Eilean Tioram (The Dry Island)
and Castle Tioram
by Sandra Evans

The ruined Castle Tioram (pronounced Cheerum) is sited on the rocky tidal island Eilean Tioram (the Dry Island) where the waters of Loch Moidart & the River Shiel meet. The castle is closed to visitors but it is possible to visit the island at low tide and look at the castle exterior. Notices warn visitors of the possible danger of falling masonry but it is quite possible to obtain good views of the walls from a safe distance.

               Castle Tioram viewed from Dorlinn Cliff
                          Map Ref: NM 66230.72445

Reproduced with kind permission of Collins Bartholomew 2005

Eilean Tioram.

Sea, lochs and rivers were the highways of the Western Highlands from ancient times until the relatively recent past. A glance at the map shows the strategic importance of the site in the Shiel estuary. It would have commanded and controlled the water and portage routes from loch Shiel east to Loch Sunart avoiding the dangerous waters off Ardnamurchan point and northeast to Glenfinnan and thence to Loch Eil, Loch Linnhe and the Great Glen.

The vitrified fort on the Torr at Shielfoot would have overlooked the lower reaches of the river Shiel in the Iron Age. It is likely that the dry island, flanked by beaches ideal for pulling up highland galleys or birlinns or hide boats and with a sheltered deep anchorage on the northeast side, would have been used long before the castle was built. The discovery of a 7th century bronze hanging-bowl in a castle midden in 1928 1 (now displayed in the west Highland Museum in Fort William) indicates that the site had probably been of importance before it was chosen as a medieval base. Small pieces of worked steatite found on the beach below the castle in 2003 2 point to the probable presence of Vikings. This is unsurprising since there are many Norse place names in the immediate area such as Egnaig on the north channel of Loch Moidart.

The rocky islet is approached via the sandbar from the east where a network of paths thread through thick growth of bracken, heather and brambles. The castle is perched on a rocky outcrop above the west shore. Parallel mounds in the ground along the southern edge of the island and on flat land to the east of the castle indicate the position of former lazy-beds. These were made by heaping up the sparse earth and enriching it with seaweed. Potatoes would have been grown in them in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The remains of a turf and stone dyke forming a roughly rectangular enclosure can be seen near the causeway. A building that would have been in use at the same time as the lazy-beds appears at this spot on an early 19th century Lochshiel Estate map. Locally this is believed to be the site of a chapel. A small building with a tarred roof and a chimney, sited above the beach to the southwest of the castle, does not appear on early maps and was probably built in the late 19th century by the owners of the Lochshiel Estate. It may have been a bathing house or a smoke house.

A shallow circular pit in the area to the east of the castle is traditionally referred to as a well but has never been excavated. There is an infilled well within the castle.

The castle with its pentagonal curtain wall stands on the summit of a rocky outcrop. It is approached by a path that passes the shallow pit and climbs in an arc above the shore to the entrance in the northeast part of the curtain wall.

The first medieval fortification on Eilean Tioram.
After the death of Somerled (the 12th century leader, and progenitor of the MacDonalds who united large areas of the Scottish west coast and Islands) his lands were divided between his sons. Moidart became part of the Garmoran lands and in the 14th century was inherited by Christina MacRuari. A fortification may already have existed when the islet (Insula sicca or Dry island) was mentioned in a 14th century charter by Christina, granting lands to Arthur Campbell for the service of a twenty oared-galley. As suggested by Athol Murray, it seems unlikely that specific mention of a tiny islet would have been made unless it had a significant role 3. At this early date, the building probably consisted of the pentagonal curtain wall with timber buildings within the enclosure. The curtain wall with the arched barrel-vaulted entrance is typical of others built along the west coast in the 13th century 4. It is constructed mainly of local Moine schist of various sizes and shapes with smaller stones embedded in lime mortar packed in between. Clear horizontal lines in the stonework indicate seasonal breaks in the construction and can be well seen on the northeast side (A). The walls are round cornered and are built on natural rock without foundations. In several places on the east side (B), cavities between the base of the wall and the ground are present. Some non-local stone such as slate is also used both in the walls and to line water drainage holes. The original curtain wall may have been different on the southwest side (D) where a section of the wall is curiously angled. This may represent repair after collapse.

