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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Duart Castle


Duart Castle

THE tourist who takes shipping at Oban with the intention of passing through the Sound of Mull cannot fail to observe the picturesque ruins of Castle Duart, which stand on a promontory of the island of Mull, immediately opposite Lismore. The situation occupied by these remains exhibits the chief characteristics of Highland maritime scenery, and would be worthy of attention even were there no historical memories connected with it. The Point of Duart has been formed by the wash of the Atlantic Ocean rushing through the Sound of Mull, and the rugged peak which it exposes to the confined course of this current diverts its energy northwards to the indented shores of Loch Linnhe, to the coast of Morven, and to the islets around Lismore. The channel between this point and the nearest land is about four miles wide; and as the Castle is exposed to all the fury of the northern gales which swoop down upon it from Loch Linnhe, the wildness of the surrounding scenery may be easily imagined. The hundred peaks of Argyllshire stand out boldly against the horizon, while the shore on either side of the Sound of Mull is dotted with the remains of ancient Keeps and Castles, the relics of the stern feudal system which once obtained in the district, the deserted strongholds of some of the Highland Clans that are now scattered throughout the wide world. And as the rude rocks which line the shores tell the story to him who can read aright of volcanic upheavals and commotions which have altered the face of Nature in pre-historic times, so these silent ruins speak eloquently of fierce revolutions in the history of man, and, like enduring monuments, indicate the progress and development of civilization. They tell of times :—

"When sullen Ignorance her flag displayed,
And Rapine and Revenge her voice obeyed."

But they also show by the very helplessness of their condition that the days of their years are fled, and their former glory has departed. The races which have compelled a subsistence from these barren hills, or wrested their means of support from the raging sea, have vanished from this scene, and left little behind them save the names which may be preserved in history, and the desolate ruins which become the wonder of succeeding generations :—

"All ruined and wild is their roofless abode,
And lonely the dark raven’s sheltering tree;
And travelled by few is the grass-covered road
Where the hunter of deer and the warrior trode
To his hills that encircle the sea."

Amongst the Clans which formerly inhabited this quarter none was more famous than that of the Macleans, whose feudal stronghold was Castle Duart. By personal prowess they had extended their possessions, and by judicious intermarriages they had increased their power, until there were few amongst the western chiefs that could compete with them. And as every Highlander inherits the notion that his Clan was designed by Providence to lead all others, it was natural that the Macleans should be at feud with those who were not their vassals and inferiors. The situation of their Castle was peculiarly favourable for the development of their ambitions hopes, and they soon found that there were no "foemen worthy of their steel" in the whole island of Mull.

These marriage connections, however skilfully devised, sometimes brought the Macleans into serious difficulties. Their relations with the Clan Campbell, for instance, were at once put upon a war-footing by the brutal conduct of Lachlan Maclean towards his wife, a daughter of the Earl of Argyll, which true story is narrated further on in this notice as connected with the Lady’s Rock, which stands about midway in the channel between Duart Point and Lismore.

It is impossible to give an accurate date for the erection of the oldest part of Duart Castle. There probably was an original Keep on the site of the present Castle, a portion of which, still in existence, has been adopted in the later erection. This part has high and massive walls, varying from 10 to 15 feet thick, which enclose what is now the courtyard. The Castle was probably founded by Lauchlan Maclean, surnamed Lubanach, about the year 1366, in which year he married Margaret, daughter of MacDonald, first Lord of the Isles. As Maclean of Duart, he and his successors for a long time were heritable Keepers of many Castles in the district, and had many possessions both on the mainland and in the Western Isles. The first reference to the Castle in documents is dated 1392, but the building was not completely finished till the time of Hector Mor Maclean, about 1560, and this Chief also married Mary, daughter of Alexander Macdonald, then Lord of the Isles, whose seat was at Isla. From a comparison of the architecture of different parts of the Castle, it appears that the Great Tower was erected by this Hector Mor Maclean.

The MacDonalds had made common cause with. the Macleans against the rising power of the Campbells of Argyll, but their alliance was short-lived. The Chief of the MacDonald’s had formed an expedition along with Maclean of Duart, and they had ravaged some of the richest territories belonging to the Campbells. But the son of the Chief of the MacDonalds afterwards married a daughter of the second Earl of Argyll, and he thus became the enemy of Maclean. A curious complication arose later, when Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean sought to end the contest with the Campbells by wedding Lady Elizabeth Campbell, another of the daughters of the second Earl of Argyll, and sister of the third Earl.

The ambition of Maclean was unbounded, and though his alliance with the House of Argyll ensured to him the peaceable possession of his heritage, he was not content with it. When Sir Donald MacDonald of Lochalsh sought to have himself proclaimed as Lord of the Isles, Maclean threw up his connection with his brother-in-law Argyll, and against the latter’s advice, he stirred up an insurrection in the Hebrides. The powerful influence of Colin, third Earl of Argyll, whose first duty after his accession was to take up arms against his relative Maclean, at length quelled the turmoil. Maclean, however, seems never to have forgiven Argyll for his share in the affair, and determined to wreak his vengeance upon his own wife. History is not very clear as to the character of Lady Elizabeth; for whilst one account makes her to appear almost in the light of a martyred saint, the other asserts that she had twice attempted to take away her husband’s life. On thing is certain—that the misfortune of barrenness was magnified into a crime by the lawless Highland Chief, and he determined to effect her destruction.

The method which he adopted exhibited the refinement of savage cruelty. Off the coast of Mull, as already explained, there is still shown the bare and solitary rock which her lord determined should make her pathway to heaven. Fringed with sea-weed, and ever moist with the lapping waters which cover the surface entirely at flood-tide, this lone rock might well scare the high-born lady, whose brutal husband led her here to endure the agonies of a slow and torturing death. One may imagine the fearful forebodings of the Lady Elizabeth as the advancing waters by their resistless march bore her nearer and nearer to her doom. At length, when despair had all but seized her, she noticed a little boat upon the waters, whose occupants replied to her frantic signals of distress. They drew near, and to her infinite joy she beheld the faces of some of her own clansmen, whom Providence had sent to her rescue when in extremity. They bore her swiftly away to her brother’s house, and restored her, weeping, to the shade of the paternal roof-tree.

The Campbells arose in a body to demand retribution, but the politic Earl did not care to press his brother-in-law too severely. The task of revenge fell therefore upon Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, whose courage kept pace with his impetuosity. Not long after, having heard that Maclean was in Edinburgh, Campbell hastened there, entered his lodgings, and slew him as he lay in bed, scorning to give him even the privilege of defence, since his intended murder of his wife had disgraced him as a Knight. As might have been foreseen, this rash deed at once drove the two clans to arms, and only the interposition of the Government prevented much useless bloodshed. Upon this strange story Thomas Campbell, the poet, founded his poem of "Glenara." which, though sacrificing facts for the sake of the poetry, is substantially correct

I dreamed of my lady, I dreamed of her grief,
I dreamed that her lord was a barbarous Chief;
On a rock of the ocean fair Ellen did seem—
Glenara! Glenara! now read me my dream!’

In dust low the traitor has knelt on the ground;
And the desert revealed where the lady was found;
From a rock of the ocean that beauty is borne;
Now joy to the house of fair Ellen of Lorn!"

Joanna Baillie made this story the subject of one of her "Plays of Passion," under the title of "A Family Legend," but used some poetic licence as to the details. The facts as recorded above are beyond dispute.


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