The square-built walls of Castle Stalker don’t see many visitors these days; if you’re lucky, you might glimpse an otter playing around the rocks, or a raft of eiders on their way to inspect the mussel beds. Marooned on a small tidal island in Loch Laich, just a stone’s throw from the old settlement of Port Appin in Argyll, it waits in endless silence. But looks can be deceiving: Castle Stalker has a long and turbulent past, and its story is a feature film – or maybe three! – just waiting to be made.
The name ‘Stalker’ in this instance is pronounced ‘stal-ker’ (in other words the letter ‘l’ is sounded), and it comes from the Gaelic ‘stalcaire’, meaning ‘hunter’ or ‘falconer’. James IV of Scotland, who was a cousin of the Stewarts, is reputed to have stayed at Castle Stalker regularly while on hunting expeditions in the late 15th century, and this may be how it came by its name. There’s a coat of arms above the front door, and this is likely to be his.
Described as one of the best-preserved medieval tower houses surviving in western Scotland, Castle Stalker dates back to 1320, and was designed primarily for strength. Its builders were the MacDougalls, Lords of Lorn, who had inherited their lands from Dougall, the son of Somerled; the same clan was responsible for building Dunollie Castle in Oban Bay.
Interestingly, the name Dougall (or Dubh-gall in Gaelic) means ‘black stranger’. Some sources speculate that this could have been a description of the Norse invaders who made a real nuisance of themselves around these shores from the ninth century onwards. Maybe the ‘blackness’ refers to their intentions rather than their appearance!
When Castle Stalker was built, the islands and most of the western coast of Scotland had been in the possession of the Lords of Lorn for less than 100 years, having been surrendered by King Haakon of Norway in 1266 at the Battle of Largs.
“The tower-house, oblong on plan, measures 14.8 metres by 11.8 metres over walls 2.7 metres thick.”
That’s nearly nine feet!
“The ground floor comprises three cellars and a pit prison, all of which are barrel-vaulted. In the north corner a turnpike stairway, which rises to the full height of the building, forms the only means of access to the upper floors.”
In other words, when you arrived home from fishing, hunting or claymore-rattling, you had to walk past all your languishing prisoners before you could go and have dinner. How nice.
The MacDougall lands, including Castle Stalker, passed to the Stewarts in 1388 when the last surviving MacDougall chief died without a male heir. It is believed that the visible remains of the castle date from the mid-1400s, when Sir John Stewart was the Lord of Lorn. Perhaps Sir John wanted to make his own mark on the place, but if he had any idea of occupying it in peace and solitude, he was destined to think again.
Sir John had an illegitimate son, Dugald, from a love affair with a daughter of MacLaren of Ardvech; and on a fateful day in 1463 he was about to marry Dugald’s mother at a small chapel just outside the walls of Dunstaffnage Castle. Their wedding would make Dugald the heir to Sir John’s title and properties. But disaster struck in the shape of a vengeful Highlander: Alan MacCoul, the illegitimate grandson of an earlier MacDougall chief, had gathered a small group of rebels and they lay in wait for Sir John outside the church. They attacked the wedding party before the ceremony, mortally wounding the bridegroom; Sir John sealed his wedding vows with his last breath, thereby making Dugald the first Stewart of Appin.
The planning of this hateful act was attributed to the Campbells of Argyll, who may have been in league with Walter Stewart, Dugald’s uncle. An uncle whose name is Walter doesn’t sound as if he should have deceitful intentions, but Walter was neither meek nor mild. He ensured that it was he who became the next Lord of Lorn, in name at least.
This betrayal was not forgotten by Dugald, and the simmering resentment boiled over five years later. The Battle of Stalc, which took place in 1468 on the mainland close to Castle Stalker, was a combined bid by Walter Stewart, the Campbells and the MacDougalls to destroy the power of the Stewarts of Appin once and for all. But the tide of fortune turned against them, and Dugald’s forces triumphed; with brutal justice, it was Dugald Stewart himself who delivered the fatal blow to Alan MacCoul.
Cattle rustling or ‘reiving’ was rife at that time, because the possession of livestock was of vast importance to the wealth and livelihood of entire clans. In 1497 the Stewarts and MacLarens were on the warpath again, this time to avenge the theft of some cattle by their old enemies, the MacDougalls. In one of the resulting skirmishes Dugald Stewart was killed; his son, Duncan, succeeded him.