A rectangular area of infill outlines the position of a postern in the east section (C) of the curtain. Two holes below the postern would have held timbers for a platform and steps to the doorway. The postern could have been present at an early date or could have been added, but was certainly blocked by the late 17th century when an oven was built against the interior of this section of wall.

Amy's castle.
In spite of the charter to Arthur Campbell, Christina later granted the Garmoran lands to her half brother Ruari and this was confirmed by king Robert the Bruce. There is a local tradition that Amy MacRuari, who was Christina's niece and the first wife of John of Isla, built Castle Tioram in the 14th century 5, however, it is probable that Amy improved an existing building. The tower house built against the east part of the curtain wall could have been built in Amy's time or by one of her descendents. Such tower houses were often added to existing fortifications in the 14th and 15th centuries 6. The gables of the tower house can be seen rising behind section C of the curtain wall. The tower house originally consisted of a cellar, a first floor hall and a second floor apartment that was probably a bedchamber. The third floor would possibly have housed servants. The ramparts were crenellated. When improvements were carried out in the 17th century, an extra floor was added to the tower and the infilled original crenellation can be seen near the top of wall C. A garderobe was built into the angle with the east curtain wall and the latrine chute exits through this wall (B). At the time the tower house was built, the curtain wall was probably heightened. Evidence for this can be seen in the presence of infilled crenelles and two rows of drainage holes in sections A, B, and D of the curtain wall.
John of Isla granted what became the Clanranald lands and the castle of "Elantyrim" to Ranald who was his son by Amy. This was confirmed by king Robert II in 1373 7. Ranald became the first chief of Clanranald.

The Clanranalds and their Castle.
The castle remained in the family's possession until the early twentieth century despite turbulent times and several declarations of forfeiture. Until the mid 16th century, the Clanranalds were intermittently involved in the struggle between the Crown and the Lordship of the Isles and later with the Jacobite uprisings.

A mixture of historic information and traditional stories about some of the chiefs helps to bring the past of castle Tioram to life.

In the 15th century the 4th chief, Allan, wielded power on the west coast. Alan fought in the battle of Harlaw in 1411 when the Highland forces led by the Lord of the Isles defeated those of the Scottish Crown. Charles MacDonald described him in his book "Moidart, Among the Clanranalds" as having "consecrated his life to plunder and rapine". He imprisoned the Macintosh chief and others in the castle dungeon 8. He was eventually imprisoned by James I and executed in 1509. His son, Raonuil Ban, the 5th chief, met a similar fate at the hands of the Crown and was hanged in 1513. The next chief, Dugald, was murdered by some of his own clansmen and his position usurped by his uncle Alexander.

John of Moidart, the 8th chief, was the natural son of Alexander. He appears to have been the choice of the clansmen despite the existence of legitimate heirs. He gained a charter to the lands in 1532 9. However, John proved to be no friend to the Crown and supported the Lordship of the Isles. By 1540 he was imprisoned by James V and the charter revoked. The lands were then granted to one of the legitimate heirs who had been brought up by his mother's kin, the Frasers. This Ranald "Galda" (the stranger) appears to have been rapidly rejected by the clansmen when his inaugural feast was judged to be substandard 10. He became known as "Ranald of the hens". The hens were those provided at the feast in place of the expected ox. Following the death of JamesV in 1542, John of Moidart was released and promptly regained his position as head of Clanranald. An attempt by the Frasers to reinstate Ranald Galda ended in the very bloody battle fought between the clans at Loch Lochy 11 in 1544 . John gained a resounding victory and both Ranald and Lord Lovat were killed. In the following years the Earl of Huntly led two expeditions north, to subdue recalcitrant clans, but although the lands of Keppoch and Loch Eil were attacked, the wild land of Moidart remained unmolested. John continued to be troublesome to the Scottish Crown and in 1554, the Regent, Marie de Guise, ordered an offensive to bring Moidart under Crown control. The Earl of Huntly again marched north but with his knowledge of Clanranald's warlike reputation and his undertanding of the difficulties of fighting in rough highland terrain, he probably had little enthusiasm for the commission. On reaching Abertarff (Fort Augustus) he very wisely decided not to venture his lowland troops into John of Moidart's rough highland home-territory. The Duke of Argyll approached from the sea and bombarded castle Tioram from his ships and from a battery set up on the shore. The news of the attack reached John who was waiting for the Earl of Huntly's forces to appear in northeast Moidart. He rapidly returned and took the shore battery. Argyll then withdrew his ships and John stayed securely in possession of his lands and castle. He remained in dispute with the Scottish crown throughout his long life and died at his castle Tioram in 1584.
When repair work was carried out in the late 19th century, pieces of cannon ball were found embedded in the curtain wall 12. These and the damaged areas of curtain wall were probably caused by the attack of 1554. Patched and weakened areas of curtain wall can be seen in those parts facing the sea (E) and the shore (C).

