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Threave Castle

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 Galloway.

Self-contained keeps

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.

Grim splendour

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 itself.

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 castle.

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 directions:

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Threave Castle Photos

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The Threave Castle
Ferry to Threave Castle
Threave Castle inside
Original harbour for access to Threave Castle
Threave Castle - boat jetty
Threave Castle in winter
The Threave Castle
Threave Castle inside
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