Scotland's oldest mainland castle survives another day as major repairs completed and site reopens

Built more than 900 years ago, the castle tracks some of the great turning points and power shifts in Scotland’s history.

Now following concerns for its future, Castle Sween in Argyll begins a new chapter in its long history.

Major repairs have been carried out at the ruined fortress, which has been sealed off to the public since January last year after a series of structural faults and risks were detected at the property.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Today, as the public are welcomed back to the site, its commanding views over Loch Sween and the Isle of Jura give a powerful hint to its important past as a key centre in Lordship of the Isles and its early ruling Norse-Gaelic dynasty.

Castle Sween is the oldest stone castle on the Scottish mainland and was built around 1100. PIC:  HES.Castle Sween is the oldest stone castle on the Scottish mainland and was built around 1100. PIC:  HES.
Castle Sween is the oldest stone castle on the Scottish mainland and was built around 1100. PIC: HES.

Built in the late 1100s by Suibhne “The Red”, Lord of Knapdale, who was of Irish descent, the fortress was one of the first stone castles to be built on the Argyll seaboard as the waterways served as key routes for trade, travel and communication. A boat landing place on an islet next to the castle has suggested a fleet of birlinns may have been kept here.

Craig Mearns, director for operations at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), said: “As Scotland’s oldest mainland castle, Castle Sween is breath-taking even now, 900 years after it was first built. We are thrilled to be able to welcome visitors back to this truly unique site, which encapsulates the back-and-forth between Scots and Norwegians in the Middle Ages.”

After two tumultuous centuries, during which control of Argyll and the Isles was in dispute between Norway and Scotland, the castle passed to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in the late 1300s.

In 1481, James III of Scotland, fearful of the MacDonalds’ treachery, entrusted the castle to the Campbell earls of Argyll. The castle was destroyed in 1647 by Irish Royalists intent on dismantling the influence of its Covenanting-supporting owners. Today, the historic site is surrounded by a holiday park.

The building’s 500-years’ occupation reflects the strategic importance of Castle Sween. Meanwhile, the identification of a boat-landing place on a small islet adjacent to the castle illustrates the vital importance of the sea as a major transport link, which is difficult to identify at most sites.

Archaeological finds made at the site include a stone axe found in the cave beneath the castle, a Neolithic six-knobbed stone ball, three medieval brooches and a 15th- century harp-peg very similar to those found at Finlaggan on Islay, and also associated with the Lords of the Isles.

Castle Sween has, in recent years, come under serious threat from the impact of climate change, with access restricted to the site at the start of last year amid safety concerns. It is one of around 70 properties owned and managed by HES, which are being inspected and repaired under its high-level masonry programme.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The programme assesses the impact of climate change on historic sites as well as the scale of deterioration caused by a number of other factors, including the materials used in the building’s construction, its age and physical location.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.