The Destruction of Eilean Dearg Castle

The destruction of Eilean Dearg Castle is historically well documented.   Our version is mainly based on the artcile written by archeologist Hugo B Millar (who conducted excavations on Eilean Dearg in 1964-1965-1966-1967) as published in the Scotts Magazine of February 1971 and the book “No Tragic Story, The Fall of the House of Campbell” by Raymond Campbell Paterson.

In the 17th century the hand of the Covenanting Kirk lay heavily on Scotland, and in the troubles and warring that ensued, the Castle of Eilean Dearg came to a sudden and abrupt end, achieving more than a passing mention in the history books, and a considerable flurry in Government circles.

The Marquis of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, was the leader of the Covenanting party in Scotland.    At one time he was the virtual dictator of the country, and he and his clan were responsible for many of the cruelties that were inflicted on the defeated Royalist supporters of the unfortunate Charles I.   With the Restoration of Charles II, Argyll was indicted for treason and lost his head, his Marquisate falling with him.   His son, the 9th Earl of Argyll, was also condemned for the same offence, but escaped by fleeing the country to Holland.

After the accession of James II and VII, Argyll was joined in Holland by James’s nephew, the Duke of Monmouth (illegitimate son of Charles II), a stout Presbyterian who resented his uncle’s Catholicism.   These two noblemen concerted a joint invasion plan of Britain, to take place in June 1685.   Argyll was to land on the West Coast of Scotland, Monmouth in the South-West of England; in both areas they expected considerable accessions to their forces from disaffected Protestants.   Argyll, in particular, was looking for strong Campbell support.   This plan should have split the Government forces sent against them and created confusion.

In the event, Argyll landed too early and Monmouth too late, so this object was not achieved.   In addition, their security arrangements were lamentable; the king knew all about the forthcoming attacks well beforehand, and his troops and ships were mobilised accordingly.   The John Murray, the Earl of Atholl and Argyll’s old enemy, was appointed as Lord-Lieutenant and Sheriff of Argyll and took up residence at the Campbell seat of Inveraray.   He brought a strong force of Murrays and supporters with him, who quartered the country, looking for dissenting Campbells and taking full advantage of the situation to pay off old scores.   A number of leading lairds were arrested, including Campbell of Ardlinglass, suspected of corresponding with his chief.   In the tragedy that followed, elements of other anti-Campbell clans joined in the fun, and the lands of the Sons of Diarmid were harried with an unhealthy gusto in a way they had never experienced before. 

Argyll, meantime, had been buying up arms and ammunition in Holland, together with three small ships; the thirty gun Anna, the twelve gun David and the six gun Sophia.  The purchases must have been evident to the Dutch authorities and there has been much historical speculation as to whether William of Orange was implicated.   On May 2 1685, the little squadron sailed from Amsterdam with some 300 men on board.   In Scotland, the government had been expecting Argyll’s arrival for some time.  As early as 12 April, reports had been received that he was already at sea with 4000 men.  Scotland was put in a state of defence.  Among other things, the Privy Council ordered the imprisonment of Countess Anna, Argyll’s wife.  Lord Neil, Argyll’s brother, and James, his youngest son, were also taken in this general round-up of the Campbells. 

The ships went north and reached the Orkneys on May 6.  Then things started to go wrong; the winds died away followed by the onset of a thick fog.  Uncertain of the waters, the seamen missed the passage between the Orkneys and the Shetlands and finally took refuge in the harbour of Scapa Flow.   The anchor was dropped in Swanbister Bay where it was decided to send a party ashore to seek pilots to guide them out of the fog.  In a small place like Kirkwall, it was almost impossible to keep the presence of strangers hidden, and the same evening the 2 men were arrested on the orders of the local Bishop and magistrates as “servants to a rebel”.  News of rebel presence was at once sent to Edinburgh and the advantage of surprise, had now been completely lost.  To try to recover from the disaster, an armed party was sent ashore to seize some of the local gentry to be used in a possible prisoner exchange, but the bishop made no reply to the letter of Argyll and unable to delay any longer, the flotilla sailed on to the Hebrides, taking the Orcadians with them, together with a small supply ship captured in Swambister Bay.

On Monday 11 May, the three ships anchored in the bay of Tobermory off the Isle of Mull.  The winds, that favoured Argyll’s passage on his southwards voyage through the Hebrides, acted against the Royal Navy, coming from the Irish Sea, and it remained absent for several important days.   From the anchorage at Tobermory, Argyll sent his son Charles to the mainland of Lorne to summon his vassals to meet him in arms.  Charles managed to take possession of the old stronghold of Dunstaffnage Castle and sent a rider bearing the fiery cross through the countryside with the news that MacCailen Mor had come home.  He also sent out letters from his father to the leading gentry.  Contrary to all of Argyll’s expectations, the response was at best lukewarm and at the best treacherous.  Some were in prison; others cowed into submission and still others loyal to the King.  Campbell of Lochnell promised his support only to forward Argyll’s letter to the privy Council .   In all, Charles managed to assemble only 200 volunteers, but he managed to secure the promise of support of Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck and a garrison was put in Carnasserie Castle and the small town of Ederline was occupied.

