At Leadmills turn right and enjoy the scenic route to Newton Stewart followed by the coastal route to Kirkcudbright. The Galloway Kite Trail, twenty five miles of forest and picturesque villages but no kites. Not strictly true. A tourist trail signboard announces the start of the route and wheeling above were four red kites, albeit on the wrong side of the sign!
And so onward to Kirkcudbright. Perhaps Wigton, the Writers' Town, would have been a more appropriate destination for this reluctant contributor but no, Kirkcudbright, the Artists' Town it was. Located at the estuary of the River Dee on the Solway Coast, wide streets, pastel coloured houses, and an active fishing trade characterise the town. The Royal Hotel, in spite of its website attractions, was undergoing improvements! Definitely fawlty. However, unfazed with minor inconveniences our group embarked on an enjoyable and rewarding weekend of visits.
Although not on our itinerary, CASTLE HAVEN was our first sighting of a tower house. Built around 1913, this impressive cluster of farm buildings is listed Grade "A" and has unfortunately featured on the 2002 cover of the National Buildings at Risk Register. The 75 ft. high tower is substantially complete but the buildings surrounding the paved courtyard which were designed to house a 12 strong herd of cows in lavish style, are dilapidated and deteriorating rapidly. Art Nouveau fanlights, sculptured water troughs, terracotta floors and glazed brick walls, characterise this unique group of buildings. Perhaps an asking price of £425,000 in its present state will seal Castle Haven's future.
The adjacent coastline, however, is well protected for the future. It is designated an SSSI. In addition, an Iron Age fort once stood on the shore. Incidentally, the nearby village of Borgue derived its name from "borg", the Norse word for fort. Have a look at the picture gallery on www.castle-haven.com.
And so we journeyed backwards from the 20th century tower to the 16th century ruin of Plunton. On this trip our driver impressed us with her reversing skills and we approached most of the buildings on the tour in this manner.
A collection of SCA members being herded through a muddy field of cows. A novel approach to PLUNTON CASTLE. Nigel Tranter described the castle as remotely situated amongst green knowles on the farm of Lennox Plunton - "almost accurate". The green knowles are in fact the earthworks of an earlier use of the site
Probably built by the Lennox family in the mid 16th century, Plunton is a long ruinous L plan tower house, but still retaining its many features due to the solidity of the local stone. Look at Nigel Tranter's elevation sketch which depicts a shot hole at high level and this still remains. It is unusual in its steep angle of vision but obviously practical for defending the entrance.
This is an ideal example of a tower house of moderate proportions which should be restored. A relatively straightforward consolidation and conversion would seem apt. In its hidden location, it must surely attract few visitors or contribute to the landscape character. Having been enclosed within a courtyard originally, perhaps a small enabling development, which is now a material planning consideration, could well be appropriate.
RUSCO CASTLE has been restored by Graham and Buffy Carson. The restoration started in 1975 and, as castle owners know, never really finishes. Son, Ian Carson, is now the occupier and he and his father welcomed the SCA to Rusco. For a full description of the restoration I can recommend the article in Robert Clow's collection of papers "Restoring Scotland's Castles", published in 2000.
As with many restored towers which the SCA has visited, Rusco suffers a problem with water penetration at roof level and Ian Carson is currently tackling this. The parapet walkway has been sheeted in lead and works are largely complete, apart from the raggles and apron flashings. With many castles being built in exposed locations, water ingress is very difficult to prevent, particularly with solid walls, which are always porous to some extent. Hopefully the lead work will solve Rusco's problem and fellow owners will be interested in feedback once complete, albeit drying out takes a long time. Alas, if it were possible using traditional materials to build a solid watertight wall perhaps there would have been no need to invent lathe and plaster or cavity walls.
Another feature of Rusco, repeated at Barholm and others, is the stepped corbelling. The corbels within the hall at the sides are lower than those on the end walls. A timber runner sat on top of the side corbels and this supported the joists. There are several benefits – the floor is easier to level, the cross joists can be at closer centres than the corbels adding strength and the benefit of economy in materials, size and weight. This method also avoids timbers being built into pockets in the damp exterior walls. Apart from avoiding rot, this makes it far easier to manoeuvre the joists into position.
To mitigate against dampness, heating a building is essential, and recently Ian has installed a heat pump capitalising on geothermals, ground temperature variation, in order to provide underfloor heating at ground and first floor levels. This is proving successful and a technical report may be included in a future Journal. The date of construction for Rusco Castle is probably 1565 as partly visible on the panel above the entrance door. In 1574 it is recorded that Sir John Gordon of Lochinvar resided at Rusco and it is likely that the tower was built by the Gordons. Prior to this the estate had been owned by the Carson family! Déjà vu. Thanks again to the Carson family for their patience.
Perched on the summit of a thickly wooded ridge, CARDONESS CASTLE unfortunately was only viewed from a distance. The history and detail are described by MacGibbon and Ross and enlarged upon by Alastair M.T. Maxwell-Irving in his book "The Border Towers of Scotland; Their History and Architecture; The West March". The floor plans indicate a large number of chambers and openings within the massive walls and the craftsmanship required to construct such a layout must have been of high standard. Indeed the 15th century style of fireplaces reinforces this and exhibits an excellence in design and workmanship. Other towers such as Elphinstone exhibit similar complex layouts
The owners of BARHOLM CASTLE, Janet Ingles and John Brennan, are SCA members. They kindly arranged access in their absence. The Barholm website contains a wealth of information and we have included as a taster the home page, the restoration and the history. The site can be found here.
A couple of miles west of Barholm lies CARSLUITH CASTLE. This is a preserved 16th century ruin with 18th century outbuildings although some sources suggest the main building is 15th century. Overlooking the Solway, the castle was originally protected by a pond on the landward side. The castle changed hands twice by marriage of the heiresses, ending with the Brown family. Gilbert Brown was the last Abbot of Sweetheart Abbey and a staunch Catholic charged with sheltering Jesuits and excommunicated Catholics. James VI allowed Brown to retire to France after imprisonment at Blackness Castle in 1605. Barholm nearby sheltered John Knox in 1566 prior to him taking flight to the continent. …an explosive mix of personalities.
The opposing religious views of the two families lead to serious clashes and it is understandable why fortification of houses was necessary.
Featuring extensively in Alastair Maxwell-Irving's text and MacGibbon and Ross, surprisingly there is little information on the internet. MACLENNAN CASTLE is huge and dominates the town of Kirkcudbright. This is an extensive 16th century mansion house now preserved by Historic Scotland! MacGibbon and Ross describe the buildings as looking like a giant green haystack! The ivy has now been removed to reveal a fine 16th century mansion house of some 20 rooms. Standing on the site of a convent, the house dates from 1581. Apparently few of the rooms were finished and the building has been uninhabited since the mid 18th century at the latest, with the roof being removed in 1752.
Poverty, brought on by Lord Kirkcudbright supporting the Loyalist cause, secured the demise of MacLellan Castle. Indeed one of the Lords Kirkcudbright opened a glove shop in Edinburgh to secure a living. Unfortunately he did not take up the gauntlet to complete the building!
Our AGM and evening meal at the Royal Hotel provided an interesting end to a full day. Wines may improve with age, but food certainly does not. Perhaps a restaurant listing in the Michelin Guide available from Kwikfit would be appropriate. However, we enjoyed fine company, conversation and indeed wine. Sunday morning and a full house for the bus trip, heading towards New Galloway.
MacGibbon and Ross accurately state "The antique character of the building is considerably obliterated" with substantial Victorian remodelling. The site of KENMURE CASTLE on the crest of a ridge near the head of Loch Ken is admirably suited for a fortress and may have been occupied from an early period. The existing buildings are at earliest around the 17th century.
