ONE of Scotland’s most romantic and historic ruins is to undergo a £1 million restoration programme – without disturbing the residents.
Dunollie Castle, which sits on a rocky crag above Oban Bay, is the iconic spot where the kings of Dalriada ruled the Western Isles in the seventh and eighth centuries and which later became a Clan MacDougall stronghold.
It is now home to an unusual colony of European cave spiders, which have made their nest in an opening in the eight-foot thick medieval castle walls.
The MacDougall of Dunollie Preservation Trust says its £1.1 million project to save Dunollie from the elements and the ravages of recent vandalism will make sure that the spider colony is protected.
Project director Catherine Gillies said: “We are going to have an ecologist with us and we need to decide what we do about our cave spiders. They are one of the largest spiders in the UK and are living inside a window opening, in the seven to eight feet thick castle walls. We hope we can leave them in peace.”
European cave spiders are shiny satin black to reddish brown in colour with adults reaching roughly a five centimetre legspan and 15 millimetre body length. They usually live in caves and tunnels away from the light.
Stuart Hine, a spider expert at The Natural History Museum, said: “Deep dark cellars, often those of historic buildings, are very much their preferred habitat. They do not like disturbance, though if works are completed quickly and with an awareness of the spiders’ presence they should not suffer too much. When spotted by workmen they often cause a bit of concern, though they are completely harmless.
“They are really a troglobite species and only found in very dark situations such as undisturbed cellars, caves and air raid shelters.”
Saving Dunollie is a race against time. Centuries of exposure to west coast storms and the invasion of ivy into its walls has brought the castle to a state of progressive collapse.
Another hurdle to overcome will be the protection of the 160 species of plants, including many ancient medicinal herbs, that surround the castle, including sanicle, once used to treat battle wounds.
Concern about the deteriorating condition of this Clan MacDougall stronghold has prompted the plans to consolidate the castle ruins with the £1.1m facelift.
Gillies said the aim was not to make any major changes, but to make the castle safe and preserve it for the future.
She added: “What we are concerned with right now is the prevention of collapse. Every time we have a major storm another stone comes off. The December hurricanes saw more come off. Every building can suddenly go, so we want to get on with it.”
Stressing the importance of the castle, she added: “Dunollie is a massive part of the Dalriada and medieval leadership here on the west coast. The Western Isles were once ruled from Dunollie. Alexander, the fourth chief, was appointed the seneschal – overlord – of the entire west coast and he ruled from Dunollie Castle. Dunollie has the most phenomenal and most exciting stories of any site that I have ever come across.”
Dunollie has never before been subject to a ruin consolidation plan and Gillies said: “There is no point doing a half measure, given that it will cost £120,000 to set the site up with scaffolding. Then it will be a case of a specialist team just working their way round the building.”
Robin Kent, the specialist conservation architect tasked by the trust to assess the state of the castle and draw up an action plan, said: “The castle needs urgent repairs to prevent further loss of historic fabric and preserve it from further deterioration, maintain its heritage value and protect visitors. It is unique for the continuity of its connection with Clan MacDougall, having passed to Dugall, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, in 1164.
“It also has considerable significance for its wider history and associations as an example of medieval fortification, as part of a network of west coast castles.”
Although the castle has been open to visitors around the clock for the last half century, this summer it will closed after dark to prevent vandalism.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east