawn and the well were 'chockt upp' and there is no reference to the well in a slightly later description of activities in and around the inner bawn.* Against the outer face of the curtain-wall there are the remains of a buttress or platform, added probably to make good some of the damage incurred in 1615.

The site of a bridge, which is described in at least one account as 'the draw brig', is marked by a 1.5m gap between

a pair of substantial masonry abutments built against the W face of the main rock outcrop at the S angle of the inner

courtyard. The upper or S abutment, which is based partly on natural rock and is drained by a weep-hole at base, stands almost intact to a height of 3.8m. A surviving corbel on its W side is probably one of a pair which supported a timber runner beneath the bridge, and the threshold is flanked by dwarf-walls rebated to receive an inward-opening gate. The remains of a narrow staircase ascend thence to a SW turret, and the fragmentary outer wall of the stair is interspersed with outcrops of rock. About 2m S of the bridge the wall is pierced by part of an embrasure of a slit or loop covering the sea-gate and boat-landing below.

The projecting SW turret or bastion is of roughly ovoid plan, measuring about 7m in maximum diameter over a

grass-covered interior. It stands on a spur of rock below the level of the main summit, and appears to have served as a

defensive platform of intermediate height protecting the W flank of the castle and immediately overlooking the mouth of

Lagavulin Bay. A wall, which measures 1m in width and 5m in length, extends E from the turrets spanning a deep fissure

in the rock and thence rising to the summit where it abuts the wall that underlies the main superstructure. About midway along its length the inner face of this link-wall is itself abutted by a 2m stretch of walling forming a minor platform between the turret and the main summit.

Summit Area.

The remains of a lime-mortared wall follow the irregular configuration of the summit area, and the best-preserved length of walling is a curved stretch in the NW section. On the S side the curtain extends beyond the face of the standing building and returns beneath the oversailing SW angle, which is boldly cantilevered on a series of slab-corbels.

At the SE angle the building is carried on a lofty and battered substructure or buttress, whose random-rubble masonry

contrasts with the partly coursed split boulders of the main wall-face. This S side-wall survives to an average height of

two storeys, although a portion towards the W end stands slightly higher, and a latrine in the SE angle evidently served a third floor or parapet. There are fragmentary remains of the associated end-walls, while earth-covered mounds indicate the approximate position of the N side-wall. The main block thus appears to have been rectangular on plan, measuring internally 11.3m in length by about 6m transversely. The S side-wall is markedly wedge-shaped on plan, widening from a ground-floor thickness of 1m at the SW angle to 3.1m at the SE, where the extra thickness encroaches upon the internal floor-area.

The ground floor of the main block contains three slit-windows which have slab-lintelled embrasures with variously-angled splayed ingoings. The best-preserved E window has a deep and narrow tunnel embrasure, and the

external surround is almost completely formed by monolithic slabs that contain sockets for a window-grille. In

the SW angle there is a small aumbry containing a splayed drainage chute or slop sink which discharges over a crude

projecting external spout. The fragmentary portion of the adiacent W end-wall, which measures 1.4m in thickness as compared to about 1m for the corresponding E wall, incorporates a straight ingo and the canted seating of an

arch-springer above, probably a vestige of a kitchen fireplace. The floors were evidently timber-joisted, and a

large corbel situated approximately midway along the inner face of the S wall probably supported a timber runner

beneath the hearthstone of a fireplace above.

In the existing first-floor arrangement there is a centrally-placed 3m-wide mural recess which is almost certainly the

rear of a hall fireplace. It is flanked by a pair of splayed window-embrasures whose external surrounds incorporate

sandstone rybats of the kind noted above. A rybat of the westernmost first-floor window is rebated internally and

wrought with a 90 mm chamfer on the external arris. Two blocked-up windows with crude square-arrised rubble jambs

can be seen in the external wall-face behind the fireplace.

The remains of an E annexe are represented at the SE angle by the stub of an obliquely aligned wall which incorporates of a garderobe system. At first-floor level there are the blocked-up remains of a small box-garderobe projected on

slab-corbels and formerly lit by slit-windows in the E wall. Its outer wall incorporates a discharge-chute from a latrine

serving the floor above, and the mural recess at ground level may also have been part of this series ofgarderobes.

Later Settlement and Siege Works.

The foundations of groups of small two- and three-roomed buildings of 18th-century or later date lie within the vicinity of the NE approach to the castle, and much of the promontory shows evidence of turf-dyking, drainage and ploughing, all presumably a result of land use in the period following the abandonment of the castle.

Descriptions of the siege of February 1615 refer to the preparation of an artillery platform and adjacent trenches placed 'in the moist commodious pairts round abowt the castell so as thair was no hoip for the rebelles to eshaipe the land'. Over 200m ENE of the castle there is a large i rectangular and partly scarped platform which dominates the landward approaches to the castle and is now partly occupied by a modern house. Early editions of the OS map show that the platform preceded the construction of this house, and it may have originated at the time of the 1615 siege, this site lying well within the range of the ordnance employed on that occasion.

Historical Note.

This site has probably invited occupation and fortification from at least the Early Historic period, but the first specific

reference to a castle of Dunivaig was made by the chronicler John ofFordun in the later 14th century. About that period

possession of the stronghold passed from the Lords of the Isles to a cadet branch of the family, the MacDonalds of

Dunivaig and the Glens, who held the castle until after their rebellion and forfeiture in 1494. Thereafter, Dunivaig and

much ofislay were held with royal support by John Maclan ofArdnamurchan, who in 1514-16 took measures for the

supply and defence of the castle in the face of a MacDonald insurrection. Upon his death in 1519 the 'keping of the hous of Dunnewig' was deputed by the Earl of Argyll to his brother. Sir John Campbell of Cawdor. The castle later

became a direct possession of the Crown and was then regranted to James MacDonald ofDunivaig whose Scottish

lands were formally erected into the barony of Barr in 1545.

