Back in 1984, Colin and I were driving down the shore of Loch Sween in Knapdale, looking for a campsite and pretending it wasn’t raining. I’d seen on the map that there was a castle close by, and I was keeping an eye out for it.
But we’d driven past Castle Sween before we realised it was there. It was surrounded by trees and pretty inaccessible, although we did our best by picking our way over some seaweedy, slippery boulders. I seem to remember that it was impossible to go inside – in the end, we gave up and just viewed it from a respectful distance.
How different was our experience last Sunday.
The afternoon was warm, creeping dizzily towards the Scottish version of ‘hot’, so we were glad of the shade under the mountain ash and beech trees as we walked down to the castle. The path took us through the grounds of our old campsite, which has now been upgraded to a static caravan park. The scent of bluebells was wafting around on the breeze, and warblers were pouring out their song overhead.
Since our visit nearly 30 years ago, much has been done to make Castle Sween easier to admire. The grass is mown, and the walls have had just enough careful restoration without making them too people-friendly. You are warned not to climb on them, but no one tells you not to creep through the small hole at ground level that leads into one of the corner towers. We both took turns to do this (I wanted a torch but was told not to be a wimp). Apparently, this was the site of one of the castle’s many latrines. (Ah, yes, great! How long ago? OK, then).
The man who is credited with building Castle Sween is known as Suibhne Ruadh (Sweeney the Red, or Red-haired). Some historians suggest that he was descended from a long line of Irish kings, while others argue that his name is derived from the Norse name ‘Sven’. Since ‘Sven’ conjures an image in my mind of a humourless and taciturn Bond villain, I think I’ll call him Suibhne.
Suibhne’s grandfather was called Hugh the Splendid, and I am already liking him much better. Hugh died in 1047, so it’s reasonable to suppose that his grandson built Castle Sween sometime during the 12th century. This makes it one of the oldest surviving castles in Scotland.
Canmore, the database of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, states that the original structure consisted of four enclosing walls, six to seven feet thick, on the inside of which were three ranges of timber buildings grouped around a small courtyard. Towers and more rooms were added by successive owners, but the original shape remains pretty much the same. I was interested to see that each of the towers had been modified to house a latrine. Obviously no one who lived here wanted to have to walk very far to the loo.
Castle Sween was purpose-built to take advantage of Loch Sween’s natural assets. Sea power, in those days, was everything, and Loch Sween must have presented an awe-inspiring sight with a fleet of galleys in full sail. Suibhne and his descendants came to govern lands that extended up to Loch Awe and across Kintyre to Skipness, but for some reason – probably not amicable – at the end of the 13th century their possessions fell to the Earls of Menteith.
During the Scottish Wars of Independence the MacSweens allied themselves with the English king, Edward I. Their hope was that Edward would reward them by restoring their lands to them, but they reckoned without Robert the Bruce. The Bruce made sure the castle was given to one of his own supporters, along with the island of Islay. I can just picture the scene…
– “Step forward, Angus Og, my loyal kinsman! How can I ever thank you?”
– “Sire, I crave no reward save the honour of fighting by your side. But now that you ask, I’ve always wanted a castle.”
– “Ah! You can have Castle Sween. It needs a bit of renovation work, and you might want to add some latrines. I was hard pressed to find one when I was last there. Dammit, you can have Islay as well. I’m the King!”
In the late 1300s at least half of Knapdale, including Castle Sween, was held by the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. For several generations the keepers or ‘constables’ of the castle were the MacNeills and then the Macmillans. In the 15th century the Macmillan chief built the big rectangular north-east tower, which bears his name, and he is also responsible for a beautiful stone cross at nearby Kilmory Knap Chapel, which I will tell you about soon.
The supremacy of the Lords of the Isles would soon come to an end. In 1481, James III appointed Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, as the castle’s keeper, and in 1493 James IV brought the whole of the west coast and its islands firmly under his control. After that, Castle Sween appears to have remained in Campbell ownership. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland reveals that the east courtyard was cleared of major buildings and given over to metal working in the early 1600s.
One of the notices at the castle states rather sadly that:
“During the British Civil War, Castle Sween was attacked and burned in 1644 by Alisdair MacColla and his Clan Donald, during his ravaging of the clan Campbell’s Argyll. The Castle has been a ruin ever since.”
Despite being a ruin, Castle Sween still has an air about it, difficult to fathom. On the landward side it presents a massive wall of silence, but once you go inside you realise that the whole place is looking south-west, down the loch and across the Sound of Jura, almost as if it is watching for the distant sails of a returning fleet.
While researching this article, I came across a contemporary reference to Castle Sween in The Dean of Lismore’s Book, a collection of ancient poetry compiled by Sir James McGregor, the Dean of Lismore, and dated 1512.
The poems are written principally in Gaelic, but also in Scots and Latin. A translation was made by the Revd Thomas McLaughlan in 1862. This particular poem is credited to Blind Arthur McGurkich, and appears to describe an attempt by John MacSween, possibly during the 13th century, to regain his rightful inheritance by attacking the castle from the sea, although there is no historical reference to such an event. The bards always did have a massive degree of poetic licence!
The translator has left a footnote to say that this poem caused him a particular headache, owing to its archaic vocabulary. I am not going to reproduce it all, but I have chosen a couple of sections that I think seize the spirit of the place:
“The assembled fleet at Castle Sween,
Pleasant tidings in Innisfail,
Of all the riders of the waves,
A finer ship no man e’er owned.
Tall men did manage the ship,
Men, I think, to urge their way;
No hand without a champion,
A slashing, vigorous, noble band.
With coats of black all were supplied,
In this bark, noble their race,
Bands with their brown, broad belts,
Danes and nobles were they all.
Chieftains with ivory and gold,
The crew on board this brown-sailed ship
Each with a sheaf of warriors’ spears,
Shields on their hooks hung round the sides.
Wide-spread wings, speckled sails,
Bearing purple, all of gems;
A long, handsome, gentle band…”
“…John McSween, sail thou the ship,
On the ocean’s fierce-topped back;
Raise aloft the vessel’s masts,
Let thy bark now test the sea.
A leading wind then for them rose,
At Kyle Aca as rose the tide;
The speckled sails were roundly bellied,
As John ran swiftly for the land.
We entered the cheerful anchorage
In the bay of fruitful Knapdale;
The noble hero, lordly, shapely,
Comely, masted, swift, victorious,
He was then near Albin’s walls,
Helpful, welcoming his men.”
Notes: The translator suggests that Kyle Aca is possibly an old name for entrance to Loch Sween (not Kyle Akin, as you would suppose).
The Dean of Lismore’s Book is now held in the National Library of Scotland.
Castle Sween is maintained by Historic Scotland.
All photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
If you enjoyed this, please take a look at these other features on The Hazel Tree:
- Duart Castle – ancient seat of Clan Maclean, on the Isle of Mull;
- Skipness Castle – overlooking Kilbrannan Sound in Kintyre;
- Kilchurn Castle – a romantic ruin on an island in Loch Awe;
- Kilmory Knap Chapel – just down the road from Castle Sween, and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited!