by Dr. James Scott Petre - October 2013

The news that Mingary Castle in Ardnamurchan is being rescued is most welcome indeed. As Jon Haylett  reported in CSG Newsletter 16,[1] this fine thirteenth-century West Highland castle had indeed been in danger of collapse for quite some time. The investigations now underway will reveal much and no doubt then the architectural history of the castle can be rewritten in much greater detail and with more certainty than previous surveys can have hoped to attain. But it is unlikely that this work will tell us who built the castle in the first place, the records of castle building in the Western Highlands and Islands being generally very thin.

Jon wrote that Mingary was built ‘possibly by the MacDougalls to control the northern end of their Lordship of Lorn’. The castle’s Trust website reflects this and, as Jon has explained, this is the view given to the Trust by Richard Oram, who has been commissioned to write the castle’s history.[2] Not all earlier commentators have thought so and in their views, the identity of the castle’s builders were assigned either to others or, alternatively, to none at all.  My purpose here is an attempt at a review of what evidence we have.

In his Analytical Assessment , Richard Oram has provided a thorough discussion of the historiography of the castle – both in terms of architectural appraisals and its place in political history.  So far as architectural descriptions are concerned, it may in fact, be unnecessary to go back further than 1980, when the Royal Commission [RCAHMS] Inventory for the area was published.  The Mingary entry noted, guardedly, that ‘the early history of the castle is obscure.’ [3] J. Dunbar, who most likely contributed that entry, repeated that statement in his 1981 article but added that Mingary may have been a MacDonald castle from its inception. As he noted, it was certainly in their hands in the fourteenth century.[4]  As Richard Oram has noted, however, while Dunbar was a first-rate architectural historian, architectural analysis alone is quite inadequate evidence from which to deduce a builder. Subsequent RCAHMS spin-offs, penned by Graham Ritchie and Mary Harman, refrained from proffering a suggestion as to who built the castle, as indeed was also the case with that great student of Scottish castellologie, Stewart Cruden.[5]  In the Buildings of Scotland volume on the Highlands and Islands, John Gifford was also cautious, being careful to say no more than that it was built in the thirteenth century by a descendant of Somerled.[6] Another architectural historian - Chris Tabraham,  was clear, however, in assigning the castle to the MacDonalds,[7] while Maurice Lindsay and Martin Coventry wrote that it was ‘probably’ built by the MacIans, who were vassals of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries.[8]

As Richard has observed, the problem arises from uncertainty as to which family held sway in Ardnamurchan in the thirteenth century.  In their 1956-7 article, Duncan and Brown considered that Morvern and Ardnamurchan then belonged either to the MacDonald Lords of Islay or more probably the MacRuairi Lords of Garmoran.[9]  The RCAHMS adhered to this, adding that Ardnamurchan was certainly in the possession of the MacDonalds in the first half of the fourteenth century but that after the downfall of Edward Balliol, it seems to have become detached and granted to Angus MacIan.[10] In their superb edition of the Acts of the Lords of the Isles, the Munros were confused on the matter, stating first that in the mid-thirteenth century, Ardnamurchan, along with Morvern, ‘probably’ belonged to Clan Donald of Islay, but later in that book, they went on to say that the MacDougalls held territory in Ardnamurchan before their fall in the Wars of Independence.[11] The Munros  acknowledged that the best analyses of landholding in the west in those uncertain years included that in Duncan and  Brown’s article mentioned above. Set against these views, in 2001, Paterson wrote that Ardnamurchan was MacDougall territory in the thirteenth century[12] and in 2004 and again in 2012, Richard Oram reasserted this.[13] So, as contenders, we have MacDougalls, MacDonalds, MacRuairis and MacIans. Let us proceed by a process of elimination, with reference to what scanty historical information there is.

