Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Scotland's Gaff Drawbridges - and their French counterparts

Castles employed many methods to prevent undesirable visitors from entering them and one of the most obvious examples of those was the drawbridge. But did you know there were a few variants of this elaborate way to prevent invasion? Probably the most widely known form of drawbridge – and seen in many a historical movie – was where the bridge raised and lowered by means of windlass (a form of winch) and chains (as seen at Threave Castle).

St Andrews Drawbridge
St Andrew's Castle – note outline of blocked gate with, top right, a single gaff slot (the other slot is filled in).

Another variety of drawbridge was pivoted and counterbalanced so that as it was raised, one end descended into a 'pit' (as at Dirleton Castle, see below) whilst the other allied itself flush with the gate.

A third type of drawbridge, introduced around 1300, made use of long beams – known as gaffs – housed in vertical recesses on either side of the gate. Sometimes, there could be an additional, smaller gate alongside to facilitate entry when the main bridge was closed.

Threave Dirleton Drawbridge
LEFT: Threave Castle had a drawbridge which utilised a windlass
RIGHT: Dirleton Castle's drawbridge was more sophisticated

In Scotland evidence for gaffs associated with drawbridges can be found at St Andrew's Castle in Fife, where one recess from a pair survives, along with Bothwell Castle in Lanarkshire and Tullyallan Castle, Fife where single gaffs, and the recesses into which the raised bridge fitted, exist. Dalhousie Castle and Linlithgow Palace, both in Lothian, also host striking examples but that at Cawdor Castle, in Nairnshire, requires caution given its many rebuilds.

Bothwell Tullyallan Drawbridge
LEFT: Bothwell Castle - note 'hoop' for drawbridge (later abandoned) at entrance to tower house.
RIGHT: Tullyallan Castle – a little known hall house with groin-vaulted basement. Ditches are infilled.
Dalhousie Cawdor Drawbridge
LEFT: Dalhousie Castle – note gaff recesses for drawbridge. Ditches are infilled.
RIGHT: Cawdor Castle – a later gateway probably the result of 17th and 20th century rebuilds.
Linlithgow Drawbridge
Linlithgow Palace – The 'Lion Rampant' surmounts gate. Either side, alcoves contained statues of saints.

Included in our pictures below are some splendid examples from France: Loches in the Loire along with Tonquedec and Montmuran in Brittany. All exhibit the long slots for the main drawbridge along with the single slot for the footbridge. Montmuran's drawbridges are, impressively, in full working order.

Loches Drawbridge
Loches in Loire, France. Famous for its 10th century donjon, but this gatehouse is no less worthy.
Montmuran Tonquedex Drawbridge
LEFT: Montmuran, Brittany. Note the gaffs, machicolations and evidence of barred window plus the fine ashlar masonry.
RIGHT: Tonquedec, Brittany. Featuring a gatehouse, Donjon (not pictured) with an entry similar to Tullyallan Castle. The site is now under protection.

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 05 Dec 2018 Updated: 13 Oct 2023
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