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As you come to know me and my castle wanderings a little bit better, you will notice that I am invariably drawn to the unknown and obscure castles, rather than the big, well known, touristy ones. There are a couple of reasons for this: First and foremost, I don’t like people in my dang shots! At all. No one wants to see a bright yellow jacket of some guy they don’t know in their photograph. I get asked at least once a week if I have been to Eileen Donan Castle or Warwick Castle. Yep. I have. And were they great? Absolutely. But did I enjoy them as much Finlarig Castle? Nope. Not even remotely.
The other reason I like more obscure castles is I absolutely love it when the castles, themselves, have been taken over by nature. I don’t really think of myself as an architectural photographer, I think of myself as a landscape photographer with a flair for the historic. For me, these castles are part of the landscape…so the fewer fences and signs and manicured footpaths the better! Yes, they are smaller and arguably less grand. But, you get to be alone with these less well known castles. You can sit with them, let your imagination go wild…and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you happen to find one like Finlarig castle.
You would never actually even know Finlarig Castle was there if you weren’t specifically looking for it. There is no sign on the road pointing where to go but, there is a car park which, I believe, is there for the adjacent cemetery. As you walk a short distance from the parking lot you see magnificent tree covered mound and finally a sign stating: FINLARIG CASTLE - PRIVATE PROPERTY - THE CASTLE AND MAUSOLEUM ARE DANGEROUS. ANYONE WALKING IN OR NEAR THE BUILDING DOES SO AT HIS OR HER OWN RISK. Okay! Consider yourself warned! This is the kind of sign that makes my little castle seeking heart flutter.
You walk through some trees and….magic!
Finlarig castle was built in 1629 by “Black” Duncan Campbell. I wish I could tell you that he got his nickname from some dastardly deed. But it appears it is because of the color of his cowl, or hooded garment, that he was wearing in a painting. The other nickname Duncan had was Black Duncan of the Castles. And that is because by the end of his life he owned seven castles!
There are some conflicting reports on whether the 7th Laird of Glenorchy was a good and kind laird who helped build up the land and was beloved of King James IV, or a trouble maker who stole lands and didn’t care much for his people and used his relationship with King James to literally get away with murder. As Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”
The nice version of Laird Campbell was that he a great landowner who made his lands better, repaired churches, made more beautiful buildings, built bridges, loved art, and he even planted lots of trees!!
He took measures for enforcing an old Scotch law which enjoined the planting of a few trees about every tenant’s and cottar’s dwelling, and on the greater scale which became the landlord, he “caused make parks in Balloch, Finlarg, Glenloquhay, and Glenurquhay, and caused sow acorns and seed of fir therein, and planted in the same young fir and birch.” -- From the Preface of Cosmo Nelson Innes’ The Black Book of Taymouth, Edinburgh, 1855.
Cosmo Nelson Innes also mentions that Laird Duncan brought deer, helped rear horses, was an amazing politician, loved history, and was epically keen on books! I almost want to invite him over for dinner after reading Innes’ account!
It’s always a good idea to dig a little deeper and hear the other side of the story in this situation. In Duncan’s lifetime he managed to extend his family land holdings to FOUR TIMES the size it was originally to 438,696 acres and 7 castles. That doesn’t just happen. That takes some ambition. Interestingly enough Black Duncan Campbell comes up in Clan Fletcher’s history. There is an oral tradition that has been passed down through generations that says:
Sir Duncan Campbell, the Black Laird of Glenorchy, had been appointed by the King to keep the peace between the feuding clans in Argyll and Perthshire. He was accordingly authorised to maintain a large force of armed retainers, in order to give strength to his purpose. He had the reputation of preferring to stir up trouble rather than quell it, and he was traditionally more interested in the plundering and acquisition of lands than in endeavouring to calm the turbulence which existed between his contemporaries, inevitably he had among his armies a number of lawless men, not even of Highland blood, who would pick a fight with anyone at a word from their master. This was how so much territory came into the hands of Sir Duncan, and he had his eyes set on Achallader for some long time. He made a pretence at friendship with MacInleister, although he was secretly determined to have his lands, in spite of Fletcher's consistent refusal to sell to the Laird.
Campbell made his plans. He left Finlarig Castle one evening with a number of his men, and by dawn he was in the vicinity of Achallader. He deployed his band of followers behind a small hill, and ordered three of his hired 'strangers' to tether their horses in a cornfield which belonged to Fletcher. He then withdrew to await developments. Fletcher soon discovered the trespassers, and ordered them off his land. The 'strangers' laughed derisively and stayed where they were, not attempting to move their animals. The Fletcher chieftain tried once more, but when the men again ignored his remonstrations, he lost his temper, pulled one of the iron stakes from the ground, to which the horses were tethered, and threw it with all his might at one of the intruders. The man fell dead, and at this point Sir Duncan 'happened to come along' and professed great shock and surprise at the incident, He showed great concern at the predicament of his dear friend, Fletcher, but in spite of his friendship he felt obliged to report the fact that Fletcher had murdered an officer in the discharge of his duty. He was very much afraid, he told Fletcher, that when the King learned of the matter he would surely order Fletcher to be hanged and his lands forfeited. He suggested that Fletcher should take refuge with some friends in Rannoch until the danger of discovery had passed, and said that he (Campbell) would turn a blind eye to his escape. To avoid forfeiture of Fletcher's lands, Campbell suggested that he should help matters by agreeing to their conveyance to himself, and said they could be re-conveyed to Fletcher when the whole thing had blown over. Fletcher, having regard to the dilemma in which he found himself, was therefore prevailed upon to convey his lands to Campbell, who forthwith lodged the document in the Registry Office in Edinburgh; but of course, when Fletcher later wanted his property back Campbell would have none of the idea. – Margaret Mason 1973
This wasn’t the only person Laird Campbell has been accused of murder. He has been charged as one of the main conspirators in the plot to murder John Campbell of Cawdor and the Earl of Moray. There is a theory that the only reason Duncan got off was because of his very close friendship with the King. It is also said that he tried to have the MacGregor Clan outlawed so he could seize their lands and add them to his vast estate.
There is another legend that points to Black Duncan not being the nicest of sorts. Right on the castle grounds is a square pit. It is quite odd, and one wonders when you look at it if it is a large burial plot. The story goes that this pit was a beheading pit for nobles. There also, apparently, was a tree nearby oak tree called the “Gallows tree” that was cut down in the 20th century. There was said to be a long branch that had a groove in it from where all the hangings had been carried out. The pit most likely was a water cistern…and the tree? Well that’s gone, but the legend continues.
I don’t know. Methinks old Duncan might not have been the nicest of sorts. Did he fall somewhere in the middle of both accounts? One can only speculate.
Black Duncan Campbell was buried on the grounds of Finlarig castle, which is amazing to think about considering he owned Kilchurn Castle and six other castles. But this castle is where he chose to be laid to rest as it was the family home. In Innes’ book it says that Duncan was buried in the Chapel Mausoleum.
My actual favorite part of the entire castle in a ruined mock Tudor-style Mausoleum that was built in 1829. It’s actually in a more ruinous state than the castle which was built 200 years after it. This mausoleum was most likely built over the former chapel and mausoleum that Black Duncan and many of the Campbells of Breadalbane were originally buried.