Castles of the UK: Wrap Up

With my post on Abergavenny Castle last week, I’ve finished talking about all fifteen castles I visited in the UK!

I learnt a lot about castles whilst travelling, and loved experiencing every single one of them. Of course, considering there’s an estimated 600-700 castles in the UK that still stand, fifteen doesn’t even mar the surface of what there is to visit, but I was still incredibly impressed by just how different each castle was… but also how similar!

Over my month in the UK I visited castles that retained the glory of old (Stirling, Cardiff), and castles that didn’t (Clifford’s Tower, Abergavenny). Castles that still serve as a military fortress to this day (Edinburgh), and castles that serve a function far removed from their original purpose (Balhousie, Nottingham). Castles that were family homes (Wray, Elcho, Aberdour), and some that still are (Drummond, Alnwick). Castles steeped in local history (Bamburgh) and castles that placed essential roles in the history of a nation (Warwick, Tower of London). I loved each and every one.

On thing is for sure, visiting the castles of the UK is a journey through the chapters of history and architecture; through the brightest and darkest times of British history. It is a journey, I’m sure you’ve come to realise, I encourage everyone to undertake!

-S

Castles of the UK: Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle! It’s long been a place I’ve wanted to visit, and I was so excited when we arrived in Scotland’s capital. We were staying just off the Royal Mile, so we were walking distance to this critical monument of Scottish history and identity. We were up early on a Saturday morning to get to the castle early. Not just because it’s a popular attraction in Edinburgh, but also because the Fringe Festival was running, and there were crowds everywhere. We were at the gates of the castle before the opening time, but it was already crowded! Luckily we had fast-track passes (due to our purchase with Historic Scotland, more information here if you’re looking to do the same), so we were in straight away!

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The first thing we did was admire the views over Edinburgh. Trust me, this was something I could have done all day! It’s no surprising that Castle Rock, on which the castle is built, has been used as a fortress site since at least 100 AD… you can see everything! I particularly liked the views looking out over the Firth of Forth and the Kingdom of Fife beyond, as well as back towards Athur’s Seat in Holyrood Park. Stunning!

We set out to explore the castle, starting with the prisons. The castle has actually housed prisoners from 1758 through to World War Two, although not consistently. What I found very interesting was just how many different nationalities were imprisoned in the cells… French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Danish, Polish, German, and even American! The cells are set up to look authentic for different time periods, and you can even read actual graffiti carved by prisoners, many, many years ago!

We next entered Crown Square to visit the most sacred parts of the castle; The Great Hall, The Royal Palace, St. Margaret’s Chapel, and the Scottish National War Memorial. The Great Hall was first built in 1511 for King James IV. The hall was later converted to a barracks, and its great beauty hidden. However, today its interior is the most striking in the castle. I was quite swept away with the exposed 500-year old wooden beams towering above my head, the bright red of the walls, and the display of weapons everywhere!

The Royal Palace was next, and this is famous for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, King James VI of Scotland and I of England in 1566 (for my visit to Queen Mary’s childhood home, Stirling Castle, please click here). The Royal Palace also houses Scotland’s Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny, used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs for hundreds of years. Understandably, you can’t take photos in this part of the castle, but they were certainly a sight to behold! If you keep an eye on the queue from outside the Palace, you should be able to slip in when it’s relatively quite… we had enough time to admire everything!

We next went into the the War Memorial followed by St. Margaret’s Chapel. The chapel was once exclusively used by the royal families of Scotland, and dates to 1130, making it the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh! Whilst the stain-glassed windows are more recent, the decorative arch around the altar is original. It’s hard to believe that this holy place was actually used as a gunpowder store in the fifteenth century, its original importance only rediscovered in 1845!

After one final look out over the city from the Half Moon Battery, we had to move on from Edinburgh Castle, although we could have stayed to visit the National War Museum and Regimental Museums. We only had a day and a half in Edinburgh, and there were many sights we wanted to check out.

img_3107However… that’s not the end of our time at Edinburgh Castle! We returned that night for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the reason why I fell in love with the site in the first place! The line to get in was long, but moving very quickly, so we were soon in our seats, a couple of rows back and right in the middle of the parade ground. I wish I had a second set of eyes, because I wanted to look at everything! The Lochiel Marching Drill Team from New Zealand, Jordan Armed Forces, Nepal Army Band, and Hjaltibonhoga Shetland Fiddlers were amongst my favourite performers, but nothing could top the mass pipes and drums at the end of the evening. The atmosphere was rich, reaching its peak when we held each other’s hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. I will never forget the whole evening for as long as I live!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Aberdour Castle

