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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter VI. Feudal Castles


There are a number of these baronial residences, of the feudal ages, throughout the country; but few historical associations hang about their dilapidated walls. They occupy, however, as a rule, most attractive ground both with respect to scenery and situation; and, even in their ruins, present us with a striking picture of the ferocity of the Scottish barons of former days. Constant discord with their neighbours, which often broke out into open hostilities, obliged them to hold their houses always in a state of defence.

Near the source of the Carron, stood one of these strongholds, called Graham’s Castle, which is commonly credited with having been the birthplace of the brave Sir John de Graham, who was slain in the battle of Falkirk about the end of the thirteenth century. It was situated in a sequestered spot, on the brow of a hill, which in early times must have been difficult of access. Burned by the English nearly 600 years ago, the building has long been in ruins, and all that now remains of it is its drawbridge, and the ditch with which it was encompassed. Once a wreck, its stones were soon carried off for farm out-houses and dykes – a practice that would have speedily dispersed the vestiges of ancient Rome itself had they not been early consecrated by the Popes. Here Sir William Wallace oftentimes found a retreat in the midst of his toilsome and patriotic adventures. A relic of this interesting ruin consists of a neat hewn stone, which, by the natives, had been called "the font for holy water," till a Highland shepherd, passing to a Falkirk fair, pronounced it to be a quairn, or hand-mill for grinding corn. Near the castle stood a chapel, with a burial place called the Kirk of Muir, which belonged to this same family of Graham from whom the Duke of Montrose is descended.

On the north bank of the same river, near Denny, lies Herbertshire, one of the grandest embattled residences in the country. Although the date of its erection is unknown, reliable records inform us that it was originally a hunting station, and given by an early James to the then Earl of Wigtown, as his halbert-share for services rendered in war. In the fifteenth century, the estate was in the possession of that once powerful family the Sinclairs, Dukes of Orkney. In the following century, it became the property of the Earls of Linlithgow, from whom it passed into a family named Stirling, cadets of the Stirlings of Auchyle, in Perthshire. Then an heiress of this surname sold it about 100 years ago to a Mr. Morehead, whose grandson, in turn, disposed of it in 1835 to the father of the present proprietor, William Forbes, Esq., of Callendar. The banks of the Carron here are very picturesque, sloping in stripes of verdant meadows, tufted with trees to the water’s edge, and rising boldly into rocks fringed with brushwood and crowned with plantations.

Castlecary Castle, now the oldest habitable building in Scotland, was burned by a party of Highlanders during the rebellion of 1715. What remains of it, however, is sufficient to convey an idea of its massive strength as a defensive dwelling. This ancient keep, and the lands connected with it, presently belong to the Earl of Zetland; but they only recently came into the possession of the noble family of Dundas. The house consists of a square tower 40 feet in height, and has a species of turreted battlement at top, in which a sheltered stone still bears a rude and time-worn image of a human head and coat of arms. On measuring, we found the walls 5 feet thick; and even the spiral staircase of the fabric is, in its way, quite as strongly built. The modern portion of the building lies towards the east, and carries the date 1679. Underneath, where the cellar of a modern residence would be, there is a dungeon in which prisoners must, at one time, have been kept. There are also secret passages, and subterraneous arches, regarding which it would be idle to speculate. At the top of the garden – a plot of ground said to have been the bowling-green of the castle – stands a fine English yew, which, taken a yard above the soil, measures 8 feet 3 inches in circumference. Another rare specimen of the same tree is seen on the bank of the Caledonian Railway, some 10 yards south-east of its more stately companion.

This castle, if tradition may be trusted, was the birth-place of Alexander Baillie, the famous antiquarian. At all events, his sister Lizzie leapt from one of the windows into the plaid of a handsome yeoman – Donald Graham – whom she had met on the island of Inchmahome, and took kindly to as a suitor. But old Baillie was dead against his richly-tochered daughter mating with a poor Highland chieftain. And hence the midnight elopment.

"Shame light on the loggerheads,
That live at Castlecary,
To let awa the bonny lass
The Highlandman to marry."

In the Glen, which lies immediately on the west side of the castle, the botanist may find a rich and interesting field. Among other gems of the wood, brightly blooming, in season, within the same footstep, we have woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), with its soft, hairy stalk, flower-busked at every joint; woodruff (Asperula odorata), slender too in stem, with drooping snow-white head; and snakeweed (Pologonum bistorta), luxuriantly leaved, and displaying an elegant spike of flowers.

