Castle Tioram was built in the early thirteenth century in the form of an enclosure fortification. Located on a key trade route from the Hebridean islands, it was home to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. They made regular updates to the fortification including adding a Tower House in the fourteenth century. The was slighted by its owner as he left to join the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.
Castle Tioram stands on a promontory that juts out into Loch Moidart and is connected by a neck of land that submerges at high tide. Despite its apparent remoteness today, the site was once well connected as, in the pre-industrial era, the lochs and rivers of Scotland were the primary means of movement through otherwise impassable terrain. Tioram benefited from being located near the confluence of Loch Moidart and the River Shiel, which provided access far inshore, plus the site was also on the main line of trade from the Hebridean islands. Furthermore, the shallow gradient of the foreshore made it ideal for beaching small ships. For all these reason the area had been occupied for centuries before the castle was built; a hillfort had been established nearby at Shielfoot no later than the seventh century AD.
By the mid-twelfth century the site of the later castle, along with much of the western coast including the islands, were in Norse control under Somerled, Lord of Argyll. His death in 1164 saw his lands divided between his sons with Tioram passing to Reginald. It was subsequently inherited by his son, Donald, whose descendants ultimately became the MacDonalds of Clanranald. Precisely who first built Tioram Castle is unknown. Local tradition suggests it was Amy MacRuary, estranged wife of John, First Lord of the Isles (1336-86). In actual fact archaeological evidence confirms the structure was raised much earlier with the curtain wall having been built around the early 1200s. This also conforms to the timeline for similarly configured castles nearby including Dunstaffnage, Kisimul (Barra) and Mingary. The structure was a simple enclosure castle consisting of a substantial curtain wall the shape of which was defined by the terrain on which it was built.
A three storey Tower House was added to the structure in the fourteenth century and was built within the earlier enclosure. This consisted of a vaulted cellar, a first floor Hall and accommodation above. The curtain wall was also heightened at this time. It is possible these modifications were made by Amy MacRuary - certainly the lands were formally granted to her son, Ranald, by King Robert II in 1373. Ranald became the first member of his family to style himself as the MacDonalds of Clanranald.
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Lords of the Isles were locked in a power struggle with the Scottish Crown as successive monarchs attempted to break their power. The MacDonalds of Clanranald fought in numerous campaigns against loyalist clans and Royal forces themselves. However, Castle Tioram seems to have avoided any significant military action until 1554. At this time a combined land and sea force was dispatched to attack the castle by Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland. The sea component was commanded by Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll who duly arrived outside its walls and started bombardment both from his ships and from a hastily established shore battery. During repair work in the late nineteenth century, several cannonballs were found embedded in the curtain wall from this assault. Despite Argyll's efforts the land component - under George Gordon, Earl of Huntly - had reached Kiliwhimen (now Fort Augustus) and opted not to venture any further into MacDonald heartlands. Without shore support Argyll had little choice but to withdraw. Castle Tioram remained firmly in MacDonald hands.
By the early seventeenth century Royal authority was supreme with important and potentially hostile clans, such as the MacDonalds of Clanranald, subjected to measures to limit their ability to cause trouble. This included restrictions on the number of warships that could be owned and each clan chief had to specify a single location as their home. Castle Tioram was named as the family seat and this prompted upgrades to the residential elements of the structure. Of note the family also specified Hobey on Uist as their main estate - clear evidence of the importance of the coastal location.
During the Wars of Three Kingdoms the MacDonalds of Clanranald supported the Royalist cause. Both John MacDonald and his son, Donald, fought for James Graham, Marquis of Montrose in his successful 1644/5 campaign against the Covenanters. However, following Graham's defeat at Philiphaugh (1645), they lost control of their estates. Only after they formally submitting to Sir Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll did they finally recover them. The castle was briefly occupied by the troops of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.
Castle Tioram was upgraded again during the 1680s. The Tower House was heightened at this time, a new Great Hall built and a small tower was added. However in 1689 the then owner, Allan Mor of Clanranald, supported the Jacobite cause and the rebellion of James Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee. Following the suppression of that revolt, Castle Tioram was occupied by Government troops until 1692. During this time the castle fell into disrepair but its end as a residence came in 1715 when it was burnt - not through enemy action but a decision by Allan. At this time he was a reluctant participant in the second Jacobite rebellion and set off to join them in the campaign that led to the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715). Predicting his own demise, he ordered Castle Tioram torched to prevent his home providing shelter to "those who are about to triumph over our ruin". His grim prediction was correct for although Sheriffmuir was a Jacobite victory, the campaign unravelled and the rebellion was defeated. Allan himself was mortally wounded during the battle and died at Drummond Castle on 14 November 1715.
Despite its ruined state, Castle Tioram also had a small part in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. French supplied artillery was hidden in the ruins ready to support the campaigns of Prince Charles Stuart. However, by this stage the Clanranalds were impoverished and could provide no more than a few horses meaning most of the cannon had to be left at Tioram. The ruined castle later passed through numerous owners before ending up in the hands of Anta Estates. In 1997 they sought to restore the castle into a functional residence once more and were granted planning consent by the Highland Council. However, this was vetoed by Historic Scotland and today the castle remains an abandoned but picturesque ruin.
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Castle Tioram is a ruined, thirteenth century enclosure fortification. The remains also include a fourteenth century tower house. At the time of writing, access to the interior was restricted due to the risk of falling masonry.
Castle Tioram. The castle was an enclosure fortification protected by a substantial curtain wall that mirrored the rocky outcrop on which it was built. A Tower House was added in the south-east corner in the fourteenth century.
Castle Tioram. Tioram is pronounced 'chiram' and is Gaelic for dry island - a reference to the castle becoming cut off from the mainland at high tide.
Tower House. The Tower House was added almost a hundred years after the castle was originally founded. Originally a three storey structure, it was heightened in the 1680s.
Loch Moidart. The calm waters of the loch and superb beaching facilities in vicinity of the castle made the site an excellent harbour. From here trade to and from the Hebridean islands could be controlled.
Castle Tioram is found off an unnamed road that connects to the A861 (the turning is sign-posted). There is a small car park nearby and the visitor can then walk along the beach to the island. Note that the site is cut off at high tide so it is worth checking tide times before setting off. BBC tide tables can be accessed here (check details for Loch Moidart).