Charles’ news from Lorne was a serious disappointment to his father who realised he needed an early victory to give momentum to the rising.  The opportunity for this came with the news that Patrick Stewart was on Islay, disarming the local population.  Argyll who had hoped to raise 600 men on Islay, decided to surprise Stewart and sailed south to Port Askaig in Islay.  Argyll landed his troops under cover of the night but Stewart managed to escape, making his way to Kintyre with all the serviceable arms.  Instead of the 600 Argyll hoped for, only eighty came forward and many of these were soon to desert.

Apart from Charles and Auchinbreck, Argyll’s last remaining hope now lay with the Presbyterian communities of southern Kintyre.  From Port Askaig, he sailed onwards arriving at Campbeltown on Wednesday 20 May.  It was in Campbeltown that he raised his standard and his “Declaration”, composed in Holland by James Stewart, was read out at the Market Cross.  Soon after the reading, Argyll made a more personal statement.  In this he implied that he had not been the best of debtors and promised, once restored to his just rights, to satisfy not only his own debts but also those of his father, something he had resisted in all the years of his power.  Here he obtained support from the Lowland incomers “planted” there by his father many years before.  Still lacking sufficient numbers, the rebels were reduced to sending press gangs throughout the rest of Kintyre forcing a number of men into service.  The new volunteers were organised under colours bearing the mottoes “For the Protestant Religion” and “Against Popery, Prelacy and Erastianism”.  Arms were distributed and officers appointed.  By land and sea, the army moved north and reached Tarbert on 27 May.  Here they were joined by the reasonably impressive force of 1200 Campbells collected by Charles and Auchinbreck.     Argyll had now a combined rebel force of about 1800 men, well under what he had predicted.  Atholl had done his work only too well.

In an ensuing council of war, dissension among Argyll’s followers became apparent; one party being for a landing on the Ayrshire and Renfrewshire coasts, traditionally Covenanting country, where support might be expected.   Argyll himself favoured an attack up Loch Fyne on Inveraray, Atholl’s headquarters.   The constant delays were eating up the army’s supplies.  To solve the problem, they compromised by occupying the town and castle of Rothesay.    Lacking adequate transport, it took them three days before the whole force completed the crossing from Tarbert to Bute.  Although the rebels hoped for support as well as supplies on Bute, their presence seems to have been little more than a nuisance.  The gathering of supplies was a legitimate if unwelcome act of war, but some of the army began widespread looting, even breaking into the poor box in the parish church of Rothesay.

A small party of sixty men went on a reconnaissance of the Ayrshire coast, while Charles crossed over to Colintraive on yet another recruiting drive.  The Renfrewshire party found the local militia mobilised against them, and after an abortive landing had to retreat back to Bute.   The Colintraive party fared even worse, suffering the most serious setback to date.  No sooner had he and his men left their boats than they came under attack by a party of government soldiers.  In the firefight that followed, the rebels began to run short of ammunition.  Charles immediately returned to the boats to order more to be brought forward.  His men assumed he was running away and were quick to follow his example.  Some were killed, others taken prisoner and the remainder took refuge at the Castle of Eilean Dearg.   Once the danger was past, they rejoined the main army in Rothesay.

With the English frigates close to the Kyles of Bute, it was vital that some emergency action was taken.  The fugitives reporting their reverse to Argyll mentionied they had been strongly impressed with the Eilean Dearg Castle and recommended that their base be transferred there as it was ideally placed for a campaign northwards into Atholl’s territory and not open to attack from the sea as Rothesay was.   Argyll went to see for himself.  Upon his return he immediately suggested using the old castle as a store for the arms and ammunition.  The ships should be anchored in Loch Riddon, just to the north of Eilean Dearg, as these waters were considered too dangerous to allow the approach of larger enemy vessels.   The move was carried out, Rothesay Castle being burned on leaving – it has remained a ruin ever since. 

Once arrived Eilean Dearg, the surplus stores were removed to the castle, which was further protected by the construction of a small earthern rampart on the western side and armed with some of the four- and five-pounders brought from the ships.  The rebel ships took up their more secure anchorage, only just in time as the Kingfisher, the Falcom, the Mermaid and the Charlotte were now cruising close to the Kyles of Bute.  Now cut off from the sea, Argyll attempted to secure the landward approach to the north against a possible attack by Atholl.  Leaving the stores under a strong  garrison at Eilean Dearg, Argyll and his army set off up Glendaruel to try conclusions with Atholl, and fought two successful actions, one near the head of the glen, the other near Ardkinglas.   When Argyll was regrouping his forces after the last battle and preparing for a further advance on lnveraray, he received news which upset all his plans. The navy had found his base!