First, with regard to the MacIans, we know that they were confirmed in the possession  ‘of the castle and fortalice of Castle Mingary’ by a grants of James IV in 1499 and 1505, on the same terms as the MacIans had previously held from ‘John, sometime lord of the Isles’.[14]  But as the MacIans appear to have come to prominence only in the fourteenth century,[15] they should be discounted as builders in the thirteenth century. Second, could the MacRuairis have held Ardnamurchan and so built Mingary in the thirteenth century?  We have no certain knowledge that they did beyond the inferences of scholars such as Duncan and Brown.  For most of the Wars of Independence, the MacRuairis seem to have supported Robert the Bruce. They fell out of favour and were declared forfeit in 1325 but were re-accommodated by David II in 1341-2.[16] But the point is that they were in favour with the Bruce king at whenever he made a grant of lands which included Ardnamurchan, to the MacDonalds. [17] Given that the king would hardly have confiscated territory from one supporter to reward another, it seems unlikely that Ardnamurchan had been MacRuairi domain in the first place. Mingary does bear a striking resemblance to the MacRuairi castle of Tioram in Moidart…almost to the extent that they appear as twins, so it is tempting here to see both as having the same builders.[18] However, typologically, Mingary and Tioram belong to a much wider group, created by various families in the early middle ages. We must, in any case, accept that comparability of buildings is thin evidence for ascribing common builders. There is little resemblance, for instance, between Tioram and Borve in Benbecula, yet both these castles have been attributed to the MacRuairis.[19] 

What of a MacDonald candidature? As just noted, Ardnamurchan  was granted at some time by King Robert I (the Bruce) to the MacDonalds as one of several gestures of gratitude for their support in the Wars of Independence.  Different dates for this grant have been put forward but some scholars appear agreed that the grant may in fact, have been merely a royal recognition and confirmation of a pre-existing state of affairs : that Ardnamurchan was at that time, ‘probably his own [Angus Og MacDonald’s] inheritance’.[20]  We cannot be certain of this, however, so an attribution of the castle in the thirteenth century to the MacDonalds must remain ‘not proven’. Running on, Ardnamurchan was included in the lands recognised as part of the MacDonald Lordship in Edward Balliol’s charter of 1336.[21] It was not, however, included in the successive grants of David II to the MacDonalds in 1341[22], and 1343.[23] Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that at this time, Ardnamurchan, and with it Mingary, was a MacDonald possession.

As already noted, the MacDougalls have also been put forward as candidates. In the later thirteenth century, when we might speculate Mingary was built, they were the dominant affinity of the three lines descending from Somerled.[24]  The height of their power may be said to have been in John Balliol’s brief reign, when, in the February 1293 parliament held at Scone, it was enacted that Alexander MacDougall would be sheriff of a Lorn area that was to include Ardnamurchan, - one of three shrievalities then created to govern the west of Scotland,[25] though the ordinance may never have had the time to come into effect.  As earlier writers have noted, this award probably reflected that for some time prior to the creation of this sheriffdom, that Alexander had previously held a ‘lieutenancy extending over the whole area of the three sheriffdoms’.[26] Such a jurisdiction does not, of course, mean that the MacDougalls were lords of Ardnamurchan and so in possession of it at that time. As regards architectural detail, the resemblance of Mingary to the MacDougall’s caput of Dunstaffnage  is not a matter that should influence us any more than Mingary’s resemblance to Tioram, noted earlier. On this basis then, ascribing Mingary to the MacDougalls must also remain ‘not proven’.

Richard Oram, however, appears to be fairly sure that Mingary was built by the MacDougalls as lords of Ardnamurchan.  In support of this he wrote that ‘Ardnamurchan appears in February 1293 as a distinct political territorial unit under the lordship of Alexander MacDougall….[and] that this had been MacDougall property for some considerable period.’[27] There are two problems here. The first is the perhaps obvious possibility that though Ardnamurchan was a distinct unit, that it was not all under the control of one lord. More to the point, however, is that the creation of the sheriffdoms simply cannot be taken to reflect that the newly appointed sheriffs were or had been the territorial lords of all the areas listed in the enactment.  Another of the creations, for example, was of a sheriffdom of Skye in favour of William, the earl of Ross. That included ‘Eigg and Rum, Uist and Barra with the very small isles’, [28] territories which have never, to my knowledge, been claimed as Ross lands in the later thirteenth century.

The full text of the creation of the Lorn sheriffdom of 1293 shows that the lands that were to constitute that jurisdiction belonged to several individuals: Alexander MacDougall may have been the leading individual but clearly there were several others. The document may also convey an impression that the stated territories of Morvern, Ardnamurchan and Locheil were unassigned: other areas are not listed and instead covered, as may be inferred, by the names of those who were their territorial lords.

Alexander of Argyll [ Alexander MacDougall, lord of Argyll and Lorn]

Of the lands of Morvern, Ardnamurchan, Locheil, the land of Alexander of Argyll, the land of John of Glenorchy, the land of Gilbert Mac[…], the land of Malcolm MacIvor, the land of Dougal of Craignish, the land of John MacGilchrist, the land of Mr Ralph of Dundee, the land of Gileskel  MacLachlan, the land of the earl of Menteith of Knapdale, the land son of Donald of the Isles and the land of Colin Campbell. And he should be called sheriff of [Lorn]. [29]

Richard has also written [30] that Robert I’s grant to the MacDonalds [31] reflects that Ardnamurchan was earlier MacDougall land. It is hard to see why. That entry  -  for  ‘Ordonurquhy’,  cannot in itself support  such an interpretation.

In conclusion, it would seem sensible to avoid making too confident an assertion that the builders of Mingary Castle were a particular family, much as it may be desirable to do so. No court of law would make such a judgement, given the inadequacy of the evidence available.[32]




[1]  Castle Studies Group Newsletter, 16 (September, 2013), pp. 4-5.

[2]  T. Addyman and R. Oram, Mingary Castle, Ardnamurchan, Argyll;

   Analytical and historical assessment, (unpublished doc. dated, December 2012); Correspondence with Jon

   Haylett, September 2013.

[3]  The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland [RCAHMS], Argyll: An Inventory of

    the Monuments, 3, Mull, Tiree, Coll & Northern Argyll (Edinburgh 1980), p. 34 and nu. 345, pp. 209-17, esp. p.


[4]   J. Dunbar, ‘The Medieval Architecture of the Scottish Highlands’, p. 46, in The Middle Ages in the Highlands, ed.

    Maclean, L., Inverness Field Club (Inverness, 1981), pp. 38-70.

[5]  G. Ritchie and M. Harman, Exploring Scotland’s Heritage, Argyll and the Western Isles, RCAHMS (Edinburgh,

    1985; reprinted with corrections, Edinburgh, 1990), p. 84; 2nd ed. (Edinburgh, 1996), p. 96; S. Cruden, The

    Scottish Castle, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh, 1981), pp. 24, 38, 39, 46-8.

[6]  J. Gifford, Highland and Islands. The Buildings of Scotland (Harmondsworth, 1992), p. 257. See too p. 47. 

[7]  C. Tabraham, Scotland’s Castles, 2nd ed.  (London, 2005), p. 29. That Tabraham’s analysis is imprecise may

    perhaps be inferred by his inclusion in the Tioram-Mingary-Dunstaffnage et al group of Duntrune. In this he   

    followed Dunbar, p. 46. Yet Duntrune is now seen as similar instead to Breachacha and Kisimul (RCAHMS, Argyll:

    An Inventory of the monuments, 7, Mid Argyll & Cowal, Medieval & Later Monuments (Edinburgh, 1992), p. 20,

    nu. 128, pp. 276-82. Moreover, Duntrune is on Loch Crinan, not Loch Creran, as per Tabraham.

[8]  Lindsay, The castles of Scotland, (London 1986), p. 361; M. Coventry, The Castles of Scotland, 4th ed.

   (Musselburgh, 2006), p. 479.

[9]  A.A.M Duncan and A.L. Brown, ‘Argyll and the Isles in the Earlier Middle Ages’, pp. 204-5, in Proceedings of the

   Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, xc (1956-7), pp. 192-220.

[10]  RCAHMS, 3, p. 216.

[11]  Acts of the Lords of the Isles 1336-1493 [ALI], ed. J. Munro and R.W. Munro, Scottish History Society (Edinburgh

    1986), pp. xx, lxi.

[12]  R.C. Paterson, The Lords of the Isles (Edinburgh, 2001), p. 23.

[13]  R. Oram, ‘The Lordship of the Isles 1336-1545’ , p. 124 - in The Argyll Book, ed. D. Omand, (Edinburgh, 2004), pp.

     123-139; Addyman and Oram, Analytical and historical assessment, p. 8.

[14]  ALI, nu. A57, p. 230 and A63, p. 233.

[15]  ALI, pp. 284-6.

[16]  R.A. MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles. Scotland’s Western Seaboard. C. 1100-c. 1336, Scottish Historical

     Review Monograph Series no. 4,  (East Linton, 1997), pp 158, 174, 176,  189-91; M.A. Penman, David II 1329-71

    (Edinburgh 2004), p. 84.

[17] Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum 1306-1424, [RMSRS] new ed. J.M. Thomson (Edinburgh, 1912), app. 2,

     no 56, on  p. 512. Interestingly, this does not seem to have been included in the more recent Regesta Rerum

     Scotorum, [RRS], 5, The Acts of Robert I, King of Scots 1306-1329, ed. A.A.M. Duncan (Edinburgh, 1988).

     G.W.S. Barrow, Robert the Bruce & the Community of the Realm of Scotland, 4th. ed. (Edinburgh, 2005), p. 378;  

     MacDonald, p. 184.

[18]  For Tioram, see Dunbar, p. 46; ALI, p. xxix, nu. 7 on pp. 10-11 and A7 on p. 209.

[19]  For Borve, see ALI, p. xxix, nu. 7 on pp. 10-11 and A7 on p. 209.

[20]  Duncan and Brown, pp. 204-5; MacDonald, pp. 70, 73, 184.   Barrow, Robert the Bruce, p. 378 (from whence the


[21]  ALI,  Nu. 1, pp. 1-2.

[22]  The 1341 grant was to Angus, son of John de Insulis (and so possibly Angus, son of Ian Sprangach [the MacIans]), 

     but it seems likely this is an error in the charter and that it was in fact for John, son of Angus de Insulis [the

     MacDonalds]. RMSRS, App. 1, nu. 114, p. 482; RRS 6, The Acts of David II King of Scots 1329-1371, ed. B. 

     Webster (Edinburgh, 1982), p. 505; ALI, nu. A1, p. 207.

[23]  The 1343 grant was certainly to John, the 1st Lord of the Isles. RRS 6, nu. 72, pp. 113-4; ALI, nu. A2, pp. 207-8.

[24]  Most recently emphasised by W.D.H. Sellar, ‘Hebridean Sea Kings: The Successors of Somerled, 1164-1316’, in

      E.J. Cowan and R.A. McDonald (eds.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Middle Ages (East Linton, 2000), pp. 187-218.

[25]  The Acts of the Parliament of Scotland, [APS] 1, 1124-1423, new ed. C. Innes (Edinburgh, 1844), p. 447; The

     Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, [RPS] K.M. Brown et al eds. (St Andrews, 2007-13), 1293/2/17.

     Date accessed: 1 October 2013.

[26]  Duncan and Brown, p. 217; MacDonald, p. 131; Barrow, from whom the quotation, p. 74.

[27]  Addyman and Oram, Analytical and historical assessment, p. 8.

[28]  APS, p. 447; RPS, 1293/2/16. Date accessed: 1 October 2013.

[29]  The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, [RPS] K.M. Brown et al eds. (St Andrews, 2007-13),

     1293/2/17. Date accessed: 1 October 2013.

[30]  Oram, ‘Lordship’, p. 124

[31]  RMSRS, app. 2, nu. 56, on p. 512. See fn. 17 above.

[32]  Thanks go to Jon Haylett for allowing me to see Richard’s  Analytical and historical assessment and for showing

      me round the scaffolded site on 24 September 2013.