The origin of Falkland castle is unknown.  It may have been commenced by the Canmore kings, but the manor was given by King Malcolm IV (1153-65) to Earl Duncan McDuff (d.1204) when he married the king's kinswoman, Ela, in 1160.  The Fife lands included Strathmiglo, Falkland (Faleklen), Kettle, Rathillet and finally Strathbran in Perthshire.  According to popular opinion the MacDuff earls constructed an ubiquitous ‘hunting lodge' at Falkland sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century.  Sadly there is no evidence to back such a presupposition.

Falkland remained with the MacDuffs until the death of Earl Duncan in 1353.  At this point King David II (1329-71) seized Falkland castle and Fife to the detriment of Duncan's only surviving child, Isabella (d.bef.1396).  Despite popular opinion since the fifteenth century, Isabella never married Earl William Ramsay of Fife (d.1361).  He was simply made earl by the arbitrary power of King David II (d.1371). 

Long before the events of the 1350s, during the fighting between the supporters of David Bruce (d.1371) and Edward Balliol (d.1364), Earl Duncan of Fife (d.1353) had changed his allegiance several times.  He fought for Bruce at Dupplin Moor on 12 August 1332, where he was captured and promptly changed sides.  He then crowned Edward Balliol at Scone on 24 September 1332, as was the ancient right of the earls of Fife.  Subsequently he was captured the same year when Perth fell to an assault by the Brucites in October.  Following a pattern, Fife promptly changed sides again although Perth was retaken by Balliol the next year.  The same year, on 19 July 1333, Duncan was captured anew, this time by Edward III (1326-77) at the battle of Halidon Hill.  It is certain that a castle was built by this time as in 1337, Andrew Moray of Bothwell castle (d.1338) swept south from the highlands, taking the bulk of the castles loyal to King Edward Balliol (d.1364); one of these was the keep or tower of Falkland (turre de Faulkland). 

Released and returned to Scotland, Earl Duncan eventually joined King David Bruce (d.1371) in his invasion of England which came to grief outside Durham at Neville's Cross on 12 October 1346.  Captured by the English again he was condemned as a traitor, but was released on agreeing to pay a ransom of £1,000.  He died 7 years later in 1353, leaving the fate of Fife and Falkland castle in the balance.

Falkland castle and Fife were probably seized into the king's hands immediately on the death of Earl Duncan.  One contemporary chronicler states that the land was forfeit to the Crown as the earl had received the earldom as a male entail after he had murdered one Michael Beaton in the time of Robert the Bruce (1306-29).  However, Duncan's daughter, Isabella (d.bef.1396), contested this forfeiture, at first from England where she lived with her husband, William Felton (d.1358) and after his death from Scotland where she sought the aid of King David's heir, his nephew, Earl Robert Stewart of Menteith (d.1390), the king's Steward and heir apparent.  Despite this, the king, in March 1358, arbitrarily awarded Fife to his favourite, William Ramsay.  Ramsay was dead by 1361, but even before this time the Steward managed to overturn this decision and late in 1359 Fife was adjudged to Isabella.  In the year between 21 July 1360 and 20 July 1361, she married Robert Stewart's second son, Walter.  Just as the fate of Falkland castle finally seemed secure, Walter promptly died in late 1362, leaving Isabella a widow for the second time.  At this moment the king pounced, marrying Isabella to his friend, Thomas Bisset on 10 January 1363.  This act illegally debarred the marriage entrail which meant that Fife and its castles should have passed to one of Walter Stewart's younger brothers as male heir.  Once again the marriage proved short lived and by 17 April 1366, Isabella was a widow once again.  This time her widowhood was to prove permanent and sometime in the Autumn of 1370 she resigned the earldom of Fife into the king's hands.  At this point the king simply granted Fife to his mistress' brother, John Dunbar (d.1392), who promised to pay Isabella a lifetime annuity of £145 pa.  Despite later claims to the contrary, she did not marry her supplanter.  However, within 6 months all was uncertain again when King David II suddenly died on 22 February 1371, leaving his elder nephew the throne as King Robert II (1371-90).

With King David gone, Isabella promptly reneged on her agreement with John Dunbar and on 30 March 1371, formally recognised Robert Stewart's second son, Robert (d.1420), as earl of Fife under the terms of the previous entails which had twice been set aside by the arbitrary judgement of King David II.  Not wishing a fight with the powerful Dunbars the new King Robert II granted them much of the earldom of Moray (without Urquhart castle), Annandale with Lochmaben castle and the Isle of Man in compensation.  In the meantime, it was Isabella of Fife and not John Dunbar as earl of Fife, who seems to have crowned King Robert II at Scone.  One thing never commented upon in this confusing affair is the fate of Isabella's 4 or 5 children with her first husband, the Englishman William Felton (d.1358).  The brothers, John and Duncan Felton, second great grandsons of King Edward I (1272-1307) as well as fourth great grandsons of King Alexander II (1214-49) and Prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Wales (1172-1240) and his wife Joan Plantagenet (d.1237) the daughter of King John (1199-1216), never had a look in on their Scottish inheritance, probably as they were seen as adherents of the English king.

Earl Robert Stuart (d.1420) of Menteith and now Fife was the second son of King Robert II (1371-90) and went on to be made duke of Albany.  The earldom of Fife now became just another of his many titles - Menteith, Buchan and Athol being his other earldoms.  Robert was appointed ‘Guardian of Scotland' by his ailing father the king during the 1380s in preference to his elder brother John, who, although later crowned as King Robert III (1390-1406), was in poor health.  Duke Robert was then the major power as regent of Scotland for the next 34 years.  During this time Falkland castle was one of his main residences, although there is no record of him repairing or upgrading it.

In late 1401, supporters of Duke Robert and Earl Archibald Douglas (d.1424), captured King Robert III's eldest son, Duke David of Rothesay, and took him into custody at St Andrews castle, which he was preivously besieging.  He was then imprisoned at Albany's Falkland castle, allegedly in the well tower, in dreadful conditions until he died on 26 March.  Despite this, Albany was exonerated for his demise, although it was alleged that Rothesay had been starved to death, rather than ‘departed this life... by divine providence and not otherwise' as the official judicial report would have it.  Just over a year later in May or June 1403, Duke Robert of Albany made a rousing speech to fire the surviving aristocracy of Scotland, after the disastrous defeats of 1402, to fire the nation into arms in a harangue similar to that made by Bruce before Bannockburn.  He vowed, ‘to God and St Fillan that if I am spared I shall be there on the appointed day even if no one comes with me save my boy Patrick as rider of my warhorse'.  The Scottish nobles, heartened by this grand display of ardour vowed to join in the enterprise of marching on the ‘little tower' of Cocklaws to relieve it from English attack.  By this point it seems plain that Albany knew that England was collapsing into civil war and that there was no chance of meeting an enemy army at Cocklaws.  Thus the lieutenant of Scotland won an easy victory for the hearts of his subjects with little risk to his 64 year old self.

King Robert III, apparently fearing that his younger son, James (1394-1437), would go the same way as the duke of Rothesay, decided to send him to the apparent safety of France in 1406.  The attempt failed and the young Prince James was captured on 22 March 1406 and spent the next 18 years of his life in English captivity - his father, King Robert, dying on 4 April the same year.  Albany therefore remained regent for the captive boy king until his death in 1420 in Stirling castle.  At this point his son, Duke Murdoch of Albany (1362-1425), took his father's place as regent.  Falkland castle therefore remained central to the power Albany had over Scotland.

Under the Murdoch regency James I was finally ransomed and gained his freedom in April 1424.  In August the Scottish army in France was all but annihilated at the battle of Verneuil and James I moved decisively against Duke Murdoch Stewart of Albany and his family.  Murdoch was imprisoned at St Andrews castle and then Caerlaverock, while his wife was taken to Tantallon.  Falkland castle with the rest of Albany's estates were confiscated when in Stirling castle the earl and his sons, together with Earl Duncan of Lennox, were tried over 2 days (24-25 May 1425) and found guilty of treason.  On news of this Albany's youngest son, James Stewart (d.1429), attacked Dumbarton and killed the castle constable, but his rising proved abortive and his family were executed before Stirling castle.  With this Falkland castle became just another castle in Crown hands.

