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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Dunoon Castle

Dunoon Castle

SCOTLAND is peculiarly favoured by the formation of her river system, as well as by the configuration of her coasts. So thoroughly is her coastline indented, either by locks or fords, or by rivers and estuaries, that no part of the central portion of Scotland is far distant from the sea. On the eastern shore the Firths of Forth and Tay provide ready access to the ocean; and though the Clyde is the only important river on the west coast, the vast fords of Lochfyne and Loch Linnhe carry the shores of Scotland into the heart of the country. The intervention of the island of Ireland has protected the west coast of England from the encroaching ravages of the Atlantic Ocean; and the east and west coast-lines of that portion of Great Britain do not therefore present the same contrast to each other as Scotland affords. But the north-western shores, exposed to the fury of the raging sea, and subjected to the denuding influence of the chief tidal river, have been worn into numerous bays and lochs, into myriad isles and peninsulas, which bestow a different character entirely upon the scenery.

Whilst the northern lochs might maintain a rude and migratory people, whose occupation as fishermen would prevent an indissoluble attachment to the soil, the true seat of civilization necessarily became fixed upon the fertile banks of the great western river, the Clyde, whose broad stream could carry the vessels of the early settlers far into the centre of Scotland. The very success of these hardy pioneers, and their increasing wealth, would inevitably bring in their wake the pirates and sea-rovers of less-favoured lands to live by rapine and pillage upon the fruits of native labour. The Clyde, as the main highway of ingress to central Scotland, became the battle-scene upon which all contests for supremacy between the possessors and the western invaders took place.

The very names of those adventurous spirits who thus strove to seize upon the most fertile part of Scotland, with varied fortunes, are both numerous and diversified. Caledonians, Picts, Scots, Romans, Irish, Norwegians have all held temporary possession of these shores and have left upon the land appropriate tokens of their sway. As time has rolled on these have subsided into the great past, and become but as shadowy memories:-

"Name follows name
For ever more,
As swift waves shame
Slow waves before."

The fierce warfare of olden days now attracts a new race of warriors; and sceptical historians demolish generations with the stroke of a pen. Yet even the poet—least combative of men— clings, despite the influence of reason, to what some tell him are the dear delusions of youth. To him the whole scenery of the Firth of Clyde speaks eloquently of the Ossianic heroes who fell "in the midst of their renown" :—

"I behold thy towers, O Selma! and the oaks of thy shaded wall;
Thy streams sound in my ears; thy heroes gather around.
Fingal sits in the midst, and leans on the shield of Trenmer;
His spear stands against the wall; he listens to the songs of his Bards,
The deeds of his arm are heard, and the actions of the King in his youth."

And as he pauses beneath the shade of Balclutha, or lingers by the shores of Comgall, he may remember and fulfil the prophecy which concludes the "War of Caros" :—-

"The sons of the feeble hereafter will lift the voice on Cona,
And looking up to the rocks, say, ‘Here Ossian dwelt'.
They shall admire
the chiefs of old, and the race that is no more,
When we ride on our clouds, Malvina, on the wings of the roaring winds,
Our voices shall be heard in the desert; and we shall sing on the winds of the rocks."

Had there been no other attraction, the beauty of the scenery of this part of Scotland might have drawn these conquering hosts towards it. The devious way which the Clyde pursues, carries it through nearly every description of Scottish scenery. From its source in the distant Lead Hills until it loses itself in the Atlantic the river takes many a curious turn. Its way lies northward, westward, and then southward, and it thus encloses a portion of the most fertile Scottish districts. Leaving the mountainous spot where it originates, it passes through a pastoral country, which is succeeded by a mineral-bearing land, giving place to a great commercial centre, from which point its scenery frequently presents at one view all these characteristics. The development of trade and manufactures in this quarter has transformed the Clyde into the main pathway from Scotland to the western and southern parts of the world. The argosies of "Ormuz and of Ind" float peacefully upon her waters; and the richly-freighted fleets of foreign nations sail tranquilly past the castled steeps and ancient fortalices which once frowned defiance to every foe.

"How pleasing when war’s dread alarms,
The martial shout, the din of arms,
The trumpet’s dread-inspiring blast,
In peaceful slumber sinks at last;
When men from strife enjoy release,
And hail the happy days of peace."

The life of lawlessness, of tenor, and of bloodshed which our ancestors endured may be fitly studied by examining the Castles and houses they inhabited, and the towns they built. And though the ruthless hand of Time has frequently destroyed all save the faintest traces of these erections, yet there are few so utterly obliterated as to be silent upon their history. There are merely slight relics now remaining of the ancient Castle of Dunoon, yet these sufficiently record its story.

On a promontory upon the Argyllshire side of the Clyde, opposite to the Cloch Lighthouse, stood Dunoon Castle. As a post of observation the site has been admirably chosen, since it commands a good view of the Firth in all directions. The Renfrewshire coast on the southern shore turns southwards, forming the Bay of Inverkip, with Wemyss Point as its southmost extremity. Far away down the channel the islands of the Cumbraes may be seen dividing the waters, and forming, with Bute, which is barely discernible, the main thoroughfare for deep-sea vessels. The projection of the peak upon which the Castle stood brings into view the Cowal Shore, with the village of Innellan and the terminating height upon Toward Point. In the immediate neighbourhood of the Castle Hill may be found the sylvan retreat of "Morag’s fairy glen," and the classic locality of Balgay (or Baughie) Burn.

Northward from the Castle, until the entrance to Holy Loch is reached, the shore is lined with a succession of villages and hamlets which are extended almost continuously. Dunoon, Kim, Hunter’s Quay, and Ardenadam are so intimately joined that it is difficult to discover their boundaries. On the opposite shore of the Holy Loch, quite invisible from Dunoon though historically associated with it, stands Kilmun, where for many years was the chief burial-place of the Argyll family.

The district of Cowal, in which Dunoon Castle stood, figures prominently in early history. Its position at the entrance to the narrower portion of the Firth of Clyde naturally attracted the notice alike of invaders and defenders, and the commanding situation of the promontory at Dunoon makes it probable that a warlike post was established here in pre-historic times. It cannot now be ascertained whence the Scots were originally derived; but it is certain that they had an established kingdom before the period of the Roman invasion. From Strathclyde it is supposed that a number of them emigrated, and, landing on the north-eastern shores of Ireland, founded there a Scottish colony, bestowing the name of Scotia upon the country of their adoption. One of the warriors who led them in this campaign was called Cairbrea-Riada, and the portion of land awarded to him for his bravery was called Dal-Riada, the fields of Riada, and nearly corresponded in position and extent with the modern County Antrim.

In process of time the Scots in Ireland— known as Dalriads from the name of the founder of the colony, had increased in numbers so much that they had to extend their borders. The traditional accounts which their ancestors had left attracted their attention, and a large body of them returned to their original home on the Clyde, calling this revived district by the name of their Irish settlement, Dalriada. Thus there were two Scotias in existence, with a Dalriada in each. The leader of these wanderers was Fergus, son of Erc, a lineal descendant of Cairbrea-Riada, and the country which he selected for his new settlement was the land formerly held by his ancestors, which included all Argyllshire and far up the Clyde. Fergus was accompanied by his two brothers, Lorn and Angus, and they divided the land between them, expelling the Picts, who had over-run it after Riada’s emigration. So far as can be discovered these brothers form a triumvirate for the government of the territory during their lives; but their kingdom was divided by their children after their death.

