PORTENCROSS CASTLE, KA23 9QA
Postcode: KA23 9QA
Lat/Long: 55.699311N 4.904957W
Notes: Castle is not sign-posted but easy to find - just follow Portencross Road from the A78. A free car park is provided for visitors to the castle.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
A fourteenth century Tower House that is unusual for having been extensively converted from a Hall House. The vault, Great Hall and (weather permitting) roof are accessible. On a clear day the site offers superb views across the Clyde with the Tower House on Little Cumbrae visible directly opposite.
1. From the ninth to late eleventh centuries, the settlement of Portencross was the port where the bodies of deceased Scottish monarchs were embarked for burial on Iona.
2. In 1588 Phillip II of Spain sent a vast Armada against Elizabeth I and England. Defeated by the weather and the perseverance of the English Fleet, the Spanish were defeated and started a long slow trek home via the north of Scotland and Ireland. Running low on supplies and slowed by terrible weather, the Spanish sailors attempted to take on supplies locally. One attempted to do this near Portencross but ran aground on the rocks and sank. A little over one hundred and fifty years later, the valuable brass cannons were salvaged and instantly caused confusion when discovered to have been marked 'ER' (Elizabeth Reigns). The cannons had been sold to Spain in advance of hostilities between the two nations.
Situated at the entrance to the Upper Clyde, Portencross Castle was strategically placed between the territories of Scotland and the Norse ‘Lord of the Isles’. The Tower House seen today was built in the fourteenth century by the Boyd family and occupied until the eighteenth century.
HISTORY OF PORTENCROSS CASTLE
In an age when the waterways of Scotland were the key lines of communication for trade and movement, Portencross was well situated with easy access to the Upper Clyde as well as to Arran and Kintyre. It is perhaps not surprising then that a settlement has existed here since at least the Iron Age and the first defences constructed around 800 BC in the form of a Dun, a fortified farmstead. The site later became incorporated into the Kingdom of Dalriada, an area stretching from Skye to Northern Ireland. But, from AD 800 onwards, the area was periodically raided by Vikings and later found itself on a frontier as the nearby islands, including Bute and the Cumbraes, came under permanent Norse control as part of the 'Kingdom of the Isles'.
In the early twelfth century, David I invited numerous Normans to settle in Scotland. He saw this as a means of bringing the country firmly under his rule for they brought their castle building skills with them and constructed fortifications in their allocated territories. This applied at Portencross where, around 1130, the area was granted to the de Ros family who demolished the existing settlements and used the salvaged materials to raise a motte-and-bailey castle known as Auldhill. In 1263, just six miles from Portencross, the Vikings were defeated at the Battle of Largs ultimately resulting in the end of the Norse claim on the Islands. Thereafter military need for the castle declined and it was allowed to drift into ruin.
Auldhill remained with the de Ros family until 1315 when it was granted to Sir Robert Boyd, a loyal supporter of Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Scottish Independence. The ruined castle on Auldhill was not repaired but instead, around 1360, work started on the structure seen today. Abandoning the hilltop location of the former castle, the new fortification was started as a Hall House and developed, over the subsequent decades, into a traditional ‘L’ plan Tower House. The site was probably surrounded by a curtain wall (a barmkin) and various service and support buildings would have been in the immediate vicinity.
The strategic location of the castle continued to see it play a role in national politics. Robert II, the first Stewart King, made at least two (1371 and 1390) recorded stops at the site whilst on route to Dundonald and Rothesay Castles whilst the presence of a Royal deer forest on Little Cumbrae also ensured regular visits. By the mid-fifteenth century though, Royal use of the castle had declined significantly although it remained owned by the Boyd family until 1737. However it was abandoned by them as a major residence almost seventy years before this and thereafter was relegated to a ‘cool store’ for the thriving fishing community that worked the Clyde.
Inevitably the termination of its use as a residence saw neglect to the material state of the castle. The roof blew off in 1739 and thereafter the structure deteriorated rapidly. Various attempts were made to stabilise it during the Victorian era and the Twentieth Century whilst it also avoided damage/destruction from planned Railway and Power Stations schemes. In 1998 it was purchased by the Friends of Portencross Castle, a charitable company formed from local residents determined to save their castle, whose commendable efforts have preserved the site for future generations.