The Mysteries of Dundonald Castle: Part 1 – The Lions

When you arrive at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre, you will be welcomed either side of the entrance by a pair of gold lions. This is the logo which was chosen by community charity Friends of Dundonald Castle (SC031541) in 1996 when they took over responsibility for making the castle accessible for as many people as possible to come and enjoy

This design was developed from a simplified version of a real stone carving which can be found set within the West facing exterior wall of the tower house of Dundonald Castle. It can be seen juxtaposed alongside other stone sculptures which represent human heads and a series of 5 carved stone shields each bearing a heraldic device.  The central and highest of the set clearly bears the lion rampant, a symbol of Scottish royalty, which helps us to date the castle to the time of Robert II’s ascension to the throne in 1371. 

However, we don’t know exactly why this iconic carving was placed there, or what it was intended to represent!   Indeed, much of its true meaning and purpose may remain something of a conundrum for the rest of time.  This is just one of many history-mysteries surrounding Royal Dundonald Castle, and so, given that this is its 650th anniversary, we thought there was no better time to try to explore these.  Starting with this sculpted plaque, whose design has come to be special to us over the years, we will try to find out what it might mean.  

In this short film made by our Education Officer Blythe Paterson, Tour Guide, Dave Taylor, shares his thoughts on the mystery of the lions of Dundonald Castle:

Of the carving itself, what we do know is that the sculpture contains an image of feline creatures which has been made with such skill, that it has continued to survive, not only in a reliable and recognisable form, but in an artistically pleasing one as well, even though it is likely to be 650 years old!  This artistic endeavour somewhat illustrates the genius which was involved in the making of Dundonald Castle – built at the top of this volcanic plug, some 60 m above sea level — which in itself is remarkable, given that it still stands proudly as a symbol of the mastery involved in its construction, at a time when every single stone had to be cut and positioned by hand.   Inside the castle can be found the carved signatures of the various stone masons who built it —however, who they actually were has been sadly lost to time. Interior and exterior stone carvings were very important features in medieval buildings. Stone was valued for its natural elegance, sturdy nature, and versatility. 

The history of stone sculpture takes us as far back as far back as the Palaeolithic era, where selecting rough stones, and re-shaping them to a predetermined design, was an art mastered and practiced by many ancient societies. The durability of both the artwork involved and the stone itself has made it possible to give us deeper insight into past cultures and artistic practices. Most notable in it’s evolution was the development of iron which was fashioned into tools such as chisels, drills and saws made from steel— capable of being tempered to a state strong enough to cut stone without deforming it — whilst not being so brittle as to shatter. This made it possible to produce more elaborate designs such as our wall designs here.  Carving tools have changed little since then so it’s likely that this carving, and the others which feature near by, were made using techniques similar to those used today. It would have been carved in relief from a piece of pre-cut stone, and the sculptor may have begun by the forming a model in clay or wax, sketching the form on to linen rags, or vellum (a prepared animal skin) or even drawing an outline of the image on to the stone itself using charcoal. Then work would have begun to remove any unnecessary portions of unwanted stone.  This is named the roughing out stage- using a point chisel, which is a long, hefty piece of steel with a point at one end and a broad striking surface at the other.  This would usually be combined with a mason’s driving hammer to begin to create the shape.

 It may also have entailed the use of callipers to measure an area of stone to enhance the accuracy of the image which the artist wished to portray.  Eventually the stone would have been changed from a rough block of stone into the general shape we see today, by using rasps and rifflers (a smaller version of the rasp) which would’ve been used to carefully create integrate details such as the curls of hair we see still present on the chest areas.

The final stage of the process would have been polishing with sand cloth or emery stone to smooth it off and to help bring out any colour and patterns from the stone, as well as to add sheen. Tin and iron oxides could have been used to give the stone colour, but we find that this carving is the same colour now as the stone which surrounds it, but perhaps at one time it did have colour added to it for increased decorative effect? 

This job would have most certainly have been performed by eminent craftsmen in Scotland at the time, since this was to be used to adorn a royal household, and these set of sculptures could easily have been amongst the most elaborate pieces of medieval art in their day. 

But what of the design itself?  

We can see that this carving represents two feline creatures, whose feet  appear somewhat exaggerated — almost griffin-like —  which could have been designed to symbolise strength or strong footing.  They could be leopards, given that they don’t have manes, but we note that their tails have obvious clumps of fur at the ends, clearly still visible, which make them more likely to be the tails of lions. These tails also seem to be placed as coming up from between the hind legs, which we will look into later but, it’s important to note, that if these lions don’t have manes, and appear only to have some small details which looks like chest hair,  we can assume that they are female lions, or lionesses. 

