Standing on a rocky promontory jutting out into Loch Assynt in Sutherland, north west Highland, Scotland, Ardvreck Castle is a ruined castle dating from the 16th century. The ruins can be reached by driving along the A837 which follows the north shore of Loch Assynt from the village of Inchnadamph. Care should be taken when walking around the site as falling masonry is a possible danger.
History of Ardvreck
The castle is thought to have been constructed around 1590 by the Clan MacLeod family who owned Assynt and the surrounding area from the 13th century onwards. Indeed Sutherland, the area in which Ardvreck is situated, has long been a stronghold of the clan MacLeod. The most well known historical tale concerning the castle is that on April 30th 1650 James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, was captured and held at the castle before being transported to Edinburgh for trial and execution. Montrose was a Royalist, fighting on the side of Charles I against the Covenanters. Defeated at the Battle of Carbisdale, he sought sanctuary at Ardvreck with Neil MacLeod of Assynt. At the time, Neil was absent and it is said that his wife, Christine, tricked Montrose into the castle dungeon and sent for troops of the Covenanter Government. Montrose was taken to Edinburgh, where he was executed on 21 May 1650, using the traditional method for traitors: hanging, drawing and quartering.
Ardvreck Castle was attacked and captured by the Clan MacKenzie in 1672, who took control of the Assynt lands. In 1726 they constructed a more modern manor house nearby, Calda House, which takes its name from the Calda burn beside which it stands. The house burned down under mysterious circumstances one night in 1737 (see below) and both Calda House and Ardvreck Castle stand as ruins today.
Ardvreck Castle ruinsArdvreck Castle was a rectangular-shaped keep comprising three storeys. Under the castle the vaulted basement is pierced by gunloops and the round stair turret is corbelled out to support a square caphouse. Despite the small size of the ruined tower, Ardvreck was originally a large and imposing structure and it is thought that the castle included a walled garden and formal courtyard. The remains of the foundations can still be seen and cover a large area. Unfortunately, all that remains today is a tower and part of a defensive wall. When the waters of the loch rise very high, the peninsula on which the castle stands can be cut off from the mainland.
Ghosts and legends of Ardvreck
The castle is said to be haunted by two ghosts, one a tall man dressed in grey who is supposed to be related to the betrayal of Montrose and may even be Montrose himself. The second ghost is that of a young girl. The story tells that the MacLeods procured the help of Clootie (a Scottish name for the Devil, deriving from ‘cloot’, meaning one division of a cleft hoof) to build the castle and in return the daughter of one of the MacLeod chieftains was betrothed to him as payment. In despair of her situation, the girl threw herself from one of the towers and was killed.
The Mermaid of Assynt
Whispered amongst the locals of Inchnadamph, the area surrounding the castle, legend tells of MacLeod’s lost daughter, Eimhir, and her continued presence at Loch Assynt. Instead of jumping to her death, they believe Eimhir plunged into the caverns of the Loch and, hiding from the devil to whom she was promised, made a new home beneath the water’s surface, becoming the elusive ‘mermaid of Assynt’.
A Faroese stamp depicting the capture of a seal womanThe locals also use this legend to account for natural changes in the landscape. When the loch’s water rise above their normal levels, legend tells that these are Eimhir’s tears mourning her life lost on the land. Some even claim to have sighted her weeping on the rocks, her body now transformed into half woman, half sea creature. Some contest her form, instead calling her Selkie, the Nordic mythological figure of the sea, who must first shed tears into the water in order to become visible again to the human eye.
The legend also accounts for the geology of Inchnadamph. Clootie, infuriated by the broken promise of marriage summoned meteoric rocks from Chaos to obliterate Inchnadamph and MacLeod’s kingdom. It is thought that this legend bears some relationship with the scientific findings that indicate north west Scotland was struck by an object from space around 1.2 billion years ago. Geologists from Aberdeen university described the event; “[a] massive impact would have melted rocks and thrown up an enormous cloud of vapor that scattered material over a large part of the region around Ullapool. The crater was rapidly buried by sandstone which helped to preserve the evidence.”
These legends are invoked to offer some mythical explanation for the unique geological and topographical character of Inchnadamph. Another version of the tale of the mermaid of Assynt relates to the creation of the Moine Thrust belt. Some believe Clootie’s rage produced a tectonic rumbling from the earths core, resulting in the thrust westwards of the European plate, which is understood by geologists to account for the Moine Thrust belt.
The Ghosts of Calda House
The nearby ruins of Calda house are also supposed to be haunted. The legend says that the Mackenzie family organised a family gathering there one Saturday and that the celebrations continued past midnight into the Sabbath day. At some point a fire broke out, possibly caused by a lightning strike, and all the inhabitants perished as the house burned to the ground. The causes of the fire are uncertain, but inhabitants of the Assynt area state that it was a manifestation of divine wrath as the family had been merry-making on the Lord’s Sabbath day. Indeed, stories are told that there was a survivor of the fire, a piper who was spared the flames because he refused to play the pipes past the midnight hour.
A number of ghost sightings have been recorded around the area of the Calda ruins, including that of a ghostly woman who haunts the site itself. Strange lights have also been seen there at night, and several people have claimed that they have seen car headlights approach them on the road there at night, but after waiting for the vehicle to pass, no car has appeared.