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Standing on a rocky promontory on the mountainous Isle of Mull overlooking the deep sound between island and mainland, Duart Castle appears to stand guard over the island; a vigil it has maintained for over 650 years.
The ancestral home of the Clan Maclean, the castle was, for hundreds of years, a physical manifestation of their power and influence. This influence was not eternal, however, and the Macleans fell out of power, with the castle falling into ruin from the 17th Century.
That today's castle is not just a pile of crumbling stones is due to the efforts of one man: the 26th Chief of the Macleans, Sir Fitzroy Maclean. In 1910, he began the Herculean task of restoring the castle and rendering it fit to live in.
The present day castle reflects how the clan lived during the early 20th century; a further sympathetic restoration by the present clan chief in 1995 made the castle into one of the finest tourist attractions on Mull.
Duart is easy to find, being only a few miles from Craignure ferry port. The final mile or so is not for faint hearted drivers, however, being single track, windy, with poor visibility and few passing places. Drivers will be pleased to reach the large car park at the end of the path.
This is not an expensive attraction; adult tickets are £5.30, children £2.65, with family tickets available for only £13.25; car parking is free. During May to October, the castle is open every day from 10:30. Away from this time, opening days and times are restricted, so if you're thinking of visiting, have a look at the castle website first (www.duartcastle.com).
The owners have been considerate to disabled visitors; cars can drive right to the entrance to drop people off who find walking difficult. A tough spiral staircase can be avoided, and anyone who wants to discuss accessibility can phone the castle beforehand.
The first views of the castle are gained when driving to the car park. The massive stone building gives an impression of strength, solidity, and timelessness. This impression is enhanced upon entering the building.
The tour through the castle is nicely done, with one path to follow and lots of interpretation boards, in several languages, placed at strategic points. Lots of information is given about the Clan Maclean, and particularly about Sir Fitzroy who masterminded the restoration.
During the tour, one is given real examples of the power of the castle and its defensive nature. On the most vulnerable side of the castle, there are few windows. The one small window the visitors see is set into eight foot thick walls!
Another example is the spiral staircase leading to the battlements. This was designed so that defenders could fight with a sword in their right hand; attackers would find themselves having to fight with their sword in the wrong hand. Today, this staircase is not for the nervous, even if not fighting a battle. The steps are steep, winding and made of unforgiving stone. A fall would be most unpleasant. A rope hand rail has been placed here; we all hung on to this when on the stairs.
As might be expected, the castle tour has a real 'Upstairs Downstairs' feel to it. We see the servants' kitchen and pantry, with the conditions they had to work in first. We then see the lords and ladies accommodation with sumptuous bedroom and bathrooms in complete contrast to the bare stone walls of the servants' quarters.
Dummies, dressed in period costume add to the effect and it is easy to gain a real impression of how it must have been living and working in this massive stone structure, either as a noble, or as a peasant.
I find historical buildings like this fascinating. Standing in the great hall, which is decked out with expensive silverware, cutlery, paintings, and an expensive library, it is easy to imagine the tales those mute walls had to tell, if only they could talk.
Over the years, the complex highland politics lead to murder and intrigue, war and betrayal on more than one occasion. The visitor information gives some idea of the machinations of those ancient clan chiefs.
The 11th chief married the sister of the Duke of Argyll in 1520. When she failed to give him an heir, he ordered her stranded on a rock in the Sound of Mull as the tide came in. Her cries were heard and she was rescued by passing fishermen. Naturally, her family were not pleased with Maclean's attempted watery 'divorce': the chief was found murdered soon after.
Close to the castle, in the Sound of Mull is a famous ship wreck: the 'Swan', a Cromwellian warship which sank in 1653. The site is a 'protected wreck' but Historic Scotland have performed an authorised survey of the remains. Some of the artefacts recovered, as well as photos from the survey, are displayed in the castle. Seeing images of the ship's bulk lying at the bottom of the sound, then looking at the personal items from those doomed sailors is quite moving.
At the top of the castle, visitors are allowed access to the battlements. Duart Castle has an excellent defensive location and visibility on a good day is expansive. The mountains of the mainland, much of the inland side of the castle, and miles of the Sound of Mull are visible. In more turbulent times, this was a distinct tactical advantage; today it's simply a wonderful view.
Once the tour of the castle is completed, the tea room and gift shop beckon. Located in an old converted byre, the tea shop has been tastefully decorated, not least with the paintings of local artists, many of which are available to purchase.
The tea room does not provide full meals, but does serve wonderful cakes and biscuits. As one of our party has a gluten intolerance we were pleased to find that a full range of gluten free produce was available (the cakes are baked in store and the chef herself has a gluten intolerance). Both gluten-filled and gluten-free cakes were pronounced delicious.
Our final stop was the gift shop. This sells the usual tourist fare, but also has a real quality feel. Authentic Scottish clothing and jewellery are for sale here. The prices were, as expected, not cheap, but some of the items were truly beautiful. My girlfriend bought a wonderful memento of her time on Mull; a pair of moonstone earrings set in silver (these weren't too pricey, £17.50).
Duart Castle is, for anyone interested in history in general, or castles in particular, a must see attraction on Mull and can be highly recommended.
We got a final view of the castle on the ferry back to the mainland. It was nice to stand on the deck and watch those ancient stone walls recede behind us: A final farewell to Mull.