Skipness Castle And Chapel
A tale of three nations and three families
Skipness Castle was begun in the early 13th century, when Argyll was ruled not by Scotland but by Norway. The builder was probably either Suibhne (Sven) ‘the Red’, founder of Clan MacSween, or his son Dugald. By now, though, the writing was on the wall for Norway. In 1263, when Hakon IV was repulsed by the Scots at the Battle of Largs, he was compelled to return the Hebrides to Scotland. The MacSweens, having backed Hakon, were forced out of Knapdale and Kintyre.
By the end of that century, Skipness had passed to the MacDonalds of Islay and Kintyre. By now Scotland was at war with England. The MacDonalds initially supported the English, and it may have been with English support that they comprehensively rebuilt Skipness much as we see it today – a formidable curtain-walled enclosure, bristling with arrow slits.
The MacDonalds remained lords of Skipness until their downfall in 1493. Thereafter, the castle was held by the Campbell earls of Argyll. During their tenure the lofty tower house at the NE corner was built. By 1700 the castle was unoccupied.
The MacSween legacy
The MacSween castle consisted of a modest two-storey hall-house and a separate chapel, dedicated to St Columba, both probably enclosed within a stone wall. The subsequent comprehensive rebuilding makes it difficult to work out where they were, but the effort is worthwhile. They are among the oldest standing castle buildings in Scotland.
This modest castle might give the impression that the MacSweens were a modest family. Not a bit of it! Skipness was a secondary residence. Their chief seat was at Castle Sween[link], beside Loch Sween, a formidable stronghold built by Suibhne before 1200 – arguably the oldest standing stone castle in Scotland. The MacSweens also built another modest hall-house castle at Lochranza[link], on Arran. Skipness and Lochranza combined to protect the MacSween interests in the Kilbrannan Sound.
The MacDonald legacy
The MacDonalds comprehensively rebuilt Skipness around 1300. They built a new church, Kilbrannan Chapel, down by the shore, and incorporated the redundant St Columba’s Chapel into a new, far more impressive residence. The hall-house was retained but downgraded in status. Most importantly, they constructed a formidable stone curtain wall to enclose the new buildings. This still bristles with crosslet-arrowslits and crenellations (notched parapet walls also for use by archers).
The Campbell legacy
The Campbells’ contribution was to build a lofty tower house at the NE corner of the courtyard. The two lower floors were largely built around 1300, but the top two floors were added in the 16th century. This tower house replaced the accommodation in the south range as the main lordly apartment.