Lochleven Castle

Lochleven castle is a ruined keep and enclosure castle on an island in a loch.  According to Historic Scotland, the rectangular keep is fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest towerhouses in Scotland.  However, the history of the site makes this claim uncertain.  Further it is unfortunate that the early age of much of the rest of the masonry is often ignored.

According to Wikipedia, a castle may have been constructed on Castle Island by 1257, when the 16 year old King Alexander III of Scotland was forcibly brought there by his regents.  As ever with Wikipedia the historical evidence is far different.  The late fourteenth 
century chronicle of John Fordun states that on 29 October 1257 the ex-councillors of the king, led by Earl Walter Comyn of Menteith, seized the king while he was sleeping at Kinross and carried him off to Stirling.  Obviously Wiki has got things back to front and invented a castle at Lochleven at this time, which is, of course, within sight of Kinross.  However, the mention of a nearby place hardly confirms the existence of a castle.  Neither does a grant by Earl Gillemichael of Fife and his possible father Constantine from the reign of King Edgar (1093-1107) prove anything other than that the name of Lochleven - as a religious site at the other end of the lake to the castle, existed by this date.  Similarly the existence of Kinross (Kynros) on 12 July 1282, when King Alexander III sent a letter from there, means nothing of the castle.  However, Alexander is liable to have had a castle there at that date, for just 23 years later King Edward I certainly garrisoned the royal castle of Kynros in 1305.  This royal castle in Fife, between Auchterarder and Fife castle itself, can hardly have been anywhere else.

It is said that Edwardian forces laid siege to Lochleven in 1301, but the garrison was relieved in the same year when the siege was broken by a John Comyn.  As king, Robert Bruce (1306–1329) is known to have visited the castle in 1313 and again in 1323, so obviously the castle had changed hands before Bannockburn.  Perhaps Blind Harry's xenophobic tales of the massacre of the 30 strong garrison and the murder of their 5 women date to this time, rather than the actions of his hero, Wallace.  In 1316 the castle is said by Historic Scotland to have been the prison for John of Lorne, though as he conquered the Isle of Man for Edward II in 1315 and died at Ospring in Kent the next year, this seems unlikely.

Following Robert Bruce's death in 1329, Lochleven castle was besieged by supporters of Edward Balliol in 1335, after being one of only 5 castles that held out against him in 1333.  According to the late fourteenth 
century Fordun, the attackers, under John Stirling, the son in law of the John of Lorne who was said to have been held captive here in 1316, attempted to flood the castle by building a dam across the outflow of the loch.  The water level rose for a month, until the captain of the attacking force, John Stirling, left to attend the festival of Saint Margaret of Scotland.  The defenders, under Alan Vipont, took the opportunity to come out of the castle at night and damage the dam, causing it to collapse and flood the attackers' camp.  This story is now thought to be apocryphal.

The castle, if damaged during Balliol's wars, was obviously repaired and operational again by 1361 when King David II stayed there, enjoying 2 tuns of wine at a cost of £60 in Lacus de Levyn castle.  The same year Alan Erskine received £10 for repairing and garrisoning the fortress as well as £5 6s 8d for a boat to access it and £3 18s 8d on repairing the castle walls.  The fact that Lochleven was garrisoned and repaired suggests that the current castle was standing at this time and that not a great deal was needed to make the fortress fit for a king.  Most likely the £10 was spent on the castle accommodation as repairs to the walls were usually accounted separately.  The next year William Graham was recorded as royal constable of the fortress and in 1364 16s was allocated for 24 new oars as well as 35s 8d for timber and iron for repairing the castle boat.

In 1368 Alexander, the wolf of Badenoch and future lord of Urquhart, was imprisoned at the king's will within Lochleven castle with his brother and father - the future King Robert II of Scotland (1371–1390).  The cost for this totalled £8 14s for their expenses during the 3 weeks of their captivity and 14s spent on wages for watchkeepers.  The next year a further £4 was recording from the time Alexander was held in Leven lake after the previous 3 weeks.  Also in 1369 the castle constable, Martin Lytill, received £2 for his services.  In 1390 King Robert granted the fortress to Henry Douglas, the husband of his niece Marjory and thereby founding the house of Douglas of Lochleven.  The castle then remained in the hands of their descendants until its abandonment.  Lochleven castle was obviously inhabited on 1 July 1393 when Bishop Walter of St Andrews dated a confirmation charter concerning Dunnottar castle from there.

From the fourteenth 
century the castle served as a state prison.  Archibald, fifth Earl Douglas (d. 1439), was held here in the first half of the fifteenth century.  Archbishop Patrick Graham of St Andrews died in captivity at the castle in 1478, while Mary, Queen of Scots, escaped from Lochleven castle on 2 May 1568, after being imprisoned there on 17 June 1567 after her surrender at Carberry.  Earlier, in 1565, she visited the castle with her husband, Lord Darnley, as a guest of William Douglas (1547-1606).  She had also held an heated interview in the castle hall with the Calvinist preacher John Knox over whether Catholics should be persecuted or tolerated.

The queen's captivity at the castle tells us much of its use at the time.  The captive queen initially lived in the Glassin Tower at the south-east corner of the fortress.  A month after her arrival she miscarried the twins she was bearing and was moved to the third floor of the keep, ‘a place more sure to guard at night than her late lodgings'.  Aside from Lord William, the household included his mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, mother of Queen Mary's half brother, the earl of Moray, as well as his brother, George Douglas and Willie Douglas, a young orphaned relative.  On 24 July she was forced to abdicate as Queen of Scots, in favour of her infant son James.  Mary recovered during the autumn and winter, walking the grounds and doing needlework, and gradually won over George Douglas to her cause.  A contemporary wrote that George was ‘in fantasy of love wythe hir'.  On the night of the escape, Willie Douglas stole the keys and let Mary, dressed as a servant, out of the castle.  She was rowed across the lake to where George Douglas and others awaited her.  The group then fled to Niddry castle in Lothian.

Later the earl of Northumberland was held in the castle after fleeing to Scotland following the failure of the Catholic Rising of the North in 1570.  He had been captured by the earl of Morton and confined at Lochleven before being sent back to England for execution.  In 1588 William Douglas (d.1606) succeeded to the earldom of Morton, as the sixth earl.  With his vastly increased properties, including Aberdour castle in Fife, Lochleven castle became less frequently used.  Indeed as early as 1546, Margaret Erskine and her son, William Douglas, had built a house on the shore of the Loch which was known as Newhouse.  Certainly by 1619 the Newhouse had replaced the island castle as the legal centre of the estate.  In 1675 the Douglases sold Lochleven estate.  Thereafter Lochleven castle was no longer used as a dwelling and was allowed to go to ruin as a picturesque focus for the nearby gardens in Kinross.

The original castle took up almost the entire area of Castle Island, the current shape and size of which was made in the early nineteenth 
century when the canalising of the outflow of the River Leven led to a substantial lowering of the water level and the consequent enlargement of the island.

What people mostly think of as the castle currently comprises a sub-rectangular courtyard surrounded by a curtain wall, with a towerhouse or keep, towards one corner.  The keep, originally free standing, but now towards the west corner of the current enclosure, measures externally 36½' by 31½' feet with walls 8' thick.  It originally had 4 storeys, a fifth being added when the battlements and bartizans were added.  The lowest level is a vaulted basement with a blocked well and a vaulted kitchen above.  The top layer of vaulting is marked externally by a chamfered single course inset which caps one window to the south.  Possibly this marks the end of a short building phase, although the masonry appears identical above and below the string course.  Excavation in Autumn 1995 revealed the footings of a stone stairway which gave access to the first floor.  This appears in early, but not later Victorian photographs.  It gave access to the kitchen of the tower, probably before the lowest entrance into the basement was cut through the wall.  Both these lower entrances were alterations to the tower.  Metalled pathways within the courtyard which led to the stair were also exposed.  Considerable deposits, some 2' deep, had accumulated against the outer faces of the forestair and contained pottery of the sixteenth 
century as well as quantities of animal bone.  This would suggest that stairs and cobbles dated back to this time.

The hall was on the next floor, with chambers above, all linked by the standard spiral stair.  Originally access was only gained from the east via the second floor twin doored entry into the hall.  This is a typical twelfth or thirteenth 
century keep entrance and cuts through the chamfered offset.  This rounded Romanesque entrance doorway and the similar embrasure ceilings would also appear to be original, while all the larger rectangular windows would appear to be later insertions in the standard thirteenth century window embrasures, which still contain their stone seats.  What is not typical is the rectangular hatch through the vaulting to the floor below immediately inside the main entrance.  If this was for transporting food up from the later kitchen beneath if is in a most peculiar - almost defensive position.  The floor above was the prison of Queen Mary.  To make her stay more comfortable the east window embrasure has been converted into a small oratory, with piscina, altar shelf and ambry.  The top floor was occupied by Mary's doctor and was the scene of her disguising herself prior to her escape from the castle in 1568.