So that is in itself interesting given that the lion is a common charge in Scottish heraldry, as both Rampant (upright on one hind leg with forelegs outstretched as if attacking) or en passant (walking with one front foot raised). Lions traditionally symbolise courage, nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness and valour, and, mythologically, lions are generally regarded as the king of the beasts; but what of lionesses?

These lionesses are standing side by side — the one on our left appears to be facing towards the one on our right as though in deference to the other.  The one on the right is in guardant position (facing front showing direct eye contact, or invitation to challenge).  Also looking closer it’s clear that they have their front paws entwined (figure 1), which is surely a symbol of togetherness, and so we can assume that there is a close connection between the two characters and what they seek to represent.  There is also what looks like a small human figure hugging closely to the hind quarters of the guardant lioness (detailed in figure 2) but it’s difficult to say for sure, after 650 years of exposure to the elements pummelling this great tower at the top of the hill, and so it’s quite possible that this could merely a part of the thigh which has worn away, and it doesn’t characterise anything at all!

Nonetheless, we can see 4 legs showing clearly on each character, and both are standing still, and not en passant style  (standing with one paw raised) which make them unusual for heraldic lions.

An exceptional example of fourteenth century art comes from the Bute or Bannatyne Mazer.  This is an ornate drinking bowl made from maple engraved with silver.  Inside can be found a lion in relief in centre place surrounded by 6 heraldic shields. We note that it is a male lion given that it has a mane, but note too the position of the lion’s tail — which comes up between its legs much the same as our lionesses! This leads to the question that it may well have been made by the same school of artists as that of our lionesses, however as for its creator, the mazer’s origins are as obscure as our lionesses1

In prime position between the Mazer Lion’s front paws we find the shield belonging to the High Steward of Scotland. This is most likely to be a symbol of Robert II’s father,  Walter the 6th High Steward, given that the Mazer dates to c1314-1327 which more or less corresponds to his time as High Steward, and dates to the reign of Robert I (The Bruce). The other coats of arms encircling the lion symbolise more of Robert I’s chief councillors: Sir James Douglas, John Fitz Gilbert, Crawford of Loudoun and Sir John Stewart, Lord of Arran and Earl of Menteith.

 It seems that there was fascination in medieval times for animals and their ways, and they often used animals to depict symbolism — for example foxes represented duplicity or cunning, or the use of a majestic Phoenix rising from the ashes indicated their belief in triumphantly rising after death.  Medieval illustrations were made using fantastical animals, or animals from far away lands, used for tapestries, art and books, as well as carvings. The name of this type of artistic imagery is Bestiary. A very good example of this can be found in the Aberdeen Bestiary which is part of Aberdeen University collection.  Evidence about this manuscript shows that it may have belonged to the royal family, and that they are likely to have acquired it at some stage during the middle ages.  The first Bestiary was in French verse made by Philip de Thaon, written between 1121 and 1135, which was dedicated to Queen Adela, wife of Henry I (1100-1135).  Another copy was later made for Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124-1204) who became wife of Henry II. Interestingly Eleanor was nicknamed ‘The Lioness’ we assume because she had a strong personality and led an unusual and interesting life at a time when women had little power, and stories tell us that she was a woman of many talents and moods who was regarded both dangerous and enthralling. She became something of a demigoddess in medieval story-telling at a time when story-telling was an art form in itself.  The lack of detailed records of Eleanor’s actual life has enabled chroniclers and poets to create varied and fantastic tales about the woman who managed to be Queen of France and then England. And so if Eleanor of Aquitaine becomes an Everywoman that chroniclers or poets used to praise or critique the women of their culture and time,  could it then be that these lionesses were a symbol of powerful women connected to Dundonald Castle?

This leads us now to have a look at what we do know about the women in the life of Robert II

His mother was Majorie Bruce (c.1296-1316), the daughter of King Robert I (the Bruce) (1274 – 1329) and his first wife Isabella of Mar who sadly died in 1296 after giving birth to Marjorie.  Tragically, Marjorie was involved in a horse riding accident at Paisley whilst she was expecting Robert, and also died — with some reports stating that he was born by what was thought to have been the first ever caesarean section recorded in Scotland. So let’s assume that Robert had a dramatic entrance into the world, and most likely had some feeling of loss over never having met his mother. 

Is it possible then that Robert II had the lionesses commissioned as something of a commemoration to his mother?  We do know Marjorie faced enormous adversity in her short life, being held in captivity in England by King Edward I and II – from 1307-1314 — during the wars of Independence, and yet, survived to marry Walter the 6th High Steward of Scotland who owned the lands here at Dundonald.  The crown had come to Robert through his mother, so could it be that was one reason for ensuring female representation on the walls of his castle here?   

