Argyll is of ancient origin, and corresponds to most of the part of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata on Great Britain. Argyll was also a medieval bishopric with its cathedral at Lismore, as well as an early modern earldom and dukedom, the Dukedom of Argyll.
It borders Inverness-shire to the north, Perthshire and Dunbartonshire to the east, and —separated by the Firth of Clyde— neighbours Renfrewshire and Ayrshire to the south-east, and Buteshire to the south.
Between 1890 and 1975, Argyll was an administrative county with a county council. Its area corresponds with most of the modern council area of Argyll and Bute, excluding the island of Bute and the Helensburgh area, but including the Morvern and Ardnamurchan areas of the Highland council area.
The name derives from Old Gaelic airer Goídel (border region of the Gaels). The early 13th-century author of De Situ Albanie explains that "the name Arregathel means margin (i.e., border region) of the Scots or Irish, because all Scots and Irish are generally called Gattheli (i.e. Gaels), from their ancient warleader known as Gaithelglas."
However, the word airer naturally carries the meaning of the word 'coast' when applied to maritime regions, so the placename can also be translated as "Coast of [the] Gaels". Woolf has suggested that the name Airer Goídel replaced the name Dál Riata when the 9th-century Norse conquest split Irish Dál Riata and the islands of Alban Dál Riata off from mainland Alban Dál Riata. The mainland area, renamed Airer Goídel, would have contrasted with the offshore islands of Innse Gall, literally "islands of the foreigners." They were referred to this way because during the 9th to 12th centuries, they were ruled by Old Norse-speaking Norse–Gaels.
The term North Argyll historically referred to what is now called Wester Ross. It acquired the name North Argyll as it was settled by missionaries and refugees from Dál Riata, based at the abbey of Applecross. The position of abbot was hereditary, and when Ferchar mac in tSagart, son of the abbot, became the Earl of Ross, the region of North Argyll started to acquire the name Wester Ross. Both names continued in use until the 15th century, when Wester Ross became the exclusive term.
Historically, the term shire is somewhat misleading, as it must not be confused with an English county. In medieval Latin, the latter was referred to as a comitatus, which prior to 1889 a Scottish shire had never been. In Scotland, the comitatus was in fact the region controlled as a Lordship (as opposed, for example, to a Lairdship), such as a mormaerdom, or an early Earldom, and typically survived as a regality (though this is a broader term encompassing also more junior authority). Shire instead came into use, in Scotland, to refer to the region in which a particular sheriff operated; in Scottish medieval Latin this was sometimes called the vice-comitatus.
Following the transfer of the Hebrides and adjacent mainland coast from Norway to Scotland, by the 1266 Treaty of Perth, Argyll was served by the sheriff of Perth. However, in 1293, king John Balliol established the post of sheriff of Kintyre. In 1326, Dougall Campbell, son of Neil Campbell, was rewarded for Campbell support of Robert the Bruce; Dougall was grandson of the baron of Innis Chonnell, at the centre of the Argyll region, so he was created Sheriff of Argyll. However, the sheriffdom had only been created to oversee the forfeited MacDougall territory of Lorn (including Mull), the southern parts of Argyll remained part of the quasi-independent Lordship of the Isles until the late 15th century.
In 1476, John MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles, quitclaimed Kintyre and Knapdale (including the region between Loch Awe and Loch Fyne) to Scotland, and initially Knapdale was served by the Sheriff of Perth. However, in 1481, it was placed under the control of Tarbertshire - an expanded sheriffdom of Kintyre.
The Scottish Reformation co-incidentally followed the fall of the Lordship of the Isles, but the MacDonalds - former lords - were strong supporters of the former religious regime. The Campbells by contrast were strong supporters of the reforms, so at the start of the 17th century, under instruction from James VI, the Campbells were sent to Islay and Jura - MacDonald territory - to subdue the MacDonalds. The sheriffdom of Argyll was an inherited position, and had remained in the Campbell family, and now it was extended to include Islay and Jura. Campbell pressure at this time also lead to the sheriff court for Tarbertshire being moved to Inverary, where the Campbells held the court for the sheriff of Argyll. Somewhat inevitably, in 1633, Tarbertshire was abolished, in favour of the sheriff of Argyll.
David II had restored MacDougall authority over Lorn in 1357, but John MacDougall (head of the MacDougalls) had already renounced claims to Mull (in 1354) in favour of the MacDonalds, to avoid potential conflict. The MacLeans were an ancient family based in Lorn (including Mull), and following the quitclaim, they no longer had a Laird in Mull, so themselves became Mull's Lairds. Unlike the MacDonalds, they were fervent supporters of the Reformation, even supporting acts of civil disobedience against king Charles II's repudiation of the Solemn League and Covenant. Archibald Campbell (Earl of Argyll) was instructed by the privy council to seize Mull, and suppress the non-conformist behaviour; by 1680 he gained possession of the island, and transferred shrieval authority to the sheriff of Argyll.
|Historical Argyll population|
In 1746, following Jacobite insurrections, the Heritable Jurisdictions Act abolished regality, and forbade the position of sheriff from being inherited. Local governance was brought into line with that of the rest of Great Britain. Boards for health, water, education, the poor law, and so on, were established for each sheriffdom, akin to the way counties were now governed in England. In 1889, counties were at last formally created in Scotland, by a dedicated Local Government Act; they were to use the same boundaries as sheriffdoms.
Argyll thus gained a county council, which lasted until 1975. Argyll's neighbouring counties were Inverness-shire, Perthshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Bute. Renfrewshire and Ayrshire are on the other side of the Firth of Clyde, while Bute was a county comprising the islands in the firth.
The county town of Argyll was historically Inveraray, which is still the seat of the Duke of Argyll. Lochgilphead later claimed to be the county town, as the seat of local government for the county from the 19th century. Neither town was the largest settlement geographically, nor in terms of population, however. Argyll's largest towns were (and are) Oban, Dunoon and Campbeltown.
The Small Isles of Muck or Muick, Rhum or Rùm, Canna and Sanday were part of the county until they were transferred to Inverness-shire in 1891 by the boundary commission appointed under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. The island of Egg or Eigg was already in Inverness-shire.
The concept of a County of Argyll ceased for local government purposes in 1975, with its area being split between Highland and Strathclyde Regions. A local government district called Argyll and Bute was formed in the Strathclyde region, including most of Argyll and the adjacent Isle of Bute (the former County of Bute was more extensive). The Ardnamurchan, Ardgour, Ballachulish, Duror, Glencoe, Kinlochleven and Morvern areas of Argyll were detached to become parts of Lochaber District, in Highland. They remained in Highland following the 1996 revision.
Starting in 1590, as one of the measures that followed the Scottish reformation, each sheriffdom elected commissioners to the Parliament of Scotland. As well as the commissioner representing Argyll, at least one was sent to represent Tarbertshire, Sir Lachlan Maclean of Morvern. In the 1630 parliamentary session, Sir Coll Lamont, laird of Lamont, was the commissioner for "Argyll and Tarbert".)
There was an Argyllshire constituency of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1708 to 1801, and of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1983 (renamed Argyll in 1950). The Argyll and Bute constituency was created when the Argyll constituency was abolished.
Civil parishes are still used for some statistical purposes, and separate census figures are published for them. As their areas have been largely unchanged since the 19th century, this allows for comparison of population figures over an extended period of time.