Threave Castle History
Threave Castle in Galloway is one of the
earliest tower house castles in Scotland. It was built from around the year 1369 by Archibald
Douglas, nicknamed Archibald the Grim, to mark his elevation to the lordship of
Tower houses first appeared in the 14th century, and quickly
replaced the earlier fashion in Scotland for curtain wall or enclosure castles. For the next
300 years, they were the dominant form of castle design north of the border.
Superficially, they are similar to the keeps of 12th century
England, but they differ in crucial ways. The biggest difference is that tower houses –
especially later examples – tend to be more self-contained than keeps. Threave
castle, for instance, has a kitchen on its first floor, which would be a real oddity
in a Norman keep.
Likewise, stone-vaulted ceilings are common in tower houses, but
rare in keeps. Entry to a tower house, although commonly on the first floor (as at Threave) was
occasionally by a door at ground-floor level; again, this is unheard of with keeps. The
builders of Scottish tower houses also seem to have liked building them in
remote and unforgiving locations – rocky peninsulas, windswept hills, on small islands.
Threave stands on an island in the middle of the River Dee.
Nothing but a tower?
Tower houses seem to be self-contained and
isolated, and the traditional view has always been that they were closed-up, inward looking
buildings – in a phrase, 'a tower, and nothing but a tower'.
They appear to endorse the view that Scotland in the late Middle
Ages was a pretty nasty place to live; a time when, in the words of Sir Walter Scott,
'Everybody was too busy fighting to write anything down'. Incessant violence between the king
and his nobles prompted the latter to lock themselves away in dark forbidding towers for their
own safety and protection.
However, this rather extreme view of Scottish medieval history
has recently been challenged and modified. While violence did occur, for the most part kings
and nobles were working together in the business of governing the kingdom, rather than fighting
each other the whole time. Accordingly, tower houses are now seen not simply as an indication
of increased unrest, but to some degree as a measure of peace and prosperity. Building on this
scale required years of stability and pots of money.
As it stands today, Threave castle looks like
an example of the traditional view of Scottish castles. Not only does it stand alone, grim and
forbidding, on its island; it also has a large and elaborate artillery platform wrapped
around its base, to defend the castle from attack.
However, excavations at the castle in the 1970s revealed that
this platform was thrown up with great haste during a conflict between the Douglases and the
Scottish crown in the 1450s. What's more, it was built over (and using the stone from) two
earlier domestic buildings, which had been put up at the same time as the tower house
In other words, Threave as it now appears
looked nothing like it did when Archibald the Grim lived there in the late 14th century.
Archibald himself may have been grim, but his castle in the middle of the River Dee must have
looked really rather splendid.
After the fall of the Douglases, the Lordship of Galloway and
Threave Castle were annexed to the crown, which installed a succession of keepers at the
Threave Castle Today
In 1526, the Lords Maxwell, whose principal seat was
Caerlaverock Castle, were declared hereditary custodians of Threave Castle and they remained so
until 1640 when the castle was finally abandoned during the Civil War.
In 1948, Threave Castle, along with
Threave House and garden, were given to the National Trust for Scotland by
Major AF Gordon DSO, MC. The castle was then placed under the guardianship of Historic
Scotland, which manages it today.
Threave Castle Map&Location
Threave Castle Address: Dumfries
& Galloway, Castle Douglas DG7 1BG, United Kingdom. Get help with
Threave Castle in a larger map