Separate families selected different districts, although all were submissive to one central authority. The descendants of Lorn inhabited the tract of country still named after their founder, who was the eldest of the three brothers. The grandsons of Fergus—Gabran and Comgall— chose respecectively the districts of Airgialias (Argyll) and Comgall (Cowal), while the children of Angus peopled the Islands of Jura and Islay. The Dalriadic Kings thus ruled over a very extensive territory, bounded on the south by the Clyde, on the north by Loch Linnhe, and on the east by the peaks of Drumalbin. Their capital was at Dunadd, near Crinan, and their coasts were defended by a series of forts which formed centres of civilization, and convenient rallying points in time of War. One of the most important of these is supposed to have been the original Castle of Dunoon.

The ancient name of this spot is said to be derived from Dun-nain, meaning the green hill. That this position would be selected as a point of defence is almost certain, for there are few places so well adapted by natural conditions to form a protective fort. And if the Dalriadic Kings founded a vitrified Castle here, it must have been about the year 503 A.D., although of that erection no trace now remains.

For 340 years these Scoto-Irish Kings ruled this quarter of the island, frequently encountering their warlike neighbours the Picts in battle, and maintaining, though not greatly extending their territories. At length Kenneth Mich Alpin, the last of the Dalriadic Kings, made good his claim to the throne of the Picts through right of his grandmother, Urguisa; and he assumed the Crown and reigned over a united people. Removing his capital to Forteviot, in Perthshire, he directed defensive operations on the Clyde, the Forth, and the Tay, and sought to advance his kingdom south-eastwards to the fertile fields of the Lothians. In 859 A.D. Kenneth fell in battle, near Dundee.

The chief enemies of Scotland at this period were the Sea-Kings from Scandinavia and Denmark, who assailed the country on both sides. Finding their access to Scottish territory on the east coast curtailed by the vigilance and energy of Kenneth, they transferred their operations to the west, and strove to enter the land by the Firth of Clyde. Towards this spot, therefore, the defensive power of the Scots was directed; and in these circumstance the importance of Dunoon as a post of observation would be great. But the successors of Kenneth were less skilful or less warlike than he; and the Danes under Olaf, assembling a fleet at Dublin, sailed up the Clyde unopposed, and attacked and captured the ancient citadel of Dumbarton, returning past the helpless fort of Dunoon unopposed and triumphant.

All the Kings of Scotland since his time claim Kenneth I., as their ancestor, though long years passed before he found a valiant successor. Somerled, Thane of Argyll, assembled his fleet at the Mull of Kintyre in 1153, and sailed up to Renfrew in the absence of Malcolm IV., taking possession of both Dunoon Castle and Dumbarton Castle; but when the young King returned from France in 1160 he took measures to recover Renfrew. Somerled was defeated and slain at Renfrew four years afterwards.

One hundred years later (1263) a great change took place. During the reign of Alexander II. (1214-1249) Haco, King of Norway, invaded Scotland, and captured the most important of the Isles of the Hebrides. The Scottish King was more of a diplomatist than a soldier, but as he found that politics were ineffectual with Haco, his ambition tempted him to lead an army against the invaders; leaving Dunoon as a defensive fort, he went forth to the conflict. As his fleet sailed through the Sound of Mull, King Alexander was attacked by a malignant fever, and death laid an icy hand upon him. He died on 8th July 1249, on the island of Kerrera, near Oban.

Haco of Norway, having heard of this expedition, hastened to oppose. Leaving Orkney with his fleet he sailed down through the isles which he called his own, and, with a kind of poetic irony, he chose Kerrera as the meeting-place of the Scottish fleet, to which many of the insurgent Norwegian nobles had joined themselves. The death of Alexander II. had discouraged the Scots, and deprived them of a leader. They retired from the contest, and Haco resumed his sway over the Hebrides, and reigned without interruption for the succeeding thirteen years. Meanwhile the new King of Scotland, Alexander III., though but a youth, decided to take up the policy of his father, and to support it by the sword, and thus win back the Hebrides. He incited the neighbouring lords on the islands and mainland who were well-affected towards him, to invade the Norwegian territory, and to sack, burn, and destroy every village whose inhabitants refused allegiance to him. The commission was faithfully fulfilled. From Jura to the Lewes these islands were filled with lamentations, the voice of the western Rachel weeping for her children.

