A Diet of Salt Beef

Most visits to the Isle of Skye have invariably led me to the best known castle there – Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan for the last 800 years and apparently the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. One of the lesser visited castles is the crumbling, ruinous Duntulm Castle, ancestral home of the rival Macdonald clan on the north coast of Skye. And one of the even lesser visited castles is the 16th century ‘Caisteal Uisdean’, or ‘Hugh’s Castle’, a castle built by the notorious Hugh Macdonald. Hugh was also known as Uisdean MacGhilleasbuig Chlerich, or Hugh Archibald Clerk as he was the son of Archibald the Clerk, the then Macdonald chief.

I’d read about this man and his castle when reading a book about the Trotternish peninsula some years ago, and so it was that one beautiful sunny day after finishing work, I decided to venture off and look for the remains of this edifice which lay somewhere on the western coastline. I’d tried this before on a couple of occasions but failed. So after some uncertainty, and asking at a farmhouse, I found the track and set off along the path, a route that gave great views over Loch Snizort Beag.

Hugh Macdonald’s father, the Macdonald chief, died in mysterious circumstances, possibly murdered, and was succeeded by Donald Gorm Mor, his brother and Hugh’s uncle. It was sometime after this that Hugh started to plot revenge against his uncle and several other high ranking members of the Macdonald clan, and usurp the title.

Hugh was regarded as a powerful and treacherous man and was given the title of factor of North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, based at Dun an Sticir. By 1581, the protestant reformation was well underway on the mainland and the authorities made plans to spread the message to Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Only the powerful MacVicar clan stood in their way. Hugh’s role was to dispossess the MacVicars of their land.

In the autumn of 1581, with Donald MacVicar away on the mainland, Hugh and his men took the opportunity to attack his sons. First they travelled to Carinish, where they killed the eldest son, Donald, setting fire to his buildings and burning his documents. Hugh then, under the pretence of friendship, invited the remaining three brothers to a banquet at his stronghold of Dun an Stìcir. There, in cold blood, they were murdered. Their sister later composed a lament in memory of her brothers.

After this period, he became involved in piracy and cattle stealing for which he was given a pardon in 1589. Building of his castle commenced sometime after this.

After walking for some time along the path, and with increasing excitement, I soon saw Caisteal Uisdean come into view. The castle resembles a big square block with the only visible entrance being where the first floor would have been, and a smaller hole in the wall below. The original height is unknown and it’s possible the structure was never completed. The entrance on the first floor led directly into the main hall and was accessed by steps, or perhaps a retractable ladder as one account stated.

As his castle was nearing completion, Hugh now formed plans for the killing of Donald Gorm Macdonald and seizing the title of Macdonald chief and Duntulm Castle. His ‘bold and treacherous’ plan was to be carried out at a great feast he had organised, around 1603, to celebrate the building of his castle. Writing a letter to a local tenant, William Martin, asking him to help him kill the clan chief, he also wrote a letter to the clan chief inviting him to the celebrations. Unfortunately, it appears the letters got mixed up and the letter intended for William Martin ended up in the hands of the clan chief instead. Realising what he had done, he tried to disguise himself as a woman, grinding a quern for flour, but was recognised, seized and thrown in a dark, secluded vault in the basement of Duntulm Castle. Fed on a diet of salt beef and a jug with no water, he died delirious and in agony of thirst.

Duntulm Castle where the traitor met his end.

Legend says his ghost haunts his ruined castle. Unfortunately he was nowhere to be seen that day. Only overgrown bracken and vegetation was visible as I peered through a hole in his door-less stone block. Maybe he’s lurking around at Duntulm. Hopefully, one day I’ll go back for a closer look.

Caisteal Uisdean by David L Roberts.

Martin Shipway

Tour Guide

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