Castle Tioram is pronounced “Cheerum” and is sometimes spelt Tirrim. The name means dry, referring to the fact that it can be reached on foot by the narrow sandy spit at low tide.
The castle is the ancestral home of the Clanranald and is perched on a rocky island just of the shores of Loch Moidart. The surrounding scenery is stunning, rugged and romantic. The hills rise steeply from the loch shore; their lower slopes are covered with native trees. To the east is a small wooded island and to the west Loch Moidart reaches out towards the Atlantic Ocean.
The remoteness of Castle Tioram is one of its principal strengths. Accessible only at low tide along a narrow sandy causeway and sitting at the highest point of the island it was easily defended.
The origins of Clanranald can be traced to the marriage of John of Isla (died 1380) (“John the Good”) who married his cousin Amie, a daughter of Roderick, one of Robert The Bruce’s most faithful followers. When the Scottish King had secured independence for Scotland, Roderick shared in the prosperity of his master and was confirmed in his title to very large estates. These included Moidart, Arisaig, Morar and Knoydart which went at his death to Amie. Arnie became estranged from John of Isla and retired into Moidart where without loss of time she seems to have set about building the present Castle about 1353, where she lived until her death.
Archaeological evidence dates part of the Castle from the mid 13th century and the first written records date from 1373. The site was chosen with considerable judgment as the position is almost unassailable and in fact it was only ever taken once.
This occurred after a siege by the Campbell’s, lasting five weeks. Frustrated by their failed attempts the attackers finally gave up and set sail. The Clanranalds, delighted at such a happy riddance came down from the rock and went to the mainland to celebrate. However, the Campbell’s, had secretly altered their course and sailed under darkness down the north side putting the few men left guarding the Castle quickly under the sword. Enraged by the capture of the castle, the Clanranald’s swiftly counterattacked and slaughtered the Campbells to a man.
Whenever Castle Tioram was attacked it was always, so far as is known by sea, the only side by which access is practicable. The only land approach to Castle Tioram for a large body of men was through the steep sided defile known as Glac Mhor which could be easily defended.
During various insurrections between 1411 and 1559 the Clanranalds took a very active part with the result that several of Castle Tioram’s chiefs came to a violent end. In King William’s reign, a strong company of government soldiers was garrisoned at Castle Tioram, much to the resentment of the Clanranald.
The Castle was set on fire and destroyed on the order of Allan, the Chief of Clanranald, when he joined the Standard of the Earl of Mar in support of the Old Pretender. He was subsequently killed at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 fighting for the Old Pretender’s cause. The Castle was destroyed to prevent it falling into the hands of the Hanoverians.
Sir Walter Scott wrote “the loss of Young Clanranald was a great blow to the insurrection. He was a complete soldier, full of zeal for the cause of James Stuart”. When replying to the Earl of Mar’s summons to join him, Allan Clanranald said “my family have ever been on such occasions want to be the first on the field and the last to leave it”. After the defeat of 1715 the MacDonalds returned to their native hills utterly disheartened by the calamity which had overtaken them. The gloom weighed heavier on Moidart than anywhere else for the blackened ruined walls of Castle Tioram illustrated the irreparable loss which had come across the whole Clan by the death of their brave and gallant Chief. He left no issue and with him terminated the direct line of Clanranald succession.
Castle Tioram is a simple stone structure consisting of a large curtain wall of irregular shape with rounded corners. Situated within the courtyard on the south and east elevations are a number of buildings constructed over three centuries. The main entrance is a crude arch in the north wall.
The name of the mason who constructed the turrets in the 17th century is still remembered, David Paterson, a native of Uist.
On the south east side is a keep dating from the fourteenth century which was probably on three floors with a vaulted cellar below. The Great Hall was on the first floor with one bedroom on each of the two upper floors reached by a turnpike stair in the North West corner.
The buildings on the south wall also date from the fourteenth century. The ground floor room was probably a kitchen with a first floor and attic above, a further two storeys were added in the sixteenth century. In the North West corner is a very tight turnpike stair which was probably a thirteenth century access to the wall walk essential for the defense of the Castle.
(Source, “Moidart Among the Clan Ranalds” (1889), by Father Charles Macdonald)