This outrage could not be endured by the proud Norwegian spirit. Haco at once assembled a magnificent fleet, and set sail from Herlover on 7th July 1263, determined to avenge the blood of his subjects. As he proceeded his Armada received many augmentations, and when he reached Sanda Isle, at the south of the Mull of Kintyre, his fleet numbered a hundred sail, fully manned and equipped. Disposing of this powerful force he began operations against the coast of Argyll. One portion of the squadron attacked the Mull of Kintyre, whilst another beset and captured the Island of Bute, and the King himself entered the Firth of Clyde and sailed up unopposed to the shores of Arran, anchoring his fleet in Kilbrannan Sound.

The Scottish leaders, terrified at this prompt and successful invasion, endeavoured to secure peace by negotiation. They limited their demands, which had formerly included the whole of the Hebrides, to the cession of Arran, Bute and the Cumbraes, which barred the entrance to the Clyde. But Haco doubted their faith, and would have none of their treaties. Hoisting sail upon sixty of his ships, he penetrated to the head of Loch Long, throwing off as he proceeded marauding parties to ravage the coasts. The Cowal shore from Toward Point to Holy Loch was laid waste; and the Castles of Rothesay and Dunoon were captured by the bold invaders. The hardy Norse sailors, undeterred by difficulty, landed at the north-eastern point of Loch Long (where Arrochar now stands), and making a "portage" they conveyed their boats over the hill to the waters of Loch Lomond, intending to seize upon Dumbarton Castle, and carrying fire and sword into these territories.

The Scots, thoroughly alarmed at the magnitude and success of the expedition, had assembled their forces on the southern and eastern shores of Renfrewshire and Ayrshire, from Kempoch Point to the Bay of Largs on the south bank of the Clyde; and the country was closely patrolled by the Scottish army so as to make a landing in-effectual. They feared to attack the Norwegian sailors upon the waters. But the God of the Winds benevolently interposed, and delivered the invaders into their hands. The portion of the fleet commanded by Haco was anchored in the channel between the Isle of Cumbrae and the mainland, but a fierce storm swept down from Loch Coil and drove the helpless vessels on the shore at Largs. The northern warriors, unable to maintain a position on the land, were hopelessly defeated. The discomfitted King, spiritless and heartbroken, recalled the shattered remnant of his fleet, and retired, downcast and overthrown, from the scene of his disgrace. And thus the reconquest of the Hebrides from Norway, which neither fraud nor force could accomplish, was effected by the adverse October gales which sweep down the Clyde from the lofty Argyllshire mountains. The unfortunate King of Norway retired into seclusion, and in 1266, the Battle of Largs, after three years, brought about the formal cession of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Alexander III., and drove the Norsemen from Scotland. It has been stated that Haco died on board his vessel, and was carried a corpse to his kingdom, but this has not been confirmed. The Battle of Largs is commemorated in a pathetic poem by the lath Professor John Stuart Blackie, in which the following verses occur :—

"And at early burst of spring, Haco,
When the birds sang on the tree,
They took the body of Haco
In a ship across the sea.

Across the sea to Norway,
Where the sires make moan for thee—
That the last of his race was Haco,
Who ruled the Western Sea.

And they laid thee, Haco, Haco,
With thy sires on the Norway shore,
And far from the Isles of the Sea, Haco,
That know thy name no more."

