The perfect location
If we start by looking at its geographical location, it’s located on a key trade route from the Hebridean islands and the Atlantic Ocean. When supplies reached the mainland, they needed to be transported around the country, and by water was a whole lot easier than land with almost non-existent roads. A closer look on the map will also show you how Castle Tioram is linked via waterways all the way through to Inverness on the East Coast of Scotland, whilst avoiding the rough and dangerous seas of Ardnamurchan point that brings you into Loch Linnhe.
If you then look at the chart, we can see the topography of the land allows perfect landing and refuge for a range of ships. A sandbar causeway links the castle to the mainland, only becoming submerged in the highest of tides. This sandy causeway made it perfect for beaching highland galleys, and the deeper sheltered waters to the north east allowed a hidden safety anchorage from Scottish storms for larger ships. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that there is even evidence to indicate this area was also used by Vikings well before medieval times.
A castle with history and conflict – still on going into the 21st century
It is still debatable who built the castle; however, historians have traced the history of the castle back to pre-1164 where much of the West Coast of Scotland was ruled by Somerled, Lord of Argyll. Upon his death, the land was divided between his sons, and passed between generations, eventually landing into the hands of Christina MacRuari in 1300s. Amongst this passing, archaeologists (contradictory to local belief) believe it was as early as the 1200s that the basic outer curtain wall was built. Christina chartered use of the island to Arthur Campbell in return for a twenty oared galley, with men to row it when ever she needed. This public charter is the first official record of the existence of Castle Tioram.
The timeline continues, with the land and castle being passed between generations:
Those that are clued up on their Scottish History will know about the heated relationship between the Highlands and Islands Clans and the Monarchs. This conflict led to many clan chiefs being executed by the state. The Clanranalds also sore arms with many other clans. It wasn’t until 1554 that Castle Tioram got caught up in all this drama. The Earl of Huntly was commissioned by the Regent of Scotland to bring the area of Lochaber under control of the Scottish Crown. Huntly advanced for the castle from the East, but struggled to make solid progress by foot due to the terrain, so drafted in the Duke of Argyll to carry out the attack of Castle Tioram from the West by battleships and an artillery landed on the shore.
John of Moidart, who was Chief of Clanranald at the time, had been waiting for Huntley’s army further East before hearing news of the new advance from sea. He managed to rush back in time to defeat the artillery and see off the Duke of Argyll, however not quick enough to save damage from occurring to the castle. In the 1800s, part of a cannon ball was found in the curtain walls which is thought to have been a result of the attack.
During the civil war of the 1600s, the Clanranalds surprisingly backed the Royalists and remained in control of the castle, under the overlordship of the Dukes of Argyll. During this time, the castle was given an extra story and internal accommodation improved. However, this wasn’t enough to keep Allan of Moidart, the current Chief of Clanranald (14th) there. He moved out to a more populated location.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m about to tell you about another battle, this time linked to a more famous event, the Jacobite uprising. During this uprising, 14 government troops managed to seize the castle in 1715. On news of this, Allan of Moidart (who sided with the rebellion) returned to set fire to the building to prevent any future use of the structure for government troops. This tactical move, amongst others, allowed Clanranald to keep control of its land in the Moidart area for centuries to come.
Since 1905, the castle and island were sold to various owners who sought to conserve the ruins. The most notable of these sales was in 1996, when it returned to the market with an asking price of £100,000. Historic Scotland was the obvious buyer; however, they withdrew their bid when a local community group, the Clanranald Castle Tioram Trust, put forward a bid. Regardless, it ended up in the hands of Anta Estates in 1997 for a hefty price tag of £300,000.
Unfortunately, this sale led to one of the most difficult and complex planning disputes that Scotland has seen and has resulted in the castle falling into disrepair. Anta Estates wanted to carry out huge renovation work and make changes to the castle to convert the ruin into a private house. Planning permission was granted. However, as the castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, Ancient Monument Consent was also needed. Guess what, it was declined under the advice of Historic Scotland. After a long public enquiry, Anta Estates lost in 2002. We are now stuck in a stand-off between the owners wishing to convert it into a private home, and the conservationists who wish to keep the castle open to the public, protect its future and preserve its 800 years of history. This feud has now gone on for over 20 years, and as time passes, we watch the ruin rapidly deteriorate in the hostile coastal conditions that the West Coast of Scotland throws at it. The castle is now so unstable that public entry is completely off the limits.
There have been whisperings that in early 2020 a solution between relevant parties has been agreed. Only time will tell what that is…
Radek Vantuch – (Instagram: radekvaant)