Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Baltersan by James Brown

Baltersan Castle from different angles

Baltersan Castle in Ayrshire

Baltarsane [ 1 ] an its kizzens: secraits, quirks an delichts

"Baltersan is a stately fine house with gardens orchards parks and woods about it."

Attrib. Timothy Pont, chorographer and cartographer.

It is not an affectation to use the guid Scots leid in the title of this article, for it is the language of the people who commissioned and built this tower-house just one mile from Maybole, capital of Carrick and a mere ten miles from Scotland's then most important western sea-port which for its small size, was surprisingly cosmopolitan. We will return to cultural and commercial matters later.

Related houses

Stonemasons were, by necessity an itinerant breed. Tracing their work through masons [ 1 ] marks is unreliable. Often these are absent from small-scale domestic structures where perhaps only a single stone cutter was employed. Indeed at Baltersan only one mark has been found so far, an arrow on the bed of the stone so it may have been an instruction to the stone layer. A stronger indicator is when architectural features and family connections come together in two or more buildings that the hand (or influence) of the same man can be discerned. In south west Scotland a small group of tower- houses form just such a chain. From Baltersan to Killochan, by Girvan and then on to Pinwherry and finally Park, by Glenluce Abbey, Wigtonshire, we have typical L-plan houses of the second half of the 16th century which suggest either the same master mason or an element of admiring (or envious) proprietors copying their peers, which in itself is not unknown.

Date stones on historic buildings can be as unreliable as masons' marks. They may commemorate a significant event such as a marriage or the start of work on a house. (Fig.1) But with erosion, they can be misread, or indeed be the fault of the stone carver as at Barholm, by Gatehouse of Fleet, who confused 1375 with 1575 [ 2 ]. This happens today with the similarity of the written "one" and "seven" leading to the increased use of a continental seven with a small cross-stroke.

Killochan has the distinction of having been continuously inhabited since the 16th century and we are fortunate that we can still read the dated inscription at its entrance (Fig. 2) which tells us that -



(above left) Fig.1 Killochan: The date does not correspond to Cathcart's marriage to Helene Wallace which took place in 1563.
(above right) Fig.2 Killochan: The lettering style is typical of the period. As at Park, it is a fortunate survival.

The lintel also contains a biblical quotation from Proverbs, 18:10. The same scriptural reference once adorned Baltersan but is now illegible as is the other lettering which informed us that this house was begun in 1584 by John Kennedy of Pennyglen and Margaret Cathcart his spouse. Pennyglen was brother- in-law to John Cathcart, having married Cathcart's youngest sister before 1574. Kennedy's mother was a Wallace who, soon after John's birth, married Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassillis.

We cannot be certain that both houses we see today were actually built in the 1580s. The two Johns may well have been altering them. The first thing that sets Baltersan apart from typical L-plan towers is the turret staircase in the re-entrant angle. (Fig. 3) Almost invariably this would have been round, yet at Baltersan it is square [ 4 ], just one of numerous quirks which help earn this house its Category A listing. But at Killochan the stair arrangements are even more notable. The re-entrant stair is within a square tower (not corbelled out at an upper level) but the main stair is an early example of scale-and-platt as opposed to the more picturesque but less practical turnpike. The square re-entrant turret was also a feature of another Kennedy house, Pinwherry (c.1596) which is sadly now wreathed in ivy. It appears also to have existed at Culzean, before Robert Adam remodelled it into what we see today.

At Park [ 5 ] by Glenluce we find the re-entrant stair turret is a humble thing, but the internal layout is a very close match to Baltersan. Thomas Hay of Park and Jonet Makdouel his spouse also inscribed their entrance lintel with their names, and the date 1590. Thomas's father, the abbot of Glenluce was a loyal supporter of the 3rd Earl of Cassillis during turbulent times at the abbey between 1544 and 1560. After the death of Margaret Cathcart in 1593/4, John Kennedy married Florence M'Dowell who, to complete the family circle, married Alan, Lord Cathcart after the death of John.

