Menu:

Dirleton Castle

Approximately 15 Miles East of Edinburgh

Click here for pictures of Dirleton Castle.

Although castles abound all over the country, Scotland has two areas that can be described as Castle Country. The smaller of the two is in the area east of Edinburgh. Within a twenty mile arc east of Edinburgh are six castles, including Edinburgh Castle itself, several Celtic forts, three historic churches, at least three prehistoric structures, and a smattering of other historical sites. Dirleton Casde is about four miles west of Tantallon, near the south shore of the Firth of Forth. Both castles flank the town of North Berwick along the A198 motorway that leads into Edinburgh.

Dirleton Castle is older than Tantallon by over 100 years, which probably goes far to explaining why it fared so poorly compared to its eastern neighbour. The land on which Dirleton was built consisted of an extensive area of fertile loam and sandy soil. To the north of the lands, right on the coast, stood the manor of Eilbotle, a frequent resort for Scottish nobility that became the property of the de Vaux family, one of the wealthy Anglo-Normans that came to Scotland under the reign of David I (1124-1153). The first known owner of the land, William de Vaux, was a close friend of William the Lion. The site of the de Vaux family castle, built in the mid to late 13th century, was a small craggy knoll on the route to North Berwick, site of a Cistercian convent and ferry location for pilgrims heading to the shrine of Scotland's patron saint at St. Andrews. As in most of the other castles I've talked about, it was built on the site of an earlier timber fortification.

Like other lowland castles, Dirleton switched hands many times during Scotland's War of Independence. It held out against the English in 1298 until food for the besiegers and additional siege equipment was brought up from England. The castle surrendered and its inhabitants were allowed to leave peacefully. It fell into Scottish hands in 1311 and was partially dismantled by Robert the Bruce's command sometime after Bannockburn (1314).

Most of Dirleton's history beyond this point was rather peaceful in a military sense, though its owners engaged in a lot of political manoeuvring. One of its owners, Patrick, the third Lord Ruthven, was a staunch follower of Lord Darnley. He and his son, William, were implicated in the murder of Queen Mary's lover, Riccio, in 1566 and fled to England. The Earl of Gowrie, the fourth Lord Ruthven, was once the Treasurer of Scotland. He engineered the "Raid of Ruthven" when he detained the young King James VI for ten months and assumed control of Scotland. The king came back under the control of the Earl of Arran, his regent, but Gowrie was pardoned. Gowrie later plotted to capture Stirling Castle. He was stopped and this time he was beheaded for his trouble.

Lady Dorothea, the Earl's widow, lost the lands to Arran in 1585 who later that year contracted the plague while entertaining the king at Dirleton. Arran eventually died at the castle under a royally imposed quarantine. Lady Dorothea was given back the castle. In 1600, two of the Lady's four sons were killed in the family's town house in Perth in an alleged attempt on the king's life known as the Gowrie Conspiracy. She was able to save two of her sons by sending them to England mere minutes before the authorities showed up at the castle's entrance. The castle was forfeited and the lands given to Sir Thomas Erskine of Gogar, but Lady Dorothea was permitted to reside at the castle.

Dirleton changed hands several times until the middle of the 17th century. In 1649, the castle was used to detain some poor wretches who had confessed to the crime of witchcraft. They were found guilty of committing witchcraft on the castle green, and were strangled and burned at the stake nearby.

In 1650, the castle — like Tantallon — became a base of operations for Royalist Moss-troopers during the English Civil War. Commonwealth soldiers laid siege to Dirleton Castle on November 9 and it fell the next day. Compare the comment about the siege of Tantallon to the following account taken from a letter of the time:

That G[eneral] Monk with a party of 1600 was sent to take Derlington House, a nest of Moss-troopers who killed many souldiers of the Army. That M[ajor] G[eneral] Lambert came before the House and cast up Batteries the same night, so that their great Guns were ready to play the next morning by the Break of Day. That their great shot played, and that the fourth shot of their mortar-piece tore the inner Gate, beat down the Draw-bridge into the Moat, and killed the Lieutenant of the Moss-troopers, so that they called for Quarter, which would not be given them, nor would they agree to surrender to Mercy, but upon Reverence, which was consented unto. That they took the Governour; and the Captain of the Moss-troopers and 60 souldiers. That two of the most notorious of them and the Captain were shot to death upon the Place. They took in it many Arms, 60 Horse which they had taken from the English, and released ten English prisoners, and demolished the House.

