Armadale Castle Gardens and the Museum of the Isles can be found just ¾ of a mile from from the terminal for the Mallaig ferry at Armadale. Despite this, they are all-too easily overlooked, with drivers emerging from the ferry all too ready to simply sweep past on the improved road to the rest of Skye. Those who do miss seeing southern Skye's best visitor attraction.
What is collectively known as "Clan Donald Skye" comprises two distinct elements, though the single admission fee gives access to everything on offer. The superb Museum of the Isles is the subject of a separate feature. On this page we focus on the 40 acres of formal gardens, the surrounding woodland and the ruin of Armadale Castle itself.
The visitors' car park for Clan Donald Skye lies just off the main A851 a short distance out of Armadale. The turning is just past the impressive white building with a castellated tower that used to house the castle stables and which today is home to the Stables Restaurant. This building dates back to 1822, and after a period of dereliction was restored in 1984. During the restoration the restaurant was added on to the rear of the old stables, though the re-use of oak panelling and other features rescued from a condemned Paisley mansion mean that its recent origins are far from obvious.
Next to the main gates to the gardens is the wooden building that houses the ticket office and a gift shop. From here you pass into the beautiful gardens themselves. Here the choices facing you are numerous.
Keeping to the left at the first main junction then keeping roughly straight ahead takes you past the cluster of large ornamental ponds and to the white, virtually windowless modern building that houses the Museum of the Isles. Don't let the slightly forbidding exterior put you off. The absence of windows is because this is a purpose-built museum: and beautiful artefacts and sunlight are not good mixers. Inside you find what is, for its size, the best museum in Scotland, described in more detail here.
Within sight of the museum building is the ruin of the castle laundry, and from this part of the estate you can make your way across the gardens to the rear of Armadale Castle. But let's wind things back a little, to your entering the gates to the gardens.
From here you can cut back towards the main road to your right and find the adventure playground. But for most people entering Armadale Castle Gardens, the first port of call is probably the ruin of the castle itself. To reach this you take a partial right at the first main junction you come to. A couple of hundred yards on, and the front face of the castle comes obliquely into view, the near end of it partly hidden under a thick growth of ivy.
What you find as you draw closer to the castle is a series of apparently distinct structures. The first looks like the west doorway of a badly ruined medieval abbey: an elaborate doorway and towering stonework above, which clearly once housed a massive window. This was originally the main entrance to a major Gothic extension to the castle built in 1815 to the design of architect James Gillespie Graham.
You can enter what little is left of this part of the castle. In doing so you pass into what was once the grand hallway, and you are faced by what was once the equally grand Imperial Staircase. Today this all has the feel of an elaborate garden folly. The hallway is open to the sky and, apart from the doorway, has few standing walls.
This Gothic extension now forms what is effectively an attractive patio garden, butting up to the wall of the largest standing part of the castle. This is the large central section of the castle, built to a design by David Bryce in 1858. At first sight this seems remarkably complete, but as you approach, you realise that it is a hollow shell: roofless, floorless and windowless.
The third main element of Armadale Castle is what looks like a white-harled two storey house with a one storey extension, butting up to the far wall of the central shell of the castle. The fact that this remains in use (it houses the Somerled Rooms and provides a conference/wedding venue as well as offices) makes it seem like a later addition to the ruin it is attached to. It is actually all that remains of the original Armadale Castle, built as a mansion house in 1790.
From 1975 this part of the castle was home to the Museum of the Isles: and it has been restored to its current splendour since the museum moved to its new, purpose-built home in March 2002.
A plinth on the other side of the drive from the castle ruin carries a series of drawings that allow the castle ruins to be put into context. The original mansion of 1790 was a much longer version of the white-harled section you can see today. This was joined by the Gothic extension, which doubled the frontage of the castle, in 1815.
In 1855 a fire destroyed much of the original mansion house, and in 1858, the "gap" in the frontage left by the fire was filled by the addition that today forms the most imposing part of the castle. In 1981 the ruinous Gothic wing was made safe, effectively by demolishing most of what was left of it, and the 1858 building was consolidated to allow for possible future restoration.
The story of Armadale Castle is closely associated with that of the MacDonalds of Skye. Since their arrival on Skye from the western isles in the 1400s, the MacDonalds had settled in various parts of the island. Their centre of power in the 1600s was at Duntulm Castle in Trotternish, but from the 1790s Armadale Castle became their main home.
By 1925 the castle was proving increasingly problematical to maintain, and the family left it for a smaller home elsewhere on Sleat. Its decline continued until 1971, when the castle and the surrounding 20,000 acre estate were purchased by the Clan Donald Lands Trust.
The Trust is supported by clan members from around the world, and its aims are to encourage the education of the general public in the history of the Highlands, and of the Clan Donald in particular. As an aside, the estate also offers self-catering properties for rent that range from log cottages to a suite on the first floor of The Stables.