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How was territorial power and control in
medieval Argyll expressed through its built
heritage and did this change as the region
moved from Scotland’s periphery to its core?
Ailsa Raeburn
20 May 2011
Page 1
This dissertation considers how the physical expressions of power – both secular and religious –
developed as Argyll and the Southern Hebrides, the heartlands of the Lordship of the Isles, moved
from the periphery of the emerging Scottish nation state to its core. Reviewing evidence from
c.500 AD to the fall of the Lordship and coalescence of Campbell power, the methods of territorial
control can be tracked in the built landscape. It will also consider whether these changes were a
result of a royal policy of centralisation; forcing submission of peripheral regions by bringing them
politically, culturally and ideologically closer to the core. Or alternatively, was the extent and nature
of territorial, political and economic control of local leaders in the west, such that external influence
could only ever be minimal? Were the changes in the physical methods of religious and secular
control more an overlay of new ideas onto indigenous practices and regional necessity, than
evidence of centralisation?
Many thanks to my Supervisor, Dr Iain McInnes, for his guidance and support.
Most thanks to Ella and Iona for leaving me in peace while I wrote.
Page 2
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Dal Riata and
Chapter 3
The Rise of the
Chapter 4
The MacDonald
Chapter 5
Argyll After the
Chapter 6
A: Map of Argyll
B: Early Historic Power
C: Geneaology of the
Lordship of the Isles – The
MacDonalds and MacRuaris
D: The Western Seaboard in
the central Middle Ages
E: Principal Cadets of the
Loch Awe Campbells
Page 3
In the medieval period access to, and control over, physical resources was paramount as most
medieval societies still operated largely at a subsistence level. Where military or religious based
hierarchies did develop, additional resources were essential to feed, clothe and house these non
productive members of the population. Territorial power was therefore critical to ensure that
sufficient resources could be produced to support and defend the community. These resources
could be the stuff of subsistence; crops, animals and timber or it could be materials valuable for
trading, such as metals.
Control of religious power and authority was also key. Pre Christian kings were viewed as sacral
brings; a unique link between the people and the gods1. They possessed magical and supernatural
powers which included the bestowal of fertility on people and land, again controlling resources or
access to them. As the Irish Columban Church grew in importance from the sixth century, it became
the conduit between God and the people. Secular leaders recognised the power control over the
church could provide and used the church in inauguration ceremonies to claim a divine right to rule.
This dissertation will look at how the physical expressions of power – both secular and religious –
developed as the region moved from periphery to core. From the earliest Iron Age power bases,
through the great stone castles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to the fifteenth and
sixteenth century tower house, we can track, through the built heritage, how control of the region
changed. It will also consider whether these changes were a result of a royal policy of centralisation;
forcing submission of peripheral regions by bringing them politically, culturally and ideologically
F. Watson, 'The expression of power in a medieval kingdom: thirteenth-century Scottish castles', in Scottish
Power Centres: From the early Middles Ages to the twentieth century, ed. S.M. Foster, A.I. MacInnes and R.
MacInnes (Glasgow:, 1998) p 4
Page 4
closer to the core. Or alternatively, was the extent and nature of territorial, political and economic
control of local leaders in the west, such that external influence could only ever be minimal? Were
the changes in the physical methods of religious and secular control more an overlay of new ideas
onto indigenous practices and regional necessity, than evidence of centralisation?
Documentary evidence for this period is extremely limited; that which does exist was often written
much later. There are a number of charters issued by the Lords of the Isles and the crown that
highlight some of the issues, in particular the allocation of land and titles. The most complete
evidence is that from archaeological reports, and is obviously very dependent on interpretation of
the findings. Even this provides too little evidence to present an archaeological narrative for the
whole period.2 In addition, although the Lordship has been extensively considered by historians,
there is little comparative analysis on pre and post Lordship secular and religious power structures
and how this impacted on the landscape and built heritage. For a region so rich in built heritage,
with so many castles, churches and monumental architecture still visible to us, understanding their
history is both illuminating and valuable to those fascinated by Argyll’s past.
In this piece therefore, the legacy of the Iron Age and early Christian period will be considered; the
Irish inheritance of these periods strongly influenced how political, economic and territorial control
developed. Somerled established a hierarchy of economic and military power, from which a
network of castles could be built, to defend his possessions, and enable expansion in the Irish Sea
World. The MacSorley successors of Somerled built upon the foundations he laid for secular and
religious control of Argyll and the islands. Then, as the MacDonald kindred established hegemony,
they brought a period of relative peace and stability during which a complex administrative network
emerged, akin to that of a proto state. At the same time the Campbell kindreds, always more closely
aligned to the Scottish crown, were gradually establishing their influence on the periphery of Argyll,
and placing themselves in an unchallengeable position once the MacDonald territories were
I Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (Edinburgh, 1996) p 206
Page 5
forfeited. They successfully straddled the Gaelic world of the west and the lowland world of the
crown. More exposed to new ideas of territorial management than the Lordship, their era of control
brought in new methods of estate management and religious patronage.
The geographical extent of this piece is confined to the boundaries of modern day Argyll and the
southern Hebrides, including the mainland territories of Kintyre, Knapdale, Lorn and Cowal and the
islands of Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Oronsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree, Giga, the Garvellachs and Treshnish Isles.
A map is included at Appendix A showing these areas. The traditional Lordship territories did, of
course, extend further into the northern Hebrides, to islands controlled by affiliated clans such as
the MacLeods of Lewis and Skye, and later into the northern mainland of Loichalsh and Ross.
However this dissertation aims to take a chronological view of how a region developed. For the sake
of space and clarity therefore, I propose to focus on Argyll. It is here that sufficient evidence
remains for us to track the Iron Age and early Christian period of development; the rise of the
MacSorleys and then the MacDonald hegemony; the threats from royal incursion, either directly or
via local agents, such as the Campbells; and finally changes in how control was exercised following
the downfall of the Lordship of the Isles. This choice of geographical extent is further validated by
the cultural impact of the Lordship, expressed principally in its unique funerary architecture; this is
very strong in the original heartlands of the Lordship, but tends to dissipate as territorial control
extends into Ross and the North. Throughout the terms ‘Argyll and the islands’ and ‘the west’ is
used interchangeably to denote the same area.
Page 6
Throughout Scotland, control of the landscape and resources were via a network of evolving petty
kingships before 1100AD. These kingships competed for access to wealth and political prestige,
achieved through controlling access to material resources, use of violence and personal charisma.
Power centres were critical to manage the collection and distribution of resources and to provide
safety and security in times of violence. Territorial control became more formal as societies
transformed from those based on kinship, to an early state organisation, where society was more
institutionalised and hierarchical. Relations of clientship developed involving the payment of tribute
or service in return for land, protection and patronage, rather than kinship. This gave all levels of
society a role in protecting that society. At the top stood the nobility and clergy, socially and
geographically mobile individuals between whom power was exchanged, either through agreed
modes of inheritance or aggression. Their authority was determined by the number of clients that
could be supported. This support required control over resources and the provision of security.
Throughout Scotland therefore, a network of kings and ‘sub king’s developed which became the
basis of medieval earldoms3.
In Argyll these societal developments were represented by power coalescing into a number of
kinship groups4. There were four main tribes of the Dal Riata. The Ceneln Gabrain were based in
modern day Kintyre and Knapdale with their power base at Dunadd.5 Dunadd appears to have
begun as a small Iron Age fort at the hill summit, constructed in around the fourth century AD and
In the North and East a hierarchy of leaders developed; toiseach – the leader of a kindred or clan, and a
mormaer – the predominant toiseach in control of a number of clans. These became the bases of mediaeval
SM Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots (London, 2004) p 3
The Cenel Garbrian was the dominant lineage, retaining kingship over a relatively long period. Royal
succession was based on the principles of tanistry; enabling successors to be nominated from alternating
eligible kin groups, often in advance of the king’s death. However the accession of Cinead mac Alpin in 842/3
changed the pattern of succession confining it more closely to immediately family members.
