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Castles and Fortified Buildings of Scotland

ROTHESAY CASTLE; showing the 13th century curtain wall, and the bases of the south-east and south-west towers..


Rothesay Castle is a ruined castle in Rothesay, the principal town on SCHEMATIC LAYOUT OF THE RUIN BEFORE RESTORATION (COURTESY OF HISTORIC SCOTLAND)the Isle of Bute, in western Scotland. This castle has been described as one of the most remarkable in Scotland;  its long history dates back to the beginning of the 13th century, and it was designed with a most unusual circular plan.

The castle was built either by Alan, High Steward of Scotland (d.1204), or by his son Walter Stewart (d.1246), ancestor of the House of Stuart or Stewart. Alan was granted the lands of the Isle of Bute by William I in 1200. A wooden castle was constructed first, but the stone circular curtain wall was in place by the 1230s, when the castle was attCURTASIN WALL AND CHAPEL, ACROSS THE COURTYARD FROM THE GREAT HALLacked and taken by Norsemen under Gillespec MacDougall (known as Uspak in Norse), grandson of Somerled. According to The Saga of Haakon Haakonsson, the Norsemen fought for three days to take the castle, breaking down part of the eastern wall by hewing the stone with their axes "because it was soft". Certainly the eastern wall shows signs of damage, but the breach was quickly repaired at the time, and the exact site is undetermined. This saga is the earliest recorded account of an assault on a Scottish castle.                            

   In 1263, Rothesay was taken again by the Norse under Haakon IV before the Battle of Largs. Although the Battle of Largs was indecisive, Haakon's campaign was unsuccessful, and effectively ended Norse influence in western Scotland.ROTHESAY CASTLE ENTRANCE TOWER TODAY

The opening picture at the top of the page shows the13th century curtain wall seen from the south-east, across the moat. The bases of the south-east and south-west towers can be seen.
The early castle had only the roughly circular curtain wall, 3m thick and around 43m across, built on a low mound, with a battlement on top accessed by open stairs. The moat was connected to the sea, as thENTRANCE TOWER PLAQUEe



 shoreline was much closer in these days. The broad crenellations can be made out within the walls, which were later raised. Holes in the upper wall would have supported a timber bretasche ( a projecting structure serving as an extended battlement). This curtain wall was built of coursed ashlar, and had only two openings in its length. The main gate was an arched opening with a simple timber door. The second opening was a small postern gate in the west wall, later blocked.
In the later part of the 13th century, the castle was strengthened by the addition of four round towers, of which only the north-east survives intact. These three-storey towers had strong splayed bases, with arrow slits below the crenellated parapet. A portcullis was added to the main gate.THE GREAT HALL FROM THE NORTH. THE FIREPLACE JUST SHOWS ON THE RIGHT.

During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Rothesay was held by the English, but was taken by Robert the Bruce in 1311. It then returned to English hands in 1334, before being taken again by the Scots. Following the accession of the Stewarts to the throne of Scotland in 1371, the castle became a favourite residence of kings Robert II, and Robert III who died here in 1406. Robert II granted the hereditary keepership of the castle to his son John, ancestor of the Earls and Marquesses of Bute. Robert III made his eldest son David Duke of Rothesay in 1401, beginning a tradition of honouring the heir to the throne of Scotland with this title. (Today, the Duke of Rothesay is HRH Prince Charles). In 1462 the castle survived a siege by the forces of John of Islay, Earl of Ross and the last Lord of the Isles.

THE FIREPLACE IN THE GREAT HALLIn the early 16th century Rothesay Castle was strengthened again. Construction of a gatehouse keep, extending from the north of the curtain wall, began around the turn of the century, to provide more modern accommodation for James IV. The curtain wall itself was raised up to ten metres in height, the works continuing into the reign of James V. In 1527 the castle withstood another siege by the Master of Ruthven, which destroyed much of the burgh of Rothesay. In 1544, the castle fell to the Earl of Lennox, acting for the English during the so-called "Rough Wooing".

The forework is an L-plan structure, which jutted into the moat and was accessed by a drawbridge. The lower floor comprised a vaulted entrance tunnel running into the older castle courtyard. Above, the four storey THE tower contained royal lodgings, and still bears the royal coat of arms above the door. Also in the early 16th century, a chapel was built inside the old castle. Simple in form, the chapel measured around 6m by 9m, and is now the only surviving structure within the curtain wall. The north-west tower was converted into a doocot (dovecote), and is known as the "Pigeon Tower", from the nest boxes built into the outside wall.

Rothesay was garrisoned for the Royalists during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, then for the occupying forces of Oliver Cromwell, who invaded Scotland with his New Model Army in the early 1650s. On their departure in 1660, the troops partially dismantled the structure. What was left was burned by the supporters of Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll during his rising of 1685, in support of the Monmouth Rebellion against James VII.

Following a long period of neglect, the 2nd Marquess of Bute employed 70 men to excavate the ruins, clearing large amounts of rubbish from the castle in 1816-17. But it was not until the 1870s that the ruins were stabilised. ThRESTORATION WORK IN PROGRESS ON THE GREAT HALLe 3rd Marquess, a keen restorer of historic buildings, embarked upon a series of repairs and restorations, following surveys and advice from his regular architect William Burges. His "restorations" continued until 1900, and include the clearing and shaping of the moat, as well as the red sandstone additions to the forework, which reinstated the hall roof while significantly altering the character of the building.
In 1961 Rothesay Castle was gifted to the state, and is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, in the care of Historic Scotland.
The castle is open to visitors year round . Fine views can be seen from the top of the walls over the town and back towards the mainland.


(For more information about Rothesay Castle, and the many sites and preservation work of Historic Scotland, use this link to go to the website:   )


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