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Issue 89 - Outlander Uncovered: Blackness Castle

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016

 

This article is 14 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Outlander Uncovered: Blackness Castle

Christopher Coates visits Blackness Castle near Linlithgow

Fans of the television adaption of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels may be hard pressed at first to guess which scenes were filmed at the imposing edifice pictured here. Identification is slightly complicated as, when it appeared on screen, the external structure was edited in post production and set against a new backdrop – that of the Great Glen and the head of Loch Linnhe, Scotland’s largest sea loch.

However, a closer inspection of the interior courtyard will perhaps trigger a memory of one of the more gruesome and intense occurrences in the early episodes of season one. Indeed it was in this courtyard, at the grim and brooding Blackness Castle, that the scenes of Jamie’s flogging at the hands of the evil ‘Black Jack’ Randall were recreated. It was also the location of Jamie’s father’s death and, later, Jamie’s daring rescue of Claire – aided by his friends and some unwatched gunpowder!

As you may have now guessed, this grim pile acted as a stand-in for Fort William. The military link is rather appropriate as throughout the castle’s history it has played the role of laird’s house, fortress, prison, garrison and munitions depot. In fact, the castle was in active use for over 450 years, right up until the end of WWI.

The structure we can see today had its beginning in 1440, as the private residence of Sir George Crichton. The Crichtons were one of Scotland’s most influential families at the time and, as the port at Blackness was of strategic importance on the south bank of the Firth of Forth, it is likely that building a castle here was intended to strengthen their clout. Indeed, it is likely that the new edifice was constructed, as was so often the case, on the site of an earlier fort that had likely served the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow for centuries. At the time of its first recorded mention in 1449, and in addition to serving as Sir George’s residence, Blackness was being actively used as a state prison. However, Crichton didn’t manage to hold onto his castle for long. It was annexed in 1453 by James II and has been under Royal control ever since.

In 1537, James V began a significant redevelopment of the fortifications at Blackness. His aim? To convert the 15th Century castle into an impregnable artillery fort that could seriously hamper the progression of unwanted vessels sailing the Firth of Forth. Of particular note, the vulnerable landward (southern) walls were bulked up until they were over five metres thick, and reinforced tops allowed canon to be placed atop them. Henry VIII’s Protestant England was the reason for the upgrades – relations had been worsening for some time. The work was completed in 1543, just in the nick of time as the period known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ was about to begin.

Famously, Blackness Castle is known as ‘the ship that never sailed,’ on account of its unusual shape that, at least from the seaward side, is somewhat evocative of a great stone ship that has run aground. The outer walls come to a point facing north, which is the ‘prow,’ the central tower is reminiscent of a mast and the flat southern wall is the ‘stern.’ The castle was severely damaged by the heavy canon of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1650, following a siege that saw bombardment from both land and sea. The occupants stood no chance as, by that point, artillery technology had advanced to the point that the fortifications at Blackness, while cutting-edge at the time of construction, had been rendered largely obsolete.

The site was restored to its former glory in 1660, but as time went on the importance of its role dwindled. Shortly after its restoration, it was used again as a prison, then – after the passing of the Act of Union – it became a garrison of the British army. It entered use as a prison once again between 1759 and 1815, when it was used as a transit camp for over 40,000 prisoners of war, taken during the conflicts with France and Spain.

By 1870 Blackness had taken on yet another new role, this time as the central ammunition depot for Scotland. To prepare it for this new service, a slew of alterations were carried out. This included the construction of a concrete and iron roof over the entire courtyard, and the erection of both the south range (which was built as a barracks) and the more ornate west range (which served as officers’ quarters).

After WWI the army departed for good and the site was designated as a national monument. During the following years a thorough programme of work stripped back many of the changes that had been made from the Victorian era onward, and the site was returned, by in large, to the way it had been during the medieval period. Now managed by Historic Environment Scotland, this impressive site can be visited year-round and is a fascinating diversion for all.

Visitor Information
Blackness Castle Blackness,
Linlithgow, EH49 7NH
+44­(0)­1506­834­807
www.historicenvironment.scot