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Publication Account

Date 1985

Event ID 1016566

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The development of artillery in the later middle ages rendered the defences of many of the earlier castles obsolete, and expensive or difficult alterations were necessary in order to give them sufficient strength to withstand a determined attack.A more radical solution to this problem was to build from scratch on a new site, and this was the case at Craignethan where Sir James Hamilton of Finnart built a stronghold for the Hamilton family. Sir James was the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Arran, and after travelling on the continent he returned to play his part in family affairs.While in Italy he had observed the rapid development of new styles of artillery fortification and, once back in Scotland, put his new found knowledge to practical use (see also no. 30 for Sir James' alterations at Blackness Castle). Work on the castle began in the 1530s, with major additions being made before 1579; after it had gone out of use as a defensive structure, a laird's house was built in the outer courtyard.

The choice of this particular site for the castle is curious, for although it occupies the tip of a steepsided promontory with good natural defence on three sides, the remaining flank is overlooked by higher ground which gave any assailant considerable advantage. In the earliest phase, the castle comprised a large tower-house surrounded by a walled enclosure (the barmkin) with the added protection of a dry ditch drawn across the neck of the promontory. The design is essentially medieval in character, but two features point to the future. In the first place, the exposed west wall (now reduced to its foundations but its original proportions can be seen in a reconstruction drawing in the site museum) was built on a massive scale in order to withstand an artillery barrage. The most novel feature of the plan, however, was the construction of a caponier at the south end of the ditch. This device, probably first seen by Sir James during his travels in Italy, was cunningly concealed in the base of the deep ditch and provided a stronghold from which the defenders could rake the length of the ditch with small-arms fire (for another example see Stirling Castle, no. 3G). Soon after the construction of the early work the castle was extended by the addition of a walled courtyard attached to the outer side of the ditch.

Craignethan's role as a defensive work ended in 1579 when it was partially demolished following the disgrace of the Hamilton family. In 1G59 it was bought by the Convenantor, Andrew Hay, who built a house in the south-west angle of the outer courtyard. The house is now occupied by the custodian, and in one of the outbuildings there is a small site exhibition and museum.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: The Clyde Estuary and Central Region’, (1985).

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