John's grandson, Donald, the 11th chief was imprisoned in 1609 and released having agreed to obey the king and the laws and having accepted restrictions to his lifestyle. He was granted a charter to the lands by James VI in 1610 13. He supported the crown at the time of the uprising in 1615. Accommodation at the castle was improved later in the 17th century after further restrictions were imposed following the rebellion. Powerful Highland families, including Clanranald, were obliged to agree to a number of measures such as restrictions on alcohol consumption and the ownership of only one 16-18 oared birlinn. The chiefs were ordered to specify one residence and a home farm and to build or repair their homes 14. Clanranald named Eilean Tioram as their home and interestingly, Hobey on Uist was nominated as the home farm. The castle was probably partly supplied by sea from Uist. Early eighteenth century records show that Moidart rents were largely paid in butter, cheese, wedders (sheep) and hens but not in grain 15. It may be that the inhabitants of Moidart could have been partly dependent upon imported grain from an early period.

John, the 12th chief is reported to have been involved in episodes of piracy in 1627 and 1636 25. In John's time the Duke of Argyll became the feudal landlord of the mainland lands of Clanranald. In 1644, John and his son Donald joined Montrose in support of Charles I. The castle was temporarily lost by the family in 1647 and the estates forfeited in 1649. However, both were restored after John submitted to Argyll and the Clanranalds resumed their occupation of castle Tioram under Campbell domination. John was a member of the Roman Catholic Church and it is likely that a priest would have been resident at the castle by the latter half of the 17th century.

In spite of the troubled times, improvements were carried out to the castle during this period and letters show that building work was still being carried out in the 1680s 16. An extra floor was added to the old tower house and round turrets added to the corners. A block of buildings that included a hall was built against the south curtain wall (D). A tower with apartments and decorative round turrets was built at the north end of this block in the angle of the southwest and northwest parts of the curtain wall (D/E). Ivy covers much of the exterior of this tower. The corner between the old tower house and the new block became a kitchen (corner C/D). An aperture from the kitchen can be seen in the southwest section of curtain wall D just at the point at which the wall has been altered or repaired. In the gully below is a mound of rich soil that is probably the kitchen midden.

Donald, the 13th chief, gained a reputation for courage during the Montrose campaign but later became notorious for his cruel, savage, unreasoning autocratic behaviour. Local stories concerning his exploits abound and many were written down by Charles MacDonald in the 19th century. He relates that as an elderly man Donald enjoyed sitting on the ramparts of the castle taking shots with his favourite gun "the cuckoo" at anything that moved. 17 One of the tales has become a well-known local tradition and illustrates the power and jurisdiction held by the chief over his clansmen. When a quantity of silver was stolen, Donald suspected three castle servants, two men and one woman. Although unable to prove the case, Donald had the two men executed by hanging on the gallows hill (Tom-a-chrodhaidh) south of the castle. The woman was tied to one of the rocks in the estuary by her hair and allowed to drown in the rising tide 18. Execution of men by hanging and women by drowning was used in more ancient times. The story may be untrue or may apply to a previous era, however, the rock is still known as the Rock of James's Daughter. A hoard of silver Elizabethan coins was discovered in the late nineteenth century when a path was being constructed around the Loch Moidart shore 19. The path is known as "the silver walk". Although linked with the story, these coins would have been one hundred years old at the time of Donald's loss.