Baltersan & Killochan panels

(above left) Fig.4 Killochan: detail of the magnificent panels showing John Cathcart of Carltoun and Helene Wallace, his spouse. It would originally have been painted in polychrome. Picture copyright
(above right) Fig.5 Killochan panels, not in their original frame, which may depict John Kennedy of Pennyglen and Margaret Cathcart. The individual medallion head may be that of John's son and heir. The creatures surrounding him could have been inspired by misericord carvings at nearby Crossraguel Abbey. (Pers comm. Prof Michael Bath)

Thanks to good care at Killochan and good fortune at Baltersan we are able in a small way to compare the quality of interior decoration of both houses. Magnificent carved panels with the busts in relief of John Cathcart, his wife and his parents depicted in what must surely be true likenesses, are now proudly displayed in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. (Fig. 4) By contrast, contemporary medallion head panels from Baltersan languished in a neighbouring farm steading until rescued by the Ayr architect James A. Morris at the beginning of the 20th century. They are naive works by an imaginative but moderately skilled carver. They are now on display in Loudoun Hall, Ayr. (Fig. 5) Comparing the panels, and the scale of the respective houses, easily places John the guidman below John Cathcart. However, the former may have been the more imaginative when it came to building innovation.

Baltersan exterior & interior & Castle of Park

(above left) Fig.3 Baltersan: the distinctive re-entrant stair turret can be found at Pinwherry and in an altered form at Killochan. Faint traces remain of the arms shield which was a similar shape to John Cathcart's at Killochan.
(above middle) Fig.10 Baltersan: interior looking east with the possible oratory at the top left.
(above right) Fig.8 Park, now known as Castle of Park and maintained by the Landmark Trust as a holiday home.

The most curious similarities between the tower-houses are large, square windows and bartizan corbels pierced with small machicolations. (Fig. 6) Apart from Killochan and Baltersan, (Fig. 7) the only other examples of this type of corbel treatment known by the author are at Glenbuchat in Aberdeenshire and Ochiltree [ 6 ], West Lothian. Aberdeenshire may seem remote from south-west Scotland but consider the following; Glenbuchat was built by a Gordon in 1590, the same year as Park. The grandfather of Thomas Hay of Park was possibly from a branch of the Hays in Delgatie, Aberdeenshire. The Gordons of Lochinvar in Galloway who were in dispute with the Earl of Cassillis at Glenluce Abbey, no doubt had communication with their kinsmen in Aberdeenshire. The masons may not have travelled, but their ideas could have, through conversation when lairds met at Court or parliament in Edinburgh. It is also worth keeping in mind that a branch of the Bel family (famous in Aberdeenshire as stonemasons) flourished in Dumfriesshire.


The windows also provoke curiosity. Linking Baltersan, Killochan and Park (Figs. 6 & 8) is the distinctive square window which in all cases provided light to the main public room, the Hall. At Baltersan the deep ingo is on the inside of the tower, whereas in the latter two, it is on the exterior giving a peculiar appearance to the elevation [ 7 ]. We can only speculate as to the difference. The placing of such a large window (at Baltersan it is one ell – 37 inches square) in a corner is surely to cast light along the Hall chimneypiece perhaps at certain times of day on auspicious dates in the year [ 8 ]. Until recent times, having guests for dinner who were not intending staying overnight would have been done in daylight hours because of the danger and difficulties of travelling home in darkness. At Baltersan and Killochan this large window faced west but at Park it is on the north elevation. It may be coincidence, but Baltersan is set at 8 or 9 degrees east of north, as is the church in Crossraguel Abbey.

Baltersan shutter window

(above left) Fig.6 Killochan: the window beside the right hand bartizan appears to have had a sliding shutter.
(above middle) Fig.7 Baltersan: the lowest corbels are each pierced by an enigmatic slot. The south-east turret was given the same treatment.
(above right) Fig.9 Baltersan, conjectural reconstruction by the author. Normally shutters would be hinged to open inwards as all windows were barred with sturdy grilles for security.

Sliding shutters

Conventionally, window shutters would be hinged to open inwards, but in Baltersan the southern windows of the two principal bed-chambers had shutters which slid into the 1.25 metre-thick wall. (Fig. 9) Although sliding shutters were a common feature of town houses, notably in 16th century Edinburgh, they were invariably on the outside wall.

