Medieval Scottish Castles: Looking In

Medieval castles dominate Scotland’s landscape, and they’re practical structures for their times. Most start off as giant stone boxes with incredibly thick walls (sometimes square, sometimes rounded, depending on when they were built), copious trimmings to help with defense (say it with me: “crenelated battlements!”), and all sorts of openings with murderous purposes. Many also have gatehouses (which can stand up to battering rams and also provided defenders with a platform from which they could dump truly awful things on the people below), towers (for prisons or pleasure), and, of course, curtain walls to hold everything in. From the outside, even a ruined castle can look pretty fierce.

I’m a bit obsessed with the entrances to these forbidding buildings. While I certainly photograph the whole exterior, I also take pictures of gatehouses, doorways, or whatever the entry is; I like to imagine what my characters would feel when they’re just about to walk in. Here’s a wee tour of a few of my Scottish favorites and their most impressive features.

We’ll start with Caerlaverock Castle. This Dumfries beauty, first built in 1270 by the order of Sir John de Maccuswell (the family known as the Maxwells), boasts a formidable gatehouse with its right tower from the 13th century and its left tower and actual entry from the 15th. The door itself is a nice example of a two-centered arch, a type of doorway that was very popular in castles in the early- to mid-medieval period. As you approach Caerlaverock, the front of the castle seems to bellow its power through its mighty presence. And it had to: this castle was on a prime spot in the border between Scotland and England.

Caerlaverock Castle

In 1300 during the Wars of Independence, the English king Edward I brought an army of over 3,000 men to siege Caerlaverock. Despite the significant defense of its entry and moat, the castle, with a garrison of only 60 men, surrendered in two days.

Edinburgh’s Craigmillar Castle didn’t need to worry about sieges too much, though it has a massive curtain wall. For show? Because any self-respecting castle would have one? Just in case? First built by Sir Simon Preston (or his son, also named Simon) in the 14th century, this was a well-fortified home. And it stayed in the family for a long time. Sir Simon Preston IV was a keen supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, and Craigmillar served as a peaceful refuge for her during a particularly troubled time in her life (though it was also the place where the Queen’s advisors developed a plan to end her unpopular marriage to Lord Darnley by murdering him). Okay, so there’s the gossip. Let’s just focus on its beautiful entryway, a semi-circular arch, built in the late 15th century.

Craigmillar Castle

Past the timber doors, you see a cedar tree, one of two that dominates the inner courtyard. Defense was important, but comfort was, too, and this doorway shows that clearly.

Blackness Castle’s entry has a certain grandeur, but does not promise comfort. It’s a no-nonsense doorway, and you’re meant to be kept out. This West Lothian fortress on the Firth of Forth may have initially been a residence, but soon became entirely a defensive castle. It was built in the 1440s when Sir George Crichton, Admiral of Scotland, was lord. The Crichtons were enemies of the famous Black Douglases, one of the most powerful Scottish families, and this castle was strategically important for all sorts of reasons. The Crichtons held onto Blackness for many years, until Scotland’s King James II wanted it and invaded with a successful siege against Sir George’s son. Blackness soon passed into royal hands for good. (By the way, Sir George’s cousin William was the one who set up the murder of the young Black Douglas heir at Edinburgh Castle; see my post for more on that.)

Blackness Castle

A vast collection of shells now marks the entrance, just out of sight of this picture on the left. I wondered if that’s always been the case, and, if so, if their crunch provided a sort of doorbell or warning.

Because defense was so important at Blackness Castle, a yett would have been part of the entry. An iron gate of woven strips, a yett would have been very difficult for an invader to take down. It also gave defenders enough room between the iron weave to fire back.

Blackness Castle--yett

Note the design: two horizontal strips are melded onto the vertical strips, a pattern that repeats throughout the yett.

Dirleton Castle, a grand East Lothian residence, has a dramatic façade. A fixed bridge now stands where the drawbridge once was, and the gatehouse has many layers you must walk past before you reach the courtyard. Dirleton was built in the 13th century for Sir John de Vaux as a fortified residence more than a fortress, and that fine: there was peace between Scotland and England, and he had nothing to worry about. But it was a good thing he’d built Dirleton as a castle; peace ended when the English king Edward I decided to invade Scotland and, in 1298, sent Bishop Bek of Durham (yes, bishops led armies back then) to capture Dirleton. Bek succeeded, though the Scots won it back at some point around 1306—and gave it a powerful gatehouse. You have to imagine its barriers these days, but they were formidable: a combination of portcullis, wooden doors, and yetts.

Dirleton Castle

This was one of the strategic castles that the Scottish warrior king Robert the Bruce destroyed rather than risk its falling into English hands again.

One defense that you wouldn’t see upon entering Dirleton is this small chamber above the gatehouse passage. Here lurks a murder hole, called that because such openings were extremely useful for defenders to use in pouring dangerous substances (or throwing rocks) on invaders.

Dirleton Castle--from above--murder hole

Think for a moment of what a rush of burning hot sand could do to a knight: it would trickle into his armor’s chinks, through his chain mail, past his padded tunic, and against his skin…).

A castle’s exterior is the first glance that you get of these behemoths of defense, but the door itself tells much of a castle’s intent: if it was meant to rebuff, or welcome, or perhaps just intimidate. A castle’s entry shows what a castle is all about. And, thanks to Scottish preservation organizations, we’re able to go through so many of them in Scotland today.

(The images in this post are my own photographs. Many thanks to Historic Scotland Environment, which owns and manages these properties and whose fascinating souvenir guides helped me with my dates and historical details. And thanks also to Malcolm Hislop for his How to Read Castles, a wonderful handbook that I look to whenever I need to remember an architectural note.)

2 Responses to “Medieval Scottish Castles: Looking In”

  1. Mindy vannier

    You are amazing. I’m from America and Scottish history has always mesmerized me. I love your site
    Maybe one day I can visit. It’s a dream of mine.

    • Diane

      Thank you! I’m from America too and I adore Scottish history, hence a theme that stays with my writing! I’m so glad you’re enjoying this site. And I hope you can one day experience the thrill of putting your own hand against a castle’s wall and getting the jolt of history that lends. Thanks for commenting!


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