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Cairn na Burgh Castle, Cairn na Burgh More & Cairn na Burgh Beg

A Scheduled Monument in Oban South and the Isles, Argyll and Bute

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Latitude: 56.5183 / 56°31'5"N

Longitude: -6.3817 / 6°22'54"W

OS Eastings: 130584

OS Northings: 744848

OS Grid: NM305448

Mapcode National: GBR BCMH.9P9

Mapcode Global: WGYC8.YF8C

Entry Name: Cairn na Burgh Castle, Cairn na Burgh More & Cairn na Burgh Beg

Scheduled Date: 19 July 2011

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM12954

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Ecclesiastical: chapel; Secular: castle

Location: Kilninian and Kilmore

County: Argyll and Bute

Electoral Ward: Oban South and the Isles

Traditional County: Argyllshire


The monument comprises Cairn na Burgh Castle, which occupied the two adjacent islands of Cairn na Burgh More and Cairn na Burgh Beg, situated in the Treshnish Isles archipelago.

The monument comprises substantial curtain walls on both islands, dating probably to the 15th or 16th century. On Cairn na Burgh More, the curtain wall enclosed an area of at least 1.36 hectares or the majority of the southern part of the island. Standing within the curtain wall on Cairn na Burgh More is a 15th- or 16th-century chapel and an 18th-century barracks, guardhouse and associated buildings, all relating to the occupation of the island after the 1715 Jacobite uprising. All of these structures are built of random rubble. On Cairn na Burgh Beg, the castle encloses around 1.2 hectares and comprises two distinct parts, often referred to as the lower and upper bailey. The lower bailey occupies the western portion of the island. A reasonably level low-lying patch of ground, this area is in part surrounded by a narrow rim of rock that skirts the foreshore. The upper bailey occupies the eastern portion of the island, which is a gently sloping and rocky summit, bounded on all but its western side by sheer sea-cliffs.

On both islands, the curtain wall is the most substantial surviving element of the castle. On Cairn na Burgh More it survives on the precipice of the sheer E- and NW-facing cliffs and varies in thickness between 0.6m and 1.4m, while standing to a maximum height of 2.5m. At two points, natural clefts in the cliffs have been infilled with walling, leaving only one or possibly two entrances to the interior. The main entrance is reached by a gully and is now filled with fallen masonry, but there are the remains of two gunloops or windows within the entrance passage. Based on past surveys, the entrance probably measured about 1.4m wide and stood 2.2m in height. Early 20th-century photographs show the entrance as having a flat-arched doorway. Parts of the entry passage appear to have been roofed with a small chamber above. North of the entrance are the remains of a rectangular structure, identified as an 18th-century guardhouse. It measures about 8m by 6.5m. Nearby stand the remains of a smaller building of unknown purpose. South of the main entrance is what may be a postern gate, reached by a steep gully. Running south from this possible entrance is a lengthy stretch of curtain wall. On the north-west, the curtain wall overlooks a natural gully. Here the wall comprises a substantial section of drystone revetment, two stretches of lime-mortared walling that include the remains of circular half towers. On the island's eastern shore are three oval structures, interpreted as 18th-century dwellings, now reduced to drystone wall footings.

On Cairn na Burgh Beg, the lower bailey is enclosed by a drystone wall approximately 2.4m in thickness, but now mostly part reduced to grass-covered footings about 1m in height. An entrance lay on the north-western side where a sheltered gully would have provided a natural harbour capable of beaching small boats. Boat noosts may survive at the head of this gully. A small defensive outwork overlooked this area. Remains of a rectangular dry-stone building stand immediately to the west of the entrance. The building measures about 9.7m by 8.5m and its walls are around 1.2m thick. The interior has undergone significant cultivation. The remains of cultivation beds are visible on the N side, together with stone clearance-heaps on the slopes leading up towards the upper bailey. The upper bailey is accessed only from the south-west, where it was defended by a curtain wall some 0.65m in thickness. This wall is built of random rubble masonry. Towards the north-western end of the curtain wall, a flight of rock-cut steps lead up to an entrance flanked by a return in the adjacent wall. The curtain now rises to a height of only about 1.4m above the level of the upper bailey and may never have represented more than a breastwork. Within the upper bailey are a guard-house, measuring about 7.3m by 6.1m, and a rectangular structure of similar size situated near the centre of the summit area. Both appear to have been dry-stone built. According to Robert Johnson's mid 18th-century Board of Ordnance plan, a well was situated in the south-eastern portion of the bailey. Near the northern corner are slight traces of an enclosure wall similar to the curtain-wall on the south-western side, but it is unclear whether the entire summit of Cairn na Burgh Beg was fully enclosed.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The above ground elements of the Ordnance Survey trig point and the navigation light are specifically excluded from the scheduling to allow for their maintenance.

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

Cairn na Burgh castle represents an excellent opportunity to study the growth and development of a fortification known to have been occupied from at least the 12th century to the mid 18th century. While much of the surviving curtain wall may belong to the 16th or 17th centuries, there is strong potential for earlier remains to survive within the core of this walling and in pockets of buried remains beneath the current wall. The surviving elements of the curtain wall offer excellent potential to develop our knowledge of 16th- and 17th-century military architecture, the techniques used in the construction of defences and how the castle functioned. Equally the chapel on Cairn na Burgh More probably dates to the 15th or 16th centuries and can tell us more about local ecclesiastical architecture and the adaptation of Roman Catholic churches for Protestant worship in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Additionally, the proximity to Iona means there is high potential for a much earlier religious foundation on the island.

The barracks and guardhouse on Cairn na Burgh More can also tell us more about the 18th-century occupation of Cairn na Burgh by the British Army. As well as substantial barracks such as Bernera, Inversnaid, Kilwhimen and Ruthven, the British Army established several much smaller outposts across the Scottish Highlands, but very few of these buildings survive. While short-lived in duration, the absence of subsequent disturbance means there is high potential for the preservation of buried remains associated with this occupation. Such evidence can significantly inform our understanding of the form, function and lifespan of the barracks; and archaeological deposits and environmental evidence can also provide an insight into the everyday lives of the garrison. Similarly, the remains of the 18th-century domestic buildings can inform our understanding of vernacular architecture, while associated archaeological deposits can provide valuable insights into everyday life and the range of contacts the inhabitants had with the wider world.

Excavations on Cairn na Burgh More in 2006 recovered Iron Age pottery. In addition to the visible remains, therefore, there is high potential for the survival of buried remains relating to prehistoric and early historic occupation of the islands.

As a whole, the monument presents an excellent opportunity to study the construction, development and subsequent re-use and adaptation of a medieval stronghold, known to have been occupied for several centuries. Artefactual material from the site can enhance our understanding of its occupation and the ways in which it was used and developed. Through comparison with similar sites in north-west Scotland, across Scotland more generally and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we can begin to identify regional trends and traditions.

Contextual characteristics

Cairn na Burgh Castle represents one of Scotland's earliest castles and appears in documentary sources from the mid 13th century. Throughout its five centuries of use and occupation, the castle played a prominent role in the political and military history of the region and Scotland as a whole.

At present, the earliest known mention of Cairn na Burgh castle appears in the 13th-century Haakon Haakonson's Saga (the story of King Haakon IV of Norway). The Saga recounts that in 1249 Haakon IV granted Cairn na Burgh castle to one of his Scottish vassals, Ewen McDougall, lord of Lorn or Argyll. According to the same saga, Alexander II, King of Scots, wished to capture the Hebrides from Norwegian control. In a meeting with King John of the Isles, another of Haakon's vassals, Alexander demanded control of the castle of Bjarnaborg [Cairn na Burgh] and three others. This suggests that Cairn na Burgh castle may have been established as a Norse stronghold in their Hebridean territory and may be of similar date to Kolbein Hruga's (Cubbie Roo's) Castle on Orkney, which is thought to date from the mid 12th century.

Subsequent documentary sources relating to Cairn na Burgh reflect the shifting balance of power in the north-west. In the mid 13th century, the MacDougall chiefs lost control of Cairn na Burgh castle and much of their lands in the area as a result of having opposed Robert I in the Wars of Scottish Independence. Robert I, or possibly his son David II, granted the castle to the MacDonalds, who made the MacLeans of Duart keepers of the castle. Despite the collapse of MacDonald power in north-west Scotland in the mid 15th century, the MacLeans retained their control of the castle until the mid 17th century. In 1496, King James IV granted the MacLeans of Duart outright possession of the castle along with the rest of the Treshnish Isles. Around 1549 the castle was visited by Donald Monro who included a description in his account of travels in the western isles. Monro, impressed by the strength of the castle on Cairn na Burgh More, implies that the fortifications were built by the MacLeans of Duart.

