Notes: The castle is located in central Stranraer and is easily found. Numerous car parking options in the vicinity with the nearest shown above.
Prison. The castle was purchased by Stranraer Council in 1815 and a few years later converted into a prison with three cells on each floor.
The Castle of St John, so-named as it was built on land formally owned by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, was built in the early sixteenth century. Acquired by the Kennedy family towards the end of that century, they successfully lobbied for a charter to create the town of Stranraer around the castle in 1595.
HISTORY OF CASTLE OF ST JOHN
Sited on the shores of Loch Ryan, at the point where it intersects with a small stream (now known as the Town Burn), the Castle of St John was built on previously unoccupied land. Also known as Stranraer Castle, it was constructed for Ninian Adair of Kilhurst circa-1510. Configured as an 'L' plan Tower House, it was four storeys tall. As was the norm for such a structure the ground floor was storage, a Great Hall was on the first floor and accommodation on the upper levels. A barmkin would have enclosed all the supporting buildings associated with such a residence including stables, brewhouse, bakehouse and kitchen. The castle acquired its unusual name as it was built on land formally owned by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem.
At the time of its construction nearby Innermessan was the major settlement on Loch Ryan and the Castle of St John would have been an out of town residence. It passed to the Kennedy family in the late sixteenth century and they lobbied to have the site converted into a town. This was granted in 1595 when the Burgh of Stranraer was formally created by charter. A further charter of 1617, issued by James VI (I of England), saw it become a Royal burgh. Around this time local politics saw Stranraer - the name of which is derived from the Gaelic term 'fat stream' - promoted at the expense of Innermessan. The town continued to grow - a Parish Church had been built by 1642 - and by the late-seventeenth century it had become the most important settlement in Wigtownshire.
The castle came into the possession of Sir John Dalrymple of Stair in 1677 when he purchased the Kennedy estate. He was a known Covenanter - Presbyterians quite at odds with the reigning Stuart regime - and in 1678 the castle was seized on behalf of Charles II. The King's agent - John Graham of Claverhouse - then used it as a base of operations against Covenanters (the 'Killing Times') until the Glorious Revolution when Dalrymple was restored by the Protestant William II (William III of England). Dalrymple would go on to become infamous for his participation in the Glencoe Massacre (1692) but, despite a political fury, survived to be raised Earl of Stair in 1703.
By the mid-eighteenth century the old Tower House had become too cramped for Earls of Stair who instead occupied a separate townhouse. What happened to the castle at this time is unknown and it had certainly been abandoned by 1815 when it was purchased by Stanraer Council for £340. They converted it into a prison and by 1820 the upper two storeys, originally accommodation, had been converted into three cells on each level. Inmates were either criminals or debtors - the latter having marginally better conditions. The Great Hall was converted into the Gaolers accommodation and the castle's roof was adapted to become an exercise yard. By 1850 it was also being used as a Police station and remained in this role until 1907.
The twentieth century saw the castle used as a storage facility. The area saw significant military activity however - during WWII Loch Ryan hosted RAF Wig Bay (a flying boat station supporting maritime patrol aircraft), Military Port No. 2 at Cairnryan and a ship repair yard near Innermessan. The castle was restored in 1988-89 and was opened to the public in 1990.