During the MacDonald-MacLean feud of the last quarter of the 16th century, and probably after 1586, Dunivaig was

besieged on at least one occasion and, because of the obdurate behaviour of Angus MacDonald, King James VI

finally took the castle into royal custody in 1596/7. Commissions were issued to the same end in 1601 and 1605,

and early in 1606 Angus was subjected to an act of caution for the maintenance of a royal garrison in the castle for a

period of three months. Direct royal control was considered to be the best solution, however, and under threat of siege in 1608 Dunivaig was handed over to the royal lieutenants, Lord Ochiltree and Andrew Knox, Bishop of the Isles. A

garrison consisting of a captain and 24 soldiers was housed there, and in 1610, when Dunivaig was granted as a life-rent to the bishop to be maintained at his own expense, the incumbents were required to 'deliver upoun inventorie all suche poulder, bullet, musket and other warfar provision as was left unto thame for keping of the same house'."

In April 1614, according to information presented to the Council by Sir James, son of Angus MacDonald, the castle

was captured by a small band under Ronald Oig, 'a vagabound fellow without ony certane residence' who claimed to be a natural son of Angus MacDonald. In a wood nearby they evidently made some ladders with which they scaled the outer wall, and when the castle gates were opened they took the house and ousted the bishop's small garrison.

Shortly afterwards they themselves were besieged by Angus Oig MacDonald and Coil Ciotach MaeGillespie, and

apparently after six days were compelled to escape 'at a bak yett in a litle boat with sex oares which lay at the castle'.

Angus Oig thereupon refused to release his hold on the castle, placing Coil Ciotach in command of the garrison, and in the following September a military expedition under Bishop Knox failed to regain the stronghold. A punitive royal

expedition under the overall command of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor was therefore planned in October, and in order to

avoid a protracted siege an additional force of 200 soldiers and heavy ordnance were shipped from Ireland. The artillery

was to be 'sufficient for the battery and forcinge of the said house of Dunevege, which wee are informed is a place of

good strength, being strongly built of it seife, and, besides, it is compassed with iii stone walles, each of them conteyninge thirty and sixe feet in thickness'. The besieging force under Sir Oliver Lambert completed their artillery platform at the end of January 1615 and on 1 February began their bombardment of the castle, which failed to live up to its reputation. As Lambert later reported to King James VI, 'Three dayes batterye with the ordnance wee used was

powerful to ruyne the whole howse, invincible without the canon and famyn'.

In accordance with the terms of the charter issued to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor in November 1614 Dunivaig Castle became the principal messuage of the newly erected barony of Islay. In the following June, however, it was recaptured by Sir James MacDonald, who claimed that he 'tooke it from Calderis menne in the speace of one day, killed part of thame vpone the greene of the house, chaised in the rest, tooke there waiter and two bannkines', and in another

account of the same incident he added that he had set fire to the yett of the inner barmkin. It was later reported that

MacDonald and his associates considered that Dunivaig was 'nocht hable to be manned', probably as a result of the'

damage it had sustained earlier in the year, and in October Coil Ciotach, who had held the castle for Sir James, readily

ceded possession of it to the Earl of Argyll before the siege artillery was landed on Islay.

The castle continued to serve, however, as the principal Campbell residence on the island and remained a symbolic

focus for local disaffection. After an unsuccessful assault by a group of local rebels in 1630 the Privy Council agreed in the following year to John Campbell's petition 'to demolisce and cast downe the said hous to the ground, so as it serve not theirefter for a beild, ressett, or starting holl to the rebellis of the Ylles', a recommendation that King James VI had

previously made to his father, Sir John. The proposal evidently remained unexecuted for in July 1647, after their

commander. Coil Ciotach. had been captured during a parley, a Royalist garrison in the castle was able to offer

short but stout resistance to a besieging army under General David Leslie and was ultimately able to secure favourable

terms of surrender. Leslie commented in a despatch that his problems of food and munitions were compounded by 'th

strength and scituation of the place'; mining was out of the question because of the rocks, and although he had sent to

Ireland for storming ladders Dunivaig was 'scarse stormable', the house in his opinion being 'weel furnished and manned'. This was one of the last recorded episodes in the building's military history, and the long cherished proposal to replace the castle as a dwelling by 'a more commodious hous . . . in a more proper pairt of the yie' was finally effected by Hugh Campbell in about 1677.

Visited August 1976


Dunyvaig Castle and Dun Naomhaig; names confirmed. Dunyvaig is the accepted local spelling; according to local information there was, until recently, a nameboard at the Castle. Dun Naomhaig is also the proper name, still in local use, for the castle tower on its isolated stack. There is no certain visual evidence for the prior existence of a dun; the undulating stack top has an occupiable area of very approximately 200 square metres.

The castle is generally as described and planned. The former dimensions and precise shape of the tower remains conjectural, and 'bastion' appears to utilize a narrow and rounded spur on the SW side of the stack. There is no extant walling around a central depression, but the sides and neck of the spur are neatly revetted.

The level outer court has the turf-covered footings of several rectangular structures butting against the N curtain wall. These may be contemporary with the court (though similar footings exist well outside) and castle to the north and could represent a later farmstead. The turf-covered wall lines of a probable barbican are clearly visible extending from the entrance, but there are no extant remains of the suggested ravelins at the NW and NE angles.

Re-surveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (JRL) 24 June 1978.

Manuscript annotation on RCAHMS working map indicates 'several two-celled outbuildings. ?also possible siegeworks'.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

Architecture Notes

Non-Guardianship Sites Plan Collection, DC23457.


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