At Torwood, we have the last remains of the primeval Caledonian forest. The locality, need we say, is associated with all that is ennobling in patriotism and personal valour. Down on the top of an ordinary "hillock," north of the present toll-house, stood the gigantic oak into whose capacious interior Wallace is said to have retreated when pursued, in 1298, by Edward I. of England. The noble tree, which had a trunk some 12 feet in diameter, was surrounded, in former days, by a march full of foliage and frogs. Not the smallest vestige, however, of the Wallace oak remains. Even the "oldest inhabitant" can say nothing of it save what he has gathered from tradition. Sir Walter Scott, in his "Tales of a Grandfather," speaks of having seen some of its roots eighty years ago; and recently we were shown a treasured morsel of the tree in the Chambers’ Institute at Peebles. Wallace, undoubtedly, often chose the solitude of the Torwood as a place of rest for his army, raised and roused to oppose the tyranny of Edward. Here he concealed his numbers and his designs, sallying out suddenly on the enemy’s garrisons, and retreating as suddenly when afraid of being overpowered. While his army lay in these woods, "the oak" was his head-quarters. Within it, the illustrious hero generally slept, the hollow trunk being huge enough to afford shelter both to himself and one or more of his associates. But of one defeated army after another we find it said that the fugitives found refuge here.

Keltor, or Choil-tor, was the ancient Celtic name of the district; and Tor, or Thor, from which the word Thursday is derived, was one of the great deities worshipped by the Picts. The road leading to the castle will be found somewhat rough-rutted; but the prospect from the feudal heights is magnificent. Northwards, there is unfolded for miles an undulating, luxuriant, and well-wooded valley, irrigated by the Forth, and walled in by the mammiform Ochils, and the bold range of the Grampians. The "fort" was built about the middle of the sixteenth century, by one of the Baillies, and ultimately fell into the hands of the Forrester family, who were possessors until 1720, when the estate was purchased by an ancestor of the present Mr. Dundas of Carronhall. The sequestered situation of the tumbling peel is the very ideal of solitude; and it may be fairly questioned whether it ever looked so beautiful as now, with its owlet-haunted walls crumbling piece-meal down to dust. To some, however, the mere remains of human buildings are unsightly enough; and they are only affected thereby with a sense of desolation.

On the lands of Carnock, there is a round tower called Bruce Castle; but except the name there is no tradition when, by whom, or for what purpose it was erected.

Proudly overlooking alluvial ground stands Airth (Hill) Castle, now the property of the Grahams. The portion which faces the south is the original structure; but a large addition, elegant and modern in style, was added to the north side in 1802. The tower especially of this building is supposed to be of great antiquity – older even than that at Powfoulis. According to Blind Harry, this was the residence of Thomlin Weir, the English captain, who, with a hundred of his men, was slain by Wallace, when the great champion of Scottish rights came to the rescue of his uncle from a cruel imprisonment. It must be remembered, however, that it was at the lapse of 200 years that the said narrative appeared; and, moreover, that the more thrilling incidents recorded in such historical romances are not altogether beyond suspicion. But of this we are certain, That Fergus de Erth, a noble of whom mention is made in the "Rotuli Scotice," occupied the castle in 1369. The estate fell into the possession of the Grahams, through Judge Graham, in 1717. Prior to 1802, the house was known simply as Airth Place. Closely adjoining are the ruins of the old church, encircled by a burying ground, in which the tombstones are all broken and defaced, and more than half hid with a luxuriant growth of nettles. This church consisted of a nave, with north aisle and chancel. The oldest portion now remaining belongs to the transition period of the twelfth century. On the south side of the nave is a chapel known as the Airth aisle, in which is a mural arch that had at one time contained a recessed tomb with a recumbent effigy, probably the mutilated semi-effigy of a female now placed in the east end of the church. On the exterior of the east wall of the aisle is a Gothic niche and canopy, on the pedestal of which is a shield of arms bearing the well-known saltire and chief of the Bruces. The letters are S.J.B. – initials of Sir John Bruce, who married Margaret, third daughter of Alexander, Lord Elphinstone, and his spouse Jean Livingstone. All the architectural details of the aisle are in the style of the fifteenth century. Beneath it is the vault in which the former barons of Airth and their families are interred. In summer, the avenue leading to the castle is totally overshadowed with foliage. But everywhere on the Airth estate are oaks, ashes, walnuts, chestnuts, and elms of remarkable beauty; while across the ruins of the old garden are many rare specimens of the bay, Portugal-laurel, and holly. Yet the most extraordinary of the trees is an ash, which contains some 400 feet of timber, and stands girded about the trunk and branches with several iron hoops. Here may be found growing in abundance the Pyrethrun parthenium, and the less frequent Cystopteris fragilis, a fern of very tender but graceful texture; also, the Arum maculatum, a plant which is uncommon on both sides of the Forth.

But of all our deserted castles that called Haining, near Polmont, is the most entire. Even yet there is a substantial staircase leading to the very top of the ivy-clad ruins. The building, like the great bulk of its class, seems too have consisted of three storeys. There was, for example, a ground flat, vaulted, from which rose a large hall with arched roof; and above that again were the dormitories, or sleeping apartments. Haining, which is said to have been occupied by Cromwell and his advanced guard, was built by the Crawfords, who claim to be descended from that Crawford who, early in the twelfth century, rescued David I. from the attack of an infuriated stag on the spot where Holyrood now stands, the abbey of which was erected in commemoration of this great deliverance. The castle was transferred by marriage to the family of Livingstone in 1540, and continued there till the name was changed to Almond Castle in 1633, when the second son of the Earl of Linlithgow was created a baron by that title. For several generations this Haining was a favourite seat of the Earls of Callendar. And little wonder.

"A region of repose it seems –
A place of slumber and of dreams,
Remote among the wooded vales."

The castle of Duntreath also claims notice. Nothing is now known either with regard to its original proprietors or its age; but the whole district, at one period, belonged to the powerful family of the Lennoxes. Sir William Edmonstone, Bart., whose ancestral name first appeared in the county of Mid-Lothian about the beginning of the thirteenth century, is the present "laird," and frequently visits Duntreath. The castle stands on the north side of the Blane, near the opening of the beautiful strath to which the stream gives name. Southward rises the conical hill of Dungoiach, and across the valley opposite is another wood-clad eminence called the Park Hill. The north and east sides of the building are utterly gone, having been unroofed and left to decay some two centuries ago. The southern front was never finished; but in this part rests the "Dumb Laird’s Tower." In the surroundings of the place cultivation and romantic beauty are united in no common degree.

Mugdock Castle, photograph copyright Scottish Panoramic

The approach to the ancient castle of Mugdock, which is situated on an elevated spot about two miles from the village of Milngavie, is exceedingly beautiful. Around the irregular margin of a lovely little loch, a commodious drive has been formed, from which several fine views of the venerable edifice and the various landscape features of the locality may be obtained. That portion of the building which fronts the water, having been fitted up as a modern residence, has a look of apparently youthful appearance; but immediately behind this rises a stalwart quadrangular tower, lichened and grey, bearing undoubted evidence of antiquity in its narrow windows and loopholes, while numerous architectural remains in various stages of decay are scattered around. The lordly structure, majestic even in its desolation, has obviously been the work of several generations. At the periods which preceded 1550 or 1500, the residences of the land-owners or country chiefs were not of the nature of ordinary mansion-houses, which could not have suited the disturbed political state of the country. They were not the dwellings of people in a state of peace, but were small fortresses constructed for defending the inhabitants from the attacks of their neighbours. The residence of a Scotch chief about 1300 was prepared for defence. The state of the country rendered this necessary. Mugdock Castle was for many years a favourite residence of the "gallant Grahams," of Montrose, a family whose name is honourably distinguished in the history of our country, but regarding whose memory as associated with this their ancient dwelling-place tradition is all but silent. Not a legend or ballad of the olden time has been discovered concerning Mugdock. From history, also, we learn but little respecting it. Almost the only events recorded of the edifice are, that the castle and barony were acquired from Maldwin, Earl of Lennox, in the reign of Alexander II., by David de Graham, in exchange for certain lands in Galloway, and that it became, on the burning of Kincardine Castle, 1646, the principal residence of the Montrose family. After the restoration, in 1688, and during the heat of the persecution in Scotland, Mugdock was visited by the Earls of Rothes and Middleton, with a number of their associates in the work of spiritual tyranny; and it is stated that sad scenes of revelry and bacchanalian license occurred on the occasion. A wild crew, no doubt, in their orgies they were; and it may well be supposed that the Covenanters of the neighbourhood would watch with silent horror the lighted windows of the tower wherein the foes of their civil and religious freedom were congregated in the madness of drunken merriment. Overlooking a steep bank on the same platform, and at a short distance to the north of the castle, are the ruins of a small chapel, now roofless and desolate in the extreme. The walls are rent and shattered, while the rank weeds are waving on the floor, and trailing over the prostrate stone where once the altar stood.


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