Located on Scotland’s west coast, Argyll and Bute consists of 23 inhabited islands including the Isle of Bute and the Inner Hebrides, and includes the towns of Oban, Inveraray, Rothesay, Campbeltown, Tobermory, Dunoon, Helensburgh and Lochgilphead.
Its internationally famous miles of coastline are dotted with a number of historic sites, such as the striking, privately-owned medieval Castle Stalker and the quirky, still active St. Conan’s Kirk. Further inland are the vestiges of the area’s industries: the Auchindrain Township is one of few remaining agricultural communities which survived the Highland Clearances, while Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace is the best-preserved charcoal-powered iron furnace in Britain.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites that Argyll and Bute has to offer.
1. Kilmartin Glen
Situated between Oban and Lochgilphead and surrounding the village of Kilmartin is Kilmartin Glen. The area spans some 5,000 years and features an incredible range of cairns, standing stones, carved rock, stone circles, castles and forts, to the extend that it is considered to have one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. Of the more than 350 ancient monuments within a six mile radius of the village, more than 150 are prehistoric.
Visitors today both enjoy the stunning natural landscape and the ancient history of the area. A particular highlight includes the fortress of the Scots an Dunadd, a royal centre of Dal Riata, which is located to the south of the glen on the edge of the Moine Mhòr, or Great Moss.
2. Mount Stuart
Located on the east coast of the Isle of Bute, Mount Stuart House is a country house built in the Gothic Revival style and the ancestral home of the Marquesses of Bute. It replaces an earlier house which burnt down in 1877. The original house was built in 1719. Major features include a colonnaded Marble Hall at the centre and the Marble Chapel which features an elaborate spired tower, the tallest part of the building. Two earlier wings, which have Georgian features, still survive.
The house is well-known. It claims that it had the first heated pool of anywhere in the world, and was also the first house in Scotland to have electric lighting. Today, the house is open to the public. Highlights include the stunning formal gardens and the extensive furniture, artwork and book collection.
3. Inverary Castle
While there’s been a stronghold on the site of Inveraray Castle since the 15th century, the present structure dates back to 1780. It took more than 4 decades to complete and belongs to the longstanding Dukedom of Argyll. Nestled on the edge of Scotland’s Loch Fyne, Inveraray Castle is a mix of various architectural styles, from gothic to baroque.
Today, the castle is still the property of the Dukedom, though portions of the grounds have been converted into luxury properties by Torquhil, the 13th Duke of Argyll. Parties of up to 13 can visit and receive 5-star accommodation within the castle walls. They’ll gain access to 7 bedrooms, the castle’s armoury hall, its grand dining hall and the sprawling estate.
4. St. Conan's Kirk
Situated in the village of Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute, St. Conan’s Kirk has been voted one of the top 10 buildings in Scotland in the last 100 years. It was built between 1881-6, then significantly extended from 1906 to 1914, the year of death of the architect, Walter Douglas Campbell.
The kirk is notable for a number of features, such as the heavy oak beams in the cloister which are believed to have come from the then recently broken up wooden battleships, HMS Caledonia and HMS Duke of Wellington. The kirk features an eclectic blend of church styles, from ancient Roman to Norman, and a number of quirky details. The kirk also claims to house a section of bone from Robert the Bruce. Today, it is a popular attraction, and still functions
5. Dunollie Museum and Castle
Situated on a hill north of the town of Oban, Dunollie Castle is a small ruined castle that enjoys views towards the island of Kerrera. Traces of human activity in Dunollie go back as far as 8,000 years. The castle was originally built for the powerful Clan MacDougall in the 12th and 15th centuries, and to this day remains in their hands.
The Marquis of Argyll captured the castle in 1644, but it was later returned to the MacDougalls in 1661. In 1746, the MacDougalls abandoned the castle and built Dunollie House just downhill from the castle ruins. Today, the castle is open to the public as part of the Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds. It is popular amongst history and nature-lovers alike, because of its stunningly scenic position.
6. Auchindrain Township
Nestled deep in the hills of Argyll is Auchindrain, the last inhabited Highland farming township which was lived and worked in from the medieval period until the 1960s. Townships were dotted throughout the Scottish Highlands until the Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries meant that they were broken up into small crofts, and many tenants were evicted. Only Auchindrain survived the Clearances because of its remote location.
Today, the township’s buildings, which make up a Nationally Recognised Collection, are preserved in authentic condition and furnished with everyday objects, giving visitors an insight into the utterly different way of life that was once led across Scotland, and is now lost forever. The site is still a working farm, meaning you can meet the free-range chickens and sheep there. A coffee shop, modern visitor centre and shop are also on site.
7. Castle Stalker
Castle Stalker is perhaps best known for being one of the filming locations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Located on a tidal islet on Loch Laich, it is situated near Port Appin, Argyll. The name ‘Stalker’ comes from the Gaelic Stalcaire, meaning ‘hunter’ or ‘falconer’. The original castle was a small fort built in around 1320 by Clan MacDougall. It was taken over by the Stewarts in around 1388, and it is thought that they built the castle in its present form in the 1440s.
The castle changed hands a number of times between the Stewarts and the Campbells, and was at one time visited by James IV of Scotland. It was finally abandoned by the Campbells in 1840 when it lost its roof. In 1965, it was fully restored, and today remains in private ownership, but is open to the public at selected times during the summer.
8. Bonawe Historic Iron Furnace
The most complete charcoal-fuelled Ironworks in Britain, the Bonawe Iron Furnace was an industrial complex located in Bonawe, Lorn District, Scotland. It operated in the middle of the eighteenth century with the aim of manufacturing pig iron. The complex contained a charcoal fired blast furnace. Built in 1753, the site was chosen because there was enough wood in the area to produce charcoal and enough water pressure in the nearby river to drive a water wheel.
At its height, the complex employed as many as 600 people, most of whom were required to collect timber for the manufacture of charcoal. In the nineteenth century, production of pig iron fell sharply and the complex was formally closed in 1876. Today, it is open to the public, with displays about how every stage of pig iron was made accompanying authentic items made there such as Napoleonic War cannonballs.
9. Inveraray Jail
Inveraray Jail in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, is a 19th-century prison and courthouse that was used as a prison from 1820 to 1889. The category A listed building was designed by James Gillespie Graham and built in 1813, and features three-foot-thick walls of rough-hewn red stone, and originally contained cells on both floors which were lit by narrow, unglazed windows. The prison closed to prisoners in 1889, but the court still sat until 1954.
In the 1980s, the Scottish Office conducted many repairs, but plans fell through and the building lay empty. In 1989, it was opened as a living history museum that specialises in re-enacting the life and trials of the inmates of the 19th century.
10. Dunstaffnage Castle
Situated on a huge rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn near Oban are the remains of one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland, Dunstaffnage Castle. A former stronghold of the MacDougalls, the castle was built in 1220 by Duncan MacDougall at a time where Scotland and Norway were battling for control of the Hebrides. The castle was once even besieged by Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Independence.
Today, the remarkable remains include a stone curtain. Inside are the remains of the great hall and ‘new house’, three eighteenth century compartments believed to be where Flora MacDonald is thought to have been kept prisoner for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie evade capture from the Redcoats, after his severe defeat at Culloden in 1746. A 13th century chapel concealed amongst the trees also makes for a remarkable visit.