Castles in Scotland: From battling Vikings to defying the English

Dr Nicki Scott is a cultural resources adviser at Historic Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment and promoting its understanding and enjoyment on behalf of Scottish ministers

A history of Scottish castles


When were the first castles built in Scotland?

Early examples of castles first appear in Scotland in the 1100s – it’s likely that Norman practices were being adopted throughout the country.

What are the different types of castles? How did design progress from Motte and Bailey to stone fortresses?

Castle design, by its nature, is not a clear progression from one style to another. Motte and bailey was used early in Scotland, as demonstrated at Bass of Inverurie, built by David, Earl of Huntington (1152-1219), however, this type of construction was still being used throughout Scotland well into the 1300s. This style was relatively low cost, quick to construct and required few specialist skills.

Few examples of ringwork castles, defined by their defensive bank and ditch, survive; these early simple structures would have been replaced with higher-status stone buildings.

High-status castles were often constructed with stone and required wealth and periods of peace to complete, as they had a longer construction time, although early examples of stone castles can be found in Orkney and the North of Scotland as stone was in greater supply throughout this region.

Curtain wall castles, complete with high perimeter walls enclosing a normally rectilinear area, housing sub-buildings within it, became dated and were replaced by the tower house castle, comprising a stone tower with adjoining buildings, as seen at Threave Castle in Dumfries and Galloway.

While castles had certain features in common, and had many of the same functions, the actual design was rarely replicated exactly from one example to the next and varied according to status, wealth and time.

A history of Scottish castles
An artist’s impression of Edinburgh Castle before the Lang Siege of 1573

How were castles constructed or located to best repel attacks?

Many castles were constructed to take advantage of strategic and fortified locations within the existing local landscape. A good example of this tactic is demonstrated at Edinburgh Castle, which sits on top of a high volcanic rock. Its prominent position offers a clear viewpoint in all directions, while the sheer rock faces surrounding it provide a natural defence and deterrent against sieges.

In terms of construction, thick walls with very few openings helped provide defence against siege weapons while corner towers allowed defenders to fire down on attackers from all directions. Moats and ditches also made it harder for attackers to get close to the castle walls themselves. Where arrow slits pierced walls, they were outwardly narrow to reduce the possibility of attackers firing in, and internally splayed to allow the defender a wide angle of attack.

Timber hoardings on top of wall-walks were often constructed during a siege. Later these were replaced with stone machicolations and gave cover to defenders, allowing them to fire and drop projectiles through the openings onto the attackers below, as during the Norse attack on Rothesay Castle in 1230 – the earliest record of an attack on a Scottish castle.

What was the role of a castle in peacetime?

Most castles were rarely called into military service so their peacetime role was actually their primary one.

Castles acted as administrative centres for lordships, where the lord could dispense justice, incarcerate those awaiting trial, collect rents, entertain and so on. They also provided the lord with comfortable accommodation. The building or remodelling of a castle also had a symbolic function, it represented the control that the lord had over the surrounding landscape.

A history of Scottish castles
Threave Castle

What was the best way to attack a castle?
Attack plans were formulated depending on the castle and the resources available. During the Wars of Independence with England, James Douglas and Thomas Randolph retook Roxburgh and Edinburgh castles, respectively, by small-scale night-time attacks, scaling the walls with rope ladders.

Earlier in the same conflict Edward I had used a siege tower at Bothwell in 1301, he also had miners ready to dig under the walls if necessary – undermining was a technique that was also used at St Andrews Castle in the 1500s where the mine and countermine can still be explored by visitors today.

What was the best way to defend a castle?
Having an adequate garrison was essential, as was ensuring the castle’s defenders were well supplied, with provisions and fresh water being crucial resources to withstanding a siege. As well as this, ensuring the castle was defended by a loyal garrison was also important.

Maintaining loyalty of the garrison itself was not to be underestimated. While siege was required to capture Bothwell Castle in 1301, in the wake of Bannockburn in 1314, the keeper of the castle for Edward II turned both it and its garrison over to Scottish forces.

A history of Scottish castles
An engraving of Stirling Castle by John Slezer

What siege weapons did defenders most fear?
While it’s difficult to know this for certain, there are a number of factors that could contribute to fear during a siege. Knowing that a skilled commander was leading the opposing force could be an issue – the garrison at Stirling Castle surrendered to Edward I before he had a chance to use his new siege weapon ‘War Wolf’ in 1304. Although the length of the siege had much to do with this, Edward’s rather fearsome reputation may have contributed to this surrender.

Disease was probably another concern throughout a siege, as there would be less chance than normal to carry out castle maintenance and chores.

What brought about the end of the castle age? Was it just cannon or were there other factors?
The growing use of artillery was certainly a factor. Castles designed to withstand trebuchets and siege towers were not necessarily built to withstand the impact of cannon balls, nor were they designed to house cannon for their own defence.

There is evidence that many castles were adapted to accommodate these new advances in weaponry, such as Threave Castle, in Dumfries and Galloway, where external ramparts were built to provide gun emplacements.

From the 1600s onwards many castles were used primarily as a military garrison or barracks. Edinburgh Castle is still famously used by the British Army to this day.

With a more settled society, there was less need for nobles to have a fortified residence with fashions at the time favouring the ‘country house’ style, which became widely adopted.

What is the most complete castle in Scotland today?
Edinburgh and Stirling Castles have many of their Medieval and Renaissance buildings still intact, which have been refurbished to represent how they might have looked during these periods.

Craigmillar Castle, located just outside Edinburgh, is an example of a well-preserved ruin and today it is much as it would have been when it fell out of use as a residence in the 1700s.

A history of Scottish castles
Bothwell Castle

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