Many a battle has been enacted within the grassy ruins of Skipness Castle by generations of children visiting Skipness. The setting, the history, the stone archways, and the tall tower with its high ramparts, rooms and spiral staircase, inspire the imagination of young and old to feel connected to our ancient feudal past.
Skipness Castle is one of the oldest standing castles in Scotland. The castle grounds are accessible to the public all year round. The tower is open during the day from 1st April – 30th September. The rampart at the top of the tower affords wonderful views over Kilbrannan Sound to the Isle of Arran. The castle car park is a short walk from the castle.
Skipness Castle stands next to Skipness House demonstrating, through architecture, the passage of time as the families who owned the Estate gradually modernised and built more comfortable residences. The castle was handed over to the ‘Department of Environment’ by the Oakes family in the 1970s and today it is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland (formally Historic Scotland).
The land around the castle has provided many archaeological treasures and historical clues of pottery, coins, buckles and fastenings, and a number of musket balls.
Skipness Castle was first built 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 then though, the writing was on the wall for Norway and the MacSweens were forced out of Knapdale and Kintyre. 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. They are now among the oldest standing castle buildings in Scotland.
By the end of that century, Skipness had passed to the MacDonalds of Islay and Kintyre and Scotland was now at war with England. The MacDonalds initially supported the English, and rebuilt Skipness Castle much as we see it today. They incorporated the redundant St Columba’s Chapel converting it into an impressive lordly 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 in the West range – rare features in a Scottish castle – and crenellations (notched parapet walls also for use by archers).
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.
It is believed that Skipness Castle is occupied by a Green Lady. This is a good Highland spirit more akin to a fairy than a ghost. She wears a long green dress and is thought to dislike dogs. She has protected the castle and it’s occupants for centuries and attacks on the castle have been thwarted by the Green Lady’s ability to use her supernatural powers to confuse the enemy. If you’re lucky you may just catch a fleeting glimpse of her on the spiral staircase!
Kilbrannan Chapel is also in the care of Historic Environment Scotland. It sits conspicuously in the far corner of the field down from the castle and near the shore. The MacDonalds built Kilbrannan Chapel around 1300 when they converted the original MacSween castle and chapel into one larger, more impressive residence. In the surrounding graveyard are some excellent examples of elaborately carved gravestones and a number of ancient burial slabs. The cemetery is still in use today and the grounds are looked after by the local council.