Open For Business
We are proud to announce that Mingary Castle is ‘open for business’. Find out how you can experience living history here.
Mingary Castle stands by the sea a mile or so to the east of the village of Kilchoan – the interactive map (lower right) shows its exact location. It is a castle with a long and rich history, the seat of the Clan MacIain, a sept of Clan MacDonald and once one of the most powerful clans along the western coast of Scotland.
The name Mingary, or Mingarry, may be the anglicised version of Mioghairidh, but the exact meaning of the word is cause for dispute. A possible translation is that it is derived from two Norse words, mikil, meaning great, and gardhr, a garth or house, so ‘great house’ – though the name has been translated by some to mean ‘great land between machair and moor’.
That its name has a Norse derivation suggests that the site was occupied in the time of the Vikings, if not before, and evolved into a mediaeval castle site, for it is not an ideal defensive position. It stands in a wide bay, between the headlands of Rubha Aird an Iasgaich (Point of the Fishing Height), in the lee of which is the Calmac pier, and, just out of view below the above picture, Rubh’ a’ Mhile (Point of the Mile).
The castle itself is sited on a promontory formed of an igneous sill (see picture right – click to expand), with steep cliffs to south, west and east. A narrow neck of land connects it to the land to the north, which rises slowly, so the site is overlooked by hills. There is a better site: Rubha Aird an Iasgaich would have been far better, with the narrow isthmus connecting it to the land, or Glas Eilean, the next low headland in the picture, which is cut off at low tide and is very similar to the small island upon which Castle Tioram, north of Acharacle, was built.
To start to appreciate the importance of Mingary Castle, we have to understand the role of castles in mediaeval and pre-mediaeval times. Their job was to dominate an area militarily, and the most important castles therefore dominated major route ways.
When Mingary was in its heyday, most movement was by sea. Travel on land was dangerous, uncomfortable, unreliable, and slow. Further, the people of the west coast had the Norse amongst their ancestors, and therefore, the sea in their blood. So most goods and people travelled by ship.
The ships of the time were galleys – pictures of them are carved on local headstones – but, although descended from Viking longship designs, they were cargo ships, incapable of riding out storms at sea; so they hugged the coast and followed the safest routes. Mariners moving along Scotland’s great western routeway (left) would avoid going round the western side of Mull, preferring the far calmer Sound of Mull – and Mingary sat in a controlling position at the northern end of the Sound.
To give a modern analogy, Mingary was like taking one of the Royal Navy’s new Type 45 destroyers and sitting it next to the M8 motorway; and Mingary’s version of highway patrol cars would have been small, fast ships that were pulled up on the beaches on either side of the castle, ready for immediate launch if a passing vessel required intercepting. Mingary therefore dominated the sea out as far as the islands of Tiree, Coll and Eigg.
As well as being a fighting machine, Mingary was a statement of power. Today, the stone of the curtain walls blend in to the landscape, but we know from recent archaeological work that the outsides of the walls were harled, and that their colour was a slightly pink shade of white. Like a lighthouse, the castle would have been visible from miles away, and its statement would have been that no-one passes the Sound of Mull without Mingary’s permission.
In our modern system of routes, Mingary is way off the beaten track, stuck out at the end of a long peninsula, far from the modern nodes of settlement and transport. Some of the castle’s importance therefore lies in its very neglect, with the result that much of its original structure is still there and visible. That it became so remote had another benefit: it wasn’t changed, so it remains a iconic example of Gaelic architecture uninfluenced by Norman, English or other outside ideas.
Whilst some ascribe the original construction of the castle to the MacDougalls, there is some debate here and it seems equally possible that it was a MacDonald castle from its inception. We hope to expose the various strands of evidence and supposition on this in more detail over forthcoming months … however it is clear that Mingary did become one of a chain of castles in the Lordship of the Isles, part of the great MacDonald fiefdom, and the seat of one of Clan MacDonald’s most important and powerful septs, Clan MacIain. The Lordship was almost a kingdom in its own right, for it often operated outside the jurisdiction of the Scottish king.
This photo shows Mingary from the North West. The castle’s curtain walls, up to 14m high, form a hexagon. The longest and thickest wall is to the north, facing onto a neck of land which is cut by a defensive ditch 7.5m wide and 3m deep. There is a sea gate in the south wall, and a rock-cut stairway leads from the beach at the west to a land gate in the NW wall. The walls enclose a courtyard roughly 20m N-S and 18m E-W, within which rise three ranges of buildings. Sadly, the state of decay of this historic castle is such that its interior is inaccessible.
Remote, little known, it would have been so easy to allow Mingary to collapse into a picturesque ruin. That work has now started to rescue it is thanks to the efforts of the man who owns the Ardnamurchan Estate and Mingary itself, Donald Houston, who has set up the Mingary Castle Preservation & Restoration Trust.
The Trust is now in the process of restoring the castle to its former grandeur, this site will allow you to follow the process of exploration, analysis and careful renovation as it happens, and to investigate the long and intricate history of this Scottish treasure. You also have the opportunity to be part of its future; this is a challenging and costly venture and any support that you can provide will help to secure Mingary Castle for future generations.
The Trust faces a huge task, not least in researching and recording before the work of stabilising and preservation can begin. An appeal for funds will be launched shortly, and it is hoped that people from all over the world will join together in helping to preserve this wonderful piece of Scottish history.
Many thanks to Addyman Archaeology for background information & advice.
Ardnamurchan and Clan MacIain
We are proud to announce the launch of our sister site, casting a long overdue spotlight on the MacIain clan, which dominated the peninsula for over 300 years, shaping many key aspects of what Ardnamurchan is today … before being defeated and brutally dispersed. The site already contains a rich selection of content on Ardnamurchan as it is – and as it was – a ‘must read’ for visitors to the peninsula or those wishing to know more about their Scottish heritage. You can find it here: http://www.clanmaciain.com … please take a look and let us know what you think!