Page 7
expanded in the sixth to seventh century by a series of enclosing walls. As the main power base for
the region, the site was abandoned as the early Dalriadic Kings moved eastwards to Scone. 6
The Cenel Loairn controlled Lorn with a power base at Dunollie. First recorded at the end of the
seventh century, by the thirteenth century Dunollie had become one of the main strongholds of the
MacDougall kindred.7
The Cenel Corugaill was based in Cowal. There is no evidence to suggest the location of their
principal power base although within Cowal. Finally the Cenel Oengusa was based on Islay; again the
location of their power base has not been identified.
The existence in Argyll of several sub kingdoms, therefore, created several power bases, some of
which provided the foundations of the late duns and castles of the medieval period. From the map
shown in Appendix B we can identify in Argyll a number of early historic power centres. These
include Dunstaffnage, Aros, Duart, Finlaggan, Tioram, Mingary, Ardtornish, Breachacha, Rothesay
and Castle Sween, all of which were still in use in the fifteenth century and later. These bases were
places where the people who controlled the material resources and technologies lived, and from
where resources were administered, collected, transformed and exchanged.
As Oram points out, there is, of course, a dearth of easily datable archaeological remains from the
period before 1150 from which to establish the character of native high status residences. However
up until c 1100 there appears to have been continuity of occupation at smaller sites, but some of the
larger sites declined in status or were abandoned. An inability to provision or defend physically
restricted sites like Dunadd could have contributed to their decline. Additionally it appears that
centres of power were moving to lower lying, less defensive and more commodious sites like Scone
and Forteviot.
SM Foster ibid p 5
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 Site ref 286
Page 8
Those sites that continued in use in Argyll as higher status power centres were largely situated in
defensive coastal locations, perhaps reflecting the unrest and instability between the death of
Somerled and the confirmation of MacDonald overlordship in the mid fourteenth century. Inland the
settlement record is dominated by lower status, drystone thick walled duns in prominent locations.
The number and nature of these structures appear to demonstrate that by c 500 AD land was being
held at a more devolved level, even by individual households8. Settlements ranged in size and
RCHAMS classification from hill forts serving small communities to duns serving a single family group
and were widely distributed. This demonstrates that social differentiation and stratification had not
occurred to any real extent in Argyll by this period9.
The arrival of Columba in Dal Riata in 563 heralded new forms of religious worship, which equally
impacted on the built landscape. Pre Christian kings in the region were viewed as sacral brings; a
unique link between the people and the gods10. They possessed magical and supernatural powers,
conferred in ritualistic inauguration ceremonies, including bestowing fertility on people and land.
As the Church became the conduit between God and the people, a central role for the Church, was
given at inaugurations, which enabled local leaders to claim a divine right to rule. As the Christian
church spread, early Christian sites were close to existing special places such as cairns and sacred
hilltops. Timber chapels and rude rubble cells were built together with the erection of high crosses,
such as at Iona, Kildalton and Keills, including inscriptions in Irish Ogham script11. In Mid Argyll in
particular, there is a rich record of early Christian burial or worship sites, with over one hundred
carved stones from the early Christian period.12 These tend to be concentrated in very specific
locations, especially the west coast of Knapdale and at primary sites such as Iona, Lismore, Kerrera
and Eileach an Naoimh. In Kintyre, early Christian monuments demonstrate a strong Irish influence,
which can still be seen in ogham inscriptions from this period. On Islay there remain a number of
D Omand, (ed.) The Argyll Book (Edinburgh, 2004) p 1
D Omand, ibid p 55
SM Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots p 4
FA Walker, The Buildings of Scotland: Argyll and Bute (London, 2003) p 1
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 7 p 3
Page 9
chapels and burial grounds, very similar in size and design to the ‘Keills’ of the Isle of Man, again
demonstrating the sharing of cultures in the Irish Sea World even in this very early period.13
In the period directly before the rise of Somerled and the MacSorleys we can see, therefore, the
establishment of a dense settlement pattern of duns, forts, roundhouses and chapels. As the centre
of kingship moved eas,t several major sites appear to have been abandoned, possibly those used by
the leading groups who had relocated eastwards. Those kin groups left behind continued use of
their smaller sites and possibly filled the local power vacuum created by the move eastwards. A
network of holy sites developed, very much based on the Irish tradition of worship, and often linked
to local power centres14.
The medieval period would see the emergence of a greater range of elite dwellings and a firm
separation from the more transient homes of the general populace. The development of a petty
aristocracy drawing power from the distant MacDonald overlordship, would control very local
territorial domains, under the confederation of the Lordship. The established tradition of reusing
existing centres of power continued, occupation of which gave legitimacy to new chiefs.15 This all
contributes to the development of a more powerful and wide ranging hierarchical authority with a
more unequal access to wealth and power than before.16 How far this was a result of the growing
Scottish royal influence in the region, or other factors, remains to be considered.
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 p 27
The early churches at Kilmartin and Kilmichael Glassary are very close to Dunadd and the cairns of Kilmartin
I Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (Edinburgh,1996) p 221
I Armit, ibid
Page 10
The MacSorley dynasty descend from Somerled, an early king of Argyll of mixed Norse Celtic stock
with a pedigree stretching back to ninth century Dalriada17. His power base may have been
consolidated and built when the Dalriadan kings moved east18. Until 1266, the region was nominally
independent with the Annals of Tigernach (1164) titling Somerled ri Innse Gall and Cind Tire (king of
the Hebrides and Kintyre19.) He was also referred to in the Melrose Chrinicle as ‘regulus eregeithel’
or King of Argyll.20 Some form of allegiance was, however, given to Scotland for the mainland
portions of the Somerled territories, and to Norway for the islands. MacDonald compares the
positions in Argyll and neighbouring Galloway as similar to control over eleventh century France.
The French King could exercise only very limited power beyond the royal enclaves of Paris and
Orleans; local French Princes were virtually independent of the King, maintaining many quasi royal
powers but pledging nominal allegiance to the Crown21.
The MacSorley kinship group descends from two sons and one grandson of Somerled. Dugald
controlled Lorn and Mull, his successors becoming the MacDougall clan. Angus controlled
Garmoran, Rum, Eigg, the Uists, Benbecula, Barra, Bute and Arran. His heirs were the MacRuaris
who amalgamated through marriage with the MacDonalds in the fourteenth century. The final
grouping was the MacDonalds, deriving from Ranald who took control of Islay, Morvern, Kintyre and
I Cowan, ‘The Medieval Church in the Highlands’ in The Middle Ages in the Highlands, ed. L MacLean
(Inverness, 1981) p 169
I Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (Edinburgh, 1996) p 206
I Cowan, ‘The Medieval Church in the Highlands’ p 178
WDH Sellar, ‘Hebridean Sea-Kings; The Successors of Somerled, 1164-1316’ in Alba: Celtic Scotland in the
Medieval Era eds Cowan EJ. & McDonald RA. (East Linton, 2003) p 189
I Cowan, ibid p 180
Precise evidence of exactly how the territories of Somerled were allocated is not available, with most
suppositions based upon the much later Black Book of Clanranald – See D Caldwell, Islay (Edinburgh, 2008) p
Page 11
During the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries therefore Argyll and the Isles were undergoing a
period of change as the MacSorley dynasty both consolidated their own territories and feuded
internally with kin groups over other lands and resources. This was at a time when the Scottish
nation was being created by the Canmore dynasty, through a mix of feudalisation, force and alliance.
The core of the evolving Scottish Kingdom in the south and east was gradually being planted with
Anglo-Norman knights; a technique imported by David I and was based on a European method of
imposing royal authority.23 The new earls were expected to implement David’s programme of
judicial and administrative reform. Some of the existing Gaelic landowners in the north and east,
recognising the new political realities, swore allegiance to the Scottish Crown and were regranted
their estates. Where allegiance was not offered, the new feudal system was imposed by a heavily
armoured and expensive fighting class and maintained by the use of imported motte and bailey
castle techniques.