The peculiar circumstances whereby Dunoon Castle became a royal residence are worthy of notice. Malcolm III. (called Ceannmor, or Great Head, because he was the "Great Chief," not from any abnormal development of his skull), was the eldest son of Duncan I., and began his reign in 1057-8, on the death of his father. He found the kingdom in a turbulent and agitated condition. Fortunately he was surrounded by a trusty band of warriors upon whom he could depend, and Might in these days was Right. The mixed population upon the shores of the Firth of Clyde gave him much trouble, especially in the island of Bute, which had been the headquarters of invasions by the Norsemen. The King deputed Walter, son of Fleance, to subjugate this territory, and rewarded his success by grants of the lands of Bute, and Cowal, and the baronies of Kyle and Renfrew. Dunoon Castle thus became one of Walter’s possessions, and its convenient situation made him select it as the Seat of Government for the district. Alan, the son of Walter, was created High Steward of Scotland, and from him descended the race of Stewart Kings who ruled the kingdom for many years. Walter the sixth, High Steward, was married in 1315 to Marjorie, only daughter and child of Robert the Bruce by his first marriage, and their son, Robert, the then High Stewart, succeeded David II. as King of Scotland in 1370, and was thus the first of the Stewart Kings, with the title of Robert II.

The death of King Robert the Bruce in 1329 plunged the country, for which he had fought so nobly, into the extremity of despair. His son, David was only eight years old, and the dynasty of Bruce had no claim to superiority but the wisdom and bravery of its founder. The power with which he had repressed the incursions of the English, and the discretion whereby he had obviated the claims of others to the throne, were now alike powerless; and dissension and invasion became the order of the day. Edward Baliol, eldest son of King John Baliol, in 1332, made a compact with Edward III. of England, promising to render homage to that monarch for the Kingdom of Scotland in return for assistance in its conquest. This wretched agreement was fulfilled despite the patriotic efforts of the supporters of Bruce; and Baliol landed with an English army at Kinghorn, on 6th August 1332, and six days afterwards defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dupplin, near Perth. He was crowned as King of Scotland at Scone on 24th September in this year; but his heart failed him and he fled in haste about three months afterwards to England, where he died in 1363. The English army remained in Scotland after Dupplin, and were again victorious at Halidon Hill, near Berwick, in July 1333, where the Scottish nobles were dispersed, and had to flee for their lives. Amongst them was Robert, the young Stewart of Scotland, who was now nearest heir to the throne, and had to lurk in hidance in his ancestral Island of Bute.

Determined to extirpate the race of Bruce, Baliol attacked and captured Stewart’s Castle of Dunoon, intending from it to menace the fortress of Dumbarton, which completely commanded the Clyde. But Robert Stewart, finding that the venality and cowardice of Baliol had alienated many of his adherents, took course with his relative, Sir Colin Campbell of Lochow, the nephew of Robert Bruce; and making a hasty descent upon Dunoon Castle, they surprised its defenders, and easily gained possession. This was the first reverse that Baliol had suffered and became the signal for a general revolt against him. The Brandanes of Bute, Robert’s hereditary vassals, performed prodigies of valour in the assault, overwhelming Lyle, the governor, it is stated, with showers of stones. For their services on this occasion the Brandanes obtained perpetual exemption from the payment of multures; whilst Sir Colin Campbell was made Hereditary Keeper of the Castle—an office which remained in the Argyll family as long as the Castle existed, and it became the frequent resort of the Stewart Kings.

Dunoon Castle figured in national history during an incident which need only here be referred to briefly. After the death of James V. in 1542, there was a contest between three persons as to the Regency during the infancy of Queen Mary. The Earl of Arran, as a near relative, became "Governor," having been supported by Cardinal Beaton; but Arran was overthrown by the Queen-Mother, Mary of Guise, and the next opponent to her was the Earl of Lennox, also a relative. Lennox had spent some years at the Court of Henry VIII. of England, who still longed to gain possession of Scotland. Accordingly, in August 1544, Henry sent an invading fleet to the Clyde, who destroyed Arran’s Castle of Brodick, and ravaged the neighbouring country. The ten English ships, full-freighted with their panoply of war, reached Dumbarton, then in charge of Stirling of Glorat, a servitor of Lennox, but to that Earl’s surprise, Stirling threatened him with the Earl’s own artillery, and the fleet had to retire discomfitted.

