This is one of the earliest castles in Scotland, dating to the 12th century. Later towers were built in addition to now vanished wooden structures.Scotland’s oldest castle
Castle Sween is the oldest standing castle in Scotland that can be dated with confidence. It was built around the end of the 12th century. The builder was probably Suibhne (Sven) ‘the Red’, Lord of Knapdale and progenitor of the MacSweens. Where Suibhne led, other Gaelic lords of Norse descent followed in the 13th century. They included the MacDougalls at Dunstaffnage.
Sween and the other early castles of Scotland’s western seaboard are extraordinary strongholds. At that time, Argyll and the Isles lay beyond the kingdom of Scotland and far beyond the influence of the Normans. In this region arose some of the most impressive castles we have. We can never be sure what possessed these chiefs to build as they did, but our legacy of castles is the richer for their efforts.
The castle of Suibhne ‘the Red’
Suibhne built his castle on a low, rocky ridge, overlooking Loch Sween from the eastern side. It comprised a quadrangular curtain wall, 2m thick and 8m high to the battlements, enclosing a courtyard roughly the size of two tennis courts. What Suibhne built within this wall is far from clear, for substantial alterations and additions were subsequently made. The main entrance was a round-headed doorway facing south. A postern through the west side gave access to a boat-landing down by the loch.
The architectural features that confirm the late 12th-century date are the broad buttresses clasping the outside walls. These shallow projections clasp not only the corners but the mid-walls also. There is also a complete absence of windows and other openings, apart from the two entrances.
Later lords of Sween
In 1266, Argyll and the Isles were returned to Scotland by King Magnus ‘Barelegs’ of Norway. Around the same time, the MacSweens were replaced as Lords of Knapdale by the Stewart Earls of Menteith. Around 1300, a determined attempt by John MacSween to recover his castle faileda. This was despite a ‘tryst [meeting] of a fleet against Caisteal Suibhne’, recorded in a celebrated Gaelic poem. The turbulent event may have prompted the Stewarts to build a new three-storey seaward tower.
From the later 14th century on, the castle passed to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, and several families served as keepers, including the MacNeils of Gigha and the MacMillans. The latter may have supervised the building of the large MacMillan Tower projecting from the NE corner. In 1481 James III of Scotland, fearful of the MacDonalds’ increasing treachery, entrusted the castle to the loyal Campbell earls of Argyll. The stronghold last saw action in 1647.
- The location – impressively sited beside the sea-loch of Loch Sween.
- The curtain wall – the oldest standing castle masonry in Scotland.
- The view from the battlements – imagine the MacSweens’ galleys sailing up to the castle.