The castle history might have ended here, if it were not for the fact that in 1449 King James II (d.1460) married Mary of Gueldres and granted her many lands and fortresses, one of which was Falkland.  Consequently, between 1453 and 1460, she began to convert the castle into a palace with a suite of comfortable apartments set in the current quadrilateral style.  Royal status was also granted to the burgh of Falkland in 1458.  This meant that the burgers could elect officers for justice and hold weekly markets as well as a yearly fair.  The building work came to end with her early death in 1463.  With this the castle again became a backwater, even though the surrounding forest offered good game and was not too far from either Edinburgh or Stirling.

King James IV (1488-1513) took the new Falkland palace in hand around 1511 and began to convert what he found into a proper Renaissance palace which included a great hall.  By 1513 the north and south ranges had been upgraded and the east range was under construction when James was killed at the battle of Flodden on 9 September.  This halted construction for 15 years during the minority of James V (1513-42), although the young prince did stay here during the regency of Duke John Stewart of Albany (d.1536).  In 1528 he fled the palace dressed as a groom and joined his mother, Margaret Tudor (d.1541), at Stirling castle.  He soon appointed William Barclay as keeper of Falkland palace and later completed the east range.

By 1537, when King James V (1513-42) married Madeleine Valois (d.1537), the daughter of King Francis I of France (1515-47), the upgrading of Falkland palace was finished and given to the new queen as part of her dower.  This did not stop further improvements and between 1537 and 1541 the new twin towered gatehouse was built and the east and south ranges remodelled, while a royal tennis court was added in 1539, the oldest surviving example in the world.  From this time onwards with Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Stirling, Perth and St Andrews, Falkland palace became one of the major residences of the Crown.  King James V (1513-42) was staying here when informed that his mother at Stirling castle was dying and he himself died here on 14 December 1542 after the battle of Solway Moss.  It is likely the original castle had been demolished by this time.

After James' death at the end of 1542 further work on Falkland palace ceased, so that a planned western range, to finish the quadrangular plan, was never built during the long minority of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-61), although her mother, Mary of Guise (d.1560), was often a Falkland resident.  On Queen Mary's return from France she obviously regarded Falkland as a favourite palace and between 1561 and the crisis of 1566 she was often found hawking, riding and playing tennis there.  Her son, James VI (1567-1625), was also often found in residence, despite 2 attempts on his life there.  He later granted it to his wife, Anne of Denmark (d.1619).   When James became king of England in 1603, he left Scotland, returning north of the border only the once.  His son, Charles I (1625-49), only visited Scotland the once in 1633 when he stayed for 5 days at Falkland palace.

Towards the end of the Civil War, Falkland palace was occupied by Parliamentary troops, who, in September 1654, accidentally burned the great hall with the north and east ranges.  Although the site was restored by Charles II (1660-85), no king returned to the old palace which was left to gently moulder.

In 1887 the Third Marquis of Bute (d.1900) purchased Falkland and started to refurbish the palace in a similar manner to his rebuildings of Cardiff castle and Castell Coch.  He also excavated the early Falkland castle site with the aim of discovering the remains of the well tower in which the duke of Rothesay had been held.  When Bute died in 1900 he left the gatehouse, south range and cross house largely restored.

Castle Description
Falkland castle occupied some high ground overlooking the Maspie Burn to the west.  Despite a history that may have begun as early as the twelfth century, all that is known of the castle or ‘tower' of Falkland first mentioned in 1337 has been gleaned through 2 excavations, the one in the late 1880s and the other in the 1990s.  The first excavation found that the north range had 2 walls to east and west that continued northwards for some 100' and probably formed the castle ward.  This would indicate that Falkland was originally a castle and not just a tower, there being no trace of a keep, unless its site lies under the current palace to the south.  That this is likely is confirmed by the fact that the palace site lies slightly uphill from ‘the castle' site.

