Notes: Elcho Castle is sign-posted from the A912 and found on an unnamed road that runs north from Rhynd. Note you have to drive through the grounds of a farm to get to the castle and, whilst the route is clear, it might seem you have taken a wrong turn - you haven’t! There is a car park.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
An elaborate and well preserved Z-plan Tower House which is arguably one of the best preserved in Scotland. Also visible are portions of the curtain wall.
Wemyss Castle. The main seat of the Wemyss family was their castle in Fife. This was built in 1421 and extensively altered since. The name Wemyss derives from the Gaelic term weem meaning cave - a reference to the numerous caves on the southern coast of Fife.
Elcho Castle was built as an elaborate Z-plan Tower House designed to serve as a country residence for the influential Wemyss family. It remained in use until the eighteenth century and was almost burnt by an angry mob during the Great Famine of 1773.
HISTORY OF ELCHO CASTLE
The first recorded reference to a significant residence or castle at Elcho was made in December 1429 at which time it was in the hands of Sir David Wemyss of that Ilk, a prominent Scottish magnate who had been a signatory to the Declaration of Arbroath. At this time Elcho was split into East and West portions with the latter owned by a Cistercian convent. By the mid-sixteenth century the nuns were in financial difficulties but were provided with support by Sir John Wemyss, owner of western Elcho, in exchange for ownership of the lands. With the Scottish Reformation underway at this time, the nunnery had no prospect of long term survival and when Prioress Euphemia died in 1570, it closed and Sir John acquired full control of both Easter and Wester Elcho. Construction of Elcho Castle started around this time.
The castle itself was a Z-plan tower house and was designed from the start as a comfortable residence rather than a substantive fortification. Nevertheless the structure did have some defences predominantly to provide protection against the general lawlessness associated with the region at this time. In particular the access into the tower was via a sole entrance protected by an iron yett (gate) whilst the lower windows were all protected by bars. The tower was surrounded by a barmkin (curtain wall) that enclosed all the ancillary buildings associated with such a settlement including brewhouse, bakehouse and stables. Towers were built in the south-east and south-west corners of the curtain wall equipped with gunloops enabling fire along the lengths of the wall.
The castle only ever served as a secondary residence - the main seat of the family was at Wemyss Castle in Fife. Nevertheless Elcho's location adjacent to the River Tay, which would have afforded easy access to nearby Perth, made it easily accessible. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Wemyss family were at the forefront of Scottish politics. In 1603 Sir John Wemyss escorted Queen Anne to London to join her husband, James VI of Scotland, who had also become King of England. John's son and namesake was made Lord Wemyss in 1628 and then created Earl of Wemyss in 1633 yet still joined the Covenanter cause and fought against Charles I during the Bishop's War. In the eighteenth century David, Earl of Wemyss was instrumental in drafting the Act of Union (1707) which merged the Governments of Scotland and England. However his grandson, David, was a Jacobite and served Prince Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) during the 1745/6 rebellion. After his defeat at Culloden (1746), he fled abroad and was attained. Although Elcho remained in the hands of the Wemyss family, their interests shifted south to West Lothian and by the mid eighteenth century the castle had gone out of use as a residence.
Elcho Castle saw no military action during its life but in 1773 it came close to being burnt by an angry mob. Although the castle was not in use as a residence by that time, it was being used a temporary grain store from which the product could be shipped to England or France. However, 1773 was also the year of a famine brought about by failed harvests and residents of Perth, angry that the grain was being shipped out of the area solely as it would command a higher price, marched on the castle. Only a promise to sell the grain on the open market in Perth prevented the castle being torched. Thereafter the site went out of use - although it was re-roofed in 1830 - and finally passed into State care in 1929.