Southern Scotland is full of castles. How do you choose which ones to visit? After I realized that we couldn’t visit them all, we chose a couple from a range of time periods to see whether we can see any changes over time.
What I found is that castles didn’t change much between the 12th and 16th centuries. They range from a very small tower (Orchardton) to a large tower with an extra bit added (MacLellan). Not until the 17th century did castles become the showplaces we see today.
When I decided to focus on visiting castles, I didn’t pay think about visiting any of the old abbey sites. They are fewer in number, and had a religious focus, so I didn’t think I’d be interested, until we drove by Dundrennan Abbey on our way somewhere and pulled in to have a look. (I include photos of Dundrennan at the end of this post.) It was both an irony and a revelation. The power was in the Church, obvious from a first look around. Dundrennan is much larger and ornate than any castle built before the late 1600s, AND most of it was built before 1200. I seem to have been following the wrong team. It also explains why Henry VIII (and other kings) wanted to take over the Church. It was obvious the clergy held much more power than the king and were far wealthier. A good example is Henry VIIIs advisor Cardinal Woolsey. Woolsey built Hampton Court Palace (near London) for himself, but Henry admired it so much that he made Woolsey give it to him.
Castles, however, capture our imagination. Here’s a tour through time with Scottish castles.
The oldest castles are no longer standing, though some remain as footprints in the ground that have been excavated or mapped. You can see the oldest church at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh, founded in 1128. Compare Holyrood’s Old Abbey, established in 1128, with the footprint of the original castle at Caerlaverock, built in the 1200s. (Holyrood is bigger.) A great deal may be known about these barely visible castles from documents that have been preserved through the centuries. The depth of historic records in the UK is impressive.
Here is the outline of an older portion of Cardoness Castle
14th century Castles (1300s), Threave Castle
Skip forward a mere 100 years, and many castles from the era remain standing. During the late 1300s, Threave Castle was built on an island in the river Dee, not far from today’s town of Castle Douglas. Threave was well protected for its time, with a natural moat flowing around it, accessible by boat up and down the river. Like the first castle Caerlaverock, it was damp, but unlike that castle, Threave was never moved to a drier spot.
Threave was home to Archibald Douglas, known as Archibald the Grim for his terrible face in battle. Archibald inherited his title from James Douglas, known as both James the Good and The Black Douglas. James Douglas spent his career, most of the 1300s, moving from battle to battle in support of William Wallace and Robert Bruce. The black in the Douglas name refers to barbaric incidents such as the “Douglas Larder.” At that time, the Douglas family properties had been confiscated and James Douglas was intent on regaining them. On Palm Sunday 1307, he and a band of men hid outside Douglas Castle (now demolished) until the soldiers went to a nearby church for services. Douglas and his men broke in, captured those present, then gathered all the stores of the castle in a great heap, splitting open wine casks and splintering the wood. He had all the captives beheaded and set atop the ruined goods then lit on fire. Local people dubbed the event the Douglas Larder and James’ ruthlessness became part of his legend.
By Archibald’s rule at the end of the 1300s, the Douglas name was a prominent one, and earned the enmity of English kings. Archibald the Grim was succeeded by his son Archibald, yet the Douglas’ were constantly under attack. This culminated in the siege of Threave Castle in 1455. In the end money succeeded where a siege could not. Threave surrendered and was partly dismantled. Put back together by the next owners (the Maxwells of Caerlaverock Castle-they were all interrelated over time). This next siege of Threave Castle came in the 1600s.
From 1637-1688 religion in Scotland was declared to be based on the Book of Common Prayer, led by Episcopal ministers, as declared by the king. This sounds straightforward except for the fact that in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the dominant practice, and many Scots believed that a king could never be the head of a church, the role they believe was a spiritual position filled by Jesus Christ. A declaration to that effect (the Covenant) was signed by many in Scotland who were called Covenanters. To suppress opposition to his dictates, the king ordered Covenanters to hunted and killed in an effort to institute religion according to the king’s will. It was treasonous to oppose the religious rules of the king and the siege of Threave Castle by Covenanters was an effort to drive out non-Scottish Episcopal believers. Once again Threave fell due to negotiations but this time the castle was not reoccupied.
15th century Castles (1400s) Cardoness Castle
Castles got taller over the next century based on our visit to Cardoness Castle. The castle was owned by the Cardoness family by 1220, but the present structure is a tower house from the 15th century when it was owned by the McCulloch family.
The McCullochs were involved in feuds and raids throughout the region of Dumfries and Galloway. The castle was acquired from the Cardoness family through marriage. The tale goes that the head of Cardoness was furious that he had nine daughters and no sons. His next child was a boy, and the laird insisted on holding a huge party on the surface of the frozen loch at the foot of the castle. In the midst of the festivities, the ice gave way and all were killed but the one daughter who had stayed back with a cold. She then married a McCulloch who was interested in her wealth and castle.
The interior of the castle displays wealth in the abundance of carved stone mantelpieces, niches and window seats. Cardoness is also structurally very strong.
Two of the four sides are doubled by having a narrow passage between the outer wall and the inner living rooms. These were for the servants to move about unseen, but had the effect of adding structural support and insulation to the walls. Between 1700 when the castle was abandoned, and 1927 when the ruins were given to Historic Scotland, Cardoness did not deteriorate as much as many other abandoned castles.
16th centory Castles (1500s), Drumcoltran tower, MacLellan’s Castle, Carsluith Castle
Even more structures from the sixteenth century are still around. We visited Drumcoltran Tower, MacLellan’s Castle, and Carsluith Castle. Drumcoltran Tower is the most remote. It is only a mile or two off the road, but it is a good thing there are signs, because the road runs through farmland. The final sign points to the side of the road: “Parking.”
