Joseph Mallord William Turner

Three Sketches of Dun Sgathaich Castle, Skye


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 201 × 125 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXX 87 a

Catalogue entry

The three sketches of ruins on this page have been identified as Dun Sgathaich Castle near Tokavaig (also called Dun Scaith and other variations).1 The castle was on a route from Ardvasar to the Spar Cave and Loch Scavaig (from where Turner reached Loch Coruisk) suggested in the Steamboat Companion,2 and it was raised as a possible subject to illustrate Sir Walter Scott’s Lord of the Isles during early discussions between the poet and his publisher Robert Cadell who referred to it as ‘Dunskye’.3 Although the suggestion was later dropped, Turner may have considered it prudent to make sketches of the castle as an alterative subject. The same impulse probably led him to sketch Ardtornish Castle (see folios 81 verso–82; D26596–D26597, and Sound of Mull no.1 Sketchbook Introduction for more on this argument).
The castle was built in the 1300s, apparently by the McAskills, but passed into the hands of the MacLeods and was later captured by the MacDonalds,4 hence Turner’s inscription on folio 91 verso (D26616): ‘L M’ Donal’. Turner seems to have had an interest in the castles of the Lords of the Isles as he sketched many of them (see Sound of Mull no.1 sketchbook Introduction). He may also have been interested in the castle’s link to the poems of Ossian through the legend of Cu Chulainn.
It is difficult to identify sketches of Dun Sgathaich as the ruins have disintegrated considerably since 1831, but the shape of the rock on which it stands and the background can help to determine the viewpoints. David Wallace-Hadrill and Janet Carolan have suggested that the sketch at the top of the page may have been made from a boat, as we look up at the rock face on which the castle stands.5 However, while they argue that the hill in the background is suggestive of the gentle contours of the Sleat Peninsula, it is in fact a better match for Bla Bheinn, making this a view from the south. The viewpoint of the middle sketch seems to be from the other side of the castle, and the shape of the rock suggests that the view may be from the north, perhaps from a boat. The authors recognised the background of the bottom sketch as the Cuillins, making this a view from the north or east. In fact mountains rise to the left and right in the background, making those on the left likely to be those on the Isle of Rum to the south-west.

Thomas Ardill
March 2010

David Wallace–Hadrill and Janet Carolan, ‘Turner on the Isle of Skye 1831’, [circa 1991], Tate catalogue files, [folio 14].
James Lumsden and Son, Lumsden and Son’s Steamboat Companion; or Stranger’s Guide to the Western Isles and Highlands of Scotland, Glasgow 1839, p.153.
Gerald Finley, Landscapes of Memory: Turner as Illustrator to Scott, London 1980, p.243.
‘Tarskaviag’, Undiscovered Scotland,, accessed 11 March 2010.
Wallace–Hadrill and Carolan [circa 1991], [folio 14]. The authors point out that, according to the Steamboat Companion, boats could be hired from the nearby village of Tarskavaig. Turner may have used this boat to take him to the next stage of his journey.
Wallace–Hadrill and Carolan [circa 1991], [folio 15].

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