Dalhousie castle

It could be that a Simon Ramesia, a charter witness of 1178, came with King David I of Scotland (1124-53, he was also earl of Huntingdon), to the North from the vill of Ramsay, Huntingdonshire.  He was last mentioned after 1189 and may have founded the first castle at Dalhousie, but only the Ramsay name appears in Midlothian records through the thirteenth century.  The Ramsay line is uncertain, but lords William, Nessus, Patrick and Nicholas are recorded.  William Ramsay, the probable son of another William Ramsey, witnessed deeds from 1280 and was the first to be recorded as Ramsay of Dalwolsey.  Presumably the castle was standing by this time.  This William was one of those who sealed the Ragman Roll of 1296 - a list of those who did homage for their Scottish lands to King Edward I.  Two years later the English king spent a night in Dalhousie castle before defeating William Wallace at the battle of Falkirk.  William Ramsay later supported Robert the Bruce and was present at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.  In 1320 he was a signatory to the famous Declaration of Arbroath in which the Brucite Scottish barons appealed to the pope against Edward II.

William was succeeded by his son, Alexander, a famous knight of song and ballad.  In 1362 Alexander was waylaid by William Douglas who imprisoned him in Hermitage castle where he was allegedly starved to death.  In 1400 another Alexander Ramsay, dominus de Dalhousy, withstood a brief siege at the end of August in his castle by King Henry IV of England.  This was the last time a king of England besieged a Scottish castle in person.  Alexander was killed 2 years later at Homildon Hill, a battle mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1.  Another Alexander was slain at Flodden Field in 1513.  After Mary, Queen of Scots escaped from her imprisonment at Lochleven castle, the laird of Dalwolsey is mentioned by chroniclers as one of those who met at Hamilton and fought and lost at the battle of Langside for her on 13 May 1568.

In 1618 Sir George Ramsay of Dalhousie received a royal charter for his lands.  His initials, possibly dating from this time, can be seen on the wall of the keep.  This suggests the tower was modified or rebuilt at this time.  In 1633 George's son William was raised to earl of Dalhousie and Lord Ramsay of Keringtoun.  Eight years later he fought on the side of the Parliamentarians in the English civil war and commanded a regiment of horse at Marston Moor in 1644.  Oliver Cromwell used the castle, with dispatches dated from there in October 1648.  After this Dalhousie castle fell into disrepair. 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century much of the castle was down to bare beams.  Subsequent improvements were demolished as in bad taste and the fortress was then restored more in keeping with its original form.  Queen Victoria visited the castle in 1840 'to take tea with her devoted servant' the tenth earl.  After the queen's visit the castle was leased to a series of tenants, before its conversion to a hotel in 1972.

The castle was built from the reddish brown sandstone apparently quarried from the opposite bank of the South Esk River.  Thick walls, some 11' thick at foundation level, and the vaults of buildings underneath are thought to date back to the thirteenth century.  In the succeeding centuries there have been various additions and modifications, but the essential form of the castle still remains - a curtain walled enclosure surrounding an L shaped, 4 storey keep.

Originally access to the castle was gained by crossing a drawbridge over a ditch which has now been filled in.  This was re-excavated during the castle's conversion into a hotel and the recesses for the counterbalance beams of the original drawbridge raising mechanism uncovered.  The gate consists of 2 projecting buttresses covering a rebuilt doorway.  There may have been an original passageway feeding into the main gate passageway through the wall to the south, but most features of the entrance are gone.  Above the main gate are machicolations which are supposed to be fifteenth century.  Inside the entrance there was formerly a polygonal open courtyard with walls 9' thick to the north and west.  The south wall is slightly thinner, 8', but appears of a similar build with a plinth.  The east walls are thinner again, 7' and were pierced by 5 loops which have been filled in.  This wall is well-preserved and stands up to 20' high.  At the east point the well quoined angle was topped by a corbelled out round turret, which still survives to original battlement heigh.  Such looped walling is somewhat similar at Urquhart and Dunstaffnage.  Quite obviously this east front is of a different style to the other 3 fronts of the castle and therefore of a different age.  In the south-east corner of the enceinte are the built upon remains of a vaulted rectangular tower, which seems the same age as the main ward wall.  This was vaulted and makes an odd re-entrant angle with the west curtain, but unfortunately the junction has been refaced.

Towards the south side of the enceinte is the keep.  This was entered through a low door protected by a gate reinforced with a drawbar.  This entered into the main ‘hall' part of the tower which had 3 vaults.  The other part forms a square tower that has its own modern entrance.  Both ‘parts' of the tower have their own spiral staircase.  A stair turret was added in the re-entrant angle in front of the main door in the seventeenth century.

The singular surviving semi-circular or drum tower is thought, like the one at Lochleven, to date from the fifteenth century, although excavation produced no solid dating material.  Internally there is a vaulted rectangular chamber with a well near the entrance cut through the curtain wall at ground level.  Two loops cover the curtain to south and east.  The higher levels of the tower, like the curtains, are much rebuilt and early sketches show the tower without any loops at all until the summit when there is a single narrow window to the west.

Last century the courtyard was roofed over and converted into an entrance hall.  Further buildings have been added between the keep and curtain wall and beyond the original enceinte. 

The castle is said by some, with much faith, to bear some resemblance to nearby Dirleton castle, but in reality the original fortress has more in common with the enclosure castles like Dunstaffnage, Doune and St Andrews.  As such it seems likely that the original castle - the enceinte and rectangular tower, could date back to the twelfth century.  At some point the round tower and east curtains were added to this and the keep, possibly the last masonry structure built, was added to the site.  The idea that the masonry castle was only built in the fifteenth century hardly holds water, considering the castle was a base for Edward I and stopped Henry IV in 1400.

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


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry