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Publication Account

Date 1986

Event ID 1017423

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


Caerlaverock is, without doubt, the region's premier castle. Its appearance in dazzling red sandstone conveys an impression both of solid strength and dignifIed splendour. The double-towered gatehouse and triangular layout, surrounded by a water-fIlled moat and earthen rampart, display some of the changes in design that were induced partly by Edward I's castle-building activities in the last quarter of the 13th century. Caerlaverock itself is of late 13th century origin, but, curiously, we know neither the identity nor even the nationality of its builder.

By 1300 the castle housed a Scots garrison which harassed English-held Lochmaben (no. 42). Accordingly, in that year, Edward I went out of his way to take Caerlaverock, a siege operation recorded by the author of a contemporary Anglo-Norman ballad. To him, 'Caerlaverock was so strong a castle that it feared no siege before the King came there . . . In shape it was like a shield, for it had but three sides round it, with a tower at each corner, but one of them was a double one, so high, so long, and so wide, that the gate was underneath it, well made and strong, with a drawbridge and a suffIciency of other defences. And it had good walls, and good ditches filled right up to the brim with water .. .'

The singular shape of the castle, unique in Britain, is recognisable in this description. Much of the original masonry is still discernible, particularly in the western curtain-wall and gatehouse-tower, although Caerlaverock suffered badly in the course of later Anglo-Scottish warfare. But just how far the 'destructions' wrought in about 1312 (by the Scots) and 1356-7 (by the English) rendered the castle unusable, and how much rebuilding was undertaken in the 14th century are difficult questions to answer. It is clear that the defences of the castle were restored and improved in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Lords Maxwell, whose armorial is carved above the main gateway. The curtain-walls and eastern gatehouse-tower were reconstructed, and additions were made to the gatehouse itself; the wide-mouthed gun-ports were probably inserted when repairs were in hand in 1593. The castle was among those 'thrown down' by an English army in 1570, palpably an overstatement, whereas the effects of the final episode in the active use of the castle cannot be gainsaid. In 1640 a Royalist garrison under Robert Maxwell, 1st Lord Nithsdale, capitulated after a 13-week siege and bombardment by an army of the Estates, the castle thereafter being partly dismantled to prevent its further occupation.

The vigorous history of this frontier castle satisfyingly bears out its martial appearance, but it was a residence as well as a stronghold. Originally the main hall was on the first floor of the gatehouse block, but was later sub-divided. The 15th century range on the western side of the courtyard contains a series of chambers, probably for guest accommodation. Little survives of the hall block built along the inside of the south curtain in the 1630s, although its doorway gives some idea of its former grandeur. The three-storeyed east range, Nithsdale's building (1634), had a symmetrical six-bay ashlar facade, of which four bays survive intact; the openings have moulded surrounds and carved pediments bearing armorials and relief sculptures. The service basement, which incorporates the castle well, is of early origin; the upper floors were served by a spacious staircase, and most rooms were well equipped with windows, latrines, and fireplaces.

The splendours of Caerlaverock divert attention from the peculiarity of its low-lying setting, close to the edge of woodland swamps and overlooked from the north. An English report of 1563-6 was sceptical of its capabilities 'unless the hill above the same, called the Ward Law, be fortified . . :. However, it had some advantages insofar as 'boats ... often tons will come to the foot of this hill at the full sea'. Among the trees and swamps some 180m to the south of the castle is one of the great unsolved mysteries of Caerlaverock: a large, oblong, and formerly moated platform which has revealed traces of medieval masonry (NX 027656). It may have been a temporary substitute for the existing castle during an alleged phase of dereliction in the 14th century, or a 'failed' 13th century precursor, or even a near-contemporary bridge-head or supply depot. Immediately after the fall of Caerlaverock in 1300, Edward I reconstructed the peel at Dumfries on a large scale, involving the import and trans-shipment of much Cumbrian timber; it is possible that this structure at Caerlaverock may also belong to the English period between 1300 and 1312.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).

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