A strong but compact tower house Peel stands on an islet off the southern shore of Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire. It is now linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway due to a subsequent fall in water level.
This is one of the most difficult sites in Scotland to visit as approach is impossible in wet weather and equally difficult in dry as this writer can testify!
Piecing Peel together
Peel was built in the mid 16th century by Robert, 3rd Lord Semple whose residence was Castle Semple on the opposite side of the loch.
It was probably three storeys high with walls measuring 15m x 7m, but its demolition and current condition makes interpretation difficult.
What remains is a vaulted cellar whose thick walls are furnished with four substantial gun ports. These are carefully sighted, especially those facing the north to the loch, being angled to obtain the necessary coverage. Each alcove is furnished with a little recess for the gunner's requirements.
The entrance was in the now destroyed east gable where a wheel stair is visible on the inside. The cellar has, surprisingly, a fireplace at its east end. Above, one would expect to find the hall and it is possible that the main entrance was at this level from which one could have descended to the cellar.
An intriguing aspect of Peel is the west gable. It is angled like a bastion but is not pierced for firearms. It is faced with ashlar - elsewhere there is rubble. What was its purpose - deflection of shot?
The enigma that is Peel
Peel is enigmatic - too small for a dwelling and only accessible by boat. Why live there when there was a splendid mansion across the loch and why was it so heavily fortified? The clues which could help answer these questions may lie with its builder Lord Semple...
Peel's builder - Lord Semple
Lord Semple was a 'ruffian' of the worst sort having murdered William 5th Lord of Sanquhar by stabbing him in a rage. He also killed the Earl of Glencairn but escaped capital punishment by reason of his position unlike his 'lackeys' who were beheaded!
John Knox regarded him as 'a man sold under sin, an enemy to God and to all godliness'.
A man such as Lord Semple had no need to look far for enemies - they came to his door. In 1559 Castle Semple was attacked whereupon Semple fled to Dunbar Castle, to return with 20 Arquebusiers borrowed from its French garrison.
The French chased them off but they returned the following year to storm the barmkin and remove the cattle in spite of being shot at from the windows. The tower continued to hold out but, undeterred, they fetched cannon by which means they blew open its door. The garrison capitulated!
If anyone needed a safe house it was Semple and we can perhaps view Peel in this context.
It is worth noting that several bronze cannon were salvaged from the loch in the 18th and 19th centuries at Peel. One is preserved in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow - a falcon with an octagonal barrel marked with the Royal Arms of Scotland surmounted by a crown and the letters IRS (James King of Scots). This is attributed to the siege of 1560 but, if correct, what was it doing at the bottom of the loch opposite Peel?
Peel - an insider's view
For a rare chance to see what remains of Peel, take a look at the photographs below taken by Scottish Castles Association Member Brian McGarrigle. Thank you Brian for, once again, blazing a trail for the rest of us to benefit from!
Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.