Name of importance in the history of the western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but covering regions of widely differing sizes.
1. A region or kingdom of the western Highlands. Argyll is derived from the Gaelic Earra-Ghàidheal, meaning the coastlands of the Gaels, a vast area extending from the Firth of Clyde northwards to Loch Broom (on which Ullapool stands). In the south of this region the Gaels or Scots from northeastern Ireland established their Kingdom of DALRIADA in the Dark Ages, and other branches of the reigning family established lordships further north. These lands were eventually settled by Norsemen, but the Gaelic Kings of Dalriada, though they lost control of the coastlands of the Gaels, survived and took over Pictland, the lands north of the Forth-Clyde valley, eventually forming the Kingdom of Scotland.
In the mid-12th century Somerled, a chieftain of Gaelic and Norse ancestry, was King (or Lord) of the Isles & Argyll, that is, of the islands (of the Inner Hebrides) and the coastlands. He was killed in 1164, and his three sons succeeded him, one in Garmoran (the northern lands), one in the peninsula of Kintyre and its neighbouring islands, and one, Dugald, in the lands between.
Just over a century after Somerled’s death, the King of Norway made an agreement with the King of Scotland in 1266, whereby he gave up his claims to be overlord of the Kingdom of the ISLES – the Hebrides and Argyll. The Scottish Kings were already involved in the region, though it was to take many years to establish their authority fully.
2. The lands of the Macdougalls, the descendants of Dugald, were on either side of lower Loch Linnhe and the head of the family was Lord of Argyll, or, in the case of Ewen in the 1240s, King. These lands might be called the province of Argyll. Ewen was driven out by Alexander II of Scotland in the late 1240s, but it was not until 1309 that the power of the family was broken. In that year Alexander of Argyll and his son, John of Lorn, who were opposed to Robert the Bruce, were driven into exile. Later in Robert’s reign Argyll became a Sheriffdom. The lands of the MacDougalls were parcelled out among supporters of the King. The lands west of Loch Linnhe went to the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles, who already held Kintyre; those east of the Loch went to various people, but in particular the Campbells.
3. The principal lands of the Campbells, who were probably the sheriffs of Argyll, lay between Loch Awe and Loch Fyne. A Campbell was lieutenant in Argyll in 1382, and in 1457 the head of the family became Earl of Argyll. The district that was the centre of their lands is therefore sometimes called Argyll, a small part of the original vast coastlands region. The 9th Earl was raised to a Marquessate in 1641 and executed in 1661. His son was later restored to the Earldom, though he in his turn was executed in 1685. His son, the 11th Earl, was created Duke in 1701.
4. In 1633 the Sheriffdom of Argyll was united with the Sheriffdom of Tarbert, which had been created in Knapdale and Kintyre by 1481, to form the county of Argyll & Tarbert, as it was called at first, and later Argyll or ARGYLLSHIRE. The county was similar in extent to the Scottish Kingdom of Dalriada, formed more than a thousand years before by settlers from Ireland. It included lands east and west of Loch Linnhe. East of the loch, the county lay south of Loch Leven; it included Glen Coe and extended to part of Rannoch Moor. South of this zone the main bulk of the county lay on the mainland between the Firths of Clyde and Lorne (the latter the southward continuation of Loch Linnhe). Westwards lay the islands of Jura, Islay and Colonsay. West of Loch Linnhe, the county of Argyll included the mainland east of the Atlantic Ocean, south of Loch Eil and south and west of Loch Shiel, as well as the neighbouring islands, from Mull to Coll and Tiree. This massive county, with a greatly indented coastline and a mountainous interior, was exceeded in acreage only by Inverness-shire among the 33 counties of Scotland.
In 1975 the county of Argyll was abolished, the western mainland and neighbouring islands, together with Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor, going to the Highland Region, the rest, the greater part of the county, to Strathclyde. (Originally it had been proposed to include Argyllshire in the Highland region, but this would have made that region one of even greater distances than it became. From the actual border of the Highland region to the town of Campbeltown in Kintyre was about 100 miles).
5. The Strathclyde lands of Argyllshire became the greater part of the district of ARGYLL & BUTE, which also forms a ceremonial county, with a Lord Lieutenant.
6. The Bishopric of Argyll was established in the late 12th century. The see was at Lismore (the alternative name for the diocese), an island in Loch Linnhe. The Argyll diocese extended into the districts of Moidart, Knoidart and Lochaber, which belonged to southern Inverness-shire. (In the Scottish Episcopal Church the present diocese is called Argyll & the Isles).