Duncan survived 15 years as the second clan chief before he, too, was murdered – this time by the Macleans at Duart Castle on Mull, in 1512. His younger brother, Alan, must have been somewhat reluctant to step into such ill-fated shoes. However, Alan and his five sons miraculously survived the slaughter at the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513, when James IV of Scotland and countless Scottish noblemen were killed, and English forces under the Earl of Surrey emerged triumphant.
In 1520, according to the Red Book of Perthshire, Alexander Stewart, a younger son of Alan Stewart, was murdered by members of the Campbell clan while out fishing in the waters around Castle Stalker. Folklore tells that Alexander’s baby son, Donald, was hidden within the castle by his nurse, who returned for the child when the Campbells had gone. She then fled with him to safety in nearby Morven.
After his breathtaking escape, Donald grew up with a fearsome reputation. Nicknamed ‘Donald of the Hammers’ he is said to have wielded a blacksmith’s hammer in each hand, and he must have struck an imposing figure at family get-togethers. In 1544, when he would have been in his mid-twenties, Donald gathered some clansmen and went on a quest for Campbell blood. The party headed for Dunstaffnage, just to the south, where they found and killed nine Campbell men in retaliation for their father’s murder.
In 1547 Donald was again armed and dangerous: he led the Stewart forces at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the last clash between Scottish and English troops during the ‘Rough Wooing’ of Scotland, which was Henry VIII’s vain attempt to gain Mary, Queen of Scots as a bride for his young son.
The warlike Donald died in 1607; by my reckoning, he must have been at least 87. What on earth were the odds against his reaching such a grand old age? He is buried on the peaceful island of Lismore in Oban Bay, and I would love to think that he has a hammer in each hand.
In view of all the bloodshed, it is somewhat ironic that Castle Stalker passed from the Stewarts to the Campbells 13 years later, after nothing more than a drunken wager. The deal took place in 1620 between Duncan, the seventh chief of Appin, and a Campbell of Airds: Castle Stalker was passed to the Campbells in return for an eight-oared wherry.
During the next 80 years the castle changed hands between the Campbells and the Stewarts more than once. Allegiances were divided as to whether James II or William of Orange was the rightful heir to the British throne, and the result was often bitter conflict.
In 1745, when Prince Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) arrived at Glenfinnan and inspired the ill-fated Jacobite uprising, Castle Stalker was held by the Campbells and occupied by troops loyal to the English crown. The Stewarts found themselves in the unlucky position of having to bombard their former stronghold with the aim of destroying it, but its walls were so strongly built that the cannon balls bounced off.
Castle Stalker was owned and occupied by the Campbells until around 1800, when the family moved to a new residence on the mainland. After that, the roof was either removed or destroyed by natural forces.
In 1908 the castle was purchased by Charles Stewart of Achara, who carried out some essential preservation work on the decaying structure. His successor was Duncan Stewart, the Governor of Sarawak. In 1947 Duncan was murdered by a native Borneo tribesman. It almost seems as if the inevitable fate of Castle Stalker’s owners had survived the centuries, and travelled half-way round the world.
Where do I end this story? There are so many strands going off, and I haven’t even mentioned Ardsheal’s Cave or the Appin Murder (as if there haven’t been enough already!) But I think these deserve a feature of their own.
On the silver screen
Castle Stalker was used as one of the locations for the movie ‘Highlander: Endgame’. It also makes an appearance towards the end of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Rather fittingly, in view of its blood-soaked history, it is known as ‘The Castle of Aaargh’. In the immortal lines of Brother Maynard (Eric Idle) who is reading the last words of Joseph of Arimathea from an ancient carving:
“He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of…. Aaaargh!”
Arthur (Graham Chapman): “What?”
Brother Maynard: “The Castle of Aaaargh. He must have died while carving it.”
Bedevere (Terry Jones): “Oh, come on!”
Brother Maynard: “Well, that’s what it says!”
Arthur: “Look, if he was dying, he wouldn’t bother to carve ‘aaargh’, he’d just say it!”
Brother Maynard: “Well, that’s what’s carved in the rock.”
Galahad (Michael Palin): “Perhaps he was dictating!”
Arthur: “Oh, shut up!”
Getting to Castle Stalker
If you’re driving south on the A828 from Ballachulish towards Appin, you will see Castle Stalker on the right-hand side as the road skirts Loch Laich. You can turn off onto the minor road towards Port Appin, to get a closer look. Castle Stalker is privately owned and therefore not accessible except on certain days of the year. There’s a boat operator called Appin Boat Tours which offers seasonal trips over there.
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf
More inspiring castles
If you love Castle Stalker, take a look at these other wonderful fortresses, full of history and legend. Doune Castle was a star of the Monty Python film, too!