Castle Sween, Knapdale, Argyll
15 miles south west of Lochgilphead
Castle Sween, the oldest standing stone castle in Scotland, dating from the late twelfth century, stands on a low rocky ridge on the picturesque eastern shore of Loch Sween. Both castle and Loch take their name from the chieftain Suibhne the Red, who is said to have built the castle.
The castle originally comprised of a curtain wall 6 feet thick and about 30 feet high surrounding a quadrangular open courtyard.
In the thirteenth century a range was added on the west outside the curtain wall. Later, probably during the Wars of Independence, this was heightened into a tower and a further round tower added against its northern side to improve and update its defences.
The low ground between the site and the hills leaves the castle highly visible to those further up Loch Sween. The view southwest from the castle looks past nearby islands and down the Sound of Jura towards Ireland, the ancestral home of its builder. The shoreline would have been convenient for beaching galleys, as there are no natural anchorage nearby.
The drive down to Castle Sween is quite a trek but takes you along the loch with some fabulous views. When you arrive at the Castle just past the camp site, the view of the loch opens up and is spectacular. The castle itself has plenty to explore, especially the ancient ovens in the kitchen area.
Nearby Kimory Chapel
~ History ~
1100 - An Irish prince of the O'Neill royal line establishes himself in western Argyll where he founds the families of Lamont, Gilchrist and MacLachlan among others.
1140's - Suibhne the Red, son the Irish prince and a powerful chieftain, who also holds lands both in Ireland and Scotland, builds himself one of the earliest stone castles in all Scotland.
1260's - Taking the English side in the Wars of Independence, the castle passes from the MacSween's to Walter Stewart, Earl of Menteith.
1290's - Walter Stewart is succeeded as lord of Knapdale by his younger son Sir John Menteith who takes the side of Robert Bruce in the Wars of Independence. Consequently, Edward I and Edward II of England encourage the MacSween's to recover Knapdale. They are ultimately unsuccessful in this despite sending a large fleet led by John MacSween against the castle.
1309 ~ Robert the Bruce's loyal forces attack Castle Sween held by Alexander MacDonald of the Isles, who is loyal to the English cause, despite his brother Angus Og MacDonald of Islay and Kintyre's loyalty to the Bruce. Alexander is taken prisoner.
From Castle Sween Bruce heads north through friendly Campbell territory to attack the pro English MacDougall's from land and seas in their fortresses of Dunstaffgne, Dunollie and old Gylen.
The English are unable to come to the MacDougall's aid to bolster their 2,000 men against the Bruce's 12,000. To halt Bruce's advance into MacDougall territory "an ambush is laid above the road" at a narrow mountain pass where Bruce would not be able to deploy the full strength of his army against the outnumbered MacDougall's.
As the Bruce approaches the pass at Ben Cruachen and suspecting the possibility of an ambush, he sends his archers ahead to higher ground to provide cover. As his forces approach the narrow pass the MacDougall's spring their trap and "begin throwing down on them great and heavy stones". In response Bruce's archers are able to fire down on the MacDougall's from above whilst his soldiers swarm up from the pass, utterly destroying the MacDougall's forces.
The MacDougall castles are completely overwhelmed by Bruce's forces and captured. The MacDougall leaders are forced to flee to the protection of their English allies. The chief Alexander MacDougall dies the following year, and his son and commander of his forces goes on to play a key role for the English against the Bruce for the next 6 years before his own death.
1376 - The lordship and castle are conferred by Royal grant upon the MacDonald's, Lords of the Isles. The MacDonald's appoint the MacNeill's as keepers with possession of the surrounding lands.
1473 - Hector MacNeill is succeeded by his son-in-law Alexander MacMillan and the castle and lands are returned to the MacDonald's.
1475 - The mainland territories of John MacDonald are declared forfeit for aiding and abetting rebels in providing food and shelter.
1478 - John is summoned to Parliament to answer these charges and for refusing to relinquish Castle Sween.
1481 - James IV grants Castle Sween to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll. The Earls appoint the Campbells of Auchenbreck as keepers but there is much squabbling among his family over possession.
1615 - The castle is the mustering point for the expedition by the 7th Earl of Argyll against the MacDonald's.
1646 - The Campbells use Castle Sween as the primary distribution centre for meal imported from Ireland destined to other castles garrisoned by the Campbells.
1647 - A Royalist force of Irish soldiers, led by the vindictive Alaisdair MacDonald, captures, and burns the castle and ravages the lands of Argyll. The castle is never again garrisoned and is abandoned, slowly falling into ruin.