Churches, abbeys and chapels,  History

Dunstaffnage Chapel – haunted by sadness

Dunstaffnage Chapel (1)On the afternoon of 20th December 1462, a bridal party walked down the short path from Dunstaffnage Castle to a little chapel in the woods.

It was to be a joyful occasion:  Sir John Stewart, 3rd Lord of Lorn and a widower, was marrying his mistress, a MacLaren of Ardvech.   The couple already had a son, Dugald, and their marriage would seal his inheritance.

But before the groom could even enter the church, disaster struck.   A vengeful relative, the kind you don’t want to see at any wedding, had been lying in wait.  His name was Alan MacCoul, and he was hell-bent on murder.  He and his men ambushed the wedding party and stabbed the groom several times.   Struggling for breath, Sir John was carried into the church where he had just strength enough to make his wedding vows before he died.

Dunstaffnage Chapel (13)Dunstaffnage Chapel (3)What on earth provoked such a hateful act?   Jealousy, of course, and greed.

The MacDougalls were the ancestral owners of Dunstaffnage, and hereditary holders of the title ‘Lord of Lorn’.  But somewhere along the line, when no heirs had been produced, the inheritance had passed to the Stewarts through marriage with a MacDougall daughter.   Alan MacCoul was a MacDougall by descent;  he believed himself and his clansmen to be dispossessed, and he hatched an evil plan.

Nor did it end there.   As Sir John received the last rites in the presence of his horrified family and guests, MacCoul seized the castle, which of course was conveniently empty.  If a banquet had been prepared, you can almost imagine him revelling in his own good luck.  This was a real-life Game of Thrones!

But he who holds the castle doesn’t necessarily win the game.  Thanks to some careful networking, Sir John’s title passed not to his son but to his brother, Walter Stewart.  It took Dugald another five years to bring down the man who murdered his father;  according to folklore, he struck the fateful blow himself, during a fight between the two clans near Stalcair Bay.

Walter Stewart relinquished his claim to the Lordship of Lorn, but Dugald never held it.   Instead, he received a share of the land, and became the first to bear the title ‘Stewart of Appin’.

Dunstaffnage Chapel (2)Today, the little chapel at Dunstaffnage stands in ruins, its unquiet spirits lulled by birdsong.   Like a spectral bride, an old larch bedecked in lichen stretches long gaunt fingers towards the doorway.   As the breeze stirs the fresh leaves of midsummer, thousands of downy willow seeds dance in the shafts of sunlight.  The tranquillity is deceptive:   this is a forgotten place, remembering old wounds.

Dunstaffnage Chapel (7)Dunstaffnage Chapel (11)Dunstaffnage Chapel (6)Dunstaffnage Chapel (8)Dunstaffnage Chapel (19)Dunstaffnage Chapel (10)Dunstaffnage Chapel (12)

Is Dunstaffnage Chapel haunted?   I don’t know for sure.   But the castle is, and under an ancient law its Hereditary Captain is obliged to spend three nights there every year.   Read more in this feature on The Hazel Tree!

Dunstaffnage Castle (6)Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel can be found at Dunbeg, just a few miles north of Oban.  For more information on visiting, go to Historic Scotland’s website.


Photos copyright © Jo & Colin Woolf



  • david

    “Like a spectral bride, an old larch bedecked in lichen stretches long gaunt fingers towards the doorway!” – great writing Jo!

  • blosslyn

    We visited there last year and it is a lovely ruin, also a very sad story, but I didn’t get any feelings. Lovely photos of the walk down to the chapel & the chapel itself 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Lynne! There was a strange feeling there, a bit other-worldly but nothing that I could call spooky. Glad to see you are back, hope you had a great time!

    • Jo Woolf

      Thank you, Pat! I have wanted to see this little chapel for a long time. It felt very ‘feminine’ in atmosphere, and the setting is so beautiful.

  • tearoomdelights

    I agree with David, beautifully written and I loved that sentence about the spectral bride. Delightful photographs of such a peaceful looking place, and yet the memories it holds are quite chilling. There must be many dreadful stories hanging in the past of places visited on sunny days, and yet you can feel such a sense of peace in them. Perhaps, with time, old crimes are somehow eaten up by the foliage that grows over the old stones.

    • Jo Woolf

      That’s very kind, Lorna, thank you. It was lovely to wander around here, knowing what had taken place – quite often I am unaware of much of the history beforehand. I do like the idea of foliage – trees, ferns, even lichen – somehow absorbing old crimes and sadness. That is how it appears in many places, because it always has a softening effect.

  • James Harvey

    I visited Dunstaffnage in early summer 2012.I traveled by bus from Oban and, for me, it was a long walk from the main road down to the castle.After a rest and a bottle of water I went up to the battlements and enjoyed the magnificent views.
    I decided to walk down to the chapel and it was then that the atmosphere seemed to change-I felt very peaceful and everything seemed perfect.A sunny day,birdsong, and a leafy path to the chapel.I walked along the left side of the chapel and unusually felt it would be a good place to have a nap.There was a narrow patch of grass,in dappled shade, between the path and the walls of the Chapel.I laid down and dozed for about 20 minutes and when i awoke,I looked to my left, and saw a man dressed in a long coat and a wide brimmed hat.He was about 100 yards away and he glanced at me turned to his right and I assumed he had gone into the Chapel.I remember thinking it strange that anyone would dress like that on such a warm day.I had no sense of fear or foreboding as I got up and entered the Chapel myself.
    There was nobody there! I still had no fear although I felt that I might have seen a Ghost
    Has anyone else had similar experiences at the Chapel ?

    • Jo Woolf

      Oh my goodness! That sounds quite eerie! But sometimes these things do happen with no sense of fear attached to them. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing it. I remember when I first heard about the chapel, I read that it was reputed to be haunted. Thank you for sharing this, and sorry for the delay in replying – it got caught in the spam folder for some reason!

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