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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Rothesay Castle


As the County of Kinross, one of the smallest in area of the divisions of Scotland, contains within its limited space variety of scenery and wealth of historic association unequalled by larger counties, so Bute, one of the least considerable of the islands of the west, appears to the intelligent observer as a miracle of loveliness, teeming with facts and fancies of olden times. The River Clyde, which here debouches into the Atlantic Ocean, surrounds the islands of Bute, Arran, and the Cumbraes, each presenting a different type of beauty from the others, and claiming diverse meads of praise. The scenery of Arran, whose bold outline of rugged alpine peaks in barren grandeur is thrown against the sky, contrasts with the commonplace elevation of the Cumbraes, whose gentle, undulating eminences are too fruitful and well-cultivated to become the home of romance. To Bute is reserved that combination of wild, unsophisticated nature and extreme civilization which holds the greatest charm for the tourist of modern times. From the inconsiderable heights which this island affords, you may overlook the broad expanse of water which lies betwixt Bute and the Ayrshire coast, whose continuous outline becomes reduced shorewards, until it terminates in the distant point of Port Crawford; or, looking northward, the grim desolation of the Cowal shore presents a different scene. There the o’ertopping Argyll mountains fade away into obscurity, filling in the distant background with some far-remote Ben, which none save an expert will venture to name. There are not many places in Scotland where, at one moment, we may find ourselves—

"Far ‘lone amang the Hieland hills
‘Mid Nature’s wildest grandeur;"

and at the next may turn to view—

"The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples"

of a very advanced civilization. Yet these are points in the island of Bute from which the beholder may elect either to feast his eyes upon—

"The hills embrowned with bracken? rusty gold,
And the bell-heather,"

telling of the scanty pasturage and waste lands which produce the men of war; or to turn his gaze upon the—

"Deep waving fields and pastures green,
With gentle slopes and groves between,"

of a highly-civilized land, which exhibits the blessings of peace.

From a slight elevation the eye may at one glance see the ancient town of Rothesay, stretching around the shore of its crescent-shaped bay, and uplifting its multi-form spires and towers above the din and tumult of constant traffic; and at the same time it may rest upon the placid waters of Loch Ascog or Loch Fad, embosomed amid the uplands of the island, and reposing as tranquilly as though they were situated in the least-frequented hills of the Northern Highlands.

The summit of the heath-clad steep of Barone Hill permits a very wide expanse of country to be seen; and topographers of an arithmetical turn may reckon up twelve counties as being thus brought within the range of vision. The receding coast of Ayrshire allows a broad sheet of water to extend southwards to the horizon; and the Argyll shore, suddenly trending westward, and terminating in the elongated peninsula of Cantyre, leaves Bute standing alone amid the surrounding element—

"A priceless gem, set in a silver sea."

The very minuteness of the separate portions of the scene gives a kind of fairy charm to it. For it seems as if one were looking upon some exquisite model of Scottish landscape, wherein might be seen, upon a reduced scale, the loch, the hillside, and the river, with every distinctive characteristic which belongs to "the land of the mountain and the flood." And so this lovely islet is but a microcosrn, a toy-model of Scottish scenery. One is not astonished, therefore, to find that Bute has some pre-historic ruins of a religious establishment, whose unwritten story must be of a remote date.

The remains of the ancient Chapel of St Blane may still be seen nestling in a sequestered dell in the southern part of the island; and here, if tradition may be believed, the holy Blane has peacefully reposed for these last thirteen centuries. The architecture of the Chapel certainly belongs to an era of comparative antiquity, though the dates of some of the earlier chroniclers of the Saints are no more reliable than the chronology of the Chinese historians. The story of Saint Blane as now preserved in the traditions of the island must be taken with "a pinch of salt," as the Romans used to say. A certain bishop from Ireland (these Irish people early found the way to Caledonia), called St Chattan, had selected this part of Bute as his residence, and here he settled with his sister Erca, resolved to effect the conversion of the pagans of Scotland to the true and universal faith. Whatever effect the ministrations of the holy man may have had upon the natives is now unknown; but it is recorded that whilst he was powerless to win over the King of Scots to his religion, the beauty of his sister enticed that sovereign from the path of rectitude. The unhappy Erca, when her crime could no longer be hid, was visited with the punishment then deemed the best corrective for errors of judgment. She was placed in a coracle, or boat of skins, and set adrift upon the bosom of the Clyde, a living Elaine in search of her faithless Lancelot. The wind and the tide bore her far away southwards, and cast her, with her helpless babe, upon the hospitable shore of Ireland.

Here she was rescued by two generous Hiberthan monks, who baptized the little stranger by the name of "Blaan," and tended and cared for him for some time. At length he was sent to his uncle, Chattan, in Bute, who adopted and educated him for the priesthood, and shortly after his ordination he journeyed to Rome, and was consecrated Bishop by the occupant of St Peter’s Chair. Returning to Scotland he settled in Perthshire, founding the sacred house of Dunblane, of which See he was the first bishop; and after his demise his remains were conveyed to Kilchattan Bay, in Bute, the scene of his early life, to rest near the relics of his uncle and benefactor.

Not far from St Blane’s Chapel there stands a vitrified Roman fort, showing that these ubiquitous conquerors had penetrated even here, and left the traces of their civilizing influences behind them. Indeed, the name "Bute" is said by some philologists to be a corruption of the Latin "buda," the name applied by the Roman historians to the western isles of Scotland. The defective geography of the time probably led them to imagine that the whole of the west coast was protected by a continuous chain of islands, extending from Orkney ("Ultima Thule") to Arran, inhabited by a savage and irreclaimable people, upon whom the arts of Italy could exercise no humanizing power. Bute, therefore, seems to have been the spot chosen by them as the extreme limit of the civilization of western Scotland, and here they terminated their line of defence.

All theories upon the origin of the fort of Dunna-Goil, regarding which no authentic records exist, are but founded upon conjecture, and set solely upon circumstantial evidence. The antiquity of Rothesay Castle, though wrapt in some obscurity, is not so far removed from written history; and as the interest attached to it arises from its connection with known events in the annals of Scotland, the influence of inventive romance is not so apparent.

Rothesay Castle

The ancient Castle of Rothesay is peculiarly situated. The bay takes a gigantic sweep inland from the point of Bogany to that of Ardbeg; and at the very centre of this hemisphere, only a few yards from the shore, this venerable pile has been erected. Unlike most of the ancient Castles, it is built upon low ground, and might be easily commanded from the heights. Its position, however, has doubtless been chosen as affording an extensive view of the Firth of Clyde, though the clustering dwellings which now surround it effectually interrupt the prospect. The building is considerable in extent, though the various styles of architecture and the methods of masonry employed show that the original structure has been very much enlarged. Possibly the nucleus around which these additions have been made was the circular tower on the east side, which bears the greatest resemblance to the antique forts of remote times. And the derivation of the name of Rothesay, which authorities say is compounded from the Gaelic Roth, a circle, and Suidh a seat, give some countenance to the theory that the circular donjon was the earliest part of the building. The crow-stepped Flemish gables and circle-top windows of other portions belong to a period much nearer our own time.

The Castle has been of sufficient compass to contain within its walls an extensive courtyard and a private chapel. Though now entirely roofless, there are many traces left of foundations and razed walls which sufficiently indicate the importance and extent of the Castle. In many parts of the buildings the walls are over seven feet in thickness, and are composed mostly of square-hewn stones with rough rubble-work. The edifice is surrounded by a moat fifteen feet deep by about nine feet wide, which is supplied with water from Loch Fad, though probably in the earlier days of the Castle the waters of the bay have laved its walls.

The main doorway is the least imposing portion of the structure, though the sculptured arms above it, and the portcullis groove in the lintels still challenge the attention of the antiquary. The clustering ivy which luxuriates in every portion of the Castle, clothing its rugged front with vesture of perennial green, serves to enhance the romantic effect of the whole scene, and to awaken those memories of the past which are ever associated with this "dainty plant that creepeth o’er ruins old." And the past of Rothesay Castle is not uneventful.

It is supposed that the original building was erected by Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, some time about the end of the 11th century. This redoubtable sea-king had conquered the Hebridean Isles, and, descending as far south as Bute, he there established a post from which he might menace the mainland of Scotland. And if this tradition be correct, it is curious to note that this Royal Castle of Rothesay was erected by an alien and an invader, and must have stood for many years as a sign of the subjection of the natives to a foreign yoke. Yet those jovial fair-haired Norwegians were no ascetics, but bold, free-handed, and frank, as befitted the warriors whose "march was o’er the mountain waves," whose "home was on the deep." And these old walls, in their earliest days, must have witnessed many a scene of "gamyn and glee," and resounded upon festive occasions with "mirth and youthful jollity." For we know the method of the Norwegian rover’s life from the Saga of King Olaf—

"The guests were loud, the ale was strong,
King Olaf feasted late
and long;
The hoary Scalds together sang,
O’erhead the smoky rafters rang."

And with some such rites as these was the baptism of Rothesay Castle accomplished in those distant times.

Some romantic theorists assert that the true meaning of Rothesay in Gaelic is "Wheel of Fortune," and state that this name was bestowed upon it in consequence of the rapid changes which took place in the possession of this ancient fortalice. The original appellation given to it by its Norwegian founders is now unknown; but the study of its history sufficiently justifies this fanciful title, as shall now be related.

The topographical position of many of our Scottish Castles made them historical, even though they had no intrinsic claim upon the historian. The names of many of them are preserved, not so much in consequence of their importance as because they occupied debatable land, upon which opposing armies continually met to decide their contests. Such a position did Rothesay Castle occupy. Situated at the entrance to the estuary of the Clyde, and possessing a well-sheltered harbour and good post of observation, it was naturally one of the coveted spots which attracted the attention of the northern invaders. The Norwegians and Danes, who successively over-ran the coasts of Scotland, were not ignorant of the advantages possessed by the hold of this fort, and thus it happened that many a bloody fray took place beneath its walls. And so, for a hundred and fifty years after its erection the Castle changed hands frequently, until it came at length into the power of the Norwegians after a protracted siege.

The native Scots had not sufficient strength to dislodge them from this coign of vantage, and when Hako, the Dane, led his great Armada into the Firth of Clyde, he found in Rothesay a safe harbour for his fleet, and a strong fortress for his protection. Warily extending his conquests, he took possession of Arran and the Cumbraes, preparatory to making a descent upon the mainland; and gathering together the combined forces of Norway and Denmark, he landed on the Ayrshire coast immediately opposite Bute. But the young King, Alexander III., had already aroused the Scottish peoples to resistance, and, marching himself at the head of his army, he met the invaders at Largs, but a short distance from their point of landing.

The fortunes of war were not soon decided, as neither party gained palpable advantage over the other; and so the battle was renewed upon three successive days. But, Neptune and Ćolus, the gods of the Sea and the Wind, came to the aid of Britain, as they did three centuries later against the Spanish Armada of Philip II. The wild nor’-east wind sweeping down the Firth, and lashing the troubled waters into fury, drove the Danish ships from their anchorage, and dashed them helplessly upon the unfriendly shore. The noble barks, which had withstood the gales of many years, were powerless in the narrow, unknown channels in which they were drifting; and the Danes found in their melancholy experience that neither the winds nor the waves would obey them.

The Scots were active in taking advantage of this occasion; and they drove the too-confident invaders ignominiously from their coasts. Hako retired with difficulty, taking the remnant of his army to Orkney; and there, lamenting the flower of his warriors and his own near kinsmen slain in this disastrous conflict, he finally expired, the victim of grief and despair. Thus ended the Battle of Largs, the last contest betwixt the Scots and Danes upon our native soil. Nearly six centuries after, the descendants of those warriors met in widely-diverse circumstances. Then "mighty Nelson" led his fleet through the waters of the Baltic to the very walls of Copenhagen, and proved to the successors of the Vikings of old that their rule over the ocean was at an end. And if Hako mourned in defeat the brave army which he left shattered and destroyed on the shores of the Clyde, not less, even when crowned with victory, should we—

"Think of those who sleep
Full
many a fathom deep,
By thy
wild and stormy steep,
Elsinore."

After the Battle of Largs, the Castle of Rothesay was garrisoned by the troops of King Alexander, and the Scots remained in possession of it until the faint-hearted John Baliol surrendered it to Edward of England, as an atonement for his heinous crime of independence. But the valour of King Robert the Bruce freed Scotland from the presence of the English soldiers for a time, and he regained the Castle. Scottish politics became confused after his death; and when Randolph, the Regent, died, affairs reached a crisis. Edward Baliol, collecting a scratch army in England, took advantage of the prevailing confusion, and made a rapid descent upon Scotland. His attempts were crowned with success, however undeserved; and as the young King, David Bruce, had been hastily conveyed to Dumbarton Castle, as a place of security, the invader followed him closely, and took the Castle of Rothesay with ease. His army, however, was not of sufficient strength to enable him to garrison this stronghold, and it soon submitted to the partisans of the King. And when, some fifty years later, the troubled state of Scotland had been somewhat allayed, the beauty of the surrounding country and the salubrity of the climate, which had not been noticed in warlike times, then attracted attention. Robert II., the first of the long line of Stewart Kings, visited the Castle upon several occasions, and latterly selected it as his residence.

After his death his son John, who ascended the throne under the title of Robert III., continued to hold Rothesay in favour; so much so that he conferred the title of Duke of Rothesay upon his eldest son, making this an hereditary title for the heir-apparent. Hence the Prince of Wales, who is Duke of Cornwall, and was Earl of Dublin in Ireland, is Duke of Rothesay and Baron Renfrew in Scotland. The fate of the first Duke of Rothesay could not be regarded as a good augury by his contemporaries. The mild King Robert III., unfitted by an accident in early youth from mingling in the warlike employments of the time, was possessed of a mind more inclined to religious melancholy and austerity than chivalrous bravery. It was, therefore, with deep regret and pain that he heard of the wild and licentious character of his son, the new Duke of Rothesay. The restraint imposed on this unhappy young man by the influence of his mother had been withdrawn at her death; and he had given loose rein to his passions, and would abide no rebuke. The King, his father, was weak enough to allow his own brother, the wily Duke of Albany, to poison his mind against Rothesay. So great an influence did Albany gain over the King that he finally obtained permission to confine Rothesay in close ward.

The Duke of Albany lost no time in putting this power into practice; with the assistance of an unprincipled retainer he seized his nephew and conveyed him to his own Castle of Falkland, where Rothesay was enclosed in one of the darkest dungeons, and refused the ordinary necessaries of life. Many strange stories are told regarding this inhuman treatment. It is said that one of the female servants assisted to keep him in life by dropping meal into his prison-chamber through the crevices of the floor above; whilst another bestowed upon him a portion of the provision which Nature had made for the support of her own children. Rothesay’s unnatural uncle, having discovered the sources of this succour, ruthlessly put both of these ministering angels to death. When life became insupportable, the unhappy youth was relieved from his misery by welcome death, after enduring the most fearful torture of which the human frame is capable. His body was quietly conveyed to Lindores Abbey and buried there, and his ambitious uncle found himself, by his machinations, one step nearer to the throne. The title of Duke of Rothesay was transferred to his brother James, who afterwards ascended the throne as first of that name, and closed an unhappy life by a violent death.

After the murder of the first Duke of Rothesay, his father, King Robert, fearful that a similar fate might befall his only remaining son, resolved to send him to France for safety. But the ship in which the Duke sailed was captured by an English vessel, and the Prince was sent into captivity in London. The news of this fresh calamity fell with crushing weight upon the old King, and brought him, heart-broken, to his grave; for, like Israel of old, he may have said, "If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved." And as the night of sorrow closed around him in his Castle of Rothesay, and he thought of one son murdered and another in hopeless captivity, whilst the brother, to whom he had trusted all, had proved faithless and untrue, death must have seemed a glad release to him from the life-long trouble he had endured.

It must not be imagined that there are no pleasant episodes connected with Rothesay Castle. There is a story told of an unwilling visit paid to it by James V., which is not a little amusing. That merry monarch, whilst still "the Guidman of Ballengeich," had often gone in quest of amorous adventures, but at length he resolved to settle down to serious matrimony, and set forth, like Cślebs, in search of a wife. An intimate connection had ever been maintained betwixt Scotland and France, and as a union with that country was most desirable, James naturally turned his thoughts in that direction. But the reformed doctrines had made many converts in Scotland, and the nobles looked with disfavour upon a project which might place them at the mercy of the ultra-Roman Court of France. James was self-willed, however, and would not be diverted from his purpose. He sailed from Leith, therefore, with the avowed intention of wedding a French Princess, despite remonstrances of his advisers.

The weather was propitious, and with "youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm," his noble bark sailed onwards. But the grim Scottish Barons performed the journey most unwillingly, and at length laying their heads together, they resolved to trick the King out of his purpose.

One night whilst he was asleep they persuaded the captain to put about ship and to run back to Scotland. Whilst their unconscious victim was peacefully dreaming of love and joy in France, his ship was speeding fast homewards and placing the rolling sea betwixt him and his hopes. Judge then of his surprise and indignation when he awoke to find that the distance between him and love was increasing rather than lessening, and that the power over his actions had been usurped by his officious advisers. He raged and stormed, and swore most likely (for at that time to "swear like a Scot" was a saying on the Continent), and vowed to punish the whole body of traitors who had dared to coerce him. Against the captain especially was his wrath turned, for the historian of the incident relates that "had not beine the earnest solisitatioun of monie in his favours he had hanged the skipper incontinent."

To vindicate his power he ordered them again to change their course, and selecting Bute as his resting-place, he remained for some time in the Castle of Rothesay, until preparation had been made to convey him to Stirling. Like all his race, this headstrong Prince became violent under opposition; and as though influenced irresistibly by the magnet of love, he rested not until he had set out again to wed a damsel whom he had never seen. The unhappy Queen Magdalene, daughter of the King of France, whom he brought back to Scotland, survived her nuptials only forty days; and shortly afterwards James journeyed again to France upon a similar errand, returning with Mary of Guise as his bride, the mother of the un-fortunate Mary, Queen of Scots.

During the disturbed reign of Charles I., the Castle of Rothesay was garrisoned in the interests of the King by its hereditary custodian, Sir James Stewart of Bute; but no serious engagement took place there, and the troops were despatched to aid the royal cause in other parts of the kingdom. When Cromwell entered Scotland he caused the soldiers of the Commonwealth to take possession of Rothesay Castle, probably anticipating that the resistance of the Highland Clans would be focussed there; and as he did not care to leave a garrison so far from his main army, he instructed his men to destroy the strongest parts of the edifice. The command was faithfully obeyed by the Independents, to whom the demolition of Cathedral or Castle seems to have been alike palatable. And Rothesay, which had been a tower of strength for nearly six centuries, never again held its head aloft in proud defiance.

The old saying that "Time tries all," applies to Rothesay Castle, which was now drawing to the end of its existence as a royal residence. The Stewart line, the members of which had been its first patrons, had fallen upon evil days. Charles I. was beheaded; Charles II. died without legitimate heir; and the turbulent reign of the Duke of York (James VII.) had spread dismay amongst the majority of the Scottish nation. Many of the Covenanting nobles had found refuge at the Court of William of Orange, and chief among them was the unfortunate Earl of Argyll, who, by a most iniquitous sentence, had been attainted and outlawed. The plots of William of Orange against his father-in-law, then styled "James II. and VII.," afforded opportunity for the malcontents. The growing feeling of dissatisfaction encouraged the expatriated noblemen to attempt a rising against the Government; and the joint-expeditions of the Duke of Monmouth and the Earl of Argyll were organised. It was proposed that the former should land on the southern shores of England while the latter made a diversion by invading the northern part of the kingdom. In June 1685, Monmouth landed in Dorset, and speedily drew a formidable following to his standard; but the rash encounter which he dared at Sedgemoor finally overthrew him, and awoke the vengeance of a ruthless government.

Argyll’s expedition had no more fortunate issue. The leaders had disputed as to the proper point of attack; and in the multitude of counsellors there is danger. Argyll insisted upon landing in his own country, while some of the Lowland nobles more reasonably proposed to win over the landed proprietors in the south of Scotland by force or persuasion. A compromise was finally adopted whereby the first landing was arranged to take place m Argyll, but the attack to be directed against the rich counties bordering upon the Clyde. Landing in Cantyre, the little army was soon increased by the Campbell Clan; and, taking possession of Rothesay Castle, they fortified it, storing the ammunition upon one of the small islands in the Kyles of Bute. But the irresolution of the Earl proved the destruction of the army. Urged by the confederated leaders to advance and give battle, he at last consented to move the troops into the Lennox country, but here, when in the presence of the enemy, his courage forsook him, and he declined to risk an encounter. There is often as much skill in avoiding a contest as in daring it; but Argyll could neither lead an assault nor conduct a retreat, and his army was soon dispersed without having endured an engagement. He was himself taken as a fugitive, and as he had been sentenced to death in 1681, he was executed in 1685 without another trial, though he had again been a rebel— an instance of the vindictive rigour of the time.

Meanwhile the stores which Argyll had laid up near Rothesay were taken by the King’s soldiers, and his brother, Lord Niel Campbell, whom he had left at the Castle, made his escape from the island of Bute, destroying the fortress ere he fled, and leaving little to the conquerors save the blackened and charred ruins which now remain. And thus, after a long and honourable career, this noble pile closed its history in no memorable conflict, nor amid the din of contending hosts, but during the tumult of a sham revolt the torch of the incendiary was applied to the structure in wanton malice by the hand of a Scottish nobleman. The third Marquess of Bute (1847-1900) did much to restore the outer portion of the Castle, the changes made by him being shown by the use of red sandstone, so that they may be easily distinguished.


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