Dunoon and Castle, pp.121-126.


    We gaze upon it, till the place 
Becomes Religion, and the heart runs o’er 
With silent worship of the great of old! 
The dead but scepter’d sovereigns who still rule 
Our spirits from their urns. 


THE influence which the facility of communication, afforded by the introduction of steam navigation, has had upon the village of Dunoon, must be apparent to all who have had an opportunity of comparing its present state, with that which it exhibited but a few years ago. Probably no place on the Clyde has felt the benefit of this influence to so great an extent in so short a time. Its delightful situation, and the magnificence of its mountain, water, and woodland scenery, had long marked out Dunoon as peculiarly fitted for a watering place. The difficulty of access, however, – the distance by land, – or the danger in crossing the Frith at times in open boats – turned the scale of preference in favour of other places of less natural beauty, but of more easy approach.

Seldom visited by even passing strangers, its inhabitants were without the incitement of either interest or example; so that till lately the village presented a most miserable and wretched appearance, a complete specimen of Mrs. Hamilton’s Glenburnie, saluting the olfactories at every door, with every variety of ancient and fish-like smells. But the scene is now materially changed. Mr. Ewing, in making improvements around his residence, cleared away a whole street, appropriately named the black street; new houses have been erected of respectable appearance externally, and comfortable within; many elegant villas are erecting in the neighbourhood; and even the remaining portions of the old houses seem to be acquiring a more civilised aspect in the general progress of improvement.

Dunoon lies on the western shore of the Frith of Clyde, within the parish of the same name, and in the district of Argyll called Cowal, about two miles below the entrance to the Holy Loch. It is situated on an eminence, between two extensive bays, towards which on either side the ground slopes gradually down. When approached from the sea, it has an exceedingly striking and picturesque appearance. On the brow of an eminence, which rises abruptly from the rocky beach, is seen the Church – a modern building in the pointed style – with its ancient burying ground; to the left, amidst beautiful though not extensive pleasure grounds, the elegant marine residence of James Ewing, Esq. L.L.D., F.R.S.E., and adjoining to the ruins of the Ancient Castle; to the right, the white houses of the village interspersed with fine old trees, from among which they are seen peeping; and the whole scene backed with a range of lofty hills, exhibiting in the sun every variety of tint, and merging their broken outline with the horizon. This is the view presented in the engraving, which has been preferred as being that best known to visitors.

Mr. Ewing’s House was erected in 1824, from designs by David Hamilton Esq.; it is appropriately in the castellated style, and though a mansion of no great pretensions, and but of small size, yet the correctness of its details, and the variety of its parts give it beauty, whilst its situation just above a precipitous and rocky beach, adds to it an interest and effect which it probably might not otherwise possess. The grounds necessarily could not be extensive, but every care has been taken to turn their broken and irregular surface to advantage; and indeed, the refined taste of the proprietor is throughout apparent. It may also be noticed, that a variety of exotic plants flourish here in the open air.

The conical green hill – the summit of which was once occupied by the Royal Castle of Dunoon, anciently a residence of the Kings of Scotland – is now within Mr. Ewing’s inclosures. Very little of even the ruins of this former seat of royal grandeur now remains. Indeed, so entire has its destruction been, that persons unacquainted with history, were often inclined to doubt the fact of a castle having been there at all, until Mr. Ewing removed a quantity of the earth and rubbish, and laid open a part of the southern wall. It would not be an easy matter now, to tell what has been the form of this Castle, but judging from the foundations which have been traced, – and which appear to be those of the donjon or keep, – we should think it has been an oblong square tower, occupying almost the entire summit of the hill. The entrance has obviously been on the west, or land side; and probably it was defended by outworks placed below at the commencement of the ascent. It is said there are still a number of vaulted apartments, pretty entire, under the ruins, but no attempt has ever been made to have this ascertained.

“It appears” says an author of deserved authority, in writing of this Castle,1 “to have consisted of three towers, one looking up the Frith, another in an opposite direction, and a third guarding the approach from the land. The first of these is the only one of which there are any distinct traces. It has been of a circular form.” From examinations however of the ruins, we must dissent from this description, nor can we conceive how such an opinion should ever have been formed. There seems indeed to be no trace of any building but the large square tower, to which we have already alluded. The complete destruction which has overtaken this interesting ruin, has not been merely the effect of time. It has obviously been chiefly occasioned by the abstraction of the stones for building; the greater part of the old houses in the village having been built from it.