However, a dedicated path leads to the tower from the roadside. There is information on signs outside and inside the tower, including a reminder not to get in the way of the workings of the modern farm that is all around. Historic Scotland has managed the property since 1951. It is in very good condition, a roof is in place and the windows screened to keep out birds. The door was open though there was not an attendant.
Drumcoltran Tower was built in the mid 1550s, to control a road between Dumfries and Dalbeattie. It is in the middle of a farmyard, with barns and buildings on three sides. Though it seems incongrous to us, this is very much like the tower’s original setting, when Edward Maxwell lived in the tower, surrounded by the hamlet he managed.
The view from the top of Drumcoltran Tower reveals a broad expanse of farmland, full of grazing animals. The sheep tried to prevent us from leaving, but we did find a way.
I find it impressive to read that in 1569 Thomas MacLellan of Bombie was given the site of a ruined Greyfriars monastery in the town of Kirkcudbright. That means there are documents that record this, preserved for more than 400 years. Perhaps because this castle is in the center of town, there are more displays at MacLellan’s Castle. Jonathan went to help in the kitchen.
Carsluith Castle is similar to the others, different in being open to the elements (pigeons), and located by the side of the road. One feature still visible (below) is a sink, where you could stand while a servant poured water over your hands for washing. The water drained out the side of the building just behind where Jonathan is standing. Solway Firth is just to the left, so waste eventually made it there.
The space between floors in most castles is open now, as the wood floors have not been replaced or restored, but it is possible to see the notches that supported roof beams, and the features in each room. Here you see the second and third floors at Carsluith. The second floor had a window seat, a fireplace and a niche that could have held shelves for storage or display. The third floor was for a lesser member of the household. The fireplace is smaller and there are no built in features.
17th century Castles (1600s) Caerlaverock Castle
We have visited two castles that were at least partly built during the 17th century. The most fun was probably Caerlaverock Castle. I happened to see on their web site that it was the setting for The Decoy Bride, a very silly romantic comedy that I watched on the recommendation of my daughter, a David Tennant fan.
He seems to have strayed into this film by accident (possibly between better gigs). I went back and watched it again, and enjoyed seeing how the castle was worked into the film.
The foundations of an early Caerlaverock Castle built around 1230 were excavated some years ago and lie in a clearing near the surviving castle. On the edge of a stream, it’s no surprise that the first castle was abandoned because of the damp, make that soggy, surroundings.
Distinctive at Caerlaverock is its moat (right), triangular shape (first photo), and the much later building inside the castle.
Called the Nithsdale Lodging, this Renaissance style building (completed 1634) was a departure from previous architecture because of its numerous large windows and decorative carvings over the windows. It is very different than the rest of this and the other castles we’ve seen and it was intended to impress the neighbors and competitors with Robert Maxwell’s new title of Earl of Nithsdale granted around 1620. The panels over each window are an unusual mix from my perspective, but perhaps were appropriate at the time. Most have some mythological reference, but some are allegories of love and honor, while the top three are examples of what happens to your enemies. Prometheus having his liver pecked out, for example.
For more on Caerlaverock Castle, try this very interesting blog post:
The great irony is that Caerlaverock Castle fell to a siege in 1640, only six years after the new construction was completed. It was partially dismantled once again, a practice used to keep a structure from being used in future battles. Caerlaverock Castle was never reoccupied.
Drumlanrig Castle (1679-1689)
By the time Drumlanrig was built, castles had become as we imagine them today, huge (120 rooms), turreted lavish homes set in extensive grounds.
They could be defended, but not as easily as in the days before cannon. The castle interior is hung with Old Masters of greater (Rembrandt) and lesser distinction. Our young guide was proud of his association with the castle and the Buccleuch (Bu-KLOO) family. I was surprised and a bit taken aback to find that the Earl owns 90,000 acres just in the area around the castle, AND is the largest private property owner in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of acres. Why should we congratulate this person? Why on earth should we be paying to visit his castle? Oh, and by the way, he rarely even visits, he has a palace he prefers down the road. It has only 60 rooms. We were not allowed to take photos of the interior of the castle, though I took a photo out one window of the formal garden. My overall impression of Drumlanrig is that it displays the worst of inherited wealth. The castle is used as an event location, just to keep something going on at the property. Our visit coincided with the Galloway Country Fair, another summer to-do with dogs displaying their skills, and more sheep races. It was fun, but I was a sobered by learning about its place in the larger political/economic system. Do these people need land reform?
Dundrennan Abbey-Last but far from Least
It was quite an eye-opener to see the huge abbey church at Dundrennan. Even as a ruin it impresses. The idea of a cloistered order is a bit difficult for me to get my head around, a place where the brothers all prayed a lot, grew much of their own food, kept to themselves, all during the 1100s, almost a millennium ago. It’s suggested that they also died young because of the privations of the order. A tough life, though the cloistered monks did rely on “lay brothers” to perform especially heavy work. Despite the hard life, the grandeur of the surroundings may have been something of a reward compared to the kind of home a local family or even a noble would have had at the time.
Later portions of the abbey like this one were completed by the end of the 1200s, much earlier than anything comparable in castle construction.
There are a lot of pieces in storage that have been collected as the abbey gradually falls apart.
I think I’ll switch to visiting abbeys and give Scottish castles a break. They are all rectangular towers, have the same layout, a barrel-vaulted storeroom(s) on the bottom, a great hall above, residence above, retainers above that. Kitchen, brewhouse, bakery and servants all were in structures around the exterior of the tower and are not ordinarily preserved, though it should be great for archaeological excavation. All those broken dishes and ale tankards…….