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 Loch Leven 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
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
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
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 Loch Leven, 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
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
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.
Paul Martin Remfry