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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
1978 - October

HISTORIC CASTLES AND FAMILIES OF THE NORTH

8. Ardvreck Castle - The MacNicols and Macleods of Assynt

D. B. Miller

The road leading from Lairg to Lochinver in the South-West corner of Sutherland where it enters the parish of Assynt passes through some of the most magnificently grand scenery in Scotland. Towering, rugged mountains some of them rising to over 3000 feet surround the traveller in awe inspiring splendour.

Near Inchnadamph on the left the first glimpse of beautiful Loch Assynt can be seen and for the next ten miles or so the winding road is never far from the northern shore of the loch as sometimes the traveller can see panoramic views of the water and the next minute mere glimpses through the screen of trees. Not far from the eastern end of loch Assynt on a peninsula jutting out into the waters of the loch stand the picturesque ruins of Ardvreck Castle. Had this ancient stronghold been restored as Eilean Donan had been restored it would undoubtedly have rivalled it as the most photographed castle in Scotland.

The MacNicols

The earliest lairds of Assynt were the ancient family of MacNicol. They are traditionally believed to be descended from one Macrycul (the letter 'r' in Gaelic being invariably pronounced like an 'n') who, as a reward for having rescued from some Scandinavians a great number of cattle carried off from Sutherland, received from one of the ancient thanes of that province, the district of Assynt, then a forest belonging to them. This Macrycul also held a large part of neighbouring Ross-shire around what is now Ullapool. In a manuscript dated 1450 the descent of the Clan Nicol is traced in a direct line from a certain Gregall, believed to be the same person as Macrycul. This descent is corroborated by the local traditions as stated in the New Statisti6al Account of Scotland. Gregall or Macrycul is said to be the ancestor besides the MacNicols, of the Nicols, and the Nicolsons. Gregall is supposed to have flourished in the twelfth century.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Chief's line of MacNicol ended with an heiress who married Torquil MacLeod a younger son of MacLeod of Lewis. MacLeod obtained a crown charter of the district of Assynt and the other lands in Wester Ross which had been the property of the MacNicols. The Chieftainship of the MacNicols at this time passed to the heir male whose line subsequently settled in Skye with a residence at Scorebreac near Portree.

The MacLeods

The MacLeods of Assynt became one of the most powerful families in the North-West Highlands and during the next two and a half centuries fourteen successive Chiefs of the line ruled there in feudal splendour, playing a full part in the turbulent events of these times.

In 1588 the then MacLeod of Assynt accompanied the Earl of Sutherland, MacKay of Strathnaver and other Chiefs on a great raid into Caithness known in Gaelic as "La na creachmore" or "The great spoil" during which the town of Wick was burnt, the old parish church there, although spared the flames was ransacked, Girnigoe Castle was besieged for twelve days (although without effect) and the county ravished as far as Duncansby.

In May 1646 the boot was on the other foot for in that year Ardvreck Castle itself was besieged by the MacKenzies, but Domhnall Ban MacLeod the laird of the time successfully defended it against the invaders.

The Imprisonment of Montrose

But the incident that makes Ardvreck Castle really stand out in history took place in the year 1650 when, after the defeat of the great Marquis of Montrose at the battle of Carbisdale on the Sutherland-Ross-shire border the Marquis was captured by Neil MacLeod of Assynt and handed over by him to General Leslie, in return for 20,000 Scots and 400 bolts of meal "and that sour". This Neil MacLeod was married to a daughter of Colonel John Munro of Lumlair a military officer of some repute and commander of a Sutherland regiment of foot, and had acquired the reputation of being a stern and cruel man, who for many years afterwards was known in Gaelic as "Ian Dhu na Circh" (Black John of the Breasts) having been accessory to a barbarous mutilation of some women.

Col. Munro and his son Captain Andrew Munro served under Strachan at Carbisdale and immediately after the engagements forwarded an express to his son-in-law MacLeod of Assynt directing him to secure such strangers as might escape to the west coast.

