Is The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dan Lee (UHI Archaeology Institute / ORCA) project leads for the Castle Studies Trust funded project explain the reasons behind the excavations they are undertaking at The Wirk in the Orkneys and what they hope to achieve during their two week dig.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).DCIM100MEDIADJI_0558.JPG

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk undertaken in September 2020 aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. The results show that the walls planned by Clouston are accurate and that they likely survive just below the ground surface. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

 The start of the project was delayed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we will be glad to finally get on site for the excavations in July.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall

Castle Studies Trust 2021 Grant Awards

The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to announce the award of six grants, totalling a record £31,000 not only covering a wide geographic area but also a wide range of different types of research:

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Caerlaverock new castle with old behind it and the coastline Crown Copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Caerlaverock, Dumfriesshire

The aim is to understand the chronology and geography of extreme weather events in the high medieval period, and the effects they wrought on archaeological features that led to the abandonment of the old castle built in c.1229 in favour of the new built 200m away in c.1277. The latest thinking is that it was a series of extraordinary storm surge events which pushed a series of storm driven gravel ridges across the River Nith.

The methodology to find this out is interdisciplinary, using scientific methods to enhance understanding of archaeological fieldwork. The fieldwork will involve the establishment of a series of transects across the site and surrounding landscape from which cores and samples will be extracted for sediment description, stratigraphic analysis, and Carbon 14 dating.

Depending on Covid restrictions, the aim is to start doing the work in May this year with the receipt of the final data in the autumn.

Greasley_Castle from air copyright Neil Gabriel

Greasley, Nottinghamshire

The production of an interpretative phased floor plan for Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire.  The castle, built in the 1340s, has an obscure history and the understanding of its architectural phasing is at best very cloudy. The site is now a working farm and a number of post-mediaeval structures have been conglomerated around the remains of what is suspected to be a fourteenth century courtyard house with projecting corner towers.

The survey will act as baseline research data for a site which has not previously received serious fieldwork or publication and provide a basis for further research but also for any future conservation needs.

Work on the project will start in the early summer when covid restrictions ease.   

Laughton-en-le-Morthen motte and bailey castle and church

Laughton-en-le-Morthen, South Yorkshire

To provide professional illustration and reconstruction which will also be integrated into a co-authored academic article based on the two previous research projects carried out on the site by Dr Duncan Wright and funded by the Trust. A geophysical survey and then small-scale excavation which give a strong indication that the Normans had built a motte on the site of a high-status Saxon dwelling.

Part of the monies will be used to produce phase plans of Laughton during key stages of its development, and a small percentage will pay for a line drawing of the 11th century grave cover incorporated into the fabric of the nearby church. The aim will be to start the work as soon as possible.

Old Wick Tower copyright Historic Environment Scotland

Old Wick, Caithness

Dendrochronological assessment of timber at the Castle of Old Wick, Caithness thought to be one of the earliest stone castles in Scotland dating from the12th century and the period of Scandinavian ascendency. Current thinking though ascribes the date to the 14th century. Analysing these samples will hopefully provide an answer.

With no architectural features or physical “independent” evidence analysing the remains of a timber joist-end (in poor condition) in one of the joist ends remains the best chance of being able to find an answer. 

The taking of the samples is likely to take place in September when conditions are still going to be favourable as the castle is situated next to the North Sea and the sample can only be found 8 metres above ground level. 

Richmond Castle copyright English Heritage

Richmond, North Yorkshire

Co-funding a three-week excavation of Richmond Castle, one of the best preserved and least understood Norman castles in the UK. The aim is to understand better the remains of buildings and structures primarily along the eastern side of the bailey including near the 11th century Robin Hood tower and near Scolland’s Hall.

Subject to the scheduled monument consent being granted the excavation will take place in late July.

Warkworth Castle, copyright William Wyeth

Warkworth, Northumberland

Geophysical survey to explore evidence for subsurface features in and around the field called St John’s Close in a field adjacent to the castle with the aim to establish the location and eastern extent of the castle’s deer park in the 16th century as well as its entrance way. It also hoped to find evidence of a routeway running parallel to the possible park boundary which could represent an early route to the castle’s gatehouse from the south-west.

The plan is to do complete the geophysical survey by the end of March.

To keep up to date with how these projects progress over the coming months you can:

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And if you donate at least £50 here and be invited to our exclusive visits to these projects: https://donate.kindlink.com/castle-studies-trust/2245 

Featured image: Old Wick Castle, Caithness, copyright Historic Environment Scotland

What lies beneath: what a ground penetrating radar survey reveals of Druminnor Castle

Lead Archaeologist on the Druminnor Castle excavation, Dr Colin Shepherd, looks at the results of the ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the castle in funded by the Castle Studies Trust in 2019 and what that means for future work at the site.

As a consequence of the GPR geophysics, that were generously funded by the Castle Studies Trust, we have a number of new and potentially interesting anomalies to be investigated. Furthermore, the GPR research has also been instrumental in clarifying other aspects of previously excavated evidence. This has been made possible as, contrary to most instances, the geophysics at Druminnor have been incorporated into the ongoing investigation rather than simply as a precursor to excavation.

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The GPR generated 286 ‘radargrams’ or sections across the site and much time and effort has gone into analyzing these. The radargrams were compared to actual excavated sections. This permitted the creation of a ‘key’ that has allowed us to extrapolate from the excavated sections to unexcavated parts of the site. As a result, we can, fairly comfortably, suggest a developmental plan of Druminnor spanning the 13th to 18th centuries (Figure 1).

Suggested phasing of Druminnor Castle by Colin Shepherd

The GPR has suggested the extent of a hardcore platform that appears to have supported the ‘Old Tower’. This was thought to have been the earliest part of the castle but without hard evidence. We hope to test the presumed limit of this platform as we extend our trench southwards from the well that sat within the tower. (As you will recall, the GPR alerted us to that remarkable feature that became a focus for our 2019 season.) The GPR suggests that there may be a revetment supporting the platform at that point. Also, any relationship between this platform and the mid 12th-century kiln will be important in attempting to date that platform and, by extension, the Old Tower itself.

Well found in tower as a result of the GPR survey

The radargrams have also demonstrated the probable line of a terrace and sunken formal garden (red hachures on plan) and permits the excavated section of revetment and steps (shown in black) to be placed in its proper context. This garden probably dates to the 16th or 17th century, though exactly when is still debatable. The construction of the terrace removed all trace of the earlier (early to mid 15th century) ditch and so must post-date that. A late 17th-century Dutch pipe bowl found in the fill of a post hole associated with the steps suggests its removal at around that time or shortly thereafter. No trace of the terrace appears on the estate plans of c.1770.

The line of the defensive ditch has been shown by the radargrams to extend westwards from the excavated portion in Trench 11. This gives us an accurate alignment permitting its course to be drawn, even though the middle section was removed by the terrace. Where its return is at the western end of the site is still a mystery. The eastern arm was excavated in Trench 2 lying beneath the later (early 16th-century) lower courtyard. The 15th-century upper courtyard incorporated the tower with the surviving hall block (shown in blue). The courtyard’s west range can be estimated from remains found during the kiln excavation, but its eastern boundary was removed when the lower courtyard was added.

Finally, the GPR revealed the line of the outer enclosure wall as depicted on the estate plans. This was sampled in 2019 and the base of the wall found. The date of this feature is presently unknown and further work needs to be done to try to clarify that matter.

Evidence of landscaping material in outer enclosure copyright Iain Ralston

Sadly, work planned for 2020 included the extension of the ‘well trench’ in the car park to look for the possible revetment suggested by the GPR as well as opening a much bigger area across the outer enclosure wall, as located by GPR. This sits beneath a good metre and a half of later landscaping material (see picture, courtesy of Iain Ralston) and, for safety and archaeological reasons, demands a much larger trench. The keyhole sample trench indicates good survival and, it is hoped, evidence will be found to date the feature and to help explain when this became the northern boundary of the castle enclosure.

The excavated evidence together with the GPR results permit this developmental plan to be made and rough dates affixed. It is worth noting that, prior to our investigations, Druminnor was believed to have consisted solely of the surviving hall block with an attached tower at its western end. Everything not in blue on the plan, therefore, was formerly completely unknown.

Access in 2021 is still, sadly, in the laps of the Gods owing to Covid, but it is hoped that we will be able to get back on track later this year to look for more goodies!

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Castle Studies Trust Christmas Quiz – the Answers

So how many did you get right? Find out below

  1. Lincoln (2020 project)
  2. Pembroke (2018)
  3. Shrewsbury (2018 and 2019)
  4. Pulverbatch, Shropshire (2017)
  5. Pleshey, Essex (2015)
  6. Druminnor, Aberdeenshire (2019)
  7. Thornbury
  8. Warkworth (2020)
  9. Ruthin
  10. Ravenscraig, Aberdeenshire
  11. Hoghton Tower, Lancashire (2019)
  12. Wigmore
  13. The Wirk (2020)
  14. Slingsby, Yorkshire – article by Bethany Watrous on her digital reconstruction
  15. Caus, Shrophshire (2016)
  16. Gleaston, Cumbria (2015)
  17. Laughton (2018, 2019)
  18. Shrewsbury again (found during 2018 execavation)
  19. Clifford, Herefordshire (2017)
  20. Ballintober, Ireland (2014)

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Castle Studies Trust Christmas Quiz

To help keep you entertained during this strange and hopefully unique Christmas the Castle Studies Trust has prepared a Christmas quiz. Can you name the castles these pictures are or images are taken from either our projects from all years or blog posts during the year?

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  1. Where is this?

2. Where did this CST funded excavation take place?

3. Where is this?

4.What motte and bailey castle, which we funded a geophysical survey for, is this?

5. Where can you find this bridge which the Trust co-funded post excavation work on?

6. In which Scottish castle did the geophysical survey we funded find this well?

A latter coming protruding from a circular opening in the ground.
Photo by Iain Ralston and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 licence.

7. Where is this?

8. Where is this great tower?

9. This is a reconstruction drawing of which castle?

10. Where is this castle built by a queen?

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11. Where is this castle?

12. The entrance to which border castle is this?

13. Where is this base a tower? It’s one of the projects the CST has funded

14. Where is this?

15. The plan of which castle is this, which the CST funded work on?

16) Which castle is this? We funded a building survey on it previously?

17. For which castle are these aerial images of, which include results of the geophys survey the CST funded on it?

18. These pieces of Saxon pottery were found at which excavation the CST funded?

19. This is a CST study day at our first ever excavation we funded? Which castle?

20. The CST funded a buildings survey of this castle. Where is it?

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Mary of Guelders and Ravenscraig Castle

Amidst the tower blocks and industrial landscape of Kirkaldy in Fife is an unexpected sight. Perched on a triangular promontory overlooking the Firth of Forth stands the crumbling ruin of a fifteenth-century fortress. Now fiercely guarded by an abundance of resident seabirds, Ravenscraig is one of Scotland’s lesser-known medieval castles, yet it deserves a closer look, not least because it is a rare surviving example of a castle commissioned by a woman, in this case Mary of Guelders, queen of Scotland (d.1463).

Mary of Guelders and James II

Mary of Guelders first arrived in Scotland on the 18th June 1449 when she stepped onto the shores of Leith ahead of her marriage to James II at Holyrood Palace. Born in Guelders (today the province of Gelderland in Holland) and raised at the Burgundian court, Mary brought illustrious connections to her new home. The match, it seems, was met with approval on both sides: in 1457, Mary’s uncle the Duke of Burgundy sent James the gift of Mons Meg, the famous cannon which can still be seen at Edinburgh Castle today. James’ love of artillery, however, was to also be his downfall. Three years later at the Siege of Roxburgh the 29-year-old king met an untimely end when another of his cannons exploded and killed him. Mary, as this previous blog post has shown, was present at the siege, and following her husband’s tragic death, the newly widowed queen ordered for Roxburgh to be razed to the ground. From 1460 until her own death three years later, Mary acted as regent of Scotland, ruling on behalf of her young son, James III. It is also from this point that she becomes visible to us in the historical record as a prolific patron of architecture.

Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Lee Sie, licensed CC-BY-SA 2.0.

The nature of the evidence means that we don’t know too much about Mary’s actions during her marriage, but the few glimpses we can glean suggest that she played a relatively active role as consort, including at her husband’s first parliament in 1450. She was also present at the siege of Blackness Castle in 1454 (which James afterwards gave her as a gift to celebrate the Scots’ victory), and she appears to have been the driving force behind the couple’s foundation of a hospital at Fale near Glasgow. It is during her brief stint as regent, however, that Mary’s enthusiasm for building projects really becomes apparent: she not only commissioned Ravenscraig, but also Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, as well as improvements to Falkland Palace, which included the first recorded instance of a gallery in Scotland. Recent dendrochronology carried out by Dr Coralie Mills and Hamish Darrah on the tower of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland has also revealed Mary’s likely involvement in the fifteenth-century alterations there. Ravenscraig was therefore one of a number of works which Mary undertook during her regency.

The Apse of Trinity College Kirk, Chalmers Close, Edinburgh. This is all that remains of Mary’s foundation, which once stood on the site of Waverley train station and was partially rebuilt in its new location during the nineteenth century. Photo © Rachel Delman.

Shortly before his death, James II had gifted the estate of Dysart to Mary, after which she funded her major works at Ravenscraig entirely from her own revenues. We know from the Exchequer Rolls that she spent 600 pounds Scots on the castle, but it could have been considerably more, as the accounts of the queen’s lands for the first term after the king’s death are missing. Building began in the east, but Mary died before she could see the castle finished, at which point the regular flurry of works ceased altogether. Part of the castle was inhabitable before her death, however, as in 1461, the queen’s steward was able to stay there for 25 days along with several of her servants.

A view of the east range of Falkland Palace containing the sixteenth-century royal apartments of James V and Mary of Guise. Mary of Guelders’ apartments and gallery are no longer visible, having been demolished to make way for the current buildings. Photo © Rachel Delman.

From the outset, Ravenscraig appears to have been intended to have a strong military appearance and is believed to be the first castle in Scotland designed to withstand cannon fire. For this reason, it has been treated as something of an enigma by historians and heritage professionals, who often regard the military design as being at odds with its supposedly intended use by Mary as a dower or “retirement’’ house. Yet the two are not necessarily incompatible. Mary’s decision to fortify the castle and to protect a vulnerable piece of coastline made perfect sense given the changeable nature of relations with the English at this point.

Ravenscraig Castle, looking north. Photo © Rachel Delman.

It was also not unusual for women elsewhere in Europe to be involved in military endeavours at this time. Mary’s contemporaries in Renaissance Italy, for example, frequently acted as military managers, fortifying towns and cities and supplying provisions and resources. Closer to home, Margaret of Anjou, with whom Mary negotiated terms in 1460, was also commissioning works on several English castles around this time, including the refurbishment of the keep of Pleshey Castle in brick. Equally, Mary’s aunt, Isabella of Portugal, in whose court the queen of Scots had been raised, was a politically active and energetic architectural patron. Mary therefore came from a tradition whereby architecture was commonly adopted as a language of female power. It is also possible, particularly given the circumstances of James’ death, that Mary intended for Ravenscraig to be part of a larger commemoration project for her husband, which also included her mausoleum at Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh.

The termination of the works at Ravenscraig upon Mary’s death in 1463 suggests that she was very much the driving force behind them. James III showed little interest in his mother’s project, instead granting the castle to the Sinclair family, who completed the building. Nevertheless, the remains stand as a testament to the ways in which Mary chose to materially express her authority as regent. They also pose a challenge to the overwhelmingly male narrative that has long dominated castle studies, reminding us that women could, and did, play active and sometimes innovative roles in shaping the physical and social life of late medieval castles.

Ravenscraig Castle is now owned by Historic Environment Scotland. It is free to visit and open all year round. For updates from the Castle Studies Trust, subscribe to our quarterly newsletter.

Is the The Wirk a Castle? Archaeological investigations in Rousay, Orkney

With HES giving the provisional sign off for the excavation at The Wirk to take place in the week commencing 21 September, and the geophys survey to take place the previous week, project leads Drs Dan Lee and Sarah Jane Gibbon outline the background to the project and what they hope to find.

Located on the south-western coast of Rousay, The Wirk is located in one of the most archaeologically rich parts of Orkney. The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) is undertaking geophysical survey, archaeological excavations and 3D modelling at this enigmatic castle site (pending approval from HES).

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The Wirk, meaning stronghold in Old Norse, and with the alternative name Westness Castle, is a small stone tower located close to the coast. It has variously been interpreted as a 12th century Norse Castle, a detached fortified bell-tower, a 13th century defensive tower for an incomplete church, a hall-house garderobe tower and most recently a 16th century tower and attached range.

The Wirk located on the side of  St Mary’s Church graveyard, looking south. credit: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView

Minor clearance and excavation in the 1920s identified similarities in construction between The Wirk and the 12th century Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the nearby island of Wyre, considered to be one of the earliest stone keeps in Scotland. The Wirk is located in Westness which has been a large estate since at least the 12th century when it was the home of the Norse chieftain Sigurd of Westness (Orkneyinga saga). It is adjacent to Rousay parish church, likely to date from the 12th century, with standing remains of 16th century date on earlier footings.

Recently, the 12th/13th century date attribution of The Wirk has been rejected in favour of a 16th century date. This new interpretation is based on the built remains and 16th century architectural fragments which were found in the 1920s. However, architectural fragments of 12th/13th century date were also present and nearby archaeology, particularly the discovery earlier this year of a Norse hall at Skaill by the UHI Archaeology Institute would suggest this was a high-status place in the saga period. This is not to dispute that The Wirk may also have been in use in the 16th century when the estate was owned by a prominent Orkney family. One of the objectives of this project is to excavate trial trenches over Clouston’s excavation and at the eastern end of the site to identify the earliest phases of the tower and adjacent building. Upper parts of the tower were substantially rebuilt in the 19th century and so excavation will allow us to record parts of the site that have not been knowingly rebuilt.

Inside The Wirk tower, looking southeast, showing the entrance to an underground well or passage (Image: Dan Lee)

Along with the excavations, targeted geophysical survey around The Wirk aims to better understand any relationships between the tower and the buildings/features which surround it. 3D modelling of The Wirk and Cubbie Roo’s Castle will enhance our understanding of these comparable sites and allow the public to explore the remains online.

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References and further reading:

Clouston, JS 1931 Early Norse Castles. The Orcadian. Kirkwall

Gibbon SJ 2017 A Survey of Norse Castles in Orkney, in P Martin (ed) Castles and Galleys: A reassessment of the historic galley-castles of the Norse-Gaelic seaways. Islands Book Trust. Laxay. 226-248.

HES 2017. Skaill farm survey, The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/event/1040199

HES 2020. The Wirk http://canmore.org.uk/site/2282

HES 2020. Skaill farm, Rousay http://canmore.org.uk/site/351514

Tabraham, C 1997 Scotland’s Castles. BT Batsford. London.

UHI 2019: https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/08/06/norse-hall-discovered-at-skaill-rousay-orkney/

Featured image: View of The Wirk, located on the righthand corner of St Mary’s Church yard in the foreground, looking northwest to Midhowe and the Atlantic Ocean (Image: Bobby Friel @TakeTheHighView).

Doon on the lochfront: Loch Doon Castle (Ayrshire, Scotland)

As part of his 2018 PhD thesis on Scotland’s early stone castles, Dr Will Wyeth assessed some of the country’s underexplored sites. One such was Loch Doon castle which provides a case study for two of Will’s key themes of his research, namely the castle’s orientation and its landscape.

Loch Doon was home to a series of small islands, one of which was largely occupied by a medieval castle, comprising an enclosure and within it, parts of a later medieval tower house. In 1935 the loch was dammed and in consequence of the resulting rising water level, the castle dismantled and re-assembled on the modern lochside to the west of its original position.

Original location of Loch Doon Castle, picture taken between 1902-18. Picture courtesy of Brian McGarrigle, Scottish Castle Association

Connecting its architecture with the emergence of scattered references in documentary sources, we believe it was built by the mid-late 13th-century earls of Carrick, among whose members were Robert de Brus and his son by the same name, later Robert I. The castle appears in the 1370s Scottish (as opposed to the revised early 15th-century English) portion of the ‘Gough Map’ as loghdone. Little store can really be set by its depiction there, owing to uncertain cartographic conventions, though it is noteworthy that it is represented by two castle icons – one on the loch island, another on the adjacent shore.

Loch Doon castle featured in an episode of the war which saw Sir Christopher Seton, brother-in-law of Robert the Bruce flee to the castle. It was besieged and thereafter was surrendered to English troops by Sir Gilbert de Carrick in 1306, who was probably a kinsman to Robert. While the meagre early history of the castle is reasonably well-known, what has hitherto not been explored in great detail are two other elements of Loch Doon Castle. What can it tell us about its builders? And is there evidence for a wider landscape to the castle, and what can this tell us?

Why build it on an island?

There is a significant volume of evidence, and discussion by many earlier and contemporary historians, regarding the long-lived tradition of natural, modified or artificial island lordship centres in Scotland. So was Loch Doon castle referencing this tradition, alive and well in contemporary Scotland? I argued that while there was no question of an island site’s defensive advantages, as well as an acknowledged similarity to the crannog tradition, Loch Doon castle was more of a castle than a crannog-like castle.

Loch Doon Castle Main Entrance, copyright Prof. Richard Oram

The way the castle’s formal entry point, its large pointed portal, opened nearly straight onto water, whilst its work-a-day entry (the sole other access) opened onto part of the island with a beach for ease of landing and more space, suggested similarities with the managed routes of access to castles specifically: the rest of the island can be imagined as small outer yard. Such routes and configurations may have been apparent in contemporary crannogs, but evidence is simply lacking. Both insular castles and medieval crannogs may have been built to draw attention to vast sheets of natural water for which terrestrial castles elsewhere used ponds and lakes. The castle’s long southern wall, forming the exterior face of its great hall, was designed for maximum exposure to the sun, but also towards routes from Galloway in the south.

A landscape context?

The castle is situated at the border of two counties; indeed, at the time of its construction, it was located at the south-eastern extremity of the earldom of Carrick. A routeway from the political heartland of medieval Galloway in Glenken runs through the valley of Loch Doon towards the royal centre at Ayr. Another route ran from another politically important area in eastern Wigtownshire into the valley of Loch Doon.

There is evidence for all kinds of medieval activity near to the castle. At the farm sites of Starr and Loch Head south of the castle are traces of rig-and-furrow cultivation assumed to be medieval in origin. The nearby farm of Portmark evidenced later medieval metalworking, and its name suggests a tangible connection to the castle; elsewhere, port– place-names mark the embarkation point for medieval crossing to insular lordship centres. Perhaps this was what the Gough map was representing as a second ‘castle’? Such composite island-waterside complexes are widely recognised in Ireland. Lastly, in the rugged hilly district south of the castle, in neighbouring Galloway, are a cluster of place-names connected to deer traps, from the Gaelic eileirig, as well as the location of a hitherto unattested hunt hall (possibly medieval in origin) at the aptly named ruined building named Hunt Ha’.

What was the castle ‘for’?

It is difficult to establish a conclusive answer. In 1306, Sir Henry Percy seized administrative and military documents stored at the castle for the English crown following its surrender. Whether these documents were at the castle as a matter of course (so making the castle a manorial centre of sorts) or because of the political violence unfolding across the kingdom is not clear. Both may be true. The evidence from the castle and its landscape suggests it was ‘doing’ many things. It was made to be seen from far and wide. Its position by a routeway through the rugged Galloway Hills is typical for castles in general. Its insular setting may reflect a castellar rendering of the crannog tradition, or a Carrick take on the watery landscapes of castles lowland Britain and Ireland. The earldom’s main and older centre – Turnberry castle, on the coast in lowland Carrick and over 31km as the crow flies from Loch Doon – was its only other castle. Thus, Loch Doon castle may have as much been a retreat for leisure, for welcoming guests and the comital ensemble travelling to Galloway, as an administrative centre for the earldom’s extensive upland districts.

You can read Will’s PhD thesis for free on the University of Stirling’s website.

A Large and Eclectic Crop of Fascinating Applications for the Castle Studies Trust to Consider

The deadline for grant applications passed on 30th November. We’re going through the various projects now. Altogether the 13 projects, coming from England, Ireland, and Scotland are asking for over £88,000. They cover not only a wide period of history but also a wide range of topics. In a little more detail, here are the applications we’ve received:

Bamburgh, Northumberland

Photo by Thomas Quine, licensed CC BY 2.0.

The main aim is to recover evidence for the base natural topography around the approach to the main gate of the once royal castle, from the area of the medieval village, and explore how this was altered, presented and exploited to create a sense of theatre for visitors to the site.

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire

Photo by Sean Wallis, licensed CC BY NC 2.0.

A geoarchaeological auger survey of the moats that surround this former royal castle and palace of Thomas Becket. The survey aims to answer such questions as what were the moats original profiles, when were the moats filled and how do the two moats compare with each other.

Dunollie, Argyll

Photo by Paul Lloyd, licensed CC BY NC SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the castle owned by the MacDougall clan through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Fraoch Eilean, Loch Awe

Photo by Andrea Hope, licensed CC BY SA 2.0.

To try and understand the date of the construction of the former royal castle through various through buildings and materials analysis including radiocarbon dating and mortar analysis.

Hoghton, Lancashire

The aim of the project to continue the work the CST funded in 2019 with excavations and building survey. Further excavations will try and understand the purpose of the structures found in the 2019 excavation season and if they were related to the original great tower.

Holme Pierpont, Nottinghamshire

To build up an understanding of this late medieval great house, never previously researched. The work will include a mixture of desk research, building survey and geophysical survey of the parkland surrounding it. The house is the most complete of the three late medieval brick-built houses in Nottinghamshire.

Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Photo by Ben Keating, licensed CCY BY NC SA 2.0.

To develop a reconstruction drawing of the castle as it would have appeared in the second half of the 12th century. Lincoln Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century.

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

To fund a second year of excavation, this time to understand the rampart of the inner bailey. The geophysical survey carried out in the 2019 suggested there could be remains of buildings there, possibly even a late Saxon church. Shrewsbury was a very important border castle up until the 13th century and frequently used as a base for English raids into Wales.

Sowing the Seeds

Hortus conclusus depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins

The aim of the project is to try and understand better everyday life in castles by seeing if there are any surviving plants at four Irish castles that were planted, grown and cared for by medieval people. The research will involve ecological surveys at each location.

Strongholds of Wessex

Photo of Silbury Hill by Greg O’Beirne, licensed CC BY SA 3.0.

The aim of the project is to understand the military organisation of the northern part of Wessex (Wiltshire and West Oxfordshire) from the transition from Saxon to Norman rule between the 9th and 12th centuries. The work will involve documentary research, landscape and place name surveys. Sites examined will include Castle Combe, Cricklade and Silbury Hill.

The Wirk, Orkney

Rousay - The Wirk

Could the Wirk be a Norse castle? Based on the island of Rousay, this stone tower is situated close to the old parish church and recently discovered Norse Hall. However, no one knows what this tower was used for or even when it was built. The work would involve a geophysical survey of the surrounding area as well as two trial trenches to try and find dating evidence.

Thermal Imaging of Castles

A thermogram of Cirencester Roman amphitheatre by Dr John Wells, licensed CC BY SA 4.0.

To test how useful thermal imaging could be in understanding castles. The thermal survey using a FLIR camera of two castle facades in different climates. within the UK—Caisteal Uisdein, on the coast of Loch Snizort, and a castle farther south and slightly inland, Castle Rising.

Warkworth, Northumberland

Photo by Barry Marsh, in the public domain

Using various forms of geophysical survey to try and understand the subsurface features for the former caput of the Dukes of Northumberland. The survey will focus on the bailey inside the 12th-century curtain wall as well as the strip of land outside but on the early earthwork castle, the motte and field near the entrance to the castle.


The applications have been sent to our expert assessors who will go over them. And if you want to know more about how the assessment process works, we have a brief summary.

Five New Awards and £100,000 in six years

We are excited to announce five grants totalling a record £27,000 that will advance our understanding of castles. These awards mean we have reached the landmark of giving away £100,000 in grants. It has taken six years for us to do that during which time the Trust has doubled the maximum amount we can award to £10,000.

Before you read about the five projects below, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter if you haven’t already.

  • Druminnor, Aberdeenshire – Using GPR for an investigation of the 15th century core of the castle – presently under a hardcore car park. This was the original caput of the lords of Forbes. During the 15th century they were amongst the most powerful families in the North-east of Scotland.
  • Hoghton Tower, Lancashire – This project aims to form an axis of research into Hoghton Tower’s unique physical history. The main focus will be to investigate and advance the knowledge of the pre-1560 site and specifically try to test the hypothesis that the north side building may form part of the ‘original’ Hoghton Tower.
  • Laughton en le Morthen, South Yorkshire – Excavation to try to confirm the findings of the geophysical surveys the CST funded in 2018. These indicated that the castle was placed right on the top of a high status Saxon dwelling.
  • Shrewsbury, Shropshire – Geophysical survey and excavation to determine how the castle buildings were laid out in the bailey. This will be the first time the well preserved motte-and-bailey castle has been excavated. First mentioned in 1069, Shrewsbury Castle was a key point along the Anglo-Welsh border and fell into ruin following the conquest of Wales.
  • Wressle, East Yorkshire – A geophysical survey of the area to the south of the castle ruins which had been covered by the previous earthwork survey funded by the CST, to get more information about the various garden structures there, as well as other details regarding the deserted village, moat and fishponds. The 14th century castle was one of the most important castles owned by the Earls of Northumberland.

Be sure to follow us on social media where we’ll be bringing you updates from the field, with work starting this month. In the meantime, here are some of our supporters discussing our work. we hope you’re looking forward to this year’s projects as much as we are!