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between 12:00 Friday 15th December and 12:00 Monday 18th December


Tarbert, Tarbert Castle

Castle (Medieval)

Site Name Tarbert, Tarbert Castle

Classification Castle (Medieval)

Canmore ID 39316

Site Number NR86NE 1

NGR NR 86770 68730

NGR Description Centred on NR 86770 68730

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Argyll And Bute
  • Parish Kilcalmonell
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Argyll And Bute
  • Former County Argyll

Archaeology Notes

NR86NE 1 Centred on NR 86770 68730

(NR 8674 6873) Castle (NR) (In Ruins)

OS 6" map (1924)

The nucleus of Tarbert Castle is formed by a building of irregular courtyard plan. The remaining portion of the site, much of which is at a considerably lower level, is enclosed by a curtain wall to form an outer bailey. This curtain wall incorporates a number of projecting towers, and is interrupted midway alongs its SE sector by a tower house and forework, now the most conspicuous feature os the remains.

Neither the architectural nor the historical evidence is complete enough to enable the dates of the surviving buildings to be determined with any degree of precision. In view of its size and disposition, however, the courtyard building, or inner bailey, may be ascribed to the 13th century. The outer bailey is probably of early 14th century date, when large-scale building operations are known to have been carried out. the tower house likely dates from the turn of the 15-16th centuries, while the associated forework was probably erected later in the 16th century.

RCAHMS 1971, visited 1966

Generally as described. The overall dimensions of the outer bailey are 89m NE-SW by 70m and the inner bailey 27m NW-SW by 37m. In the NW corner of the inner bailey there is an irregular shaped stone lined depression which is probably the remains of a well.

Revised at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (IA) 9 July 1973

No change to the report above.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (BS) 3 February 1976.

A watching brief was conducted in December 1992 to supervise any ground disturbance caused by the replacemnt of a stock fence with adeer fence around the late 15th-century tower-house and along the cliff top to its NW.

The majority of the eleven holes dug for the posts of the deer fence (each c1m deep and 0.5m in diameter) contained nothing of archaeological significance. Two post holes produced quantities of boulders, probably representing tumble, and a third contained a large flat boulder lying horizontally. The only identified structural remains lay 3m from the SW wall of the possible gatehouse. Three courses of moratred wall may represent either the wall of the possible round tower shown on the 1sr edition OS 6-inch map, or a continuation of the curtain wall.

Sponsor: Forest Enterprise.

CFA 1993.

NR 8677 6873 Site identified as part of a coastal zone assessment survey.

M Cressey, S Badger, 2005.

Architecture Notes

Tarbert, Tarbert Castle.



Publication Account (1985)

The remains of Tarbert Castle are not, perhaps, remarkable in themselves, but the individual elements are unusual, and the view from the castle over the harbour is a panoramic one. The position is of some importance commanding the porterage from Tarbert to West Loch Tarbert, enshrined in one of the earliest memories of Scottish history of many a schoolboy as the place where Magnus Barelegs dragged his vessel across the isthmus to claim Kintyre in about 1098. This was symbolically repeated by Robert Bruce in the period after the Battle ofBannockburn, when the king is known to have taken possession of the castle. The castle occupies the summit of a flattish-topped rocky ridge and comprises three main parts; the most prominent, the tower-house, is the most recent, dating to about AD 1500.

The earliest castle occupied the highest part of the ridge to the south-west of the tower and is a simple rectangular enclosure some 38m by 33m internally. Only the lowest courses now survive (and these are best seen in winter or spring when the vegetation is low); they indicate a castle with four ranges of buildings with an entrance on the north-east flank. The plan of the castle may be paralleled by royal castles in the east of Scotland and by analogy it has been suggested, in the absence of documentary evidence, that the castle results from a royal expedition to Kintyre in the early 13th century.

The lower portion of the summit area to the north-east was enclosed by a wall about a century later, appreciably increasing the size of the castle; little survives of this phase except parts of two circular projecting towers on the north-east flank It is likely that this work dates to the period when Robert took the castle intending it to be a power-base in the area. It is hard to believe this from the surviving remains, but the area enclosed by the wall could have held many timber buildings; building accounts for 1325-6 show that the work on the castle included not only the walls, but also the construction of a hall with clay and sand walls, timber uprights and a thatched roof From about 1329 Tarbert was established as a royal burgh, perhaps originally situated in the area just to the south-west of the castle.

The castle was the scene of another royal visit in 1494, and James IV was probably responsible for initiating the building of the tower-house, of which only the cellar and the north-east and north-west walls still remain.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Argyll and the Western Isles’, (1985).

Watching Brief (30 June 2010)

NR 86804 68716 A watching brief and rapid photographic record were carried out on 30 June 2010 during consolidation works at Tarbert Castle, Argyll and Bute. The works observed included two minor excavations to provide bases for built supports for masonry. No archaeologically significant finds or features were noted by the watching brief.

Information from Highland Archaeological Services.

Field Visit (February 2013)

NR 86760 68717 The community survey undertake at Tarbert Castle in February 2013 has recorded details of the upstanding remains. While few new features came to light during the survey within the castle walls, an area to the S of the inner bailey had several faint traces of ditches or enclosures. As yet, it is not known whether these are associated with the use of the castle or with the possible medieval burgh. A geophysical survey was also undertaken within and around the castle, by Northlight Heritage Archaeoloy, hinted at the presence of buried features in same area and focusing on this area during any future excavation may reveal their age and function.

Archive: Kilmartin Museum (intended). Report OASIS, RCAHMS and WoSAS

Funder: Tarbert and Skipness Community Trust

Roddy Regan, Kilmartin Museum, 2013

(Source: DES)

Watching Brief (August 2017)

NR 86760 68717 (NR68NE 1) A watching brief was undertaken, August 2017, during topsoil stripping for a footpath to the S of the castle. No features of archaeological significance were recorded.

Archive: Kilmartin Museum (intended). Report: WoSAS, NRHE and OASIS

Funder: Tarbert Castle Trust

Roddy Regan – Kilmartin Museum

(Source: DES, Volume 18)

Archaeological Evaluation (11 June 2019)

NR 86770 68730 A programme of buildings and materials analysis was undertaken at Tarbert Castle, 11 June 2019, in conjunction with a community excavation.

Buildings analysis during the first period of investigation revealed that the cross-wall dividing the inner and outer enclosures had been inserted, within a pre-existing curtain wall which probably encircles the whole site. On plan and in elevation the curtain wall is continuous and clearly abutted by both ends of the mortar-coated cross-wall. Although difficult to positively demonstrate from the fragmentary upstanding remains, it is likely this cross-wall is coeval with the buildings ranged around the inner enclosure.

Both main constructional phases have been constructed with lime-bonded masonry, visible in extensive core, bedding and coating contexts, with a mortar floor also revealed by excavation within a range of the inner enclosure. Both main phases are bound with wood-fired limestone-lime mortars, tempered with aggregates from foreshore contexts. No multiperiodicity was noted in the mortars associated with either phase, although some contrasts in mortar compositions and condition between phases was apparent. In particular, the mortar binding and coating the cross-wall mortar appears to be included with a higher concentration of large O. edulis (oyster) shell fragments and retains much greater coherence (in closely adjacent contexts) than the surrounding curtain. This contrast in surviving coherence is consistent with their relative dates and might suggest these constructional events are separated by significant period of time, although that remains to be demonstrated and other causes are possible.

Samples of various building materials were removed over two periods of work for further lab-based analysis. The sample assemblage includes mortar and mortar-entrapped relict fuel fragments from in situ contexts associated with both main constructional phases, as well as a sandstone fragment from the curtain wall and a loose limestone kiln relict sample from the inner enclosure.

Archive: NRHE (intended)

Funder: Historic Environment Scotland, University of Stirling and Tarbert Castle Trust

Mark Thacker - University of Stirling

(Source: DES Vol 20)

Excavation (October 2019)

NR 86770 68730 An excavation was carried out at Tarbert Castle (Canmore ID: 39316), in October 2019.

The excavation provided some evidence of occupation of the Tarbert Castle ridge prior to the construction of the castle. Well preserved medieval occupation deposits and structures were shown to exist both within the inner and outer bailey of the castle and the work has also demonstrated that the walls of the inner bailey are later than those of the outer bailey, countering the previously understood construction sequence of the castle. The excavation work also confirmed the existence of a major southern entrance to the castle complex in the form of a portcullis gate and also shed light on the tower structure at the south west of the outer bailey.

Part of a medieval structure along with other medieval deposits were uncovered along the ridge to the SE of the castle complex and these may relate to the medieval burgh established at Tarbert, probably sometime in the 1320s. The work has shown that the castle, from at least the 17th century, was utilised by later settlement structures while much of the surrounding ground was used as fields for much of the post medieval period.

Archive: Tarbert Castle Trust

Funder: Tarbert Castle Trust

Roderick Regan - Kilmartin Museum

(Source: DES Vol 20)

Mortar Analysis (2019)

NR 86770 68730 Following a programme of masonry survey at Tarbert Castle (Canmore ID: 39316), an assemblage of mortar-entrapped relict limekiln fuel (MERLF) fragments removed from the complex has been subject to a suite of lab-based analyses in 2019. Archaeobotanical analysis indicates this MERLF assemblage is composed of oak, birch and hazel fragments consistent with local woodland populations, whilst radiocarbon analysis of two samples has returned determinations which calibrate to similar 13th-century date ranges. These samples were removed from the NE face of the cross-wall separating the inner and outer enclosures, and from the core of the curtain wall close to the SW outer enclosure gateway.

The results of these analyses represent the first independent chronological evidence relating to the construction of Tarbert Castle and suggest the inserted cross-wall and SW gateway were both constructed in the 13th-century or soon after. Together with the re-interpretation of the structural development of the complex reported previously, this materials evidence is informing a re-evaluation of the archaeological, architectural and historical context of the site and surrounding lordship during the medieval and later periods.

Archive: NRHE (intended)

Funder: Historic Environment Scotland

Mark Thacker − University of Stirling

(Source: DES Vol 21)

Excavation (June 2020)

NR 86760 68717 Following on from the excavation results in 2019 and prior to the production and installation of new information panels, Scheduled Monument Consent was sought to establish whether there was another entrance to the castle (Canmore ID: 39316), between the two drum towers situated along its northern wall. The small scale excavation took place in June 2020 and revealed the presence of a second portcullis gate on this side of the castle, complementing the one found on the southern side during the 2019 excavation work.

Funder: Tarbert Castle Trust

Roderick Regan

(Source: DES Vol 21)


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