Built in the mid-fifteenth century to protect a small natural harbour that supported the Royal Borough of Linlithgow, Blackness Castle was later extensively modified to convert it into an artillery fortification. It was heavily damaged during the Wars of Three Kingdoms but was restored and in 1870 became the central ammunition depot for all of Scotland.
Blackness Cove is the best natural harbour on the southern shores of the Firth of Forth west of Queensferry. Accordingly it was utilised as a seaport to serve the needs of nearby Linlithgow Palace and, when this was rebuilt into a lavish Royal residence in the early fifteenth century, the importance of Blackness increased. The castle itself was probably built around 1444 by Sir George Crichton, Earl of Caithness (and also Admiral of Scotland and Sheriff of Linlithgow) following the destruction of his previous residence, Barnton Tower in Edinburgh, following a dispute with the Earl of Douglas. The first written reference to the castle, recording its use as a state prison, dates from 1449.
The castle's unusual shape - not dissimilar to that of a ship - was dictated by the shape of the rocky spur on which it was built. Protected on three sides by the sea, the landward approach was cut off by a dry ditch cut out of the rock. A crenellated curtain wall enclosed the site including the central Tower House which was probably constructed at the same time.
Sir George Crichton had a fractious relationship with his son, James, and made strenuous efforts to ensure he did not inherit his land and title. Outraged James imprisoned his father in Blackness Castle and only released him following intervention by the King. A compromise was agreed with the castle passing to the Crown upon Sir George’s death. He passed away in August 1454 with Blackness remaining a Royal castle ever since.
Between 1537 and 1567 the castle underwent extensive modifications against a backdrop of significant tension and periodic warfare between England and Scotland. Under the direction of Sir James Hamilton, the South Tower was doubled in height and the curtain wall substantially thickened (from around 1.5 metres to over 5 metres) on the east and south sides. The original entrance on the east wall was blocked up and replaced with a new access point on the western wall protected by a heavily defended spur. The modifications were completed around the time of the forced abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567. Blackness remained loyal to the Queen and withstood six years of ineffective blockade before surrendering in 1573.
During the Wars of Three Kingdoms, Blackness was attacked by Oliver Cromwell. Extensive damage was done from both sea and land based artillery which left the structure in ruins. It was repaired following the Restoration of Charles II including the addition of a Stair turret to improve access in the Central Tower. In 1693 further modifications were made to the North Tower; it was reduced in height and converted into a three gun battery. The spur was heightened at this time.
Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Blackness was utilised as a prison during the regular wars with France but it acquired a new function in 1870 when it was modified to become the central ammunition depot for Scotland. A pier, complete with drawbridge, was added along with a new access through the curtain wall. Barracks were also constructed to house the garrison (which was detached from Edinburgh Castle) whilst a more elaborate building was constructed for the Officers. A water tank was installed in the rock cut ditch that had originally protected the landward approach whilst the area to the immediate east of the castle was flattened to make room for a variety of powder magazines. The castle courtyard was also covered by an Iron roof. Blackness acted as a depot for around 40 years before being decommissioned and handed over to the Ministry of Works in 1912 when many of the latter works were removed.
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Blackness Castle is an impressive late fifteenth century artillery fortification that was heavily modified in the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
Blackness Castle Layout. The castle was built on a promontory jutting out into the Firth of Forth.
Artillery. The curtain wall was enhanced for artillery between 1537 and 1567. The original entrance can be seen in the far left of the picture.
Spur. The spur was initially added in the sixteenth century and heightened in 1693.
Blackness Castle. The castle viewed from the 1870 ammunition pier. The North Tower (left) was lowered in the seventeenth century to accommodate heavy artillery. The medieval Watergate is visible near the centre of the picture.
Ammunition Pier and Drawbridge. The ammunition pier was added in 1870 and accessed via a drawbridge - one of the very last fitted to a fortification in mainland Britain.