MORTON CASTLE

Built on the site of an earlier fortification that was ordered destroyed under the terms of the Treaty of Berwick, Morton Castle was built as a comfortable home for the powerful Earls of Morton. Following the downfall of the fourth earl, it was held briefly by Lord Maxwell before being burnt by forces of James VI.

History

 

A fortification may have been built on the site of the current castle as early as the twelfth century by Dunegal, Lord of Nithsdale. A castle certainly existed here by the early fourteenth century; in 1307 records show the honour of Morton, including the castle, was owned by Thomas Randolph (later first Earl of Moray). He was the nephew of Robert the Bruce (Robert I) and a key ally in the first War of Scottish Independence.

 

The castle was a victim of the Treaty of Berwick signed between England and Scotland in 1357 to end the second War of Scottish Independence. Under the provisions of the agreement King David II of Scotland - who had been a prisoner in England since his capture at the Battle of Neville's Cross (1346) - was released in exchange for a significant ransom and agreement that Morton Castle, along with 13 others in Nithsdale, were demolished.

 

The site passed through several owners but in 1396 was granted by King James I of Scotland to James Douglas, Lord Dalkeith who later took the title Earl of Morton. It was probably he who built a replacement castle on the site of the former structure although it is not clear whether he totally rebuilt it or merely augmented the existing remains. Constructed in a triangular configuration the fortification consisted of a Great Hall that stretched the entirely length of the castle which was accessed through a small Outer Ward. The centrepiece was an impressive gatehouse - much like the earlier Caerlaverock Castle - consisting of two D shaped turrets flanking reinforced wooden doors and a counter-balanced drawbridge. A Round Tower in the opposite corner provided additional protection as well as accommodation. The castle was originally intended to have a water filled moat as evidenced by a sluice embedded in the base of the Round tower; the moat however was never cut presumably due to the challenges of flooding it given the height above the loch. Regardless the rebuilt castle was an impressive structure - a statement of the enhanced status of James Douglas following his marriage to the King's daughter.

 

Morton Castle remained with James' descendants and in 1581 was in the hands of James Douglas, Earl of Morton. He was a significant character in Scottish politics during the minority of James VI of Scotland ultimately becoming Regent of Scotland in 1572 including directing the war against the supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. But he made enemies in the church both from his taxation policies and his leaning towards Episcopacy. Furthermore his (successful) direction of the war had made him a hated figure amongst Mary's Catholic supporters. He was forced from the Regency in 1578 when one of his leading opponents - Alexander Erskine, governor of Stirling Castle - encouraged the young King James VI, who was resident at Stirling, to remove Morton. He briefly retired to Lochleven Castle but surged back to power a few months later when he gained possession of Stirling Castle and custody of the young King. His enemies were not to be outdone though and in December 1580, at a Council meeting in Holyrood, James Stuart, Earl of Arran accused him publicly of the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley thirteen years earlier. He was immediately arrested and held at Dumbarton Castle. Tried and convicted he was executed in June 1581 with Morton Castle passing to John Maxwell, Lord Maxwell owner of nearby Caerlaverock and Threave Castles.

 

Maxwell's ownership of the castle was short-lived. He remained staunchly Catholic despite the Scottish Reformation ultimately leading to Catholicism being banned. This brought him into conflict with King James VI and Morton Castle was attacked and burnt by Royal forces in 1588.

 

After the seizure of the castle from the Maxwell's, it was restored to the Morton’s and some repairs were made - it was at least partially habitable in the early eighteenth century. Thereafter it was abandoned and materials removed to support other building projects. The family seat later became Aberdour Castle.

 

Bibliography

 

Brooke, C J (2000). Safe sanctuaries: security and defence in Anglo-Scottish border churches 1290-1690. Edinburgh.

CANMORE (2016). Morton Castle Tower. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Coventry, M (2008). Castles of the Clans: the strongholds and seats of 750 Scottish families and clans. Musselburgh.

Forman, S.G (1947). Border Towers. Country Life Magazine, January 10th 1947. London.

Gifford, J (1996). Dumfries and Galloway, The Buildings of Scotland series. London.

Hume, J.R (2000). Dumfries and Galloway, an Illustrated Architectural Guide. Rutland Press, London.

M'Kerlie, P.H (1906). History of the lands and their owners in Galloway. RCAHMS, Musselburgh.

Maxwell-Irving, A.M.T (2000). Border Towers of Scotland: Their History and Architecture. Stirling.

Reid, S (2006). Castles and Tower Houses of the Scottish Clans 1450-1650. Osprey, Oxford.

Salter, M (1993). The Castles of South West Scotland. Folly Publications, London.

Simpson, W.D (1959). Scottish Castles - An introduction to the Castles of Scotland. HM Stationery Office, Edinburgh.

Stell, G (1996). Dumfries and Galloway: Exploring Scotland's Heritage'. Edinburgh.

Tabraham, C (2000). Scottish Castles and Fortifications. Historic Scotland, Haddington.

Tranter, N (1962-70). The fortified house in Scotland. Edinburgh.

What's There?

The remains of a small mid-fifteenth century castle situated in a very picturesque environment. Only half the gatehouse survives and the outer ward has almost entirely vanished. The Great Hall however stands to a good height.

Morton Castle Configuration. The fifteenth century rebuild was dominated by a Great Hall, Gatehouse and Round Tower. The latter included a sluice gate for a water filled moat that was never built.

Morton Castle. The remains are dominated by the Great Hall.

Getting There

The castle is located to the north of Dumfries near Thornhill but is not sign-posted. It is accessed from a single track road off the A702. There is parking for around six cars.

Morton Castle

DG3 5DY

55.27452N, 3.747564W