Lady Margaret Stewart and The Building of Kilchurn Castle, Scotland

Kilchurn Castle sits on an island within Lock Awe, flanked by mountains. The view has inspired photographers, artists and poets - among them JMW Turner, who painted his version of the castle and exhibited it in 1802. 

Its history dates back to the fifteenth century, and with it, is a legend spiked with a malicious conspiracy. And while we gaze at its atmospheric ruins today, it's not often pointed out that it wouldn't be here at all were it not for a woman. 

Photo by Connor Mollison on Unsplash

The castle was built by Margaret Stewart, the wife of Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy. Campbell was known as the Black Knight of Rhodes and founded the family of Breadalbane. While Campbell was on Crusade in the mid-1400s, his wife managed the household estates, some of which her husband had inherited in 1432. She seems to have taken on the duty with extra enthusiasm, as while he was away for over seven years, Margaret diverted some of the family funds into building Kilchurn Castle.

Margaret - and her overflowing purse - was clearly an attractive bride, and with her husband away, a conspiracy was formed. Baron McCorquodale worked to convince Margaret that her husband had died on his travels and she was therefore free to marry. It is said that a monk, deciphering a strange dream the unaware Campbell had, urged him to return home to deal with an unspecified problem. On arrival, he found arrangements in place for a wedding between Margaret and McCorquodale later that day. He entered the hall undiscovered and asked for a drink from the lady of the house. When she handed him a cup, he drained it and handed the empty vessel back to her with his ring dropped inside. She therefore knew the dishevelled man was her husband and the wedding was called off. 

If true, this was a lucky escape for Margaret, but it's easy to see why she was a target. Her building of the castle demonstrates that she was a wealthy woman, and we have seen other widows targeted through forced marriages too, such as the case of Margery de la Beche in the century before. Margaret was also very organised and intelligent. To oversee household expenditure and manage servants was a complicated and time-consuming task in itself, but to oversee the building of a castle the size and scale of Kilchurn required a whole new level of organisation and commitment. 

The couple lived through the period of the Wars of the Roses, which mostly preoccupied England but also involved Scotland and Wales. Characters such as Queen Mary of Guelders, Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI and Katherine Huntley all witnessed and took part in events in Scotland during the conflict. Campbell too, was well-read and educated, acting as a tutor and guardian to his nephew Sir Colin Campbell, sixteenth Knight of Lochow, later first Earl of Argyll in 1457. He married three times, Margaret Stewart was his second wife. He was also husband to Mary, daughter of the Earl of Lennox and Margaret Robertson of Struan. A wealthy landowner, he died in 1490. His son, Sir Duncan Campbell, later died fighting at the Battle of Flodden, the bloody battle that gave Henry VIII victory over the Scottish King James IV in 1513.

The castle today sits proudly, although ruined, in its stunning natural landscape. The keep was noted by a nineteenth century historian as having four storeys, the castle being a 'fair size'. It was enlarged from its Medieval state in 1698 by John, first Earl of Breadalbane. 

Liked this? If you're interested in women's roles in the fifteenth century and throughout the Wars of the Roses conflict, you might enjoy my book, Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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Campbell, Lord Archibald. Records of Argyll - Legends, Traditions and Recollections. 1885. p99-103

Fraprie, Frank R. The Castles and Keeps of Scotland. 1907. p51-52