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After leaving Elcho Castle and the foot of the Scottish Highlands, we elected to travel east, travelling to Edinburgh by crossing the Firth of Forth. This route bought us into the Kingdom of Fife and past Aberdour Castle, where we decided to call in for a look. As we visited this castle the same day as Elcho Castle, it was logical to make a comparison between the two. If Elcho Castle is a building representing the needs of one family at one particular point in time, then Aberdour Castle is one that is a representation of ever-changing needs over time. The castle has been adapted over a period of 500 years, expanding and changing shapes to the buildings (and ruins) you see today. There are actually four distinct steps in the castle’s history, and I found this absolutely fascinating.

The oldest section of the castle was built in the 12th century, meaning that Aberdour Castle is possibly the oldest stone castle in Scotland. The original building was built by Alan de Mortimer, and it’s likely he built St Fillian’s Church nearby as well (a short walking distance and worth checking out if you visit the castle!). The original building on the site was a keep consisting of two storeys, and it’s likely the second story was a great hall. Much of the ruined shell you can see on the site is the remains of the 12th century castle. You can even find the head of a double lancet window which once decorated the keep!

 

It’s not clear what happened to the Mortimer family, but in 1325 the lands, including the castle, were granted to Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, whose son granted part of them to Sir William Douglas, a famous soldier of the Second War of Scottish Independence. The castle remained in the Douglas family for 500 years! During the 15th century, the building was altered significantly. The original hall was built upon to create a tower house, and rooms were reordered. By the end of the renovations, the castle would have featured service rooms, a great hall, and private apartments. Because this tower house was built upon the older building, you need a key eye to determine which part of the ruins are from this house. However, one thing that certainly belonged to the tower house is the corner of fallen masonry found towards the back of the castle; it fell from its original place in 1844.

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The 16th century saw the expansion of the castle again, with what is called the “Central Range” built beside the original tower house. This building is the better preserved of the ruins left today, and includes a kitchen on the ground floor and what would have been lordly apartments. Interestingly, and just like Elcho Castle, this newer building features corridors, which we know was an innovation at the time. During this period, the older building would have still been in use. The service courtyard towards the rear of the castle, beside the fallen masonry of the earlier townhouse, are dated from the 16th century, but it’s likely that they were rebuilds of older buildings. The Douglas family were obviously in an improving financial and social position, as terraced gardens were built to the rear of the castle. You can still walk on these (reconstructed) terraces today, and the dovecot, a small building where game birds would live, is the original from this time. It’s not really surprising that these renovations were done when you consider the occupants of the castle at the time… James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, was the Lord Chancellor of Scotland in 1563, and was actually regent from 1572 to 1580!

The final additions to Aberdour Castle is the only section of the castle that remains roofed today, the “East Range”. This was added in the 17th century and included an art gallery, stables, and private generals. The walled garden was also added to the east of the castle. These changes show that during this period, under the ownership of William Douglas, the 8th Earl of Morton, the castle was in its prime; heavily decorated and a pride of the family. You can almost imagine what the three structures would have looked liked side by side in their glory, with a quite bustle of servants, gorgeous tapestries on the walls, and noblemen and women taking strolls in the terraced and walled gardens. If only the walls could talk!

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This splendour, however, was short lived. By 1648, the castle was already in decline. A fire in the 1680s caused damaged, and plans for expansion and repair were abandoned in 1690. Only the newest section, the East Range, was saved. A second fire in 1715 rendered the buildings uninhabitable, and in the 1720s, the Douglas family left Aberdour Castle. Over the years since, the East Range has been used as barracks, a school room, a masonic lodge, and a private dwelling, until it was finally taken into state care in 1924.  It’s amazing (and a little terrifying) to think that this site, which served the family for 500 years, adjusting and expanding to suit its needs, was abandoned in such a short time. It just goes to show that nothing is set in concrete. Or rather, set in stone, as it were.

-S

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Castles of the UK: Elcho Castle

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On the day that we made the journey from Perthshire to Edinburgh, we decided to stop by Elcho Castle, which we had seen signs for in Bridge of Earn. To “stop by” this little castle, we had to go through some super windy roads that led us to the middle of a bunch of fields. There was a friendly family out riding their horses who assured us we were heading the right way, and after continuing on through a farm (we felt like trespassers), we did eventually get there. We hadn’t trespassed either, as there was only one way in!