Until the 1220’s however there is no evidence of any intervention directly by the Canmores in the
west highlands and islands. The construction of a castle however between the Doon and Ayr by
William I in 1197 might have been the start of an attempt to provide a buttress against the
increasingly turbulent west. There were also a small number of mottes or motte like bases built
before the thirteenth century in Cowal24. Earthwork and timber motte and bailey structures were
used to acquire and defend territory by the feudal knights between 1100 and 1250. However the
highlands, and in particular the west, was not as readily planted with the new aristocracy. Dodgshon
attributes this to the territory neither being practically suited to the use of armoured knights or
significantly wealthy to support the heavy maintenance costs of funding what amounted to a
This programme also included reorganisation of the church, establishment of towns and mints, introduction
of a new type of Norman sherrifdom and encouraged incomers like the Stewarts, Morays and Menzies to
settle– see C Tabraham, Scotland’s Castles (London, 1997) p 15
These include evidence of a motte at Cnoc Mhic Eoghainn, close to Baillimore on Loch Fyne. Assumed to
have been in the control of the McEwans of Otter, a family with close links to the MacSweens, Lamonts and
MacLachlans – RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 120
Page 12
standing army25. In a region where power depended on maritime capability, David I was forced to
rely on alliances with local magnates to keep the peace and gradually extend his influence. It was
also difficult to service any incursion into the west without a base from which to operate, which the
crown did not have before the mid thirteenth century.26 The west was still within the cultural and
political domain of the Irish Sea World; there were therefore a number of obstacles the crown
needed to overcome before it could properly control the west.
The Canmores focussed therefore on building alliances, which were usually rewarded with land or
castles. The MacNaughtons on Loch Awe were already Lords of Inishail on Loch Awe and Kilmorlich
Loch Fyne, when they were given custody of Fraoch Eilean Castle by a charter granted by Alexander
III in 1267.27 Fraoch Eilean was constructed by or on behalf of the crown in the third quarter of the
thirteenth century on a small island at the north end of Loch Awe, close to the strategic Pass of
Brander.28 At the opposite end of Locah Awe, the castle at Finchairn was included at the head of a
list of lands in a charter of 1240 granted or confirmed by Alexander II to Gillascop MacGilchrist.29
Alexander I or III was also thought to have been involved in the building of the first castle at Tarbert
which controlled access to Kintyre.30 At the south end of Kintyre was the castle of Dunaverty. First
recorded in the eight century, it was in crown hands in the 1240’s and was garrisoned by Alexander
III during Haakon’s expedition of 1263.31 Dunoon Castle was also either in crown control, or under
the control of the Stewarts, a Lowland family, by the second quarter of the thirteenth century.32
Finally the great island fortresses of Dun Chonnaill on the Garvellachs and the twin castles of Cairn
Na Burgh Mor and Beg were recorded as three out of four castles held by Ewen MacDougall of Lorn
R Dodgshon, The Age of the Clans: The Highlands from Somerled to the Clearances (Edinburgh, 2002) p 6
D Omand, ibid O p 4
GWS Barrow, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 (London, 1981) p 112
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 290
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 130
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 1 Site ref 316
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 1 Site ref 309
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 127
Page 13
in 1249; by the time of the Treaty of Perth they were regarded as either crown possessions or within
the grant of the king.33
There were also local families who seemed neither to be allied to the MacSorleys or to the crown,
but still possessed considerable local influence. These included the MacSweens, MacNaughtons and
MacLachlans. The MacSweens were descended from Suibhne the Red, the Thane of Knapdaill and
Glassarie by the end of the twelfth century, and related by marriage to the royal family of Connacht,
the O’Connors.34 The MacSweens were responsible for building two of the earliest castles in Argyll,
Castle Sween and Skipness. Castle Sween is presumed to date from the end of the twelfth century.35
Although it appears a different design from earlier castles, it is thought in fact to be a rectangular
version of the more common shell keeps, such as Rothesay Castle. This was built by the Stewarts, a
family with close royal connections, as they established themselves in Bute in the twelfth century.36
Skipness Castle and chapel are thought to date from the first half of the thirteenth century. The
MacSweens are also thought to be responsible for building the chapels at Kilmory Knap and Keills in
Knapdale in the late twelfth / early thirteenth centuries.37
In 1262 both castles and estates came into the possession of the Stewart Earls of Menteith who
were allies of the crown.38 The MacSweens attempted to win them back, by allying with Edward I in
the Wars of Independence, but were not successful.
There were therefore families allied to the crown who were rewarded accordingly; and those who
chose to stand alone. By and large, this second independent group did not retain their territories
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 3 Site refs 402 and 335
They also had links to the Lamonts of Ardlamont and the MacLachlans of Castle Lachlan – see GWS Barrow,
Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 p 111
16th century Irish chronicle records that Suibhne was the builder of Castle Sween which dates its
construction to the end of the twelfth century
J Munro, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’ in The Middle Ages in the Highlands ed. L MacLean (Inverness, 1981) p 39
J Munro, ibid p 43
Barrow attributes this to the attainment of Alexander’s majority in 1261 and his wish to build alliances in the
west. – see GWS Barrow, Kingship and Unity p 116
Page 14
beyond the end of the thirteenth centuries, as they were gradually squeezed out by crown agents or
the MacSorley dynasty.
The MacSorleys remained the leading local kindred and were able to emulate the crown by
establishing power bases from which tribute could be received, rents consumed and justice
dispensed. Somerled and his immediate descendants were also very active in establishing new
religious orders. Raoull Glaber, a Burgundian monk writing in 1200 said that in about 1000 ‘men
began to reconstruct churches... it was if the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the
burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.’39 This white
mantle reached Scotland under the Canmores, who used the establishment of religious orders as
one element of their policy of medieval state and kingdom building. Patronage of churches and
religious orders broadened however beyond just royalty, as nobles and knights founded modest
sized foundations on their own initiative. This was done either in conscious emulation of royalty or
to legitimise their own territorial control and power.40 Funded by the grant of lands to the
foundations, the patrons were rewarded with prayer and devotions for the souls of themselves and
their families. They also provided places of refuge and hospitality for leaders and unmarried
relatives.41 Some orders, such as the Cistercians, were also influential agricultural developers and
estate managers.
Ranald, son of Somerled, established a Cistercian abbey at Saddell in Kintyre in 1160 endowing it
with lands in Gigha, Knapdale, Carrick and Arran.42 Somerled also revived the religious community
on Iona against the wishes of the established Irish church, with Ranald introducing a Benedictine
Abbey and Augustinian nunnery on the island in the twelfth century. An extensive period of
RA MacDonald RA, 'Scoto-Norse kings and the reformed religious orders: patterns of monastic patronage in
twelfth-century Galloway and Argyll', Albion, 27 (1995) p 187
In Wales by 1201, 9 out of the 13 Cistercian abbeys were either native Welsh foundations or in areas
controlled by natuve dynasties. In Galloway Fergus of Galloway also introcuded a wide variety of religious
orders including the founding of three abbeys at Soulseat, Whithorn and Dundrennan– MacD B 1
Ranald’s sister, Bethoc was the first prioress of the Augustinian nunnery on Iona – see WDH Sellar,
‘Hebridean Sea-Kings; The Successors of Somerled, 1164-1316’ p 203
RCHAMS Argyll Vol. 1 Site ref 296
Page 15
construction began, including new burial chapels at Reilig Odhrain and Cladh an Disirt, and a new
church dedicated to St Michael.43 Again significant lands and teinds were granted to the religious
houses to support their works. Ranald was also a significant benefactor to Paisley Abbey.44
The ongoing rivalries between the MacSorley kindred’s also gave both the Norse and Scottish Kings
opportunities to extend or recover lost influence. Between the death of Somerled in 1164 and 1300
the MacDougalls and MacDonalds took different positions in any external dispute, including the
Wars of Independence. The MacDonalds were often in conflict with the newly planted families
adjoining their territories, such as the Stewarts. In the north, the MacRuaris fought against alliances
of Norse clans led by the Godfreysons. Such a period of constant instability and violence saw the
building of many stone castles and updating of ancient defences. Most were concentrated in the
active frontier zone between the Scottish and Norse Crowns and consisted of simple stone curtain
wall enclosures often using an existing dun or fort, rock formation or island site. These included
Dunollie and Dun Ara, as well as the MacSween castles of Castle Sween and Skipness.
