In our July blog we were singing the praises of the Isle of Lismore which is one of the “Lorn islands” that can easily be explored as a day trip from Oban. This month we were visiting it’s little sister the Isle of Kerrera which is even easier to get to from Oban. In fact a strong swimmer could save themselves the ferry fare and swim to Kerrera as its only 400 metres away (even less at some points).
The ferry itself is just a simple affair. A bit like a WW2 landing craft with a drop down ramp and enough space to carry 1 car, but for some strange reason there is a limit of only 12 passengers at a time. This isn’t a big problem as the ferry scoots back and forth across the Sound of Kerrera whenever there are people waiting at the pier, although they do take a lunch break and that is religiously adhered to (quite rightly).
Kerrera is not a large island, only 4 miles long and a little over a mile wide. It is home to a population of ~40, but there’s not really any village on the island. If you want to stay on the island there are some self catering cottages and a bunkhouse. If you are posh enough to own a yacht, you can berth it at the north end of the island where you find Oban Marina and the Waypoint Bar / Restaurant. The Waypoint Restaurant is somewhere different to consider for dinner when you are staying in Oban. The restaurant / marina runs its own little ferry service from Oban Harbour, but you need to pre-book this via the Oban Marina website.
Our main motivation for going to Kerrera was to visit the strikingly located Gylen Castle at the southern end of the island. If it was more accessible, this little clifftop stronghold would probably be appearing on lots of Scottish postcards and calendars. It certainly has the sort of forbidding location that would suit it for an appearance in “Game of Thrones”.
Fortunately, Gylen Castle has received some preservation works to stabilise what is actually a very interesting building with some unusual architectural features for this part of Scotland. The castle was built in the late 16th century (1582 to be exact according to the castle’s “Date stone”) by the MacDougall’s of Dunollie, the dominant Clan in the Oban area. The purpose of the castle was to control the southern approaches to the Sound of Kerrera as this was a safe natural harbour and a busy trade route on the west coast. In its short lived heydays, the castle defences would have been supplemented with an outer wall that enclosed a small garden whilst also providing the defenders with positions on which to fire down onto the beaches below. The outer wall has now gone, but there is a grassy ridge that we assume delineates where this line of defence would have stood.
In theory, Gylen Castle should have been as impregnable a stronghold as any in Scotland. It is bordered on 3 sides by steep cliffs, the occupants have unobstructed fields of fire in all directions and the landward approach to the castle was blocked by an outer defensive wall with gun loops. All sounds good, nothing to worry about then! Unfortunately, there was one small oversight that led to the castle’s downfall and a nasty end for its occupants.
The fatal blow came in 1647 when Scotland was in the grip of a struggle between the Presbyterian Covenanters who opposed the interference of King Charles I in the Scottish church. King Charles wanted there to be one united church in Scotland and England with him as the leader of that church. The Covenanters saw this as another form of “Popery” and all sorts of trouble then ensued. The MacDougall Clan, being Roman Catholics, sided with the King and soon found themselves under attack from the Covenanters. The defenders of Gylen initially withstood the siege, but 1647 was an unusually dry summer and the castle’s water supply ran out. The attackers threatened to hang all in the castle if they didn’t surrender, but then decide to kill them all anyway. Well almost everyone, as legend claims that the life of young John MacDougall (19th chief of the clan) was spared as he was just a boy and an only child.
After the siege of 1647, the castle was set on fire and was never re-occupied. Despite 350 years at the mercy of the elements, the castle has survived in reasonably good shape and it stands almost to its original full height. In its heyday, this would have been a very attractive building with the stonewalls finished in a smooth render, wood framed windows and some fine stone carvings. The castle had 4 main levels, a ground floor with vaulted cellar / food store, a first floor kitchen / hall which you can still climb up to, and then above that 2 more largish rooms and a little “granny flat” at the very top of the castle that would have been accessed via a small spiral stairway in a turret. All the floor levels above the ground floor had latrines for dropping “bombs” on the invaders, so it really would have been quite civilised.
The walk to the castle is about 2.5 miles and it is an easy route to follow as it is a well defined farm track that also take you to the island’s celebrated “Tea Garden”. The path is also good fun for kids as they can play a game of trying to be the first to spot colourful teapots that act as waymarkers along the route to the tearoom. The teapots also come with cheerful little signs that give you words of encouragement to motivate you to reach your primary objective of a cream scone and cup of tea. The tearoom is near to the castle in an old farmhouse with a sheltered garden and picnic tables where you can enjoy your lunch with the local chaffinches. There is no seating area inside the actual farmhouse, but one of the farms out buildings has been adapted so there is indoor seating if you need it. However, as the MacDougalls of Gylen Castle know, it never rains that much on Kerrera....