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Issue 14 - The scars of age and battle

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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The scars of age and battle

John Hannavy taps in to the special atmosphere created by many ruined castles

Looking at the ruins of so many of our country’s great castles, the visitor today can often still pick up some of the resonance which lingers from the great sieges of Scotland’s turbulent past. That is very much the case with most of the castles in this issue’s selection. The battle scars worn with pride, and the damage caused by centuries of neglect, often present the photographer with interesting frames and spaces through which to view the ruins.

We start at the impressive red ruins of Bothwell Castle, perched high on a rocky crag above the River Clyde.

This castle, which dates in large measure from the late 13th century, was once considered the grandest residence in Scotland. Had the original plans ever been completed, it would have been even grander – for foundations for a huge twin-towered gatehouse like that at Caerlaverock Castle was laid but the gatehouse was never built.

The scene of several dramatic sieges – apparently using huge wooden siege engines – Bothwell still bears scars acquired throughout Scotland’s turbulent medieval times.

But the castle was not to be easily destroyed. Indeed, when living in such cold grandeur fell out of fashion, and the Douglases built nearby Bothwell House in the 18th century, they might have assumed their former castle would just have crumbled away.

But, ironically, it was Bothwell House which crumbled, succumbing to the effects of centuries of coal mining in the area. The house was demolished as unsafe in the 1920s while the castle, sitting on its solid rocky foundations, approaches 750 years old!

On the other side of the country Dirleton Castle, much of which also dates from the 13th century, stands on another rocky outcrop, this time overlooking the village of the same name, and offering a view out over the Firth of Forth and the North Sea.

Like Bothwell, this magnificent castle suffered from English sieges, most notably by Edward I’s armies in 1298, who, after having extensively damaged the castle’s fabric with great catapults, then immediately set about rebuilding parts of it. Dirleton Castle continued to figure in Scotland’s history right up until the time of the Commonwealth and, indeed, most of the damage evident on today’s remains can be attributed to a siege by Cromwell’s men in 1650.

Dirleton escaped the destruction visited upon Tantallon, however, and what survives today is a magnificent medieval ruin, much of which has remained virtually unchanged since the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

The little known Balvaird Castle, which sits on a hilltop near the boundary between Perthshire and the Kingdom of Fife, was one of the homes of the Murrays of Tullibardine until they inherited the Earldom of Mansfield, and moved the few miles which separate Balvaird from the magnificent Scone Palace. The tall tower house was built towards the end of the 15th century, during the reign of James IV, and was the main residence of the family until 1685.

From then onwards, the castle slowly slipped down in the world, assuming the role of a farmhouse rather than a baronial manor house. By the mid 19th century it was in considerable disrepair, many of its buildings having been used as stone quarries, with only the tower house remaining virtually intact. For over a century it was completely abandoned before being acquired by Historic Scotland in the 1970s.

Their splendid restoration is still visited by relatively few people. The interior is occasionally open on summer weekends, but the exterior is accessible at all times.

It is hard to get any real idea of the magnificence of Kildrummy Castle from the fragments which survive today, yet a look at the ground plan suggests this fortress must have had a lot in common with the original plans for Bothwell.

Kildrummy would have been entered through a massive twin-towered gatehouse like the one never built at Bothwell, and a massive curtain wall with additional corner towers would have enclosed a roughly triangular interior.

It withstood a fierce siege by Prince Edward (later King Edward II) in the opening years of the 14th century, eventually succumbing only when the resident blacksmith, in league with the English, set it on fire in return, according to tradition, for as much gold as he could carry. For his help, the English killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat!

Rebuilt in the mid 14th century, the castle featured regularly in Scottish history until it was largely dismantled after the Jacobite uprising of 1715, after which it became a local quarry. Carnasserier Castle has a dominant position on an Argyllshire hilltop overlooking the narrow valley of the Kilmartin Burn. What survives today is but a fragment of the former fortress of the Campbells, much of the castle having been demolished after its sacking, capture and dismantling in 1685 after the Monmouth Rebellion. What remains on the hilltop today is a severe-looking tower house.

The castle’s founder, John Carswell was a consummate politician, trying to walk a path which would be acceptable to both the Queen and the Reformers.

The extent to which he was successful is evidenced by the fact that, four years after the reformation, he was made Bishop of Argyll and the Isles by Mary Queen of Scots.

Later he became known for translating John Knox’s prayer book into Gaelic – believed to have been the first book ever printed in that language.