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Dundonald Castle

Castle (13th Century), Fort (Medieval)

Site Name Dundonald Castle

Classification Castle (13th Century), Fort (Medieval)

Canmore ID 41970

Site Number NS33SE 2

NGR NS 36360 34517

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council South Ayrshire
  • Parish Dundonald (Kyle And Carrick)
  • Former Region Strathclyde
  • Former District Kyle And Carrick
  • Former County Ayrshire

Archaeology Notes

NS33SE 2 36360 34517

(NS 3636 3451) Dundonald Castle (NR)

OS 6" map (1967).

For a chapel which may have stood in the vicinity of, or within the castle see NS33SE 29.

For (suggested) fort around the castle, see NS33SE 11.

Robert II, who died here in 1390, rebuilt Dundonald Castle. His chief work consists of a very large oblong tower house, which incorporates the remains of a 13th century gatehouse. (Minor excavations were carried out in front of this in 1968 in advance of rubble clearances. There were no significant finds). Most of the tower, and much of the barmkin wall survive. The castle stands on an isolated hill, which has traces of a moat at its base, according to the NSA and MacGibbon and Ross.

NSA 1845 (A Willison); D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887; S Piggott and W D Simpson 1970.

Dundonald Castle is in a ruinous condition. The main portion of the building is covered with a barrel-vault and the storey above is open to the sky. The walls, of rubble, over 2.0m thick, show indications of additional buildings to the SW. Fragments of the courtyard, or enceinte, wall, 1.0m thick, can still be seen running around the upper perimeter of the hill, and in some places reach a height of 3.0m. Almost parallel to these, on the W and some 9.0m away, there are suggestions of a possible outer enceinte wall. The moat is imaginary; the hill itself forms an ample defence and the ground at its foot is simply low-lying and waterlogged.

Visited by OS (JLD), 27 May 1954.

Dundonald Castle was the property of Walter Stewart (1204-41); his son and successor Alexander was sometimes known as Alexander of Dundonald, perhaps because he was born there. This suggests that this may have been the chief place of the Kyle estates, but the Stewarts' court was held at Prestwick 1241-82.

G W S Barrow 1973.

As previously described. The tower is now roofed and in reasonable condition. Guardianship plate gives brief history.

Revised at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (JRL), 14 May 1982.

The remains of this royal castle, erected during the reign of Robert II (1371-1390), occupy a prominent position on the summit of a hill overlooking the village of Dundonald. The main block is roughly rectangular on plan (17.9m by 12.1m within walls up to 2.15m thick) and comprises three principal storeys with halls on the first and second floors. The second-floor hall is carried on a pointed barrel-vault and is divided into two principal bays by transverse and diagonal moulded ribs with depressed wall-ribs between; a third principle facade on the W bears the royal arms and those of the Stewarts, and incorporates splayed semicircular angle-buttresses at the ground floor flanking a former entrance (subsequently infilled); these portions may be relics of an earlier building. An accommodation wing on the S and a courtyard on the E were both probably added in the 15th century. Terracing on and around the summit of the hill could be associated with an earlier castle, perhaps that of Walter the Stewart of Dundonald, Justiciar of Scotland in 1230. During the 17th century a number of moulded stones from the castle were re-used in Auchans House (NS33SE 1).

OSA 1793; NSA 1845; J Paterson 1863-6; D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887-92; G Chalmers 1887-1902; J Smith 1895; W Macfarlane 1906-8; W D Simpson 1949, 1959; W J Dillon 1954,1966; G W S Barrow 1973, 1980; G Barrow and A Royan 1985; S Cruden 1981; G Ewart 1985; RCAHMS 1985, visited (IMS) April 1985.

The first major season of excavation in advance of an extensive programme of reconstruction and restoration, concentrated on the S half of the site as defined by a mid 15th century barmkin wall which encloses the summit of the hill to the E of the late 14th century tower built by Robert II.

The complexity and antiquity of this important Stewart stronghold was confirmed with the discovery of two previously unknown construction phases both of which were much obscured by later building on the site. The earlier of the two so far identified is defined by a massive vitrified rampart which was traced immediately to the E of the barmkin wall. The other is a long hall-like structure or range of structures in stone which predates the barmkin wall and associated S range, and which probably co-existed with the tower. Elsewhere, the basement chambers of the S range were excavated along with the remains of a wide forestair which allowed access from the inner courtyard to the first floor of the tower.

Of the wide range of objects retrieved, most reflected the occupation of the site during the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries, but several artefacts from the late Iron Age, including a bronze brooch fragment, pottery and part of a shale bracelet were also found.

G J Ewart 1986; The Ayrshire Post, 25 July 1986

The second major excavation at Dundonald Castle was carried out over twelve weeks from May to July, concentrating on the summit of the castle hill, E of the late 14th century tower built by Robert II. Extensive new evidence was found from both the original native fortification and the later re-occupation of the site after the mid 12th century.

The recent work has confirmed that timber buildings associated with the vitrified rampart discovered last year, were also destroyed by fire and there is now some evidence to suggest that the first Norman castle saw the construction of a motte towards the W of the site. However the most dramatic aspect of this season's excavation was the discovery of a massive stone gatehouse at the E of the site, apparently consisting of two drum towers which were slighted during the 14th century prior to their final levelling in advance of the 15th century barmkin construction.

G J Ewart 1987

Work during the third main season of excavation was concentrated within the area defined by the 15th century barmkin wall. To the south, the partial remains of a series of late Iron Age structures were found below the medieval courtyard and roadway surfaces. Towards the north side of the enclosure a large rock-cut pit was found which was later lined with masonry to form a fissure-fed freshwater cistern. The pit was probably the result of quarrying for the construction of the great tower house during the late 14th century whereas the cistern appears to be no earlier than the mid 15th century.

Also, limited excavation on the probable 13th century north drum tower of the east entrance to the castle showed it to be a complex chambered structure with a massive outer wall. The tower appears to have been demolished by the end of the 14th century and was succeeded briefly by an earth bank, a precursor to the 15th century barmkin defensive line.

G J Ewart 1988

The excavation took place over 20 working days in order to (a) reveal the limits of a large stone structure immediately E of the late 14th century tower; (b) to shed light on the access route into the inner and outer courts; (c) to retrieve samples for corroborative dating of the firing of the vitrified rampart to the E of the hill summit; (d) to excavate a narrow track for a drain pipe at the S side of the tower complex.

Two main trenches were ultimately opened (K and L) - trench K over the assumed site of the stone building and trench, immediately to the N, linking with the inner face of the barmkin wall. The excavation results fall into 9 broad phases, reflecting 7 historic periods from a date prior to 1370 AD up unitl the present time.

Period 1: c1250-1370 AD

Previous excavation on the site has shown the presence of an extensive enclosure castle dating to the late 13th century, and the earliest structures and contexts revealed in the recent fieldwork, most likely date to that period.

Prior to the construction of the Barmkin wall in Period 2, a free standing rectangular stone building (Structure A) was built, below which traces of an earlier stone structure were found.

A short stretch of a very substantial wall (F 1108) aligned NS was found running beneath the barmkin wall (F1103) to an unknown point beyond the barmkin enclosure. It probably represents either some sort of division within the enclosure castle, or is part of a seperate tower-like building occupying the wide terrace immediately N of the barmkin. Structure A was defined by walls 1012, 1031, 1019/20 and 1207, creating a building 6.6m by 5.4m internally (EW and NS respectively).

Only parts of the structure were rvealed and no sign of an entrance was found, although it probably was in the S wall, approached ultimately from the inner court.

Period 2: c1370-1450

After the construction of the great tower by Robert II, the barmkin enclosure was established with an inner and outer court. This was achieved by the construction of a major wall (F1011) which ran from the S barmkin to abut the SE corner of Structure A, thus forming an enclosure with the Tower complex to the W. The earlier great wall F1108, was robbed of stone and was built over by the N barmkin wall (F1103).

Period 3: c1450-1550

Structure A continued in use after the castle passed from royal ownership, and was extended by the addition of another room E (Structure B). By the addition of walls 1010, 1014 and 1013 to the E gable of structure A, a building 5.4m (NS) by 3.4m (EW) internally was created. Access into 'B' appears to have been from the E, but there was no door between 'A' and 'B'. It is likely that 'B' was abandoned and partially demolished by the end of Period 3.

Period 4: c1530-1650

After the demolition of 'B', crude, vaguely circular stone settings were constructed against the outer face of the E wall of 'A'. These settings (F 1026 and F 1030) were of roughly mortared rubble and which may have supported posts for some lean-to-structure.

Period 5: c1750-1850

The local demolition of 'A' occurred at this time although it may well have been ruinous for a while prior to this. The building was then flattened and infilled with numerous dumps of rubble, some of which found its way over the N limits of 'A', to cover the period 1 and 2 surfaces found in trench L.

Period 6: c1850-1940

The area N of 'A' was infilled with a deep deposit of garden soil (F1016, 1028) which eventually saw use in allotment style cultivation around WWII, but which may well have stemmed from a more elaborate garden, perhaps in association with the extensive 19th century gardens of Audans House.

Period 7: c1940-1985.

The excavation revealed extensive evidence of the use of the site as a training ground for commandos in WWII (numerous .303 cartridge cases) but in the main, the 'modern' usage of this part of the site, has been that of a dump for spoil from various clearances and repairs to the tower, culminating in the ongoing programme of consolidation which started in 1985.

The short excavation confirmed therefore the presence of a highly significant stone building (A') the importance of which is implied by its strategic location on the limit of the bedrock summit, and its integration and extension during the 'royal' occupation of the Castle after 1370.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

G Ewart 1991.

A short programme of excavation was completed in February 1993 as one of the final stages of a lengthy programme of excavation and survey conducted on the site in adavance of restoration.

Work was undertaken in the pit prison, within the S range, and the footings of a rounded tower, possibly dating to the late 13th-century layout of the castle were found. Three further trenches were excavated within the late 14th-century tower in advance of first-floor reinstatement, but revealed only 19th-century levelling.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland.

G Ewart 1993.

NS 363 345 A watching brief was carried out in April 2000 while contractors carried out excavations to locate a broken electricity cable. No archaeological deposits were disturbed.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart 2000

NS 3636 3451 A watching brief was undertaken in October 2000 during the excavation of a path and digging of founds for a new bench at Dundonald Castle (NMRS NS33SE 2).

The route of the new path revealed a reddish brown sandy silt, not usually bottomed, with much modern detritus throughout. Bedrock was revealed in some areas, in places only 100mm below the turf line. The two small trenches for the bench revealed a similar soil, again bottoming on bedrock in places. No finds were noted in these two trenches.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Stewart and G Ewart 2001.

Architecture Notes


Plans: Dick Peddie and Mackay, Edinburgh restoration

Attic 2, Bin 19, Bag 2 (Peddie and Washington Browne) 1905

(Undated) information in NMRS.


Watching Brief (4 June 199 - 6 June 1997)

A watching brief was carried out by Kirkdale Archaeology at Dundonald Castle during the excavation of drainage tracks and the erection of security camera equipment over 2 days. The drainage trench measured 40cm wide and 40-90cm deep (deepest to the W and lay to the W of the visitors centre. The installation of security equipment necessitated the excavation of two trenches, a hole to take the upright and a narrow channel for the cabling. The latter lay to the E of the visitors centre and measured 40cm wide and 60cm deep, whereas the latter was up to 1.25m in depth, and measured 1.1 x 1.5m (longer E-W). The excavations revealed that the bedrock lay close to the surface, and that the overburden comprised modern infill for the terrace carrying the visitors centre. No finds were retrieved, modern and late 19th-century ceramics being the only objects revealed.

Kirkdale Archaeology, 1997

Publication Account (1985)

As it stands today, the tower-house at Dundonald is largely a work of the 14th century, but it incorporates part of an earlier castle built in the preceding century which, like that at Bothwell (no. 31), was partly demolished during the Wars ofIndependence in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the English army. The early castle was an example of the keep-gatehouse type, with two semicircular towers projecting from the front of the main block flanking a centrally placed gateway which gave access to a rear courtyard. The south tower has been removed, but the base of the north tower can still be seen emerging from beneath the later stonework. Few other traces of the 13th century castle can be identified.

