The History of Argyll and Bute

A fascinating journey through Argyll and Bute's past.

A fascinating journey through Argyll and Bute's past.

The history of Argyll and Bute has a remarkable appeal. The past has left archaeological remains together with dramatic evidence of more recent occupation, all set amidst a stunning landscape of sea lochs and mountains. The early church could not be more evocatively nor more poignantly recalled than by the historic atmosphere of Iona. The heritage of the late medieval clans reaches out to descendants around the globe, while the great 18th and 19th century Highland diaspora - a consequence partly of clearance and improvement - has resulted in a pressing interest in family history research and in returning to explore the land from which ancestors set sail.

Scotland’s Richest Prehistoric Landscape

Argyll has its significant place in Scotland's story. Kilmartin valley in Mid Argyll comprises Scotland's richest prehistoric landscape with a concentration of cairns, standing stones and other impressive remains which have dotted the landscape from around 3000 B.C. Many of these monuments are easily accessible to the public and interpretation is provided by the award winning museum at Kilmartin. However, almost every area of Argyll and Bute contains visible and often dramatic evidence of pre-historic occupation. Argyll also formed a key role as cradle of the new Scottish nation and of its Christian faith through the arrival of the "Scotti" from Ulster to form the Kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll from around 500 A.D. With the hill fort at Dunadd in Mid Argyll as their initial capital, they enlarged their political and spiritual kingdom with the assistance of St. Columba and the infant Celtic church until, in 843 A.D., a King of Scots (and Scotland) was created in the person of Dalriadan king, Kenneth MacAlpine.

The Early Years


From its founding in 563 A.D. by St Columba, Iona became the most significant ecclesiastical centre in Scotland.  Its power grew with the Scotti until, ironically, the triumph of MacAlpine ultimately led to the shifting of civil and ecclesiastical power out of Argyll, increasingly ravaged by Norse invasions. The eventual adoption of Roman Catholicism by Queen Margaret ended the pre-eminence of the Celtic Church and of Argyll in ecclesiastical influence.

The Norse

If the Norse who raided had dealt serious blows to church and state in Argyll, those Norsemen who had settled helped to mould a new local polity; firstly as an effective extension of the Norwegian Kingdom, but latterly culminating in the creation of the Lordship of the Isles under Somerled. There are physical remains since, by the late 12th century, the building of stone castles began on Argyll's seaboard. Suibhne, Lord of Knapdale and evidently of Norse descent, built Castle Sween in the late 1100s. Rothesay Castle, on the other hand, dating from around the same period, was built for the Stewarts, agents of the Scottish Crown. The appearance of these fortified masonry enclosures in Argyll emphasises that the local economy was sufficiently vibrant to support them and that opposing spheres of influence made Argyll a land in which territory and control of communications had to be held from strong bases. The positioning of the castles makes it clear that the sea and sea lochs were not barriers but seaways. Dugald, son of Suibhne, held the castle of Skipness in 1261. The wider Norwegian cause was not fortunate : although in 1230 and 1263, the Norse captured Rothesay Castle, the later campaign culminated in the decisive Norwegian defeat at the Battle of Largs.

The Lordship of the Isles

The 12th century had in fact produced, from the fusion of Gaelic and Norse culture, its own political power base. Somerled and his MacDougall and MacDonald successors to the Lordship of the Isles became as much a threat to the Scottish Crown as Somerled had been to Norwegian influence. Castles proliferated throughout the Medieval Period as did clan groups. Both benefited from shifts in power and influence. Some castles (such as Tarbert) owe their 13th and 14th century evolution to extensions of Royal power; others such as Dunstaffnage (founded by the MacDougall Lords of Lorn in the 13th century), were power-bases for the dominant local power.



Political Power

The influx of new industry, new trades, new investment and new people had, by the later 19th century, created a culture rather different from the traditional one still found on large outlying areas of the Duke of Argyll's property. Between these two increasingly enfranchised forces, the existing establishment of landowners retained control of politics until the election of a radical MP in the 1880s. Thereafter, the political power of the landed interest declined gradually. So too did the crofting sector and its agitation within Argyll.

Modern Industry

The early 20th century saw an Indian Summer of further urban development of the towns and of the tourist trade. This was interrupted temporarily by two World Wars and, more seriously for the Clyde resorts, by the growth of cheap holidays. The growth of car ownership and of bus holidays has helped to compensate the resorts, and Dunoon enjoyed a boom for a time, thanks to the American submarine base. Bus holidays have, for many parts of Argyll, brought the phenomenon of "drive through" tourism, coaches stopping only at major attractions. But this is compensated for by car borne visitors bringing a more discreet form of tourism to the rural areas, a tourism in which "bed and breakfast" plays a major part.

Fishing is still an important industry, though boats operate further out to sea and the distribution of the catch has changed somewhat since a century ago when steamships would hail the fleet of skiffs to purchase their catch which would then be taken on to market in Glasgow. Road haulage and transport has overcome the steamship network which once served the resorts and communities around the Clyde and further West. Only the islands necessarily retain sea links, almost exclusively in the form of roll-on, roll-off car ferries.


The 1975 reorganisation of Local Government lost Ardnamurchan to Argyll; the 1996 change brought to the administrative district the areas of Helensburgh and Lomond, including the Rosneath Peninsula. Although these areas can retain the 'Dunbartonshire' element of their postal address, they are now firmly part, and a major part, of a new entity. In historical and cultural terms, however, Dunbartonshire has a history separate from Argyll, with obvious overlaps. On Loch Lomondside in Clan times, the Colquhouns and the MacGregors battled for ascendancy. The Colquhouns later built the stately 18th century mansion of Rossdhu, now the club house for a very select golf course. Their laying out of a new town of Helensburgh from 1776 was more significant for, with the help of Henry Bell's Comet, launched in 1812, and Bell's own hotel in the town, Helensburgh eventually became another "doon the watter" watering place for Glaswegian commuters and day trippers. In this sense, Helensburgh has or had much in common with the other destinations of the Rosneath peninsula and of the Argyll shore. After the arrival of the railway in 1857, however, Helensburgh became more closely tied to Glasgow, of which it became, in a generous sense, a select suburb. The late Victorian and Edwardian villas of upper Helensburgh reflected the very wealthy lifestyles and developed architectural tastes of their owners, resulting in possibly the finest collection of buildings of their type in the West of Scotland. This was largely thanks to the contribution of "art architects" such as William Leiper and Alexander Paterson and to the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh at The Hill House.

The present culture of Argyll and Bute is certainly a modern one, forward thinking; but most communities retain an awareness of their own particular history and cultural heritage. This is as it should be, in an area that comprehends considerable diversity, from islands where Gaelic is still spoken, through tourist towns, to the newly included areas of Helensburgh and Lomond which move to a greater or lesser extent in the Glasgow orbit.

Towns and Buildings

Castles and Towns

The 16th and 17th centuries had seen considerable violence in Argyll although, paradoxically, major new residences had taken the form not of the old castles of enclosure, nor of battlemented towers such as Aros on Mull or Saddell in Kintyre. Instead, as in Scotland as a whole, they had evolved into more elegant fortified houses as found at Dunderave on Loch Fyne or Barcaldine and Gylen near Oban. The ravaging of Argyll by Sir Alastair MacDonald for his father, "Colkitto", in the 1640s had been brutal, and further "depredations" had been carried out in 1686. The 18th century created greater confidence, symbolised by the building of a new Inveraray Castle from the 1740s as a palace in practice and a castle only in name and in flourish. Later in the century, the gradual rebuilding of Inveraray town as a planned burgh in a West Highland Palladian style, together with the laying out of Campbeltown, provided deliberate introductions which were both urbane and urban to a rural landscape in which thatched cottages, often with turf walls, were the rule. In the late 1780s the British Fisheries Society founded Tobermory on Mull. Into the beginning of the 19th century, the opening of the Crinan Canal was crucial to the development of Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead. Tourism, in the steps of Boswell and Johnson, became a major force, as exemplified by the rapid 19th century development of Oban as the gateway to the isles and the hub of a steamship and later of a railway network.

The Country House

The later 18th, the 19th and the early 20th centuries were the age of the country house in Argyll. Inveraray Castle, by dint of its "gothicky" costume, had all but begun the romantic interest in reviving or playing with historical styles. These were to dominate the 19th and early 20th centuries, and were often built for rich incomers who bought out local families. Torosay, Glengorm, Kilberry and Ardkinglas were built in Scottish Baronial style, Torrisdale, Calgary and Minard were in castellated style, Glenbarr impersonated an abbey-turned-mansion, and Poltalloch - perhaps the most impressive of all, now a ruin - was designed by leading Scottish architect William Burn in English Jacobean style. The general run of 18th century mansions, however pregnant with possibility the vision of Inveraray may have been for the future, had been genteel, Palladian derived structures, refined in proportion and suggestive of order. Examples abound, but those at Barbreck and Strachur can be glimpsed from public roads across their parkland.


The evolution of the country house was certainly eased by cash out of improvement programs which favoured large farms, sheep stock wherever feasible, and efficient practices rather than the traditional system which supported a large peasantry. Such 19th century estate policies, including aesthetic landscape concerns exemplified by Kilmartin Glen, and shooting or deer forest interests, in fact (with modern forestry plantings) dominate the landscape we see today. Although there are few records of brutal clearance, the rural population was certainly reduced. Undoubtedly, the towns of central Scotland and the larger communities of Argyll absorbed some of the diminishing rural populace. Others emigrated. Fishing villages were boosted by landowners who wished to clear their land but retain rents. Assisted by steamboat communications, Campbeltown developed dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very largely along Glaswegian lines: tenements, public buildings, hotels and middle class villas all appeared. Its secret lay in links with Glasgow and Ireland, in its rich agricultural hinterland, and in its mining, distilling and fishing industries.

The “Glaswegian Riviera”

Towns on the Clyde Estuary - the "Glaswegian Riviera"! - were less diversified, looking to tourism and commuting (in symbiotic embrace with the smoky muck and brass of Glasgow). Towns such as Dunoon and Rothesay expanded on the heady proceeds of tourism. Rothesay took on a particularly urban feel, supported by suburban communities on either side. A string of smaller, sprawling communities, almost purely composed of middle class villas, sprang up on the Cowal coast from Blairmore to Tighnabruaich, on Bute at Kilchattan Bay and all round the Dunbartonshire peninsula of Rosneath.


Clan Campbell

The support for Robert the Bruce from both Clan Donald (who like the MacDougalls descended from Somerled) and from the more obscure Campbells of Lochawe led to the enhancement of both families at the expense of the MacDougalls. The climax in Argyll of the recurring clan power struggles (waged through marriage and warfare) came in the 17th century when violence and atrocity seemed more monstrous when acted out against a background of comparative order. The spilling of the "English" Civil War into Scotland in the 1640s led to a taking of sides. Clan Campbell was mauled, but took out age old rivals, the Lamonts and, in large extent, the MacDonalds. Although the Campbell Chief was later executed for his role, Clan Campbell remained the dominant local force. In 1692, the "massacre under trust" of the MacDonalds of Glencoe under government orders by a Campbell regiment in the regular British Army, was an indication of the extent to which Campbell and central government destinies had been linked. The rising of clans loyal to the Jacobites in 1715 and 1745 was not so much the culmination as the footnote to Clan history. Deprived of influence, the rebellions were the last desperate throw not simply of Clan chiefs whose loyalty, politics or religion had been compromised, but also of the clan system itself, undermined by national forces of enlightenment, centralised control and law, and of socio- economic power. By yolking themselves to the central power, Clan Campbell under the first Dukes of Argyll had cornered the local market in influence and patronage. While the first Duke in particular influenced British politics and favoured the Campbell gentry, all thanks to command of Clan Campbell, consolidation of central power effectively ended the political role of Argyll in future power politics. By the late 18th century, Argyll was of interest to early tourists rather more than to generals and politicians.

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