A bishop’s residence
In 1559, on the eve of the Protestant Reformation, the Earl of Argyll granted the lands of Carnasserie to his ‘familiar servant’, Master John Carswell, rector of Kilmartin. Following the Reformation, Master John became superintendent of Argyll in the newly reformed Church of Scotland. Two years later, he became bishop of the Isles, with the annexed revenues of Iona Abbey. His exalted position and enhanced income were probably key to his building a new castle at Carnasserie, to replace an earlier edifice. Bishop Carswell’s castle stands largely as built, one of the most accomplished of Scotland’s post-Reformation tower houses.
Part of Campbell’s kingdom
There must have been a significant residence at Carnasserie before Bishop Carswell’s appearance, for in 1436 John MacLachlan of Strathlachlan, a tenant of the Campbells of Lochawe, granted a charter at ‘Carnastre’ to a kinsman. In 1529 Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll, gave Carnasserie to his new wife as part of her marriage settlement. The site of this earlier castle occupies a rocky knoll to the NE of the present structure.
Architecture of distinction
Bishop Carswell’s new residence was an accomplished piece of architecture. It comprised a tower house and a hall range integrated into a single building. The tower house was five storeys high, including the attic. The adjacent hall range was of three storeys. As was usual, the ground floor contained kitchen and storage cellars, with the public and family apartments on the upper floors.
The masonry was of a quality to match the design. On the outside were finely carved features: the moulded string-courses, corbelled angle-turrets, decorated rainwater-spouts and fanciful gunloops. The most elaborate carving was reserved for the tall architectural frame and armorial panel over the front entrance. Its Gaelic inscription reads: ‘DIA LE UA NDUIBHNE’ (‘God be with Ó Duibhne’). Duibhne was the progenitor of the Campbells, and Ó Duibhne was how their clan chief was designated. Bishop Carswell used the same motto when dedicating his magnum opus to his lord, Earl Archibald. Carswell’s translation of John Knox’s Book of Common Order was the first book printed in Scots Gaelic.
Life after the good bishop
Bishop Carswell died in 1572. His son and grandson succeeded him as residents until 1643. Little of record happened during that time, other than the imprisonment and torture therein of John Campbell of Ardkinglas, suspected of complicity in the murder of Campbell of Cawdor. Late in the 17th century, Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchenbreck carried out minor alterations to the residence and enhanced the garden and grounds.
- The location – prominently positioned on a hill overlooking the northern entrance into enchanting Kilmartin Glen.
- The carved ornament – of exceptional quality, particularly the architectural frame over the front door.
- The first-floor chamber in the tower – imagine Bishop Carswell sitting in front of the fine fireplace, working on his magnum opus.