Following his accession to the throne in 1371, Robert had Dundonald rebuilt, converting the original gatehouse to an early form of tower-house. The front wall was reconstructed, largely removing the earlier tower is the central gateway was blocked and the main entrance was moved to the opposite side of the building. During the 15th century a new wing was added on the south and a barmkin built on the east. Robert's position as king and head of the House of Stewart was commemorated by a row of shields on the west wall which bear the royal arms and those of Stewart.

Internally, accommodation was provided on three storeys; a wooden floor/ceiling (now missing) separated the ground and first floors, but both the first and second floors are vaulted in stone. The hall lay on the second floor and was on a grand scale as befitting a royal castle, and an unusual feature is the ribbing on the roof vault. The castle was occupied until the 17th centmy, after which it fell into decay, and it is currently undergoing restoration.

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

Watching Brief (4 February 1997 - 7 February 1997)

NS 3636 3451 The site of a new visitor centre at Dundonald Castle was prepared in February 1997. It was thought that buildings around the base of the castle rock could be exposed during this work, and therefore an archaeological watching brief was maintained by Kirkdale Archaeology.

A scooped platform to the S of the new building was initially examined, proving to be a small quarry hole measuring 4.3 x 3m. Fractured bedrock was exposed at ground level, and a line of presumed masonry exposed at ground level was shown to be a line of natural, weathered doleritic rock which has fractured to give the appearance of a man-made structure.

Within the area of the new visitor centre itself, turf and topsoil were removed to reveal traces of a formerly more extensive area of marshy deposits at the NW corner, the truncated remains of large salt marshes which originally extended to the NW. The remainder of the area was drier, sloping downwards towards the former marshland. Removal of the drier material revealed nothing of archaeological significance, despite excavation beyond the initial limits of 0.8m.

In April 1997 a watching brief was undertaken while contractors excavated a circular hole to form the foundation for a masonry plinth supporting a bronze view-finder outside the barmkin wall of Dundonald Castle. The site was over an exploratory archaeological trench dug in the 1980s. The material removed therefore comprised backfill and topsoil. A photographic record was made prior to backfilling.

A cable trench was also excavated to a general depth of 300mm below present ground surface, and followed a zig-zag route from a point at the extreme NW end of the assumed barmkin area, through to a point approximately 8.5m S of the possible chapel site, within the inner courtyard, and immediately W of the wall separating inner and outer courtyards.

Nothing was revealed of the residual masonry towards the tower house end of the castle complex. However, particularly within the entrance pend, substantial rubble deposits were revealed, suggested in part by the character of the debris (mortar-rich) and the shelving nature of the bedrock, which may well be coincident with the entranceway. The ground would appear to slope upwards from outside to inside, and the pend may well have exploited a natural terrace in the underlying bedrock. Little new evidence was found of the still enigmatic route of the barmkin wall to the NW of the tower house. It is clear, however, that the wall line remains close to the surface, which could easily be cleared if the need were to arise.

Observations of the general topography to the W of the tower house at or near 'Dumpling Hill' seem at present to indicate a form of forework associated with the 14th-century castle, and revealed traces of a terrace and a probable rectangular building. The terrace appeared to be exclusively associated with the tower and tower house elements, and did not necessarily reflect a rubble spread at the base of the ruined walls, being too regular in character. This feature is therefore best viewed as a platform, possibly deriving from elements of the Period IV complex (13th century), recycled as a base for the later castle. The indications of a rectangular building were reflected by three sections of walling extending from the terrace, forming the N, S and W walls of a straight-sided structure. The S wall was indicated by a projection from the terrace noted above, and the N wall lay on an alignment approximately opposite the assumed blocked entranceway within the tower house gate-house structure.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

G Ewart and D Stewart 1997

Watching Brief (8 September 1997)

A watching brief was undertaken by Kirkdale Archaeology on the 8th September 1997 during the excavation of foundation trenches for the provision of steel benches. One bench was located a third of the way up the hill on the E side beside the new footpath, with the second bench placed inside the castle courtyard against the W face of the perimeter wall. No finds were made, and the trenches were photographed.

Kirkdale Archaeology, 1997


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