Montrose had his horse killed under him during the fight and was himself wounded and seeing the day irretrievably lost fled from the field in company with the Earl of Kinnoul and a Major Sinclair. It was the intention of the party to make their way over the boundless moors and mountains to the safety of Lord Reay's country in North Sutherland.

During the third day after the battle Montrose now alone found himself traversing a hill farm called Glaschyle (or Glas Choille on modern maps). During that day one of his two companions Lord Kinnoul became so faint from exposure and lack of food that he could move no further, and Major Sinclair volunteered to go in search of assistance. At Glas Choille Montrose came in sight of a small hut used for dairy purposes at certain times of the year by one of MacLeod of Assynt's tenants who happened to be there alone. Montrose asked if a stranger who had lost his way among the hills could be supplied with food of any description. The tenant viewed him at first without any suspicion of his rank, only as a respectable and civil stranger. However the hut was almost destitute of provisions, but its owner had a supply of whisky of which he gave some to the Marquis. The Marquis asked for a second draught of the spirit and then appearing active and vigorous inquired the proper direction towards the Reay country through the mountain passes to the North. The way was pointed out to him but with the remark that no stranger could find out the accessible openings through the mountains without a guide to which the Marquis replied that he was too poor a man to pay a guide. By this time the countryman's curiosity and suspicions were aroused, for while Montrose had been drinking the whisky the breast of his outer coat opening partially, he saw the glitter of a star or rich metallic embroidery on the waistcoat. Before leaving Carbisdale the Marquis had made some attempt to disguise himself in a coarse woollen short coat or jacket of a countryman which he had donned over his own clothes.

As Montrose left, MacLeod's tenant proceeded to follow him at some distance, but when his quarry began ascending a hill to the north of Glas Choille he saw that a servant or scout sent out by the laird of Assynt was coming towards Montrose from the opposite direction. This man's duty was to report if any strangers were wandering in that part of the country.

Seeing the approach of this man Montrose endeavoured to proceed in another direction, but finding it impossible to escape he sat down until both men overtook him, having previously scattered all his money among the heather, a few coins of which were found about the middle of last century. Montrose again said that he was proceeding to the Reay country, but having lost his way begged to be conducted there. Both men seemed to agree to his request, but instead conducted him to Ardvreck Castle which is nine miles distant from Glas Choille where Montrose was found. When he came in sight of the castle, its peculiar situation on its peninsula in the loch almost surrounded by water of which he had heard, Montrose was convinced he had been betrayed and that he was now in the power of MacLeod of Assynt. He anxiously asked if it was Ardvreck Castle to which he had been conducted and on being told that it was and that he could now see MacLeod's lady at the gate waiting to receive him. He hurriedly asked her father's name and was told as if to inspire terror that she was the daughter of "Black John of the Breasts". Tradition bears that Montrose on hearing this stood for a while motionless and aghast and then exclaimed that his destiny was fulfilled and his fate certain.

The Marquis was incarcerated in one of the strong vaulted cellars of the castle still to be seen in the ruins, where he was closely confined and constantly watched and notice of his capture instantly forwarded to Col. Strachan. Montrose used every exertion to induce MacLeod to give him his liberty by the promise of great rewards. Neil MacLeod was said to be a man of no great decision, and it was supposed by many that he would have permitted the Marquis to escape, but his stern and unrelenting lady whose disposition was much like her cruel father would have none of it and she herself took an active part in all the activities concerning his confinement and his delivery to his enemies. Montrose's companion Major Sinclair was also found lost among the hills and taken to share Montrose's prison at Ardvreck. The Earl of Kinnoul was believed to have perished but his body was never found. Montrose was shortly afterwards conveyed from Assynt and escorted southwards by a troop of soldiers. The story of his ultimate fate is one of the best known episodes of Scottish history.

