Inverlochy Castle

This quadrilateral castle is sited on the south bank of the River Lochy at the strategically important south entrance to the Great Glen - the main passage through the Scottish Highlands.  The castle seems architecturally related to Castle Sween to the west, Coull to the north-east and Bothwell and Dirleton to the south-east.

Inverlochy castle is said on Wikipedia and elsewhere to have been built circa 1270-1280 by John ‘the Black' Comyn, lord of Badenoch and Lochaber (d.1303).  It is even claimed that he died there in 1300!  However this statement appears to be in error and no near primary source shows his death at anywhere other than Lochindorb castle, not that its easy to see how Lowchyndorb can be mistaken for Inverlochy.  Lochindorb, incidently, is like Inverlochy in being a quadrilateral fortress with a round tower at each angle.

The early history of Inverlochy castle is certainly obscure, but more can be said of it than could ever be gleaned from Wikipedia.  The John Comyn who died in 1303 was the father of the John ‘the Red' Comyn murdered by Robert Bruce in Dumfries cathedral in 1306.  With this act it seems likely that Inverlochy castle passed to the lords of the Isles in the form of Alexander of Lorne, who was married to a daughter of the elder John Comyn (d.1303).  What we do know for certain is that Alexander fought a battle against 2 great galleys in the loch near to the castle of John Comyn in Lochaber probably in early June 1297.  This was after he had been asked to arrest malcontents in the area by King Edward I
of England in March.  It would seem likely that the castle passed into Alexander's hands soon after this.  He had been married to John's third of four daughters since before 1290.

With the death of King Edward I in July 1307, Robert Bruce marched from Dumbarton, through the Great Glen, supposedly taking the castles of Inverlochy by negotiation, Urquhart through it having an insufficient garrison and finally Inverness.  The culmination of this was the forcing of Earl John Comyn of Buchan to a truce.  This John was second cousin to the John murdered by Bruce - so the idea that he was holding Inverlochy castle in 1307 is unlikely.  In any case, after 2 battles, both Earl John and his brother Alexander were dead by December 1308 and possibly Inverlochy castle was ruined as a part of Bruce's policy of not allowing fortresses in his lands that could be used against him.  This of course does not prove who was holding the castle and it is possible that the castle had passed into the hands of the lords of the Isles before that as is hinted in the later correspondence between Alexander MacDougall, the lord of the Isles, and King Edward II (1307-27).  While defending Loch Linnhe in the spring of 1309, Alexander stated that he had three castles to defend the inland sea.  Presumably these were Dunstaffnage, Inverlochy and CoeffinDunstaffnage castle was subsequently besieged by Bruce and fell before 16 June 1309.  It is possible that Inverlochy fell at the same time, although it is also possible that the agreement reached with the garrison when Bruce campaigned in the Great Glen had earlier led to its ruination.  Regardless of the castle's fate, the lords of the Isles were subsequently to fight for the Great Glen again and again in the following hundred years.

Whoever had lost the fortress to Bruce, the defeat of King Edward II and the surviving Comyns at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 probably sealed the castle's fate.  Considering Bruce's well-known policy of slighting fortresses, it could have been only after his death that the castle was re-occupied, but certainly nothing is heard of it, while Urquhart, just 40 miles up the Glen, was mentioned again and again in the 14th century.  It is possible that the castle was re-occupied by the MacDonalds in the 1350s when the great-grandson of Alexander reacquired the district.  This Lord John of the Isles died between 1371 and 1377, without a legitimate son.  Despite this, many of his lands passed with the lordship of Lorne to his son-in-law, John Stewart of Innermeath (d.1421).  However it would seem likely that Lochaber, presumably with Inverlochy castle, stayed with his distant cousins, the MacDonald's of Islay by the grant of Robert Bruce to Angus Og.  Certainly Angus' son, John (bef.1315-86), made grants within Lochaber lordship to his son, Reginald, that show that the barony and therefore the castle of Inverlochy must have belonged to him.  Inverlochy castle should have been a useful base from which John's son, Lord Donald MacDonald of the Isles, launched his assaults on Urquhart and Inverness in the late 1390s as are described under Urquhart castle.  On 25 September 1394, Earl Thomas Dunbar of Moray entered into an agreement with ‘Alexander of the Isles, lord of Lochaber'.  Presumably this was Alexander MacDonald, the younger brother of Donald MacDonald of the Isles (d.1423).  Inverlochy would have been a good starting point for their subsequent seizure of Urquhart castle in 1395.

