On the northern banks of Loch Crinan, in the western part of Scotland stands a picturesque little castle named Duntrune. Built in the 12th century, it has withstood the tumultuous history of Scotland to remain one of the best and longest preserved castles that is still occupied in all of Scotland today.
Though Duntrune is a lovely castle in a beautiful setting, it was an event that took place there in the mid 1600’s that first drew my attention to it.
A Nasty Civil War
The backdrop of our little ghost story is the English civil war that took place between King Charles I and his disagreeing Parliament. Charles eventually dissolved Parliament and decided to rule without them. This threw the country into a civil war that wasn’t satisfied until Charles was dethroned and beheaded in 1649.
This is a very simplistic explanation of events, for there were underlying causes that put the two ruling forces at odds with each other. One of those causes was deeply rooted in religious disagreements. At first, Scotland made an attempt to steer clear of the problems in England, but it soon became apparent that they would eventually be dragged into the quarrel.
Two Sides of the Same War:
The English Civil War was one component of a bigger war known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. This not only involved the people of England, but Scotland and Ireland were also thrust into the disputes between Charles and his Parliament.
At the heart of the Scottish involvement in this war were the Covenanters and the Royalists. The Covenanters had their roots in Presbyterianism, a movement that had shaken Scotland over a hundred years earlier and had caused dissent between the Catholic Scots and those who fought for reformation. The Covenanters were also known as Parliamentarians, due to their support of Parliament over King Charles. The other faction was the Royalists. They were also known as the King’s Scottish army. They were loyal to the king and supported King Charles’ policies of governance in England.
Enter: The Highlanders
The diverse clans of the Highlands were of differing opinions on Charles and his policies. This was due in part to the many cultural and religious beliefs held by the disparate clans. When it came time to choose sides, some clans followed King Charles (the Royalists), and others joined the Covenanters who sided with Parliament.
Amongst these divided Highlanders were two clans that knew hundreds of years of quarreling. These were the infamous Campbells and the MacDonalds. The bad feelings between these two clans make the American Hatfield’s and McCoy’s feud look like a playground scuffle. Even to this day, you can still find places in Scotland that refuse to serve patrons who are in possession of a certain clan name of Campbell.
Historians seem to think that a lot of the riff between the two clans has been blown out of proportion. However, the fact still remains that in the mid-17th century, when there were sides to be chosen, the Campbells and the MacDonalds happened to find themselves on opposing sides of King Charles’ war. And this was the heart of the problem concerning Duntrune Castle.
The Stuff of Folklore
Several versions this tale can be found. Here I will give the account that I first heard. Readers may wish to do further reading and research and come across another tale that you find more believable or fascinating.
The MacDonald clan was led by a hulk of a man that came to be known by the name Colkitto. He was a master at warfare and not only fought for his own clan but was also known to have assisted Clan MacIntyre of Glen Coe. In thanks for his assistance, the MacIntyre chief gave Colkitto his favorite piper. He was to accompany Colkitto and the MacDonald warriors on their campaign.
And so it was that when the MacDonald clan came upon Duntrune Castle in the middle of the night, the MacIntyre piper was also there to take part in the action. The control of the castle was wrestled from the Campbells and left in the capable hands of a few of Colkitto’s men along with his prized piper. Colkitto himself boarded a boat and set sail across the Sound of Jura to continue on his campaign, leaving his men to hold down the fort until his return.
When the Campbells launched a counter-attack to regain control of Duntrune, all of the warriors of the MacDonald clan were killed, except for the piper. He alone was left, with the intent that he would play his pipes and entertain the Campbell clan.
And that he did, until one day Colkitto’s boat was spotted on the Sound. With permission, the MacIntyre piper played a song that he had prepared in honor of his leader’s return, “Piobaireachd-dhum- Naomhaid” or in English, “The Piper’s Warning to His Master”. Soon the haunting notes drifted out across the water, reaching Colkitto’s ears. But it didn’t take long for the great chieftain to notice something odd about the melody. The piper had intentionally misplayed some of the notes in an effort to send a warning message to Colkitto.
Colkitto, understanding the piper’s intent, turned his boat around and never completed his destination to Duntrune. When the Campbell clan realized what the piper had done, they called for the piper’s punishment.
And what greater punishment could there be, than to disable the man, preventing him from ever being able to play the pipes again? The MacIntyre piper’s hands were cut off, and he eventually bled to death from his injuries.
The “Ghost” Part of This Little Story
So, what’s so ghostly about this sad story? For hundreds of years there have been stories of banging noises and flying objects heard and sighted at Duntrune Castle. There have even been reports of a mysterious sound of bagpipes playing on occasion. For many years people actually thought the story of the mutilated piper was just that—a story. But while a renovation project was underway at Duntrune in the late 1800’s, an Episcopalian bishop reported that workers found the skeletal remains of a man. They unearthed the bones: skull, arms, legs, torso—everything was there—except for his hands. The remains were reburied outside of the castle walls in an unmarked grave. Later, another excavation uncovered the bones of two hands, without a body to go with it, buried under one of the rooms of the castle.
If you are ever in Argyll, perhaps you can venture to see Duntrune Castle. See if you can spot a lonely specter dutifully piping out his warning across the salty waters of Loch Crinan. Oh, and let me know how he does it without his hands.