Tantallon fell three months later after a twelve day siege. Many of Cromwell's soldiers fell ill after Tantallon's fall, and the castle of Dirleton was used as a hospital for the sick.

For a brief period in the time of Cromwell Dirleton was given to Sir Robert Fletcher, but it was returned to the Countess of Dirleton in June 1650. It changed hands once more when it was purchased by Sir John Nisbet in 1663, and then it fell peacefully into history.

Dirleton is found just west of the town of North Berwick. The tall brick wall near the car park is actually a restored portion of a 16th century outer wall. Fortress like, the wall doesn't fit in with the surroundings. The area where the castle is located looks like a typical suburban residential area on the outskirts of a big city. Beside the brick wall is a small park, and just to the north lies the Firth of Forth.

Inside the outer walls, visitors are greeted with Dirleton's massive garden. Dirleton was the home of wealthy and influential Scots and English, and the garden was a result. First created in the late 16th century, Dirleton's garden stretches over a large area, covered in beautiful flowers and plants, and surrounded by a grove of yews. A proper walk through this part of the grounds itself could easily take an hour or more.

Near the front gate of the wall stands a small crenellated tower, two stories high and decorated with white, wooden window and a sprinkling of flowers. A small wooden staircase leads to the upper floor. This is not at all what you would expect to find on the grounds of a military fortification. The building may have once been part of the outer wall, but has undergone extensive modifications. Inside is a plan of the castle grounds and a short history. Further east in the garden, built into the wall, is a dovecot, a circular fortified tower. It is of the same 16th century construction as the wall.

The castle can not be seen from the garden, due to the grove of yews. A pleasant path takes the visitor through the trees towards the rocky knoll that holds the castle proper. From this direction, all that can be seen is the rock crowned with a shattered grey-brown stone curtain wall. Much of the castle's stone is of volcanic origin and was apparently quarried at the site. A set of stone steps, laid hugging the knoll, lead up towards the main level of the castle. The stones were built while the fortification was still intact, so presumably these led to a side entrance.

The stairs lead to the castle's courtyard The main curtain wall of the castle was built in a rough "J" shape, the stem of the "J" pointing northward. In the southwest portion of the castle sits a collection of three towers: two small towers (one round, one square) and one great tower. A flat wall runs from the great tower northeast to the base of a large round tower. Only the base exists, as the original tower was destroyed by the decree of Robert the Bruce in the 14th century. From here, another curtain wall runs almost due north to another large round tower.

The courtyard is bright and airy, mostly because the northern and western walls were blown away, and the eastern wall has lost a good five metres from its original height. The one metre high remnants of courtyard buildings and walls leave an unobstructed view of the castle's inner vaults. The area immediately north of the southern towers was the castle's close, or inner courtyard. North of the close was the brew house that has almost been obliterated. The ground slants slightly upward to a flattened area in front of a rubbled wall. Against the wall sit two park benches. This wall marks the interior of a northern building that no longer exists. This building is of uncertain purpose and was built in the early 16th century.

The eastern wall used to be two stories tall. The upper story is completely open to the sky but once held a huge dining ball. At the far northern end of the hall there existed a separate, spacious chamber known as the withdrawing-room where the lord and his friends retired after meals. The view from this floor is obscured by trees, but is pleasant nonetheless. Below this chamber sat the castle's chapel, with adjacent priest's chamber.

Below the remains of the chapel sits a tiny, enclosed room with a small opening leading to a deep, depressing pit. Criminals were thrown into the pit. Imagine what it must have been like to sit in a squalid pit with no sanitary facilities and one small air vent, the whole oppressive weight of the castle's northern tower pressing all around. Although holes in the walls above this level make it brighter and let the air flow better, the oppressive feeling still exists.

The vaults lie beneath the hall. The vaults are one long cavern-like hall with a rounded roof, separated by the occasional buttress. The bake house and a brew house were placed here in the southern end while the rest of the vaults were used as a storage place. These chambers resemble similar structures in the other castles we visited, and though they are bigger than those at Stirling, regular openings to the outside allow a greater amount of sunlight to penetrate (only half of the vaults' height is underground). Still, some of the claustrophobic effect still exists.

The kitchen is located south of the main hall, at the hinge of the "J" on the foundations of an earlier round tower. This is one of the most impressive rooms in the castle. The kitchen is entered through a vestibule that contains a small oven in its southern wall. The kitchen itself is roughly square in shape. The ceiling arches up above to a height of almost 10 metres in a beehive shape. At the top of the beehive is a circular hole, presumably for ventilation. Two huge fireplaces sit at right angles to each other, each big enough to hold a large roasting spit. A small hatch, now uncovered and protected by a metal grating, leads down to the bake house beneath.

From outside in the close, looking south at the main wall, you can see an interesting ruin that was once a set of apartments. The stone takes on an almost purple sheen in the diffuse light with patches of cream and pale orange stone peaking out. The apartments looked as though they had once reached four stories in height, but now there are only three stories, the fourth having been replaced by the jagged remains left behind by Cromwell's revenge.

The apartments, known as the Ruthven lodging are cramped and fiercely damaged. Through the lodging is an entrance into the lesser close, a small area open to the sky. The lesser close sits in the centre of the three towers at the hook end of the castle's "J" shape. West of the lesser close is the remaining small round tower, with its commanding view of the western side of the castle.

South of the lesser close is the great round de Vaux tower. This used to be the main accommodation within the fortification, but they were so cramped that the Halyburtons, owners of the castle in the late 14th century, built the large hall and chambers inside the eastern wall. The lower level is dark and featureless, the sunlight weakly filtering through the narrow arrow slits. Above this, however, is the castle's most impressive room, the lord's chamber.

This large apartment is six sided and rises to a dome shape some six metres above. The stone reinforcing arches that hold the ceiling up are still very much intact. Three of the six walls have windows with stone benches below them. One wall has a wash basin built into it. The largest wall — as not all of the walls are the same size — contains a huge fireplace. The fireplace's opening is rather small, but a huge stone hood juts out above it, giving the construction the look of a gaping mouth that has lost its lower jaw.

A stairway leads upwards from outside the lords chamber to the roof of the de Vaux tower, where the outside of the chamber's domed roof can be seen. It is here that a visitor can get a good view of the surrounding area. Since the path from the front gate actually leads to the rear of the castle, this is often a visitor's first view of the castle face. Below the tower is a deep moat. A high stone arch gateway, now devoid of gate, juts out of the front wall, an obvious extension to the original castle. Sticking out of the gate, like a long, wooden tongue, is a solid bridge of modem construction. In medieval times, this gap was spanned by a classic drawbridge.

Leaving the front of the castle can be accomplished by winding back down the stairs into the castle's close and out through the portcullis and gate. Large, ragged holes — some are two metres in diameter — allow light to shine down room the portcullis' winching room on the second floor to the gate's entrance way. Visitors can make their way safely from the lords chamber to the portcullis chamber since metal railings surround the dangerous holes. The metal portcullis is long gone.

From outside the front face, the fortification looks typically medieval. The de Vaux tower sits to the left of the gate. The base of the old 13th century tower can be seen on the right, but the rest of the tower is gone and the wall angles northward sharply. Large holes are found in the outer wall to the right of the gateway, probably due to cannon fire during the attack against the Moss-troopers. The top of the castle has been blown off by gunpowder blasts, leaving the front looking oddly incomplete, as though workers were still building it.

It's hard to imagine how comfortable the castle would have been, especially since it has so many extra holes in it. It was the roomiest castle that I visited except for the two royal castles of Stirling and Edinburgh. The guidebook explains how painted wood was found on the site, indicating that many of the wooden interior members were painted in bright colours. Wooden interior walls and panelling, long since gone, would have softened the harshness of the stone, while elaborate tapestries would have acted as decoration and insulation. The size of the bake house, brew house, and kitchen indicates that this was a residence of an important, wealthy lord, and would have afforded the best luxuries the time was capable of providing.