Inverlochy may have been occupied in 1431, when clansmen of Alexander MacDonald, lord of the Isles (1423-49), defeated King James I's larger army under the earl of Mar in the first battle of Inverlochy.  The earl had taken up position in the hills above Inverlochy when he was attacked by land and sea (presumably from Loch Linnhe) and routed.  The castle was not mentioned in the fighting.

Over 70 years later in 1505, Inverlochy castle was granted to Alexander Gordon, third earl of Huntly, who was charged by King James IV with repairing it for use as a royal garrison to help control the Highlands.  It is possible that the new battlements and north gatehouse were installed at this time.  In 1509 Inverlochy was designated as the location for holding royal courts in Lochaber and around he same time, Alexander's brother, William Gordon, the laird of Gight, became master of Inverlochy.  He was slain commanding the Camerons at Flodden in 1513.

On February 2, 1645, the second battle of Inverlochy was fought, when the royalist army of James Graham, first marquess of Montrose, defeated an army from the castle consisting of the Campbells under the earl of Argyll.  In the aftermath of the battle, 1,300 men were said to have been taken out of the castle and massacred.  To put the claim somewhat in context, when a grave pit was opened in Durham of the 1,700 Scots said to have perished there after the battle of Dunbar, no more than 28 bodies were found.  This of course does not rule out later grave pits, but garrulous stories of massacre should always be treated with caution.  That said, renovations to the W curtain, which included the building of battlements in the late nineteenth century, found a complete skeleton sealed in the north end of the wallwalk.  Perhaps this was a victim of the action.  Cannon balls were also said to have been found embedded in the castle walls.  In 1654 Inverlochy castle was abandoned in favour of a new fortification further down the River Lochy at its mouth where it joins Loch Linnhe.  This, in 1690, became the modern Fort William.

With the 
north side facing the river, the other three sides of the fortress were protected by a water-filled ditch and unimposing ‘modern' outer ward with 2 circular turrets.  Therefore Inverlochy castle primarily consisted of a rectangular fort with a substantial, but low curtain wall and a round tower at the 4 angles.  Within the outer ‘defences' was a ditch, separated from the castle by a berm up to 40' across.  The main ward is some 102' by 89' across, surrounded by a wall up to 9' thick and 25' high.  There is plentiful evidence that the wall has been raised 6' in antiquity.  The largest tower to the north-west is now known as the Comyn tower and has an internal diameter of 20' and a wall thickness of 10'.  It also has a third storey the other towers lack.  Surprisingly the other towers are all of differing diameters; the north-east tower being 15', south-east 13' and south-west 12'.  No logical reason for these differences is apparent.

Unfortunately much of the castle facing has been renewed in modern times and battlements added to the west curtain.  Sketches made before this time suggest that there was an external batter to the walls and at least a projecting string course capping the most impressive plinth - that on the donjon.  The layout of the smaller towers appears similar.  All 4 towers were entered at internal ground floor level via the gorge.  Each had curving mural stairs leading up to the battlements and upper floors.  This is an unusual arrangement and is more reminiscent of twelfth than a thirteenth 
century castles - viz the keeps at Conisbrough, Arundel, Bronllys etc.  The ground floors of the southern towers consisted of small circular chambers equipped with what appear to have been fish tailed loops of a type common from 1150 to 1250.  The upper storeys of the 3 towers all seem to have had 2 loops set within embrasures on the side where the mural stairs were not.  On the interior sides the southern two had loops covering the courtyard and it is to be presumed that the north-east tower had one too, although this level has been largely destroyed.  The north-east tower is also the only one with a windowless basement entered at ground floor level, the staircase being at first floor level - the doorway at this height obviously having been entered from the destroyed east range.  Excavation has proved the tower had no internal ground floor other than the natural clay and patches of spilled mortar.  Human bones from at least 4 bodies were found in the soil used to pack the foundations.  This may suggest that part of the soil from the ditch had earlier been used for burials and was then unknowingly used to help level the castle site before masonry construction began.  Excavation also found the interior of the south-east tower had a similar composition, immediately overlain by modern debris.  Taken together this evidence shows that Inverlochy was built as a masonry castle and had no wooden phase.

