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Castle of the Comyns

Inverlochy Castle stands near to where the River Lochy enters Loch Linnhe, explaining its Gaelic name, Caisteal Inbhirlochaidh (‘Castle at the mouth of the Lochy’).

It was built around 1280 by the powerful ‘Red’ Comyns, lords of Badenoch and Lochaber, to command the southern end of the Great Glen (the royal castle at Inverness commanded the northern end).

The Comyns dominated northern Scotland in the 1200s, with estates reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea. The ‘Reds’ were the senior line, with strongholds at Lochindorb and Ruthven in Badenoch as well as at Inverlochy. The junior line, the ‘Blacks’, were earls of Buchan with castles at Balvenie, near Dufftown, and elsewhere.

The Comyns were close allies of the Balliols, and remained loyal to King John Balliol even after his overthrow by Edward I of England in 1296. Sir John Comyn of Badenoch and Lochaber died peacefully at Inverlochy in 1300, but in 1306 his son, also John, was murdered in Dumfries by Robert the Bruce.

Bruce was crowned king soon after, and made his priority the overthrow of the Comyns. In 1308 he crushed them in battle at Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. Inverlochy, along with all the other Comyn castles, fell into Bruce’s hands.

A mighty castle

Much of what visitors see today was built for the Comyns:

  • the formidable quadrangular curtain wall, over 3m thick;
  • the four round towers projecting from each corner;
  • the wide moat (now dry) around three of its sides – the fourth (north) side lies against the River Lochy;
  • the two opposing entrance gates, each protected by a forework, or barbican.

The now-empty courtyard was once crowded with timber buildings, as excavations between 1983 and 1995 have shown. The main accommodation was in the four corner towers, of which Comyn’s Tower at the north-west corner is the largest. This three-storey keep housed the lord’s private lodging in the two upper floors above a secure storage basement.

A battleground

What happened to the castle after the Comyns’ overthrow in 1308 is not known, but two significant battles were later fought close by.

In 1431 James I’s army, commanded by the Earl of Mar, camped at Inverlochy. Soon afterwards, they were defeated in battle by Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, and his 800 clansmen.

In February 1645, the Marquis of Montrose marched his royalist army over Ben Nevis to surprise and overwhelm a 3,000-strong Covenanting army led by the 8th Earl of Argyll.

Ten years after Montrose’s great victory, Cromwell’s ‘roundheads’ built a new artillery fort a little to the south of the castle, beside the River Nevis. That fort subsequently became Fort William. Inverlochy was left as a monument to Scotland’s medieval military past.

  • Its completeness – few 13th-century Scottish castles survive today, and Inverlochy is one of the most complete and least altered.
  • Comyn’s Tower – which still stands complete to its battlements.