Castle Tioram

This 13th century castle is situated on a rocky island in Loch Moidart which is accessible only at low tide across a sandy spit, hence "tioram" the Gaelic word for "dry".

The castle is one of the most remarkable castles on Scotland's western seaboard and, given the nature of the site and Scotland's part in "dark age" and medieval european history, is a monument of European dimension and importance.

It is one of the group of curtain-wall castles, together with neighbouring Mingarry in Ardnamurchan, with massive masonry of stone and lime construction, of plan shape reflecting the natural outline of the site, impressive wall defences, a tactically defended landward entrance, and substantial courtyard buildings. Its perspective is seaward and maritime, as with so much of the political and cultural history of the western seaboard of the Gaidhealtachd - its seagate, a notable characteristic of West Coast castles, more obvious from the seaward side - making the structure in its massing of historical and architectural elements one of the most remarkable emblems of Highland history.

Prehistory - Roimh Eachdraidh

Caisteal Tioram is usually assigned to the 13th -14th century with conspicuous 16th - 17th century remodelling; it is also an Iron Age site with possible Bronze Age antecedents. Symbolic of this early occupancy is the fragmentary bronze hanging-bowl of 4th - 5th century date which is now in the West Highland Museum in Fort William. The earliest parts of the structure visible above ground belong probably to the Norse period - the main topographical features of the area are defined with Norse place-names - and a structure of this nature and proportions suggests a link with the powerful realpolitik and counterculture of Somerled and Clann Somhairle, and to Alexander II's challenge to Norse hegemony; observable facts would suggest an early 13th century date for Caisteal Tioram.

History - Eachdraidh

Early charter evidence (coireachain an fhearainn) shows that "Elan Tirrim" was the "headhouse" of the great western Lordship of Garmoran, the power base of the Clann Ruari branch of the Clann Somhairle and the most important part of the northern mainland territories of the Lordship of the Isles. In later generations it remained as the mainland stronghold of Clan Ranald and, as such, formed the nucleus of a remarkable kin territoryin the Gaelic tradition; the Household or Court of Mac 'ic Ailein was served by families of ecclesiastics, bards and musicians, doctors, lawmen, stewards and metalworkers (eg at High Mingarry), holding office hereditarily in dynasties - an aristocracy of learning. this "cultural landscape" has still to be more fully explored.

 

Tradition - Beul-aithris

By tradition Caisteal Tioram and Borve in Benbecula were built by Amie McRuari ( eg. the Clan Donald seanchaidh, Hugh of Sleat) ; this would place them in the first half of the 14th century whereas Caisteal Tioram is probably considerably older. Throughout the Clanranald era (ie. 15th - 19th centuries), Tioram was a byword for the patronage and achievements of the Gaidheal and clan Danald - it is reiterated in convetional clan panegyric both in the classical and vernacular traditions. The Castle is also the focus of later oral tradition, especially for the reign of the great John of Moidart, and in the 17th and 18th centuries, drawing on the memories of Iain Ban Sgardois (John MacDonald of Scardoish c.1770-1860), and transmitted by Rev Fr Charles MacDonald, and of "North Argyll".

Present condition

The castle is generally in very good condition considering its age, but it is over 40 years since it was last repaired, and is now in need of some consolidation work.

The lime leaching out of the south curtain wall is an indication of how much water is geting in, and an indication that the mortar in the core may not have much strength remaining. The bulge in the north-east corner in an indication that the two skins on masonry might have separated.

The main general work required would be to waterproof the wallheads as far as possible without the work being obvious, to minimise future maintenance; and to remove vegetation that is weakening the structure, and to repoint stonework where necessary, in as sympathetic a manner as possible so that it is not obvious that it has been done at all.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Scotland have inspected the castle, and drawn up a more detailed list of work necessary.


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