Trapped between the royal army to the north and the navy to the south, the rebels, as Atholl put it, were in “perfyt hose nett”.  Uncertain what to do for the best, Argyll suggested that the flotilla make an attempt to break out of Loch Riddon.  While the larger ships engaged with the Kingfisher and her sisters, most of the smaller ships, he reasoned, would make good their escape.  Not surprisingly, the crews of the Sophia, David and Anna all objected and to make matters worse, many of the Highlanders began to desert.  The supply problem was now so serious it was even difficult to feed those who remained.  All that remained was a westward march across Cowal by the head of Loch Striven, across Loch long and into Dumbartonshire.  Command of Eilean Dearg was given to Robert Elphinston.  He was left with fifty men and given orders to blow up the little castle and the remaining military stores if the Royal Nay should succeed making a close approach.  The prisoners from Orkney were also left in his care.  For three days after leaving the shores of Loch riddon, Argyll stayed in Glendaruel, hoping to raise fresh recruits, ignoring his present supply problems.  He reached Loch Long close to Ardentinny and using all the boats available, the rebels managed to complete the crossing to the eastern bank by night.  No sooner was the lengthy crossing complete than they received the news:  Eilean Dearg Castle had fallen!

Contrary to expectations, the Royal Navy managed to negotiate through the narrow waters of the Kyles of Bute.  On learning of Argyll’s whereabouts, Hamilton decided to attack the castle, notwithstanding the difficulties of the Kyles passages.   He sent the Falcon round via the West Kyle, reserving the more dangerous East Kyle for his own ship, the Kingfisher.   He took two days en route, working his ship through unknown waters, uncharted and unbuoyed, encountering tricky winds and trickier tides, his smaller consorts sounding ahead as he advanced.  Faced with the hazardous channel of the Narrows, he warped his ship through, his deep keel having little clearance above the hidden shoals.   He scraped a rock on his return journey, but without sustaining damage.   It was a feat of seamanship of no mean order, as was recently revealed when the logs of the two vessels were dredged up from the dust of the naval archives, where they had lain for so long. We should take off our hats to Captain Hamilton.

The Kingfisher joined the Falcon at the entrance to Loch Riddon, and both ships dropped anchor for the night.  On the morning of June 15, 1685, the castle garrison woke up to the unpleasant sight of these two large warships bearing down upon them.   Coming under fire, Elphinston and his small garrison panicked and without hesitation they ran at once, like rabbits,  abandoning everything — castle, stores, prisoners, even their personal belongings, and not least, their boats, seeking cover in the woods of Port—an—Eilean.    Before leaving Eilean Dearg, Elphinston made an attempt to blow up the stores by setting light to a trail of gunpowder but, in his rush to get away, he left the Orkney prisoners behind, who immediately alerted Captain Hamilton.  Captain Hamilton, forbearing to open fire, had sufficient time to land a shore party, which extinguished the fuse and captured the military stores and all the rebel standards, later presented to the King.    The captain began to appreciate the haste in which the garrison had left and the anxiety of the prisoners to make contact with him before he took offensive action.

Being joined by other ships of the scratch squadron, Captain Hamilton removed the castle’s stores, except the 400 barrels of powder; included were Argyll’s personal standard and some 3000 stand of Dutch muskets.  Among the stores were some new inventions, including  “ a dagger to fly out beyong a muzzle”, possibly the first mention of a bayonet in the British Isle.   As soon as all the munitions were removed, the little casle was blown up.  The result was quite spectacular.   Even by modern standards, the explosion was immense, and quite literally blew the castle clean off the island, bits of it landing all around.   The navy’s job was over, and the castle’s story had come to an end also.

This, then, was the news which Argyll received and it represented the deathknell of all his hopes.   With his base and stores gone, there was no possibility of his pursuing his campaign in the west – he still had Atholl in front, and, now, the navy in his rear.   There remained only the faint possibility of Lowland assistance, but it was merely snatching at a straw, and he must have known it.  Nevertheless, he determined to try, and, crossing the watershed, he made for Loch Long, via Loch Goil, the pursuing Murrays burning Carrick Castle in his rear and devastating the countryside in their advance.   Loch Long was crossed at Coulport, the insurgent army shredding away as it went farther from its home territory.   Marching for Glasgow, Argyll encountered Government forces near Balloch.    Though these were avoided, in so doing a wrong turning was taken, and the remnant of the force found itself hemmed in by the Clyde near Old Kilpatrick, with strong opposition closing in on their rear.   The morale of the remaining troops broke, and nearly all sought shelter in indiscriminate flight.

Argyll crossed the river with a few men who scattered on the other side, and he himself was at last caught while trying to cross the River Cart, near Renfrew.   Carried to Edinburgh, he was faced with the old conviction for treason, to which he had added this new invasion, so, without further ado, he suffered the same fate as his father. In the south,  Monmouth had landed too late to help, and was defeated in the disastrous Battle of Sedgemoor, thereafter meeting the same fate as his fellow-conspirator.   The rebellion was at an end ; there remained only the mopping—up.