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Issue 16 - You take the low road...

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


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You take the low road...

John Hannavy visits some of the spectacular castles to the south of Edinburgh and Glasgow

While many of the country’s most immediately recognisable castles are located around the central belt, you don’t have to travel very far into Scotland before some spectacular castles and towers come within easy reach.

Castle Kennedy is one of a number of impressive castles in Dumfries and Galloway. The imposing ruins, consumed by fire almost 300 years ago, are all that remains of a fortified tower house built, as its name might suggest, by the Kennedy family, probably at the end of the 15th century.

At the time a hugely powerful family, the Kennedy’s impressive castle would have underlined their importance to all who saw it. By the time of the fire, it had passed to the Dalrymple family, and was the home of the second Earl of Stair, a field-marshall in the armies of King William III.

Today visitors go to Castle Kennedy mainly to walk the beautiful gardens, but the dark and forbidding ruin is a reminder – in the midst of this tranquil garden – that southern Scotland was not always a peaceful place to live.

Given the region’s turbulent history, the position of Threave Castle on an island in the river Dee, two miles west of the town of Castle Douglas, is an obvious bit of good planning. Access to the fortified tower in the past was either by boat or by crossing to the island via a ford. Today’s boat trip, short though it is, makes the visit that little bit more of an adventure.

While legend has it that there has been a fortress here for 1,000 years, the present castle – a stronghold built by the delightfully nicknamed ‘Archibald the Grim’ and later owned by Black Douglas – dates only from the closing years of the 14th century. The castle looks precariously sited at the edge of the island, on a ledge of land only just above the normal river level. But of course it was sited there for a reason, and river access was that reason. The castle, still partly surrounded by water, is one of very few castles in Scotland to have had its own dock or harbour, substantial evidence of which can still be seen today.

The castle has not been lived in since 1640, and it is unclear if plans to convert it into a prison for soldiers captured from napoleon’s army in the early 1800s were ever carried through. The castle has been owned by the state – now in the guise of Historic Scotland – for more than 90 years, although it sits on land now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

On a much less grand scale, but nonetheless imposing, Orchardton Tower has the unique claim to being the only circular tower-house ever built in Scotland. Mid-15th century estate agents might have described it as ‘a bijou residence’ with cellar and three rooms. It was built for one John Cairns in about 1460.

Above the cellar, the main hall would have served as living room and dining room. Above that, the two upper floors, each with a circular 25 foot diameter room, would have served as sleeping accommodation for the family.

The tower would originally have been surrounded by a walled courtyard, with stables and other buildings within, but only scant remains of those now remain.

Just why Scotland only appears ever to have had one circular medieval tower house is unexplainable, especially given the 2,000 year old tradition of building circular brochs – circular Iron-Age fortified towers – the remains of which can be found in various places along the west coast, the western isles, and up into the northern isles.

Indeed, the so-called ‘Doon Castle’ at Ardwell Point near Stranraer only a few miles from Orchardton, is the remains of just such a tower.

Over towards the other side of the country, Neidpath Castle a few miles from Peebles occupies a dominant and commanding position above the River Tweed. In different lights it can look powerful and threatening, or welcoming and completely in keeping with the lush surrounding landscape. I personally prefer it beneath a heavy and threatening sky, the light and colour seeming to endow the castle with a menace which its size and history denied it! The 600 year old tower was built during that same turbulent period which provoked much of Scotland’s castle and tower building, but seems to have enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence. Indeed, by the middle of the 16th century the castle was renowned not for the stout defences it had put up against attackers, but for the beauty of the terraced gardens which ran down the steep slopes to the river.

Those gardens were developed and tended for almost 300 years, before being abandoned in the early 19th century.

Craignethan Castle has the claim to fame that it was the last really defensible medieval castle to be built in Scotland. After Craignethan was completed in the early 1530s – for Sir James Hamilton, known as the ‘Bloody Butcher’ – castles may have looked powerful, but their design was increasingly driven by appearance and a measure of comfort.

Sited high above the River Nethan, the castle’s construction was seen as a powerful political statement by Hamilton, but a political statement which did not preface a long and peaceful life behind its thick walls and heavy artillery.

Hamilton, King James III’s master of works when the castle was being built, fell from grace and was executed in 1540. His immediate descendants also fell out of favour when they backed the cause of Mary Queen of Scots, and Scotland’s last medieval fortress was all but abandoned before the end of the 16th century. Like so many other great castles, it was destined to become one of the country’s romantic ruins.

Castle Kennedy
Stair Estates, Rephad, Stranraer, Dumfries & Galloway DG9 8BX
Tel: +44 (0)1776 702024

Threave Castle
Castle Douglas. Kirkcudbrightshire. DG7 1RX
Tel: +44 (0)7711 223 101

Orchardton Tower
Old Orchardton, Palnackie, Kirkcubrightshire

Neidpath Castle
Peebles. Peeblesshire, EH45 8NW
Tel: +44 (0)1721 720 333

Craignethan Castle
Near Crossford, Lanark Lanarkshire, ML11 9PL
Tel: +44 (0)1555 860364

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