Tarbert Castle is located on the Kintyre peninsula in close proximity to Loch Fyne which ensured the site was well connected with the wider region. A fortification had been established on the site by the eight century AD but the castle itself was built in the thirteenth century and later extensively upgraded by Robert the Bruce and James IV.
Tarbert Castle is located at the narrowest point on the Kintyre peninsula overlooking East Loch Tarbert. In the pre-industrial age, when movement throughout the region was by boat, the site was well placed to trade and communicate with the islands and coastal communities across the Firth of Clyde and inshore via Loch Fyne. It also controlled a portage route, just 1,500 metres long, enabling goods and supplies to be moved across the peninsula to West Loch Tarbert from where they could be shipped to the Inner Hebrides. The site had probably been a used as a small hillfort since pre-historic times and some form of fortification certainly existed by the eighth century as in AD 712 the King of Lorne attacked and burnt it. At some point during the thirteenth century, a castle was built on the site - possibly by Alexander II given the similarities with Kincardine Castle (raised circa-1220).
The earliest castle was a small enclosure fortification built upon the high ground. It consisted of four thick walled ranges configured in an irregular plan around a courtyard. A gatehouse on the north-east side provided access. In 1292 this early castle became the property of John Balliol following his accession as King and it remained a Royal possession throughout the Wars of Independence ultimately coming into the hands of Robert the Bruce. Between 1325 and 1329, he added an Outer Bailey which occupied the lower ground to the north-east. This new enclosure was vast, making Tarbert the biggest in Argyll at that time, and was protected by a substantial curtain wall augmented with a number of projecting drum towers. The interior included a Great Hall, high status chambers and all the associated ancillary buildings expected of such a site. The settlement of Tarbert became a Royal Burgh in 1329.
By the fifteenth century the castle was in the hands of the MacDonalds but it was taken back into Crown ownership in 1490 by James IV who started substantial upgrades. Most significantly he built the rectangular, four storey Tower House straddling the southern curtain wall of the Outer Bailey. This tower was constructed from whinstone rubble with ashlar sandstone features. Bartizans, parapet level corner towers, projected out from the north-west and south-east corners. The King summoned a Parliament to meet in the castle in July 1494. Circa-1504 James IV appointed the MacAlister clan as hereditary keepers of the castle and they later used it as a base to attack the isles of Arran and Bute.
Tarbert Castle was still occupied in 1685 when it was seized by Walter Campbell of Skipness from his kinsman - Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll - who was in rebellion. Thereafter the castle, or at least the Tower House, remained in use until the early eighteenth century. By 1760 it had been abandoned and was drifting into ruin and thereafter stone was robbed from the site to build the harbour.
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Tarbert Castle consists of earthworks and some masonry remains of a thirteenth/fourteenth century fortification and a later, now ruined, Tower House. The site is freely accessible.
Tarbert Castle Layout. The original castle was a small enclosure fortification built upon the high ground. This was augmented by a large Outer Bailey built by Robert the Bruce in 1325. The Tower House was added in the late fifteenth century.
Inner Bailey (Original Fortification). The original castle was an enclosure fortification built upon the highest part of the site. This structure consisted of four, thick walled ranges aligned around a courtyard. Only overgrown foundations remain.
Outer Bailey. The Outer Bailey was added by Robert the Bruce and was originally enclosed by a substantial stone built curtain wall.
Tower House. The Tower House is the most significant surviving portion of the castle and was built in the late fifteenth century.
Tower House Fore Building. This structure was added to the Tower House in the sixteenth century.