This seems unlikely, given that there are two lionesses.  However, Robert had had two wives — firstly, he was married to Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan (c.1315-1355), who had given him 4 sons and 6 daughters, including their oldest son, John, Earl of Carrick, and future King Robert III. Elizabeth however had died by 1355 when we find that Robert II had by then married Euphemia De Ross (c.1320-1386) who was crowned Queen at Scone in 1372, and who gave him 4 or 5 children. 

Interestingly, on Euphemia’s Ross family Coat of arms we find 3 lions, but they are rampant lions and are clearly male given that they have manes, so this is notable, but not necessarily a strong contender as to why our carvings are lionesses!  We could however assume that since he had two wives perhaps the lionesses are there to represent them, and yet, this would not answer the question of the significant positions of the lions in relation to each other on the carving  — chiefly, that they are holding hands.  There is no reason to assume that his wives would have formed any relationship to each other – Elizabeth was from Rowallan Castle, not too far from here, near Kilmaurs in East Ayrshire, and Euphemia was from Cromarty Castle on the Black Isle, north of Inverness.  Most importantly, it would be difficult to imagine either one of them being represented as subservient to the other as the stances of the lionesses imply.  Both of them were Robert’s wives, but of course only one of them, Euphemia, became Queen. So we can’t rule out this possibility. 

Adding to the idea that our lionesses were there to signify female members of the King Robert II’s household, we know that he had a mistress, Mariota de Cardeny who is thought to have given birth to at least 4 of his sons to which he bestowed good positions in society.  This shows us that Robert recognised them as his children, and that they had significant importance to him.  So, could it be then that the lionesses are there to illustrate his mistress and his Queen?  The positions of the connected paws indicates a certain level of friendship —  and so this raises an interesting question in itself — did they both live within the royal household banqueting together in the Great Hall, their children perhaps sharing tutors, servants and even sleeping quarters?  If this were so then the guardant lion would surely be Euphemia, due to her status as Queen, and the more subserviently positioned one of our left, Mariota. 

And yet, we return to the issue of the positioning of the lioness’ tails.  We don’t know if their tails are placed between their legs as simply a style which was used to somehow strengthen the symmetry of the design in terms of artistic preference from this period of art history, or as is more commonly thought that the showing of tails between the legs represents capitulation.  The Bute Mazer shows a lion with its tail in a similar position, as we’ve seen.  This leads us to wonder just who the Mazer lion would represent — we might assume it was Robert the Bruce himself.  And if so, why would he be symbolised as subservient to the trusted men the shields encircling the Mazer lion seek to represent? It seems unlikely that he would be shown as capitulating to any them.  Bruce could not have achieved the level of success which he did in the First War of Independence without support from his team. So, could it be that the tails between the legs imagery might be medieval symbolism for appreciation rather than depreciation?  It is commonly thought that woman were seen as lower ranking than the men at this time in history, and yet we find a symbol which indicates women were being acknowledged here – and very much included on the roll call of carvings on Royal Dundonald Castle wall. Might we have found a potential answer to this whereby our lionesses, shown with their tails between their legs, are there to show appreciation for Robert II? 

Sadly, perhaps we will never know,  but there is one thing for sure, this sculpture is unique, and most likely designed to portray two women.  That they are placed on the wall of Royal Dundonald Castle alongside the other symbols of power, it is safe to say that whosever they were there to symbolise had a valued position to the King in their own right.  Lions and lionesses play different roles in the life of the pride. Lionesses work together to hunt and help rear the cubs, and yet have to wait until the males have eaten their fill of the catch before being permitted to eat any themselves.  This could be significant given that we presume Robert II used Dundonald Castle as a hunting lodge, and so perhaps the women accompanied him on these exploits, given that the noble women of the time were likely to have been trained in riding and even hunting activities.  Perhaps though, it was placed there to send a warning to anyone who came to the castle — saying loud and clear: Wha daur meddle with me (or my lionesses ) Because you don’t want to get on the wrong side of a lioness! 

Whatever is the most likely reason for this mysterious carving, there is no doubt that it portrays a striking symbol of friendship. Our volunteers and staff here at Dundonald Castle pride ourselves in providing a friendly visitor experience, and even though our lionesses remain a mystery,  they also represent our continuing commitment to uncovering the story of the Castle’s distinctive past, so that we can share what we know of this fascinating part of Ayrshire, and bring to life in as many ways as we possibly can, the vital part it has played in the history of Scotland.

We would love to hear what your thoughts are on the Mystery of the Dundonald Lions – please get in touch with us if you have any theories of your own to help us to add pieces to the puzzle! 

Find out more about the Bute Mazer1 which is on display at the National Museum Of Scotland: on loan from The Bute Collection at Mount Stuart House:


David Forbes and Keir Murray: 2012. Dundonald Castle Official Souvenir Guide.


Cover Image, Ross Coat of Arms, Dundonald Castle and Dundonald Castle Lions Info Graphics by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

The Bute Mazer by David Taylor for FoDC