My first impression of the castle was that, although small, it was mighty. There was a little cottage just in front of it, and what liked like the remains of a wall around it. The castle itself had a large number of turrets, and sat like an old many quietly watching over the land. I was itching to get inside and find out more.

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Given it’s small size and out-of-the-way location, it’s not really surprising that Elcho Castle doesn’t have much history attached to it. It was built as a home for the Wemyss family in 1560, but abandoned sometime in the early 1700s. Most of the house is still original, but in the 1830s there were some repairs on the building, and its likely that the wall that would have once made up the courtyard was dismantled and used in the building of the little cottage. However, being out of the reach of major historical events isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Elcho Castle is one of Scotland’s best preserved tower houses from the 1500s. Damage to the building is minimal, and so you can get in and really picture the building in its heyday…

You enter the building through a small door and are immediately greeted by a wide staircase It was common in the 1500s for guests to immediately take the staircase up to the Great Hall, on the first floor. The rest of the ground floor was service rooms. However, we decided to check out the ground floor first. The fireplace in the kitchen was massive, and there were lots of tiny staircases spiralling up through the house, so servants wouldn’t use the main staircase. The ground floor actually has (what would have once been) an innovative design point; a corridor connecting the rooms. Before this was added, you would have walked from room to room, but the corridor meant that each room could serve an independent function, and the floor on top could be wider. Such a small detail we take for granted nowadays!

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We went up the relatively wide staircase to a large room that would have once been divided into the Great Hall (formal area for receiving guests) and the Bed Chamber (which served as a private family room rather than a bedroom). The room would have once been lavishly decorated, but today is just plain. The family must have held a very remarkable status because there’s at least 15 toilets throughout the house! That’s a lot for a building that’s as old as it is!

The big staircase actually stops on the first floor, but there are other smaller ones that lead further upstairs. These upstairs rooms would have been private family rooms, guest accommodation, and possibly the Steward’s accommodation as well. There’s actually a floor missing upstairs, but you can see the marks on the walls where the beams supporting it would have been, and the tight spiral staircases have doorways that open to a sudden drop (fortunately they’re blocked!). Going upstairs also gives you access to the little wall walk, where you can admire the views and have a peek over the edge… if you dare!

Elcho Castle was built at a time when defended castles were going out of fashion, and castle-style country houses were coming into fashion. This explains a lot about the castle’s appearance. However, it’s still a building that can be easily defended; the courtyard wall had at least one circular tower that could be used, the original iron yett behind the door would have been the barricade, and the building has some 17 gun holes to aid in the defence.

Although small and lacking the grand history you might be searching for, Elcho Castle was a very interesting building. The fact that so much of the building is preserved is a feat in its own right, but to be able to go in and see architecture that was innovative for its day, but still maintaining much of the traditions of older styles, was fascinating. It’s a little out-of-the way for most travellers, but if you happen to spot the signs pointing it out, it’s a lovely little place to explore, and then have a mid-morning snack in the shadows of this lovely building.

-S

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Castles of the UK: Drummond Castle

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On the same day that we visited Balhousie Castle, we made a trip to Drummond Castle just out of Crieff. I had long been looking forward to visiting this castle. I had seen a photo of its gardens as a teenager and had fallen in love with it, so to actually be able to explore it in person was exciting!

We first approached the castle through a beech-lined road, eventually arriving at the car park. From there we walked through the tower house to buy admission tickets, and then into the courtyard. The tower house and its accompanying mansion are actually eighteen century rebuilds of fifteenth and seventeenth century designs respectively. The castle has long been considered the clan seat of the Drummond clan, and is still inhabited by the family today. However, this means that the mansion is actually closed to visitors. But that’s okay, because the reason you go to Drummond Castle is not for the buildings, but for the reconstructed 17th century terraced gardens…

Aren’t they absolutely stunning?!  The landscaping is largely French in design, but throughout the gardens are Italian sculptures, terraces, and other features. At the centre of the garden is an interesting little feature; a 17th century sundial. The central globe of the statue is covered with an array of little sundials; supposedly to tell the time all around the world!

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I loved that the garden had so many different types of plants. Flowers, fruit trees, topiary, trees with all different colours of leaves, and so much more. Everything was carefully planned and positioned, turning what could have been a chaotic mess of colour and shapes into the beautiful grounds you see today.

At the far side of the garden, behind a wall with a little stone feature, you find access to the greenhouses and kitchen gardens that you can’t see from castle’s courtyard. The greenhouses themselves are an absolute explosion of colour and smells, and allows you to connect with all of the hard work that goes into maintaining the formal gardens.

I was very excited for my visit to Drummond Castle, and its beautiful gardens did not disappoint! If you ever get the chance to visit, you really must take it, because it was one of the most gorgeous places I have visited in my life. The castle often hosts events such as fairs as well, so you can really milk the grounds for all that it’s worth. I can not wait to visit again!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Balhousie Castle

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After leaving Stirling Castle, we drove to Bridge of Earn, a small village just out of Perth, Scotland. We spent two nights here in the start of the highlands, and I wish we had time to travel further north! Our main motive for coming here was to visit the Glenturret Distillery, Scotland’s oldest distillery. However, it also meant we could tick off a couple of castles that I was really looking forward to.

The first was Balhousie Castle in Perth. As soon as we pulled into the car park here, I could see that the castle, just like Wray Castle, was relatively new. In fact, the newest extension to the building was only added in 2011! But there was a castle on the site, perhaps as early as the fourteenth century. In 1624, King Charles I granted the lands and Barony of Balhousie to Master Francis Hay, and it remained in the family for over 300 years! However, there were many times when the castle lay empty, and by the early 1860s it was in a dilapidated state. Although the oldest building today dates from the seventeenth century, most of the castle was rebuilt in the early 1900s.

It was during the 1960s when The Black Watch, the most famous of the Scottish Highlander regiments, permanently established their Regimental Headquarters and their Museum at Balhousie Castle. Today, the castle is “The Home of the Black Watch”, still housing the regimental history… all the way back to 1739! If you don’t know who the Black Watch are, you probably don’t know your military history, because they have been involved in just about every near-modern and modern military conflict you can think of… War of the Austrian Succession (1745), the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Indian Rebellion of 1857, World War One (1914-1918), World War Two (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), and even the Iraq War (2003-2011). They were also the last British military unit to leave Hong Kong in 1997. That’s a very long and very impressive history! The Black Watch are identified largely by the red hackle worn on head-wear, and the distinct dark tartan.

Since my Dad is a military nut (he’s ex air force), and I’m a history lover, I was really excited to check this place out. We were fortunate to visit whilst the “Poppies Weeping Window” were on display, marking the first centenary of World War One. Thousands of hand-made ceramic poppies poured from a tower window of the castle to the ground. The effect was dramatic and breath-taking.

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After admiring the view and speaking to the volunteers outside, all of them former Black Watch members, we headed inside to buy our tickets for the museum. There were two options; entry, or entry and guided tour, and we went with the latter. It was money well spent. Our guide, the archivist of the museum no less, was absolutely fantastic. He gave us so much information about the Black Watch, their development, and the role they played throughout history. He had an interesting or quirky story for just about every item we came across, and he kept us entertained the whole time. Honestly, if this is your thing, you can’t go wrong with the guided tour. You can still explore the museum leisurely at your own pace afterwards!

 

I have to admit, once I was inside and on the tour I was pretty distracted that I didn’t take any photos inside. But that’s okay, because I had a wonderful time. If you’re as much of a military lover as I am, and you happen to be in the area, be sure to pop into Balhousie Castle. You won’t be disappointed!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Stirling Castle

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After our adventures in Cumbria, we crossed the border into Scotland. We stayed in Glasgow for two nights before heading into the beginning of the highlands. We needed to pass through Stirling to get to our final destination, and we decided that Stirling Castle, as our first ‘real’ castle, would be a worthy stop. Just like Wray Castle, we first glimpsed the building from afar. Driving on one of the major motorways, I could see a large castle perched on top of a isolated cliff-face. “Could that be it?” I asked nonchalantly, screaming with excitement on the inside. It was.

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Our car climbed the steep hill and we passed through Stirling’s old town before parking within the castle grounds, buying tickets and starting our exploration. Despite the rainy and windy Scottish “summer day”, the castle was bustling- we even had to wait ten minutes to get into a parking spot! It didn’t take me long to realise why the place was so popular. We started with the Queen Anne Gardens, a little terrace that was converted to a bowling green in the 1620s. It offered us stunning views over the Scottish landscape. The rain held off long enough to perch on the wall and just soak in everything I could see. Everything was just so green! A little plaque told us about the oddly shaped earthworks we could see were once impressive gardens in the 16th century. I could just about let my imagine go wild and picture what the countryside once looked like!

