Gylen Castle was built to dominate the Sound of Kerrera which was once part of a major maritime route for vessels sailing between the mainland and the Inner Hebrides. It was built by Duncan MacDougall in the late sixteenth century but was only occupied for around 70 years before it was attacked and left a ruin by Covenanter forces.
Today the Isle of Kerrera is a remote and tranquil place with its 34 residents enjoying a quieter pace of life. It was not always so for in the sixteenth century the Sound of Kerrera was one of the busiest shipping lanes in the region offering easy access to the islands of the Inner Hebrides. It was to control this trade that prompted Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie to build Gylen Castle around 1582. Also known by its Gaelic name, Caisteal nan Geimhlean, it occupied the full width of a rocky peninsula with sheer cliffs on either side.
The castle consisted of a four storey 'L' plan Tower House that was built in the Scots Baronial style. The ground floor consisted of a vaulted store and an access passageway that led to a small courtyard occupying the area to the edge of the cliff as well as the adjoined Stair Tower. The latter provided access to all levels with the first floor hosting the Kitchen and Hall, the second a Solar and accommodation above. As was standard the entrance was via a heavy wooden door as well as a yett, an iron grille designed to resist attempts to burn through the door. A forework built immediately in front of the tower provided numerous gun loops for firing upon attackers landing in the bays below the castle. An Outer Bailey, itself protected by a barmkin (curtain wall), was established on the neck of land approaching the Tower House. This would have housed all the ancillary buildings associated with such a settlement and also had a natural spring that provided water for the site.
Defence was clearly foremost in the minds of the builders of Gylen Castle but this was not the only consideration. The castle was intended to impress and to act as a clear status symbol for its owner. Accordingly craftsmen were employed to create the Oriel window that still dominates the landward frontage as well as numerous Romanesque style carvings. Furthermore the exterior of the castle was covered with a smooth render which was probably whitewashed and would have given the structure a striking appearance.
The MacDougalls still owned the castle upon the outbreak of the Wars of Three Kingdoms in the mid-seventeenth century. The clan were supporters of the Royalist cause and in 1647 a detachment of Covenanters, drawn from Colonel James Montgomery’s Regiment of Foot, besieged the castle. The duration of the siege is not known but it was long enough for (the lack of) water to become a significant problem for the garrison. Although a natural spring existed in the Outer Bailey, it was clearly insufficient and there was also no significant rainfall during the period which could have augmented the holdings. Ever mindful of the fearful massacre at Dunaverty Castle in May 1647, the clansmen within the castle surrendered. This did not save them however and they were all massacred save John MacDougall who was spared on the grounds he was just a child. Gylen was sacked and burnt.
Gylen Castle has remained a ruin ever since the Covenanter attack. The ruins became famous after being painted by the artist J.W.M Turner in 1831. The structure was stabilised by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s but it was under the auspices of Morag MacDougall that significant work was done on the structure aided by donations from Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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Gylen Castle is a ruined sixteenth century Tower House found on the Isle of Kerrera just to the west of Oban. The island is only six miles long and offers a circular walk that will take you past the castle. Ensure you take the left path if you want to take the shortest route to Gylen Castle (around 3 miles). Do note the jetty has no sheltered waiting room and the ferry is also open to the elements so, dependant upon the weather, it is strongly advised to take warm and/or waterproof clothing!
Gylen Castle. The castle occupied the entire width of a rocky peninsula which was surrounded on three sides by cliffs. The outer bailey was located in front of the Tower House providing additional defence on the landward side. The outer bailey barmkin has gone but the earthworks can still be seen.
Forework. A forework, complete with gun loops, was built in front of the Tower House enabling the defenders to fire upon the bays below.
Oriel Window. Gylen Castle has an Oriel window overlooking the main entrance. This is unique example of such architecture on a castle on the West Coast of Scotland. The inscription reads "Trust in thy God and in not men, my son do well and let them say”. The lower windows were much less elaborate and were smaller with gun loops directly underneath.
Inner Courtyard. A small area behind the Tower House was used as a courtyard and was originally enclosed by a wall. Today the area is fenced off due to the sheer drops on both sides.
Fort. A prehistoric fort can be seen as you walk along the path towards Gylen Castle.
Gylen Castle is found on the Isle of Kerrera and is accessed via a passenger ferry that departs from Gallanach, just to the south of Oban. No cars are allowed on the island (other than permanent residents) and so visitors should park at the car park directly adjacent to the Gallanach jetty. There are regular sailings in the Summer season.
Gallanach Ferry and Car Park