Throughout the years of its occupation, castle Tioram was obviously a centre of power for the Clanranalds as well as a dwelling. Under the Clan system, the chief provided land and security for the people and held responsibility in exchange for loyalty and military service. His importance was measured by the number of men he could muster and the number of galleys he could maintain. The clan expected their chief to be strong, fearless in battle and generous. Feasting was important as was hunting and music. Records of a Moidart rental for 1721 20 show that fowlers falconers and pipers were still not expected to pay rent. Boat wrights were also important tenants.
Until the 19th century, the castle could only be approached overland by narrow, rough hill tracks passable only on foot or by sturdy highland ponies. The castle itself would have been a hive of activity but would have been surrounded by rotting midden material including excrement. The apartments within would have been dark since all windows, save those sited in the 17th century south block tower, face north or northwest into a small courtyard surrounded by high walls.

The end of an era.
Tioram ceased to be the family residence in 1685 when Allan, the 14th chief elected to live elsewhere. He was brought up on Benbecula and Uist. Because of his support for the Jacobite cause, castle Tioram was garrisoned by Government troops from 1692 and fell
into disrepair. Just before the outbreak of hostilities in 1715, the Governor of Fort William wrote that " not only the windows bot even the roof and flours are ruined" 21.In September 1715 the Castle and its garrison of 14 men was taken by Allan. According to tradition, Allan then ordered his own castle to be burnt before he left for Sherriffmuir where he was mortally wounded 22. The extent of damage to the castle remains unclear and it may occasionally have housed troops during the next 30 years. There is also a tradition that Lady Grange was held there for a brief period. The castle does not appear to have been of importance at the time of the 1745 rising and was described as an abandoned ruin by 1748 23.

The Ruined Castle.
Following the 1745 uprising in which the young Clanranald was involved, the Clanranalds began to act as landed English gentry. Due to extremely expensive lifestyles and increasing debt, the estates were sold in the early 19th century. Although the island and Castle Tioram remained in the ownership of the family until the early twentieth century, the successive owners of the adjacent Lochshiel estate carried out conservation work in the 19th century. Dressed stone was robbed from the ruin and consolidation work was needed on the curtain wall and on the domestic buildings. When Mr. Hope Scott, who purchased the Lochshiel Estate in 1855, cleared the castle courtyard of burnt timbers, a quantity of 17th century Spanish coins and silver dollars were found beneath the debris. These were given to the Clanranald family 24. The island and the castle were sold to Lord Howard of Glossop in 1905. On his death in 1924 it passed to Miss Tredcroft who then sold it to Sir Alexander Maguire. James Wiseman MacDonald bought the island and castle Tioram in 1926 and instigated conservation work carried out by the ministry of Works in the late 1920s.
Anta Estates acquired the property in 1997 and Castle Tioram remains a historic ruin and is a scheduled ancient monument.

Views of the Outer Walls
Northeast Curtain Wall.
The castle entrance is placed centrally in this face. Banks of black soil fan out to the northwest and to the east of this platform and the soil of the platform itself is dark and rich in humus. This soil is uncharacteristic of the local thin poor soils or peat and probably represents midden deposits. The curtain wall shows clear horizontal lines in the stonework representing seasonal labour breaks. The arched entrance is blocked by a wooden barrier Centrally placed above the archway is a rectangular area that has been filled in with small stones. There are two other rectangular areas of infill above and to either side of the doorway arch. These may mark the position of removed carved stonework.

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Two horizontal rows of drainage holes, some lined with pieces of slate that protrude from the wall surface are sited in the upper part of the wall. The lower row is continued around the corner to the west at the same level. Between the two rows of drainage holes a few filled in crenelles can be seen. These indicate that the wall has been heightened. The crenelles at the top of the wall have also been filled in and a box chute (machicolation) for defence of the entrance has been added.

B. East curtain wall.

The stonework is mostly obscured by liberal pointing with cement. Near the south end of this face approximately 3m from the ground is a latrine chute opening. Above this is a narrow opening in the wall that could be a drainage hole or a tiny window. A crack has opened to the north of both openings. There is a row of slate lined drainage holes below the crenellated parapet. Behind the south part of this section and meeting it at the rounded south corner, the remains of the top of the tower house is visible. The south end of the parapet has been made higher where it meets the tower house and a row of three small openings is present in this higher part of the wall.

