The first castle at Blackness was apparently built by George Crichton (d.1454) in the 1440s to serve the nearby royal palace of Linlithgow.  George succeeded his father, Stephen Crichton of Cains, in 1434 and, after building the castle at some point after this, was occasionally referred to as George Crichton of Blackness.  The castle may have been built between 1441, when he was in Brittany and 1448, when he was appointed Lord High Admiral.  The most likely time for the castle's construction was during the feud between the Crichtons and the Black Douglases which had resulted in the destruction of Crichton's tower at Barnton in Edinburgh in 1444.

Chrichton's fortress was first mentioned in 1449 when it was in use as a state prison, which proved to be its main function for the next 250 years.  In 1452 George was captured by his eldest son, as he was trying to disown this heir.  In one of those quirks of fate, the builder found himself held captive in his own fortress of Blackness.  George was soon rescued by King James II (d.1460) who brokered a deal between father and son, by which Blackness castle came to the Crown on George's death in August 1454.  After this, the sheriff of Linlithgow was often royal custodian of the castle.  During 1481 an English sea force raided the Firth of Forth and unsuccessfully attacked Blackness castle while harassing passing shipping.  In 1488 a skirmish was fought near the castle between supporters of James III (1460-88) and his son, James IV (1488-1513).  The latter visited the castle on at least 2 occasions in the early sixteenth century.

In 1543 Cardinal David Beaton (d.1546) of St Andrews castle was incarcerated here for a short while before his release and return to power.  Somewhat earlier, between 1537 and 1542, like St Andrews, the castle underwent a major programme of rebuilding to outfit it for offensive and defensive artillery.  This work was undertaken by James Hamilton of Craignethan castle (d.1540), another artillery work of similar age.  As a consequence, the walls of Blackness were massively thickened (this also happened at Eilean Donan castle) and gun loops inserted.  Further, what was thought to have been the castle hall was heightened to make it into the south tower.  Between 1542 and 1567 a spur was added to the west which guarded a new entrance.  The attached caponier is one of only 3 examples in Scotland, the other 2 being Craignethan and Stirling.  The castle was surrendered to the Lords of the Congregation and then passed to the English on 15 April 1560.  Following the forced abdication of Mary Queen of Scots after her defeat at Carberry, Blackness remained loyal to her for a while before changing sides.  The castle was then recaptured for Mary in 1572, but fell to a siege by the Regent Morton early the next year after a blockade of nearly a week.

By 1580 the new governor of the castle complained that Douglas, the previous constable, had removed the great iron yett of the keep, its lock and the prison lock, as well as the timber platforms from the parapets making the castle indefensible.  These defects were presumably righted before the castle saw action again during the English Civil War disturbances.  In 1650 the castle was battered by Cromwellian forces by both land and sea and was soon surrendered and abandoned.  The damage was patched up in 1667 with white stonework and the castle again served as a prison-fortress.

In 1693 the spur protecting the gate was heightened and the north tower lowered to provide a platform for 3 heavy guns.  Despite this, the castle remained as a state prison until the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707.  It was then, like Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton, given a small permanent garrison of some 15 men to maintain the guns.  From 1868 the castle was brought up to date when it was converted into the major ammunition store for Scotland.  The ditch was filled in, the ward roofed over and barracks erected outside the castle.  A point of great interest is that when the cast iron jetty was built it was equipped with a drawbridge - possibly the last built in Britain.  After the site was decommissioned in 1912 these new works were mostly demolished, although the castle was briefly reused in World War I.

Blackness castle is often described as ship shaped, having a long, narrow form with towers to north and south called stem and stern and a central tower referred to as the main mast.  In this respect it bears some comparison with the much earlier Byzantine style 'battleship' castles found on rocky spurs in southern Europe, viz Delia, Gagliano Castelferrato, Pietraperzia, Rometta, Sperlinga and Taormina.  There is also a similarity to various southern French castles which have a spur, viz Montsegur, Peyrepertuse, Queribus and the fortresses at Lastours.

Blackness castle stands on a rocky spit protruding into the Firth of Forth and consists of a curtain wall, with north and south towers and a keep set roughly centrally in the bailey.  The original castle ditch which protected the vulnerable south side has been filled in, while the original enceinte was pointed towards the sea to the north, widening into a main courtyard up to 90' wide.  This was built directly onto the natural rock which still makes the floor of the courtyard.  Half way up the south tower the fossilised remnants of the first battlements can still be seen.  The east and west curtains have been much rebuilt, the new work to the west being much evident from the pier in the Firth of Forth.

North or Stem Tower
The northern point of the castle was defended by the north tower from the first building.  This consisted of a simple rear wall added to the point of the enceinte to make a triangular tower.  This was originally 3 storeys high, but the upper floor was removed in 1693.  Below the basement is a prison pit reached only via a trap door from above and washed by the tide through a drain.  That the upper floor was residential is shown by the surviving fireplace.  A narrow stair leads from the doorway fed by the west curtain up to the current roof level where access was gained via a wall stair down onto the west curtain wallwalk.  The east curtain enceinte has been raised to the level of the current top of the north tower as is clearly seen externally where the original tower corner quoins are still visible with the raised curtain built against them.  The raising of the west curtain is similarly evident although it was not raised as much.  The west curtain also butts rather uncomfortably against the interior wall of the tower.

South or Stern Tower
The south tower may have originally been a hall block, whose walls were thickened and heightened to make it into a tower in the mid sixteenth century.  This work fossilised the original battlements of this, the vulnerable side of the castle.  Simultaneously, the vulnerable east wall of the enceinte was massively thickened.  Something similar happened at Eileen Donan castle.  In the basement gun positions were inserted which were similar to the blockhouse added at Dunbar.  After completion the south tower contained the main castle accommodation and allowed for the covering with fire of the approach from the land to the south.  The large main hall above a kitchen was later sub-divided to further floors, but these have subsequently been removed.  To the north-west was a further chamber and a probable guard room covering the main entrance.

Main Entrance or Spur
In the sixteenth century a large rectangular forework or spur was added to increase the difficulty of entering the castle.  This was largely carried out by James Hamilton of Finnart (d.1540) and included a rock cut ditch crossed by a drawbridge.  The original yett, installed in 1693 when the curtain was raised and gun positions inserted, still fills the gateway.  The spur added a dog-legged approach to the main ward gate, covered by a caponier to the south.  A somewhat similar design can be seen at Stirling.  The layout at Dunnottar castle also bears some similarities.  Within the courtyard there are slight traces of a guardhouse excavated in 1996.

Keep or Main Mast
The keep seems to be an original feature of the castle and was originally 4 storeys high.  It has dimensions of 36' by 32' and walls over 7' thick at the base.  Each of its floors contains a room with fireplace and garderobe as well as several mural chambers.  The original narrow vice was replaced by the projecting stair turret after Cromwell's attack in 1650.  Both the basement and the added top floor boast a stone vault, while the bulk of the battlements above the projecting corbels consist of twentieth century rebuilding.  Immediately north of the tower stair turret is a rock-cut well.

The castle has appeared in numerous films including Hamlet [1990], The Bruce [1996] and Doomsday [2008].  The castle has also often been used for television series including Ivanhoe [1997], Outlander and The Rise of the Clans.

Why not join me at Blackness and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2021 Paul Martin Remfry