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Dunstaffnage Castle

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Dunstaffnage, a famous ancient castle in Kilmore and Kilbride parish, Argyllshire, on a small, tabular, rocky promontory at the S side of the month of Loch Etive, 3½ miles NNE of Oban. Its name has been derived from Gaelic words signifying ' the fortified hill with the two islands, ' alluding partly to its own strong site, and partly to Eilean Mor and Eilean Beag, two islets lying a little to the NE. The original castle is alleged to have been founded either by ' Ewin, a Pictish monarch, contemporary with Julius Cæsar,' or by some early chief of the Lorn branch of the Dalriads; and to have been occupied as a royal seat by the later Dalriadan kings till 844, when Kenneth mac Alpin succeeded to the crown of Pictavia. Skene, however, remarks that ' of Dunstaffnage, as a royal seat, history knows nothing; ' and by him the Dalriadan capital is placed at Dunadd in Glassary parish. The Scandinavian Vikings, who in the 9th century began to make bold descents upon the western coasts, had possibly here a fortress; and this may have been altered, enlarged, or rebuilt at various periods, till it acquired its ultimate form about the 13th century. Having come into the possession of the Macdougals, Lords of Lorn, it was besieged and captured by Robert Bruce in 1308, soon after his victory in the Pass of Awe; and by him was conferred on Sir Archibald Campbell of Lochawe, whose fourth descendant, Colin, first Earl of Argyll, in 1490 made a grant of Dunstaffnage to his younger son, Alexander. In 1836 his twelfth descendant received a baronetcy, which became extinct at the death of its third holder in 1879. The estate-3000 acres of £916 annual value-then passed to Alex. Jas. Hy. Campbell, Esq., who is now hereditary captain of the castle, and whose mansion, Dunstaffnage House, stands 1 mile WSW of Connel station, and 4½ miles NE of Oban. Dunstaffnage Castle itself must have undergone important alterations subsequent to the time of Robert Bruce; and, as it now stands, cannot claim much higher antiquity, or possibly even less, than the neighbouring castle of Dunolly. It gave refuge to James, last Earl of Douglas, after his forfeiture in 1455, serving him as a place of council with Donald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles; and it served as a military post, with a small English garrison, during the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Flora Macdonald was for a short time a prisoner here in the summer of 1746.

The castle is now a mere shell, tall and irregular, but not without majesty; and to the sea it presents a grand and striking aspect, sharing in the magnificent scenery round the head of the Firth of Lorn. Its immediate site, or the crown of the rock on which it stands, measures 300 feet in circumference; its own periphery, round the exterior of its walls, is about 270 feet; and its form is quadrangular, with internal measurement of 87 feet from wall to wall, these walls being 30 to 70 feet high and 9 feet thick. Three of its angles have each a round tower, and the fourth is rounded; three of its sides are bare and weather-worn, and the fourth forms part of a modern dwelling; and the main entrance to it was by a staircase from the sea, and is supposed to have been protected by a fosse with a drawbridge. Some brass guns which belonged to vessels of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the coast of Mull, are on the walls. A ruined chapel, standing 400 feet distant, and formerly used by the inmates of the castle, is in the Early Pointed style, much defaced by alterations, and measures 78 feet in length, 26 in breadth, and 14 in height. It is supposed to contain within its area the ashes of some of the Dalriadan kings or princes, as also of Alexander II., who in 1249 died in the neighbouring island of Kerrera; and it returns a very fine echo. Some of the ancient regalia are said to have been preserved in the chapel till about the beginning of the 18th century; and to have then been stolen by servants of the keeper. Two other fine relics were afterwards found in it-the one a battle-axe, 9 feet long, of beautiful workmanship, embossed with silver; the other a small ivory figure representing a crowned monarch with a scroll in his hand, and supposed to have been a coronation sculpture. The famous coronation stone, or Stone of Destiny, described by Wyntoun in his Cronykill as the palladium of the liberty of Scotland, is always said to have been removed hence by Kenneth mac Alpin to Scone; and, according to Dr Macculloch, is strictly homogeneous with stones in the castle's masonry, and therefore likely to have been really hewn from some quarry in the neighbourhood. Dunstaffnage figures largely in Barbour's Brus, in Sir Walter Scott's Lord of the Isles, and, as 'Ardenvohr,' in his Legend of Montrose.-Ord. Sur., sh. 45, 1876.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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