Scotland  >  Argyll, Clyde and Ayrshire (Isle of Bute)


Built in the twelfth century, Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute was situated at a friction point between the westward expansion of the Kingdom of Scotland and territory owned by the King of Norway. The castle itself was raised by the Stewart family, an Anglo-Norman family who would later become Scottish Kings, and was attacked twice by the Norwegians.



The Isle of Bute was captured for Scotland by William the Lion in mid-twelfth century. Prior to this time the island, along with Arran and the Cumbraes, had been under Norse control latterly under Somerled, Lord of Argyll. His death in 1164 led to a divided inheritance and this probably prompted William's seizure of the islands in the Upper Clyde. He granted Bute to Alan, an Anglo-Norman whose family had settled in Scotland around 1136 at the invite of David I who sought such immigrants in order to impose the feudal system (and thus his control) over Scotland. Alan was the King's steward, a hereditary role he had acquired from his father and from which the family took the name ‘Stewart’. Their service had brought them extensive lands and by 1200 they had built castles at Dundonald and Renfrew. Bute was granted to Alan around this time and Rothesay Castle was raised shortly after probably as an earth and timber fortification and possibly on the site of an earlier Norse fortification.


Either Alan (died 1204) or his son, Walter, rebuilt Rothesay Castle in stone. The configuration matched the earlier earthwork with a rounded curtain wall, a simple gateway to the north and a postern gate facing west. The upgrades were certainly complete by 1230 as Uspak, King of Man - on the instruction of Haakon IV of Norway - launched an attack on Rothesay Castle. The attack is captured in the Saga of Hakon Hakonson (see below); the Norwegians used wooden shields to get close to the castle's walls which they then cut through. Uspak himself was mortally wounded during the fight and, when a large fleet of Scottish ships arrived, the Norwegians withdrew.


The damage to Rothesay Castle was repaired but another Norwegian attack was made on Bute in 1263 under the personal direction of Haakon IV. The castle surrendered without a fight on this occasion although this did not stop some of the Scots being slain by their attackers. Despite the setback on Bute, Scottish forces moved to engage the Norwegians. Under the command of Alexander, son of Walter and owner of Rothesay Castle, the Scots defeated them at the Battle of Largs in October 1263. Haakon withdrew and died at Kirkwell, Orkney on his return journey. His successor, Magnus, abandoned his claim on Bute and the Clyde Islands in exchange for a substantial payment - a deal ratified in the Treaty of Perth (1266).


The later years of the thirteenth century saw Rothesay Castle upgraded. An enhanced gatehouse provided stronger protection to the north whilst four round towers were added to allow flanking fire along the curtain wall as well as providing enhanced accommodation.


At the outbreak of the First Scottish War of Independence, Rothesay Castle was owned by James Stewart. It fell to the English in the late thirteenth century but was re-captured by Sir Robert Boyd in 1306. The castle was returned to James Stewart who later connected his family by marriage with Robert the Bruce when his son Walter married the King's daughter, Marjorie. In 1371 their son would become Robert II, the first Stewart King who would go on to establish the tradition that the heir to the throne would be created Duke of Rothesay.


Although Robert II spent significant periods there, Rothesay was paid little attention by subsequent Scottish Kings but this changed in the late fifteenth century. At this time James IV (1488 to 1513) sought to break the power of John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. Using his fledgling navy, he mounted numerous operations against the Western Isles making frequent visits to Rothesay on route. In the early sixteenth century he commissioned the larger Tower House but it is unlikely the work was completed prior to his death at the Battle of Flodden (1513). The castle was attacked by pro-English forces in 1527 and 1544.


In the sixteenth century the castle became something of a backwater with no further upgrades recorded. In 1650 it was taken over by English troops as part of Oliver Cromwell's occupation of Scotland and when the garrison was withdrawn in 1659 the castle was slighted. Further damage was suffered in 1685 when Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll rebelled against James VII (II of England) and burnt the castle. Thereafter it was allowed to drift into ruin although the gatehouse was used as a powder store during the Napoleonic Wars.



Saga of Hakon Hakonson


The Norse attack on Rothesay Castle in 1230 was captured in the Saga of Hakon Hakonson:


"And they sailed south round the Mull of Kintyre, and so in to Bute. The Scots sat there in the castle; and a certain steward was one of Scots. [The Norwegians] attacked the castle, but the Scots defended it, and they poured out boiling pitch. The Norwegians hewed the wall with axes, because it was soft. The torch-bearer who was called Skagi shot the steward to death. Many of the Norwegians fell, before they won the castle."





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

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Dargie, R.L.C (2004). Scottish Castles and Fortifications. GW Publishing, Thatcham.

Duffy, P R J (2012). One Island, Many Voices: Bute. Archaeology and the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme, Donington.

Hall, M. B (1974). Largs, and Society District Historical. The Battle of Largs. Largs and District Historical Society, Largs.

Simpson, W D (1955). Rothesay Castle and the Norse siege of 1230. Edinburgh.

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What's There?

Rothesay Castle is an impressive (and for Scotland unusual) circular fortification with a later Tower House. A small viewing platform gives limited views over modern day Rothesay.

Towers. The four round towers were added in the thirteenth century after the Norwegians had successfully captured the castle twice.

Chapel. A chapel was built within the curtain wall in the early 1500s

Getting There

The castle is located on the Isle of Bute in Rothesay. Regular (passenger and car) ferries sail from Wemyss (and there is a smaller ferry at Colintraive). The castle is a short walk from the Wemyss-Rothesay ferry terminal.

Rothesay Castle

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