How Eilean Dearg Castle came to be

At the end of the 14th century the “Lord of Loch Awe” was the chief of Clan Campbell, in the person of Sir Colin, known by the Gaelic nickname of “Iongatach”, meaning the strange or wonderful.   Many are the tales about him illustrating the point ; there is one, set in the Kyles.

As a young man, and before he succeeded to the chiefship, Colin’s home was the little tower of Garvie at the head of Glendaruel ; there is a farmhouse of that name on the site today.   He was fond of travelling, and one year paid a visit to Ireland where he was hospitably entertained in the great castles of some of the Irish chiefs.   He was very impressed with the luxury and grandeur of it all, and endeavoured to live up to his company and surroundings with descriptions of his own magnificent castle in Glendaruel.   Airily he invited the chiefs to come over and see for themselves.   He didn’t really expect them to accept.   Imagine, then, his discomfiture when, one day after his return home, he received a message to the effect that the great O’Neill himself was in the area, and hoped shortly to have the pleasure of taking up Colin’s invitation . . .  Colin thought fast, and with Campbell acumen, hit on a solution.   Near the head of Loch Riddon, at the farthest navigable point, he built a magnificent timber and canvas pavilion and furnished it with the contents of his little tower.   Leaving specific instructions in the hands of his chamberlain, he repaired to the spot to meet his guests.   A farmhouse stands on the site today. It is known as Ardachuple – an learlier version of the Gaelic was Ard—a—Chapuille, the Point of the Pavilion.

When the guests arrived in their galley, Colin led them to the pavilion where a sumptuous banquet had been prepared.   He explained that he had thrown up this little pavilion for them so as they could rest and recuperate from their journey before proceeding farther up the glen to his large castle.   In the middle of the feasting a messenger arrived in haste.   Colin received him in front of the company.   Breathlessly the man gasped out a story of woe and tragedy.   It appeared that Colin’s large and magnificent castle had caught fire and, in spite of all the clan could do, it had burned like a torch and been completely destroyed.   The blaze had been terrific — walls and towers had collapsed, and all that was left was a heap of smoking ruins.  The messenger told his story well — he had been specially chosen for just that talent — and the guests were horrified and distressed.   At Colin’s suggestion they repaired to the top of a nearby hill from where could be seen, distantly, a thin haze of smoke.   Colin was glad that he had thought to tell his chamberlain to dampen the brushwood with which the little tower had been packed . . .

O’Neill, greatly troubled by this awful thing that had befallen his host, was for marching instantly to see what they could do, but Colin would have none of it.   His guests had come to be entertained, and entertained they would be to the best of his ability, in spite of this
most unfortunate setback.   He was distressed, of course.   Not for the grand castle — that was a little thing ; he was really upset that he would now be unable to look after his guests in the way in which he would have wished — but if they could bring themselves to put up with the little pavilion for a few days, he would see what he could do . . .   The sympathetic guests agreed at once.  Hunting, feasting and drinking were the order of the next week, and right nobly were they carried out.   At the end of the period the guests departed, full of praise for the hospitality they had received, and of their host who had done them so well in face of all his troubles.   Colin sat back and relaxed — it had been a trying time, but well worth the effort.   Later he set out for far Loch Awe, to tell his father the sad story.

The old chief listened patiently, making suitable commiserating noises.   He wasn’t in the least deceived, for he knew his son — and his tower — and guessed at the rest.   He admired the way in which Colin had conducted the affair, and privately thought that Colin had all the makings of a good Campbell and would make a worthy chief one day.   He would certainly give the help that Colin obviously wanted, but hadn’t asked for directly.   He had always considered that the little tower was badly placed anyhow for the defence of the glen ; the seaward approach was obviously the one that mattered . . .

