Welcome to Ardvreck Castle

 

Assynt was granted to Siol Torquil in 1343 by David II on condition of feudal service of one Galley (a requirement that helped ensure the King could raise a sufficiently large maritime force to maintain Royal control over the islands on the West Coast of Scotland). It passed from Siol to his son, Tormod, and then through his descendants who became of the Macleods of Assynt. It was a member of this clan, Angus Mor III, who built Ardvreck Castle around 1490.

Constructed on a promontory of land jutting out into Loch Assynt, it would have been cut off from the mainland when the water level in the Loch was at its highest level. The castle itself took the form of a simple rectangular block, perhaps three or four storeys tall, and was in proximity to a rampart that ran across the thin neck of the peninsula. The promontory interior would have been occupied by all the supporting facilities associated with such a settlement including a brewhouse, bakehouse and stables plus berthing facilities for the boats that would have been used for travel and exploiting the Loch’s rich natural resources.

Significant upgrades were made to the castle in the sixteenth century (a now lost engraving recorded a date of either 1571 or 1579) by Donald Ban IX. He upgraded the existing rectangular block into a Tower House, the fashionable form of residence for Scottish landowners of the time. It took the traditional form with storage (in this case vaulted cellars) on the ground floor, a Great Hall on the first floor and accommodation above. A semi-circular tower, which morphed into a square caphouse for the second and third storeys, provided additional accommodation. At some point in the castle’s use a walled garden was also added in the promontory.

The castle acquired its place in history in 1650 when James Graham, Marquis of Montrose was briefly imprisoned there. He had been a key Royalist commander – most notably with his successful 1644/5 campaign where he had effectively mobilised Highland forces and won a number of impressive victories. Starting with few supplies, he nevertheless achieved a significant victory at the Battle of Tippermuir (1 September 1644) and went on to assault Aberdeen later the same month. In February 1645 he humiliated Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll at the Second Battle of Inverlochy with an impressive advance over the foothills of Ben Nevis. He defeated further Covenanter forces at the battles of Auldearn (May 1645) and Alford (July 1645) but his crowning achievement was the Battle of Kilsyth, fought on 15 August 1645, where he briefly became master of Scotland and summoned a Parliament in Glasgow. His victories came to an end on 13 September 1645 when he was routed at Philiphaugh. He fled into exile in Norway but, following the execution of Charles I, was persuaded to return in June 1649 in support of Charles II. However, this time he was unsuccessful and was defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale on 25 April 1650. He fled the field and sought shelter at Ardvreck Castle. The then owner, Neil Macleod, was absent but his wife welcomed the Royalist commander into the fortification, tricked him into entering a dungeon and handed him over to the Covenanter forces. This highly respected Royalist was then taken to Edinburgh where, on 21 May 1650, he was hung and quartered to the delight of his rival Archibald Campbell. His remains were placed on public display until the Reformation when Charles II had his mutilated body interred in St Giles’ Cathedral (whilst Campbell was executed).

After the Restoration the Macleods were politically isolated, particularly by Charles II who held them culpable for the fate of Graham. This was exploited by the enemies of the Macleods – in particular the MacKenzies of Wester Ross. By purchasing various Macleod debts, they claimed ownership of Ardvreck Castle and in June 1672 besieged the property. The castle was held by John Macleod who defied the attackers for 14 days but was forced to surrender when siege apparatus was brought forward. Ardvreck Castle, along with the Assynt territories, passed to the MacKenzies.

The new owners regarded the austere residential arrangements at Ardvreck Castle as wholly unsuitable and abandoned it within a few decades of seizing it from the Macleods. In its place Kenneth MacKenzie commissioned Calda House – known locally as the White House for its whitewashed walls – with work starting in 1726. Stone was robbed from the old castle and the finished house was a lavish residence described as having “14 bedchambers, with the convenience of chimneys [and] fireplaces”. It was superbly sited to view the ruins of the old castle and fuel the legend of the downfall of the Macleods. However, within a few years the MacKenzies were finding it difficult to fund such a lavish residence as they were suffering from financial troubles inflicted on them by the Government for their Jacobite sympathies. Calda House was put up for sale and two potential buyers competed to acquire the site – William MacKenzie, Earl of Seaforth and William Sutherland, Earl of Sutherland. The latter won but this incensed the MacKenzies and on 12 May 1737 some of their supporters looted and burnt the house. The site never fully recovered and fifty years later it was partially demolished to provide stone for a schoolhouse at Kirkton.