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Issue 19 - Not all castles are castles

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


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Not all castles are castles

When is a castle not a castle? John Hannavy looks at some buildings that don't qualify as castles but aren't far off.

For this, the last, of my journeys around the castles of Scotland, I have been much further north than before – the most northerly location this time is Kirkwall, capital of Orkney, while the most southerly is near Kingussie. I am also being somewhat perverse, because not one of the buildings featured in this collection is actually a castle. Each may look like a castle but looks are not necessarily enough.

That they look like castles may be because they date from a period in Scotland’s turbulent history when the only safe place to stay was a fortified building of some sort, or quite simply because the architectural style of the castle served the builder’s purpose very well.

And so it was with our first location – the austere and forbidding ruins of Ruthven Barracks sitting atop of a hill to the east of the A9 near Kingussie, and looking as though it has been there for centuries longer than it actually has.

The splendid hilltop site had successively been the location for two earlier castles dating back to the 13th century, and its fine defensive position was ideal for one of the four great military barracks built by the Hanoverian forces just after the Jacobite rebellion in the early 18th century. It was designed to house and protect a garrison of 120 men, but may, in fact, never have been occupied to capacity.

Within less than three decades, it had been stormed by the Jacobites, and fell in early 1746 when only about a dozen soldiers were based there. After the battle of Culloden later that year, the Jacobites occupied the barracks for a short time, after which it was abandoned and eventually fell into ruins. Seen against a threatening dark sky, it is still a forbidding place.

Along the west coast of Scotland, across the east coast of the Highlands, and up into Orkney and Shetland, Scotland’s many brochs still pose historians some unanswerable questions. Often mistakenly described as ‘Pictish towers’, these round dry-stone structures, which look like a cross between castles and power station cooling towers, predate the time of the Picts, and are believed to have been built during a period from about 400BC to 200AD. The Picts really didn’t start to leave their mark on the landscape until later in the third century.

In all, the sites of more than 500 of these uniquely Scottish round defensive towers has been identified, and they can, reasonably, be described as Scotland’s first castles. The word ‘broch’ has been traced back to the Norse word ‘borg’ for a fortified place or fortified hill, and the prefix ‘Dun’ used in the names of so many brochs has a similar meaning. Indeed many later castles use that same word – Dunvegan, Dunstaffnage, Dunollie, to name but three.

The broch probably developed from the early fortification of Iron Age round houses, but as there are many more theories than substantive records, no one can be really certain of their origins.

The finest surviving broch is, sadly, one of the least accessible – the Broch of Mousa in Shetland, the walls of which are still more than 40 feet high. Two of the best preserved on the Scottish mainland are Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, at Corrary in Lochalsh, a few yards from each other.

Fortification was a common and not unreasonable precaution taken by many in medieval times, and for those whose attitude towards the people who lived on their lands was little short of barbaric, fortification was essential.

Earl Patrick, a 16th century Earl of Orkney, treated the serfs on his estates like slaves and despite his power, probably feared daily for his life. The huge palace he remodelled for himself in Kirkwall in Orkney reflected the need for him to be able to defend himself and his family, and live securely within.

Adjoining the Earl’s Palace – and effectively incorporated into it by Earl Patrick – Kirkwall’s Bishop’s Palace was also designed for ease of defence, and dates in part from the 12th century.

Modified extensively over a 400 year period, it reflected the wealth of the medieval church, and was just one of many fortified residences for bishops.

Spynie Palace north of Elgin, a much more austere building, was built over a 200 year period from the 13th to 15th centuries. It was probably the largest and grandest Bishop’s Palace in the country. It was also undoubtedly a castle in everything but name.

Today the site is dominated by a massive six-storey 15th century square tower built by Bishop David Stewart and completed c.1475. Bishop Stewart had excommunicated the Earl of Huntley for his refusal to pay rent to him. Huntley’s response was to threaten to force the Bishop out of the ‘pigeon hole’ in which he lived at Spynie. This, Stewart knew, was no idle threat.

Thus Spynie became one of the most fortified and defensible religious buildings in Scotland. It counts itself one of the many buildings to play host to Mary Queen of Scots – she stayed at Spynie briefly in 1562.