The conclusion of all this is that the tower has obviously been altered and later rebattlemented, with three corner bartizans being added to the shoreward west and north sides, at some late point in its existence.  The missing bartizan was where the spiral stair came to the summit.  The implication is that these bartizans and the battlements were added when or after the north curtain was built, making the south-east angle the only one fully within the new enceinte.  As the doctor's room existed in 1568 it stands to reason that the room and bartizans had been built by that date and that therefore the current 
north curtain also dated to prior to this date.  The rubble ashlar masonry of the older portions of the tower is vastly superior to the rubble facing of the adjoining curtains, while in plan the keep is quite twelfth or thirteenth century in style, and where it survives, in decoration.

The current main castle enclosure or ward is a very irregular D shape with curtain walls almost at right angles to each other to north, east and west.  The 
north angle was slightly interned to aid a right-angled stair to run up to the wallwalk.  Another stair, with a more obtuse angle, was towards the south end of the enceinte.  This could well be an original feature as this section of the wall still retains its original wallwalk, with dished stones alternating with proud ones to drain the summit.  The rest of the wallwalks appear to be fifteenth century.  The south side of the ward was polygonal, being of 4 distinct sweeps and with a decided batter running down from virtually battlement height.  This is not apparent in the north sections of the wall.

The main entrance - a slightly pointed arch, defended only by a door locked by a drawbar - is now in the long north-west wall next to the keep, although a Victorian photograph shows that at least one other breach in the wall, about 10' wide, once existed, but this has been filled in.  Excavation has shown that the 
north curtain wall was built partially over the foundations of the bakehouse, which would suggest that this contraction of the castle site occurred in the fifteenth century or later.  The wall between the keep and the north angle was pierced by 5 loops and contained an internal service range of later date.  Quite obviously the current north wall of the enceinte is a later addition that cuts what was originally a standard enclosure castle into two.  This explains the two near right-angled corners of the structure.  Noticeably the keep is totally inside the original enceinte, even though its north wall formed a part of the later enceinte.  It is also noticeable that the north wall of the enceinte is thinner than the other walls and butts against the keep on both sides.  It seems certain that the polygonal south portion of the castle enceinte is of the thirteenth century castle - indeed at least 3 building phases have been noticed in the west wall and a similar amount can be seen in the straight north-east wall.

The impression that the current ward is a contraction is confirmed by the large artificially levelled area with the foundations of a stone wall along its west side and an earth bank covering the remains of the rest of the enceinte immediately to the NW of what is now thought of as the castle.  This shows that the so-called outer ward was included within the original castle circuit and was only cut off from the keep when the new north curtain was constructed across the centre of the enclosure.  Then the north enclosure was used as an outer ward as fragmentary remains of at least a bakehouse, which predates the building of the north curtain, can still be made out within it.  In the final days of the castle's life this enclosure was used as a garden according to an ancient plan.  It would appear that the garden may have been the work of Earl James of Morton, who, between April 1578 and his execution in 1581, is said to have made walks and alleys and garden plots at Lochleven castle, while ‘little minding any state affairs'.

 The only corner of the ward that has flanking is to the east where the round Glassin tower projects boldly from the enceinte.  It is stated that a similar tower also once stood at the north-west angle of the enceinte to provide flanking fire down the north and west curtains as Glassin does down the east and south sides.  However, there seems to be no evidence for this apart from a nineteenth century sketch of highly dubious accuracy.  The Glassin tower is similar to other boldly projecting towers of the fifteenth or sixteenth 
century, ie Balvenie.  Glassin was entered through the gorge from where a straight stair led up to the next 2 floors - the upper floor being only accessed through the curtain wallwalk.  The tower has a vaulted basement and 3 small rooms above, equipped with fireplaces and garderobes.  The basement appears to have been for the storage of water, for there is a water intake in the east wall where water could be poured in from the loch, presumably to be captured in barrels.  There is also a slop outlet.  The lower room has an oriel window and the whole is defended by numerous fifteenth or sixteenth century gun ports.

Many buildings once filled the ward.  There are the remains of a large, heavily barred, window in the west curtain wall where the east to west aligned chapel met and punched into the enceinte at a slight angle.  This is similar to what happened at Kildrummy, although there the chapel projects further beyond the curtain.  At a later date this structure was converted into a hall with detached kitchen built against the curtain to the south.  Presumably this happened after the Protestant Reformation of 1560.  The hall was lived in by William Douglas while Queen Mary was a captive here 7 years later.

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


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry