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DUNDERAVE CASTLE IN THE 1900's

by Michael Davis

reprinted from: The Kist, No. 54,
The Magazine of the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid Argyll,

Autumn 1997, pp 2 - 6

Dunderave Castle, on Loch Fyne in Argyll, (north of Inveraray Castle), is one of the most perfect architectural creations in Scotland. A view of what constitutes perfection is, of course, subjective, but the appeal of this Scottish castle is direct and strong. In scenic terms alone, it is of the very highest quality, but in its encapsulation of many strands of history, tradition, romance, revivalism and even sentiment - all woven together in (Sir Robert) Lorimer's superlative restoration of 1911 to 1912 - it gives palpable substance to something almost indefinable; Dunderave's appeal to the head and to the heart is not simply to clannish or nationalistic sensibility, but to the beautiful in nature and art, and to Lorimer's belief that by revitalising the ancient Scottish tradition - by, as Christopher Hussey put it, giving new work "the refreshing quality of things made by men's hands, lovingly, with an old song in their hearts" - one could empower the Arts and Crafts ideal and give it substance for the future.

view of Dunderave from Loch Fyne The origin of the castle itself, proudly dated 1596, lay in the desire of the Chief of MacNaughton to cut a dash in the world. This was no crude provincial stronghold, but the flamboyant residence of a Scots renaissance laird who had his eye on developments in the Scottish kingdom. His castle was strikingly up to date, very convenient to contemporary requirements, and expensive; in short, everything a courtier would wish.

By early this (twentieth) century, the MacNaughtons were long gone, and Dunderave was a romantic ruin, its great hall a rendezvous for picnic parties. Its inclusion in the estate purchased by Sir Andrew Noble, for whom Lorimer built nearby Ardkinglas House, led to its restoration by Miss Lily Noble.

Dunderave thus became one of a number of West Coast castles restored in the early part of this (twentieth) century in a manner which placed romance before convenience. All these restorations were controlled by concerns for the spirit of the past which find their basis in an Arts and Crafts derived outlook. The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its rejection of modern standardization and its concern for "texture, scale and silhouette, in relation of part to part, the pitch of the roof, the subtle battering of walls, the pleasant irregularity which enlivens work done by hand and eye without mechanical guides," runs through Lorimer's restoration of Dunderave.

The greatest care was taken with the siting of the new wings, kept so low as not to detract from the character of the old castle which was interfered with as little as possible. Stone slabs were used for the roofs. The turret roofs were given a subtle bell-cast, contrasting with the almost clumsy heaviness of the great slabs as they seemingly strove to mould themselves to the turret contours, creating an effect both comtemporary (and very "Lorimer") yet also suggestive of the hand wrought character of the old work.

For contrast, the wings were grouped to suggest a courtyard, but left open so that a view into the L-plan of the tower was offered from the approach. The visitor then entered the intimate courtyard, with its various textures of stone cobbles, walls and roofs, through the dark enclosure of the entrance pend* (which may have been suggested by Gylen Castle on Kerrera.

Inside the castle one enters rooms with exquisite ceilings playing on not merely the style but also the sweet irregularities of 17th century plasterwork, and with new beamed ceilings "roughly finished with the adze to lose any regularity the saw might have left". Here was not only the dramatic creation of atmostphere conducive to a dream of the past, but also of that very quality of age which made old buildings so desirable. Wandering from room to room one can scarcely fail to be moved by the sensitivity and sheer joy of this most careful of revivals so that one is reminded of Lorimer's own love for old craftmanship:

"the old unconscious lads, struck a keynote - set a tune. Their tune, the only tune that existed for them and on this tune they played in room after room the most delicious variations."

At Dunderave, Lorimer transcended preservation, offering the future to the past and the past to the future with brilliant heart-tugging impact. In architectural terms, Lorimer left Dunderave immeasurablely more significant than he found it.

painting of Lorimer, National Art Gallery Undeniably, a strong thread of nostalgic sentiment ran through Lorimer's vision: his upbringing with its central event of the restoration of Kellie by his father (Kellie was discovered in sumptuous and almost French dereliction on a family walk when he was thirteen) imbued him with a deeply ingrained love of traditional craftmanship, and coloured his art. His appreciation of the forms and textures of old Scottish work, and his sympathetic contact with craftsmen stems from this period of his youth, and the vine ceiling at Kellie was to be reinterpreted a number of times in his adult work, notably at Ardkinglas, but also at Dunderave.

Of all the qualities of Dunderave, its relationship with its landscape setting (on a narrow site between the road and the the loch) is the most special and atmospheric. Yet this very quality of timelessness and (calculated) hoary charm is the most fragile of all attributes. All this was put at risk in the late 1980s when a new owner commissioned Miller Hughes Associates from Chichester to draw up development proposals which included 10 swiss-type chalets (with access and parking) close to the castle, and a swimming pool block between the castle and the road.

Thanks to a major campaign from the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and powerful objections from a host of organizations (including the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid Argyll) and individuals, the most damaging proposals were refused permission. The then owner sold-on, leaving an obvious legacy of little more than a new garage larger than a house, new ensuite bathrooms with repro fittings, and about a million spent in an attempt to waterproof the walls and recondition and redecorate the interior.

That so special an element of Scotland's heritage was so alarmingly put at risk is surely another demonstration of why "watchdog" organisations are so necessary.

Michael C Davis, Scots Baronial: Mansions and Castle Restorations in the West of Scotland.

(*"PEND": vaulted roof without groining; in Gothic architecture; "GROINING": the angle formed by an intersection of vaults; most of vaulted ceilings of the buildings of the Middle Ages are groined, and therefore called "groined vaults.")