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C. Southeast Curtain Wall

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The lower courses of stonework have been liberally cement pointed and a large area of lime mortar adheres to the north part but horizontal lines of seasonal work breaks are visible. There is a rectangular area of infill towards the south corner that outlines the position of a former postern. The postern was probably blocked before the creation of a kitchen within. Below and about 2m from the ground are two holes. One still contains the remnants of a wooden beam.

These holes presumably held wooden supports for a platform and steps to the doorway. Above and including the upper part of the blocked entrance is a large circular area infilled with smaller stones. This may be an area damaged by the bombardment in 1554. Just above the level of the doorway and to the north, a vertical join can be seen in the masonry. This appears to be too low to be an infilled crenelle. The north part of this section of curtain has been incorporated into the tower house. Two rounded turrets of 17th century style are sited at the corners of the tower.

D. Southwest Curtain Wall

This is perched atop a precipitous rock above a gully. Approximately 5m from the rounded east corner the wall becomes sharply angled superiorly and rounded and thickened inferiorly. Between the two sections where exterior layers of the wall appear to have crumbled or been removed, is a long narrow opening that communicates with the kitchen within. Below the opening in the wall a large heap of rich soil has accumulated in the gully. This is the kitchen midden. West of this area the wall turns to meet the rest of the curtain wall in an irregular join.

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There is copious cement pointing obscuring the masonry in this section but it seems likely that the wall has been altered or that there has been a serious collapse that has been repaired. The western part of the wall has two rows of drain holes showing that the wall was heightened. The 17th century style western tower of the south accommodation block with turrets, and dressed masonry at the corners can be seen above the west part of this face.

E. Northwest Curtain Wall

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This is built on steep rock above two pebble beaches. The whole of the southern end is covered with ivy to the level of the parapet at the northern end, but it can be seen that the southern accommodation block forms part of the curtain on this face. It is impossible to see how the original curtain wall has been altered in this area. A small opening is present at the base of the south part of the wall that may be a latrine

Two windows can be seen high in the accommodation building. There are two breaches in the northern section of this face and a recent area of repair is apparent below the larger. These probably represent damage inflicted at the time of the bombardment in 1554. The lower area of collapse may be in the area of a garderobe (latrine) chute as there seems to be an accumulation of soil on a rocky ledge some distance below. Filled crenelles can be seen at the top of the wall and there is a row of water drainage holes at the same level as the lower row in the northeast facing section of wall. These indicate that the wall was heightened.


2. Kirby, J. Gascoine, M. Personal communication.
3. Murray, A. 1998 Castle Tioram, The Historical Background. p5.
4. Simpson, W.D. 1954. Castle Tioram, Moidart, Inverness-shire, and Mingary
Castle, Ardnamurchan, Argyllshire. Trans Glasgow Archaeol Soc, New, 13. 70-90.
5. MacDonald, C. Moidart among the Clanranalds. I997 Birlinn. Ch 3. P20.
6. Dodgshon R. 2002. The Age of the Clans. Birlinn p18.
7. Acts of Lord of Isles, 10-11. RMS 1.No 520.
8. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 3.p 28
9. Aikman, C. Castle Tioram in Moidart. 1988. The Oban Times.
10. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 4.p 38
11. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 4.p 40.
12. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 3.p 23.
13. RMS 7. No 344.
14. Murray, A. Castle Tioram-The Historical Background. 1998. p.9.
15. Clanranald papers GD201/1/260. Scottish Records Office.
16. Clanranald papers GD201/4/12. Scottish Records Office.
17. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 5.p 71.
18. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 5.p 69.
19. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 5.p 70.
20. Clanranald papers GD201/1/260. Scottish Records Office.
21. GD220/5/568/5 Scottish Records Office.
22. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 6.p 92.
23. Scottish Records Office. MW1/458.
24. MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn. Ch 3.p 25.
25. Aikman,C. Castle Tioram in Moidart. 1988. The Oban Times.