As rain threatened again, we scurried into vaults that house the Castle Exhibition. These rooms told us the history of the site and Stirling Castle itself. As a key feature of the natural landscape, it’s not surprising that ancient tribes of Scotland have long used the site as a stronghold. As the town grew in importance, so did the site, and in 1110 King Alexander I of Scotland used the spot to dedicate a chapel. From there the castle’s had a very bloody history, passing frequently between English and Scottish hands through the Wars of Scottish Independence. In fact, the castle’s been involved in at least eight sieges! Many Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling Castle, perhaps the most famous was Mary, Queen Scots. Both Mary, and her father, James V, actually grew up in the safety of the castle. Much of the castle buildings we see today date from the 16th and 17th centuries, due to the significant works of three James; James V, his father James IV, and his grandson James VI (you may also know him as James I of England). The castle was also given a bit of a spruce up in preparation for Queen Victoria‘s visit in the mid-1800s. The exhibition was set out really well and the short, but detailed, history lesson  given to us was very interesting and allowed us to contextualise everything we were seeing.

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With the weather clearing again, we passed through the battle-scarred Forework Gatehouse and into the central bailey of the castle. Here we had even more gorgeous views and could see some of the key buildings of the castle (more on that later). I had a quick look through the Palace Vaults, full of exhibitions about castle life for children to enjoy (admittedly, I also enjoyed both the Musician’s and Tailor’s vaults). There was also an Access Gallery to allow individuals with mobility difficulties to experience parts of the castle they may not be able to access. On the other side of the Vaults was the Ladies’ Lookout, with, you guessed it, even more stunning views.

From outside we went into the Royal Palace, beautifully decorated in a 1540s fashion, and possibly similar to how it once was when James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, lived there. I was surprised at just how colourful all of the rooms were! I really liked all of the details over the fireplaces as well, especially the famous Stirling Unicorn in the King’s Bedchamber. The other colour that catches your eye in the palace is actually on the ceiling in the form of Stirling Head replicas; metre-wide oak medallions carved with famous historical figures including Kings, Queens, Roman Emperors, and biblical and mythological characters. I pretty much spent my whole time in the room looking up, they were fascinating! Another great work of art in the palace is the Stirling Tapestries, hanging in the Queen’s Inner Hall. Replicas of the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn‘ tapestries, they are certainly impressive, even as a modern addition.

You can also access the Great Hall from the Royal Palace, through what would have been exclusively the royal entrance. The Great Hall, the largest of its kind in Scotland, is just as impressive as you’d expect. In stark contrast to the Palace, the ceiling beams here are exposed and unpainted, somehow making the impressive room more modest that what it would otherwise appear. One thing that I loved throughout both the Royal Palace and Great Hall were the staff in period costume playing instruments, giving talks, and demonstrating what the castle would have been like a few hundred years ago. Something so small really brings the whole place to life!

The other key building of the castle that we visited was the Chapel Royal, dating from the 1590s. Its most well known feature is the hand-painted frieze which includes a fake window. I was surprised to find it a rather small and modest chapel and it reminded me very much of the Great Hall. James VI’s son, Prince Henry, was baptised in the chapel.

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The other places we visited in the castle included the Stirling Heads Gallery and the Regimental Museum. The gallery told us everything we wanted to know about the Stirling Heads and also houses the original heads, but also pointed out some other architectural features of the castle. I was particularly interested in the statues of mythological and historical figures that made up the Prince’s Walk, which is mounted on the outside walls of the Royal Palace. The museum is dedicated to the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment, and definitely worth the stop for lovers of military history.

I absolutely adored Stirling Castle, and would recommend a visit to anyone in the area! With stunning views, interesting history, beautifully restored rooms, and even activities for children, it has something for everyone, plus more. I wish we had more than an afternoon there, because I would have loved to go on a guided tour, see the Great Kitchens, and take the wall walk down to the Tapestry Studio. I would have also really loved to explore Stirling’s Old Town, including Argyll’s Lodging, a 17th century townhouse that can be entered with a ticket from Stirling Castle. If I ever get a chance to go back to Stirling Castle, I will certainly be looking to do these things!

-S