West of the Castle stood the tom-a-mhoid, or hill of the court of justice, the same as in other situations is called the mote hill; and near it was the Gallow Hill, where the criminals were executed. Upon the shore, and immediately below the Castle, now occupied by Mr. Ewing’s garden, was the site of the cuspars or butts; the scene of ancient weapon showings, and of archery. The privilege of a ferry was granted by the heritable keepers to Campbell of Ballochyle, on the condition of his keeping a ten oared boat, for rowing Argyll across; and the neighbouring property of Dunloskin was burthened with the tenure of supplying the garrison with wine and salt.

The Castle of Dunoon has been said to be of great, but undefined antiquity; yet it is most probable its origin should not be fixed earlier than towards the end of the eleventh, or beginning of the twelfth century. Whether any ancient fort occupied its site previously, cannot now be ascertained; but the Castle of which the traces now remain, could not have been older than the period mentioned. It is by no means certain who were the ancient possessors, or at what period it became royal property. The account which has now been given, is that “it originally belonged to the Hereditary High Stewards of Scotland, to whom Malcolm gave a grant of Bute and Cowal in the eleventh century.”2 If this were the fact, it is obvious that Dunoon only came to the Crown, at the period the Stewart family ascended the Throne. Dr. Jamieson has adopted this statement, and adds that “according to our historians, Walter the son of Fleance, having adhered to the interests of Malcolm Canmore, not only received from him the baronies of Renfrew and Kyle, but was made Lord of Bute and Cowal, then at the King’s disposal, in consequence of an insurrection of the islanders, in quelling which he acted as His Majesty’s lieutenant and commander in chief. In reward for his services, he was also made Dapifer Regis. His son Alan was by king Edgar constituted Senescallus Scotiæ, or Great Steward of Scotland, whence originated the family name.”3

Notwithstanding, however, the sanction given this statement by the venerable name of Dr. Jamieson, who has investigated with success so many disputed points in Scottish History, it is utterly impossible to believe that Dunoon belonged to the Stewarts, till they came to the crown in the person of Robert II. Certainly no evidence from charters or other records, can be brought to prove it. But what makes the statement peculiarly incredible, is the assertion that it came into the family with Bute and Cowal in the eleventh century. It might have been conceived, that Walter, the son of Fleance, Dapifer Regis, in the reign of Malcolm III, would now have been given up as an imaginary personage. – as one of the many fictions of our early historians. Lord Hailles,4 with his usual acuteness, long ago satisfactorily settles this point; and proved undeniably that no such person ever did exist. The story of Alan, constituted Senescallus Scotiæ by king Edgar, he has shewn to be equally without foundation. It is now quite clear that the first of this great family ascertained to be in Scotland, or of whom there is any authentic evidence, was Walter the son of Alan, who appears in the reign of David I. nearly one hundred years after the period of his imaginary ancestor; and it has been proved by Chalmers,5 with all the certainty that such a subject admits, from the evidence of Charters and other records, that he came from Shropshire in England, whence he had fled during the troublous conflicts of Maud and Stephen [12th century], to look for shelter and settlement in Scotland. He received extensive grants of lands from David, in the shires of Renfrew, Ayr, East Lothian, Berwick and Roxburgh, was created Steward of Scotland, and founded the Monastery of Paisley which he liberally endowed.

If then we believe historic evidence, rather than the dreams of our ancient chroniclers and genealogists, nothing more need be said to prove that the Stewarts while they remained subjects did not possess the Castle of Dunoon; because we cannot believe the statement of the grant of Bute and Cowal in the eleventh century, when we do not believe in the existence of the receiver. But there is no evidence that Cowal belonged at any period to the Stewart family. The grant from David I. to Walter the first Stewart, was confirmed to him in a charter granted by Malcolm IV. A copy of this curious document is preserved by Crawford,6 in which the Stewart’s various extensive territories are enumerated, but among these there is no mention of either Bute or Cowal. It appears, however, that Bute was in possession of Alan the son of Walter, before the commencement of the thirteenth century,7 yet we have no evidence of his possessing Cowal.

The probability is, that Dunoon Castle had either been royal property from a more remote period, or that it had been forfeited to the crown, after the settlement of Robert Bruce upon the throne, in consequence of its former lord having been in the Baliol interest. the latter is most likely. But whatever truth may be in this, it undoubtedly belonged to the crown during the reign of David II., as we find that Sir Colin Campbell of Lochow, an ancestor of the family of Argyll, was made hereditary keeper, and had a grant of lands for the support of his dignity, as a reward for having aided the young Steward in wresting it from the hands of the English in 1334.

