Scotland is home to some impressively-located castles. Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle spring immediately to mind, but in many way both are outshone by Duart Castle. Perched on top of a rocky outcrop at the end of a peninsula near the easternmost corner of Mull, it stands guard over one of the most important marine crossroads in western Scotland.
From here ships can pass north-west up the Sound of Mull, south-west down the Firth of Lorne, north-east past Lismore into Loch Linnhe, or east to Oban. But whichever way they pass, they do so under the watchful gaze and under the cannons of Duart Castle.
This superb naturally defensible position has probably been fortified from very early times, and would certainly have been a very handy spot to hold during the Viking raids of the 800s. But the first stone walls to appear here did so in the mid 1200s, at which time Duart was part of the lands held by the Mackinnon Clan. At that time the castle here comprised a curtain wall around the top of the rocky knoll on which the castle now stands.
The Maclean Clan first became associated with Duart in about 1367. That was the year in which a papal dispensation was granted to allow the clan chief, Lachlan Lubanach Maclean, to marry Mary MacDonald, the daughter of the Lord of the Isles. Mary's father was less keen on the marriage than Mary herself, but he agreed after Lachlan had kidnapped her. As a dowry, Lachlan was given much of the land on Mull previously held by the Mackinnons, including Duart.
By about 1390, Lachlan had added considerably to the defenses of Duart Castle. In particular he built the great keep at the north-eastern end of the castle. This was added outside the space previously occupied by the curtain wall, which thus came to form the basis for the inner wall of the keep. As well as expanding the space available, this had the added advantage of enclosing the castle well.
Further additions were made to the castle in the form of new ranges in the 1500s and 1600s, leaving the castle in the general form in which you find it today: a hollow square surrounded on three sides by ranges of buildings (one of which is the keep), and on the fourth by the wall in which is placed the narrow main gate.
Externally, the landward side of the castle was defended by a rock-cut ditch and by exceptionally thick walls. The north-east and north-west sides of the castle were made naturally impregnable by the steep sides of the rocky outcrop on which it was built.
Meanwhile, the Macleans of Duart lived out some extremely eventful lives. Hector Odhar, the 9th Chief of Clan Maclean died alongside James IV of Scotland in 1513 at the ill-judged Battle of Flodden. The 11th Chief made his mark on history less auspiciously. In about 1520, Lachlan Cattanach took as his second wife Catherine, the sister of the Chief of Clan Campbell, the Earl of Argyll. But she failed to produce an heir for him, and Lachlan had her stranded on what is now known as Lady's Rock, within sight of the castle, to await the incoming tide, which he knew would cover it and drown her.
Catherine had disappeared by the following morning and Lachlan sadly reported her death to her brother, the Earl of Argyll. When Lachlan subsequently accepted an invitation to a banquet from the Earl of Argyll at his castle at Inveraray he found Catherine sitting next to her brother at the high table. She had been rescued by a passing fisherman. Nothing was said, and Lachlan was allowed to leave unharmed. He was found murdered in Edinburgh on 10 November 1523, apparently stabbed in revenge by another of Catherine's brothers Sir John Campbell of Cawdor.
The 13th chief, Lachlan Mor was an even less pleasant man. He is chiefly remembered for bursting in on the celebrations following the wedding of his widowed mother, killing 18 of the wedding guests, and imprisoning and torturing his new stepfather.
The 1600s saw a steady decline in the fortunes of the Macleans of Duart. The castle was briefly seized by James VI in 1604 after he found out that the Clan had secretly been plotting with Queen Elizabeth of England before her death. Then the Maclean's backed the losing Royalist cause during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, something which left them mortgaged to the hilt and losing most of their lands to the Campbells. They nonetheless clung on to Duart until 1689, when their support for the ill-fated first Jacobite uprising led to their remaining estates being forfeited.
Fast forward 222 years to 1911. By now the very ruinous Duart Castle was owned by the 2nd Laird of Torosay, Murray Guthrie. He sold the ruin and part of the peninsula on which it stands to Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief of Clan Maclean (not to be confused with the later Fitzroy Maclean, war hero and politician). Sir Fitzroy then engaged the architect Sir John Burnet and spent a fortune restoring Duart Castle to the glory you see today. Meanwhile, the home of the Lairds of Torosay, which until 1911 had been know as Duart House, was renamed Torosay Castle to avoid confusion. On 24 August 1912 a great gathering of Clan Maclean took place at Duart Castle to celebrate its restoration.
Today's Duart Castle has lost none of the grandeur of an earlier age. It even retains a number of cannons as a reminder of that age, though its umissable presence is now seen as a landmark rather than a threat by passing seafarers. Internally the castle serves as a home to the 28th Chief of the Clan and his family, as well as the ancestral home of Clan Maclean, wherever in the world its widely scattered members now actually live.
From a visitor's point of view a visit to Duart Castle is an essential part of any visit to Mull. Much of the castle is open to the public, including the wall walk around the top of the keep, which offers magnificent views. And an old byre has been attractively converted into a shop and tearoom.
Visitors can reach Duart Castle by car, or by the castle's own bus service from the ferry terminus at Craignure, or by boat direct from Oban: details are on the castle's website. Duart Castle serves to ensure that this small corner of Mull has more to offer visitors than anywhere else on the island or its surrounding area except, perhaps, Tobermory and Iona.