The Barony of Dirleton was granted to John de Vaux in the twelfth century. John was one of many Normans invited by David I (1124-53) to settle in Scotland. The King hoped the arrival of such immigrants, who brought with them castle building expertise, would help bring his unruly country firmly under Royal rule. Precisely where John built his first castle is unknown - charters were sealed at Edlbotle which was possibly sited to the north-west of the later Dirleton Castle. However, John's main residence at this time seems to have been Castle Tarbet on the island of Fidra.
The de Vaux family continued to prosper in Royal service during the thirteenth century. In 1239 a descendant of the original settler, John de Vaux, was appointed as Steward to King Alexander II's Queen, Marie de Coucy. His duties would have meant he accompanied her on journeys abroad including visits to Coucy-le-Chateau. Inspired by that structure, which regrettably was destroyed during World War I, John commenced work on Direlton Castle. The new fortification was an enclosure castle protected by a tall curtain wall augmented by round towers.
In 1296 the Wars of Scottish Independence erupted. Ten years earlier Alexander III had died without leaving a male heir resulting in multiple claimants for the Scottish throne. Edward I of England was invited to arbitrate but he sought to gain overlordship of the country in the process. His eventual candidate, John Balliol, proved less pliable than hoped and when faced with Edward's demands for troops to serve in a continental war he rebelled. English forces under the command of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey invaded and achieved success at the Battle of Dunbar (1296). However, the following year William Wallace led an uprising against the English culminating in his victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297). The following year, Edward I rode north with a large army to stabilise the situation. On his way north he detached Bishop Bek of Durham with a portion of the army to capture Dirleton Castle (along with Yester and probably Hailes). Initially hampered by a lack of supplies, Bishop Bek ultimately took the castle in an operation lasting two days.
Now under English control, Dirleton Castle was entrusted to Robert de Mandlee. It is not known how long his tenure was but at some point it was recaptured by the Scots. In 1306 Dirleton was then re-taken by the English, this time under a force led by Aymer de Valence, and was once again garrisoned. However, the death of Edward I in 1307 marked a significant change in English fortunes. Robert the Bruce had rebelled in 1306 and been crowned as King of Scots; he now started a systematic campaign to destroy the English garrisoned castles across the country. At some point prior to 1314, the year of his decisive victory at Bannockburn, Dirleton Castle was back in Scottish hands. Bruce ordered its destruction to prevent further military use.
Through marriage Dirleton passed from the de Vaux family to the Haliburtons in 1350. They had supported the Scottish monarchy throughout the Wars of Independence and had prospered accordingly with one member, Walter Haliburton, being appointed Lord High Treasurer of Scotland in 1438. During this time the ruined castle at Dirleton was rebuilt into a splendid residence. However, the family's close associations with the Black Douglases (of nearby Tantallon Castle) led to their political eclipse following James II's campaign against them in 1455.
In 1515 the Lordship of Dirleton, including the castle, passed through marriage to the Ruthven family (from Huntingtower Castle) who would become notorious in Scottish politics. In 1566 Patrick, Lord Ruthven would be involved in the murder of David Riccio - secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots. His son William was created Earl of Gowrie in 1581 but three years later was involved in the kidnap of the young James VI. William was executed the same year and Dirleton was briefly confiscated although it was back with the family by 1586. Finally, in 1600, the Ruthven’s were embroiled in the 'Gowrie Conspiracy'. The true events of this are uncertain but was allegedly a plot by John, third Earl of Gowrie to capture or kill James VI. If so they failed, their heirs fled the country and the castle was confiscated.
Although the castle avoided becoming embroiled in the early years of the Wars of Three Kingdoms, in 1650 it was besieged by Oliver Cromwell. He had invaded Scotland following the country's support for Charles II. Victory at the Battle of Dunbar (1650) gave Cromwell control of southern Scotland but a small force of Royalists based themselves in Dirleton Castle to attack his supply lines. On 9 November General Monck was dispatched with 1,600 men to destroy Dirleton. After a heavy artillery assault the castle surrendered and its defences slighted. The ruined structure was never rebuilt although it became a feature within a landscaped garden when Archerfield House was built in the 1660s.
The Gowrie Conspiracy
On 5 August 1600 King James VI of Scotland was engaged in a hunt having ridden out from Falkland Palace that morning. During this event the King was approached by Alexander Ruthven, younger brother of John, Earl of Gowrie advising him that a foreigner had been detained at Gowrie House and should be interrogated by James himself. Around 1pm the King arrived at Gowrie House with a number of retainers where a meal was taken with the Ruthvens. Thereafter the King was taken to a room in the upper storey of the house where a struggle ensued in which both Ruthvens were killed.
Controversy surrounds the plot with commentators noting both the Ruthvens and the King had motives to eliminate each other. For the former the capture and control of a King was not unheard of in Scotland and their father - William Ruthven - had been executed in 1584 for exactly the same crime. The King also had a motive; he owed considerable money to the Gowrie estate whilst John was a potential rival to the English Crown when the childless Elizabeth I died. Was it a botched kidnap attempt or a political murder by James VI? The truth will probably never be known.
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Visit Official Website
Dirleton Castle consists of the remains of a thirteenth century enclosure castle that was later extensively modified. It was badly damaged during the Civil War and thereafter left as a ruin.
Dirleton Castle Layout. When initially built the castle had three large round towers connected via a tall curtain wall. Extensive damage was sustained during the Wars of Independence which saw the rectangular Haliburton Range replace two of the original towers.
Reconfiguration. The castle was originally built as an enclosure fortification with three large round towers. The central one has gone but its base can be seen on the bottom-right of the above picture.
Ruthven Lodging. This range was built after the castle was acquired by the Ruthven family circa-1515.
Rock Base. The castle was built on top of an outcrop of rock.
De Vaux Towers. The circular towers formed part of the thirteenth century castle and provided the original accommodation. Each was elaborately decorated.
Gatehouse. The fourteenth century gatehouse was designed to impress.
A key fortress on the Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed road, Dirleton Castle changed hands on multiple occasions during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Later it became home to the notorious Ruthven family who were involved in the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’. Dirleton was destroyed by General Monck during the Wars of Three Kingdoms.
Dirleton Castle is well sign-posted from the A198. There is a small car park directly adjacent to the castle.