David II. having deserted the throne, in consequence of the attempt of Edward Baliol in 1333, the country was overrun by the English, and among other fortresses they took possession of Dunoon. They only held it, however, till the following year. Robert the young Stewart, who afterwards ascended the throne, had lain for some time concealed in Bute, from whence he made his escape to Dumbarton Castle. Here having met by appointment with Campbell of Lochow they set out together for Cowal, accompanied, as Wyntoun says, by “foure hundyr, and mare” followers, and speedily retook the Castle of Dunoon. The reward conferred on Sir Colin has been already mentioned. The dukes of Argyll are still heritable keepers of the Castle.

In 1544, when the earl of Lennox appeared in the Clyde, having failed as already described, p. 82, in obtaining his principal object, possession of Dumbarton Castle, after making himself master of Rothsay, proceeded to Dunoon. Here he met with a powerful opposition from Archibald, earl of Argyll; but the latter was obliged to retreat with loss, being unable to resist the force of Lennox’s artillery.

On the 27th of August 1563, queen Mary visited Dunoon, where she slept and spent the following day. This was during the progress she made through the western counties. She had previously been entertained for three days at Inverary by the countess of Argyll. This countess was undoubtedly the lady Jean Stewart, natural daughter of king James V., who was the first wife of Archibald earl of Argyll. Mary is said to have on this occasion granted charters to some of the neighbouring proprietors; and among the family papers of the Campbells of Strachur there is a charter granted by Mary to one of their ancestors, dated at Dunoon.8 It must have been granted on this occasion.

Dunoon continued till about the commencement of the seventeenth century to be the occasional residence of the family of Argyll; and from hence it is known they granted charters to their vassals. The Rev. Mr. Campbell of Dunoon has in his possession a charter to one of his predecessors dated at Dunoon, the 13th day of November 1573, and witnessed by the principal heritors of the district of Cowal. After it ceased to be inhabited, the Castle was allowed to fall into a state of delapidation.

Among the records of this ancient family, there is a charter under the great seal by James III. to Colin, earl of Argyll, master of His Majesty’s household, and his heirs, giving and committing to him the charge of the king’s Castle of Dunoon, with power to make constables, porters, jailors, watermen, and other officers necessary for keeping the said castle, and to remove them at his pleasure; also giving and granting to the said earl the lands of Borland, with the pertinents, &c., dated 15th January 1472.9

The village of Dunoon originated from the residence of the powerful family of Argyll at the castle; and many of their great vassals are said to have had houses built in its vicinity, which they occupied when they attended the superior’s court. In one of the cottages of the village there were preserved some ancient chairs, with the arms of Argyll, which are reported to have belonged to the castle. They were formerly in the possession of the late colonel Campbell of Dunoon, the captain or deputy keeper; and now form part of the furniture in the house of Mr. Ewing. The bishops of Argyll also resided occasionally here; and, near the old manse, part of the ruins of the episcopal palace are still pointed out. Two of the bishops of this see, bishops Boyd and McLean are said to be interred in the church-yard, and the episcopal arms are still very discernible on their tombs. The old church which was taken down in 1816, was of great antiquity, and though not large, appeared to have been at one period superior to the ordinary churches of the time. In removing it the workmen when they began to pull down the gable, discovered a beautiful Gothic window, which had previously been so built up and plaistered as to be indiscernible.

Dunoon is considered one of the most ancient parishes in Scotland, and is the seat of the presbytery of the bounds. The parish of Kilmun, at the old church of which the family of Argyll have their cemetery, is now annexed to it; the minister of Dunoon officiating at stated times at the latter place. A new meeting house had lately been erected in connexion with the united secession church, which is well attended, particularly during summer. A distillery has been erected at Dunoon by Mr. William Ewing, which has now been going about twelve months. A very fine whisky is made here, said to be nearly equal to that of Isla.

We cannot better conclude this article than by the following quotation. “The view from Dunoon is one of the most variegated and extensive on the Frith – stretching from near Dumbarton Castle to the rock of Ailsa – comprehending the coasts of Dumbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Argyllshire, and Buteshire – displaying an immense expanse of ocean, animated with the ever-moving vessels of commerce and pleasure – and exhibiting all the diversity of mountain, valley, wood, rock, and coast scenery.”


1  Jamieson’s Illustrations of Brown’s Palaces of Scotland, p. 19.
2  Steam Boat Companion, p.57.
3  Illustrations of Brown’s Palaces, p. 20.
4  Annals, Vol. III, p. 53, App. No. VIII.
5  Caledonia, Vol. 1, p. 572-73.
6  History of the Stewarts, Robertson’s Ed. P. 135.
7  Ibid, p. 138.
8  Note by the Rev. Mr. Campbell, Dunoon.
9  Illustrations of Brown’s Palaces, p. 22.