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Caerlaverock Castle

8 Miles South of Dumfries, on the Scottish Borders

Click here for pictures of Caerlaverock Castle.

The trip south of Dumfries to Caerlaverock Castle is along a quintessential British class B road. It ran one lane each way, the lane just barely wide enough to accommodate a rented Vauxhall Cavalier. The outer ends of the road were marked by a shallow ditch and tall hedges, making it almost impossible to anticipate oncoming traffic on a sharp bend. I saw the sign pointing to the castle's entrance as I passed it at about 60 km an hour. The sign pointed down a narrow, one-lane drive that ended in a sharp bend to the right. There was no castle to be seen.

The lane bent and ended with an old stable on the left and an arch ahead. Through the arch was another old building, now used as a gift shop, and a small parking lot. Beyond the parking lot was Caerlaverock Castle.

The ruin fits everyone's image of a medieval castle. A large berm surrounds the structure, which is further protected by a classic moat. The castle's bailey — which was built in 1266, with extensive renovation in the 14th century — is shaped vaguely like a shield, the front being the shortest, and best protected wall. This main (northern) wall is four stories in height and consists of two towers flanking the main gate, topped by the stone foundation for the (now missing) battlements and a ruined square gatehouse. The west wall is mostly intact, as is the southeast tower. Like the towers in the main wall, the southeast tower is only missing the wooden cone roof and the battlements. The west wall is in worse condition, perhaps due to the addition of windows — dating back to the time of the Nithsdale apartments — in the outer wall that may have weakened it. The south wall is practically non-existent, and all that remains of the southwest tower is a flat foundation.

T'he inner court is in better condition than the outer walls, but just barely. A set of apartments (the Nithsdale apartments, named after the first earl of Nidisdale) was added in the, 17th century and their facade still exists, but none of the wooden interior floors are there. An interior southern wall fared little better than the exterior wall. The interior main wall is almost completely intact and shows some fine stone work. It retains its four storey high archway.

The day I visited Caerlaverock was overcast with sporadic drizzle. A forest has grown almost to the southern boundary of the moat, giving the castle a soft, secluded feel. Half of the walls no longer exist so the courtyard felt open and bright, in spite of the rain. Walking through the castle, it is hard not to notice any of the other tourists. Although there were no more than about half a dozen people in the castle at any one time, the structure is just small enough that you have to choose your camera angles carefully if you don't want other people walking into the shot.

This is how the castle felt to me as I saw it; it would have been an entirely different structure while it was still in use. Caerlaverock is the castle protecting the narrowest crossing of the Solway Firth, the estuary leading to the Irish Sea that separates Scotland's Galloway region from England's Lake District. As such it would have seen a lot of activity, not only as a trading port but as a fortress in Scotland's many wars and skirmishes with England. This was never an isolated bastion, but rather a busy strategic site, and perhaps my imagination grafts that onto the image of the castle in its modem state, for in spite of its condition and seclusion it seems active, even alive. This feeling is aided by the bright, airy courtyard of today, which would have been a dark, claustrophobic area when the castle's high walls had been intact. In fact, the castle would not have been the most pleasant places to live in the 14th century. The large kitchens sat in the bottom of the main wall, leaving the smells of slaughter and cooking to permeate the entire structure. Arrow slits in the towers and loose fitting doors would have made draughts a constant problem even in the summer; Scotland's damp weather would have been impossible to keep out. The interior would have been cramped to say the least. The castle's garrison would have rarely exceeded 200 men during the summer and often consisted of less than 50 men during winter months, in times of peace. Seeing Caerlaverock, I realize that these numbers are practical for more than just the cost of the soldier's employment, as there's simply no room for any more than that.

It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to put apartments into the castle as the view would rival the worst Glasgow tenement, but that's what the earl of Nithsdale did in 1634. Since this was after the Union of the Crowns, peace had broken out between Scotland and England. Large garrisons were no longer needed and space was no longer at such a premium. The apartments would have added to the claustrophobic feeling and would have reduced much of the sunlight entering the courtyard No doubt windows were added to keep out the cold, and the remains of several fossilized fireplaces can be seen in the walls, but the castle would still have been draughty and damp. Still, it remained occupied until the final siege during the English Civil War in the 1640s, whence it was bombarded into its current state of disrepair.

Even though the apartments are quite obvious from the inside, the main wall obscures them from the outside, allowing one to conjure an image of the castle in the early 1300s. One can almost see the castle with its battlements intact, banners flying from the conical tower caps, wooden hoarding running along the tops of the outer walls, and mail clothed defenders walking the ramparts. Large farms surround the modem site but it's easy to imagine the village that once squatted beside the fortress and the tenant farms that supported it. Although built in the Scottish lowlands, this castle would not be out of place anywhere in England or on the Welsh frontier.