Strangely enough from that moment the fortunes of the MacLeods of Assynt declined with tremendous speed. So much so that Neil MacLeod was the last of his ancient line to reign there. In 1654 "Seaforth made great depredations at Assint, destroyed a great quantity of wine and brandy which the Laird of Assint had bought, besides other commodities to the value of 50,000 marks, out of a ship then on the coast, carryed off 2,400 cows, 1,500 horses, about 6,000 sheep and goats besides that he burnt and destroyed many familys" so says an old account. Like so many Highland Chiefs in those troubled times MacLeod of Assynt found that he had backed the wrong side. The Restoration which brought Charles II to the throne in 1660 made it certain that anyone as guilty as MacLeod of Assynt had been of favouring his enemies made it certain that eventually retribution would follow. It was not until July 1672 that the blow fell. Neil MacLeod was denounced as a rebel and commission of fire and sword was obtained against him and his people. The Seaforth MacKenzies who had long coveted the extensive Assynt estates then took possession and held it for the next hundred years. About 1760 Hugh MacLeod of Geanies in Ross-shire whose family had inherited the representation of the Assynt line attempted to buy back the estate but was outbid by the Sutherland family who held the property until after the First World War.

Quite close to the old castle which was abandoned when the MacLeods left, stands another house now also a ruin. This is Calda House built by the MacKenzies when they took over the estate. It was believed to have been set on fire by a party of MacRaes who came over from Eilean Donan when the Sutherlands bought the estate. The MacRaes, hereditary allies of the MacKenzies had vowed that no Earl of Sutherland would ever occupy it.

At Kirkton near the head of Loch Assynt the first church in the district was built by Angus MacLeod laird of Assynt about 1440. He had travelled widely in France and Italy and was received by the Pope who showed him much favour, in return for which he vowed he would build and endow a church at Assynt. Until the end of the eighteenth century there remained an arched vault of the original building which was the burial place of the MacLeods of Assynt.

The Castle Today

About a mile and a half west of Inchnadamph on the Lairg-Lochinver road and about the same distance from the head of Loch Assynt brings one opposite the peninsula on the northern shore of the loch upon which the ruins of Ardvreck Castle stands. A walk of a minute or two brings one to the site. The desertion of the castle and its surroundings is so complete today that it is difficult to realize that it was such a hub of activity in medieval times when Assynt's piper would play a "failte" or welcome when the MacLeod of MacLeod the supreme Chief of all the MacLeods sailing from Dunvegan to Lochinver and after leaving his "birlinn" there would steer up Loch Assynt in the lesser galley provided by his host.

The keep is a simple rectangle with a round staircase tower in the south east angle. This tower is corbelled out on the upper floors to form square rooms which give it a rather unusual top-heavy appearance. The turret stairs to the upper rooms is carried on corbelling in the re-entering angle.

In the basement have been three vaulted chambers, the one running parallel with the south wall being not wider than a passage about three feet nine inches wide into which the doorway entered from the east. The vaulting also extends to the first floor apartments. The castle is extremely ruinous, the north wall having entirely disappeared and the east and west walls are only fragmentary. There is no record as to which of the MacLeod lairds built it, but it is said to have been erected about the end of the sixteenth century.

About a quarter a mile nearer Inchnadamph and close to the public road stands Calda House also much ruined. Known locally as the "White House" it is oblong in form being a block 16 metres long by 13 metres wide divided in two by a wall running along from gable to gable with rooms to the front and back. The back wall facing the loch has completely disappeared. A date around 1675 would seem to be the time of its erection.

R E F E R E N C E S

Anderson The Scottish Nation Methuen 1867
  Inventory of Ancient Monuments of Sutherland HMSO 1910
Gordon Highways and Byways in the West Highlands Macmillan 1949
Taylor Pictorial History of Scotland Virtue -
See Also
Ardvreck Castle stands near the start of Loch Assynt and the road runs along the full length of it.  As you approach loch Assynt you will have superb views depending on the weather of Cul mor (849m) on the left and Quiinag (808m) on the right and often lost in the mist or clouds pointing upwards with very steep sides.

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