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  • Writer's pictureLilly

Caisteal Maol, on the Shores of Skye

As you cross over the Skye Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to the Isle of Skye, you might notice a very small ruin off to the left on the Kyleakin side. This is Caisteal Maol. It grabbed my eye on my first visit to Skye so I parked to investigate. The tides were working in my favour and low enough for me to skirt around to the ruin. It was a rainy day, and rainy days are great for adventure. As I walked around the inlet, I came upon a ruined boat, its rusty appearance blending in with the natural colors around it. Further along a yellow boat was tied up, near a foot stone carved “Beware the Tides.” The rain was coming down fairly persistently but as usual I was too filled with eager curiosity to care about getting wet. I met a couple at the ruin who were on their way back (I believe they were from Seattle), and we had a nice chat before they left. I stood in the only remaining window of the ruin and stared off into the fog shrouded hills behind, and to the bridge in the distance.

The excerpt below is the text from the information plaque at the ruin:

“During the later Middle Ages the castle was known as “Dunakin.’ As with the place name Kyleakin, this echoes a vestigial memory of the Norwegian king, Haakon, who sailed through the narrow with his fleet in 1263 to defeat at the hands of Alexander III at the Battle of Largs. Following desertation and gradual collapse, the castle assumed its present name."

(Minor interjection by me here: at face value there really wasn’t a winner or loser of the Battle of Largs. It was more of a draw. So to say that Haakon suffered defeat at the Battle isn’t quite representative of the facts of the battle itself. However, the Viking influence over Scotland sharply declined after this, and as the Viking era ended, the era of the Lordship of the Isles developed. So many view it as an ultimate loss for the Vikings.)

Back to the account on the sign: “Tradition relates that the castle was built by a Norwegian princess known as Saucy Mary', niece of a Mackinnon chief. Her income was said to have derived from tolls levied on ships sailing through the narrows. Only ships of her native land were exempt, and to ensure all others paid their dues, a massive stout chain was stretched across the kyle. At her death her remains were interred beneath a cairn on nearby Beinn na Caillaich so that the winds from her native land might pass over her final resting place.

The recent castle is a simple rectangular tower of three stories, with garret space in a roof projecting above the crenellated wall head. The basement level containing the kitchen and storage area remains filled with debris unexplored. Over the centuries rubble collapse has built up against the outside walls concealing the fact that the visitor now enters at first floor level. Here would have stood the doorway into the castle, opening into the main hall with its dining tables and large fireplace to welcome visitors. A well preserved wind in the south wall opens to have its counterpart in the wall opposite. Stairs, perhaps in the thickness of the walls, led to the private suite of rooms above, the floor level indicated by a line of joist holes. Here too is evidenced of at least one further window below the battlement line.

This castle was built as a Mackinnon stronghold, its architecture indicating a date for construction sometime in the later 15th or earlier 16th centuries. Historical documentation supports the dating for upon the death of James IV at Flodden Field in 1513, a meeting of the rebellious chiefs as held at ‘Dunakin’ when it was resolved to raise Sir Donald MacDonald to the dignity of Lord of the Isles. During restoration radiocarbon examination of a joist end recovers from the second floor level independently confirmed the high probability of a date for construction sometime between 1490 and 1513.

The last occupant of the castle as Neill, a nephew of the 26th chief of clan Mackinnon. His father, Iain Og, was killed in the final conflict between the MacLeods and MacDonalds fought at Coire na Creiche in the Cuillin in 1601. Here at the castle under care of his aunt Jane, the young Nieill spent his early years.”

Two years after this visit, lightning struck one of the remaining pillars of the castle, diminishing it to about half its height. It was a powerful reminder that nature will continue to reclaim Scotland’s ruins, that time is the great equaliser. Castle or croft, these pieces of unprotected history will all fade irretrievably under the shroud of time. It makes me thankful for the places that have more protection. And it increases my desire to share the stories of these places, and increase awareness of the need for funding across Scotland for worthwhile heritage sites and projects ❤️

Note: I am not currently traveling. I’m following expert advice and government guidelines until it’s safe to get out and have new Scottish adventures ❤️


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