So arose the Castle of Eilean Dearg, and Colin, in due course, made an outstanding chief.   It is not an uncommon thing for sons to underrate their fathers, but it is especially foolish when the father is a Campbell. Two generations later a cadet branch of the clan was given Eilean Dearg as its patrimony, together with Ormidale; the senior designation was apparently Ormidale, but later we find the branch “of Ellangreg”, kin to Ormidale.  “Ellangreg” is, of course, a corruption of Eilean Dearg, and it is instructive to see how this came about.   “Dearg” is pronounced  “Jerraig” and was frequently written as  “Gherraig”, in turn shortened to “Gerraig”.   This was pronounced as spelled, with a hard “G” and was shortened still further to “Greig” and finally “Greg”.    Such are the vicissitudes of phonetic spelling, as practised in those days !

The Campbells of Ellangreg played their part in local affairs in the centuries that followed, but apparently found their island castle a little inconvenient as a residence, for they had a house on the eastern shore of the loch as well.   Its site can still be discerned on the hillside near the crofthouse of Port—an—Eilean, which, as its name implies, is set beside a little sheltered bay and formed the access point for boats crossing to and from the castle.

The above is the locally accepted version of the story of the burning of the Tower at Garvie in Glendaruel and the building of Eilean Dearg Castle. 

However, in he book “Records of Argyll” by Lord Archibald Campbell (page 15), published by William Blackwood & Sons in 1885, is anoher story assigned to Colin Iongatach, based on a manuscript in the Dunstaffnage (Dun-staidh-innis) papers and supplied by Dunstaffnage, of which we give you an abbreviated version:

Colin Iongathach, the Wonderful or Singular Colin, was also called Colin Math, or Good Colin. He was called Wonderful because he was singular and odd in his conceits.  To describe them all would be a history, and take up much time : for instance, his sudden burning of all his houses when some noblemen of the O’Neils came to visit him from Ireland, that, as he had a fine field-equipage, he might have the opportunity to regale them in tents, for he did not think his house magnificent enough for the entertainment of such quality.   The fact is, that he burnt Inverary Castle, then nearly finished, as being unworthy of his guests, but no other castle.   He considered his new field equipage more comfortable than the unfinished castle.   The tents were on the plateau close by where the present castle stands on the north side of the same.

A 3rd version of the story of the burning of the Tower at Garvie and the entertainment of O’Neill at Ardachuple was written by Mrs Edward Spicer (nee Black) and published in the Clan Lamont Journal dated June 1919:

The tradition held most strongly by both families and all the reliable descendants of the Glen people of those early days (the larger number of them being “Blacks”, as the chieftain always resided there) is as follows :  Mac Laomain Dubh was a son of Lamont of Lamont, and he was an officer in the Crusades in Palestine, returning with so dark a visage that he was called The Black Lamont for his generation and long afterwards, the Lamont being finally dropped as a protection at the time of the persecutions of the clan.   He lived at Castle Garvie, the seat of the Blacks in Glendaruel.  His descendants were called “Clann Te Teleahuibh Mhor na Garaghi” or “The Big Blacks of Garvie”, because of their possessions, and an amusing incident happened in regard to the pride “Black Lamont” had for his home and property.

He was confident that Castle Garvie was finer than the Irish mansion of his relative, “Lamont O’Neil” of Ulster, and sent him a challenge to that effect.  O`Neil accepted the challenge, and sailed with his retinue.  ln the meantime, Black Lamont was warned by his brother, who had previously visited O’Neil, that the event was a foregone conclusion, and acting on his advice the vigorous method of burning down Castle Garvie was carried out.

When O’Neil reached the head of Loch Ruel he was informed of this dire calamity, and he and his followers were invited to camp at Ardachuple in two camps or sets of tents – thereby giving the place its name, Upper andLower Ardachuple, or the upper and lower camping of the people.   Here they were all entertained by Black Lamont in the old generous Highland fashion with feasting and games and hunting and fishing, and O’Neil returned with no knowledge of the strong measures taken by Black Lamont, but only with admiration for a hospitality of his race and the beauties of the Glen.  A poem on Lamont of Lamont ends with this verse :—

“Blood Royal of Ulster is in his veins still ;
The first of his line was great Lamont O’Neil;
The son of O’Neil was once Ulster’s famed King ;
Ye clansmen now hail him till echoes will ring.”