The most famous trace being the stone grooves on Cannonball House at the castle esplanade. Kennedy of Baltersan owned Greenan at the Heads of Ayr and windows there show evidence of sliding shutters. Killochan too, hints that it may have had them. (Fig. 6) As an aside, it is interesting that the next chronological occurrence of sliding shutters seems to be in a Dundee sea captain's house in the 18th century. Baltersan's last known inhabitant was Captain Hugh Arbuthnot who inherited the estate in 1721 while at the naval base in Deptford, London. His ancestral clan lands were in Kincardineshire. The Arbuthnots have a long and distinguished naval record.

An altar in the corridor?

There is a curious feature at one end of the kitchen corridor in Baltersan. (Fig. 10) In the ingo of an east-facing window, there is a shelf, the remains of a kerb and a dook hole in one wall (most of the opposite wall is missing) supposedly for a cross-bar. The dimensions of this space correspond to a similar feature in an east-facing window at Niddry [ 9 ]. (Fig. 11) For such a sacred space to be in a corridor seems very odd, unless it was for the benefit of the domestic staff. When John Kennedy took up residence in the 1580s, the Reformation was well established but Catholicism lingered in Ayrshire with the last monk dying at Crossraguel at the beginning of the 17th century.

Niddry Baltersan

(above left) Fig.11 Niddry: plan and elevation of an oratory in an east-facing window recess.
(above right) Fig.12 Baltersan, south wall at south east corner of second and third levels; cf. Fig. 13

Priest's hole?

Another curiosity at Baltersan is the trace of a chamber above the wine cellar stair with no obvious signs of accessing it. (Fig. 12) At Castle Fraser hinged floorboards concealed a passageway to the kitchen ingle. Could it be that in Baltersan this "hideaway" was reached by a similar method beside yet another enigma, the ingleneuk seat on the third level? (Fig. 13)

Ingleneuk seat

Prior to a measured survey by architects from Morris & Steedman Associates, this feature was considered by the author to be an aumbry [ 10 ]. It is almost certainly a very rare [ 11 ], if not unique, ingleneuk seat, perhaps inspired by the abbot's seat at nearby Crossraguel Abbey. (Fig. 14) The stone seat, which looks identical to the adjacent sitooterie bench, would have allowed for access to the chamber below with the trapdoor (or hinged floorboards) being close to the seat and therefore less detectable. (Fig. 15) Charles Rennie Mackintosh sketched the seat and window in 1895 during one his holiday trips to Dunure [ 12 ]. His sketch of this and the west elevation of Baltersan are in the Mackintosh Collection in the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow.

Baltersan sketckes

(above left) Fig.13 Baltersan: conjectural reconstruction by the author of the second and third levels.
(above middle) Fig.14 Crossraguel Abbey: drawing by R. W. Billings shows one of the few remaining roofed chapter houses in Scotland. Note the fine abbot's seat.
(above right) Fig.9 Baltersan, cconjectural reconstruction by the author of the ingleneuk seat and window with sliding shutter.

Moulded stones and ashlar work

There are several beautiful stone profiles at Baltersan which have been recorded by the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historic Monuments of Scotland. One in particular was singled out by Joachim Zeune in The Last Scottish Castles [ 13 ] as also appearing at Lordscairnie; an edge roll with a hollow chamfer on either side. Throughout the house, window margins (outside and inside) as well as door and fireplace jambs have all been richly treated. A correspondingly high quality of stone cutting has been applied to the fine voussoirs of the window ingoes which draw comparisons with Stirling Castle and cause one to ask why this should be so in such a modestly-scaled house for someone below the rank of laird. Attention to detail has also been expended on the gentle tapering of the north-west bartizan and no doubt, would have been on the south- east one, of which only a single corbel remains in situ. From its base to the corbel courses of the caphouse, the soaring stair jamb also subtly slopes inwards when viewed from any of its three sides. Entasis has been used beneath both bartizans giving them a good centre of gravity but still the appearance of sitting proud of the walls.

Slate roof

Now we come back to languages. John Kennedy of Pennyglen began his house 173 years before the death of the last Gaelic speaker in Ayrshire for whom the language was their mother tongue. The preponderance of place-names with Gaelic origins and the many "Mac" family names, some peculiar to the county, would be a natural consequence of Ayrshire's long coastline being so accessible to Argyll and the Western Isles. Indeed, John Kennedy's cliff-edge lands of Greenan were once owned by John, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles.

Between 1549 and 1586 the Ayr Burgh accounts [ 14 ] mention three slaters by the name of Esdaill. The slates at Baltersan were from two very different quarries. The light silvery grey is as yet unidentified, but the dark blue is unmistakeably from Easdale. Commercial considerations could have caused the slaters to change their family name to easily identify them with the source of their raw materials.

As an important seaport it is no surprise that the burgh records mention Dutch, English, Greeks, Irish and even shipwrecked sailors from the Spanish Armada being in receipt of alms. Contact with Europe operated in both directions. A reference to a merchant, John Cunninghame, known as Venice John tantalisingly suggests it may have been he who imported the Venetian glass found at Dunure Castle. In 1530, David Kennedy of Baltersan was among a large group of Ayrshire lairds and their kinsmen who travelled on pilgrimage to the shrine of St John the Baptist in Amiens, France with William Kennedy, Abbot of Crossraguel [ 15 ].

David's son, the aforementioned John, may have been part of James VI's retinue of 300 lairds and their followers who travelled to Denmark in 1589 for the King's marriage to Anne, daughter of Frederick II. John's half- brother, the ill-fated Thomas Kennedy of Culzean was knighted at the coronation of Anne of Denmark on 17th May, 1590 and his portrait [ 16 ] was painted, by the court artist, Netherlander Adrian Van Son, perhaps to mark the event [ 17 ].

Baltersan Castle

It is these cultural, social and commercial links which would have guided the manner and style of architecture and interior design. It was an exceedingly status-conscious and fashion-conscious age. Master masons were highly prized, so we can be sure that these fine examples of the tower-house style that still remain as prominent features in the landscape of Carrick today, came into being through a fusion of wealthy, well-travelled, ambitious proprietors and skilled, persuasive craftsmen. As John Ruskin who was descended from the Kennedies of Baltersan, said, "When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece." We have that at both Baltersan and Killochan.

Article by SCA member James Brown, March 2008. The core of this article was first published in Ayrshire Notes No. 32 by the Ayrshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, autumn, 2006.

[1] This spelling comes close to the Gaelic origin Baile tarsuinn, "cross steading". That is, crossing a thwart place rather than, as the proximity of Crossraguel Abbey may suggest, the fermtoun by a cross. Baltersan stands beside a burn half-way along a direct line between Kildoon with the remains of a neolithic fort, and Mochrum Hill which must also have had ancient settlements on its plateau.
[2] See
[3] Carleton, by Lendalfoot where the ruins of the tower-house still stand.
[4] James Nasmyth, inventor of the steam hammer and a member of an exceptionally talented family, made a pencil sketch of Baltersan in 1832 in which he correctly recorded the re-entrant turret and the rare oriel window. But when he later inked in the drawing he omitted the oriel, added bartizans to the caphouse and made the re-entrant turret round. (National Library of Scotland MSS 3241-3).
[5] As with so many Scottish houses, the misnomer castle is a recent one. In Blaeu (1654) it is Parck and later became Park o Luce then House of Park and now, under the Landmark Trust, Castle of Park.
[6] Notice of examples of this feature in other tower-houses or castles would be welcomed by the author.
[7] Similar deep external bays can be found at Linlithgow Palace, Stirling Castle's Great Hall and in the castles of Crookston and Niddry.
[8] The author is currently researching the exploitation of sunlight at, and the orientation of, the church in Crossraguel Abbey in relation to Saints' Feast Days.
[9] Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1997), vol 127, p. 794.
[10] Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (2000), vol 130, p. 734.
[11] Pers comm. Prof Charles McKean.
[12] Mackintosh's Ayrshire Connections: Architectural and Familial by James Brown, Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Journal No. 92, Summer, 2007.
[13] Published in 1992 by Verlag Marie L. Leidorf.
[14] Ayr Burgh Accounts 1534-1634 published by the Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1937.
[15] Register of the Privy Seal, vol II, p. 78.
[16] The full length portrait hangs in Culzean Castle.
[17] Painting in Scotland 1570-1650, exhibition catalogue for the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 1975.

Added: 21 Jun 2010 Updated: 28 Mar 2018
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