Sir Colin Campbell at Dunoon had word of this defeat, and received Arran at Dunoon, with a fusilade of guns; but Lennox, landing on the Cowal shore, with a troop of his followers, attacked Dunoon Castle and took it at the spear’s point. Unable to leave a party in posesssion, Lennox was forced to return to the fleet, and sailing down to Kintyre he ravaged the district of the Campbells, and then went back to England to tell Henry that their project had failed. Dunoon Castle again fell to the charge of Sir Colin Campbell and his sucessors.

A different scene was enacted at Dunoon about twenty years after. In June 1563, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had sailed from Dumbarton Castle to France, had been married there, and had become a widow, was now in her native land, and planned an expedition so that she might make herself acquainted with her kingdom. Her half-sister (illegitimate daughter of James V.), was then Countess of Argyll, and she invited the Queen to visit her at Dunoon Castle, so that she might see life in the western Highlands. Queen Mary left Edinburgh, visited her birth-place at Linlithgow Palace, went thence to Glasgow where she remained for ten days, visiting Hamilton, Paisley, and other notable places in that neighbourhood. From there she went to Inveraray, where she spent some time in deer-hunting. As in duty bound, she paid a visit to the ancient Castle of Dunoon, one of the earliest palaces of her race, and under the care of her sister she spent the night there in mirth and banqueting. A ballad of the period thus refers to the Queen’s visit :-

"Now she’s cast off her bonny shoon,
Made o’ the gilded leather;
And she’s put on her Highland brogues
To skip among the heather.

And she’s cast off her bonny gown,
Made of the silk and satin,
And she’s put on a tartan plaid,
To row amang the bracken."

Leaving Dunoon the Queen crossed the Clyde into Ayrshire, proceeding as far south as Dumfries before she returned to Edinburgh. And with that varied journey nearly all the happiness of her life was completed.

There is little to record of the after-history of Dunoon Castle save the story of an atrocious act of cruelty carried out by the Campbells of Dunoon. There had long been a feud between the Campbells and the Lamonts of Lamont and Castle Toward, and in 1646, by direction of the Marquess of Argyll, the Campbells attacked Castle Toward, which they plundered and demolished. Among the documents in the custody of the present (1927) Sir Norman Lamont, Bart., of Knockdow, there is the complaint against the Marquess lodged by Sir James Lamont, referring to this incident, in which the following passage occurs:-

"Ten dayes after the capitulations were ended, they carryed the said Sir James, his friends and vassals to a place called Dunnoone, about five miles from his principall garison. And there in the Churchyard they most cruelly murthered (without Assyse or order of law) on one tree thirty and six at one tyme of the chiefs and speciall gentlemen of that name, and before they were half-hanged they cut them down and threw them in by dozens in pitts prepared for the same, and many of thame striveing to ryse upon their feet were violently holden downe until that by throwing the earth in great quantity upon them they were stifled to death. And it is much to be remarked and taken notice of that the same tree upon which these, thirty-six gentlemen were hanged, being shortly after cutt downe did immediately as it was in cutting spring forth blood, and notwithstanding the body of the tree was carryed away, yet did the root thereof continually cast forth blood for the space it continued in the ground, which was for severall yeares."

Whether it was the result of the Curse of the Lamonts or from some other cause, the Castle of Dunoon decayed from this period. It was used as a residence till 1670, but after that time all record of it ceases. The village which was growing up round it would doubtless be largely composed of the stones of the Castle; for when once the cold finger of Time brings decay upon such an erection its demolition is speedy and complete. Now there are not so many stones remaining as to give an adequate idea of either the form or extent of this stronghold; and the green grass waves luxuriantly over the foundations of Dunoon Castle, telling silently, but eloquently, its message of mutability to this generation.

Our thanks to Lyn Hayes for sending in the pictures below...

Dunoon Castle

View of Dunoon Pier from the Castle

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