 At the north end of the rectangular ‘castle' enclosure, about 160' north to south and 50' wide, seem to have been 2 round towers, one to the north-west, the other to the east.  These lie north of the palace and appear to represent the remains of the castle.  On the east wall, about 20' north of the north range of the palace were found the buried remains of the foundations of a small rectangular internal tower.  North of this was the north wall and part of the west wall of a large rectangular structure, possibly a hall.  Beyond this, to the north-east, were the remains of a much thicker curtain wall with a sewer running through it. 

Attached to the fragment of the foundations of the east curtain were the slight remains of a half round drum tower at the north-east end of the enceinte.  This was about 25' in diameter and contained a central well shaft.  The 1990s excavation thought that this structure had been 'dismantled and entirely restored' by Lord Bute during his excavations in the 1890s.  Even worse, a well head, perhaps of seventeenth or eighteenth century design, had been introduced into the tower site.  Quite clearly Bute's desire to find the site of Rothesay's incarceration had led to this rebuilding and insertion.  The attached photograph shows the possible original tower foundations under the Victorian folly of 3 courses of sloping plinth.  The faked well head is also visible.

After Bute's work even less remained of the short, less than 20' long, north curtain, but it appeared to end in a small ¾ round tower whose shattered foundations appeared to be about 18' in diameter.  Sadly the Victorian work removed all pervious archaeological layers.  Further, Lord Bute was found to have reused stonework from adjacent medieval buildings to make up a level surface.  The original layout of this ‘castle' and even its original position is therefore open to question.  An angled terrace to the east of the towers marks the site of a probably seventeenth century building.

Palace Description
The sixteenth, if not the fifteenth century palace was a quadrangular structure of which the layout of the ranges remain to the north, south and east sides.  The west side originally consisted of a wall with a lodging built against it.  This has now gone as has much of the north range, leaving mere foundations.  The south range was massively restored by the marquis of Bute, while the east range is mostly ruined.

Excavation of the east range identified 3 distinct building phases which dated from the mid fifteenth century to the sixteenth, with a long gallery having been on the first floor by 1461.  As such it would probably have linked the hall in the north range with the royal apartments in the south.  This in turn would suggest that the original castle was abandoned before this date and that the outline of the palace was put in place by James II (1437-60) and his queen, Marie of Gueldres (d.1463).  The south face of the palace is generally thought to have been ‘late fifteenth century' and therefore their work as it seems unlikely that James III (1460-88) undertook building work here.  In 1461, 2 rooms were built in the gallery and a new chamber was added for the queen with a door leading to the pleasure garden.

James IV (1488-1513) seems mainly to have reconstructed the south range, incorporating the original (fifteenth century?) rectangular gatehouse in his new twin towered work, adding a chapel, and altering the east range.  Even though this range was regarded as ‘a new work' in 1516, it was virtually rebuilt in the latter part of the reign of James V (1513-42).  This James first reworked the east range around 1536-37, inserting buttresses to the west, and both blocking and recutting the doors and windows to make a more regular facade.  He also added dormer windows.  The long gallery was converted into apartments and the range extended eastwards to add a replacement gallery overlooking the gardens below.  One buttress of this work carries the date 1536.  He then had the south range altered by adding a stone gallery to its north side and reworked the south elevation parapet before 1539 and finally heightened the gatehouse by 1541.  The courtyard facades are thought to have been the design of 2 French master masons, Nicholas Roy and Moses Martin.  Their buttresses modelled as classical columns and incorporating medallion busts contrast sharply with the work of the Scottish mason who had previously worked at Holyrood House, Edinburgh.

Sadly the restoration work of the 1890s stripped most of the site of their archaeological layers, clearing down to the bedrock on which the foundations are built.  Despite this, it is clear that the palace originated in the fifteenth and not the sixteenth century.

One interesting thought is that as the original castle quite possibly lay under the current palace, the irregular stonework of the rear of the original rectangular gatetower might just belong to this, rather than the later palace.

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


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry