Carnasserie Castle stands just over a mile north of the village of Kilmartin, at the point where Kilmartin Glen narrows and forces the A816 to climb north towards the southern tip of Loch Awe and northern Argyll beyond. Its strategic location allows it to dominate the main inland route along the coast of Argyll, and it is easy to see why a medieval lord would have wanted to build a castle here.
Only they didn't. It is true that Carnasserie Castle gives every sign of having been built as a medieval keep that was later extended by the addition of a Renaissance mansion to its west. This was the impression its builder intended. The castle was actually built as a single structure in the years between 1565 and 1572 for Bishop John Carswell, and apart from some changes to the windows in the south wall made in 1681, it remained virtually unaltered throughout an active life of a little over a century. The result is a remarkable example of the architecture of the day, and an excellent lesson in why appearances cannot always be trusted.
A signpost to Carnasserie Castle directs visitors from the A816 into a large car park next to the main road. From here you pass through a narrow stile and walk up the track that curves around to climb the west side of the valley of the Kilmartin Burn.
After about a third of a mile, the castle comes into view in the ridge rising above you and to your left. Shortly afterwards, a gate in the wall beside the track gives access to a beautiful path that zig-zags steeply up to the castle itself. The path reaches flat ground at the south-east corner of the castle. From here you can walk around the structure, marvelling at how complete it is.
Perhaps the best place from which to gain an initial view is the walled area, all that is left of a courtyard to the south of the castle. Here you can see the two main parts of the building, the five storey "keep" to the east, and the three storey mansion to the west. The smooth continuity of this wall across its entire width is a good clue that the keep and mansion were built at the same time.
One interesting feature is a vertical discontinuity in the shade of the stonework, again across the whole width of the castle, where the ground floor meets the first floor. Catch it in the right light and you can see that the stone below this line is a slightly lighter shade than that above this line. We've seen it suggested that this is an indication that there was an earlier castle on this site. If so, then it was at least as long in its east-west dimension as the castle you see today. We think it far more likely that the line is caused by the castle being initially built as a whole up to the level of the vaulting that would have roofed the ground floor areas in both main parts of the structure. When work then continued upwards, it seems likely that the stone for the rest of the castle was sourced from a different quarry or a different part of the same quarry.
While you are viewing this side of the castle, it is worth looking out for the musket and pistol holes provided as a deterrent to unwanted visitors; the decorative stonework that would once have been topped by an elaborate oriel window in the upper part of the surviving wall; and signs of the changes in window layout made in 1681. The final feature of note is a latrine chute near the ground, close to the point at which the mansion and keep meet.
To the south of the walled grounds are assorted humps and mounds, either signs of courtyard buildings said to have been added in the second half of the 1600s, or possibly traces of the long gone clachan or township of Carnasserie, though some sources place this to the north of the castle. The arch in the wall to the west was apparently added in 1681.
Looking at the north side of the castle reveals that to preserve the impression of a much older keep, the builders extended this considerably forward of the mansion to its west. The impression of a castle of separate parts is given more force through the use of a four storey stair tower protruding from the west end of the north wall of Carnasserie Castle. The angle this forms with the front of the mansion is home to the main (indeed, the only) doorway. Above the doorway is a large three level decorative panel intended to show off Bishop Carswell's wealth and prestige. All that is left are the weathered remains of a dedication of the castle to the Bishop's patron, the 5th Earl of Argyll.
The main central part of the castle, which we've referred to as the mansion, is entirely open to the skies, though there remains enough at ground level to appreciate the way this section was divided into storerooms, for food and wine, with a kitchen at the west end. A nice touch here is the survival of a waterspout, carved into the shape of the head of an animal, perhaps a lion. Parts of the vaulting that once roofed this lower floor remain visible along the walls. The first floor of this part of the castle would have housed the great hall, while the upper floor would probably have held accommodation for visitors and retainers. You can climb up to a gallery that runs along the inside of the west end of the mansion, while further stairs give access to upper levels of the stair tower.
In the "keep" end of the castle, the vaulting remains in place above a ground floor basement that is home to the castle well. You can climb from here up to the first floor of the structure, which, together with the floors above, would have provided accommodation for Bishop Carswell and his family.
The adventurous can climb further. A narrow spiral staircase set within the thickness of the wall goes all the way up to the top of the castle, where it disgorges the visitor onto a walkway guarded mainly by modern railings running around the tops of three of the walls of the keep. If you've ever wondered if you might be a closet vertigo sufferer, this is the place to find out for sure. The spiral staircase requires a lot of care, and the wall walk give a real sense of exposure in places. It is, however, worth it for the spectacular views out across the surrounding landscape, and down into the castle itself.
John Carswell was a local boy made good. He was probably born in Kilmartin at the very beginning of the 1500s, and by the late 1550s was serving as both Rector of Kilmartin and Chancellor of the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle. After the Reformation of 1560 he was appointed Superintendent of Argyll for the Reformed Church. He became Bishop of the Isles in 1567, but by then was already a very wealthy and influential man. In 1565 he embarked on the building of Carnasserie Castle as his main residence in Argyll, and as a place in which he could entertain his patron, Archibald, 5th Earl of Argyll and exert his influence over the area.
Bishop Carswell's place in history was sealed when, in 1567, he published a Gaelic language translation of the Book of Common Order, also known as "John Knox's Liturgy" after its original author. This set out everything needed to practice the Protestant religion in a form usable across the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland, which at the time included the whole of the area for which the Bishop was responsible. It was the first book ever to be printed in Gaelic. It would be nice to think, as claimed by one of the information boards on site, that the translation was carried out by Bishop Carswell at Carnasserie Castle, but its publication just two years into the seven year build of the castle leads to the conclusion the work was probably done while he lived at Kilmartin Castle, his previous residence. When Bishop Carswell died in 1572 his coffin was carried 23 miles overland for burial at Ardchatten Priory.
Carnasserie Castle remained a property of the Dukes of Argyll and, as we have seen, was altered in 1681. Four years later, in 1685, it was attacked and burned by forces loyal to King James VII during an uprising against him by the 9th Earl of Argyll. It was not subsequently returned to use, and this helps explain why the castle is such a fine example of the architecture of a particular period: it would certainly have been altered by any later residents.