The history of Ardencaple Castle: Fairytale or cautionary tale?

Today all that remains of the Ardencaple Castle is a tower, perched on the edge of a rocky plateau near the Argyll town of Helensburgh overlooking the Firth of Clyde. This once splendid castle, built sometime in the 12th century, was originally the seat of the Clan MacAulay. Delve deeper into the history of Ardencaple Castle and you’ll discover a fascinating, if ultimately tragic, story of both the castle’s and the clan’s demise.

Photo by Robie Macauley.

The MacAulay clan

The MacAulay clan once ruled the land from Ardencaple to Portincaple on Loch Long, but the early clan chiefs aren’t thought to be men of great distinction. It wasn’t until 1566, when Walter de Ardencaple became the chieftain, that the castle was enlarged and strengthened. Around this time, the MacAulays were aligned with the McGregors against the other local clans, the Colquhouns and the Buchanans. But they soon changed sides. In 1610 Walter’s son Aulay was knighted for his persecution of the then outlawed McGregors.

Ardencaple Castle's luck turned

It was in the middle of the 17th century that fortunes of Ardencaple Castle changed. Aulay’s grandson, the eighth laird, also Aulay, was a notorious – and unsuccessful – gambler and bit by bit the estate was sold off to pay his debts. The last laird died destitute in Rhu, and in 1787 the castle, a roofless ruin, was bought by the Duchy of Argyll. Then came huge changes as the castle was renovated with the addition of a west wing made up of circular, banded towers with corbelled parapets probably by Robert Mylne in 1786. Peddie and Kinnear carried out further alterations in 1877, probably adding Tudor details and a parapet to this tower. In 1862 Ardencaple Castle was sold, this time to Sir James Colquhoun of Luss. Yet the tragedy continued. Sir James drowned in a boating accident on Loch Lomond with four boatmen.

In the 20th century the castle was bought and restored again by Mrs Henrietta MacAulay-Stromberg, whose dream it was for the castle to once again be a centre for the MacAulay clan. However, when she died, the castle once again left the MacAulay family. Perhaps its fate was sealed when in1935 the Tower Lawn was sold to a consortium of developers who developed the ground into a housing estate.

The final chapter

The final chapter of this cautionary castle tale came during World War Two when the Royal Navy requisitioned the castle and finally demolished it in 1957 in order to build naval housing for the nearby HMNB Clyde (Faslane Naval Base). They did, however, leave one battle tower standing – the tower that you can see today. It survived thanks to its prominent position and was used as a navigational mark for submarines returning to Faslane until the early 1990s. It is still used as navigational mark for shipping on the Clyde to this day. Because of its use as a lighthouse the tower has been called Ardencaple Castle Light.

Discover Helensburgh

If you’re interested in history, then you’ll find Helensburgh a fascinating place to visit. There’s a rich heritage to discover, from the town’s notable residents to its world-class architecture. Hill House, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is universally regarded as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s finest domestic creation. And while you’re in town why not pay a visit to Ardencaple Castle tower? You might just get a sense of the fairytale castle that once stood here.

Find out more about things to do and see in Loch Lomond and Helensburgh.

Photo copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.