Ava’s Castle Project


Granddaughter Ava has been staying with us over the Easter break and for her holiday homework she was working on a Castle Project. Ava is seven years old.

There are the remains of two Castles in Kirkcudbright. The original one is at Castledykes on the banks of the River Dee and the second one, McClellan’s Castle, in the centre of the town.

Castledykes     What was once a royal castle now survives as enigmatic humps and hollows in a flat riverside fIeld a short distance downstream from Kirkcudbright. On closer examination these remains reveal themselves to be the foundations of a stone-built stronghold of some magnitude. Excavation in 1911-13 showed that within a surrounding ditch, originally a wet moat, were the walls of a courtyard castle with a double-towered gatehouse facing north-east. Unusually, the gatehouse towers were buttressed. The curtain walls had had rounded towers at the angles, including a larger donjon at the south-west The finds were particularly rich in pottery and ironwork, including eight imported French jugs (Stewartry Museum).

The castle first appears on record in 1288, held by one of the four Guardians of the realm. Although the layout is reminiscent of an ‘Edwardian’ castle, there is no evidence that Edward I of England had a direct hand in its construction. However, he did stay here for a few days in July 1300, and it appears as an English supply-base until 1306-7. Little is known of its history during Douglas ownership. It may have served as a refuge for Henry VI of England after the Battle of Towton in 1461, and was probably last used as a residence by James IV on journeys to and from Whithom. In 1509 possession of the castle lands passed to the burgh.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).

Castle McClellan    The castle’s beginnings lie in the Reformation of 1560. This led to the abandonment of the Convent of Greyfriars which had stood on the site now occupied by the castle since 1449.

In 1569 the land and buildings were acquired by Sir Thomas MacLellan of Bombie, Provost of Kirkcudbright. He demolished the convent, leaving only the chancel of its church to serve as the burial vault for the family. This remains as the Greyfriars Episcopal Church on the opposite side of St Cuthbert Street.

Sir Thomas used the stone from the convent plus stone from the ruins of the old royal castle in Kirkcudbright to build what on its completion in 1582 was one of the grandest houses in Scotland. Although in the form of earlier tower house castles, MacLellan’s Castle was always more for show than for defence. Sir Thomas clearly saw himself as a power in this part of the land: and his castle was designed to demonstrate this to anyone who cared to look.

Though holding a position in the Royal Household from 1580, Sir Thomas was not above bending the law to further his interests. He overstepped the mark in detaining the Jonnet, a cargo ship, in Kirkcudbright harbour in 1575, and two years later he was caught purchasing wine from a known pirate.

Sir Thomas’s son Robert was made the first Lord Kirkcudbright in the 1630s despite in his younger days being imprisoned in Blackness Castle for an affray on Kirkcudbright High Street; and in Edinburgh Castle for shooting a relative of the Church Minister in Kirkcudbright, with whom he had a long standing dispute.

Robert MacLellan was successful in gaining land grants in Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster but the family fortune started to drain away paying for the upkeep of troops protecting the Irish estates. The second Lord Kirkcudbright continued to spend more than he made, largely in support of the Convenanters’ cause in the years after 1640. And in 1649 a regiment raised by the third Lord Kirkcudbright was on the losing side at the Battle of Lisnagarvey in Ireland: the family was ruined.

By 1741 the then Lord Kirkcudbright was working as a glover in Edinburgh and in 1742 the branch of the family controlling the castle removed the furniture and the roof. It passed into State care in 1912 and is now looked after by Historic Environment Scotland.

A visit to MacLellan’s Castle shows a building which is unusual in a number of ways. Unlike most Scottish Castles, it shows no signs of either hostile action or successive generations of remodelling and rebuilding. The shell of the building stands largely complete. The ground floor retains its vaulted ceilings. This gives a good idea of the service areas of the castle, something helped by the recreation of the kitchens.

At first floor level the stone floors are intact, but above it only the walls remain. When we visited, access was not possible above first floor level, a shame given the potential of MacLellan’s Castle as a viewpoint over the town of Kirkcudbright.

Information from Undiscovered Scotland