Throughout the troubled 17th century, Cairn na Burgh continued as an actively garrisoned stronghold and it is likely that the castle underwent some rebuilding and modifications. Documentary records show several different garrisons occupying the castle with control fluctuating between the MacLeans of Duart, the MacLeans of Torloisk and the Earls of Argyll. During the Civil War, the MacLeans of Duart held it for King Charles I, but it was captured by General Leslie's army in 1647 and garrisoned by the MacLeans of Torloisk. For much of the 17th century, the Earls of Argyll used their considerable wealth, political and legal influence, and their military power, to acquire the estates of their neighbours, which included the MacLeans of Duart. Although legally dispossessed by the Campbells, the MacLeans of Duart occupied the castle on several occasions, often for considerable periods of time.

MacLean forces occupied Cairn na Burgh in 1690 (when William III and Mary II overthrew King James VII) and during the Jacobite uprising of 1715. Captured by the British Army in 1715, Cairn na Burgh continued as one of several small British Army garrisons in northern and north-western Scotland until after the 1745-46 rebellion. Military maps of 1741 show the layout of the small garrison. However, civilian maps and charts produced after the 1740s do not show the castle at all. Writing in 1772, the traveller Thomas Pennant refers to the castle as 'ancient' and clearly considered it an antiquity.

Associative characteristics

Cairn na Burgh possesses many historical associations, notably the fact that the Hebrides remained under the control of Norway until the mid 13th century. The site is associated with the wider shifting politics of the north-west and the rise and fall of several important Scottish families, notably the MacDougalls, the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, the MacLeans of Duart and Torloisk, and the Campbells of Argyll. On several occasions Cairn na Burgh featured in the political tensions between the Scottish crown and the great magnates of the north-west. The castle is also associated with the Civil War of the mid 17th century. It also featured in the Jacobite uprising of 1690 (in support of the deposed King James VII) and during the 1715 rebellion.

Cairn na Burgh is associated with several important writers and cartographers, such as Donald Monro, Martin Martin and the Board of Ordnance cartographer, Robert Johnson, who produced the only known plans of the 18th-century barracks.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular the construction, design and use of medieval castles. Cairn na Burgh is likely to be an early castle, possibly of similar date to Kolbein Hruga's (Cubbie Roo's) Castle on Orkney, thought to date from the mid 12th century. The castle represents an excellent opportunity to learn more about the development of castles in the region and the ways in which successive owners developed and modified the site. At present little is known about the interior of the castle and there is great potential for the preservation of archaeological deposits relating to internal buildings. The discovery of Iron Age pottery during excavations in 2006 indicates good potential for evidence of prehistoric occupation on both islands, while their proximity to Iona also raises the possibility of habitation in the early Christian period. The castle's re-use as one of the 18th-century barracks built by the British Army is particularly important as only one of these smaller garrisons still survives. The site has the potential to inform our understanding of garrison life, the number of soldiers living here and the length of time the island remained in occupation. Similarly the remains of the 18th-century houses offer high potential to inform our understanding of vernacular architecture and the purpose of the houses, specifically whether they were permanently occupied or were used on a seasonal basis.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS record the site as NM34SW 1 and 2. The West of Scotland Archaeological Service record the site as WOSASPIN 410 and 411.

The monument lies within SNH SSSI number 1562. It also forms part of a Special Area of Conservation number 8398 and a Special Protection Area number 8586. Details of these are on file AMJ/2808/1/1


Hebridean Trust, 2001, Treshnish Isles Management Plan, unpublished report

James H et al, 2006, 'Cairn na Burgh More, Treshnish Isles', Glasgow University Archaeological Division, unpublished report

Martin, M, 1999, 'A description of the Western Isles of Scotland and a Late voyage to St Kilda', Edinburgh: Birlinn Press

RCAHMS , The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Argyll: an inventory of the monuments Vol 3: Mull, Tiree, Coll and Northern Argyll (excluding the early medieval and later monuments of Iona). Edinburgh.(1980)

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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