A cold winter day during a break in the snows saw 22 members gather at Dundonald Castle for the first visit of the day.
An 11th century wooden castle of Walter Fitz-Alan was replaced around 1290 by James, the High Steward, with a stone gatehouse and courtyard. This gatehouse forms the basis of the substantial rectangular tower house built by King Robert II in the 1370s, and used often by him and his son, Robert III. It may have been moated. The property later passed through various hands, until it was abandoned in the mid -17th century. It was then used as a stone quarry to extend Auchans, a 15th century house to the east, itself now also a ruin. The high position of Dundonald gives wide views of the surrounding countryside.
As a Royal castle, it is built on a more extensive scale than most 14th century towers, although essentially to a similar pattern. The Great Hall of the tower has a pointed vaulted roof, which is enriched with decorative ribs, more common in ecclesiastical architecture than castellated buildings of the period. At the south end of the tower is a 15th century addition, which contains a vaulted prison and bakehouse, with additional private rooms above. There are some traces of outbuildings.
Dundonald is now in the care of Historic Scotland, and administered by the Friends of Dundonald Castle. Our thanks go to them, for opening up the castle to us, and to James Brown for guiding us round, with his usual informative enthusiasm. More information on Dundonald Castle can be found at dundonaldcastle.org.uk.
Travelling up the coast to West Kilbride, our next stop was at Portencross Castle, now undergoing some consolidation and restoration work. Situated on a small rocky promontory jutting out into the Firth of Clyde, Portencross dates from about 1372, and consists of a 3-storey oblong block and garret, with a 4-storey wing on the end. There are 2 entrances in the re-entrant angle, one to the basement of the block, and the other to the first floor of the wing.
There are also 2 staircases and, more unusually, 2 kitchens. Tranter suggests this may be to provide for the frequent visits of early Stewart kings to the castle. It has a vaulted hall.
Portencross - The original castle was in the barony of Ardneil, belonging to the Ross family, but was given by Robert the Bruce to Boyd of Kilmarnock in 1306, the Rosses having backed the wrong side. It remained with the Boyds until 1737, and went out of use after being unroofed in a gale in 1739. The castle is now owned by the Friends of Portencross Castle, and is now open to the public during the summer months.
For more information, see portencrosscastle.org.uk.
Fairlie Castle, a little further north, is one of a group of broadly similar oblong 15th century castles in the same area of Ayrshire.
The others are Little Cumbrae, Law and Skelmorlie.
Fairlie Castle, built around 1500, is a simple rectangular tower of 4 storeys, with a continuous course of corbelling around the top, and round angle turrets at each corner. There is a vaulted basement, and the upper storeys are subdivided. The walls have gun loops.
The castle stands on a small plateau in Fairlie Glen, above the burn. It was owned by the Fairlies, whose last descendant sold the castle to the 1st Earl of Glasgow in 1650. It is now owned by an SCA member, with a view to future restoration.
Our final visit was Kelburn Castle, home to the Earl of Glasgow, where we were also due to have lunch and receive updates on the new website, and the Historic Scotland initiative on castles.
The Boyles, of Norman origin, have occupied the Kelburn estates from about 1140, and Kelburn Castle is said to be one of the oldest houses in Scotland continuously inhabited by the same family. First ennobled as Lords Boyle in 1699, they became Earls of Glasgow and Viscounts Kelburn in 1703.
Kelburn - The first castle on the site was around 1200, and part may be incorporated in the 4-storey tower house, a large rectangular block with 2 circular corner towers making it Z-plan. This part of the castle is dated 1581. The 1st Earl of Glasgow built the adjoining mansion block in the 18th century, and there are also Victorian additions from the time of the 6th Earl.
Kelburn has been particularly noticeable in recent times for the colourful graffiti on the south side of the tower. The graffiti project was approved as a short-term improvement to the building, pending reharling of the building at a later date, and was carried out by a group of Brazilian and Scottish graffiti artists in May 2007.
More information on Kelburn Castle and estates can be found at kelburnestate.com.
After an excellent lunch, hosted by the Earl, the furniture was rearranged for the afternoon session.
Allan Rutherford, from Historic Scotland (HS), provided an update on the progress of the HS Reference Group, on which the SCA is represented by John Hunter. The Group is formed as part of the HS Scottish Castles Initiative, more details of which are available at www.historic-scotland.gov.uk. There was opportunity for a variety of points to be made, and a vibrant discussion followed. It was clear that there is much room for further discussion.
David Campbell updated members on the new website. Construction was progressing well, and his demonstration gave a good impression of how the new site would look, and the information that would be available to members and site visitors.