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Ardvreck Castle Ruins Scotland

Scotland's Emotive Ruins

Often standing alone, defiant against time, these ruins are a powerful reminder
of the forces that shaped the Scottish nation.


A ruin, by definition, implies tragedy and tragedies eat irreparably into the heart. Trying to decide on just a few of my favourites proved almost impossible, so, to avoid an infinite list without space for any detail, I selected eight which either have nostalgic memories or are close to places where I have lived or with which my family has tenuous connections...or a combination of the three.

Scotland has more than its share of ruins: ruins from war against foreign invaders, hostile clans or even neighbours; deliberate ruins, demolished by retreating owners to prevent them falling into enemy hands; ruins of dwellings neglected in favour of grander replacements built by parvenu arrivistes; and, most poignant of all, though less dramatic, clustered heaps of fallen walls where whole townships were abandoned, sometimes under duress during the Highland Clearances and sometimes voluntarily when even the barest subsistence had become impossible.

Castle Tioram was once the 13th-century seat of the Clanranald Macdonalds and a powerful Gaidhealtachd (Gaeldom) stronghold. It stands, ragged but proud, on a rocky peninsula jutting into Loch Moidart in Moidart, accessible only on foot at low tide. Splendidly awe-inspiring, it remains remarkably substantial despite frequent skirmishes with an alien Crown. Donald, the 13th chief, who died in 1685, was the last to live in it and by the time it was annexed and garrisoned by government troops in 1692, it was already crumbling. Allan, the 14th chief, with premonitions of approaching disaster for the Highlands, repossessed it in 1715 and ordered it to be torched to save it from reoccupation. Two months later he was killed at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. Today, a fresh battle engulfs Tioram, a battle of words and petty regulations. The present owner wishes to restore and reinhabit it, enthusiastically supported by the local community, but architectural heritage gurus, including the government agency Historic Scotland, decree that it must remain ruinous because, they say, it fits the landscape better as such -- an artistic ruin. If they don't see sense soon it will be too late; Tioram will be no more than rubble.

My introduction to Tioram was camping on the shore as a teenager, long before the Nanny State had invented "Danger Keep Out" notices. We were an innocent party, fiercely chaperoned by a formidable old lady who lived close by and kept an extremely close eye on us, insisting that the girls sleep in her barn. Our other sentinel was the local priest who came down to join our ceilidh on the beach and danced with us round our bonfire. Subsequent memories roll forward to the 1980s and a spit-roasted, candle-lit picnic supper in Tioram's upstairs banqueting hall, then still safe and accessible, to celebrate a gathering of Clanranald Macdonalds. Most of us had arrived by sea and I have photographs of everyone sitting round trestle tables in the dark, vaulted chamber, with a piper, plenty of bottles and happy, glowing faces.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2011 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Gunsgreen House, A Smuggler's Lair, by Shan Ross.

Click here to preview our column on Scotch whisky by John Lamond.

Click here to preview our Notes From The Isles column by Kate Francis.

Photos: © Ian Paterson/Scottish Viewpoint