Duart Castle: The Little Gem of the Isle of Mull

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Duart Castle is a lonely little castle, perched upon a rocky headland towards the Isle of Mull, Scotland. You'll see it standing guard if you take a ride on any ferry from Oban.

Duart was designed and built as an extravagant home for the highland Maclean clan during the c14th, and was restored from ruins from 1911 onwards. It's presently privately owned - and still a part-time residence - of the Macleans.

Despite the private ownership, it's still open to the public: visitors can pay to access about half of the castle buildings.

You shouldn't be surprised if you meet the present Chief of Clan Maclean, Sir Lachlan Maclean (12th Baronet; 28th Clan Chief), as he enjoys having a chat with tourists!

All in all, if you're visiting the Isle of Mull on a day trip, Duart Castle is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours - before having tea and a scone at the small cafe, and then continuing your tour of the island.

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Duart Castle landscape The view of Duart Castle from the ferry from Oban. Credit: Jacme31, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Stories of the Maclean Clan: A History of Diminutive Duart Castle

The Maclean Clan have a long and distinguished history that's closely entwined with Duart Castle (if you're interested in the strength of the modern-day clan, you should definitely see Clan Maclean website!).

In common with many other castles, there was a fort at the site of Duart Castle since middle-ages - 'Duart' comes from the Gaelic "dubh-ard", which means "black point" - but the stone foundations for a more permanent castle were laid in about 1350.

Duart Castle Maclean Clan Arms The coat of arms of the Maclean Clan is proudly inscribed on the entrance-way to the castle. Credit: Lindsay Evans, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It was 'Wily' Maclean (Lachlan Lubanach), the 5th Clan Chief, who began the construction of the castle, building first the mighty stone keep and some of the surrounding curtain walls. However, there's an interesting story of just how he came to obtain the land for the castle...

'Wily' Maclean's marriage was a tricky one. He had to obtain permission for the pope to marry his cousin, Mary. Her father was not convinced - which lead to Wily Maclean kidnapping him! In the ruckus, the chief of a neighbouring clan was killed - but, bizarrely, these tactics won over Mary's father.

Resultantly, he gave Wily Maclean land for his daughter's dowry - and it was on this land that the modern castle is built.

From Medieval Masterpiece to Military Garrison

After the foundations of the castle were laid in the c14th, changes were made over the centuries to extend the living area, and to make the fortress entirely impregnable.

The additions made by Hector Mor Maclean between 1523-1568 included the completion of the thick curtain wall around the castle, and the construction of buildings adjacent to the keep - which gave the castle its present structure, of a collection of strongholds surrounding an spacious courtyard.

Duart Castle entrance The steep stone steps leading up to the entrance to Duart Castle, and the courtyard within. Credit: Lindsay Evans, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

From its spectacular position, Duart Castle didn't ever have to worry too much about intruders: on two sides, it's naturally protected by the rocky cliffs, which fall into the sea beneath it. As a result of this, the castle remained a base for the Maclean Clan as they ventured and fought across Scotland during the Early Modern period.

Unhappily, however, the Maclean Clan fell from grace in the 1600s. The Clan aligned itself to a couple of losing causes, which left them poor, and, eventually, landless.

In 1604, the castle was invaded and overtaken by James VI after the Clan attempted to plot against him; and, in 1653, Duart Castle narrowly survived attack by one of Cromwell's warships for aligning with the Royalist cause (the warship sank; and divers are still excavating it today).

In addition, after disastrously aligning themselves with the Jacobites in 1689, the castle was lost, and much of their land seized.

Duart Castle cliffs Duart Castle has a brilliantly defensive position: these craggy cliffs would have prevented any assault upon this side. Credit: Sam Saunders, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

From 1691 to 1751, Duart Castle was used as a military garrison: and modern excavations have uncovered bottles and gun-rounds used by the soldiers during the period. After 1751, though, the castle was left in ruins: and it slowly fell to waste over the years.

In 1911, the ruined castle was purchased by the grandfather of today's chief, Sir Fizroy Maclean. He lavished money on the castle to restore it to its original condition: and the fruit of his labours is the site you can visit today.

Visiting Duart Castle Today: Sights, Sounds and Attractions

Nowadays, the castle is a pleasant little place to explore, and is the occasional residence of some members of the Maclean clan.

You'll be able to walk through a couple of bedrooms, kitchens, banqueting hall and the 'sea room', which offers beautiful views across the Sound of Mull. In addition, there are a couple of ramparts that you can climb, which afford lovely panoramic views across the bay and the Isle.

Duart Castle wide view An atmospheric picture of the castle - note the rather ornate chimney-pots, added in the 1900s restoration. Credit: Lindsay Evans, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In the upstairs rooms of Duart Castle, there's a small museum dedicated to the life and times of the Maclean Clan, chock-a-block with tartan and memorabilia from the clan's history.

Downstairs in the 'dungeons', you'll discover an interesting - if little bizarre - set of displays, which show waxwork Spanish 'prisoners' being kept captive in the castle. These tell the story from when one of the ships of the Spanish Armada sank on the British coastline - and explains how the castle imprisoned these unfortunates back in the c16th.

As well as this rather odd mix of materials, there's a nice little tea-shop selling snacks and teas, and you can also wander the small grounds of the castle, which extends down to a forest, recently planted by the Maclean clan.

If you've enjoyed this page, another Scots castle you might be interested in reading about is Craigmillar Castle. It was once home to Mary, Queen of Scots. You might find the triangular design of Caerlaverock Castle pretty incredible, too.