Newmilns Tower is a medieval "Keep" or "Towerhouse" (Castle to some) built in the late 1400's or early 1500's. It stands in Castle Street, just a few metres north of the main A71 trunk road, in the centre of Newmilns, a small Ayrshire town.
The tower is rectangular on plan with dimensions of 8.5m x 7m x 10m high to the "Wallwalk" (parapet). It is a typical 15th century Scottish "Towerhouse", designed for defence and security. Originally a complex of "Barmkin" (surrounding wall) and outbuildings would have provided further protection to the Laird and his family. The tower walls are constructed of random sandstone blocks and are 2 metres thick at the base. The exterior is covered with traditional "Lime Harl" and "Limewash" to protect the underlying masonry from rain and frost erosion. There are three floors above the ground floor basement. Each of the upper floors is reached via a "Turnpike Stair", which rises through the tower from just inside the single entrance door. The stair is lit by a series of narrow slit windows. The front of the tower faces south towards the midday sun. A heavy, double-planked, oak door protects the ground floor entrance. The closed door was held secure from the inside using three oak "Drawbars" pulled out from the "Drawbar Slots" in the wall.
The ground floor is "Barrel-Vaulted" providing strength and protection against fire. The vault would normally have been used for storage, but was provided with wide "Shot-Holes" on the north and south faces with a smaller version on the west face. Shot-holes allowed defence of the tower from inside by the use of hand-held firearms or "Hagbuts" (small cannon).
The first floor is a single chamber on top of the basement vault. This would have been the original "Great Hall" and would have been used by the Laird as a factors office and feudal court. It would also have been used as a reception/meeting/feasting room. The Lairds most trusted supporters would have been permitted to sleep over on this floor. The main features include an open fireplace, a "Garderobe" (dry latrine) within the north wall, a large recessed window in the south wall, narrow windows in the east and west walls and two "Amburies" (wall recesses for the storage of small items). In the 17th Century this floor was converted into a prison and sub-divided into cells. Iron bars were inserted into the window recesses. Some of these bars remain in-situ. Two of the cell doors with their heavy locks and chains remain within the tower. The first floor has since been opened up to a single chamber and is now used as a dining/kitchen. Access above this floor was blocked by an "Iron Yett" (Gate/door), across the turnpike stair, ensuring only family or guests passed beyond.
The second floor is made of thick oak planks, which are pegged to and supported by large oak beams. The room has an open fireplace with a "Bread Oven" within the wall to one side and a "Salt-Box" recess to the other. There is a garderobe (latrine) within the north wall. The main chamber is lit by large windows in the north and south walls and by narrow windows in the east and west walls. An ambury is positioned adjacent to the North window. There is a "Mural Chamber" (a room within the thickness of the wall) with a pointed arch roof within the south wall; it has a narrow window in its west end wall. This appears to have been a small, pre-reformation, private chapel.
The top floor is an attic supported on oak beams and with oak plank flooring. The original oak "Roof Timbers" are visible from within the room and rest upon the wall-head of the tower. The exposed timbers have been age dated Dendrochronologically (tree ring growth patterns measured and compared with other timbers of known date), and are accepted as having been cut approx 500 years ago. The original trees may have been in excess of 100 years old when felled. Each timber is identified with rough-cut Roman numerals indicating that the beams were prepared at ground level, identified and reassembled on top of the tower. Oak pegs hold the wooden structure together. The roof timbers are believed to have been part of the original structure. This attic room is now the main sleeping chamber with modern wc/shower en-suite. In earlier times this attic space may have been sub-divided into smaller sleeping compartments.
The wallwalk is 56 turnpike steps from the ground floor and passes around all four sides of the tower. It would originally have had a chest-high parapet. The parapet may have been "crenellated" (battlemented) for defence. At Newmilns the remaining parapet was removed in the mid 1800's to facilitate roof extensions intended to shed rainwater out over the exterior walls to reduce water penetration. The continuous "corbelling" (masonry support) for the parapet remains.
The village of Newmilns stands just a few miles west of Loudoun Hill, which marks the head of the Irvine Valley. The Campbell of Loudoun family had held lands in the Irvine valley since early times and loyally supported Bruce during his struggle against Edward I of England. Bruce reigned from 1306 to 1329 and during this period he confirmed the Campbell's title to their lands.
In the 1491 King James IV granted the title "Burgh of Barony of New Myllis and Greenholm" to Sir George Campbell of Loudoun. It may be reasonable to believe that the tower already existed when the barony was granted. Written records confirm the Castle and tower of Newmyllis as being held by Sir Hugo Campbell around 1530.
In the 1580's Timothy Pont (one of Scotlands earliest map makers) recorded that - "The castle of Newmyllis stands within its barmkin at the head of a deep valley close by the Irvine River, and is surrounded by orchards, gardens and pleasances". The basic topograpical facts have not changed, but the barmkin, orchards, gardens and pleasances are no more.
The Campbells of Loudoun had been staunch supporters of the reformation of 1560 and before then had been brought before King James IV in 1494 because of their advocacy for change in the old church. These early pro-reformers from Ayrshire were known as "The Lollards of Kyle".
In the period 1625 – 1689, during the reigns of Charles I & Charles II attempts were made to re-establish direct religious control of the Scottish population. This had been lost during the Reformation when the Roman Church hierarchy was swept away. To counteract this, the monarch created new bishops to oversee local religious activity. Government soldiers were stationed throughout the south/west in an attempt to quell the resultant civil and religious unrest. The Campbells were opposed to the Monarch's proposals and found themselves being suspected of disloyalty by the King's supporters.
Newmilns tower was requisitioned from the Campbells and garrisoned by a troop of Royalist Dragoons tasked with finding and rooting out all those who refused to accept the new Episcopalian regime. The Dragoons had a charter to force everyone to "Take the Test" - to swear loyalty to the King and his religious reforms. Refusal meant automatic imprisonment or death. This period is known as "The Killing Times". Those who had joined the "Scottish Covenant with God", to protect the Kirk and its Presbytery, were hunted down. Kirk ministers who refused to conduct their congregations as directed were evicted from their Kirks. Many people continued to support their ousted ministers by attending open-air meetings. These brave folk were called covenanters. When they met at their secret conventicles they were in great danger, as royalist dragoons would attack and kill where possible.
In 1685, a nearby conventicle had been attacked by dragoons and a number of covenanters were captured and held in Newmilns tower. The first floor had by this time been converted into prison cells. "A large and riotous mob" of locals brought the blacksmith with his hammers and they laid siege to the tower. The door to the tower was eventually broken down, shots were fired. Two dragoons and a rioter were killed, others were injured but the prisoners were set free. The dead were buried in the courtyard (A memorial stone to the covenanter John Law is set into the wall that encloses the tower). One important prisoner was recaptured and decapitated on the spot. His head was brought back to the town as a trophy. To antagonise the locals, the soldiers organised a game of football with the head used as the ball.
The troubles ended in 1690 when William III (William of Orange) was made King. The Campbells found themselves back in favour again and were restored to their properties and lands.
In 1739 a Townhouse incorporating a Burgh Council meeting room and a jail cell was built in the town by the Earl of Loudoun. Newmilns Tower ceased to be used as the town jail after that date.
The Campbells of Loudoun continued to reside in the town-house that they had built in front of the old tower, until they had completed Loudoun Castle This was built, two miles to the west, around the remains of the original Loudoun Castle and was one of the grandest buildings in Scotland.
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