All the tower stairs were equipped with narrow external lights and the upper rooms with fireplaces.  The wallwalks used different methods to pass through or around the towers.  The 2 eastern towers had the wallwalk pass through the wall in mural passages, while the south-west tower, which was the smallest, had actually to be entered, there apparently not being sufficient room for a mural passage.  The keep was actually passed around to the south by the wallwalk which then appears to have ended in a narrow passageway within the 
north curtain.  The main wallwalk continued from the upper storey of the keep, via steps down the raised curtain wall.  This is a most peculiar arrangement.  Of the battlements on the towers, which appear to have been reached via another set of 3 curving mural stairs, set in the thickness of the tower walls opposite the exit from the stairs up from the ground floor, nothing remains but a part of a solitary merlon on the south side of the south-east tower.  These towers bear great similarity in style to those built by Earl Hubert Burgh in the Trilateral castles in Gwent between 1219 and 1239, except that his generally did not have loops on the ground floor.  In plan though, the castle perhaps most resembles Flint castle in Wales - a fortress the Comyns may have seen in the invasions of Wales in the 1270s and 1280s.

If the 3 towers of the castle are peculiar, the round keep is even more aberrant.  Firstly it is entered on the ground floor and access is gained from there to the next floor.  In medieval defensive philosophy this simply was not done for obvious reasons.  The wallwalk entry to the tower was gained via a narrow doorway protected by a deep drawbar slot.  Next to this was a passageway which currently leads onto the west wallwalk, but originally was a mural passageway that led to a garderobe overhanging the curtain.  Another smaller latrine seems to have been against the north-east tower at this level using a similar layout, but the walls here are much damaged.  The interior of the keep is awkward at this level.  The round basement interior rises to a semi-circular room with 5 straight sides to the 
north.  The central segment of this contains a round backed fireplace, while those in the other towers are square backed.  Three embrasures contain modern loops, while a small loop lights the top of the stairs up to the west.  There is no access to the upper storey via a mural stair.  Instead access was gained via the north wallwalk, though it is uncertain how access to this wallwalk was otherwise gained.  The upper chamber of the keep is most ruined, but once again there were three external embrasures and one facing the courtyard.  There were also 2 mural passageways to the west.  Excavation found a formally buried adult skeleton just 20' from the keep door.  This was probably a member of the last garrison of the castle.  The grave was left untouched, just 2' beneath current ground level.

The courtyard was entered to north and south by simple hole-in-the-wall style gateways.  The south gate was the main entrance to the castle being about 9' wide.  It was protected by a portcullis and locked via a drawbar.  The portcullis may have been further protected by a barbican of which excavation found one side to have been 6' thick and tied into the curtain wall, suggesting that this was a contemporary design or that this part of the castle had been totally rebuilt when the gateway was altered.  Whether this was a gatetower or simply two walls from which a drawbridge was operated over the moat is unknown.  The layout within the gate suggests that this part of the castle has been much rebuilt.  The few surviving gateway jambs are made of a good quality yellowish sandstone and have the rounded portcullis groove cut into them.  Rounded grooves are supposed to be 14th 
century and later.  The portcullis was raised from a chamber set partially within the curtain and later internal gatetower.  This room was reached via steps down from the wallwalk.  Presumably this rebuilding is of fourteenth or fifteenth century date.  The segmental arch holding up the upper section of curtain is modern.

north gate in comparison is only 8' wide, and although it too had a portcullis, this was of a totally different design.  The fragmentary remains seem to show that it was rectangular - a design of the twelfth to fourteenth century.  Like the south gate this would appear to have been operated from a chamber above, but this one was wholly set within the curtain, without the later addition of a projecting internal gatehouse behind.  Parts of the gate arch remain too, which show that this was pointed.  Possibly the south gate was originally similar to this.  The north gate also had an external barbican added, but in this case, contiguous to the walls.  Further this could not have had a drawbridge as there was no ditch before the river.  At a later date a building has been added that passed right across the rear of the entrance as can be seen by the floor line.

Why not join me at Inverlochy and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry