Castles and Fortified Buildings of Scotland
Castle is a ruined castle in Rothesay, the principal town on 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
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 attacked
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
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.
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 the
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,
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.
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.
In 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
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 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
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
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.
The 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: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk )