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Issue 12 - Standing Guard

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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Standing Guard

John Hannavy looks at fortress castles on Scotland's coastline

Sailing up the River Forth in mediaeval times, be you welcome guest or unwelcome foe, the sight that greeted you as you approached Blackness would have sent a chill through even the hardiest sailor. Blackness Castle – shaped unmistakably like a ship, its prow towards the prevailing winds off the estuary – protected not just this stretch of the river, but more importantly, the port which gave access to the great Royal Palace at Linlithgow.

The castle is first mentioned as late as the middle of the 15th century and, in 1453, it was gifted to King James II by the Crichton family. Subsequent monarchs used it both to defend the port, and as a prison for high-status prisoners. Cardinal Beaton was perhaps its most famous to be held there – in the mid 16th century – by which time it was as near to being an impregnable fortress as 16th century castle-designers could make it.

Cardinal Beaton’s name appears in connection with yet another of Scotland’s great coastal castles – at St. Andrews in Fife. As an exemplar of how close to nobility were the upper echelons of the mediaeval clergy, the first St Andrews castle was constructed in the early 13th as a residence for the Bishop. Later bishops, whose religious duties were often indistinguishable from their involvement in politics, enlarged and strengthened it.

By the mid 16th century, when in 1546 Beaton has incurred the wrath of the English King Henry VIII by refusing to sanction the marriage of Henry’s son Edward with the three year-old Mary Queen of Scots, the castle was being turned into a veritable fortress for the Cardinal.

Having also incurred the wrath of the Protestants with the killing of George Wishart, Beaton’s castle was overrun by Wishart’s supporters rather than the English. The Cardinal was himself murdered and his body hung from the walls of his own newly fortified castle!

On the other side of Scotland, the remains of Castle Sween now stand guard, somewhat incongruously, over a caravan park by the shores of Loch Sween at the top end of the Mull of Kintyre. This history of this dramatic and austere twelfth century castle is obscure to say the least, but the remarkable state of preservation of its walls makes it well worth a visit if you are in the area. It is likely that most of the buildings in side the curtain walls would have been wooden rather than stone, and local tradition insists that Robert the Bruce besieged it in the early 14th century. It has stood as a roofless ruin now for more than 350 years.

The little town of Kirkcudbright in Galloway has been dominated by the austere might of McLellan’s Castle only since the closing years of the 16th century. The stones, however, have been on site since the middle of the 15th – the masonry from which the castle is built all came from the conventual buildings of the Franciscan Friary which previously occupied the site. Sir Thomas MacLellan built this imposing structure as a testament to his wealth and power – but it was a short-lived power. Local legend has it that the castle was never completed, and whether or not that is true, it had certainly lost its roof by the middle of the 18th century

One of the most imposing, yet curious, of Scotland’s castles must be Dunstaffnage, with its strategic location by the shores of Loch Etive just outside Oban. As the visitor approaches the ancient 13th century castle, it appears to have a 17th century house perched precariously on top of it!

The castle sits on a solitary outcrop of rock, and its shape is determined by that rock. With the exception of the house on top, the exterior view is hardly changed from that envisaged by its thirteenth century designer. Inside, the castle has been altered and updated periodically, but if Robert the Bruce – who captured it in 1309 – was to approach it today, its shape would be wholly familiar to him. The house astride the gateway dates from extensive alterations to the gatehouse in the 17th century and must, surely, be a uniquely eccentric feature.