The Gordon family acquired the lands in 1297 and held them for many centuries. Sir John Gordon was a prominent supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots and as a consequence it was burned. Presumably rebuilt, it was again burned, this time by Cromwell.
A third fire in the early 20th century and the selling of the contents of Kenmure on the American market sealed the fate of Kenmure. A great location, but alas ….
Currently being restored by The Vivat Trust for holiday lets, EARLSTOUN CASTLE is a late 16th century L plan Laird's House. Tranter and MacGibbon and Ross refer to a wedge shaped date stone bearing the initials W G and M H and the date 1655. The stone appears to have vanished! Hopefully just removed to avoid damage from the temporary shoring at windows.
The hall at first floor level has originally been pine panelled. If you cannot stop dampness, mask it?
All the Vivat properties are holiday lets and to view the inside of Earlstoun we will have to wait for the restoration. Completed Vivat Trust projects can be viewed here.
Part of the Vivat Trust's philosophy in saving ruinous buildings is that by converting to holiday lets there are less onerous requirements than for permanent residential use thus minimising major alteration to layouts.
Unfortunately again only viewed from the outside, Barscobe is similar in size and configuration to Earlstoun. Restored in 1971 – 1987 and currently undergoing further works, BARSCOBE CASTLE has evolved from the fortified tower house. Late 17th century, no parapet, no crow step gables, no shot holes.
Barscobe was built by William MacLellan. It was occupied by the MacLellans until 1779, somewhat later than the demise of MacLellan Castle.
Perhaps, apart from the unusual stepping in the gable the most unusual feature must be the Jacuzzi on the chimney top! Perhaps not, but this feature combined with exceptionally tall chimneys suggests again a problem with exposure!
Tall buildings, complex shapes and swirling winds are problematic not only for chimney downdraughts but also for rainwater penetration which can be funnelled by the wind, in often unexpected ways. An architect's nightmare.
Prior to lunch we had the opportunity of visiting the Catstrand Community Centre. Recently refurbished at a cost of some £1million and with a lottery package of £300,000 to run it for the next three years, CatStrand is perhaps the type of project which could equally well be housed in a suitable castle….conservation not preservation. Visit their website here.
Multifunction spaces, small theatre, exhibition space and café and the "Glenkens History Stop"…., the local history site, was developed to allow visitors an easy guide to discovering the area – culture, history, local database, castles, corrugated iron sheep and the like……and an excellent lunch at the Cross Keys Hotel followed.
Our final visit of the tour. THREAVE CASTLE is magnificent. A three quarter mile walk with glimpses of the castle in the distance and a short boat trip to the island adds to the excitement. Now managed by Historic Scotland, Threave is very well documented and seems to be a favourite of Chris Tabraham, our guide for the Edinburgh Castle visit.
Legend has it that the island was home to Fergus, Lord of Galloway, and his descendents from the mid 11th century.
The massive tower is late 14th century and built by Archibald "The Grim", 3rd Earl of Douglas. The Douglas family had immense power and in the mid 15th century King James II systematically destroyed major Douglas strongholds. June 1455 saw Threave fall, albeit the Earl of Douglas was by then in exile. Crown appointed custodians maintained the castle up to 1640 when it was dismantled after a 13 week siege by Covenanters. In the 19th century Threave was utilised as a prison for French Napoleonic prisoners.
Threave has recently been filmed by the BBC with Chris Tabraham for a documentary and Channel 4 Time Team and the History Channel also feature it - visit their History site here - and also documents Threave. On this site you can view the history, timeline, find links and take a virtual tour as well as access to highlights from the TV programme online. Featuring 10 different castles, this web site encapsulates much of the information which the SCA were hoping to include in the educational CD. The Channel 4 site is an excellent example of such work and well illustrates the advances in web design and content over the past couple of years. For those who were unable to join us on this Kirkcudbright tour, this site is a must.
The area around Kirkcudbright has a wealth of castles to explore. A return visit to the area would, I'm sure, receive enthusiastic support.
THANKS TO OUR HOSTS