The death however of Alexander III in 1296 meant the removal of an active kingship, unity of
purpose and resources that allowed the extension of royal control. At this point the MacDonald’s
were the least successful of the three kindred’s45. The MacDougall’s were the most powerful of the
MacSorley descendants and used the power vacuum left by Alexander’s death to develop alliances
with other local magnates46. They had also begun the development of a significant number of power
bases from which they could exercise control over Lorn and the Islands. With the exception of
Dunollie, there is nothing in the archaeological record to suggest any great castles or settlements in
Lorn before the medieval period.47 Similarly there were few early Christian monuments in Lorn48. In
P Yeoman, Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland (London, 1999) p 81
D Caldwell, Islay p 38
D Omand, (ed.) The Argyll Book p 123
This included the Turnberry Band of 1286 ; a bond of friendship between Angus Mor MacDonald and the
Stewart Earls of Carrick and Menteith. The MacDougalls also forged close links with the Comyns of Badenoch
principally via marriage alliances
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 p 22
Page 16
addition there does not appear to have been a developed parochial system, as in other parts of
Argyll by the twelfth century; the parish churches, chapels and funerary monuments all appear to be
of a late medieval date.49 This all suggests that, before the MacDougall consolidation, physical
representations of religious or secular power were rare in Lorn.
The MacDougalls used their period of control to build huge stone castles, such as those at
Dunstaffnage, Innis Chonnell on Loch Awe and Achadun and Castle Coeffin Castles on Lismore. They
were some of the largest castles built in Scotland in the thirteenth century, far distant from the
centralised Norman control of the Canmores’ and underlined both the MacDougall wealth and
territorial control. The general arrangement of Dunstaffnage resembled the great castles at
Dirleton, Coull and Inverlochy, suggesting continental ideas were being overlain on indigenous sites
and defensive designs.
Within the same period the MacDougalls were also responsible for Ardchattan Priory (1230-1),
Lismore Cathedral and Dunstaffnage chapel.50 Although remote today, Ardchattan sits at the foot of
the Benderloch Hills on a narrow strip of cultivable land adjoining one of the main medieval
communication channels from the west to the rest of Scotland, Loch Etive. The Valliscaulian priory
was founded by Duncan MacDougall of Lorn, directly from the principal house in Burgundy. It may
have been a peace offering to Alexander II, who was involved in the founding of the other
Valliscaullian houses at Beauly and Pluscarden.51 The Priory was endowed with lands in Benderloch,
Appin and Nether Lorn, as well and teinds or portions thereof as far afield as Kintyre and Tiree,
demonstrating the extent of the MacDougall control during this period.52 Dunstaffnage, although
only a chapel, was also well endowed, and was significantly more elaborate than similar size
Although the cathedral at Lismore is assumed to exist before the founding of the See in 1189, the earliest
building evidence dates from the fourteenth century RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 Site ref 267
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 p 23
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 Site refs: Ardchattan – 217; Lismore - 267; Dunstaffnage Chapel - 243
DH Caldwell & NA Ruckley, ‘Domestic Architecture in the Lordship of the Isles’ in Lordship and Architecture in
Medieval and Renaissance Scotland (Edinburgh, 2005) p 85
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 p 110
Page 17
churches of the period.53 Lismore however was less well provisioned, being the least elaborate of
the Scottish medieval cathedrals having with no transepts or aisles. It also bore little stylistic
relationship to other contemporary ecclesiastical buildings in Argyll.54
These castles and chapels reflect the semi regal ambitions of the MacDougalls. They required both
significant economic resources to import skilled masons and freestone and also demonstrated a
desire to emulate the crown in the founding of French religious houses. This replacement of
traditional Irish forms of worship with European orders signalled the region’s willingness to be part
of the cultural assimilation into Scotland through the medium of the Universal Church; the culture of
the dominant core was therefore infiltrating the periphery through assimilation.55
By the turn of the fourteenth century therefore, the MacDougall Lords of Lorn were ascendant,
controlling vast swathes of territory and having the power and wealth to construct elaborate castles
and endow monasteries. It was their alliance with the anti Bruce, Comyn faction by marriage
however that saw their downfall. The success of Bruce saw his supporters rewarded with castles
and lands forfeited from his enemies.
The MacDougalls lost most of their possessions.56 Innis Chonnell returned to the Campbells as
Robert I included it within the conferment of a free barony on Sir Colin Campbell in 1315, which
became the foundation stone for the eventual Campbell domination of Argyll. Dunstaffnage
remained in royal hands for a period, eventually also passing to the Campbell’s of Lochawe in
1321/2.57 During David II’s reign, it was restored to John Gallda of Lorn, along with Castle Coeffin on
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 p 23
As early as the mid thirteenth century the lack of financial support for Lismore had spurred the forceful
Dominican Friar, Clement of Dundee who with responsibility for Argyll, urged King to transfer the See from
Lismore to the mainland, sparking dispute with Ewan MacDougall of Lorn who considered the See to be under
his family’s special patronage and therefore control. – see GWS Barrow, Kingship and Unity p 145
RA MacDonald RA, 'Scoto-Norse kings and the reformed religious orders: patterns of monastic patronage in
twelfth-century Galloway and Argyll' p 188
It is thought Achadun may have remained in MacDougall hands before being garnted to the Bishops of Argyll
in the fifteenth century – see D Turner D, 'The bishops of Argyll and the Castle of Achanduin, Lismore, AD
1180-1343' in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 128 (1998) p 647
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 p 210
Page 18
Lismore. Both of these eventually passed by marriage to John Stewart of Innermeath in the 1460’s.
Dunollie was also retained by the crown, also passing to the Stewarts of Innermeath in 1388. The
Stewart Earls of Mentieth retained Knapdale and Kintyre, which included Castle Sween and Skipness.
The MacDonald’s were granted forfeited MacDougall lands in Ardnamurchan and Comyn lands in
Duror, Glencoe and Lochaber58.
Robert I used the forfeited estates therefore to create a new settlement in the west, one which he
could more effectively control by ensuring none of the main families had sufficient power to
challenge him. The Campbells and Stewarts in particular acted as a bulwark for the crown against
further advances of the still powerful MacSorley remainders – the MacDonalds and MacRuaris. The
alliance of these two clans by marriage in the 1340’s helped create a MacDonald hegemony which
threatened the very core of the Stewart monarchy. In the next chapter we shall look at how this
MacDonald hegemony represented itself in its physical control of Argyll.
D Omand, (ed.) The Argyll Book p 123
Page 19
By the 1340’s the MacDonalds controlled most of Argyll and the Southern Hebrides, acquiring power
through either royal favour or marriage.59 Robert I had come as king to Kintyre in 1315, dragging his
galleys across the Tarbert isthmus, and rebuilding the castle at Tarbert to stamp royal authority on
the region.60 Despite this however, he recognised the need for strong local alliances to keep the
peace, appointing Dugald Campbell as Sheriff of Argyll, and John MacDonald as Baillie of Islay61.
Robert I’s success in the Wars of Independence saw him redistribute power and estates to reward
supporters, punish opponents and ensure power was not concentrated in any one family’s hands. .
The main beneficiaries in Argyll were the Campbells and MacDonalds, with the Stewart Earls of
Mentieth retaining land in Knapdale and on the region’s periphery in Cowal. In the thirteenth
century there had been about a dozen or so local baronial families with estates in Argyll. By the
1350’s most of these had either been forfeited of their territories or accepted the MacDonalds or
Campbell’s as overlords. The increasing strength of both kindred groups contributed to the
contemporary resurgence in Gaelic culture, and for the MacDonalds in particular, the intensification
of old links to Ireland.
Robert I’s death in 1329 however, saw his political settlement unravel. His death enabled John
MacDonald of Islay to capitalise on the uncertainty of the minority. He played the Balliol and Bruce
factions against each other, securing more promises of land and royal office from each. In
September 1336 an indenture with Balliol gave John fresh title to lands in Islay and new lordships in
Knapdale, Skye and Lewis as well as parts of Lochaber as guardian for David Strathbogie’s young
Through royal grant of forfeited MacDougall territories or via the marriage of John, Lord of the Isles to the
MacRuari heiress in 1346
M Brown, The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371 (Edinburgh, 2004) p 266
M Brown, ibid p 2
Page 20
son62. By 1337 John was adopting the title Dominus Insularum or Lord of the Isles. The murder of
Ranald MacRuari, the last male leader of the MacRuari kindred, and John’s brother in law, at Elcho
Priory in 1346 added the Uists and Garmoran to John’s possessions. Between 1346 and 1357 John
allied himself with the eventual winner of the Second Wars of Independence, Robert the Steward, by
marriage.63 This enabled a further extension of his control eventually to include Ross in the fifteenth
Between the 1330’s and 1360’s therefore a loose but effective MacDonald hegemony had
developed.64 The manner in which the MacDonalds’ exercised power was particularly effective for
both the era and the fragmented nature of the region65. The institutionalisation of their control
through the adoption of primogeniture was assisted by their formal assertion of power over cadet
branches. These included unrelated groupings such as the MacLeans of Jura and Mull, the MacLeods
of Lewis and the MacKintoshes in Lochaber. A developing political hierarchy focussed around the
Council of the Isles based at Finlaggan and controlled by the Lordship, provided military support and
tribute for the MacDonald Lordship.
Membership of the Council also included the Abbot of Iona and Bishop of the Isles, thus giving the
administration religious authority.66 Given the size of the military arsenal of the Lordship, evidenced
in the huge numbers it could marshal at key battles, a vast support of labour and surplus economic
and agricultural production was required. Lands and rents were also often paid in the manner of
M Brown, ibid p 3
Divorcing his first wife, Amy MacRuari in the process. She had brought him the MacRuari territories of
Garmoran and the Uists but was presumably seen as dispensable in the face of a greater opportunity of
marriage to the king’s sister.
The fifteenth century poets the MacMhuirichs had access to the annalistic records of the Lordship – they
reported by the end of the fourteenth century the title ‘Ri Airir Goidel’ or King of Argyll had disappeared, being
subsumed within the broader ‘Ri Innse Gall’ or King of the Hebrides which Bannerman claims demonstrated
the effective leadership of John, Lord of the Isles– see J. Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’ in Scottish
Society in the Fifteenth Century ed. JM Brown (London, 1977) p 210. It could of course also mean that the
MacDonald control of Argyll was being gradually lost to the Campbells and Stewarts as his attentions were
turning north towards Atholl, Lochalsh and Ross.
A Grant, ‘Scotland’s Celtic Fringe in the Late Middle Ages: The MacDonald Lords of the Isles and the Kingdom
of Scotland’ in The British Isles 1100-1500: Comparisons, Contrasts and Connections ed RR Davies (Edinburgh,
1988) p 132
J Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’ p 228
Page 21
gallowglass septs, professional service in war in return for permanent landholdings. A system of
controlling allocation of resources across such a vast swathe of territory required highly formalised
structures, akin to a proto-state. 67 The quasi-sovereignty they exercised was exemplified by their
use of titles such as ‘dominus’ and ‘ri.’
In anthropological terms the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles may not have merited the distinction
of an official state. However, the strong central administration, confederate organisation,
hierarchical society and distinctive culture made the Lordship comparable to many early European
kingdoms which later evolved into states.
They were also able to develop a cultural package of
language, dress, societal network and architecture under the power and patronage of this powerful
proto state. Strongly influenced by both their early Christian links with Ireland and the intermarriage
of leading MacDonald clan members with Irish nobility, they practised a form of celtic conservatism.
They resisted the creation of commercial institutions such as the Burgh and repelled significant
settlement by non Gaelic families into their core heartlands.68 However, they were open to
adaptation, adopting the principle of primogeniture and feudal land holdings to control their
During the period of the MacDonald dominance there is also only a record of one religious
foundation being created – the Augustinian Priory on Oronsay. 69 This was founded by John, first
Lord of the Isles between 1325 and 1353, and was the last monastic house, other than for mendicant
orders, in Scotland.70 There is, however, evidence of existing churches or chapels being repaired
during the period at Iona, Orsay, Finlaggan and Texa by John or his son Reginald. On Eilean Mor John
created a vaulted chancel in the church and his daughter in law Mariota of Ross erected a cross at
Formal administrative offices of Secretary, Chancellor, Chamberlain, Steward and Chief Judge mirrored the
Crown hierarchy and ensured consistent effective management, even of outlying regions - see A Grant,
‘Scotland’s Celtic Fringe in the Late Middle Ages: The MacDonald Lords of the Isles and the Kingdom of
Scotland’ p 132
DH Caldwell & NA Ruckley, ‘Domestic Architecture in the Lordship of the Isles’ p 97
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 Site ref 386
D Omand, (ed.) The Argyll Book p 90
Page 22
the highest point of the island.71 This ongoing close involvement with the church demonstrates
John’s recognition of the value its control conferred. However towards the end of the period of the
Lordship, as power focussed on Ross, Alexander, Lord of the Isles, chose to be buried at Fortrose,
rather than Iona. Perhaps this marked the start of a change in the way in which the Lordship viewed
the traditional forms of worship in the west.
The importance of the MacDonald religious patronage is however demonstrated more clearly by the
extent and quality of the monumental sculpture of the period. There is a widespread distribution of
grave slabs, effigies and crosses throughout the heartland of the Lordship, but especially in Southern
Argyll and the islands. Cultural and political unity helped create a definitive culture which
manifested itself in a stylistically cohesive late mediaeval form of sculpture. It drew on Pictish, Anglo
Saxon, Norse and Gaelic elements creating a unique and vibrant West Highland style of architectural
ornamentation.72 Based on the earlier Irish tradition of crosses and funerary monuments the period
of the Lordship saw the creation of hundreds of monuments under highly stylised schools of carving.
These included the schools of Iona, Loch Awe and Loch Sween all with different techniques and
forms of ornamentation.73 The sculpture symbolises a male dominated martial society, with many of
the monuments depicting clan chiefs in body armour or hunting, a sport restricted to the higher
nobility and royalty.74 The elite used this monumental art and its association with religion and
martial prowess to underscore their secular power, linking their success to the divine authority and
power of the church thus legitimising their clan status.75
There are other aspects of material culture that also give the Lordship a distinctive heritage
unmatched by other parts of Scotland. The strong tradition of boat building as late as the sixteenth
century, the absence of a money economy and the tradition of handmade pottery matched only by
D Omand, ibid p 90
I Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles p 221
MacLean D., Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands Thesis ref: 370588 p 481
R Dodgshon, The Age of the Clans: The Highlands from Somerled to the Clearances p 6
I Armit, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles p 221
Page 23
possibly kindred links in Ulster set the Lordship apart. The tradition of monumental sculpture did
not spread to Ross even after acquisition of the earldom there, or into Perthshire as the Campbells
extended their influence.76
It is interesting, however, that the military, economic and religious dominance of the lordship was
not expressed in developing major centres of power. As we have seen in earlier periods, power
bases were critical to receive, distribute and safeguard resources. The forts of Dunadd, Dunollie and
Dunaverty were rebuilt or replaced by the great thirteenth and fourteenth century castles of Castle
Sween, Dunstaffnage, Aros and Duart. However during the period of MacDonald hegemony no new
castles were built and the Lordship tended to either reuse existing bases or build centres on a more
domestic scale. Sites reused included Cairn na Burgh, Dun Chonnaill, Aros and Ardtornish. Aros had
been built by the MacDougalls and probably dates from the thirteenth century, but passed to the
MacDonalds as part of Robert I’s political settlement.77 Ardtornish is thought to have been a
MacRuari castle, erected in the late thirteenth century, but becoming a principal MacDonald
residence via marriage with John dying there in 1387.78
Watson explains this as partly a reflection of what was happening on a wider scale throughout
Scotland. Castles and power bases were becoming economic centres from which regions could be
managed.79 Contemporary political and social prestige was not bound up with building grand
modern fortifications. Throughout Scotland there were few highly defensive castles built during this
period. Those that were constructed, such as Dirleton, Kildrummy and Bothwell, were all French in
style and provided only limited defensive capability. Leading Scottish families funded institutions
that extended their power and/ or influence elsewhere. Examples include the Balliol’s patronage of
Sweetheart Abbey and Balliol College, Oxford and the founding of abbeys and collegiate churches by
DH Caldwell & G Ewart, 'Finlaggan and the lordship of the Isles: an archaeological approach', Scottish
Historical Review, 72 p 164
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 Site ref 333
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 Site ref 332
F Watson, 'The expression of power in a medieval kingdom: thirteenth-century Scottish castles', in Scottish
Power Centres: From the early Middles Ages to the twentieth century, ed. S.M. Foster, A.I. MacInnes and R.
MacInnes (Glasgow, 1998) p 63
Page 24
other nobles. Watson concluded that outside the turbulent period of the Wars of Independence,
royalty and the higher nobility exerted power in a more ‘relaxed and self confident manner.’80 This
expressed itself in the building of more domestic luxurious accommodations than a castle built for
defensive purposes could provide.
There are also a number of other factors that may have contributed to the lack of castellar
construction post 1350. There was no longer the wealth or desire for new castles as the economies
or many regions had been significantly affected by decades of fighting. Climate change also
impacted detrimentally on the economic power of regions, especially those highly dependent on
agriculture. Under the Lordship’s control, the region itself had entered a period of relative stability,
which again negated the need for major defensive fortifications.
The ways in which estates were managed also dictated how power bases were built and where they
were constructed. Local lords or chiefs’ primary concerns would be local matters; the lack of a
strongly centralised system of government or justice, especially in peripheral regions like the west,
resulted in local nobility being responsible for the vast majority of issues that arose within their
region. This is demonstrated by the fact that before the fifteenth century very few matters were
brought before Parliament. Local magnates, such as the Lords of the Isles, would issue their own
charters, manage their own baronial or shrieval courts and control local markets. In the Lordship
this was achieved through the Council of the Isles, which brought together the leading clan chiefs to
manage the region. This form of power sharing was unique to the Lordship in the period and
appears to have allowed for both overall control by the MacDonalds, yet sufficient flexibility for local
chiefs to retain power and semi-sovereignty within their localities.
In the Lordship, the Lords of the Isles issued acts and decrees as a tool for managing a far flung
region, using laws that had been developed in the time of Somerled. Their main power base was at
Finlaggan where archaeologists have not uncovered any evidence of castellar construction. Based
F Watson, ibid p 64
Page 25
on two small islands, the power base appears to have been domestic in scale, with a large hall house
possibly being the location for the important rituals of feasting and displays of hospitality.81 The
smaller Eilean na Comhairle (Council Isle) was linked to the larger Eilean Mor (administrative centre)
by a stone and timber causeway.82 Loch Finlaggan was surrounded by good agricultural land and
there is evidence to show occupation of both island sites since the early medieval period.
Finlaggan was the nerve centre of the Lordship but not the only place where the Council of the Isles
met or leaders were inaugurated. Between 1444 and 1492 eleven charters state they were issued
by the Council of the Isles, but were dated at Dingwall, Inverness, Aros and Oronsay.83 Donald, Lord
of the Isles was inaugurated on Eigg in 1387.84 A territorial lordship on this scale would have
required a number of locations from which to redistribute goods, receive tribute, exercise justice
and enable craftsmen to work in safe proximity to patrons. The MacDonald castles at Aros,
Ardtornish, Dunstaffnage, Dunaverty and Skipness probably acted as these local bases, with support
from power bases of affiliated clans and kindreds.
In addition, the Lords of the Isles chose not to petition or create anything similar to a royal burgh in
their territories. The proximity of the royal burgh at Tarbert, and the burgh of barony established at
Inverary by the first Earl of Argyll in 1474, must have been known to the Lordship.85 Caldwell and
Ewart consider that Finlaggan would have met burghal requirements in terms of trade and the
proximity of a productive agricultural hinterland. However, either the crown refused to grant burgh
status, or the Lordship did not consider it necessary. There did not appear to be an independent
merchant class who might have pressed for burghal status, thus further evidencing the control of the
Lords over all sectors of society. In addition the lack of both an influx of new people – the Lordship
Both central to the developing clan culture, especially in times of scarcity, where the ability to supply food
on a large scale, demonstrated the wealth of a clan or kindred.
DH Caldwell & G Ewart, 'Finlaggan and the lordship of the Isles: an archaeological approach' p 153
All in the fifteenth century as John MacDonald concentrated on the north, especially Ross, to the detriment
of Argyll and the Hebrides – J Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’ p 223
DH Caldwell & G Ewart, 'Finlaggan and the lordship of the Isles: an archaeological approach' p 146
DH Caldwell & G Ewart, ibid p 161
Page 26
resisting the encouragement of new settlers, and of a money economy, may have led to the decision
that burghal status did not fit the economy of the Lordship.86
During the period there were a number of smaller dwellings built, however, which included simple
hall houses and tower houses. Caldwell and Ruckley date hall houses to pre fourteenth century in
the west, with tower houses generally appearing later.87 Tower houses were common in the
lowlands, much less so in the western highlands and islands. Incorporating ground floor storage, a
first floor public hall for entertaining and feasting, and private accommodation above, they were
strong houses, not fighting bases. They were used in the lowlands to suggest the high status of their
owners and provide some measure of safety if attacked. Tower houses been found on Mull (Dun
Ban on Ulva and Dun Ara), Breachacha on Coll and in Morvern. Dun Ara is thought to have been a
stronghold of the MacKinnons as early as 1354.88 Breachacha was built by the MacDougalls of Coll in
the late 1400’s.89 Kinlochaline Castle and Moy Castles were both built by the MacLeans of Duart, in
the fifteenth century.90 MacLean of Kingairloch built Glensanda Castle in the same period. All were
territories under MacDonald overlordship, but with sufficient autonomy and wealth within the
locales to permit major construction projects.
These all demonstrate the confederate nature of the Lordship and, being largely domestic in
character, are perhaps indicative of the high degree of local stability and prosperity in the Lordship.91
Tabraham concludes therefore that the building boom of the fifteenth century was a reflection of
political stability and the growing confidence of the nobility in its future.92
Of the 197 coin finds from the period none comes from within the Lordship of the Isles area – suggesting a
money economy and currency was not yet accepted – DH Caldwell & G Ewart, 'Finlaggan and the lordship of
the Isles: an archaeological approach' p 159
DH Caldwell & NA Ruckley, ‘Domestic Architecture in the Lordship of the Isles’ p 115
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 Site ref 340
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 3 Breachacha ref
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 5 Site refs 343 and 346
J Dunbar, ‘The Medieval Architecture of the Scottish Highlands’ p 52
C Tabraham, Scotland’s Castles p 77
Page 27
In anthropological terms the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles may not have merited the distinction
of an official state. However the strong central administration, hierarchical society and distinctive
culture made the Lordship comparable to many early European kingdoms which later evolved into
states. John I’s death in 1386 ended an era of unparalleled growth based on superior lordship over
militarised clans and control of the church. A conservative society, it was led by a well organised
administration capable of securing and keeping the peace within its boundaries. Bannerman
characterised it as a ‘vital living organism which the conformist and unitary influences of central
government found difficult to penetrate’.93 This is demonstrated in the landscape by the absence
of major crown landholdings, by the growing number of mid status dwellings constructed by the
Lordship hierarchy and the continued control of religious life, especially via funerary monuments and
J Bannerman, ‘The Lordship of the Isles’ p 239
Page 28
As we have already seen, in many ways, the Lordship was unlike any other form of territorial control
in Scotland during the medieval period. The death of John 1st Lord of the Isles in 1386, at Ardtornish
however marked the end of the era of unparalleled growth. Within one hundred years the
territories had been forfeited, as a result of the disastrous political decisions of his heirs and the
consequent outbreak of civil war in the Lordship.94 Expansion into Ross saw a move from Finlaggan
as the basis of power to an Aros/ Ardtornish axis on the Sound of Mull.95 Both castles controlled an
important sea route and gave safe access to Loch Linnhe, Lochalsh and Ross. This change in focus to
their northern territories weakened the Lordship, leaving a power vacuum in the south, quickly filled
by ambitious warring MacDonald septs.96 The forfeiture of lands in lands in Ross, Knapdale and
Kintyre in 1476, led to civil war in the lordship between John and his heir, Angus Og. This
catastrophically weakened the MacDonalds and by 1493 all of the Lordship lands had been forfeited
and redistributed to crown favourites such as the Campbells of Lochawe and Glencorchy.
The Campbells were not newcomers, but had seen a gradual accretion of power since the thirteenth
century. As Barrow states however, they were only one of many families ‘greedy for lands and
power in a fiercely competitive environment’ and, until the end of the fifteenth century, never in a
position to challenge the MacDonald economic or military might.97
In particular the Crawford Douglas Ross Bond placed the MacDonalds in a camp directly opposed to the
Stewart kings; this was exacerbated by John’s dissatisfaction with the regency of Queen Mary and led to the
signing of the Westminster-Ardtornish treaty in 1462 under which he agreed to support Edward of England in
his attempts to overthrown the Stewart monarchy. He would be rewarded with all lands north of the Forth,
effectively becoming a quasi king of half of Scotland.
Of the eight charters issued by Donald that survive, 4 were issued at Ardtornish, 1 at Aros and none at
These included Donald Balloch, another signatory to the Westminster-Ardtornish Treaty, who had constantly
attacked crown and Stewart possessions in the Clyde, and destroyed Brodick Castle on Arran in 1452 – see S
Boardman, The Campbells, 1250-1513 (Edinburgh, 2006) p 173
GWS Barrow, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 p 111
Page 29
The earliest Campbell on record is Gillespic Cambell in 1263; his grandson was Neil Campbell, a close
friend, cousin and supporter of Robert Bruce; and from whom the rise of the Campbells’ can be
traced. Neil Campbell was rewarded for service to Robert I; following his death his son Colin was
confirmed Lord of Loch Awe, Ardskeonish, Kilmartin and Duntroon in return for the service of a
galley and 40 oars for 40 days.98 The Campbells of Glenorchy were made Constables of
Dunstaffnage and given swathes of forfeited MacDougall territories in Lorne.99 Neil had also
received the forfeited David Strathbogie Earldom of Atholl, as well as being appointed the King’s
lieutenant from Tyndrum to Lochgilphead and Loch Melfort to Loch Long. By marriage they also
acquired lands in Ayr, Glenorchy, Mestrie, Cawdor, Skye and North Uist. In 1334 Sir Colin Campbell
of Lochawe was given the hereditary keepership of the royal castle at Dunoon.100
Marriage alliances with the Lamont family of Cowal, together with inheritances from the Mentieth
lords, secured further lands in Cowal, Knapdale and Arran, including the keepership of Castle Sween
and Lochranza Castle. By 1395 Colin Campbell was openly using the title ‘Dominus de Eragadia’ –
Lord or King of Argyll. The Campbell of Lochawe’s original stronghold had been at Innis Chonnell on
Loch Awe and Caisteal an Nighinn Ruaidhe on Loch Avich – but as their territories expanded
southwards they developed a network of new fortifications, including at Carrick and Eilean Dearg,
staffed by cadet branches of the family. In the 1440’s the Campbells were given control over Royal
fortresses and lands on the west coast, to defend against further incursions by Donald Balloch and
the MacDonald’s. In 1457 Colin Campbell was made Earl of Argyll and made Jusiticiar of all Scotland
south of the Forth; in 1499 the family became the official figurehead of the crown in the west.
Within a period of 250 years therefore, they had risen from being local landowners, one amongst
many, to being amongst one of the most powerful and stable families in Scotland. This was
achieved through recognition of the value of close alliance with the crown, as well as the waning
D Omand, (ed.) The Argyll Book p 141
Ibid p 143
Ibid p 143
Page 30
fortunes of the MacDonald lordship. 101 Despite their close alliance to the crown however, the
Campbells still positioned themselves, and were accepted, as a leading Gaelic family for most of the
period. Consequently until c 1450 they continued to build in the west highland tradition, of reusing
existing power bases, and sponsoring the creation of funerary monuments. This is shown by the
development and use of Kilchurn Castle by the Campbells of Glenorchy. The castle at Kilchurn is
thought to date from the 1430’s with a design based on the traditional west highland tower, laich
hall, barmkin and barrack rooms.102 Although the castle lost its status as principal residence, when
the Glenorchy Campbells moved eastwards to Loch Tay, Kilchurn was retained and repaired. It acted
as a symbol of the origins and antiquity of lineage of the kindred, with its fabric being manipulated
to express the success of the clan as it grew through time.103
There was, however, a distinct move away from traditional forms of castellar construction, funerary
architecture and estate management from the middle of the fifteenth century onwards. The two
leading Campbell families, Lochawe and Glenorchy, appear to have been at the forefront of these
new developments; from them we can define a change in the built heritage and something distinct
from the traditional west highland approach.
As before, the Campbells had a need for power bases across their territories from which they could
manage their economic affairs and dispense justice. There were similarities therefore with the
Lordship, but more significantly differences. The Glenorchy Campbells began a new programme of
castle building unseen in the west since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Located on important
trading routes they also tended to be close to sites where the monumental status of administration
already existed, legitimising Campbell power by association.104 New castles were built at Balloch ,
Although there is little evidence to show that they took any of the MacDonald assets for themselves by
force. There appeared to be a natural reluctance to turn against MacDonald allies, friends and relatives by
marriage. There was no open hostility between the clans until 1561 when Archibald, 5th Earl of Argyll
attempted to bring the MacLeans of Duart to Glasgow on behalf o the crown – see D Caldwell, Islay p 77
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 2 Site ref 293
Ibid p 249
The tower at Strathfillan is sited close to a fourteenth century Augustinian priory, a burial mound and an
assembly/ gallows hill – this is not dissimilar to the MacSorley choice of location for power bases – see C
Page 31
Edinample on the southern shore of Loch Earn, Achallader on Rannoch Moor, Barcaldine and Loch
Dochart in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, as Dalglish points out, this new
castellar construction was not necessarily associated with territorial expansion per se, but rather a
new method of estate management. There was a move from the use of kindreds to control
territories to more professionalised administrative and economic management, sometimes by
managers from outside the clan. Smaller, more manageable tower houses enabled a local presence
to be established and estates to be administered without the need for major defensive structures.
Clearly the Campbells in this period did not equate territorial possessions with military service, but
rather with economic gain. The design of these new castles were typical of a wider trend in Scottish
Renaissance architecture. The inclusive ideology of the great hall was replaced by separate rooms,
distancing the chief from the wider community, and any defensive capability was only limited, for
display rather than military value.
In the south the Campbells of Lochawe were also extending their territory into Cowal and Kintyre in
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They too began to adopt new forms of construction, the
compartmentalised tower house reflecting new trends in lowland Scottish architecture. Carrick
Castle is thought to be one of the earliest tower house castles still extant; its location critical on the
trading routes between the lowlands and highlands.105 At Inverary a tower house was built to
replace Innis Chonnell in the 1450’s as the principal residence of the Campbells of Loch Awe. Other
castles of similar date and design were Craignish, Dunderave and Carnasserie, all closely linked to
the Campbells.
None of the Campbell kindreds established traditional religious foundations in Argyll or the Isles.
The only record of significant religious patronage is their creation of a collegiate church at Kilmun in
Dalglish, ‘An Age of Transition? Castles and the Scottish Highland Estate in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth
Centuries’ in Post Medieval Archaeology 39/2 (2005) p 249
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 116
Page 32
Cowal, endowed by Sir Duncan Campbell of Loch Awe in 1442.106 Collegiate churches were secular
foundations, popular in the rest of Scotland in the fifteenth century with over forty being founded.
They were either founded either de novo, or as in the case of Kilmun, by papal dispensation in favour
of an existing parish church.107 Cruden attributes their growth in popularity to the improving
economic conditions that facilitated the development of individual and corporate chantry chapels
outwith the control of the local church hierarchy.108 The style of the funerary monumental sculpture
adopted by the Campbells also differed from the Lordship tradition. Significant numbers were still
produced but in the Campbell dominated areas they tended to of lowland derivation, often
incorporating sandstone effigies and icons equivalent to late medieval grave slabs of eastern
The Campbells adoption of burghal status for the main town at Inverary also marks a change from
the Lordship tradition of territorial management. As already stated, Finlaggan could have attracted
burghal status due to its economic and administrative importance to the lordship, but the Lordship
did not pursue this. As well as control over the trade in the town, burghal status also included rights
over neighbouring forests, ponds, royal lands, manors, farms and grain stores.110 Perhaps the
MacDonalds did not need any external recognition of their rights to such resources, given the extent
of their economic and military power. It could be surmised that equally the Campbells did not
possess equivalent powers, and the burghal status of its key town would provide this.
Towards the end of the period therefore a number of key trends are discernible that demonstrate a
move away from the Lordship traditions to a more outward facing culturally integrated approach to
territorial management. The castles, churches and funerary sculpture all embody how religious and
secular power was exercised; the fall of the MacDonalds, and the completion of Campbell hegemony
This became the burial place of the Earls of Argyll. See RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 7 Site ref 80
S Cruden, Scottish Mediaeval Churches (Edinburgh, 1986) p 183
Ibid p 184
RCAHMS Argyll Vol. 7 p 87
F Watson, 'The expression of power in a medieval kingdom: thirteenth-century Scottish castles' p 67
Page 33
resulted in long term changes that brought Argyll and the islands closer to the Scottish cultural
norm. This was achieved, again not through direct crown interference but by the use of allies who
straddled both worlds, and increasing cultural assimilation.
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As Fiona Watson states ‘There can be few more potent images of a power centre in the popular
mind than the late medieval castle.’111 They provide defensive capability in times of turbulence.
They symbolise the power and wealth of their creators, more so when the populace inhabited small,
slight, impermanent dwellings. This desire to impress or overawe could be directed against both
external aggressors and their own people; reinforcing their legitimacy of rule. They were also the
focus of an increasing complex economic network, a point at which tributes could be rendered and
redistributed and host the displays of feasting and hospitality central to Gaelic medieval culture.
Although we can discern an importation of external design ideas, the castles and power bases of
Argyll during the medieval period have many unique characteristics. Before 1200, and the rise of
the MacSorley dynasty, Argyll is ruled by a number of kinship groupings, or proto clans, with an Irish
and Norse heritage. Focussed very much on the Irish Sea World, there appears to be little early
Scottish or Pictish influence in the architecture of the heartland of Argyll, and especially its islands.
Whilst elsewhere in Scotland, the advancing Norman feudalisation of the Canmores employs early
motte and bailey castle techniques to impose and maintain control; this phenomenon does not
reach the west. Bases of power and economic distribution tend to be stone fortresses, often based
on or close to Iron Age forts, duns or roundhouses that have seen occupation for many centuries.
The influence of the Columban religious tradition is also strong in the early medieval landscape, with
numerous churches, chapels, burial grounds and crosses and grave slabs. As territorial power in
Argyll began to coalesce from the less stratified landholdings of the Ceneln, into smaller numbers of
kindreds, the leaders of the more hierarchical and stratified society developed closer links with the
F Watson, 'The expression of power in a medieval kingdom: thirteenth-century Scottish castles' p 59
Page 35
church. They constructed chapels and began to found religious foundations; in addition a strong
tradition of Irish influenced monumental sculpture develops. The chapels at Keills, Kilmory Knap
and Skipness, demonstrate how control of the religious landscape was as important as control of the
secular landscape. In a period when religion controlled all aspects of everyday life, secular and
religious power could be equally valuable in legitimising territorial control.
The rise to power of Somerled and the MacSorleys heralded a new form of territorial control in
Argyll. David I’s programme of Normanisation failed to reach the west; the Canmores recognised
the need for alliances with powerful local kindreds to keep the peace. These local kindreds resulted
in society becoming much more hierarchical and stratified. Territorial control was from great
castles, such as those built at Sween, Skipness, Dunstaffnage, Aros and Innis Chonnell, rare in
Scotland for the period and unique in their scale and distribution. This programme of castellar
construction appeared to be only partially influenced by Norman ideas of design and use. Whilst
some, such as Castle Sween mirror the shell keep design of the Lowland Stewart castle at Rothesay,
others such as Dunstaffnage, Aros, Caisteal an Nighinn Ruaidhe and Innis Chonnell are very much
indigenous overlays of new ideas onto traditional west highland and island power bases. Any crown
control was only indirect; principally through alliance although the crown nominally controlled bases
at Tarbert, Dunoon and Dunaverty. Cultural assimilation was slow, with many indigenous traditions
carried forward into the design and siting of new castles.
External influence, and possible emulation of Lowland cultural norms, can be found however in the
adoption of continental ideas on religious worship. This was restricted to the MacSorley family and
probably demonstrates their growing regional dominance, being the only kindred grouping with the
power, resources and international connections to found the new religious orders at Saddell,
Ardchattan and Iona. They may have denoted appeasement of the Scottish kings or their conscious
emulation, highlighting the MacSorley economic and cultural dominance in the region.
Page 36
Within Argyll the period of the Wars of Independence and the internal struggle for control, between
the leading families of MacDonalds, MacDougalls, MacRuaris, Campbells and Stewarts, was a very
turbulent one. The response to this was a programme of casteller construction at Tarbert, Duart,
MIngary, Ardtornish and elsewhere and upgrading of many of the early power bases, including
Dunstaffnage, Dun Chonnaill and Cairn Na Burg. As power coalesced into the single hands of the
MacDonalds, during the fourteenth century, the region became more stable. They used their power
and wealth to upgrade existing churches and chapels but rarely built new. The only religious
foundation created in this period is Oronsay Priory, founded by John between 1325 and 1353112
However it is notable that throughout the whole of the period under discussion, there were no
religious foundations created or supported by the crown. In all other regions of Scotland the crown
had some influence in founding or supporting new orders or cathedrals.
A strong, culturally unique tradition of monumental sculpture developed, with its roots very much in
the Irish tradition, but incorporating many of the cultural markers important to the Lordship.
Expressing military power, hunting prowess and control of the seas, this tradition of funerary
architecture marks the region and period out from the rest of Scotland. The medieval grave slabs
and crosses are as powerful as the standard expressions of religious and secular power – the
churches and castles – in confirming the Lordship of the Isles’ control over Argyll. They also
differentiated the region from the rest of Scotland – still definitely peripheral, rather than moving
towards the core. There was a limited presence of royal authority at Dunoon and Tarbert, but the
military and economic dominance of the Lordship was such that the Crown could only hope to keep
the peace indirectly, through alliance with the MacDonalds or the increasingly powerful Campbells.
It is only with the downfall of the MacDonalds, that we begin to see eastern and lowland influences
play a part in the siting and design of castles, religious development and territorial administration.
Even during this later, post 1493, period, the indigenous Gaelic traditions of the main beneficiaries of
D Omand, The Argyll Book p 90
Page 37
the MacDonald forfeitures, the Campbells, were to the fore. This ensured that the way in which
power was represented in the built landscape, still responded to local differences. This was
evidenced by their symbolic use of Kilchurn Castle as the seat of the Glenorchy kindred, representing
the ancient lineage of the clan.
From the mid fifteenth century new ideas of territorial management were emerging and the
Glenorchy and Lochawe Campbells were at the forefront of these new developments. These
included new ways of managing land and new relationships between clan chiefs and their kinsmen.
This new philosophy is expressed in the built landscape by numerous new tower houses as the
administration centre of a quasi modern estate. These enabled a local presence to be established
and estates to be administered without the need for major defensive structures. Their designs were
typical of a wider trend in Scottish Renaissance architecture whereby the inclusive ideology of the
great hall was replaced by separate rooms, distancing the chief from the wider community. Similarly
the major religious development during the period was the founding of the collegiate church at
Kilmun, by the Lochawe Campbells, a lowland tradition of religious patronage, not seen elsewhere in
Argyll. Whilst the Campbell kindreds therefore paid homage to their traditional Gaelic roots, they
were also experimenting with new forms of religious and secular territorial control. A philosophy
which underpinned their rise to power, and long term success, they managed to straddle both the
Gaelic and lowland worlds.
In Argyll therefore, there is a clear trajectory of changes in how territorial power and control was
expressed reflecting changing management regimes and approaches. Although evidence is limited,
particularly for the early period, a pattern of development unique to the west highlands can be
discerned. External influences appear to only ever be indirect, either through the import of ideas of
design or estate management, or via the crown’s allocation of land to local allies. Although the
region was part of Scotland since 1266, direct crown interference though the whole of the period is
extremely limited. Although the MacDonalds were to some extent involved in external affairs, Argyll
Page 38
remained very much at the periphery of Scotland and this was reflected in the way its territories
were managed and the type of buildings that were developed. Even at the end of the period, when
the Campbell hegemony coalesces, how land is controlled responds more to local circumstance than
the imposition of any central authority. This makes the west unique and undoubtedly contributed to
the continuing prejudiced view of the western highlands as uncivilised and barbarous, long after
other peripheral regions were fully assimilated into Scotland’s political and cultural core.
Page 39
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